The blackout that hit New York came and passed, and people dismissed it as yet another indication of human error and mishap. No doubt it was all that, but the very fact that our high-tech society experienced a breakdown befitting a third world country should give us all pause. It should make us conscious of our vulnerability, and compel us to acknowledge “Eyn od milvado” – “There is no power except for G-d.”
From time immemorial, our sages taught us “ma’aseh avos, siman labanim” – “Whatever happened to our forefathers is a sign to their children.” This means that Jewish history is one big re-play. “K’yemei tzescha m’Eretz Mitzraim arenu niflaos” – “As in the days when you left the land of Egypt, I will show you wonders” (Micah 7:15).
Even as the plagues brought the mighty Egyptian Empire to its knees, so has 9/11 shattered our confidence. Our omnipotence, our sense of security has been forever shaken. Our lives have become unstable - fear and terror lurk everywhere. Our environment, the land, the sea, the very air have become permeated with danger, calling to mind those plagues of long ago. Certainly, there has been enough blood; certainly we have seen pestilence - bizarre diseases that have stymied our medical experts – from West Nile to SARS, and we were even witness to the plagues of wild beasts. Who can forget the tragedy that took place on a summer morning last year, when a wild bear wandered into a bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains and boldly snatched a newborn infant from her carriage. When we read about it in the newspapers, we all recoiled in horror. Things like that are not supposed to happen. The police declared that something so bizarre had never occurred in the history of New York.
And now, we were beset by the plague of darkness. The power failure that shrouded so many states in darkness was unparalleled in its intensity, in its scope, and in its duration. Three days passed before light was restored to all the states and communities that had been affected. Paradoxically, the plague of darkness which enveloped Egypt also lasted three days. Coincidence? Happenstance (mikreh) or under Hashem’s direction (koreh m’HaShem)?
Wake up calls come to us not only through national and global disasters – they come in all shapes and forms. Recently, a very popular TV show that reflects the promiscuousness and immorality of our society aired an episode in which the dialogue sent forth a message to the Jewish community. The very fact that such a Jewish focus was played out on this program is in and of itself odd since the show is geared to mainstream America. But HaShem finds His vehicles through which to send us His messages.
In a past column, I already referred to this episode: Charlotte, an elegant Episcopalian WASP, confronts her Jewish boyfriend Harry over dinner and asks why they can’t get married ? to which Harry responds that he can’t marry out of his faith.
“So why did you order pork chops?” Charlotte challenges.
“I’m Conservative,” Harry answers matter-of factly.
This exchange drew many protests from the Conservative movement, but the message was unmistakable. Jews who label themselves Conservative and thereby justify their violation of the commandments were given a wake-up call, as were the leaders of the Conservative movement who had to come to grips with the fact that, willy nilly, they had given this license to breach the commandments.
And now, from the same series, yet another episode emanated. Charlotte converts – and she does it all by the book. She embraces her new-found faith and enthusiastically prepares a beautiful Shabbos dinner, but when Harry comes home, he goes straight to the TV and switches on the Mets game.
Charlotte’s question hangs in the air. Multitudes of Jews who never hear the voice of Torah, never open a Chumash or a Siddur, who never experience the sanctity of Shabbos, but who religiously watch this program, were given a wake-up call. The question that remains of course is - were they listening? Did they get it? Did they hear the call of Shabbos? Did they hear the call of their forebears who, throughout the millennia, sacrificed for the sanctity of Shabbos, or will they continue to watch the Mets game?
How do you awaken a spiritually comatose people from their stupor? How do you make them understand that Saturday is Shabbos?
Perhaps the very fact that it was a sports event for which Harry gave up Shabbos sends yet another message. Ours is a culture that is sports-addicted, so perhaps it is through sports that the “Harrys” of our generation can be made to perceive the tragic consequences of their assimilation.
Even the best of teams will fade away and die if it has only fans but no players. Similarly, those who are only Jewish fans and not players must confront their Jewish mortality. We are Jews by virtue of our Torah, by virtue of our Covenant, by virtue of our faith in HaShem. If the “Harrys” want their teams to win, they will have to become good players who keep in shape through the study of Torah, observance of mitzvot and genuine prayer.
If the “Harrys” wish to live as Jews and impart a heritage to future generations, they can no longer remain mere spectators, but must take to the field.
That is the message of Chodesh Elul that we must all take to heart. We are living in incredible times, times that will usher in, please G-d, the days of Messiah. Let us all rise to the occasion and become great players for our people, for our G-d.