February 25, 2017
This morning I’d like to share with you three stories; the names and details have been changed and you will quickly see why. I received an email from CHANA, Baltimore’s Jewish center for abuse prevention, informing me that February has been designated as abuse awareness month in our community. The email concluded with a request to speak about this complicated, sensitive, and all-important topic. And so I would like to do that today.
Story number one involves a young boy, who we’ll call Avi. Avi was a bit of trouble maker, he was always getting himself into conflicts with classmates and with teachers. One day he confided to an adult family friend that his father was touching him inappropriately. The family friend informed the school that Avi was attending, but the school, knowing this boy and his attraction to controversy and attention seeking behavior, they dismissed the allegations and did nothing about them. “The boy’s a liar.” “The boy’s a trouble-maker.” “It doesn’t involve us so we’re not getting involved.”
This patter continued for some time; Avi would again confide in this adult, the adult would follow up with the school, and the school would ignore it.
Finally, two years too late, the family friend called the police, who stepped in, arrested Avi’s father, and put Avi in the care of a foster family. At this point, Avi had been sexually abused for years, scarred beyond belief, and would need intensive therapy to teach him to trust others and to not be ashamed of himself.
Someone once asked me if the Torah speaks about child abuse. While it is not mentioned explicitly, I would suggest that it is the Mitzvah mentioned the most times in the Torah.
“Do not oppress a convert, an orphan, or a widow.” Variations of that prohibition are mentioned 46 times in the Torah! This week’s Parsha, which is all about social justice and how to build the fabric of a healthy society, begins and ends with this prohibition. This prohibition is not limited to converts, widows, or converts. It is a principal demanding of us to look out for those who are vulnerable. “G-d hears their cry,” the Torah tells us. And we are enjoined to emulate G-d and to listen ever so closely to the voice of the vulnerable and to the pleas of the powerless. There is no one more vulnerable in society than children as they are powerless and completely dependent on adults. So yes, the Torah does speak of child abuse, 46 times, and it teaches us to listen to their cries.
I hope this goes without saying, but a story like Avi’s should have never ever taken place. When a child, regardless of how big of a “trouble-maker” or “liar” they may be, shares with us an allegation, we have an obligation, a legal and moral obligation to pick up the phone and inform the police. We have an obligation to help the child and his family and care for them. Does an allegation mean something is true? Not necessarily. But if someone cries, especially a child it’s our responsibility to hear their cry and help them. And let me emphasize, helping them and supporting them is not synonymous with passing judgment on the accused. No, A person is innocent until proven guilty. But we cannot ignore these children and their cries.
Is Child Protective Services perfect? Far from it. Do people get accused for things they did not do? That can happen. But I would hate to be the one who made that decision on my own and turned out to be dead wrong. A good society, a righteous society heeds the cry of the vulnerable, and children are most vulnerable of all.
Story #2 involves a different type of cry. There are audible cries and there are silent cries and this story is about a silent cry. Sarah was a quiet, well-liked sweet young teen. At one point, in her freshman year of high school, she started to withdraw from her friends and family. Her grades began slipping and her usual put-togetherness was replaced with a complete disregard for hygiene.
Her friends were so caught up in their own lives that they stopped checking in with her, and just moved on. Tragically, but also tellingly, she didn’t have much of a relationship with her parents and although they saw many red flags they didn’t really know what to say, and so they said nothing. Sarah fell and fell and fell.
Sarah was being abused by a sibling, emotionally, and eventually sexually. She was crying, she was sobbing, but they were silent tears that no one bothered to listen for.
As a community, as good citizens, we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of these silent cries inasmuch as we do to the audible ones. Being attuned to the silent cries means being aware of family members, or friends who have a change in behavior and start acting differently. And it may not be abuse that’s going on. But when someone suddenly starts acting very different, when someone is behaving and speaking in a way that they never did before, it may be their way of crying out to you – help me!
But it’s more – Listening to those silent tears means that you are a person who your friends and family could turn to and share with the darkest of secrets, knowing that you won’t judge them.
A colleague of mine once commented that he thought there are no issues of abuse in his shul because no one ever spoke to him about it. And then one Shabbos he decided to talk about abuse. He spoke about it in a compassionate and understanding way; child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse. Following that Shabbos, people began approaching him and sharing their stories of abuse and he quickly realized that of course abuse exists everywhere. It’s a universal problem, and it exists in our community as well. If we want to save people from harm, which we all want to do, we need to transform ourselves into people who are so accepting, so loving that others can share anything with them.
And here I’m going to add something you’re not going to like. There’s a international organization called Stop It Now. It is a hotline for men with deviant attractions. It is set up for people who have not acted on their attractions, but are desperately in need of help controlling them.
I don’t envy their fundraiser. That’s a hard sell. But it’s also such a crucial service. The opening section of this week’s Parsha speaks of a thief who instead of throwing into jail, the Jewish courts give him responsibilities in the hope that this will help change the criminal. Judaism believes in rehabilitation, in trying to help even the sinner, and most certainly to help someone before they’ve ever committed a crime.
Are we accepting enough that if, just maybe, a friend of ours had issues that we would justifiably be disgusted by, would they feel comfortable turning to us? Would we be their destination?
Because those people are also crying silently. They are drowning in shame, in self-loathing, and they could be helped. If someone listens to their silent cries, whether that’s by checking in when we see warning signs or by being an available and accepting person, letting our friends and family know that we are there for them always, no matter what. Helping them is also helping the victim. Those are silent cries we cannot ignore.
We’ve spoken about ignoring cries, we’ve spoken about silent cries, but far more important than those two is preventing those cries in the first place. As a community, as a Jewish community, strides have been made in dealing with abuse and abusers. Thank G-d, most schools would not ignore the claims of Avi and will do what they are mandated to do by law. Most schools and institutions would not ignore the signs of Sarah being a victim and would get her help. Recently, many of the Jewish schools participated in a community-wide program called Safety Kid, under the auspices of CHANA, that educates children about personal safety. If your child’s school did not participate, I urge you to speak to them and ask them what education and tools they are giving your children.
But in addition to the institutional changes, there is a basic change that needs to take place at home. Our children have to be showered with unqualified love and acceptance. Our children have to know that there is nothing they can do that would make them undeserving of our love. Our children have to know that they could turn to us and confide in us. Our children have to know that we are their rock. Because that is one of the best ways to prevent abuse.
Institutions can come up with the best practices and policies that will limit the possibility of abuse. But the best prevention starts at home. The safer a child feels, the stronger connection the child has with his or her parents, the more educated the child is as to what is acceptable and what is not, the safer your child will be.
Which leads me to the third story, a story about Michael. Michael was about as average as a 7th grader could be; he had some friends but not too many, he was a B student, nothing special.
Michael went to sleep-away camp. A counselor at camp befriended him, gave him lots of attention, and they developed a close relationship. One night, the counselor tried to make sexual advances on Michael.
Michael felt very uncomfortable, and he had been taught to trust his intuition. And so he said, no. And that was it.
Then, Michael called his parents who he knew loved him and who he knew accepted him and who he knew would listen to him and believe him. He told them what happened and they called the camp. The camp had protocols which they followed and put the counselor on leave and immediately called the people in to investigate.
That’s my favorite story and that’s the story line we’re all shooting for.
G-d calls us a holy people in this week’s Parsha. As a holy people, it is incumbent upon us to listen when people cry, to not act as judge or jury, to simply follow the law, and call the police. As a holy nation it’s our duty to look out for friends and family, to hear their silent cry, both actively by being attuned to our surroundings, and passively, by being non-judgmental and accepting. And as a holy nation, it is incumbent upon us, more than anything else, to foster trust, love, and acceptance in our households so that there will be no more cries.
וּבַעֲבוּר, תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל
You learn new things all the time. I always thought that the word ‘return’ means to go back to where you started. And so you would think that when you click ‘return flight’ on an airline website that they would make sure your return flight takes you back to the same airport. Well I learned something this past week…
Apparently, they return you to anywhere within a 100 mile radius of your outbound flight. And so, with my car already parked at Raegan International in Virginia, I learned that my return flight, for me and my family, would be going to BWI.
I made a few phone calls and to make a long story short, it would have cost a fortune to switch return flights for my entire family from BWI to Raegan. And so instead, we decided to switch only one flight. One of us would pick up the car and meet the rest of the family in BWI. I offered to fly alone – with my infant, a two-year-old, and my wife would take the older children. Sounds like a great idea, no? I thought so too.
I made it through customs with everyone cooing and smiling at my daughter, she was smiling back and being adorable. I got this, I thought. I got on the plane, she sat on my lap, looked through my pictures, laughing, smiling. We even made it through take-off without a hitch.
And then, with no warning at all, my daughter freaks out. Juice, candy, nothing can get her to calm down. I try to walk around with her but of course, the seatbelt sign is on and the stewardess doesn’t let me. I finally realize if I lock myself in the bathroom, they can’t ask me to leave and no on will hear my daughter screaming. So I spent twenty-five minutes in an airplane bathroom with my daughter screaming on top of her lungs. We finally go back to our seat after she seems to calm down… and then she goes at it again. Now she’s kicking the seat in front of me like it’s a soccer ball. I’m trying to hold her down, which makes her even more aggravated, which makes her start to stop screaming and start screeching. And so it went, for approximately one and a half hours out of a two-hour flight.
And of course, the entire time, I am getting these deathly, threatening stares from everyone around me. Because apparently if you stare hard enough at a parent they will magically make their child quiet. I KNOW SHE’S SCREAMING! It’s bothering me too!!!
As this was going on I realized it’s not my fault that this is happening. Yeah, okay, I know I was feeling a little defensive. But hear me out, I think there’s some truth to this:
Imagine this would be taking place on a subway, a New York Subway. People might get irritated at a crying baby, but there wouldn’t be the same level of indignation, of what are you doing here with a child who is screaming, of why are you being so insensitive!
None of that takes place on a subway. You know why? Because a subway is advertised and understood to be a means of going from point A to point B. It’s transportation. Yes, the person next you smells bad, the other person is talking too loud, the driver is going way too fast and your coffee is spilling out of its cup, and there’s a crying baby. But it’s no big deal. I am here because I need to go from point A to point B.
But a flight? A flight is an experience, they tell you. You could watch movies that are still in the theater! Free drinks! Stewards and stewardesses dressed to the T to make you feel like you’re being waited on!
Why is there a crying baby ruining this perfect ambiance?
And so if we fly like we take a subway and frame a flight for what it really is, as transportation, then we could deal with the turbulence and any other disturbances. But if we see it as a beautiful, relaxing experience then every single bump is going to bother us.
Defensiveness aside, for the record, after the flight I apologized to everyone who was anywhere near me.
But I think this dual-perspective is a great analogy to something we read about today and something that is probably one of the most fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves as Jews. Today, we read the giving of the Aseres HaDibros, the first ten Mitzvos presented to the Jewish People.
What’s it all about? Why do we do Mitzvos? What should our motivation be in performing these acts?
Well about a thousand years ago, we started what I consider to be a dangerous game. And by we, I mean some of the leading teachers of Judaism. They started explaining, conjecturing what and why we do Mitzvos. Some explained each and every Mitzvah. Some explained things in a more global sense. To generalize, they suggested the following reasons for Mitzvah observance: self-perfection and betterment of society.
When you think about it, you realize that those are all self-serving reasons to follow the Torah. Not necessarily in a bad way, but the message they were conveying was, do the Mitzvos because it will benefit you. You will live a happier life, or you will have a better society in which to live your better life.
And the truth is, the Torah itself gives us self-serving reasons to perform the Mitzvos – we say it every day: “V’haya im shomo’ah tishmi’u, if you listen to my commandments,” what happens? “I will make it rain, I will make you rich,” etc., etc.
Maimonides, the great philosopher, makes it very clear that all these things are true. There are incredible perks to living a Torah-centric life. In modern terms, those perks are a day of rest from a frenetic lifestyle, moments of introspection and meditation through prayer in an ever-fractured day, self-restraint as expressed though the laws of Kosher, an emphasis on family, a moral compass to navigate a radically changing moral landscape. And a sense of fulfilment by knowing what you’re supposed to do and doing it. The perks of Judaism are immense.
But Maimonides explains that those perks are the Torah’s way of advertising. It’s like an airline telling you to fly with them because they offer on-flight WiFi and really good peanuts. It’s a hook. We could serve G-d for the perks and that’s okay. But the ideal, he writes (in Peirush Hamishnayos and Hilchos Teshuva), is to serve G-d because it brings us close to Him. It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about G-d. This is what G-d wants and so I will do it.
When G-d presents the Torah to the Jewish People in today’s Torah reading, He makes it very clear. There is no mention of reward. Rather, “If you listen to my voice, and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured nation.” That’s it. The Jewish People hear this and they say, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will listen. No agenda. Certainly not a self-serving one.
The Torah, in this framework, is a subway ride. It takes us from where we are and brings us close to G-d. It’s spiritual transportation.
Later on, in the Torah, reward is mentioned as an incentive. Later on, in the writings of the prophets, the Torah is framed as a book of social-justice. Later on, in the writings of Maimonides and other philosophers, the Torah is framed as a book of self-perfection. Later on, in the mystical writings, the Torah is framed as a book of perfecting the world in the highest of spheres. And later on, on Jewish websites like Aish.com, the Torah is framed as a book of self-growth, and of something that can provide us the highest and deepest levels of pleasure.
And Maimonides would say, that’s all true; a Torah-based lifestyle can guide us to a more perfected self, to a more cohesive society, to a more enjoyable life, physically and emotionally. But the ideal is that we serve G-d because he asked us to, because it brings us close to Him, even if we can’t feel that in any shape or form.
What I realized on this flight from hell is that there is a big danger when we confuse the perks for the purpose. When we lose sight of what it’s really all about – we end up having a really lousy flight. If Judaism is only about making me feel good, then what happens when Judaism doesn’t make me feel so good? If Judaism is only about social justice, what happens when Judaism’s view of social justice is inconsistent with mine? And then we want our money back because it’s not what we signed up for.
If we’re flying on “Torah-Air” to get from point A to point B, if we see the Torah for what it’s supposed to be, then we could deal with the turbulence, with the yelling, and even, gasp, no in-flight movies. At the end of the day, the Torah transports you and gets you closer to G-d.
However, if we fly the plane of Judaism only for the perks – we have a much more challenging time, because while there are usually perks, and really good ones! sometimes you just get a bad plane, or a lousy pilot, or a grumpy stewardess, or a crying baby… How we frame our flight impacts the way we experience it.
Which brings me to a third perspective from that flight that I’d like to share with you. There’s the purpose flier – that was me. There was the perk flier – that was the people giving me death-stares. But then there was the perspective of my two-year-old. Throughout this flight, she saw me as this terrible monster who was simply trying to make her uncomfortable. She wanted to walk around – I made her sit down.
She wanted to kick people’s seats – I held her feet.
From her vantage point, the flight was one big fight against this terribly evil version of her father, in which she tried to outmaneuver and somehow get around me.
Tragically, we also sometimes take that perspective when it comes to our religious experience. Sometimes we see the laws of Judaism as simply getting in the way of what we really want to do. I can’t eat this. I can’t say that. And I can’t do anything on Shabbos. And like my precious daughter, we try our hardest to get around it. We try to find any way to avoid these draconian laws that are getting in the way of my life!
And what my daughter failed to realize is that these “restrictions” were an actually expression of values.
I needed her to sit down because I cared about her safety. If she’d really understand that, she would not only sit down nicely, she’d probably wear her seatbelt the entire flight.
I needed her to stop kicking the person in front of me because there is a value in being sensitive to those around you. If she’d understand that, she wouldn’t be fighting me, she’d probably be really quiet.
There is a time and place for legal loopholes, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Torah, if all we’re doing is looking for them. The Torah is a set of laws that represent a theory of values. While we need to stand vigilant against those who create unnecessary stringencies, we need to also develop a deeper appreciation for the values that the Torah does attempt to impart upon us. At the very least, especially when we do not fully appreciate those values, we need to remind ourselves that G-d, and by extension His Torah is not a draconian set of laws that we need to avoid so we don’t “get out”. They are principals that we need to cherish. Sometimes there’s a leniency, sometimes there ain’t. But the perspective we take will deeply impact the comfort of our flight.
Torah, Mitzvos, Judaism, is a spiritual flight with a myriad of perks; a happier life, a more disciplined life, a more gratifying life, and a healthier society. At its core though, its goal is to somehow get us from where we are to G-d. There may be bumps, there may be disturbances, but it will always take us to where we need to go. And yes, there are rules and there are regulations. But as the pre-flight safety announcement states, “these rules are here for your safety and your security.” So buckle up and enjoy your flight.
As we stand under the chuppah, the pinnacle of joy, we break a glass as a sign of mourning, and as we bury our loved one, in the deepest state of despair we say Kaddish, a prayer of hope. We are not a confused people, we are clear-eyed and hopeful.
My social media feed is filled this morning with people euphorically celebrating today’s inauguration of President Biden or despondently mourning the end of Trump’s presidency. If there’s anything this past year should have taught us, it is to be humble and acknowledge that we have no idea what’s in store. We are joyful not confident, sad but not despondent.
There is much discussion these days about the prayer we say for the president, many seeing it as an endorsement of sorts. It is not. It is an expression of “seek(ing) out the welfare of the city to which I exiled you” (Yirmiyahu, 29:7). More specifically, it is a recognition that “the hearts of kings are in the hands of God,” (Mishlei, 21:1) and despite our confident political analyses, it is God who ultimately decides what will be.
הַנּוֹתֵן תְּשׁוּעָה לַמְּלָכִים…
He who grants salvation to kings…
may He grant this wonderful country health, prosperity, and peaceful healing.
This past week, Sheldon Adelson passed away at the age of 87. He was one of the top ten wealthiest people on the planet and used his wealth to support many causes. He donated 140 million dollars to Birthright, 25 million dollars to Yad Vashem, and completely funded a medical research foundation running out of Boston. During the pandemic, despite having to close his many casinos, he paid the wages for every one of his employees. Despite all these impressive acts of philanthropy, and this is truly just the tip of the iceberg, the organization, If Not Now, a Jewish American group opposed to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria issued the following statement upon news of his passing: “Adelson dedicated his life and wealth to empowering the far right in the US and in Israel… Yimakh shemo. May his legacy be erased. And may we do it together.”
It is true, Adelson was a tremendous supporter of Trump and Netanyahu, two people this group is very much opposed to – which is fine. But ignoring everything else this man did? By saying, yemakh shemo, a term we reserve the likes of Haman and Hitler?! That’s unconscionable.
It takes a lot to truly disturb me, but this behavior was deeply disturbing. I spent some time trying to understand why I was so disturbed by their comments and I was reminded of a famous teaching by the Baal Shem Tov. He would teach his followers that everything you see, and especially things you see that make an impression on you, were seen by you for a reason. They are meant to teach you something, not about others, but about yourself.
That’s a powerful message in it of itself. It’s very easy to pour righteous indignation on all the evil you see around you; on this person not caring about public safety, on this group being small-minded, on my spouse being selfish, on my friend for ignoring me… How often do we turn that same scrutiny and laser-criticism on ourselves?
The Baal Shem Tov is suggesting that if something wakes us up, if something roils our blood, it may just be an indication that you have the same issue. He’s speaking mystically, but this can be understood psychologically as well. It’s hard to judge oneself, it’s painful to acknowledge our flaws and so we project them everywhere we look.
So why did I get so worked up about this tweet from this fringe group of activists?
Obviously, their lack of Kavod Hameis, of respect for the dead, was appalling. Their statement lacked any decency. But there’s more.
One of the big philosophical questions that is asked about our parsha is how G-d could harden the heart of Pharaoh. It doesn’t seem very fair. There are many answers to this question but I recently learned a new one suggested by Rav Menachem ben Shlomo HaMeiri, a 13th century Catalonian scholar. He suggests that when the Torah says that G-d hardened Pharao’s heart it means that Pharaoh was born with a stubborn character. That’s it. There was no Divine intervention. So why then does the Torah say G-d hardened his heart?
Every once in a while, we’ll have the following conversation with our young children. We’ll ask them, who made the dinner you’re eating. And they’ll answer, Hashem. And they’re right, aren’t they? Hashem made dinner because He caused the natural ingredients to exist and the crops to grow and He gave the energy and the brain-power to the many people along the way who processed the cheese, harvested the wheat, etc etc, up to and including giving my wife the energy to boil some water and throw the noodles in the pot and add cheese. So they’re right and yet, it’s kinda weird to say Hashem made dinner. (The correct answer is, you, Mommy, and it was delicious.) And yet, when Chana became pregnant with Shmuel, it was appropriate for the Torah to say that G-d made Chana conceive. Not that it was not biology at play. But because she had not conceived for so many years, because it was so out of the ordinary, describing it as G-d making it happen is appropriate.
Rav Menachem Meiri suggests that when something is out of the ordinary, it’s extreme, it’s unique, or it’s not what we expect then the Torah frames as if G-d did it. But it doesn’t mean it’s miraculous. It’s just strange and over-the-top. Pharaoh, he writes, was a very stubborn person. Nine vicious plagues and he still couldn’t change his mind. G-d didn’t intervene, he was just a very stubborn man, set in his ways, and couldn’t make lasting change.
Pretty relatable isn’t he? We’re all pretty stubborn, set in our ways, unable to change. We make the same mistakes over and over again. We know we’re doing things wrong, we know we’re hurting others and ourselves with our behavior, we feel bad and maybe even change for a little while, but then revert back to our old behaviors.
So yes, those If Not Now people acted disgustingly. In general, their movement is beyond the pale. That tweet was an expression of their Pharaoh-like stubbornness, unable to see anything differently, unwilling to change in any way. And that stubbornness, if I were to be completely honest, is something I could relate to. I imagine we can all relate to some degree.
Last week, an op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Congressman Chip Roy. In it he wrote how inspired he was by Jews who once a week turned off their phones. Roy, is a devout Christian, by the way. He concluded that social media does more hard than good in connecting people and he will be taking an indefinite break from Facebook, Twitter, and all other forms of social media. That’s a big deal. It’s very difficult to be a politician without using the available platforms on social media. But Chip Roy decided he needed to make a big change, so he will become, in his words, “a better husband, father, (and) citizen…”
Big changes are possible, they’re just not easy.
Amazingly, our Sages teach us that Pharaoh, that truly stubborn man, did eventually change. According to the Medrash of Tana d’vei Eliyahu, Pharaoh survived the splitting of the sea, became the king of Ninveh, and when Yonah rebukes the people for their behavior, it is Pharaoh, their king, who leads the way in their national repentance.
It took a lot to get him to that point. It took ten plagues, it took the splitting of the sea, and it took him almost drowning to say, “Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong.” But good for him for allowing those powerful moments to shake him out of his default existence and try something new.
Many people have asked me why are we suffering right now with the pandemic? Or, what is the message of the political crisis that we’re witnessing?
I’m no prophet, I don’t answer such questions. But what I could say is that we’re all feeling heightened levels of righteous indignation right now. It would be nice if we could use that righteous indignation to change the world around us, but at the very least, we should also learn the lesson of the Baal Shem Tov and turn that indignation on ourselves; In what way are we being stubborn and unwilling to change? Which behaviors or thinking patterns are we engaged in that need to go? In what way am I a carpenter and in what way do I see the whole world as a nail?
We are living through wild and scary times. Tragically, there is very little we can change. But perhaps if we can take advantage of these violent moments and turn inward instead of outward, we can change ourselves.
In 1933, a letter was written by the Orthodox Jewish leadership in Germany. It was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The letter was a plea for safety and security, describing the terrible impact that the Nazi laws had caused the Jewish community, and the fear in which they lived. In pleading their case, the rabbinic leadership, the authors of this letter, attempted to find common ground with the ruling party, the Nazis:
“Marxist materialism,” they wrote, “and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition, as handed down through Orthodox teachings obligatory on the Jewish People. … We (too) have been at war against this religious attitude.”
They went on to say that they would accept restrictions and laws that would limit their autonomy and opportunities. What they wanted was clarity; are the Nazis truly intent on removing Jews from the land, in which case they would leave, or, are those just empty words, campaign slogans meant to curry votes that have no teeth to them, in which case they would happily reside in Germany as second-class citizens.
You could call the letter utterly naïve, or disgustingly reprehensible. With hindsight, our judgment is likely unfairly harsh. What I can say definitively is that this position of the Jewish leadership was an expression of what is called, a Golus (exile) mentality, or what I would call, a Golus complex.
Some may blame this way of thinking, their willingness to accept hateful rhetoric and discrimination, on two thousand years of exile. Living under Romans, and Christians, and Muslims, with no rights and regular pogroms, conditioned these leaders to think this way. But it goes back even further. Nachmanides, addressing the question of how it could be that the family of Yosef, the most powerful man in Egypt, how his family could become slaves, suggests that it was not an overnight transformation. Rather, the Egyptians first started describing the Jewish People as vermin. Then, without taking an official policy, the ruling class encouraged – with words – the populace to attack the Jews. Eventually, they introduced legislation that discriminated against the Jews. And then, they made them into slaves. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
What would have happened had the Jews stood up for themselves at that very first stage and said, we aren’t vermin, we’re human, just like you? What would have happened had they spoken up when the peasants were attacking them? What would have happened had they lobbied against the discriminatory laws?
What we do know is that the few words we find in the mouths of those Jews in Egypt are words of apathy, of indifference, of preferring the predictable life of a slave over the challenging life of a free person. When Moshe tries to rally the Jews to demand justice with his act of killing the Egyptian, they are apathetic to his cause and mock him (Rav Moshe Lichtenstein). When Moshe tries to secure their freedom, the Jews push back at every stage.
Our Golus complex goes back to before we were even a nation and it lives with us still.
How is this complex expressed?
Our Golus complex is expressed when we bicker over which form of anti-Semitism is worse, right-wing or left-wing, when no form of anti-Semitism should be acceptable to us.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we choose candidates based exclusively on their relationship with Israel or the Jews and nothing else, completely losing sight of our raison d’etre, of being a light unto others, forgetting that our survival is not an end to itself but a means for the betterment of the world.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we don’t allow for honest reporting of what goes on in our communities because we’re afraid of a shanda, of a scandal or embarrassment to the Jewish People.
Our Golus complex is expressed when we are so busy being defensive that we cannot extend ourselves to other “types” of Jews or to minorities who could use our support.
And like most pathologies, there are terrible inconsistencies.
On the one hand, we act like we are being endlessly persecuted, like we are complete strangers in this land, and at the very same time, we act like our ancestors came here on the Mayflower, and that there is no alternative to living in the USA.
On the one had we vote as if we are complete strangers in this land, and at the same time, we identify so deeply with our political party of choice that its leader becomes our prophet and its platform our creed. Yeshiva boys could quote Ben Shapiro but not Bava Basra, and Jewish Democrats would sooner criticize Moshe Rabbeinu than Barack Obama. Our political identity is such that rabbis are petrified to weigh in in any substantive way on the most pressing issues facing our nation because they’ll alienate people who put politics before faith. And when religious leaders do weigh in, after-the-fact, and make a little tiny peep, it’s heralded as heroic. That’s a golus mentality?!
On the one hand we pray to return to our land three times a day, and at the same time, we build beautiful, over-the-top houses, we live lavish lifestyles, we soak up the comforts of this country even when we can’t afford them because Western materialism is so much a part of our Jewish culture. (Don’t believe me? Read the ads in any Jewish publication, or just walk down the street.)
I sometimes wonder to myself – if the shofar of mashiach would blow right now, would we really be able to pull ourselves away from our homes and move to Israel? In a little two or three-bedroom apartment? Without a brand-new Honda Odyssey?!
If we’re going to have a Golus complex, let’s at least be consistent! Living with a packed suitcase, stop rooting for the home team – they’re not our team, and live like we’re in exile.
Now it’s very easy to diagnose a problem, it’s far more difficult to suggest a solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution, but perhaps we can gain some inspiration from the very first golus (exile) and geulah (redemption):
If we go back to the very first Pesach seder, we would notice something very strange; it was celebrated while the Jews were still living in Egypt. Pretty amazing isn’t it? They were living in their slave barracks in the land of their oppression, but they were celebrating z’man cheiruseinu, a holiday of freedom.
Freedom, it would seem, is not a location, it’s a state of mind. And that night the Jews lived in a free state of mind. The message that G-d had conveyed to them through Moshe in this week’s parsha, finally penetrated:
“Hashem Elokei avoseichem nirah eilai, that G-d, the G-d of our forefather appeared to Moshe,” – that they were the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. And, “A’aleh es’chem mei’ani Mitzrayim… el eretz zavas chalav ud’vash, I will lift you up from Egypt and take you to a land flowing with milk and honey,” – that they had a future. (Shemos, 3:16-17)
That night they were reminded of their legacy; how Yaakov refused to make concessions or political partnerships with the likes of Eisav and Lavan despite leaving himself vulnerable in the process. How Yitzchak was willing to give up everything, even his life, for the sake of G-d. And how Avraham cared not only for his own family, but for all the families of the world.
That night they were reminded of the future; how they did not belong in Egypt, how they had a calling, how they were to set up their own country, with their own set of laws, and from Jerusalem, a light – a light of ethics and morality would one day shine.
That night they were free. That night they broke off the shackles of that terrible complex.
You could live your whole life bound in chains but unless you try to move around, you may not feel them. I feel like I’ve been moved around a lot this past year. I imagine we all feel like we’ve been moved and shaken quite a lot this year, and especially this past week. This past week, many in our community changed their view of our President. The president has been adored by many in our community, and not only adored but idolized (you know, from the word, idol). We can have an honest discussion and debate about who we should have voted for, I truly believe that. But the idolization of such a person?! That’s unacceptable. And this past week, that adulation has subsided, and people have finally acknowledged that dangerous words can have dangerous consequences. Watching the capital of the country stormed caused many of us to feel a deep sense of fear, especially as Jews, with even a limited knowledge of history. “Brave” op-eds and hushed whispers, acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, we were mistaken, maybe he wasn’t our savior.
So right now, we are all awake to the fact that we are in chains. We suffer, as a people, in one way or another from a Golus complex. The truth is, until that great shofar is blown, we will all be slaves, in Baltimore and even in Jerusalem. But the process of freedom can begin, even here and especially now. By reminding ourselves of our legacy, of our values, and not pandering to whomever will hate us less. By reminding ourselves of our calling and extending ourselves to our neighbors. May G-d bless America, may He watch over this wonderful country which has treated us so well, and may WE act in a way that brings blessing to the world.
I struggle for words, I bite my tongue, I sigh from the depth of my soul,
Your pain’s so deep, my words so weak, am I helping or hurting you more?
My mind can’t stop racing, ideas, solutions, I am trying to not waste your time.
My eloquence fails, my wisdom sails, all I muster is one more deep sigh.
To the sleepless parent whose child is lost to the world, to the orphan with nowhere to turn,
To the suffering in silence, calming minds that can’t stop, and fears that always return,
To those stuck in bed, with nothing to live for, fighting to go on for one more,
To those haunted by demons; by loved ones who hurt them, who robbed them of all youthful joy.
To those hiding in closets, living two lives, torn into pieces and shreds,
To the voices not heard, the people not seen, they walk among us, the living dead.
To the lonely soul yearning for connection and love, whose hope hardened into despair,
To those who read this and wept, their pain not expressed, truly, my greatest fear.
כֹּ֤ה תֹאַמר֙ ִלְבֵנ֣י יִשָׂרֵא֔ל ֶאְה ֖יֶה שָׁלַ֥חִני ֲאֵליכם
The very first message that Hashem conveys to His enslaved people is not one of redemption or even of hope, but rather, it is one of presence; “I will be with you in your pain.” (Shemos, 3:14, Rashi)
So as I struggle for words, as I bite my tongue, as you wonder if I’m even still there,
I am trying my best to feel your pain, and to be there with you in that space.
I don’t have solutions, or words of wisdom, I don’t mean to waste your time.
I just want you to know that no matter the reason, imcha anochi b’tzarah (I am with you in your pain)
We may not always have the words, we may even be afraid to share that we do not have the words, but we are there with you in your pain