Friday September 30, 2022 – ה’ בתשרי תשפ”ג
חִזְק֣וּ וְאִמְצ֔וּ אַל־תִּֽירְא֥וּ וְאַל־תַּעַרְצ֖וּ מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם
כִּ֣י ׀ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ ה֚וּא הַהֹלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֔ךְ
לֹ֥א יַרְפְּךָ֖ וְלֹ֥א יַעַזְבֶֽךָּ׃
“Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them;
for it is indeed your God יהוה who marches with you:
[God] will not fail you or forsake you.“
We spend these days of awe coming before God and our fellow community members to repent and ask forgiveness for all our transgressions, mistakes, and moments when we just could have done better. You who come to synagogue on these days (whether in person or remotely), or you who take off work and school to mark these holy days, are making a conscious decision to live in Jewish time and in Jewish space. Living in a non-Jewish surrounding, you have taken yourself out of the routine of daily life, put your “away” messages on, and told the outside world that you will be taking this time for yourself, to be with family and community, to reflect, and to acknowledge that living Jewishly (however much or little that you do) is important to you.
But what does this entail on a broader level? How do we as Jews continue throughout the year to have a sense of Jewish, religious, cultural, ethnic, and even national identity? And how do we feel a sense of meaning, and dare I even suggest, a sense of pride in being Jewish?
These next few columns will be dedicated to this question of how we instill a sense of satisfaction, dignity, comfort, belonging, and pride in being Jewish at this moment in history. I welcome your thoughts, feedback, comments, and questions as we navigate the future of our Movement and our people into the abyss of uncertain times.
Nearly eight decades ago, the Jewish community was at its most vulnerable moment in history. With over 6 million murdered and many more displaced, homeless, and traumatized, the world was only beginning to confront the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people and all of humanity. One evil regime attempted systematically to erase an entire people and tradition from existence. Whole communities were wiped out, institutions, dynasties, and a world of creativity lost. The history is well-known.
The fact that in modern times the hatred of Jews rose to a level where the world tolerated mass extermination seems an impossibility today. And yet, we still have primary witnesses alive who can tell of their experiences, and for many, the residual trauma lives on as a reminder of what can happen.
Just a few years later, the State of Israel was established thereby fulfilling the dream of the Jewish nationalist story and giving refuge to the multitudes of Jews who had nowhere to go. The new State strove to return the Jewish people to its former glory with a sovereign Jewish entity through which we could determine our own fate and set the course for our own destiny.
The national project not only created a New Jew and saved Jews from peril, but it also instilled pride in the hearts of Jews the world over. Jews from Alaska to Argentina to Australia stood taller and held their heads higher because now “we” had a State of our own (regardless of whether they had any intentions to live there or not). That sense of pride, dignity, and triumph multiplied after Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 Six-Day War swept over the worldwide Jewish community.
In his landmark work “Kol Dodi Dofek,” Rav Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) grappled with the enormity of the Shoah and the miracle of the founding of the State of Israel and what our responses should be to both.
In it he wrote:
“Many who were once alienated are now bound to the Jewish State with ties of pride in its mighty accomplishments. Many American Jews who were partially assimilated find themselves beset by hidden fear and concern for any crisis that the State of Israel is at the time passing through, and they pray for its well-being and welfare even though they are far from being totally committed to it. Even Jews who are hostile to the State of Israel must defend themselves from the strange charge of dual-loyalty and proclaim daily and declare that they have no stake in the Holy Land. It is good for a Jew when he cannot ignore his Jewishness and is obliged to perpetually answer the questions [that we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon] ’Who are you?’ and ‘What is your occupation?’ (Jonah 1:8), even when extraordinary fear grips him and he does not have the strength or fortitude to answer with true pride, ‘I am a Jew, and I fear יהוה, the God of heaven’ (Jonah 1:9). The unrelenting question of, ‘Who are you?’ ties him to the Jewish people.”
But then things started to change as, for some, that sense of national pride began to fade. Through wars in Lebanon, Intifadas, terrorism, failed peace processes, ongoing Occupation, and a rise in extremism and Islamism, Israel, once the champion of the progressive and socialist Left, became its ire. For many on the left, Israel has become an example of “Settler Colonialism” and is used as an example of all that is wrong in the world. It is often the case today that the more progressive one is, the more one is not only critical of Israeli policy, but against the very idea of the Jewish State – seamlessly blending Jewish identity with Israeli nationalism, often with a meager understanding of both.
Soloveitchik continued, (and could have written these words yesterday):
“The very mention of the name Israel is a reminder to the fleeing Jew that he cannot escape from the community of Israel in whose midst he has been enmeshed from birth. Everywhere we turn we hear the name ‘Israel.’ When we listen to a radio station, when we open a paper, when we participate in a debate on current events, we encounter the question of Israel; it is always a topic of public concern.”
The easy temptation for many Diaspora Jews is simply to cut themselves off. “What does ‘that’ have to do with me?” I’m not Israeli, and I don’t want to schlep all this baggage. But deep down, we must raise our heads up and take heed of the teaching of teaching of R. Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1845) a student of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:
שֶׁזֶּהוּ בְּחִינַת ״יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר בְּךָ אֶתְפָּאָר״ (ישעיה מט, ג), שֶׁהֵם כְּלוּלִים מִגְּוָנִין סַגִּיאִין (סימן כה), הַיְנוּ הַנְּקֻדּוֹת טוֹבוֹת שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּכָל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁהֵם כְּלוּלִים מִגְּוָנִין סַגִּיאִין, כִּי יֵשׁ בְּכָל אֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל נְקֻדָּה טוֹבָה, אֲפִלּוּ בְּהַפְּחוּתִים שֶׁבָּהֶם, מַה שֶּׁאֵין בַּחֲבֵרוֹ, כַּמְבֹאָר בְּמָקוֹם אַחֵר (לקוטי מוהר״ן חלק א׳ סימן לד). וְהַשֵּׁם־יִתְבָּרַךְ מִתְפָּאֵר בָּהֶם כַּנַּ״ל.
“This is the import of God’s praise for the Jewish people, ‘Israel, in you etpa’er.’ HaShem takes pride in the Jewish people because they are made up of a multitude of colors. These are the good points inside every Jew, which are likewise inclusive of many colors. For each Jew, even the least worthy among them, has a good point that is unique, and so not found in his companion. God takes pride in all of them—i.e. in the splendor of their encompassing beauty.”
On this Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat of repentance and on Yom Kippur, when we ask ourselves “Who Are We,” we can, of course, respond that we are many things. We are different skin colors, and have many different identities, but our job as Jews and as a people is to bring beauty to the world. It is not to run away from our fate, but to embrace it and take an active role in directing our destiny. As Parashat VaYeilech teaches us, may we “Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread,” and have the strength and fortitude to answer with true pride, “I am a Jew!”
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Hatima Tovah,
 R. Nathan Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780–1845), wrote his voluminous work — “Collected Laws” — which follows the order of topics in the Shulchan Aruch, explaining them in the light of Nahcman of Breslov teachings.
 (Isaiah 49:3) The Hebrew term for “pride,” pe’er, also connotes “splendor,” especially as it manifests through the beauty of color