Jack Berger, a good friend of mine, who spends time in Chicago when not in Hebron or Jerusalem, wrote this. It is reprinted here with his permission.
“And Hashem will distinguish you today to be for Him His treasured people…and to make you supreme over all the nations He made, for He made you for renown, and for splendor so that you will be a holy people to Hashem, you G-d.”(Deut. 26:18-19)
“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant… but whoever is here, standing with us today… and whoever is not here with us today.. Perhaps there is among you a man or woman… whose heart turns away from being with Hashem… it will be that when he hears the words of this imprecation he will bless himself in his heart saying, “Peace will be with me though I walk as my heart sees fit – Hashem will not be willing to forgive him…”(Deut. 29:13-19)
Abraham Joshua Heschel called it “radical amazement”. Peoples over the course of history have appeared, created great civilizations, and then faded into the pages of forgotten history books – all except for one. For it was thirty three hundred years ago after leaving their slavery in Egypt a commandment was given to our people that “… beginning of the seventh month on the first day of Tishrei there shall be a day of rest and you shall commemorate this day of rest with shofar blasts as a holy convocation…” (Lev. 23:24). A statement of an eternal covenant evolved into a question no less important today – Does Rosh Hashanah come early or late this year – but, of course, it always comes on time.
Rosh Hashanah begins our peoples days of introspection, yet just as importantly it is a day where Jews regardless of level of observance or where you live on the planet, is a day when all Jews get together as one people in a moment of eternal time to reconnect with our G-d and we say to the rest of the world, as Abraham said to Ephron the Hittite at Machpelah in Hebron – we are a people apart… our new year is not your new year, our traditions are not your traditions, our memories are not your memories. Our relationship with the Creator of the Universe is different than yours… And although Rosh Hashanah begins a period of introspection culminating with Yom Kippur – the first day is a day of joy for once again our people, as crazy as they are, are again reunited, with memories of those who are with us and those who are no longer with us “…for not with you alone do I seal this covenant…but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before Hashem, our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today.” (Deut. 29:13) Both our past and our future stand together with us on this day.
Profoundly our Torah is as relevant today as it was on that day thirty three hundred years ago when a relative of each of us escaped from Egypt, saw the Red Sea split and stood at Mt. Sinai to proclaim “Na’a’seve’nish’ma”… we will do and we will understand and obey… and we rejoiced. Yet our history has not always been joyous and 5773 is looking like the beginnings of another challenging year.
We are approaching the nineteenth year since Oslo and the peace charade on the White House lawn. We are in the fourteenth year of whining about Iran getting a nuclear bomb. We have heard that sanctions are working and the little Iranian is laughing as the centrifuges spin. We have been watching an Arab Spring in Egypt turn into an Arab Winter of the democratically elected new leadership of what the world was told was not supposed to happen… the Muslim Brotherhood. Democratically elected Islamists are popping up all over. With democracy you can’t always get who you want. For over eighteen months we have heard the reports and seen the carnage of the tens of thousands being slaughtered in Syria. In Iraq, amid the chaos, slaughter on a daily basis is the norm, while in Afghanistan Afghan soldiers trained by the U.S. army are turning their weapons on our American troops - so much for kumbayah. Arabs slaughtering Arabs, not much has changed in the last fourteen hundred years and not surprising the world looks on with disinterest as European economies are of the utmost concern. And in Europe again there is the old drum beat of anti-Semitism in France, Belgium, Germany, England, Norway, pick your country… and here in America we have heard that the once “unbreakable bond” between American Jews and Israel is having a “crisis of Zionism” as 600 American rabbis seem only to believe in the separation of synagogue and state when it is convenient.
Yet as I do each year at this time, I retire to my study, pick out a few books, open them up and see what surprises await… and I’m rarely disappointed for once again Ben Hecht, in his 1956, “A Guide for the Bedeviled” comes thru in a few paragraphs titled “The Miracle of Jewish Gayety”:
“On my pilgrimage with Graetz (a Jewish historian) I was fascinated by the curious animation of the living Jews. Here is something that when I met it, had the curious odor of miracle. During the eighteen centuries in which hate, humiliation and massacre boil constantly around them, my kinsman, the Jews reveal a single, unwavering characteristic. They are not impressed… for centuries Germans clap horned hats on them to distinguish them… The French and Spanish (as well)… yet surrounded by a demented Europe, by the hate and contempt of a perpetual lynch mob, the Jews perform neither as victims nor pariahs. They fill the lands with universities. They invent new sciences. They widen the fields of medicine and law. They open trade routes. They write great books. They are busy as beavers attacking each other as if there are no enemies at all baying at their heels. They are industrious, sprightly, and inquisitive… they remain part of a world toiling to disgorge them… their troubles seem only to improve them… Christendom is a jungle full of Papal tigers and Lutheran anacondas, yet Israel flourishes. Murder and calumny are its constant neighbors and yet Israel grins, exults and makes its mark on all the eras. It is not the mark of martyrdom but of scholarship and of a bewildering genius. Robbed, it is always rich; blasted, it is always exuberant; hounded, and it is always full of baffling poise.” (P.116-117) Start-up Nation, 1956, Hecht, a secular Jew by his own definition, understands his people with a rare clarity.
And it was little David Ben-Gurion in his book, “Ben Gurion Looks Back” (1965) who writes “… the fact is that Arab hostility has not proved an unrelieved curse for us. There have been many blessings. The persistent antagonism of the Arabs before the establishment of the State led to a more cohesive Jewish community in the country, strengthening its spirit, fostering its ingenuity to overcome military assault and economic boycott… I doubt whether we would have fulfilled our aims of… creating a Jewish labor force and labor movement if it had not been for the outbreaks of Arab violence…” (P.152-153). Ben Gurion once said…the difficult we can do reasonably well, the impossible takes a bit longer. Logic stands on its head.
And so the unique spirit of our people was again captured by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik when he was asked in the book The Rav Speaks, (2002) … “what in general characterizes Jewish history from the time of the patriarch Abraham until the State of Israel, I would answer, ‘… From the point of view of power it was never possible to make a comparison between our limited forces and the enormous forces of our neighbors. Yet despite this we succeeded in existing as a people that dwells alone by virtue of heroism... If you ask me who is a Jew I would answer, one who lives a life of heroism… the capacity to break down one’s will and the ability to overcome the natural, instinctive driving force in man are part of the unique Jewish talent for living heroically… (but)…While in our past our heroism expressed itself in our relations of the world – who did not understand us and who persecuted us – today we have to show heroism in our positions vis-à-vis other Jews who, just as the non-Jews then, have no grasp of our way of life…’ To live a life of heroism, to fight often alone, isolated… represents the content of Judaism” (P. 103-105). Here the “crisis of Zionism” shows that it is not a new story but a reawakening of an old rejuvenated tale of Jewish brotherly conflict.
And so it was not long ago at the 2012 Olympics in London. It had been forty years since the 1972 massacre of the Israeli athletes in Munich. Israel had asked for a minute of silence to honor those 11 who had been slaughtered. Truth be told with the hours of commentary, and the hundreds of letters and petitions, the Olympic Committee should have given Israel the minute and been done with it, but hatred can make men stupid and even Bob Costas, the moderator for NBC, took more than a minute to retell the story of Munich when the Israeli team entered the stadium. But there were shadows that lingered that night from Munich. The “head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1972 was Avery Brundage, a Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite…his protégé was Juan Sanmarche…his support of Nazis and the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was kept a dirty secret. Most IOC members knew the truth but stayed silent…” (Guri Weinberg, Foxnews, July27, 2012). But that was forty years ago when Mark Spitz, a Jew, who wasn’t projected to win more than a few gold medals in several swimming relays, won seven gold medals, including four individual medals, and became the heroic face of the 1972 Olympics.
But today was 2012, and enter another Jew, an Israeli no less, an esteemed member of the IOC, who some thought would step forward for his slaughtered countrymen- Alex Gilady… “actually covered the Munich Games for Israel TV and today had made his way up the food chain to become senior Vice President of NBC Sports…a minute of remembrance should not too much to ask for his fellow Jews…but no courage ran thru Alex’s veins…no heroics pumped thru his heart for his countrymen.
“In a recent Foxnews.com piece that went viral, Guri Weinberg, son of the murdered wrestling coach Moshe Weinberg published his account of a meeting with Gilady…Weinberg alleged… that Gilady told him that any memorial for the Israelis would necessitate a similar one for the Palestinian terrorists who died in the attack…” (Miriam Shaviv,JTA, 8/6/12) Swirl that one around in your brain for a few minutes of silence. When interviewed Gilady told JTA, “I was elected to the IOC on a private basis…I do not represent countries…I represent the IOC…I happen to be Israeli” (ibid)
And so a little Queen Esther stepped on to the stage of Olympic history. As I turned on my television to watch the Olympics I heard the first few notes of music from my past. When I was very young I had an old uncle who had come to this country to escape the pogroms of Russia…and everyone lovingly called him “Yiddle with the Fiddle” and at every family get together he would take out his fiddle and I would hear the sweet sound of a song he joyfully loved to play and as this little ‘shaner punim’, this little gymnast began her floor exercise routine the music she had picked “…to salute her heritage…” was uncle Yiddle’s Hava Nagila…” As she went thru her tumbling the crowd began to clap and stomp their feet to the music and with each tumbling pass the clapping grew louder…Aly Raisman didn’t pick her music. It was picked for her a long time ago for this moment…and as the NBC commentator reflected “…it never hurts to have the crowd get into it…” yes the crowd, the crowd of our people’s past, those who were with us, and those who were not with us, eleven Israeli athletes, and my uncle Yiddle with the Fiddle…and as she finished her last pass and ran to the hugs of her coach his words to her were, “Oh my G-d!”…Yes…Oh my G-d!…100%! Hava Nagila, let us rejoice!
L’ShanahTova Jack “Yehoshua” Berger