For the past few weeks I’ve been discussing the crises facing our people. I’ve been asked by many of our readers the question that should challenge all of us: What are we to do?
Before I offer specific answers however, it is important to fully understand the urgency of the moment so those who are ambivalent will also comprehend, respond, and thus secure blessing for all our people.
The crises we are encountering today can be seen on a national and personal level. There is a nation on the world scene that openly declares its intention to orchestrate another Holocaust, Hashem Yeracheim, may G-d have mercy. Some will argue that Ahmadinejad is just a madman and that the people with him are equally mad. I agree, but madmen, mad people, must be taken seriously, for they are mad enough to implement their evil. I know; I experienced it first hand in Hitler’s concentration camps.
As Jews, we must be keenly aware that there are no random happenings in our lives. Everything that befalls us is a wake-up call from Hashem. This is a difficult concept for our generation to accept. Our culture tends to look at those who propound such views as simplistic, if not unbalanced. Moreover, our society tends to neutralize all personal culpability and remove all sense of responsibility from our consciences. We are never at fault – there are always some mitigating circumstances for that which befalls us. We convince ourselves that “things happen simply because they happen.” Sadly, this rationale has seeped into our Torah community as well. We too have been impacted, and too many of us have turned a deaf ear to the call of Hashem. Too many of us refuse to see and understand.
It is amazing how despite the passage of centuries and despite all our advances and discoveries, all our education and enlightenment, we have learned nothing. From the genesis of time to this very day, nothing has changed. Just as in the generation of Noah, when man refused to heed G-d’s call, so today we turn a deaf ear to the countless messages He sends us.
In vain does Hashem send us His wake-up calls. We do not respond; we are spiritually comatose. There is a reason the Torah teach us, “V’yadata hayom” – and you shall know today, and you shall absorb it in your heart.” There is a small gap, only seven inches, between the head and the heart, but to close that gap is a Herculean task. Allow me to illustrate: Very often, we intellectually understand that we should not lose our tempers, we should not smoke, etc. But since our hearts fail to absorb this, we continue to indulge our anger and we continue to smoke. So it is that the Torah admonishes us to absorb in our hearts that which our minds understand.
Maimonides taught that when suffering is visited upon us, we are commanded to cry out and awaken our people with the sound of the shofar. Everyone must be alerted to examine his or her life and commit to greater adherence to Torah and mitzvos. Maimonides warned that if we regard the tragedies that befall us simply as the way of the world – natural happenings – we will be guilty of achzarius, cruelty.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand why Maimonides would choose the term “cruelty” to describe those who view trials and tribulations as natural happenings. Such people may be unthinking, apathetic, foolish, blind or obtuse, but why accuse them of cruelty?
The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as mere coincidence, we will feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways, and change. So yes, such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortune upon ourselves and others. Therefore, step number one is not only to awaken ourselves but also to alert our fellow Jews to the urgency of the moment and the dangers that loom ahead. And yes, it would be the height of cruelty to dismiss what is happening in the world today as mere happenstance. Great Torah luminaries of past generations, such as the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, told us we are entering the final stages of history – a period in time called “Ikvesa DiMeshicha” – when the footsteps of Messiah can be heard. This period will be accompanied by terrible tribulations, but it is in our hands to overcome them.
Our Torah foretells four exiles through which our people would suffer: Egypt, Babylonia/Persian-Mede empires, Greece, and Rome – the exile in which we presently find ourselves, for it was the Romans who exiled us when they destroyed the Second Temple.
In Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, an early Midrashic work, it is written that before the coming of Messiah we will have to contend with a fifth source of tribulation that will come from Yishmael, the Arabs, who will inflict terrible suffering on the world and on our people.