A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest at a Shabbaton hosted by Machane Chodosh in Forest Hills, N.Y. The shul, made up of refugees of Nazi Germany as well as Holocaust survivors, has been in existence for over 60 years, and its spiritual leader, Rabbi Manfred Gans, has led the congregation for many of those years. The shul’s continued vitality is a testimony to Jewish continuity.
The Scholar in Residence at the Shabbaton was Rabbi Rafael Grossman of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan, a past president of the Beth Din of America and Jewish Press columnist.
Rabbi Grossman discussed two seemingly disparate, but actually connected themes: Jewish continuity, and the human emotion of love.
In speaking of Jewish continuity, the rabbi pointed out the tendency of many Jews to be somewhat uncomfortable, even apologetic, at the notion of Jewish intelligence or chosenness. But we are smart and dedicated to world betterment, and one need only look at our contributions to bettering the lot of mankind to prove this statement. Despite the fact that we comprise less than one percent of the global population – Jews have won over half the Noble Prizes in medicine. If history shows that Jews have been in the forefront of medical, scientific and technological progress – then yes – we are smart, and dedicated to the betterment of all mankind. Why not embrace that label with pride rather than embarrassment? Jews must value their Jewishness.
One of the reasons that there is so much assimilation and intermarriage in our midst is that many Jews are ignorant of the special role and gifts of the Jewish people. Worse than the apathy toward their Jewishness is the self-hatred that takes root in many Jewish individuals, who in their intense ignorance and dislike of who they are, go out of their way to side with the Hamans of the world who wish to destroy us.
Ironically, the descendants of Ishmael don’t seem to have this problem with loving themselves, even though considering their huge numbers – they have barely made any noticeable contributions to improve the human condition. They are inordinately proud of their one consistent “gift” to the world – global terrorism – and revel in their religious piety, which expresses itself in acts of suicide and homicide.
There are many minorities who celebrate and advertise their “uniqueness” (but really shouldn’t) such as gay groups. So why do we Jews – who have much to be proud about – have a problem with acknowledging that based on statistics – we are indeed special?
Rabbi Grossman, in another lecture later on Shabbat, presented what can only be described as an example of true love. The rabbi recounted his experience at his first funeral shortly after assuming his first pulpit. The niftar was a teenage girl who was born severely handicapped – physically and mentally. She needed around the clock care which was provided by her mother, a professional who put her career and social life on hold in order to care for her .
At the funeral, Rabbi Grossman was taken aback by the mother’s intense grief and distress over the loss of her child, as she literally clung to the coffin, wailing. At an appropriate time, Rabbi Grossman asked the mother about her anguished reaction. Understandably, she was upset to lose her child, but was there not some measure of relief, some solace that she could now live a normal life – working, going to simchas, visiting friends, after years of backbreaking care for a person who may have been unaware of her? The mother looked at him with wonder – “Don’t you understand? I loved her!”
That is what real love is – giving, with no expectation or need to get back. Putting someone else first.
For Jews, two of the many dimensions of love that I gleaned from Rabbi Grossman’s lectures can be found under one name – ahavat Yisrael. Loving who you are – as an individual and as part of a great people. Once you have self respect, you can go one step further – “Ve’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha” – loving your neighbor as yourself – and go the extra mile for your friend, your family, your people – unconditionally.
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