Rights and Obligations

Rav Israel Meir Lau. Photo Bethsabée Süssmann
By Roland S. Süssmann
This year yet again, like in all previous years, at the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even the most estranged from Judaism among us find their way to the synagogue, some just for a moment, and others for a longer prayer. We all have a single goal: to question ourselves, review the year, draw up a balance sheet of good and bad deeds, perhaps adopt some good resolutions, but above all to ask the Almighty to fulfill our prayers, the most important being to grant us life and good health. From year to year these solemn ceremonies resemble themselves in both form and expression, and yet despite everything each time they have something special about them, dictated by the reality and needs of the moment. On the threshold of 5770, to help us in our thinking, we asked Rav ISRAEL MEIR LAU, Chief Rabbi of Tel-Aviv and former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, to provide us with guidance.

In your opinion, what is the major concern that characterizes our time and that should be dominating our thoughts at the start of this New Year?

Obviously, each of us goes to the synagogue above all to pray for his or her general well-being, health, the family and professional success. However, I would like to answer your question by going beyond the individual and placing my thoughts at the national level. At the beginning of the previous year we were thinking about two basic threats that represented our main preoccupation. Firstly there was the question of Iran, which presented a serious problem for our survival. Let us not forget that its President stated openly that the State of Israel has no right to be established here, that the Shoah never took place, and that we just invented it to steal the lands of others. Throughout the year the Iranian threat hung over our heads like a cloud, and the danger is still there. The second major problem was economic, with the deep financial crisis and its consequences. Communism collapsed towards the end of the 1980s, and capitalism appeared to be taking the same route at the start of the 21st century. In a single night thousands of people lost everything, including their savings for their old age or the small legacy they intended to leave to their children. Miraculously, the Israeli economy was hardly touched and has weathered the crisis very well. Those are the two dangers that we thought represented the biggest ones we had to face. However, a month ago we discovered that there is a greater threat we are in fact faced with, which is not in Tehran nor in the financial institutions in Paris, London, Zurich or New York, but is among us. It is a question of education, society and morality of the first order: groundless hatred, violence and murder. Never have our people been faced with so much blood spilled gratuitously, caused by and suffered by those among us. We are in a “Clockwork Orange” syndrome; however, we are not at the movies but confronted by a terrible reality. What is so terrifying is the coldbloodedness with which so many murders have been committed within a few weeks. I am thinking of the father who strangled his little, 4-year old to take revenge on her mother, his ex-wife. The man is neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict, he has not been uprooted from his country, he had not been involved in a brawl, and he had not been provoked. This is a normal person, born and brought up in Israel, just Mr. Everyman. Yet he prepared his act meticulously, step by step. This where our prayer, “Have pity on us as a father has pity on his sons”, which we say on Rosh Hashanah, takes on its full meaning and topicality. The kindliness of parents for their children has always been the symbol of our prayers. I have only quoted this case, but what is there to say about the grandfather who murdered his granddaughter, Rose Pizam, with the active or passive complicity of her mother and then wrapped her in a plastic bag and threw her into the Yarkon River? The prophet Isaiah (49:15) foresaw this absurd situation in which a mother “forgets” her child, but where the word “forgets” clearly means “kills”, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” And he replies that something like that is inconceivable among the Jewish people. He calls upon us to react. It is to this exact point that we should direct our prayers at this start of the year, so that the Almighty will give us the courage, the will and the clearsightedness to put an end to this general, anything goes malaise that spawns such violence.
However, in these matters, prayer alone is clearly insufficient. We have to act. There are clearly certain practical initiatives to be taken, which depend on the political and judicial authorities. On this point I would like to highlight that from the time of a crime until a judgment, much too much time goes by. From the time that little Rose disappeared the country held its breath to know what had really happened, who was the murderer and to find her. Today, effectively no one even remembers her name. Punishment must be exemplary and a deterrent. However, beyond these technical and practical questions, we are faced with a much more serious question, the total absence of the teaching of the sanctity of life, especially the life of another. I would remind you that in Judaism, suicide is a crime. No one has the right to end his or her own life, because we are neither its creators nor its owners. So how can we assume the right to take the life of our neighbor? In this connection, I would like to highlight a serious shortcoming in our religious teaching concerning the murder of Abel by Cain. This crime is taught as something furtive or marginal. The Sages of the Talmud discussed what was Cain’s true motive. Some said it was an economic matter (because half of the world was insufficient for Cain), others that he killed because of a woman, in fact one of their sisters. Nowadays, in some pubs in Israel, they also kill on account of a woman, and it is solely because the teaching of this traumatizing experience is effectively passed over in silence. And yet, by committing the first crime in the history of mankind, the first brother murdered 25% of the human race. At first sight this might seem to be a story of no importance, just a family news item. However, this murder had terrible consequences, and no descendant of Cain survived. We are all descended from Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. We therefore do not have the right to ignore teaching the sanctity of life, because the short-, medium- and long-term results are terrifying.

Do you not find it astonishing that a basic issue that is so evident, simple and logical as the sanctity of life should need to be taught?

What goes without saying always goes better when you do say it. In this case it is a matter of repeating it over and over, because if we do not do so, it will be lost forever. You see, one of the major elements of the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the concept of Teshuvah, repentance. This is only possible in respect of our transgressing towards the Almighty if our relations with other people are correct. Thus, the disdain for human life is a direct blot on our relationship with G-d and with our neighbor. Beyond the question of respect, there is here something that touches directly on faith and that is linked closely to its decline, not to speak of the absence of faith. There can be no doubt that the further faith is from us, from generation to generation, the more the importance of human life loses its value and will gradually become completely devalued. It was Abraham who was the first to have made a direct connection between on the one hand the absence of faith and fear of G-d and on the other hand murder. When asked about having hidden the fact that Sarah was his wife and pretending she was his sister, he replied. “There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife” (Genesis 20:11).

How do you explain that we have reached such a situation?

There are many reasons, but one of them lies in the fact that we live in a society in which voyeurism no longer has any limits. Violence is everywhere, in the press, in the movies, on the Internet, at home with the TV, in the theater and in literature. Children are permanently exposed to this type of information and it has a direct impact on how they think, behave and act. To illustrate what I am saying, I will give an example from a major movie classic, Godfather 1 and 2. In these films, young people are fed with 89 minutes of violence and at the end a moment of pseudo-morality, where it is explained that, “In the end crime does nor pay”. But during the other 89 minutes, everyone understands that to get rid of someone who is in the way or a nuisance, all you have to do is kill him. This is what our children hear from the very youngest age. This is the behavior we encounter on the roads, and in daily and professional life.

You speak of permissiveness in every type of media, but do you not believe that this is not limited to vehicles of information?

Indeed, here we are faced with two basic questions, one of which concerns the legislator directly, the other education. How can it be possible that completely legal evenings are organized for 13-year olds where alcohol is served and often vodka in little, individual bottles? Here something must be done at the legal level. But as far as education goes, everything is done to ensure “freedom”, freedom of expression, individual freedom etc. I believe we are in an emergency situation and that the time has come to put an end to democratic excesses of which we already suffer the misdeeds and consequences. There can be no doubt that they will be catastrophic for the future. People speak increasingly about rights, “rights of the individual, of the citizen, of women, of children, of men etc”. But who speaks of obligations? These basic obligations that just yesterday were evident find their expression in the small, daily acts that are not a matter of politeness but of respect, such as getting up in the bus when on elderly person gets onboard, giving up your place for a pregnant woman, etc.

Are the problems you have just described specific to Israel or do they also concern the rest of the Jewish world?

You need to understand that today there is no longer a Diaspora. We live so to speak in a global “shtetl”. Today the relations between Israel and the Jewish world are completely mixed up. Once there were two Jewish entities, Israel and the other countries. Today this has disappeared. Sao Paolo, which seen from Israel seems to be at the other end of the world, can be reached in a single, 15-hour El Al flight. Jewish life, which once was confined behind the Iron Curtain, is easily accessible and the exchanges that take place as part of global Judaism are of unprecedented intensity, whether on the religious, academic or personal levels. Accordingly, all the problems I have just described about our society and education about respecting people can be found with the same degree of seriousness and severity throughout the Jewish world. Unfortunately, our age’s ease of communications helps the growth of violence and disdain for other people throughout the world.

How is this situation connected to the prayers of the “Yamim Noraim”, the Days of Awe that mark the start of the Jewish year?

In order to let us act and be inspired by our prayers, we need to understand what we say when we pray. For example, the prayer, “Our Father, Our King, have pity on us, our children and our babies”, which was understandable during the persecutions, suddenly takes on a different meaning. When a father is sitting quietly on a bench at the seaside in Tel-Aviv with his wife and daughter, a medical student, and is murdered defending his daughter and her honor when she is attacked by a gang of drunken louts, who were probably also anti-semitic, suddenly the words we recite, often just with our lips, take on a very special and extremely powerful meaning. “Avinu Malkeinu Katveinu BeSefer Chaim Tovim – Our Father, Our King, inscribe us in the book of good life”. This is even more true when we repeat time and time again during the service, “Zochreinu LeChaim – Remember us for life, Oh King Who loves everything that lives, and by Your grace inscribe us in the Book of Life, Oh living G-d!” Suddenly we are praying on account of our environment: swine fever is lying in wait for us and thousands of victims are announced; Iran, run by a psychopath, want to wipe us out; and a father kills his own child in cold blood. It’s in this environment that we pray for life, survival and the good life. Another of our most solemn prayers is certainly the one where we say, “Who will live and who will die, who at the right time and who before his time”, and then we learn that in a settling of accounts in the Israeli underworld, and innocent 17-year old has been killed with a bullet in the head, which had been aimed at a gangster. Thus our prayers have a profound meaning, they are burningly topical and go far beyond traditional liturgy. They are not lifeless, but rather full of life.

At this beginning of the year, you do not seem to be very optimistic; why is that?

It’s exactly the opposite. We have lived through tougher periods. We have a magnificent, independent Jewish state. Defense, parliament, justice, police, and above all education are in our hands. We have everything with which to succeed, but in the meantime there are these problems of education, society and morality that are getting worse. There can be no doubt that we will overcome them, but at what price? Having said which, we must not forget that miracles are one of the basic ingredients of the Jewish people. Ben Gurion put it humorously, “It’s because I’m a realist that I believe in miracles…”

To conclude, could you give us a special New Year message for the readers of Shalom?

We leave in a period when communications have taken a major place on our lives. While it is true that they bring negative things and are a source for big dangers, they can also be a source of great hope. They can in fact serve as a bridge between a Jew who lives in Europe and one who lives in Israel. I hope that the readers of Shalom benefit from the means of communications that are at our disposal to strengthen their connection with Israel in general and with the Israeli people in particular. That they develop a sense of family unity so that we can both consider ourselves as brothers, not just from a legal point of view, but actually so. The time has come that we be aware that we share the same problems and that we have to find solutions together. Let us not forget that we are the children of one and the same G-d, as well as of one and the same man, because we are the “Bnei Yisrael”, the sons of Israel, who also had the name Jacob. We end the prayer of the blessing for the new month by saying, “He who wrought miracles for our fathers and took them out from slavery to freedom, he should save us soon and bring us all together from the four corners of the world; and the entire people of Israel should be friends, and let us say, Amen”. For 60 years we have been taking part in the realization of the first part of this prayer; we have returned from 104 countries to our ancient-new homeland, the State of Israel! The second part, of general friendship among us, has not yet been achieved. I wish that together we can see the realization of this magnificent prayer. That is my blessing for the readers of Shalom, and I hope that the Almighty will inscribe all of us in the Book of Life for a marvelous year.
LeShanah Tova Tikateivu. Amen!