Archive for category History
Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171
This article is not about me.
It’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.
This article is not about the time I found my voice. I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire. I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me. Everyone – including me – burst into laughter. I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.
Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant. I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant. But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.
It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services. The head of my yeshiva was old-school: imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation. My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.
It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays. A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors. Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.
This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.
This is what it’s about: two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.
* * *
The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim. Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience. After all, I could do so much better myself.
Until I couldn’t. During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader. And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.
What is a congregation? Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart? And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?
The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture. But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces. By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary. But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.
Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?
This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation. Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it? Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.
Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.
In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people. And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.
Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people? Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives? We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues. But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.
But she does not remain alone. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d. Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?
Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations? Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?
Is this Naomi? gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered. But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.
And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi! This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.
Each a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.
I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers. But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.
At first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel. But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread: two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah. Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity: the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.
“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.
She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it. I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.
It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets. An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change. Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED. But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks: elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.
I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals. Each was nursing a pint of Guinness. Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them. The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller, the Germany clergyman who authored these words, was one of the few who did speak out against Adolph Hitler in the early days of the Nazi party. While the majority of Germans traded conscience for convenience by closing their eyes to the atrocities perpetrated upon their own countrymen, his solitary cry for reason still echoes amidst the silence.
For his troubles, Martin Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and eventually interred in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until his eventual liberation in 1945. He lived until 1984, a voice of penance among the German people.
Among lesser known heroes is Irena Sendler, who risked her life to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto between 1942 and 1943. Working secretly as a member of Żegota, the Council for Jewish Aid, and using her position as an administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena first tried to divert food, clothing, and medicine to Jews in the Ghetto, subsequently going door to door offering Jewish parents a chance to save their children’s lives.
“In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
One by one, Irena smuggled the children out in ambulances, gunnysacks, and body bags, finding families of Polish gentiles willing to take them in. She recorded the name of every child and hid her lists in jars she buried in a neighbor’s yard. After the war, she dug up the names and attempted to reunite the children with their families, most of whom had perished in the death camps.
On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, who broke her legs and feet trying to force from her the names of the families who harbored the Jewish children. Refusing to divulge her secrets, Irena eventually escaped imprisonment and lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.
In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized Irena as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was awarded that year to Al Gore for his movie on global warming.
Few people had heard of Irena Sendler until 1999, when a high school history teacher in Kansas came across a passing reference to her in U. S. News and World Report. Three students began a research project that culminated in their award-winning play, Life in a Jar, which has since been performed hundreds of times across North America and Europe.
Authentic heroism arises from intolerance for evil, from an unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of injustice no matter how improbable the odds and no matter how dire the consequences. Like Moses, who struck down the Egyptian he found beating an innocent Jew, a person of conscience may at any moment find himself facing a critical decision between common sense and common decency, where action appears pointless but where inaction amounts to an alliance with evil. A true hero is one who recognizes that such a choice is no choice at all.
“I could have done more,” Irena said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
For more information about other unsung heroes, visit the Lowell Milken Center.
The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.
The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”
The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.
What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:
“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 732).
Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:
“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”
Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.
Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:
“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”
At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.
The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?
The secret of all this is found in the world chinam – “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.
Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.
Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.
Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.
What would you ask of a time traveler from a hundred years ago? And if you traveled a hundred years into the future, what would you want to tell the people you found there? Perhaps it would sound something like this:
What did you do to handle the overpopulations we predicted? How did you protect the seashores? What did you do to keep the ozone layer intact, the energy supplies, the trees? Have you eliminated ignorance, brutality, greed?
There might be no better way to discover unexamined truths about ourselves then by composing a letter to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This was certainly on the mind of award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt a quarter century ago when he penned his deeply thoughtful Letter to 2086.
Read the whole article here.
Hat tip: David Rich
Apparently, I’m not the only critic of Dennis Prager’s last column. In a follow-up piece, Mr. Prager presses the point that competence is a more important requirement for leadership than character.
I agree. But that is beside the point. I would much prefer a Bill Clinton in the White House than a Jimmy Carter. But far more than either I would prefer a Washington or a Lincoln, a Teddy Roosevelt or a Harry Truman.
To ask whether we are better off with an adulterous statesman or a virtuous bungler merely muddies the waters. Needless to say, we often have to choose between the lesser of two evils, but my objection to Mr. Prager is that he is rationalizing immorality into irrelevancy. We need moral leaders as desperately as we need capable governors. That we may have to make compromises when there is no Harry Truman to be found is an unpleasant fact of life, not a reason to diminish the value of virtue.
Mr. Prager goes on to prove, anecdotally, that not every case of adultery is as bad as every other. This is obviously true, just as not all acts of robbery are equal and not all acts of spilling blood are equal. But that is the point precisely. It is only when we have leaders of moral stature that we retain the ability to make meaningful value judgments and not slip into the moral anarchy that characterizes so much of our society by elevating “nonjudgmentalism” to the highest strata of virtue.
Regarding Biblical interpretation, Judaism operated for over 3000 years within a system of rabbinic authority built upon the authority handed down to Moses at Sinai. Separatist groups like the Hellenists, the Sadducees, and the Kaarites attempted to overturn those conventions with only fleeting success. They all disappeared, and authentic Torah tradition endured.
But their spiritual descendants keep coming back. The lessons of Jewish history rest upon a solid understanding of how the prophets and sages chose to transmit their teachings. We cannot reinvent them to fit the sensitivities of our times, although sometimes we have to try to find a new way of explaining them to which modern ears will be receptive.
Of those who have commented, some clearly have not read or do not care about what I wrote in the linked essay about David and Bathsheba. Others have offered explanations, even in David’s defense, that have no basis in Torah tradition that I know of. Oddly enough, the same people who would never argue against going to a doctor for medical advice, going to an accountant for tax advice, and going to a mechanic for auto advice, believe that they are fully justified in offering their own unschooled interpretations of manuscripts that have been analyzed and annotated by the most brilliant minds over the last hundred generations.
This is what we call chutzpah.
I have a lot of admiration for Dennis Prager. His ability to articulate common sense conservative values and politics without resorting to dogma or hyperbole is refreshing; his passionate defense of Israel against the groupthink of Western academics and politicians is reassuring.
However, even the best and the brightest sometimes wander off the reservation.
Read my rebuttal here. Then go to the JWR homepage to read Mr. Prager’s sincere but unconvincing response to his critics. More on that soon, I hope.
There’s something we love about a prophecy unfulfilled. But let’s be honest: even if we mocked those who eagerly awaited rapture this past Saturday, were we not the least bit discomfited by a little voice whispering from some distant corner of our minds, “But what if this time they’re right?”
I am pleased to announce that I will be a featured speaker at the Yeshiva University book sale on the topic:
Why Jews are Liberals
Jewish history and the origins of political ideology
Wednesday 23 February
2495 Amsterdam Ave
Manhattan (Washington Heights), NY
A book signing will follow for my overview of Jewish history and philosophy, Dawn to Destiny.
For directions and location information, click here.
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Pastor Martin Niemoller (1892–1984), imprisoned by from 1937-1945 in Sachenhausen and Dachau concentration camps for speaking out against the Nazi party.