Interesting Times: In our hands

What Jeremiah's message might mean for us today

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
We all know from Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford that the Ark of the Covenant is lost. This week, however, I was introduced to an even deeper mystery: Why has even the disappearance of the Ark disappeared? As the charismatic co-founder of the Israeli Academy for Leadership at Ein Prat, Micha Goodman, explained in a recent lecture, the construction of the Ark holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments was elaborately described in the Torah. Also meticulously listed are all the vessels and decorations that the Jews removed from the Temple in anticipation of its ransacking by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. But glaringly missing from the list, or any other biblical account, is the fate of the Ark. It is one thing for the Ark to disappear - but how could there be no mention of its disappearance? This would be like writing about someone going to the hospital without noting that the patient underwent a heart transplant. IN SOLVING this mystery, Goodman described the predicament of Jeremiah, the prophet who tried to turn the Jews away from egregious sins to prevent Jerusalem's coming destruction. The Jews would not listen, ironically, because they thought the Ark protected them. A century and a half before, Sennacherib had destroyed the entire Jewish Northern Kingdom; yet God, according to the Bible, prevented him from sacking Jerusalem by miraculously destroying his entire army. The Jews took from this not only that Jerusalem was invincible, since the Ark and Temple protected them, but that they could sin with abandon, without consequences. Jeremiah could not break through the conceptzia of the time, to use the word from the post-Yom Kippur War Agranat Commission, under which mounting evidence of an actual attack was ignored because of a deep belief that an attack was impossible. Both ancient and modern Israelis believed that history could only repeat itself. It did not occur to ancient Israelis that they had forfeited any divine protection they might have had. And it did not occur to our ministers and generals that the Arab states would attack just to capture some territory and negotiate, even if they knew they couldn't push Israel into the sea. Goodman noted that Jeremiah encountered the same past-induced blindness before and after the destruction. Before, the Jews could not imagine that the destruction could happen; after, they could not imagine that it would stop happening, and that the Jews could still survive as a people. The tendency to believe that what was, will be, is powerful and pervasive. It can lead to complacency driven by optimism or pessimism: either "everything will be ok," "nothing can be done," or some combination. THIS HUMAN tendency is understandable. As we face the future, what else do we have to go by other than the past? We look back in horror, for example, at the Jews who couldn't see the danger in time to escape the Holocaust. But how could anyone be expected to imagine such unprecedented evil? The larger and more discontinuous a threat is, the harder it is to set our minds toward confronting it. Yet we must not allow ourselves to become debilitated by denial or resignation. Two major threats loom, but both are amenable to Jewish action. We all know that, despite some fancy statistical footwork and the bright spot of the relatively high Jewish Israeli birthrate, the Jewish people as a whole is tiny and shrinking. According to demographer Sergio DellaPergola, the number of Jews per 1,000 world population has dropped from 7.5 in 1938, to 4.7 in 1945, to 3.5 in 1970, to 2 today. While there has been no shortage of handwringing and some rejigging of Jewish community priorities, there has been no concerted mobilization to reverse this trend. Instead, there has been a contradictory combination of minimizing the problem while acting as if it is an irreversible fact of modern Diaspora life. "Don't worry, give up," could be our motto. The valiant efforts that are being made - the birthright israel program that is bringing thousands of young Jews to Israel for a shot of Jewish identity, and the beginnings of a renaissance in adult education and Jewish day schools - show that the situation is not hopeless. But only a fraction of available Jewish resources are being brought to bear, so few believe that current efforts will be sufficient to turn the tide. THE OTHER THREAT is much more directly parallel, both in magnitude and in the ambivalent Jewish response, to that of the rise of Nazism: the emergence of a nuclear Iran. The Jewish people is, of course, concerned, but in an eerie replay of the World War II era, Jews are reluctant to be seen as "warmongers" and place too much stake in a belief that the world will, on its own and for its own reasons, recognize the magnitude of the problem. We deny to protect ourselves. The human ability to push away thoughts about inevitable dangers - such as one's own mortality - is a critical prerequisite to productive life. But we also need to know when to turn off this function and let through enough reality to motivate action. Goodman pointed out that the difference between non-Jewish oracles and the Jewish prophets is that the latter, rather than just predicting the future, told the people how they could change that future. We have the power both to reverse Jewish demographic trends and to ensure that there is no option of "living with" a nuclear Iran. Instead of denying reality, we should be denying our impotence. So why did the disappearance of the Ark disappear? Jeremiah gives a hint when he says that God will declare "in those days, when your numbers have increased greatly in the land... men will no longer say, 'The Ark of the covenant of God.' It will never enter their minds or be remembered; it will not be missed, nor will another one be made" (3:16). The Ark had led to idolatry in more ways than one; the Jews were better off without it, Jeremiah clearly implies. They don't need it now. What they need is a belief in a new partnership with God; a belief in a future that is neither guaranteed nor apocalyptic, but in their own hands.

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11