“The Promise of Total Return”
(updated and revised from Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5762-2002)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim and Vayeilech, are among the final four parashiot of the book of Deuteronomy, and contain the last messages that Moses delivers to the people of Israel before his departure from this world. The theme of the apostasy of the Jewish people is reiterated, as well as the punishments that G-d will visit upon the people as a result of their abandonment of G-d.

It’s been said regarding the Jewish community in the United States, that our grandparents prayed for a “Melting Pot,” but what we’ve gotten instead is a meltdown! The staggering losses to assimilation are not surprising since most Jews today are descendants of Jews who have abandoned the observance of mitzvot and Jewish rituals for 4 or 5 generations or more.

Over the past two decades the Pew study of American Jews has emerged as the definitive report on the condition of American Jewry. The most recent Pew study reported that the Jewish population has, amazingly, grown from 6.7 million in 2013 to 7.5 million in 2021. This number should be immediately suspect to anyone who is familiar with Jewish life in America. Upon analyzing the methodology, it becomes eminently clear how, despite the record rates of intermarriage and assimilation, the Jewish population of the U.S. has significantly grown.

Apparently, in order to maintain Jewish political clout, the Jewish “establishment,” UJA-Federation, and Jewish political leaders have a vested interest in inflating the Jewish population numbers. They do this by re-defining the definition of a Jew as not only a Jewish man or woman who is of matrilineal or patrilineal descent, but anyone who states that he/she is Jewish is considered Jewish for the sake of this study. The giveaway becomes even more stark from the Pew report statement that of the 7.5 million Jews, only 4.2 million actually identify as Jewish, while the rest are what Pew calls “Jews of no religion.”

There are many disquieting conclusions in the most recent study: Here are a few: Fully 10% of Jews fully support the boycott of Israel, and about half of Jewish young adults don’t have a clue about the boycott and couldn’t care less. More than 70% of young non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying. Preventing intermarriage is no longer a high priority concern on the Jewish agenda. Just 15% of Jews stated that observing Jewish law was essential to being Jewish, and that figure includes the Orthodox Jews, 83% of whom felt that Jewish observance was essential to their Jewish lives. Yes, the “Melting Pot” has indeed become a “meltdown!”

And yet, despite all this doom-and-gloom (which, of course, is just Jewish history repeating itself), the Torah predicts, in Deuteronomy 30, that the Jews will return. Deuteronomy 30, 1, declares: וְהָיָה כִי יָבֹאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ, בְּכָל הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר הִדִּיחֲךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. It will be that when all these things come upon you, the blessing, the curse…then you will take it to your heart among all the nations where the Lord, your G-d has dispersed you. Deuteronomy 30, 2: וְשַׁבְתָּ עַד השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, וְשָׁמַעְתָּ בְקֹלוֹ, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם אַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ, בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשֶׁךָ. And you will return unto the Lord, your G-d, and listen to His voice according to everything that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and will all your soul. Deuteronomy 30, 3: וְשָׁב השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ אֶת שְׁבוּתְךָ וְרִחֲמֶךָ, וְשָׁב וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ שָׁמָּה. Then the Lord, your G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you. And He will gather you in from all the peoples to which the Lord your G-d has scattered you.

It’s hard to believe that in the midst of this seemingly unremitting despair, the Torah gives us hope for return.

Ladies and gentleman, I have good news: There may very well be a rather simple way to reach many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Jews, and bring them back!

I have often said, only half in jest, that “for the price of a chicken you can make a Ba’al Teshuva–you can bring a Jew back home!” This quaint aphorism became eminently clear to me when I met Marc Weiner, the Ba’al Teshuva comedian, and heard the story of his first encounter with Shabbat.

As some of you know, from our retelling of this story at the recent 2023 NJOP Dinner, Marc Weiner and I differ on some of the details of this story (click here to watch).

Weiner begins by noting that it was a very hot summer evening in New York City. The humidity was a dreadful 95%. Walking down Amsterdam Avenue, he saw a modern looking building in front of him and realized that it was a Temple or synagogue. Since it was Friday, he was quite certain that there must be evening services. Although he was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he figured that he would go in briefly just to cool off. Well, Weiner enters the building, and opens the sanctuary doors at the precise moment that the congregation was about to conclude the L’chah Do’dee prayer. The congregation had turned to the door and was in the process of bowing to welcome the “Sabbath Bride” singing, “Come my beloved, come my bride.”

As Weiner enters the sanctuary, and sees everyone bowing to him, he says to himself, “Boy this is some friendly place.” Weiner takes a seat, and the person next to him says, “You must be new!” Weiner responds, “How did you know?” The congregant says, “Well, you’re holding the prayer book upside down!”

At the end of the service, the young man asks Weiner if he would like to join him for a Sabbath meal? Weiner, a little nervous, thinks that he should be cautious, so he declines. “Don’t worry,” says the young man, “There’ll be other men and women at the dinner. We’ll have a great time.” Weiner agrees to go.

They exit the synagogue, and Weiner asks the young man where he lives. “20 blocks north,” he replies. Weiner sticks out his hand to hail a taxi. The young man tells Weiner regretfully, that since it is Shabbat he cannot take a taxi. Says Weiner, “Well I just went inside to cool off! I’m not going to walk 20 blocks and get all sweated up again.” The young man persuades Weiner saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll walk slowly.”

They walk 20 blocks north, and to Weiner’s great chagrin the young man lives on the 19th floor of a high-rise tower! Weiner enters the elevator, but the young man explains, “I’m really sorry, but we don’t take elevators on Shabbat.” Weiner says, “You Jews have some perverted sense of what a day of rest is! You just got me to walk 20 blocks. There’s no way I’m going to climb 19 floors!”

In desperation, the young man says to Weiner, “Ok, I have an idea. We’ll stand here in the elevator, but you must promise to keep your hands at your sides, and not touch any buttons! If someone comes in who lives above the 19th floor, we’ll walk down a few flights. If the elevator stops below the 19th floor, we’ll walk up a few flights.”

Both men stand in the elevator, waiting for someone to enter. One potential passenger peeks in and says, “Oh! Must be broken,” and walks away. Then a little old lady enters the elevator, sees the two men just standing there, and asks, “Where are you guys going?” They say, “Wherever you’re going, lady.” She starts to scream, “Help, police!”

Then a man enters the elevator with a shopping cart full of laundry, and presses “basement.” They sit through two wash cycles and a dry cycle. He returns and says, “How nice of you to wait for me,” then presses “Lobby.” He didn’t even live in the building!

Finally, they traipse up 19 floors, and Weiner is really angry. When they enter the apartment, Weiner notices that everyone is holding a glass of wine. In order to feel as part of the party, Weiner quickly raises a glass of wine and says, “I’d like to make a toast to the host.” They immediately shush him and explain that he’s interrupting the Kiddush–the sanctification over the wine. Then someone announces something that he’s never heard before, “It’s time to wash.” Weiner smells his underarms and says, “I’ve showered today. What do you want from me?” Amused, they say, “No, it means that it is time for the ritual washing of the hands for the meal, before eating the bread, the challah.”

Weiner enters the kitchen and waits on line. He notices that those in front of him  waiting to wash have rings in their mouths. So, Weiner turns to the woman behind him and says, “Excuse me, Ma’am. May I borrow your bracelet to put in my mouth, so I can do this ritual correctly?”

The story goes on and on–the truth is that this is what we call in Yiddish “a bittere gelechter.” This tale of Marc Weiner’s first Shabbat experienceis really a bittersweet tale, reflecting the abysmal ignorance of most young American Jews today. With a little effort and courage, we can change the lives and destinies of many Jews today by inviting them to our Shabbat and holiday tables. We can truly change the course of Jewish life in America. However, in order to accomplish this, we must begin to see ourselves as “ambassadors” of Judaism. And, unless large numbers of the committed community see themselves in that role, we are lost.

With G-d’s help, may we soon behold the complete redemption of our people and the fulfillment of the prophecy of this week’s parashiot, the promise of the total return of the people to G-d, and the restoration of the Jewish people to the Holy Land of Israel.

May you be blessed.