Solidarity and Redemption

By Roland S. Süssmann
In these difficult times through which we are living following the forcible expulsion of thousands of Jews from their homes, there are many among us who on the eve of the New Year are asking themselves fundamental questions. It is true that the trauma of the expulsion was more traumatic for people in Israel than for the Jews of the Diaspora, most of whom had never visited Gush Katif. Nonetheless, this historic event has affected Jewish society around the world. With this in mind, we asked a young rabbi, a rising star in the rabbinic world in Israel, Rabbi BENNY LAU, to help us find answers for this new situation in which we find ourselves. Rabbi Lau is the spiritual leader of the Ramban Congregation in Jerusalem and runs the Beth Morasha Institute, a study center for young people after the army who are taking Jewish Studies while preparing for a degree at Bar Ilan University.

During the months preceding the expulsions and during the evacuation itself, hundreds of thousands of people prayed with all their heart that this decree not take place. But their prayers were not heeded. Now we are before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, high holy days marked especially by our prayers that the Almighty grant us a good year. In the light of what has happened, we could ask ourselves whether this year it really is useful to make all these prayers?

At the high holy days we go to synagogue in the hope that our prayers will be heard. In the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the idea of the son and the slave is very present. As Jews we live these two statuses simultaneously. In this sense we repeat a particularly striking passage throughout the services, which says, “Today You judge us, as sons and as slaves. As sons, have pity on us as a father has pity on his son. As slaves, our eyes are fixed on You, awaiting Your grace and a judgment that will burst forth like light”. A son’s status is different from that of a slave, he does not submit, the authority to which he does submit being in the final analysis symbolic. However, we must also acknowledge the royal status of the Almighty, and at this point we become slaves again, subjects of a severe authority to whom we do not automatically have access, and with whom we have absolutely no privileges, but who nonetheless grants us an audience, and who at as His own discretion grants or refuses our requests. What happened in regard to the prayers in the summer of 2005 was a mistake. Some rabbis forgot these two statuses and let a large part of the religious population, in particular the youth, believe that we were only “sons”. However, reality called us to order, by reminding us that we have two statuses. Since the passing of the last prophets, no one among our people has the power to say, “You just need to pray to get what you request”.

For all that, can we say that our prayers are in vain?

Absolutely not. We have the Torah, Jewish morality, prayer and the code of living. These are things to which we should be more attached than ever. At no time does the Torah promise us that each of our prayers will be automatically granted upon demand. We cannot claim to be the source of everything, that would be presumptuous, and that’s why it cannot be ruled out that the difficult times we have lived through and are still living through will not turn out to be for our own good.

The future will tell. For the time being, in addition to the thousands of Jews who have become “internal refugees”, we have an entire segment of the religious population, especially the youth, completely lost in regards to the religious message, the army and even the country. This phenomenon can be noted in both Israel and the Diaspora. How can it be remedied?

It is true that we are living in a period when serious self-questioning is the order of the day. However, we are not entitled to despair, and we must give back hope, above all to our young people. That is the task of rabbis, but also of all those involved one way or another in education, starting with parents. When we sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we can make out two sorts of sound: the first is like a lament and calls us to repentance for all our failings that we have committed during the year. The second is a sound of joy and pride, like a trumpet announcing the solemn arrival of a king. In the current situation, there are two ways of looking at things. The first is to say that it’s all over, that the State and the country are on the way to wrack and ruin. The second is to think and list all the good things the Almighty does every day in Israel itself. Top of the list is the army. What force in the world would have been able to carry out successfully the evacuation operation unarmed, without any victims, and displaying, in general, exemplary restraint? This is a source of pride for the entire Jewish people, for which we can sound the Shofar of national pride. However, today we still cannot sound the Shofar of joy and rejoicing, only of hope. The only way to continue to develop Israeli society, the country and indirectly the Jewish world in general, in a positive manner is by facing up to our responsibilities. This is all the more important since we are a generation that has been granted a Jewish State.

What is this hope to which you refer?

After everything that happened this year, the payers, hopes and disappointments, it is very difficult for a believing, practicing Jew to find hope in prayer. But it is exactly in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves that we should be in a position to profit from all the positive things with which we are surrounded … and which we still have. I believe that this responsibility lies especially on the shoulders of the religious sector of society. It is in man’s nature after a crisis to close up on himself and to ignore the world around. And that’s our biggest challenge right now. We have to learn to open up to the world and approach our neighbors in order to reestablish unity within the country, because tomorrow we will all be faced with new suffering. We take this lesson from the Torah, which in the very last verses tells us (Deut. 33: 1-5), “And this is the blessing, wherewith Moses the man of G-d blessed the children of Israel before his death. And he was king in Israel, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together”. The blessing lies in unity, because only through it will we regain our confidence to act. In theory we knew there was a schism between religious and non-religious society in Israel. But this summer’s events made us actually touch it, and being confronted by it deeply shocked us. Despite all our differences, we are but a single people, a single body, which at any given moment can have two or several heads, but whose component parts are fundamentally and intimately connected. Today everything points to their being a serious schism between us, but I believe that this year more than ever Rosh Hashanah comes to tell us that we must do everything to close this breach, because we do not have the means to live in discord.

Despite everything you say, following the disengagement, in certain Jewish circles in the Diaspora a doubt has been raised as to Israel’s reliability. How can such a movement, for sure very small at the moment, be stopped?

Israel’s main role in the world is to be the place where each Jew can feel most secure. Today, every Jew, wherever he is, knows that if something happens, he always has this magnificent alternative on which he can count, the State of Israel. Now on account of what happened, it is possible that some Jews are starting to tell themselves, “I no longer have where to go, there’s something wrong in my insurance policy”. The only way of preventing such a process starting, or worse, growing, is to strengthen internal solidarity. There are many problems but they are not insurmountable, and knowing how coexist Judaism and democracy, Jewish law (Halacha) and the State, religious and non-religious, for Jews of the Diaspora is not merely something that lets them feel secure, but a great source of encouragement.

In the Diaspora we are facing two major problems, anti-Semitism, which does not concern us here, and galloping assimilation. To combat the latter, until now Zionism and Israel were the two things that spoke to non-religious people. But toady this discourse seems to be in question. What can be done to remedy this?

Unfortunately, we have to be satisfied with little and not to forget that great streams come from little drops. In this way, it is very important to encourage trips to Israel, especially among the young. When a young person comes to the country, even if he only mixes with those the farthest away from religious practice, he will hear Hebrew spoken, live according to the rhythm of the Israeli calendar which is that of the Jewish festivals, its weekends have the Sabbath and not Sunday, and many more such things. He will be injected with a drop of Judaism and no one can know what the effect will be in the medium or long term. In our Rosh Hashanah prayers we say, “Let us sound the great Shofar for our freedom”. For my part, I believe that is the expression of a hope for an almost perfect world. But today we are only at the beginning of our redemption, so we have to satisfy ourselves with sounding thousands of little Shofars that resound in synagogues throughout the entire world on Rosh Hashanah: the Shofar of education, the Shofar of Jewish solidarity and more. The process for our individual and national deliverance is under way, it’s up to us to move it forward; it’s true it is slow, but it is sure and nothing can stop it.

From where do you get all this optimism?

My father survived the Shoah, and each time I feel I am becoming a bit pessimistic, I look at my father and say, “What is the alternative?” I live in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish State, my children study everything in Hebrew, the language of the Torah, which is also spoken throughout the country by our fellow citizens who are not religious, and I stop myself for a moment and reflect, where were we 60 years ago – and where are we today? I can assure you that at that moment I get back very quickly all my optimism. I will wind up by quoting from the Sabbath afternoon prayer, in which we say, “You are one – and Your Name is one – and who is like Your people Israel? A single people united on earth. I have no doubt that our prayers will be better heard if we demonstrate solidarity, and that is the main message of Rosh Hashanah 5766.