I was asked why I made my new movie, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman” in English. One reason is that Rebbe Nachman taught that his stories have the power to wake people up. He said that some people believe they are serving G-d, but they are really sleeping. Their years pass by and what do they have to show for it in the end? And there are many others who are sunken into such a deep slumber that they don’t even know it (Likutei Moharan, 60).
It is no secret that the Jews of America (and England, Australia, France, Canada, Belgium… ) are sleeping. Let’s take the example of your typical Jewish workaholic. In the morning, he puts on his tefillin at home and races through morning prayers, or, if he goes to shul, more often than not, the davening is routine repetition – lip service rather than the heartfelt service of G-d. The rest of the day, he is absorbed in his work, so he’ll have enough money to keep up with the rest of the Jews in America, and send his children to super-expensive schools. Shabbos is a day of over-eating, sleeping in bed, talking in shul, singing a few Shabbos songs, and reading the newspaper. Certainly not the exalted island of spirituality that it is intended to be.
To his children, Judaism, with its weighty obligations, isn’t very exciting. They’d rather be free to be like everyone else. Dad may send them off for a year of hizuk in Israel, but it isn’t with the intention of having them live there, which is the very goal of Judaism, the Torah, and all the Prophets of Israel – to live a Jewish life in the Land of the Jews, not in Brooklyn, Paris, or Melbourne. But nobody teaches the kids this basic truth, so they too are in a deep slumber. In college, their heads are into everything but Judaism. There may be a Hillel on campus, but they’re fighting a losing battle against all the pretty blonds, drugs, beer, American pop culture, and anti-Semitism which abounds.
The American Jewish establishment is sleeping too. The main focus is on being loyal Americans and holding on to whatever dwindling Judaism they can. The presidents of the major Jewish organizations, and the rabbis, and their congregants, all may say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” at the end of the Passover Seder, and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur prayers, but hardly anyone acts on the call, even though an airline ticket is affordable to all but the poorest. While surveys report that over 70 percent of American Jews have no connection to their identity as Jews, and intermarriage is ever on the rise, no one wants to face the fact, which any statistician will confirm, that Judaism and Jews in America are on the way out. Everyone is sleeping to the one and only truth that Israel is only viable place to remain Jews – just as the Torah and our Prophets tell us again and again – the exile is a temporary (albeit long) punishment, until we all (those who are left) return to the Promised Land. The Diaspora was never meant to be an end in itself, as Diaspora Jews like to believe. Rather, the exile is a period of long hibernation, and the time has come to wake up!
Of course, in Israel, many people are also asleep in their service of G-d. But at least they are all a part of the rebuilding of the Jewish Nation in Israel, a basic mitzvah of the Torah, just by being here, taking part in the Israeli economy, and sending their children to defend the one-and-only Jewish Land. As for those Jews, who, in their supposed religious fervor, turn their backs on the State of Israel, we are translating the film into Yiddish to wake them up too. While many Breslov Hasidim have fallen as well into this slumber, Rebbe Nachman himself was a great lover of the Land of Israel and longed only to live here. Like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who wrote the holy Zohar to wake people up to the inner heart and spirit of Judaism, and who defied the Roman Empire with his great commitment to Torah and the Land of Israel, the stories of Rebbe Nachman can awaken all of us from our sleep.
Happy Lag B’Omer!