It was a great privilege to attend the JNF annual breakfast at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza this week as one of the 1400 people there to support the State of Israel.
JNF was founded in 1901 to buy land in Palestine from Ottoman landowners, and has continued for over a century to be at the forefront of projects in the Land of Israel, for the benefit of the land and for the benefit of those living there.
The guest speaker was the author and talk show host Dennis Prager. He always speaks well, articulating so clearly why Israel’s critics are wrong, and how Israel is so unfairly targeted by her enemies. During the course of his address he made an interesting point. “History has proven without question,” he said, “that the Jews are a chosen nation. How else is it possible to rationally understand the scope of Jews in world history?”
And yet so many Jews are embarrassed to call themselves chosen (unlike the Chinese, or the Japanese, who cheerfully declare their “chosen”-ness), while at the same time there are so many anti-Semites who profoundly hate the Jews precisely because they feel chosen (although those same people don’t hate the Chinese or the Japanese for feeling that way).
The obsession with Jews that has morphed and regenerated over thousands of years is indeed a proof that we are chosen. Is it not obvious that our being chosen is the only explanation for why Jews, a statistically insignificant group of diverse individuals who can barely agree on anything (you know the one – ‘two Jews, three opinions!’), are bunched together as the target of so much hatred and derision?
Why is a Jew in Paris targeted for the supposed crimes of a Jew in Israel? Why are Israeli universities and their academic professionals banned, while Iranian, or North Korean, or Zimbabwean professors, or universities, welcomed and feted by all? It only makes sense if the Jews are chosen. It is not ethnocentricity to say it – it is merely a statement of the facts.
As Prager was speaking, I thought to myself that perhaps those Jews who wish to deny their chosen status are related to Sholom Aleichem’s fictional character, Tevye the Milkman, in the movie, Fiddler on the Roof. Tired of the endless antisemitism and threat of pogroms in his little village Anatevke, he laconically turns to God in the course of one of his monologues, and says: “once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
I think, though, that the denial of this “chosen” status is a human-condition problem. We are searching for complex answers when simple ones make most sense. We come up with convoluted theories when the simple answer is staring at us right in the face.
I was particularly delighted to hear this idea expressed so beautifully on Chanukah. The festival of Chanukah has always puzzled me. It seems to be so schizophrenic. Are we celebrating the Hasmonean victory over the Greeks? Or are we celebrating the miracle of eight nights of Menorah lights that should have lasted only one night?
Well, I guess it depends on who you ask, or where you look. To most people the Menorah symbolizes a spiritual affirmation of the military victory. But the truth is quite different.
The Chanukah battle was not between Greeks and Jews, as is often thought. It was between Jews who revered traditional Judaism, and Jews who wished to renounce their tradition in favor of Greek culture.
The victory of Chanukah is a triumph of Judaism – as symbolized by the Menorah and by the miracle that occurred when the Temple was reconsecrated. Of course, it could never have happened without the military victory, but that was a means to an end, not the other way around. Which means that those who focus on the military victory have taken their eyes off the ball, and have chosen to ignore the obvious.
Similarly with Joseph and his brothers. Many of the commentaries ask – why did Joseph go through the charade with his brothers, keeping one in jail as they brought back Benjamin, and then threatening to keep Benjamin and never set him free.
The answer is obvious to us, but it clearly was not obvious to Joseph’s brothers. Joseph realized that unless his brothers were able to recognize that their decision to sell him into slavery had been a dreadful mistake, the Jewish nation could not be born, as it needed to be, in unity and harmony.
His intrigues and complex machinations were all executed only so that the brothers would themselves come to recognize the obvious – that Joseph had not deserved the fate they had foisted on him.
The process of catharsis begins in the Torah portion of Miketz (Gen. 42:21):
וַיֹאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו אֲבָל אֲשֵמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ אֲשֶר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ וְלֹא שָמָעְנוּ
“They said to each other: ‘We must be guilty with regard to our brother, as we saw how deeply distressed he was when he begged us, and we did not listen; that is the reason we are going through such distress ourselves.’”
In next week’s portion, with Judah’s powerful soliloquy at the beginning, the process that began here finally concluded, and Joseph revealed himself. The brothers’ eyes had been opened and they were rehabilitated.
May the festival of Chanukah along with the dramatic narrative of Joseph and his brothers act as a wake up call to all those who refuse to acknowledge the obvious.
There is no shame in being the Chosen People, nor is there anything wrong with defending Israel and denouncing its critics.
We survived the Greek onslaught as the Chosen People, and we will continue to endure as long as we recognize that our Jewish faith and its continuity is nothing less than the will of God.
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