Monday, September 1, 2014

Portion Reeh What is the Genius of the Jew

Portion Reeh   What is the Genius of the Jew   

            It never was easy being a Jew. Forget the anti-Semites; we had to deal with a very powerful and demanding God on top of that!
            Do you remember the line from Fiddler On the Roof:
            He has just announced that his daughter is to be married and the local Russian official comes up to congratulate him. He then says,
               Yes, Your Honour?
               I have some news I think I should tell you as a friend.
               Yes, Your Honour.
               I'm giving you this news because I like you.We have received orders that sometime soon this district is to have a little unofficial demonstration.
               A pogrom
               No, no, no.  Just a little unofficial demonstration.
Then Tevye goes on
               Dear God,  Did you have to send me news like that today of all days?
              I know, I know we are the chosen people.
              But once in a while, can't you choose someone else?

Here is another take on this odd question by a British poet, William Ewer:
               How odd of God
               To Choose the Jews.
To this, there have been several retorts all attributed to a variety of authors:
 But not so odd
As those who choose
A Jewish God
Yet spurn the Jews
               Not odd of God. / Goyim annoy 'im,-- attributed to Leo Rosten.
But finally, this one is most apt:
                "Not so odd / The Jews chose God”

Did we choose? As we have it in the Torah, we can see that not only were we chosen, but we were set up as well with serious demands and expectations.

     Our  Torah reading opens with these words:
            “Reeh anochi notayn lifneychem hayom brachah vklalah
            Behold., I set before you this day a blessing and a curse
            The blessing-if you observe the Commandments of the Lord your God,
            The curse--if you fail to observe the commandments.
            (Deut. 11:26)

They are echoed again,at the end of the Torah--Reeh natati lefanecha hayom et hahyim ve et hatov veet hamavet ve et ha ra(30:15)
Behold I have set before you today  life and good  and
death and evil...I call on heaven and earth to bear witness today that I have given you life and death, blessing and curse--therefore uvaharta bechayim--therefore choose life.

            It is a doctrine, one of the few dogmas that we Jews cherish, beside the belief in one God, that whatever our circumstances, whatever our fortune and fate--rich or poor, healthy or ill,--ultimately the choice of good or evil, and the consequences, are in our hands. But we have the choice.
            God may have indeed chosen us, as we say at the Torah blessing” Atah Bachar banu”- You have chosen us form among all peoples. We too, have our “ choosing”, as we have it in these verse from the Torah.
            This has been at the essence of Jewish existence-- to choose--Torah versus licentiousness, Judaism versus disappearance.
            Judaism preaches choice, and we Jews have remained Jews, over the centuries by choice, solely by our free choice. We didn’t have to remain as Jews.We are the product of generations that chose to remain as Jews.
            I want to quote for you from an essay my father wrote, and I excerpted it in my book, Courage of the Spirit. This is from his essay, "A Heroism that hasn't been recorded."( P.4)
( For information on thebook, go to )
"Genius has been defined as the infinite capacity for taking pains. Jews had no doubt more than any group in the world the infinite capacity for taking pain. However, I think that taking ridicule requires even more of true genius than the capacity for taking any other kind of pain.
To be a Jew was to invite a firing squad, and the worst of all was a roar of laughter and ridicule.
Everyone was free to take out his heart on the Jew; he was the only one who could not retaliate, for the offender had the police, the church, the army, and the whole society lined up before him.

All of this was not something irremediable, for every Jew could easily and at any time change his status of a pariah into that of a highly respected citizen.

The historian, Louis Golding wrote, "The acceptance of a single drop of baptismal water was enough to entitle him to remain and enjoy his property, the scenes in which he had been brought up and the land where his fathers lay buried... he could have thrown off his rags and clad himself in scarlet and enjoyed peace and affluence, by pronouncing one single word, a word which he did not pronounce". 
 The Jew was the only one who turned a deaf ear to all the calls to exchange security for his way of life. He alone remained out of the general swim, in fact, against the crowd. People scoffed and jeered and mocked and made sport of him, and he went on, unheeding, undismayed and undiscouraged.
            In all the history of mankind, no nation ever displayed such a civil bravery as the nation of Israel. It is a history with the leitmotif that a hero is one who conquers daily his temptations toward cowardly conformism. The Jew took dirt, misery, hunger, fever and ridicule in stride and seemed to have inexhaustible reserves of strength.
            The emblem of a Scottish University has on it
." They say", "What say they?  Let them say! They scoff. Let them scoff!
            This was the  motto of the Jew.  He walked majestically with his caftan, beard, and ear locks through a hostile world like a soldier marching to his goal through searing flames and minefields.
            The capacity to endure laughter and ridicule day after day and the smallness of stupid, prejudice- bound minds; the epic of sacrifices in the day by day life of the Jew, this is the unsung unique heroism of the Jew, and there were no historians to record this day by day heroism.
   How as such a heroism possible?
            He was armed with antidotes to the Gentile climate of opinion. The strongest was the consuming sense of the presence and reality of God , with a compulsive urge to magnificence. He was able to stand aside as long as he considered his own way of life the constant and that of others as the variable.
            He lived in his own world, he enjoyed the full benefits of a universally shared world vision--klal Yisrael-- a body of belief, a complex of metaphysics and myth. The fence around the Torah was his castle.
            Out of his intimacy with God, the Jew considered his destiny inseparable from him, whose shekhinah  --divine presence--went with him into exile. He knew  that with him is the shekhina begaluta-the divine in exile.
            The Jew was armed to suffer sneer, the smallness of stupid unthinking prejudice and rudeness, for he was convinced that "The stone which the builders rejected will become the chief corner-stone of a better world, and that they who sow in tears shall reap in joy. They scoff-let them scoff.
            This is the history of the Jew of yesterday."
My father then ended his essay on the question of “what of today?.
"The Jew of today? He ran out of convictions and therefore the Herculean task of battling against a whole world is not his anymore."
            Today, we seem to have it all. Our Jewish community is wealthy, as has no community before in Jewish history; we are highly educated, as has no other community been before; we hold high positions in government, are leaders in business, in academics, in the culture and arts, and entertainment.
            This is also the age that has seen the creation of the State of Israel, a testimony to the vigor of our people, to rise out of the ashes of the destroyed communities of Eastern Europe, of North Africa, of Western Asia.
            Yet, for all that is good, we are concerned. Yet we must ask the question--have we indeed run out of our convictions. Have we indeed abandoned the herculean task of going against the main-stream? What have gained, with all our well-being, if we have traded in our yiddish neshamah, our Jewish souls in the consequence. The demographics surveys and the Pew Polls all speak of the shrinkage of Jewish numbers in this nation, of a dangerously high rate of marriage out or just plain dropping out.
            As I said at the opening, Moshe Rabbenu challenged us. Behold I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.

            The challenge, then, is for us, to make the choice, which Moses taught us only we can make, each and every one of us, to choose life, to choose the path of heroism, to choose the path of Judaism. Our ancestors could do it, under fire, under siege, under the greatest adversity. May we be granted the courage and the vision, Amen.

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