“Jewish Normal, Is Not Very Normal”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Haazinu, Moses, speaking to the People of Israel on the last day of his life, continues to convey his bold and profound message. He calls heaven and earth to testify and confirm that his message is intended not only for the Jewish people of his generation, but to all future generations.

In beautiful and lyrical poetic verse, Moses predicts what calamities will befall the Jewish people if they turn from G-d, and the rewards that await them at the time of the final redemption.

One of the many powerful themes found in this parasha is a resonating message, one that is frequently repeated by Moses–the need for the People of Israel to learn from history.

In Deuteronomy 32:7, Moses cries out to the Jewish people, “Z’chor y’moht oh’lahm, bee’noo sh’noht dor va’dor, sh’ahl ah’vee’cha v’yah’gayd’cha z’kay’neh’cha v’yo’m’roo lahch,” Remember the days of old, understand the years of generation after generation, ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you.

Moses then explains that when the world was conceived and fashioned by G-d, His relationship with the Jewish people was the central factor in His plans. The People of Israel are literally “G-d’s portion.” He created the nation of Israel out of a nomadic desert people, and made them His inheritance. He preserved them like the pupil of His eye. Only G-d, and no other power, guided them, and brought them their successes.

The ArtScroll commentary on Deuteronomy 32:7 powerfully expresses the need to heed history, stating: “At the core of much human error is a lack of perspective. Most people refuse to believe that the past is relevant to them, and they suffer for this foolish myopia.”

I have often argued that one of the most effective ways to “find G-d” is through the study of Jewish history. It was Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975), the famed British historian, who declared that the Jewish people were a “fossil” of history. By every rational measure, Jews should no longer exist. And yet, even though their enemies rise up in every generation to destroy them, Jews continue to survive.

Contrary to popular perception, according to many commentators, the first of the Ten Commandments–I am the L-rd your G-d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage–is not a commandment to believe in G-d. The first commandment merely states historical facts. Through this statement the Torah clearly informs the people, that those who wish to find G-d, need to study Jewish history, which is exactly what Moses in parashat Haazinu tells the Jewish people by declaring: “Remember the days of old.”

We live in remarkable times, anomalous times, times that have no precedent in all of Jewish history. In the current era, we have witnessed the return of the people to its land and the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel. Add to that the victory of the “Six Day War,” the rescue of the Entebbe hostages, the recent discovery of huge reserves of oil and gas in Israel, all of which truly defy reality. Jews of contemporary times have witnessed more miracles in their lifetimes than perhaps any other generation, aside from the generation of the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.

Unfortunately, this unprecedented period of success and relative tranquility is not normal. Allow me please to share with you what is “Jewish normal.”

I recently had an opportunity to read parts of a fascinating, six-volume work by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, entitled Sarei Hameah. It is a history of the famous rabbis and Jewish leaders of 18th and 19th century Europe. Imagine my surprise, when I came across an entry concerning an 18th century rabbi, Tzvi Hirsch Charif, who was the rabbi of a Polish town, Biala Podlaska, the very town where my father, ob”m, was born and raised.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch was an outstanding scholar, who had five sons, each of whom went on to become well-known scholars and rabbis, and one very beautiful daughter.

When word leaked out that the local Paritz (squire or landowner) had his eye on the rabbi’s daughter, Rabbi Hirsch immediately arranged for her to marry an exceptional young scholar from the city of Brisk. Soon after the festivities began and the wedding blessings were pronounced, the Paritz arrived at the wedding, sword in hand, demanding that the young bride be given to him. The groom was not only a scholar, but also quite a brave man. When the Paritz grabbed the bride and tried to make off with her, the groom punched the assailant, knocking him to the ground. The young man grabbed his bride and ran with her into the forest. When he recovered, the enraged Paritz had the entire Hirsch family arrested. Only after the intervention by influential people with the king of Poland were the family members released, only to learn that three days after the incident, the young bride had died of shock in the forest.

This tale sounds like a fantasy, perhaps out of the fictional writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer. Unfortunately, it is true. Such incidents were hardly uncommon.

After the enslavement of Jews in ancient Egypt, the pattern of Jewish suffering continued unabated. Oppressors have risen up against the Jews in every generation, trying to destroy our people. While the destructions of the First and Second Temples have a special place on the Jewish calendar, the Crusades, the Khmelnitsky massacres, and, of course, the Holocaust, are no less significant. The frequent barbaric acts committed against our Jewish brothers and sisters in Israel and throughout the world today are a continuation and confirmation of the ancient pattern. The brutal murders of Jewish athletes at the Munich Olympics, the Sbarro Pizza and Park Hotel massacres, the drowning of disabled and defenseless Leon Klinghoffer who was pushed off a cruise ship into the ocean while still strapped to his wheelchair, are only a small part of the long list of the unending atrocities committed against the Jewish people.

The relatively brief period of peace that we are experiencing today is most unusual, and is not normal. The almost impossible-to-believe story of the Paritz of Biala and the bride who died of shock is unfortunately very normal. Sadly, Jewish suffering is, indeed, the Jewish normal.

It is for this reason that Moses declares, “Sh’ahl ah’vee’cha v’yah’gayd’cha,” ask your fathers, your ancestors and let them tell you. Jewish security comes only from the Al-mighty. While it is important for the State of Israel to have a well-trained and inordinately successful army, the fate of the Jewish people always rests in G-d’s hands.

As we celebrate the coming holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot 5774, it is critical that we acknowledge what Jewish normal is. Sitting peacefully in our synagogues and celebrating joyously around our holiday tables is only possible because the Divine Presence hovers over us, watching and protecting us.

There has never been a period of peace for the Jewish people without a concomitant return to G-d. Returning to G-d is what we must do in order to achieve peace.

During the coming High Holidays and the Ten Days of Penitence, when we ask G-d for forgiveness, G-d’s favorable response to our pleas will very much depend upon our sincerity.

Let us hope and pray that our noble actions and deeds will transform the bitter “Jewish normal” into a joyous and peaceful “Jewish normal.”

As we frequently declare in our payers, “Oh’seh Shalom bim’roh’mahv,” May the Creator of the harmony of the spheres, create peace for us, for all of Israel, and for all the world, and let us say, Amen!

May you be blessed.

Wishing you a Shanah Tovah, a very Happy and Healthy New Year.

Rosh Hashana 5774 is observed this year on Wednesday evening and all day Thursday and Friday, September 4th, 5th and 6th, 2013.

The Fast of Gedaliah will be observed on Sunday, September 8th from dawn until nightfall.