The Eternal People, Eternally Watchful

Mark Twain wrote in 1897, “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race,” today that is a generous estimate.  He continues, “It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of… [Their] contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and [all forms of] learning are very out of proportion to the weakness of [their] numbers.  [They have] made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it will his hands tied behind him… The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone… the Jews saw them all, survived them all, and are now what [they] always were…” (Quoted in The National Jewish Post and Observer, June 6, 1984)

Those of us who are students of history are not surprised that anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment is on the rise.  We are not shocked that a Presidential candidate calls for the expulsion of a particular ethnic group,
even from the United States, even if it is not the Jews; we have been expecting each of these things.  It is disappointing that so many Americans seems to pay less attention to history, that they care so little for facts and figures, that they move with the herd, but it is not surprising.  As Jews we have always been acutely aware of our proportions, our weaknesses, and our strengths.

We live in a time and place where being Jewish is an elective activity, extra-curricular, one more thing to fit into the family calendar.  Rather than seeing, as our grandparents did, the fact of our Judaism as something primal, a commitment and identity so fundamental that other things simply accommodated; our children today learn that sports, family vacations, work and school deadlines all compete with our sense of the spiritual, our place for the communal, our work for justice.  We struggle to find balance, and we too often find that the “urgent,” outweighs the “important.”

Our Jewish community is strong, active and engaged.  We are prominent members of the city, with a proud and important ongoing role in Indiana history that will be celebrated this year at Indiana’s bicentennial.  But we are not Los Angeles, or Chicago, or even St. Louis.  Our numbers, even as they continue to grow, are small.  And if is to be a Jewish future in Indianapolis, if we will continue to have the same impact on our city and state,
it will be because of our collective will to stand up for those values we cherish.  In a state that seems determined not to welcome refugees, not to embrace LGBT families, not to ensure women’s rights to health care – it is up to us to speak, in a loud and unequivocal voice, and to demonstrate what our Judaism means.

In Deuteronomy we read, “This thing I teach you today, it is not far from you.  It is not across the sea that someone should have to teach it to you.  Rather it is in your mouth, and your heart, to do it.”  Judaism is a living, breathing tradition, a balance between learning and doing, between study and action.  It is not enough, say the ancient rabbis, to sit on the sidelines and pray for solutions to the world’s problems.  To be a Jew means to feel dissatisfaction with the world, and to work to make it better.  This is the way our world moves towards solutions, and this is way, for millennia, that Jews have remained committed to their faith.  This is what has allowed us to survive.

We know the many areas in which we Jews have something to say.  “Do not oppress the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  “There shall always be needy among you.”  “Watch over the earth and guard it,” “Know that they entire world was created for our sake, and yet we are but dust and ashes.”
These ideas have led past generations to action, and can and should motivate us to do the same.  “Let Israel be a light unto the nations,” “An Am Segula – a treasured nation.”  Even as we shrug off uncomfortable and outdated notions of chosen-ness, we cannot afford to lose that which has always made us Jewish – our shared destiny, a vision of a world renewed.  Peace.

This vision has inspired us to remain Jewish in the face of unimaginable tragedy and oppression.  It has sustained our people with light and life, joy and celebration.  It has enriched the welcoming of new life into the lives of our families, and comforted us on our deathbeds and our mourning times.  We have never been a people content to sit in services and hear the pretty music, but rather we have been a loud, gregarious people, who come to pray and learn and experience Shabbat for ourselves.  And this has, quite literally, kept us alive.

This week we read in our Torah, “If, in spite of all My signs, you still do not listen to God’s word, then your sins will be punished seven times over.  Your cities will be in ruins, I will lay waste your sanctuaries.  I will take no delight in your offerings, and I will scatter you among the nations.  Your hearts will fear your enemies so that a windblown leaf will cause you to jump in alarm.  You will run as though fleeing, even though no one pursues.” (Lev. 26:28-36)

The tradition is to read this terrifying account in a whisper, it is so difficult to internalize or imagine.  It is all the more fearful given what we know of Jewish history.  However, I have never understood those who see cause and effect at work in this text.  Through all our persecutions and suffering in history, I have never once imagined that our lack of commitment to religion was to blame.  God simply does not work through human beings in that way.  The political and economic causes of pogroms and expulsions, did not include a lack of Torah study in Spain, England, or Germany.

Mark Twain’s comments on our persistence seems to be saying something else.  The miracle of our people seems to be a strange dedication that Jews have always felt for each other and the community.  When it would have been much easier to simply abandon our faith, time and again we did not.  External pressure galvanized us instead, and our community was strengthened time and again.

Listening to God’s word in our time means being moved by the faces and voices of our neighbors who live in poverty and oppression.  It means allowing our prayers to transform daily life, and finding a way to live our values through social justice, personal and family time, balanced with work, school, and sports.  It means to participate, and not only as a spectator.  If we do not, and our lives remain out of balance, then our cities do become ruins, and we feel scattered among the nations.

After this terrible list of punishments, the Torah continues, “When the time finally comes that our stubborn spirits are humbled, God will forgive our sin.  God will remember the covenant with Jacob, with Isaac, and with Abraham, and God will remember the land.  Even when we are in our enemy’s land, God will not reject us nor break the covenant with us, because I am Adonai your God. (Lev. 26:41-44)  Every night will break with the coming of dawn; every oppression becomes proof of God’s eternal optimism.  Our people’s destiny is to persevere, and to continue to repair a broken world, forever.

We have lived through many eras of the world’s history, enough to learn its lessons many times over.  In the Cairo Museum stands a giant slab of black granite known as the Merneptah stele.  It contains a record of Merneptah’s military victory from the thirteenth century.  And on it, he includes many nations crushed by his army.  He writes, “All these lands together have been pacified, everyone who was restless there has been overtaken by the king of Egypt.”  This stele is interesting for one powerful fact – among the tribes and nations Egypt claims to have obliterated, is the first known reference outside the Bible to the people of Israel.  This is what the stele says, “Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more.”  They thought they had destroyed us then.

Another slab dating from the 9th century BCE records the triumphs of Mesha, king of Moab, who writes, “Israel has perished forever.”  Today this basalt obituary notice stands outside the Louvre.  Our spirit would not be extinguished.  There have always been those who have written us off, or threatened our existence.  And we have always been witness to the great miracle of survival.  But this is no great mystery.  It is testament to our vision, our stamina, our ability to see beyond this moment and into the next, to roll up our sleeves and get to work especially when the road is difficult.

Simple acts like attending services, sponsoring the joyous occasion of an Oneg Shabbat, witnessing our children as they grow into Confirmation students, being here, building this place, finding friends and helping all our children feel at home here – these are the keys to our continued success.  We show up for each other.  We remember the past, we recall the slavery of 3000 years ago, the oppression of seventy years ago, and with the same breath we shine a light on slavery still at work in the world today in various and vociferous forms.  Our task is to ensure that the world remembers them all.

There are plenty of challenges that lie ahead: the erosion of democratic principles at home and abroad; the steady decline of the middle class which ensures minorities remain trapped in economic slavery; the disruption of fifty years of international policies in a single election.

Notably, Winston Churchill never uttered the famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Those words are attributed to a Spanish-American Philosopher (George Santanaya, 1905).  But what Churchill did offer to the House of Commons, as the second Great World War swirled ever closer to England, was this, “When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies… There is nothing new in the story… It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability (sic) of mankind… There are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

Let us not forget the lessons of our own past and our country’s past.  Let us rededicate ourselves on this Shabbat, and every Shabbat, to those values, rituals and stories that have led us this far, and continue to nourish and sustain our people like Mother’s Milk.  Come and study, come and pray, but come and act – that is the most important of all.  This will be the legacy we leave to our children, may they experience it as the miracle our ancestors found it to be.

The great mathematician and later Christian theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this:  “Many attempts have been made, over the course of the centuries, to prove the existence of God. Theologians have argued on the basis of philosophy and in some cases the natural sciences (the “argument from design”). Yet the Torah speaks of a different kind of proof altogether: the history of Israel.”  Our existence, our survival is proof enough for me that God is with us.  Shabbat Shalom.

-Rabbi Brett Krichiver