An Open Letter to my Synagogue
At the age of 71, I can attest to having prayed in many synagogues, in Israel and around the world—Sephardic, Ashkenazic, Chasidic, Ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox.
But the synagogue I love above all others and in which I feel most at home is ours. It is attended by the finest and most sympathetic people I have ever met. We have Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Modern Orthodox Jews, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, professors, rabbis, soldiers, and handymen.
It is a welcoming place for all children, including those who are disabled or come from difficult backgrounds. We are also a home for those who are not affiliated but want to be connected. Everyone is treated equally, and everyone receives a big smile from our gabbaim, who do a remarkable job and ensure that each person feels more than welcome and has a place in our synagogue. This is quite an achievement, which few synagogues have on their list of accomplishments.
We are also blessed with a remarkable rabbi, who is not only an impressive talmid chacham but also a man of great integrity, with a huge heart, who is an example to all of us. I consider him a personal friend and teacher.
We could not have been more blessed.
It is for this reason that I appeal to all of you to add one more zechut (merit) to our synagogue: I request this particularly on Erev Rosh HaShana when, according to our tradition, not only we Jews, but all of humankind are judged by HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As the Mishna states, “On Rosh HaShana all human beings pass before Him, as sheep before a shepherd [one by one]” (Rosh HaShana 1:2).
We live in a world of incredible turmoil, where tens if not hundreds of thousands, including many young children, are murdered, mutilated, or terribly ill due to lack of proper medical care. Women, men, and children are dying of hunger. Others are beheaded and tortured.
Wherever we look, whether in Syria or lately in Burma and Afghanistan, we see such enormous pain, suffering and death. In the last few days we have seen how millions of people had to be evacuated from Florida due to Hurricane Irma, deemed America’s worst hurricane ever. The loss of life and financial damage is devastating.
For us Jews, this is especially alarming. For thousands of years we have been victims of the cruelest atrocities. In the Holocaust we lost 6 million of our sisters and brothers, including more than 1 million children, in the gas chambers or thrown alive into the flames.
To this day, we Jews are justifiably outraged beyond description by how the world was indifferent to our fate. The screams of millions of victims from the crematoria were, with few exceptions, ignored. We feel intense animosity toward Pius X11, ‘Hitler’s pope,’ for failing to call on millions of his Catholic followers to protect the Jews and stand up against the ferocious murderer. May his memory be obliterated.
After the Holocaust, during which our people narrowly escaped total extinction, the most remarkable thing in all of history happened. As in a dream, we were privileged to return to our ancient homeland after nearly 2,000 years of exile. We now have our own army to defend us, and many of us live in great comfort and joy, with opportunities that we, as Jews, could never have envisioned. This is nothing less than an astounding blessing that God has granted us; an open miracle. And we wonder why our generation has been so privileged when our ancestors, who were much more pious than we are or ever will be, ended up in the gas chambers.
But here too lies our greatest nisayon (trial and challenge). Living under these miraculous conditions (which we really do not merit), we are in great danger of falling prey to the curse of indifference; indifference to the miserable and impossible situation of our fellow humans who are threatened by suffering and death.
The fact that many of them live clear across the world makes this challenge even more acute. “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” said Elie Wiesel (US News & World Report, October 27, 1986).
People are unaware of their own insensitivity. And therefore it is extremely dangerous. This is even truer for us Jews who know what apathy can lead to.
Since we are by far the most extraordinary nation on the globe, consisting of less than one percent of the world population, and, in Mark Twain’s words, nothing more than “a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way” (“Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1899), and having outlived all our enemies for thousands of years, we carry an enormous responsibility to be highly sensitive to the suffering of our fellow humans. Not for nothing are we the Chosen People. Because we have experienced, as no other nation has, what indifference can lead to, it is our duty, more than anybody else, to care about our fellow human beings and be an example for the rest of the world.
In the preface to Sefer Bereshit of his magnum opus, Ha’amek Davar on the Torah, the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1817-1893), the last Rosh HaYeshiva of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, makes the powerful point that the greatness of our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and no doubt our matriarchs, was the fact that they cared about the well-being of the gentiles in their day, even if they were idolaters. One example is the famous story of Avraham arguing with God to save the people of Sedom, who had fallen to the lowest possible level of moral behavior. Nothing stopped Avraham from trying to save these people, even if it meant having a real argument with God Himself (Bereshit 18: 20-33). The Netziv adds that this is why Avraham is called the “father of a multitude of nations” (Bereshit 17:4).
But this is not merely a compliment; it is a deeply religious mission for all the People of Israel. To be an example to the world, and to stand up for all those innocents who have fallen victim to the unspeakable evil of others.
It is for this reason that Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his monumental codex, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 576:1), legislated the law that in times of catastrophe, one should fast and lessen one’s pleasures, based on the talmudic statement:
“When the community is in trouble, a person should not say: I will go to my house, I will eat and drink and all will be well with me” (Taanit 11a).
This is not Reform or Conservative; it is Orthodox law to which all of us have declared our allegiance.
The State of Israel has gone out of its way to help victims of war wherever they take place. It has sent soldiers and medical staff to every corner of the world, to save and treat people trapped in earthquakes and hurricanes. For a small country like ours, it is unprecedented. But this is exactly why we Jews are on earth: to care, to fight complacency, and to break free of self-satisfaction.
I therefore call upon you, my fellow worshippers, our dear rabbi, and our gabbaim, to take the initiative to introduce a short prayer on Shabbat in which we express our deep concern, pity, and pain for what is happening to millions of people, including innocent women and children, and ask the Ribono shel Olam to have mercy on them.
This is far from enough; just a drop in the ocean. But it’s an important drop. It’s an expression of anxiety – something to wake ourselves up and ensure that we don’t become indifferent.
As religious Jews, we believe in the power of prayer. Moshe Rabenu uttered only one sentence to heal his sister Miriam, but in Heaven it was received as an ongoing prayer and was ultimately successful (Bamidbar 12: 10-15).
While practical actions must be taken to help these victims, by ending the bloodshed and torture, and by giving them medical and financial support, we all know that this may not always work. Ultimately, some matters remain in God’s hands. And that is why we pray, with the hope that He will bring an end to these horrors.
To speak about God and to God while remaining silent about what happens to millions of victims around the world is blasphemous.
We cannot stay silent if we hold the world responsible for its silence while we were slaughtered throughout history, and specifically during the Holocaust.
Let us pray for others, lest the Ribono shel Olam will be indifferent, God forbid, to our prayers for this coming year.
At the beginning of this new year, we can prove once more how great and truthful our Bet Knesset is and how it can again be an example to other Batei Knesset, to our fellow Jews, and above all to our children.
With love and respect,
Shana tova, and tizku leshanim rabot.
For one example of such a prayer, see here.
הרי אורנשטיין says
שנה טובה לך ולכל היקרים לך