Latest update: May 21st, 2013
As I wrote last week, who among us can find the words to console the tragically stricken parents of Newtown, Connecticut whose lives have been forever shattered? There are no words of consolation that can bring relief to their bleeding hearts. There are no magic words that can give these stricken parents even a moment of relief, and if anyone knows this it is we, the Jewish people; our blood-drenched history testifies to it.
How do we react to this hellish nightmare? How do we reign in the evil? How do we control a society that has gone mad and, wittingly or unwittingly, allowed violence to flourish?
Despite all our technology, all our 21st century enlightenment, we can hang our heads in shame. Instead of creating a better, wiser, kinder, more compassionate society, we’ve given new life to the laws of the jungle and we are back where savage man stood thousands of years ago.
We’ve accomplished nothing. Actually, it’s worse than nothing – we’ve created hell on earth. I’ve written many articles stating that it was not only six million of our people who were decimated in the Holocaust but western civilization itself. If we truly wish to make a change, gun control will not suffice. Certainly it will help, but it will not change people – it will not change their values, it will not change their thinking, it will not change their priorities. And if they are not changed, they will find many deadly substitutes for their guns.
First and foremost, we must reeducate ourselves. We must seek to eradicate the vile curse words, the shouting and abuse, that have become daily staples not only in our streets but also in many of our homes. Unfortunately, it’s not just our young people – many parents have also become addicted to the abominations of our culture.
Long ago, at the genesis of our history, G-d taught us the meaning of life. It starts with compassion for one another (“The world is built upon the pillars of chesed, loving-kindness”). Not everyone will be able to identify with it, but at the very least that should be the aim, the goal, to aspire to as individuals and as a society.
The Midrash relates that G-d chose Moshe to be the leader of His people because one day while Moshe was shepherding the flock of his father-in-law in the desert, a little lamb ran away. Moshe, concerned for his charge, went in search of it. After a while, he found it drinking at a brook.
“My poor little lamb,” Moshe said, reaching out to it. “I didn’t know you were thirsty. Forgive me, you must be weary.” And with that he picked up the lamb, placed it on his shoulder, and carried it back to the flock. Then a Heavenly voice was heard: “This is the man who is worthy of shepherding my people.”
Moshe was brilliant, strong, handsome, and powerful. The Bible testifies that no man even came close to his greatness. Yet that which rendered him worthy of leadership was neither his brilliance nor his strength. It was the tenderness with which he carried that little lamb on his shoulder. It is this trait of compassion that separates one man from another and endows him with greatness.
Moshe came by this feeling naturally. It was a part of his spiritual heritage, a legacy from his great-grandfather, Levi. In contrast to the other tribes in Egypt, the Levites were never enslaved, but Levi, the patriarch of the tribe, felt the impending bondage with such intense pain that when his sons were born, he gave each of them names that would remind them of their people’s suffering.
Moshe was raised in the palace of Pharaoh. He was a royal prince, an heir to the throne of the mightiest empire in the world, yet he chose to give it all up so that he might join his oppressed brethren in the slave pits. To feel your brother’s pain – that is the meaning of compassion, and that is the quality one finds in great parents, great teachers, and great leaders.
Such are the heroes of our people. Such were the heroes our children studying Torah were taught to aspire to and hold up as role models for themselves. But that was long ago. Today the moral illness afflicting society has seeped even into the sacred sanctuaries of our yeshivas and homes.
We are struggling with a virus. The entire world is infected with it but we have yet to apply the vaccine that would protect us. And, yes, the vaccine is readily available. We do not have to cross oceans, climb mountains or create new laboratories to find it, nor do we need scientists or chemists to research it. It’s in our hands. We need only use it.
We must inspire our sons and daughters to idolize new heroes. But we cannot do that until we change ourselves. We must also adopt these new heroes to be our role models. It is their teachings that we and our children must emulate. Once we do that, we can reach out to society at large.
There is a telling story about a man who came to a rebbe. “Rebbe,” he said, “I have a dream to change the world and make it a better place.” The rebbe gave him a blessing and he embarked upon his project. Soon, though, the man came back.
“No one listens to me,” he complained.
“Why not focus on your city instead of the world?” the rebbe suggested.
Once again the man went forth with hope. But once again he returned to the rebbe.
“No one listens to me,” he cried.
The rebbe suggested the man try working in his own neighborhood rather than the entire city. But again the man came back disappointed.
The rebbe looked at him and asked, “Did you ever consider that before you change the world you need to change yourself?”
This story speaks to each of us. We know the problem; we recognize the sickness of our society. At the same time, we have to be realists. You and I will not change the media or contemporary culture. But what we can and must do is preserve the life of our families – and in order to do that we must begin by changing ourselves.
We, the Jewish people, were given a mandate at Sinai to live a life of compassion and kindness – a life of chesed. We must make those ideals our life goal and the life goal of our children. We must demand that our schools do the same. That is how we will rise above the decadence of this world and live by the Covenant of G-d, a Covenant more powerful than any society or culture.
Let us start now – before it is too late.
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