It hit me like a ton of bricks.
We listen to the rabbi’s drasha, sermon, and like a gentle wave at the beach, it washes over us without leaving a trace. As a prematurely retired pulpit rabbi, I can attest that the rabbi himself often experiences the same thing. I would give a drasha, share a beautiful idea on the parsha, and then move on. How often did I fail to absorb the very lesson I was sharing with my congregants? Far more often that I am comfortable admitting.
But then there are moments, rare moments, when something we hear or read pierces the heavy armor that so effectively protects us from true feeling, moments when our hearts of stone are replaced, just for a moment, with hearts of flesh.
This week, while rereading Rav Soloveitchik’s “Kol Dodi Dofek,” I experienced one of these rare moments and I understood for the first time that the Rav was speaking to me. Two years after making aliyah, it hit me that despite all the meaningful moments I experienced as a community rabbi, despite all the accomplishments I could point to—growing our community, helping people in need, supporting people during their most painful moments—in the most significant way, I failed.
The Gemara debates when, exactly, the long-suffering Job lived. Did he live during the time of Moshe, or in the generation of Yitzchak? Did he walk the earth during the time of Ezra, or is Job merely a parable, like the rich man who stole the poor Jew’s sheep in the parable Nathan told David after he sinned with Bat Sheva? With this background, Rav Soloveitchik explains why Job, a God-fearing man who gave charity to the poor, was nevertheless forced to suffer:
“You were a contemporary of Jacob, who wrestled with Laban, Esau and the angel at the stream of Yabok. Did you help Jacob with advice?… You were rich and a man of influence. Had you related to Jacob with appropriate sympathy and with steadfast loving kindness, he would not have had to pass through such a multitude of tribulations. You lived in the time of Moses, and you were numbered among the advisers of Pharaoh. Did you lift a finger when Pharaoh issued his evil decree that “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river” (Exodus 1:22), or when the oppressors enslaved your brethren with back-breaking work? You were silent then and did not protest … To toss them a coin? Yes; but to publicly demonstrate for them? No! You were afraid that you would be accused of dual-loyalty.
“You were active in the generation of Ezra and Nehemiah, the returnees to Zion. You, Job, with your wealth and influence, could have hastened the process of settling the Land of Israel and rebuilding the Temple. However, your ear was deafened and did not heed the historical cries of the nation. You did not storm out in protest against the Sanballites, the Samaritans and the rest of Israel’s enemies who wanted to destroy the yishuv and extinguish the spark of the last hope of God’s people. What did you do in the hour when the returnees from the Diaspora cried out from the depths of suffering and despair … You sat with folded arms! You did not participate in the travail of those who fought for Judaism, for Israel, and the redemption. Never did you bring even one sacrifice on their behalf. All these years you worried only about your own welfare…”
I’ve read these words before, many times. But only now do I realize that Rav Soloveitchik was talking to me. That I am Job!
Like Job, it pained me to hear that yet another Jew was murdered in Judea and Samaria. Like Job, I spoke from the heart to my congregants before the prayer for the State of Israel. And yes, like Job, I “tossed them a coin” and contributed to One Israel Fund and The Koby Mandell Foundation. But then I went about my day, preparing classes and planning bar mitzvahs, working with our shul committees to attract young families and to get sponsors for the monthly hot kiddush. And yes, I am ashamed to admit, I slept soundly at night as Jews were murdered on the streets of Chevron and at bus stops in Gush Etzion.
As the people of Ariel, Eli and Shiloh “cried out from the depths of suffering and despair,” I organized Yom Ha’atzmaut parties with falafel and blue and white cookies for our local community. As the corrupt American media slandered the people of Efrat and Neve Daniel as “obstacles to peace,” I “sat with folded arms” and worried about my kiddush club congregants who walked out just before my drasha began.
I could have screamed from the rooftops that they are murdering my brothers and sisters—but I didn’t. I could have written articles and letters to the editor, to awaken my people—but I was too busy. I could have knocked down the doors of our senators and congressmen, demanding that they stand up for truth and against our enemies—but I couldn’t find the time. I could have laid down in the streets of Washington DC and stopped traffic, as thousands of young people did for Soviet Jewry—but I would have been the only one.
Only now, after moving with my family to Gush Etzion, do I realize how little I did for my people when we were living in America.
Only now, living around the corner from the Dee family and a few blocks away from the parents of Batsheva Nagari, HY”D, when I no longer have a pulpit and a captive audience, do I realize the truth: “All these years you worried only about your own welfare.”
While traveling through the U.S. this summer, from community to community, I met many good Jews and was hosted by warm and welcoming Jewish communities. But nowhere did I sense any urgency or even awareness that there are hundreds of thousands of Jews in Judea and Samaria living constantly under the threat of terror. I met dozens of wonderful Jews learning Daf Yomi every day. But I searched in vain for Jews who are willing to dedicate their time and effort to be activists for our people. Only now, as Rav Soloveitchik’s words sink in, do I realize that I was looking in the mirror and seeing the Jew I used to be.
One hundred and forty years ago, following the horrific Russian pogroms of 1881-1882, the American Jewish poet Emma Lazarus wrote: “I do not hesitate to say that our national defect is that we are not ‘tribal’ enough; we have not sufficient solidarity to perceive that when the life and property of a Jew in the uttermost provinces of the Caucuses are attacked, the dignity of a Jew in free America is humiliated … Until we are all free, we are none of us free” (“An Epistle to the Hebrews”).
Please, don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t allow your busy schedules to blind you to the intifada ravaging our people as we speak. When you hear the news of yet another young mother or father murdered, don’t sigh and then move on with your life. When you visit Israel, don’t come here only to be inspired. Visit Jews who are suffering, who have lost loved ones. Gather your friends together and raise awareness. Share articles, write letters to the editor and raise money for victims of terror. Call your congressmen—and then call them again and again. Become an activist for Am Yisrael.
At the very end of Dr. Seuss’ classic, “The Lorax,” the Once-ler says to the little boy: “‘The Lorax said nothing. Just gave me a glance… just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance … And all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks, with one word… UNLESS. Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess. That was long, long ago. But each day since that day I’ve sat here and worried and worried away … But now,’ says the Once-ler, ‘Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’”
Our enemies will keep murdering us with impunity. Unless…
Rabbi Elie Mischel is director of Education at Israel365.