With Israel surrounded, as ever, by implacable enemies and forced to endure withering assaults of negative international opinion, we can take needed comfort and learn an important lesson from the Torah context of some key phrases in the Yom Kippur liturgy we recited just days ago.
Two such phrases are “selach na la’avon ha’am hazeh” (“forgive the sins of this people”) and that powerful culminating statement in the Kol Nidrei service, “Vayomer Hashem salachti k’dvarecha” – God’s solemn declaration that we stand forgiven.
The remarkable scenario is found in the well-known story of the spies in the wilderness. The Jews had left Egypt and were in the Wilderness of Paran, at which point they requested that spies be sent to investigate the Promised Land they were about to enter.
Moshe Rabbeinu picks “individuals of stature, leaders of the Children of Israel, every one of them a prince.” They spent forty days checking out the Land. On their return to the camp they reported that “the Land is flowing with milk and honey indeed,” and they presented as evidence a colossal cluster of grapes carried by two people on a pole between them.
But they continued telling a frightening tale of formidably fortified cities whose walls were impregnable and whose people were giants. They concluded: “We can’t go against these people for they are stronger than we are.”
To bring their point forcefully home, they declared: “Va’nehi b’eineinu k’chagavim” – “we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers” – and”v’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “and so we saw ourselves in their eyes.”
The people, hearing this dreadful report, lifted up their voices and cried, “Would that we had died in Egypt . Wherefore does God bring us unto this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become free prey! It would be better for us to return to Egypt!”
Since their departure from Egypt, the Jews had crossed the sea, experienced their great encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai and were fed manna and provided water in the parched wilderness. All these wondrous events seemed suddenly forgotten by the people, as was their bitter enslavement in Egypt.
This was hardly the first time since the beginning of the process of liberation that the people showed little or no faith in God. When the Egyptian chariots were approaching, and the deep sea stretched before them, the nation cried out: “Is it because of lack of graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die in the wilderness?”
Shortly after crossing the sea, when they had not yet found water in the wilderness surrounding them, the people cried out, “What shall we drink?” Soon thereafter they complained about the lack of proper food: “Would that we had died in the Land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots and ate bread to satiation.”
And when they ran out of water a second time, they showered bitter reproach on God and Moshe: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”
But it was only when the people built a Golden Calf do we read that the Almighty considered severely punishing the people.
Nothing,however, compares to God’s burning wrath in the case of the spies. “I will smite them with the pestilence . I will wipe them out totally,” he declares.
Why then? Weren’t the previous complaints and revolts equally shameful and provocative? Why is it just then that God seemed ready to obliterate the nation?
Indeed, this time wasdifferent. A closer reading shows us it was the first time Jews were engaged in debasing, disdaining, deriding and scorning themselves. Previously the people had complained against God or Moses. Now however, the people’s revolt and the their desire to return to Egypt was based on utter self-contempt.
“We were as grasshoppers in our own eyes.” We were as worms, as snails, as bugs, as dust in our own self-esteem. It was not so much the revolt as the reasonfor the revolt – its motivation – that brought God close to sealing the people’s fate.
With such total lack of self-appreciation – by being so debased and scorned in their own eyes – a people can have no future, no vision, no hope. This group is not a people. It is an anarchic mob.
Only Moshe’s plea saves the people. Only the supplication reiterated in our Yom Kippur prayers brings about a change in God’s plan.
“Forgive the sin of this people . Hashem, Hashem, please be gracious and merciful” – only this converts the death sentence into a life sentence and brings about a Divine judgment that, while dooming the self-deprecating generation to die out in the wilderness in the course of forty years of wandering, offers salvation to future generations of the Jewish people.
Evidently, the sin deserving the penalty of annihilation was self-debasement and self-contempt. Belittling oneself, considering oneself not worthy – the act and state of self-derision – was declared an a nearly unpardonable sin. Perhaps it was this biblical story that prompted Hillel to declare: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
A fine story about the Chofetz Chaim comes to mind.
Famous for his learning, wisdom and humility, the Chofetz Chaim liked to travel incognito in order to avoid adulation. One day, as the Chofetz Chaim was on his way home to the Lithuanian town of Radin, the coach driver began praising a certain rabbi who happened to lived in Radin.
Each time the driver uttered praise for this rabbi, the Chofetz Chaim would demur. When the driver proclaimed how learned the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim responded, “Nu, he is not so learned.” When the driver related how compassionate and charitable the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim protested, “Nu, he is not so compassionate and charitable.” When the driver described how humble a man the rabbi was, the Chofetz Chaim begged to differ: “Nu, he is not so humble.”
At that point the driver had heard enough from his contrary passenger. He stopped the coach and unceremoniously threw the man to the side of the road.
The next day the driver decided to pay a visit to the famed rabbi whose virtues he had extolled so forcefully. At once he recognized the rabbi as the very passenger he had left stranded the day before at the side of the road. Mortified, he began crying out, “Oy, Rebbe, please forgive me.”
The Chofetz Chaim interrupted him and said: “Mein tayerer Yid, I have nothing to forgive you for. I have to thank you for teaching me a very important lesson in life. We have no right to deride ourselves. We must fully respect ourselves and never be self-deprecating.”
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The fact is, it goes against our tradition to belittle ourselves. We should not hold our noses high up in the air, but we are not allowed to permit people to step on us, to take advantage of us, to belittle and bypass us.
The Torah resonates with the message: Jews, have respect for yourselves! If we won’t have respect for ourselves, if we won’t have respect for our people, who will? If I am not for myself who will be? If I am not for my people who will be? If I say I am no good, why should others try to convince me otherwise about myself?
And yet, despite that unmistakable message, perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Jewish people, not only in the wilderness but repeatedly throughout the ages, has been the tendency to debase ourselves.
In the Middle Ages there were Jews who converted to Christianity to save their skin. But then, in their desire to prove their Christian sincerity, they became faithful handmaidens of the bloody Inquisition. They were the first in line to testify that the Talmud and Jewish lore blaspheme Jesus and Christianity, thus helping to light up the dark Middle Ages with pyres of Jewish martyrs and precious sacred texts.
Modern times proved no better. Once the ghetto walls were breached in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the process of emancipation, followed by assimilation to neighboring cultures, proceeded at an ever-increasing pace.
We were proud of becoming elegant Frenchmen, and in fact turned into better Frenchmen than Jews. We were proud of becoming cultured Germans, and in fact turned into better Germans than Jews. We began hiding our Jewishness and became increasingly ashamed of it.
We were driven by utter self-derision. We became filled with a self-contempt that times reached the level of self-hatred. We became like grasshoppers in our own eyes. No wonder those around us took to seeing us in the same light: “V’chein hayinu b’eineihem” – “that is the way we appeared in their eyes.”
Today it is no better. In the Middle Ages, some orders of Christian monks used self-flagellation to beat the devil out of themselves. So too do some Jews flagellate themselves, mercilessly driving any sense of Jewishness and Zionist feeling (as if these were the very devil) out of themselves and their environment.
Were these Jews to act as the monks did, in the seclusion of their monastic cells, it would be sad and painful to know about but it would not constitute a threat to the entire nation. But these Jews display to the entire world their total lack of self-respect, their contempt for the most sacred aspects of Judaism. They trumpet their disgust through all conceivable media, readily placed at their disposal by our enemies. They thus send waves of dejection and desperate impotence through our people while strengthening the hands of our adversaries whose only wish is to destroy us.
Herzl hoped that once we were in our own land the problem of anti-Semitism would be solved We have come to learn, however, that the world won’t change. As long as the Jewish people is vital and creative, in its own land or out of it, the world will hate us with a passion, will harass us, and will find all the pretexts – no matter how far-fetched and unreasonable – to support our enemies
Even if Israel had the best and the Jewish people were blessed with the most charismatic spokesmen, it would not be in our power to persuade the stranger who loves to hate us with a passion to learn to love us with a similar ardor.
But what we must do is shout and argue – even plead and beg – with our brother and sister Jews:
Let us be. Don’t help in digging our graves. Don’t offer our enemies live ammunition to kill us, to finish us off. Let them not be triumphant because of the collaboration of Jews who not only accept all the lies invented about us but bolster those lies by their own fancifully false interpretations. Please, don’t condemn our generation to extinction the way a handful of leaders did in the wilderness who saw themselves as worthless grasshoppers.
When Jewish intellectuals distort history in order to “prove” Jewish guilt and Israeli aggression, malevolently overlooking whatever would unquestionably prove Israel to be in the right, they are guilty before God and man of a malicious crime that, as we have seen, in our ancient past threatened our whole people with extinction.
As the story of the spies exemplifies, nothing brings down God’s wrath as when His people loses its self-appreciation, becoming debased and deligitimized in its own eyes.
We – all of us, big and small, laborer and academician, intellectual and man in the street – must beled to a deeper understanding of our personal value, to the colossal impact of our personal acts, and to a true understanding of the justness of our cause as a people.
The time has come for all of us to grow in our conviction that, despite our human flaws and occasional mistakes, we have every right and justification to continue to thrive and progress as a people in our own land – and that as a united people we will face up to all challenges from near and from far.
In the coming year, in the face of the derision and guilt heaped upon us in such liberal doses by our enemies, we must stand up to all temptations that may lead to a weakening of faith and trust.
We must never forget we are an ancient people with unbroken descent, having made vast contributions to mankind and with an undisputed right to the Land of Israel that no person of a sane mind and a just heart could challenge.
The Ship of the Jewish People has sailed over the stormiest of seas in the course of the ages, reaching the 21st century battered but creative, full of vitality, confidently looking forward to a glorious future.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is the author of several books including “Politics of Compromise” and “In the Shadow of the Struggle.” He is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum