By Rabbi Elly Krimsky
Recently, the famed philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, visionary behind Birthright and many other Jewish initiatives, penned an article opining about the 94% whom the Pew report on “Portrait of Jewish Americans” described as being proud to be Jewish. (ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-94-percent/) He feels that Jewish thinkers and funders need to seize upon this crucial piece of information. A self-described atheist and proud cultural Jew, Mr. Steinhardt argues that the pride felt by secular Jewry is based upon “secular Jewish achievement and accomplishment.” He continues: “I like to say that my Jewish history began 300 years ago, because before that, all Jews were religiously observant and halacha was the dominant criteria of Jewish culture. After that, Jews were slowly and inexorably unburdened of limits – and our creativity soared. This creativity and its resulting achievements are the source of Jewish pride for the non-Orthodox majority of Jews today.”
Michael Steinhardt is a great thinker, has positively impacted Jewish history and his contributions have been nothing short of heroic. But to ignore all but 300 years of Jewish history is misguided. Sandy Koufax, Babs, and the litany of Jewish Nobel Prize winners augment our feelings of pride. But to suggest that people’s enthusiasm in their Jewishness stems exclusively from post Enlightenment Jewish history does not seem to carry the weight of the data. The Pew report details how many Jews keep Yom Kippur, light Shabbos and Chanukah candles and attend Pesach Sedarim. These are all religious events that garner great interest and I would advance that Jews do feel pride in our long history, a history that goes much farther back than the mid 18th century.
Jewish history is symbiotic and can be expressed by the Hebrew word kedem. The same word can mean bothkadimah, or progress and kedem, prior or previous. The same root can mean forward and backwards at the same time. That is Jewish history in a nutshell. While we identify with events that occurred millennia ago, our ancestors made decisions that directly impacted us as well so many centuries later. Interesting that all but 300 years of Jewish history (using the figure 5775) represents 94.8%. The title of his article also reflects the amount of our history he ignores.
“ולא אתכם לבדכם אנכי כרת את הברית הזאת ואת האלה הזאת. כי את אשר ישנו פה עמנו עמד היום לפני ה’ אלקינו ואת אשר איננו פה עמנו היום” (דברים כ”ט:י”ג-י”ד).
Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our God, and with whoever is not here with us today”(Devarim 29:13-14).
Before Moshe’s death, he gathered the entire nation of Israel together and addressed the eternal nature of the Jew. Rashi citing the Midrash Tanchuma declares that the covenant to which the gathering will swear allegiance, applies to all future generations as well. How could future generations be bound by a covenant they never agreed to?
Some of the commentaries argue an esoteric point. Indeed all Jews were present; those that were physically there and the neshamos (souls) of those who have not entered the physical sphere were there as well. Others try to bring proofs from the laws of inheritance. Many grapple with this issue.
I personally favor the response given by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, known by his acronym, the MaLBIM. Malbim argues that yes, Moshe made future generations swear as well. Why? Because this is THAT important! Our covenant and relationship with our Creator is not about individuals; it’s about ‘netzach yisrael’ about the eternity of Israel. We are all Jews because of the generation before us, and the generation before them back to Sinai – no other reason. If our affiliation can be traced back thousands of years, so can our obligation. Both our privileges and responsibilities stem from the same place. We meld our future and our past. We are ensured a future because we are aware of our past.
This melding of generations is a central theme to our Rosh Hashanah Musaf liturgy. The second of the three themes to this prayer is Zichronos – remembrances. We ask HASHEM to remember our forefathers – the misirus nefesh of Jewish heroes such as Avraham Avinu, about whom we read in the Torah and Chanah, about whom we read in the Haftarah. We remind HASHEM that all of us are linked together. We ask for z’chus avos (favors due to the piety and accomplishments of our ancestors). Why are we deserving of such merit? Because these giants accepted the covenant for us, for hundreds of generations later.
We will read of the akeidah on Friday, second day of Rosh Hashanah, the ultimate test of Avraham Avinu. If we think about it, why was the akeidah a test upon Avraham? According to our sages, Avraham was well into his 13th decade and his son was about 36 years old. Yitzchak, therefore, could have resisted had he wanted; obviously he allowed it. If so, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the akeidah was a test on Yitzchak? Avraham already walked through a burning furnace according to the list of tests offered by Rashi.
I heard a beautiful answer to this question. The final test was indeed a test for Avraham – to see if his son would share his values and follow in his ways. God knew a lot earlier that Avraham was a true monotheist and possessed true faith. Did Yitzchak possess the same faith? If Yitzchak did demonstrate such fealty, then and only then was Avraham deemed a success. We are successful when the generations meld – when the destinies and values are shared between generations, when one generation sees its success transmitting the masorah (tradition). Midor lador!
Part of our connection to one another is the connection to the land of Israel. Our Haftarah declares, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still…”(Yishayahu 62:1). For some reason far beyond our grasp, our generation merited seeing a resilient and strong Israel, and two generations ago a strong and resilient Israel could have saved hundreds of thousands if not millions. Our ability to actively voice support for Israel is a unique privilege Jews have enjoyed in our millennia of history. Rarely have we had a defensive army to protect Jews worldwide, and rarely have we had civil and human rights to exercise our freedom of speech. We must not squander this absolute historical anomaly. We must declare the inequity of a judge such as William Schabas, the biased blatantly anti-Israel head judge of a UN commission of inquiry. We must continue to resiliently remind the world that the crimes of Hamas and Israel’s enemies are identical to those of the evil terrorists killing innocents globally. We must stand in protest to a grossly inappropriate and profane program being conducted at the Met in New York sullying the memory of Leon Klinghoffer. We must stand for our brethren in regions of the world that do not provide the same safety, comfort and freedoms that we enjoy. We must not be silent because we have the opportunity to do something to help them. That is part of the destiny and calling of the Jew.
Seventy years ago a woman looked into the sky of Auschbcin Poland, in the midst of the worst genocide of human history and probably threw her hands up and cried out “Esah Einai el Heharim ma’ayin yavo ezri – I lift my eyes unto the mountains from where will my salvation come?” This woman, like millions of other Jews, never lived to see that salvation for which she prayed, but little did she know, her grandson would one day serve in the Israeli army, fighting for a strong and resilient Medinat Yisrael (State of Israel),built upon the ashes of Auschwitz.
On September 4th, 2003 the woman’s grandson, Brigadier General Amir Eshel, flew his F-15 jet fighter so low over the Birkenau Death Camp, that the 200 Israeli soldiers involved with a ceremony below, could see the blue Magen David on the belly of the jet. The same sky that millions of Jews turned to in sincere prayer, uttering their last ‘Shma Yisrael’was filled up with the powerful jet-wash and smoke of million dollar fighting machines belonging to a Jewish state they could only dream of. A different smoke over Auschwitz indeed.
Before the fighter planes left Israel, General Eshel, stated that “We are flying over the camp of horrors – we have risen from the ashes of the millions of victims and carry their silent cry. We salute their heroism, and swear to be a shield to the Jewish people and their country, Israel.”
In General Eshel’s words, “We came 60 years too late.” Why did we merit seeing what they needed? I do not know. But I do know that the way we can assure their memories remain eternal is to live the values for which they died. We can assure their perpetuity if we make sure to live their dreams. When we send our children to day school, when we daven with purpose and remain steadfast in our faith of God, we become one eternal people. We must live for those who have lived 100% of Jewish history who have not been as privileged as we.
Originally appears on YUTorah.org