Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

A Surprising Nechomah: Hope in Strange Places

Shabbos Nachamu is usually a time to breathe a sigh of relief. The Three Weeks, Nine Days and Tishah B’Av are over and everyone is on the move. Vacations are more possible, recreation is more allowed.

Of course, this year, more than most, nerves are still on edge. The pandemic is not quite over; new variants are rearing their ugly heads. Masks are returning in some places and there is what seems to be the perennial talk of an autumn resurgence. And yet, Hashem has sent us not just one Shabbos of consolation, but seven. So hope springs eternal and despite the recent tragedies – Meron to Surfside – we would rather forget than focus. We put our collective pain on the back burner and off the desktop. Now is a time to smile, relax and enjoy our lives.

In this spirit, let me share some relatively good news, but noted with caution and prudence. Much of the liberal media ignores or, even worse, distorts what Klal Yisroel is all about. At worst demonized, at best misunderstand, Torah values and truths are ignored in favor of prevailing fads and perverted political correctness. Yet, perhaps as the world hurtles toward the Ohr Chozer, the light of geulah which already illuminates our world, some veracity manages to escape into the popular conversation.

The New York Times, which virtually ignored the destruction of European Jewry, which now glorifies depravity and extols what was once universally condemned as evil, is rarely a source of nachas for us. However, in just one Sunday Book Review issue (July 11, 2021), the Times published two different reviews, parts of which seem borrowed directly from authentic hashkafah works. This may be a positive phenomenon ,but must be viewed with discretion and skepticism in the spirit of kabdeihu vechashdeihu – “give credit where it is due but be suspicious” (Derech Eretz Rabbah 5).

The Times published a major cover review of an unusual novel by Joshua Cohen entitled The Netanyahus, a “highly fictionalized” account of the recently deposed prime minister of Israel’s family. The central figure is Bibi’s father, Benzion, an academic “whose central insight is that hatred of the Jews is the Jewish birthright.” More importantly, the author depicts Mr. Netanyahu Sr. as “learning the same lesson any Jew who attempts true assimilation in the diaspora learns: that in trying to just be an American, you are rendered even more Jewish. In your attempts to not be seen as a Jew, you set off uncanny Valley tripwires of the gentiles, and now all they see is your Jewishness, which is its own kind of doom.” The author goes on to assert that “the success of the Jews in America doesn’t dispel danger; no, the success creates the danger.”

Wow! Couldn’t this have come from a prominent mashgiach, a Torah inspirational speaker or a courageous rov warning his Orthodox congregation about the slippery slope of American secular success?

To parse the first Times review from Torah sources, let us remember what we all learned from Rashi: “Halacha hee beyodua she’Eisav sonei l’Yaakov – It is a halachic axiom that Eisav hates Yaakov” (33:4). Now, even if the Times often uses what we consider wisdom cynically and sarcastically, yet, once the truth is out, someone will surely nod with the realization that emes has been declared. This particular teaching is fortified by Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (Divrei Aggadah) from the Sifri (Bamidbar 69) as a “halacha for the ages.” He adds pithily that those who declare that the “Jewish problem” is over when a prominent anti-Semite falls miss the point that this will be an issue until the final redemption. Rav Aharon Kotler specifically related this eternal teaching to America, despite being a relative medinah shel chesed (Aish HaTorah, page 546).

Furthermore, the line that the more a Jew attempts to imitate the gentiles, the more he will be hated and considered Jewish, is of ancient genealogy as well. Already in Mitzrayim, we had established rules of separation so that we would not fall into assimilation (Meshech Chochmah, Shemos 6:6). Later, the early Tannaim legislated many rules that would keep us apart from our non-Jewish neighbors, while making a kiddush Hashem and being as friendly as can be without risking dangerous boundary-breaking.

The next book review that provides some hope is from the same issue in an essay by Marjorie Ingall, who was a judge in the Association of Jewish Libraries annual award for the “Most outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” Ms. Ingall points out that in the 53 years of the award’s history, 30 percent of the winners were books about the Holocaust. She notes favorably that this year, not a single book about the Holocaust won a gold medal. She decries most of these books as being awful, not age-appropriate, and factually incorrect and often trivializing of this major event. Although it is probably quite politically incorrect, she points out that “we don’t need more righteous-gentile books… they’re the equivalent of white savior narratives in black literature.” Even more importantly, the author notes that “by focusing so relentlessly on the Holocaust, we’re telling our kids…that the worst thing that ever happened to us is the cornerstone of our collective identity.”

Surely, this is what my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, meant when he taught (A Path Through the Ashes) that the terms Holocaust and Shoah rob the churban of European Jewry of any context and meaning other than being victims. On the other hand, connecting the dots for our children to the vast lessons of all of Jewish history provides a framework for discussions of kiddush Hashem, doing mitzvos under the most dire of conditions, maintaining faith under the most horrific situations, and much more. In addition, eviscerating the continuity of Jewish history tears one generation from another and erases one of our primary beliefs – that of an unbroken mesorah for all that occurs in our collective lives.

Of course, this is where the chashdeihu comes in, and we must be careful not to let others speak for us. Although the author is correct to be shocked that “66 percent of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was,” the antidote is not stories about “a diverse Seder” or “silver medalists…about contemporary Jewish kids – one with white skin, one with dark – doing yoga.” She may be correct in asking, “Did 2020 really need five gleaming new children’s books about Anne Frank?” However, citing the Pew Survey that “17 percent of U.S. Jews now live in households in which at least one person is black, Hispanic, Asian or multi-racial” should not dictate what should be published about Jews or Judaism. Nevertheless, it is a start to realize that we may be retreating somewhat from the knee-jerk reaction to publish books that aim only for political correctness and other false criteria for proper education of a new generation.

Many have asked over the centuries about the seeming negativism of two of the haftoras of the Seven of Nechomah, “Tzion says that Hashem abandoned us” and “The poor one is not consoled.” Rav Leib Chasman offered an amazing parable to explain. A wealthy man opens the door to two paupers who are clearly hungry and undernourished. He happily brings them into the living room, offering snacks and hors d’oeuvres. Then they join him for a lavish dinner, which could satiate the most starved victim of poverty. Yet, the host notices a difference in his two guests. One had grown increasingly happy and satisfied with all the offerings, but the other appeared morose and dejected. Concerned, the righteous host approaches the saddened man with his question. “Have I offended or disappointed you? We are really trying our best to make you happy, but you appear to be displeased.”

The sad-eyed man replied, “No, it wasn’t anything you did at all. You are very kind and generous. However, my friend here grew up poor and is extremely excited with every kindness presented to him. However, I was once as rich as you. In fact, I hosted many people such as you are doing now in the same grand manner. This reminds me of my precipitous fall, and so I am profoundly despondent.”

Rav Leib Chasman concluded that “this is why according to the Medrash (quoted by the Abudraham), Klal Yisroel answers the novi negatively. We recall our past glories when we had the Bais Hamikdosh, daily miracles, and Kohanim, Levi’im and Yisroelim serving Hashem joyously side by side. We are happy for the novi’s words of comfort. But it is Hashem’s presence that we really seek, as we once had.

That is the difference between any secular stumbling on the truth and our traditional nechomah. We don’t want to be thrown a bone or even a banquet. We want to be in Hashem’s good graces once again. Surely it is nice to catch a glimpse of our ancient truths on the lips of our neighbors, but they will never understand what we have lost and so cannot appreciate what it is that we really want. May we soon hear the long-awaited words of “Anochi Anochi Hu Menachemchem – It is surely I alone Who will console you.”



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