I am humbly aware that I have no answers to the questions that we are all asking at this troubled time. Why are we being confronted with these tragic challenges? What does G-d want from us? What message is He sending? Are we being punished? If so, why? Is Moshiach, the Messiah, coming?
I begin by stating that no one has answers to these questions. Yes, I know that many, greater than I, have been publicly proclaiming answers to these questions. They claim, I suppose, to have access to some Higher Source. I have no such access and doubt that anyone alive today possesses such knowledge. The powers of prophecy were taken away from us long ago.
I do, however, have some reflections which I would like to share with you, in full recognition that they are inadequate given the immensity of our current circumstances.
We are in an eis tzarah, a time of trouble and suffering and ominous events. How do we react? How do we act?
I begin by reflecting on our long history as a people. We have known much suffering, and the suffering we now experience cannot be belittled. However, we have survived worse times, and one of the reasons for our survival has been our attitude of trust and hope.
Hopefulness is rare nowadays, and we must do what we can to restore it. Think of the national anthem of the State of Israel, HaTikvah. The other national anthems with which I am familiar either have themes of war (“bombs bursting in air”) or of royal kings and queens and their exaggerated powers. Israel, however, has an anthem whose theme is tikvah, hope.
Reb Nachman of Breslav would repeatedly shout to his followers, “Yidden, yidden, do not despair! Zeit sich nisht meyaesh! Do not fall into a state of yi’ush, of hopelessness!”
So hope and faith in G-d’s mercy is one necessary response. How to cultivate an attitude of hope is a matter for each individual to discover for himself or herself. Among the sources to turn to are the words of Psalms and Prophets, especially Isaiah. I refer here not just to prayer, but to discovering and studying, and perhaps reciting and even singing, verses and passages which are uplifting and encouraging.
Another response is one that has been particularly difficult for our people to achieve. I speak of achdut (unity), the recognition that we are all one people. We must profoundly transform our attitudes and achieve the genuine realization that hatred and machloket (dispute) are grievous sins, and that there is a mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, of loving each and every Jew, and that we cannot fulfill this mitzvah (commandment) through lip service, but only by courageously changing our behavior towards all others.
The only way to achieve this is by actively working together, face to face and shoulder to shoulder, with other Jews. Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces discover this every day on the fields of battle. The pictures we have all witnessed of soldiers, with and without kippot (skullcaps), dancing in a circle together and singing songs of great faith, is but one example of this ideal. The physical acts of chesed (kindness) and awesome generosity for the victims of the Hurricane Sandy disaster, from Jew to Jew irrespective of the petty distinctions to which we have become accustomed, is the “way to go,” the road to achdut.
Prayer, especially communal prayer, is another response, and so is Torah study, again best done b’rabbim, in group settings.
Finally, teshuvah (repentance) is necessary. But true teshuvah is not merely a matter of beating our chests and reciting confessional formulas. Rather, it requires profound soul-searching and honest, probing self-criticism. We must look inside ourselves to discover our real sins, which are not necessarily the ones we usually think of when we “do teshuvah.”
Teshuvah is not just a matter of learning a few more Mishnayot (the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions), or being more concerned with the kashrut of our food. It is also a matter of facing our own roles in the discord which eats away at our Jewish society. It is a matter of facing and resolving the abusive behaviors which pervade our communities and which range from callous disrespect and cynical dismissal of the accomplishments of others to violent and immoral behavior. We must adopt stringent and effective methods of ridding ourselves of the scourge of such abuse. Teshuvah demands real, thorough change, which can be frightening, but which is achievable if we are really courageously honest with ourselves.
We must rid ourselves of the sanctimony which is common to observant Jews, the feeling that we are somehow “holier than thou.” We must scrutinize the ways in which we look down upon those with different standards of observance than ours, and we must be prepared to alter our mindset and our behavior in this regard. We must especially be on guard lest our noble attempts at kiruv (outreach) become tainted by this poison of looking down upon others who are not where we are, or where we think we are, religiously.
We must erase smugness and complacency from our ranks. We cannot continue to triumphantly proclaim our undeniably great achievements. We must persist to improve and perfect those achievements. We must assure that all of our institutions serve all of our people, rich and poor, handicapped and healthy, observant and less observant alike.
I have limited my suggestions to the spiritual realm. There is certainly much to be done in other areas: the political sphere, in our philanthropy, and in arguing Israel’s cause in the media, to mention just a few examples.
Hopefully, the rockets falling on our brothers and sisters in Israel will cease and a true and lasting peace will be achieved.
Hopefully, we will find solutions which will enable those struck by natural disaster to rebuild their lives at an even better level than before.
Hopefully, the suffering of those among us who are desperately ill will be alleviated by remedy and cure.
Hopefully, when all that is achieved, we will not revert to the apathy and indifference to which we are (accustomed), but we will have learned our lessons permanently—the lessons of hope, charity, sincere prayer, edifying Torah study, and brotherly love.
Then we will merit the arrival of Elijah the Prophet, who will answer the questions with which I began these reflections; and shortly afterwards, the arrival of the Moshiach himself, speedily in our times. Amen.
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Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is a talented teacher, writer and orator. He is currently the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.