During my life I have had very few blatantly anti-Semitic experiences in the United States. Only one was potentially dangerous, though it is not even clear whether it was actually anti-Semitic or simply a mugging attempt that took on an anti-Semitic flavor.
That incident, which I describe in my book From Central Park to Sinai, turned into an amazing redemption, in which (I really believe) clouds of angels saved me. The two perps probably didn’t have anti-Semitism on their minds when they encountered me on that empty subway train.
With famous exceptions like Henry Ford, the United States has been remarkably friendly to our people. George Washington’s classic letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island illustrates that theme:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.
That’s pretty much how it has been. But will it always remain so? Will the resurgence of anti-Semitism we see in so many places around the world make itself felt to Jews in America?
The recent unrest in the Ukraine has unleashed a wave of vicious attacks. Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of the Ukraine, recently stated that, “anti Semitism in Ukraine has never been worse since World War Two…. Jew-haters have taken full advantage of the chaotic confusion that now reigns to openly attack Jews verbally and physically…. People are now frightened to set foot in the street, even in broad daylight.”
We were in the Ukraine about a year ago on a speaking tour. All seemed peaceful. Now, not only the Ukraine but also many other countries are experiencing similar phenomena. Shechitah has been banned in Norway and Jews are in danger all over Europe.
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A Jewish friend does business with a non-Jew who often hosts meetings between business competitors. He told my friend he can always get these adversaries to sit down and speak civilly to each other – unless they are Jews. Jews, he said, never speak peaceably to each other.
Granted, it’s quite possible these words are colored by his own bias, but in fact we all know how painful and heart-rending are the instances of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56b) we see in our own day.
The unwarranted hatred among us that caused the destruction of the Second Temple clearly still plagues us. The Gemara says that “every generation in which the Beis HaMikdash is not rebuilt is considered to have destroyed it”(Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1) – and we certainly have not rebuilt the Beis HaMikdash.
Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, zt”l, quoted the Book of Daniel concerning the time preceding the coming of Mashiach: “At that time Michael, the great heavenly prince, will stand, and it will be a time of trouble such as has never been before from the time that there was a nation until that time” (Daniel 12:1).
Rabbi Lefkowitz commented,
Look around us. Has there ever been a time of greater misfortune? We are surrounded by trouble and tribulations, terrible illnesses and other misfortunes [that] attack individuals and whole communities. Death lurks all over the world and everyone dreads the terrible diseases that break out every morning, the cruel microbes that are so hard to eradicate and the terrible…disease that kills relentlessly without differentiating between young and old, women and children…..
And if this is not enough, we also face Golus Yishmael…as [our enemies] endlessly plot to kill more and more Jews. There are also Jews with an aversion to holiness who affiliate themselves with our enemies. They hate Jews who follow Torah and mitzvos and abhor everything that is scented with kedushah and yirah. They proffer an abundance of explanations for this hatred; they wrap their hatred in a cover of philosophies, thereby increasing their hatred for Torah and mitzvos….
Is there a bigger misfortune than this? There is no doubt that this misfortune has never been before…. This is a clear sign that we are now at the height of the days of ikvasa d’mishicha.
Purim is here. “Meshenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha” – “with the coming of Adar, joy increases.” It is the season for unparalleled simcha, but that simcha must be based on reality.
“And it came to pass in the days of Achashveirosh, he is the Achashveirosh who reigned from Hodu to Cush, a hundred and twenty seven provinces….”
Our enemies controlled the entire world, and they intended “to destroy, to slay and to exterminate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women on same day, on the thirteenth of the twelfth month which is the month of Adar and to plunder their possessions” (Megillas Esther 3:13).
There was no place for us to run.
If simcha is not based on reality, it is no simcha. To eat and drink and sing for no reason is to imitate the surrounding nations, lehavdil, who do this on a regular basis, thereby debasing themselves. Am Yisrael, on the other hand, elevates itself to the highest madreiga and are mekadaish Sheim Shamayim through our simcha.
But what is the basis of that simcha?
Simcha is associated especially with Yitzchak Avinu. A great rabbi wrote recently, “Yitzchak’s birth awakened laughter in the world; it was funny. It was something completely contrary to anything one would expect. Sarah said, ‘Hashem has made tzechok, laughter, for me. Anyone who hears will laugh.’ ”
This rav went on to note that Yitzchak’s birth had been “impossible.” Avraham and Sarah were both sterile. Not only that, when Sarah gave birth Avraham was one hundred years old and she was ninety. “Hashem had to transform the world, to change the path of the stars, to enable them to have children.” In addition, the Midrash tells us (Pirkei Derebbi Eliezer) that Yitzchak himself literally died at the Akeida and was resurrected from the dead. His entire life was an impossibility. Yet he lived, and, if he had not lived, we would not be here today.
Yitzchak brought to the world the laughter associated with a complete reversal of circumstance: joy and laughter are prompted when something happens that …had been impossible. The Gemara forbids one from reaching that level of total laughter before the Redemption. – Berachos 31a
This is the basis of simcha. As this rabbi says,
Simcha is a feeling of going outside of one’s borders, one’s boundaries. One experiences simcha when his boundaries expand: for example when a person joins with another in marriage, or has a child or grandchild. The transcendent nature of simcha is a first step toward the eternal life for which man was created.
This is what Purim is all about. The world was about to crush Am Yisrael. There was no hope whatsoever, and then there was a complete turnaround. The “impossible” occurred, and this prompted laughter. What is the “impossible”? The “impossible” only happens when Hashem changes the path of the stars and transforms the world.
This is what is going on today. We have to realize this is in order to merit the salvation that we need. We have to understand that we are in as much trouble as the Jews in the time of Mordechai and Esther.
Mordechai learned of all that had been done and Mordechai tore his clothes and donned sackcloth and ashes. He went out into the midst of the city and cried a loud and bitter cry…. And in every province, any place the king’s command and his decree extended, there was great mourning among the Jews and fasting and weeping and lament; sackcloth and ashes were spread out for the masses. – Megillas Esther 4:1-3
If we do not understand our danger now, then how are we going to participate in the laughter? “Anyone…who does not mourn for Yerushalayim will not witness her joy [at the time of the Redemption]” (Taanis 30b).
If one had not understood the utter impossibility of survival in the days of Mordechai and Esther, then one could not have rejoiced at the redemption. And if one today does not appreciate the extreme degree of our danger, then we are not going to work with appropriate fervor for the “impossible” redemption that is our only hope.
Indeed, there is no logical way that we can hope to survive in the present environment. The predicted War of Gog and Magog at the end of history will involve the entire world. All cultures are increasingly under siege. Even recent weather patterns seem to have broken the rules. At the same time we have global warming, no one in the northeastern United States can remember a colder or harsher winter. Eretz Yisrael itself was battered by an almost unprecedented blizzard. While certain regions are drowning, other regions are experiencing catastrophic drought.
As Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz says, the quotation from Daniel (12:1) applies today – “trouble such as has never been before from the time that there was a nation until that time.”
What did Queen Esther mandate as the solution to our problems? We must listen carefully because our lives may depend on understanding this.
Go, assemble all the Jews that are to be found in Shushan, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day, and I with my maids, will fast also. Thus I will come to the king though it is unlawful and If I perish, I perish. – Megillas Esther 4:16)
“Assemble all the Jews.”
In order to survive, we must think and act as if we are one people, brothers and sisters, close friends. We have to stop acting as if we are solitary specks of dust floating somewhere in outer space, unconnected with anyone or anything. Sometimes we pass each other without so much as looking at each other.
If you say “Shalom Aleichem” to another Jew, he may well think you’re crazy. He may look away from you and not answer.
Then there is the cell phone epidemic. Must we constantly walk down the street speaking on a cell phone? I had occasion recently to observe a grandmother, a grandfather, a son and a grandson. The adults were engaged in their own conversation. For over an hour the grandson, who was about five, was in a world of his own, absorbed in his “smart” phone. No one spoke to him and he spoke to no one. Occasionally the father would turn to him, but the little boy was so tuned out that he did not hear his father speaking. In order to get his son’s attention, the father had to take the phone away. The father then returned the phone and the son again plunged into his world of emptiness.
This scene represents a catastrophe of galactic proportions. This is not just the story of one family. Frequently people are physically together but each one is alone in a separate bubble. We are not connecting to each other; we are connecting to an electronic, synthetic world. When we speak on the cell phone, we are in a cocoon. We do not know and we do not care if there are other people around. People crossing the street speaking on their cell phones frequently walk in front of cars or bump into lampposts.
“Assemble all the Jews.” It is a precondition of accepting the Torah that we become “k’ish echad b’lev echad” – “like one man with one heart” (Rashi on Shemos 19:2). And this unity is a prerequisite for our survival.
There is hope. In fact, there is more than hope. There is certainty that the day of our redemption is near. But in order to get there we have to appreciate the gravity of our present situation. Mordechai and Esther took appropriate steps to save not only themselves but all of Am Yisrael. If we imitate them, then we will certainly merit to see the day on which all of us will, in the words of Megillas Esther, have “light and joy and gladness and honor.”