Rabbi Spiro, the Bluzhever Rebbe Ztz"l, survived Auschwitz. Day after day, he saw new arrivals sent to the gas chambers. Day after day, he watched while mothers carrying infants were forced to line up and have their babies taken away from them, condemned to a crueler death than their mothers would find.
One day, he saw a woman in line with a young infant. With obvious anguish, she approached one of the German soldiers. "Do you have a knife?" she asked. Frantically, Rabbi Spiro ran toward her, wanting to tell her that whatever her fate or that of her baby, she should not injure herself or her child.
The Germans brutally restrained him, and with a sadistic grin, one soldier gave the woman a knife. She put her child to the ground, and held the knife over him. But she didn't slay him; she circumcised him.
"You gave me a beautiful Jewish child," she cried out, looking heavenward. "And I am returning him to You, perfect as You desired."
Circumcision is "a covenant in our flesh,"1 a sign that the Jews are G-d's chosen people. But what are they chosen for?
Throughout history, our people have faced bitter oppression and persecution. And this has evoked a natural response: G-d! If this is what being Your chosen people means, please choose someone else!
But G-d doesn't. His covenant with the Jews is eternal and unchanging. And that's why time and again, this numerically insignificant people and the tiny Land of Israel have featured so prominently in world history.
And despite occasional protests, a Jew responds and chooses G-d.2 Yes, he might intellectually object, for the concept of being part of a chosen people, different from those around him, is a difficult one. But what happens when someone calls him a dirty Jew? He reacts in proud affirmation of his Jewish identity!
Our people possess a glorious heritage of martyrdom which is centuries old. And this is not merely a relic of the past. The Holocaust occurred only 50 years ago. Less than five years ago, Jewish activists were being deported to hard-labor camps in Siberia for teaching their faith and spreading national awareness.
The tenacity of our people's connection to their Jewish identity is expressed in ways other than martyrdom. The challenge is, after all, to live for our faith. No Jew considers his Judaism a trivial matter. We speak of Irish, Italian, and black Americans, but of American Jews. For a Jew, Judaism is more than bagels, blintzes and latkes, or even a set of religious practices; it is a manifestation of who the person is. He is a Jew.
Toynbee called Judaism a fossil. The way Jews cling to their identity is surely anachronistic in the modern age, for our society is very much a melting pot. And this is becoming increasingly true as the outward differences between peoples and societies fade and we come to terms with the concept of a global village. Although today, ethnic and national diversity are celebrated, rather than shunned, clinging to one's Jewish identity is something different entirely.
A best-selling American book describing a Jew's confrontation with American life was called "The Chosen." A Frenchman would never choose such a title for a book that focuses on the differences between himself and an Italian or a German. When we say the Jews are G-d's chosen people, it implies a radically different identity -- an identity linked to a purpose, one which is unique in the world.
And this points to a conceptual difficulty of a greater scope: In ancient times, each nation had a god or gods of its own. The Philistines had their gods, the Moabites had their gods, and the Egyptians, theirs. At that time, Judaism was unique, because the G-d of Israel was not an idol or a star like these tribal divinities, but rather an unseen spiritual power.
Abraham broke his father's idols. By writing down the words of the Torah and taking them throughout the world, our people taught mankind as a whole to break its idols. For the Torah introduced the Truth that underlies all philosophy, ethics and metaphysics, and thus enabled the world to emerge from tribal paganism. In Isaiah's words,3 Israel was chosen to be "a light unto the nations; to open the blind eyes," communicating a message which the inhabitants of our world would not have been able to perceive otherwise.
Nevertheless, as this truth began to find acceptance in the cultures of our fellow men, and people began to speak of universal faiths, Judaism comes to occupy a paradoxical position. On one hand, it is still considered one of the world's major religions, a faith with a universal message. On the other, it remains very much a tribal faith, limited to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yes, converts are accepted,4 but conversion is not encouraged. Judaism has never sent out missionaries. Instead, it has concentrated on educating its own.
Judaism's gifts of compassion, love, and faith permeate nearly every field of human activity, but because they have been given quietly, the nations can ask: "What have you done for us lately?" The Torah was given over 3,300 years ago. More particularly, since the completion of the Talmud (approximately 500 CE) when the spiritual truths of the Oral Law were recorded for posterity, what has Judaism been doing for mankind?
This question is particularly relevant in the present age, for we have witnessed a surge in religious consciousness throughout the world, and an even greater escalation is expected. In these times of turbulence and transition, the structure and order which religion inspires serves as a firm foundation on which people can base their lives.
And this support is not necessarily a crutch. For the first time, science and mathematics have revealed multi-faceted systems of order in nature and society that strengthen rather than challenge a religious conception of existence. Moreover, the shallowness of secular consumerism is making it clear that only time-tested values should lie at the vortex of our lives.
Unfortunately, Judaism has not reaped the full benefits of this spiritual awakening. We have seen the growth of a large teshuvah movement which has brought thousands of Jews back to their religious roots. But their numbers, however great, are small when one thinks of the millions of Jews who still have only a minimal connection to their heritage. More than half of the Jewish children in America are not receiving any formal Jewish education at all. And when one thinks of the religious revival in the United States, it is Eastern mysticism, contemporary religious experiments, or the Southern Baptists that come to mind.
What then is Judaism's message for today?
To prepare the world for Redemption.5
To explain: In Judaism, matrimony is a two-stage process involving betrothal (erusin) and marriage (nisuin). Betrothal establishes the husband-and-wife bond. From that time onward, a woman cannot marry anyone else, but neither may the couple live together. Marriage, by contrast, signals the consummation of this relationship, the beginning of the couple's life as a single unit.6
Our Sages7 explain that the giving of the Torah represented the betrothal; only in the Era of Redemption will the marriage of man and G-d be consummated. The giving of the Torah established the first connection between the spiritual and the material. This connection has, however, an element of distance, for life in our world remains materially oriented. It is only in the Era of Redemption that this bond will be consummated, and the awareness of spirituality will permeate our ordinary experience.
Thus, from the time Israel received the Torah, our task has been to prepare ourselves and the world for Redemption. One dimension of that task is reflected in our involvement in the material elements of worldly existence. For the G-dly life force which sustains the world is concealed within its matesubstance.
Chassidic thought8 refers to this involvement with the Hebrew term tziruf, the word used to describe the smelting of ore. In the smelting process, the dross is discarded and the precious metal purified. Similarly, in our involvement with material concerns, our intent is to reveal the hidden G-dly energy vested in our physical reality.
Knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, the Jews have fulfilled this purpose as they wandered from country to country, tapping the G-dly energy invested in those lands by using their physical substance in the fulfillment of mitzvos. In the Era of Redemption, we will reap the harvest of our labors, for the knowledge of G-d will permeate every dimension of existence.
Another element of Israel's task is sharing the Torah's message with the gentile nations. Although Israel never seeks converts, every Jew is obligated to teach his gentile neighbors9 how to observe the seven universal laws of morality given to Noah and his descendants.10
These efforts are also connected with Redemption. Our Rabbis explain that rewards are given "measure for measure."11 Since Mashiach will perfect the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve G-d together,12 efforts should be undertaken to encourage all of mankind to refine its conduct.
In these and other ways, Jews have endeavored to prepare the world for Redemption. At present, however, the thrust of these efforts has changed, for the Redemption has become an imminent reality, requiring our people to accept a more radical mission: To make the world conscious of Mashiach, and thus steer people's attention to the overriding goal -- the purpose for which the world was created.
To explain the concept with an analogy: In the '50s, there was a host of TV programs about Japanese soldiers stranded on remote Pacific islands, unaware that the war was over, waiting to battle the American invaders. No one had bothered to tell them the truth.
In the same way, the spiritual "battle" of previous generations is over. This is reflected in the fact that, as mentioned in earlier chapters, the changes shaping our society have reached a scope and intensity that enable us to recognize the backdrop for the Redemption. The world is signaling that it is ready.
So our generation has been granted a new mission: To spread awareness of Mashiach and the Redemption, and to make people aware of this new reality.13
1. Genesis 16:13.
2. In Tanya, ch. 19, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi writes that, by nature, a Jew cannot do otherwise. His fundamental Jewish core will not allow him to deny his connection with G-d and His Torah. "No Jew can -- and no Jew will -- separate himself from G-d."
In Basi LeGani 5710, chs. 3 & 4 the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that a person's conduct can dull his sensitivity so that on a conscious level, he may not realize when he is indeed living apart from his G-dly core and his Jewish identity. In every Jew, however, there is a point at which this spark will be aroused, and at that time, he will sacrifice everything in affirmation of his Jewishness.
3. Isaiah 42:6-7.
4. Indeed, a unique degree of respect and admiration has always been granted to converts. See the letter of Maimonides addressed to Ovadiah, the convert.
5. Significantly, the Metzudas David and other commentaries interpret the passage from Isaiah cited previously as referring to the communication of the message of Redemption.
6. Today, the common Jewish practice is to complete both stages of the wedding bond in a single ceremony under the wedding canopy.
7. Shmos Rabbah 15:31; Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IX, p. 147, fn. 27* and sources cited there.
8. See Sefer HaMaamarim 5702, pp. 67-70 (cited at the beginning of From Exile to Redemption, Vol. I, Part 1, ch. 2, p. 29), and other sources.
9. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 8:10. See also Tosafos Yom Tov, Avos 3:14.
10. These seven laws include the prohibition against the worship of false divinities, blasphemy, murder, incest and adultery, theft, and eating flesh from living animals [and by extension other expressions of cruelty], and the obligation to establish laws and courts of justice. They are discussed by Maimonides (Loc. cit., chs. 9 and 10).
11. Nedarim 32a.
12. Maimonides (Loc. cit. 11:4).
13. See the essay entitled "Open Your Eyes and See" in Sound the Great Shofar (Kehot, 1992). (Appendix A.)
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