July 22, 2024
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Overcoming Victimization With the Clarity of the Future

This coming week marks the first birthday of Eliyahu Meir Sorotzkin. That name likely does not ring a bell, but it should. In just a few days we will mark the one-year anniversary of the brutal terrorist attack at Kehillas Bnei Torah in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. Even in a city that has seen its share of gruesome terrorism, this one stood out for its barbarism. Attacking Jews at prayer, four rabbis were killed on the spot, as well as a Druze policeman heroically trying to defend them. A fifth rabbi died last month from wounds sustained in the attack.

In a largely unreported event, the next day Dov and Shula Sorotzkin made a bris for their son Eliyahu Meir at the Kehillas Bnei Torah synagogue. Amazing. Wrap your head around that for a moment. Where 24 hours earlier Jewish blood had flowed freely on the floors of the synagogue, a new baby was brought into the covenant of Avraham. Screams of terror were replaced by the cries of a baby which were quickly soothed by a few drops of wine. Dov and Shula are amazing people and we are an amazing nation.

In general, we view a story like this as evidence of the forward-looking nature of Judaism and the Jewish people. Even in the darkest moments we always focus on the future. Discussing this past week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights that after the death of Sarah, Avraham mourned. After the mourning period, his first acts were the purchase of land for her burial and seeking out a spouse for his son. In this way he took the first steps towards the fulfillment of God’s prophecy about the Land of Israel and the growth of the Jewish people. Despite the loss of his life partner, he remained focused on the future.

While Judaism clearly is a forward-focused religion, this analysis misses something more fundamental. Jews are the proverbial victims of history. It is very likely that we could fill every day of our calendar with one of the many atrocities that have been committed against our people. What makes us unique is that we have never assumed the identity of a victim. This has been the key to our survival.

When victimhood becomes the key to your self-definition, you cannot move forward. You are always stuck in the past, reliving the victimization and seeking justice for it. When you do not receive full justice, as is so often the case, it can lead to paralysis. Worse, it can often be used to justify destructive behaviors pursuing that justice. Jews are the Rocky Balboa of history. Bruised and battered, we have pulled ourselves off the mat more times than we can count, and moved forward. We are victims who never acted like victims. In the process we denied our many victimizers the ultimate victory—they were never able to define us. Further, since for most of our history outsiders were unwilling to help our recovery from victimization, we developed a culture of self-reliance and a global sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews.

Our ability to avoid a “victim’s complex” is even more impressive when you consider some related principles in Judaism. First, we do not forgive our tormentors. “Turn the other cheek” is not a Jewish concept. Striking out against our enemies is a repeated theme of many stories in the Torah. Unfortunately, for much of our history we were unable to do that. Second, we do not forget. “Zachor,” the requirement to remember the attack of Amalek, is only the most extreme example of our collective remembrance of the attacks on our people.

Since we reject the notion of “forgive and forget,” it would be natural for us to stew in our history and be defined by victimhood. Our sages, however, had a different idea. Only on one day per year, Tisha B’Av, are we permitted to wallow in the full measure of our historic victimhood. Even then, we seem to be unable to spend an entire day wallowing. By the middle of the day we begin to shed practices of mourning. We mark tragic periods at other times of the year, the fast related to the fall of Jerusalem, the Three Weeks, the Sefira—however, while there are mourning-like rituals attached to those days and periods, they do not define us. Even at a wedding, we remember the fall of Jerusalem but quickly rebound to the joy of the wedding celebrations.

When the State of Israel debated the date for Yom Hashoah, the interface between Judaism and victimhood took an interesting turn. Secular government leaders wanted Yom Hashoah to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The full name of the day in Israel is “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah,” literally the Day of the Holocaust and the Day of Heroism. To the founders of the Jewish State, Jewish victimhood during the Shoah was an embarrassment and as a result they wanted to combine its commemoration with commemoration of the largest Jewish uprising during the War. Religious authorities lobbied for the commemoration to occur on either Tisha B’Av or the Tenth of Tevet. The religious leaders did not prevail, although some in Israel still mark the Shoah on the Tenth of Tevet. In fact, it has been reported that Rav Soloveitchik zt”l lobbied then Prime Minister Menachem Begin to switch the date to Tisha B’Av, the date he felt was designated to mourn all Jewish tragedies.

With the inspirational parents like the Sorotzkins, I am confident that while Eliyahu Meir will learn about the terror that preceded his bris, his identity will not be defined by it. God willing, by the time he is privileged to bring a son into the Brit of Avraham, we pray that our victimhood will be a distant memory as well.

Dror Futter lives in Teaneck, NJ. He is a venture capital and technology attorney at the McCarter & English law firm.

By Dror Futter

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