Hear, O Israel, we are blowing it

Hear, O Israel, we are blowing it

Where are approximately 53 weeks left before Pesach 5768. We have that long to figure out whether it really is appropriate to beat up rabbis because we disagree with their politics, to threaten rabbis with death for issuing rulings with which we do not agree, or to destroy the property of people whose practices we do not find acceptable.

Along the way, maybe we also can figure out where we went so very wrong.

We are so wrapped up in the belief that Judaism is a religion (a misguided notion that can be blamed in part on our abject refusal to admit to ourselves who we really are — the People Israel) that we have lost sight of our reason for being.

Nearly four millennia ago, the Creator of All That Was, Is and Ever Would Be performed miracles and wonders on our behalf to bring us from slavery to Sinai and freedom. This great, awesome and unfathomable Being then chose to reveal Himself in a moment in time to an entire people, individually and in congregation. We are that people.

"Has anything as grand as this ever happened, or has its like ever been known? Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as [we] have, and survived? Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and awesome power, as the Lord [our] God did for [us] in Egypt before [our] very eyes?" (See Deuteronomy 4:3′-34.)

What — He had nothing better to do that day? He was so bored up there, He created a nation separate and apart from all the others just to relieve the tedium? He suddenly got a hankering to watch people argue over the proper way to attach black boxes to their arms, or measure romaine leaves at their seder tables?

I do not think so.

"Now then," God said, "if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (See Exodus 19:5-6.)

To be sure, the ritual mitzvot we find in the Torah are absolutely a part of who we are. They are not to be cast aside by the ever-shifting winds of modernity. They are not to be ignored or abandoned.

These mitzvot, however, are not what God meant when He gave us our working papers. They are exactly what His Torah says they are — symbols, reminders of what it is God expects of us, not ends in themselves. They are not substitutes for or superior to the mitzvot they are meant to symbolize. No matter how many angels one gets to dance on the head of a pin, the symbol of a law can never be more important than the law itself.

It is our job to teach the world — by example, not by preaching — how to create a better world. We cannot do that, however, if we give priority instead to figuring out how much shmura matzoh to stuff into our mouths within two minutes in order for our blessing over bread to be valid.

We live in a violent world. The tragic events at Virginia Tech on Monday are proof enough, but examples abound (such as a mob boss on Tuesday assassinating the mayor of Nagasaki because the city would not compensate him for damage done to his car by a pothole, or the 1’7 people killed by terrorist bombs on Wednesday in Baghdad).

So what lessons have we, the kingdom of priests, for this violent world?

ITEM: A haredi participant in Iran’s infamous anti-Holocaust conference was punched and kicked several times by a group of chasidim, and had his glasses broken before police intervened. Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland where the incident occurred, reportedly applauded the beating and is quoted as saying, "If I’d have been there, I would have behaved exactly like the chasidim."

ITEM: Although all Jews should eschew chametz during Pesach, not all do. Because several non-kosher Jerusalem restaurants served chametz during Pesach (the city was teeming with Christians on Holy Week pilgrimages), a large crowd of demonstrators threw stones at police, burned garbage cans, and physically threatened bread-eating customers.

Verbal violence can be deadly, too. As the Talmud states, "just as the hand can kill, so can the tongue" (see the Babylonian Talmud tractate Arachin 15b). Don Imus was fired for one horrible thing he said, but he said horrible things nearly every day he was on the air, decade after decade. He did what he was paid to do and he was paid to do it because people wanted to hear him say those things. For the same reason, worse things are on the air every minute of every day in the form of music lyrics, trash talk, and comedy routines.

ITEM: Shortly before Pesach, four Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis in Israel issued a ruling allowing Israeli Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot on the festival. They were subjected to threats and harassment.

ITEM: The blogosphere is alive with defamatory attacks against a kosher Manhattan eatery, Le Marais, following charges leveled against it by a former mashgiach. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, which employed the mashgiach, says the charges are groundless and that the level of kashrut at Le Marais "is maintained in full accordance with OU standards." Nevertheless, the accusations keep coming and the restaurant has lost nearly 40 percent of its business over the last few months. People are voting with their feet in favor of lashon ha’ra (evil speech) and, in this case, fostering a chilul haShem (desecration of God’s Name), since Le Marais is owned by non-Jews.

There is a world out there in desperate need of deliverance. What are we doing about it? We are debating the proper size for a kiddush cup.