Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)
Two elderly Jews, who haven't seen each other in 50 years, meet, slowly recognize one another and embrace. They go back to one of their apartments to talk about the days long ago.
The conversation continues for hours. Night falls. One asks the other, "Look at your watch. What time is it?"
"I don't have a watch," says the second.
"Then look at the clock."
"I don't have a clock."
"Then how do you tell the time?"
"You see that trumpet in the corner?" said the man. "That's how I tell the time."
"You're crazy," says the first. "How can you tell the time with a trumpet?"
"I'll show you," said the other man, picking up the trumpet and blowing a deafening blast out the open window.
Thirty seconds later, an angry neighbor shouts, "Two thirty in the morning, and you're playing the trumpet?"
The man turns to his friend and says, "You see? That's how you tell the time with a trumpet!"
There is a lovely short prayer recited five times on Yom Kippur. It reads like this: "And so, Lord our G-d, grant honor to Your people, glory to those who are in awe of You, good hope to those who seek You, confident speech to those who yearn for You, joy to Your land, and gladness to Your city..."
What is the meaning of these words, "Confident speech to those who yearn for You"?
One of the great enigmas of history is the world's obsession with the Jewish people.
From our very inception 3,700 years ago, and throughout our long history until this very day, we, the Jewish people, have evoked a fiery and passionate response. Jews, it seems, never knew how to play "little league," staying out of the world's spotlight. We have been always playing "big league," caught up in the center of world events. Over the past four millennia, almost every great culture and civilization has been obsessed with the Jew, for better or for worse.
When a guru sits and meditates on a mountaintop -- who blinks an eye? When Indian shamans smoke peyote and go into a trance, who pays attention? When a monk secludes himself in a monastery, who cares? But when the world spots a Jew, even an assimilated and self-hating Jew, it experiences an allergic reaction.
Nor is the situation any different today. Indonesia has a population of 300 million people. How often do you hear about it? Israel has a population of seven million, yet barely a day goes by without front-page news from this little piece of land the size of New Jersey. The Muslims blame all their woes on Israel. Many Christians (no doubt recently re-inspired by Mel Gibson's "Passion") accuse Jews of deicide, and many extreme liberals and atheists blame the Jews for the scourge of terrorism. Nations who don't see eye to eye on anything, many of whose populations have never even met a Jew, unanimously agree that Israel is guilty of many sins. The only thing you can get the United Nations to agree on is condemning Israel. The Jew appears to be the great unifier, possessing the ability to unite the world in a profound and unique way.
A war rages in Iraq between U.S. troops and Islamic killers. Who is caught in the crossfire? Israel. And when the West confronts Iran, the Jew - in the form of Israel - emerges at the center of the crisis.
Why the obsession with a people who never constituted more than one percent of the world's population? Why can't the world ever forget about us? Why do we generate so much interest without intentionally wanting to do so?
To quote a line from My Favorite Year: "Jews are great at two things: suffering, and finding great Chinese restaurants." (Sorry for mentioning that on Yom Kippur.) Well, why can't we just be left alone to focus on our second great quality?
History as a Progression of Sermons
Israel's first chief rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a brilliant scholor, mystic and poet, once formulated his own daring response to this age-old question. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, it is an idea we must reflect upon in our present situation.
All cultures, civilizations and peoples, suggested Rabbi Kook, have emerged on the world arena to grant humanity a unique contribution: A philoshphical perspective, a scientific truth, an artistic expression, a political principle, a technological development and the like. Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, Byzantine and so many other cultures and states left their individual mark - small or large -- on civilization. But once the people or civilization gave the world the gift of its genius, it left the center stage of history. The civilizations presented their "sermon" with great pathos and then moved on, to allow for the next "speaker" to emerge and deliver his subsequent message to humanity.
How about the Jews? From the moment they ascended to the center stage of history to deliver their message to the world, they have never descended. They have not even moved slightly off stage. The Jewish people remained standing int eh center of every age and milieu in history. While the Greeks and Romans of old have vanished, the Jews still manage to constitute the hot topic at dinner parties and political conventions the world over.
Because, says Rabbi Kook, after 4,000 years of existence, they are still stuttering. The Jews have yet to deliver their message to the world with unwavering dignity and unambiguous clarity. We stand there, on center stage, the eyes of the world upon us on a virtually daily basis, but we speak in half sentences and apologetic undertones, continuously turning around to make sure we are not offending anybody. Lacking the courage to present ourselves for who we really are and what we really have to share with the world, humanity awaits with bated breath for the real Jew to stand up and speak.
Some Jews recoil into religion, shunning the world and ignoring its reality. Others travel in the other direction, attempting desperately to accommodate modernity and not come across as "too Jewish." Yet Judaism in its purest sense is the courageous attempt to generate that romantic kiss between heaven and earth, to uncover the truth that the G-d of the heavens and the reality of earth are truly one .
Our ambivalence often stems from our own confusion about whether we could place our wholehearted trust in our tradition, in our Torah, in our faith. Many of us feel that to embrace Torah in a modern world is unsophisticated and fundamentalist. Even Jews who adhere to a lifestyle governed by Torah feel that the Torah is good for their families and communities, but that it can't stand up to the pragmatic reality on earth. Washington and the United Nations are too "goyish" for Torah. They will never accept Torah. So our leaders, rabbis, politicians, journalists and spokesmen stand there during press conferences and stutter.
Should We Be Ashamed With Judaism?
Sometimes, hearing it from the mouths of non-Jews themselves, can be helpful.
Nineteenth-century American president John Adams wrote: "I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation. If I were an atheist who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance has ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization."
Another Non-Jewish philosopher, Peter Kreeft, wrote these words: "The prophetic spirit of the Jew finds a meaning and a purpose in history, thereby transforming mankind's understanding of history. Their genius for finding meaning everywhere - for example in science and in the world of nature - can be explained in only two ways: either they were simply smarter than anyone else, or it was G-d's doing, not theirs. The notion of the chosen people is really the humblest possible interpretation of their history."
The Torah is the only thing that never let us down and never gave us false
hopes. The Torah predicted thousands of years ago that if we forsook our identity as a "kingdom of princes and a holy nation," we would fail miserably. The same Torah also predicted that no matter what happens to us, we will outlive all our enemies and never vanish. The Torah possesses the most enduring, powerful and relevant truths available to humanity.
Telling the Truth
The State of Israel is one critical example. The Arab world has been thundering for 60 years that we are thieves; we have stolen their land and built a state on Islamic soil. Yet, in our response to the Arab accusations, we are always stuttering. Our leaders talk about Balfour Declarations and United Nations resolutions; we talk about self-defense and our readiness for peace. But we have no answer to the blatant outcry of the Arab world: The "Zionist entity" was built on occupied territory.
The Arabs present their message clearly: All of Palestine belongs to them. The entire State of Israel is one big settlement. That is why there was no peace before the 1967 war, a time of no Jewish settlements and no settlers. Gaza belonged to Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordan and the Golan Heights to Syria. Why did six Arab countries decide to invade and exterminate Israel that year? Because in their belief, all of Israel occupies Arab land. According to the Koran, Jews have no right to establish a self-governed homeland on Islamic soil. For a Muslim who believes the Koran to be the word of Allah (G-d), even if Israel conceded 95 percent of its soil to the Arabs, the remaining 5 percent would need to be snatched from them. Non-Muslims are forbidden to govern any land that once belonged to Muslims.
While Israel was once held in awe, today, close to six decades years after its miraculous founding, it has reached its nadir. Never before has it been so isolated, lonely, abandoned and maligned, today becoming the world's favorite punching bag. Even in America, Israel's only true friend, the intelligentsia on college campuses across the country continue to denigrate, humiliate and harm Jews by pressuring universities to divest from Israel. Not since Hitler, not since the 1930s, have we seen such overt anti-Semitism rear its ugly head the world over.
It's high time we cease being on the defensive and let the world in on our big secret. The only reason Jews came from Odessa, Vilna and Warsaw to the land of Israel is because G-d gave it to them - to us - because the creator of the heaven and earth chose to give his Holy Land to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as stated clearly in the Torah. There are three billion people in the world who believe in the Bible, who live with the Bible and who quote the Bible. But you will never catch any self-respecting Jew, the people who gave the world the Bible, dare even to whisper in public the obvious, simple and plain truth that our sole connection to the land of Israel is the Bible.
History has proven numerous times that the acquiescence of Jews has never succeeded in gaining the affection of our non-Jewish neighbors. The world respects Jews who respect themselves and their tradition; the world dislikes Jews who dislike themselves and their Judaism. What we desperately need today are Jews who are not stuttering, who are saturated with the quintessential message of Judaism, that the G-d of heaven and the reality of earth are one. This is the road to peace and reconciliation between the Jewish and non-Jewish world.
Paradoxically, it seems the world is waiting for this. Not only the Christian and Islamic world. Even the secular world seems respect Jews who respect themselves and their faith. The world is waiting for Israel to treat the land the way Israel should be treated, as G-d's personal gift to the Jewish people.
The world's ongoing obsession with the Jew, according to Rabbi Abraham Kook, is society's subconscious plea to the Jew to stop stuttering and share with the world what it heard at Sinai: that humanity is capable of building a world that will reflect the oneness and harmony of its divine creator, and that each and every one of us can transform our corner of the universe into a divine palace.
"Grant confident speech to those who yearn for You," we will pray five times on Yom Kippur. Let our people who deep down believe in You and yearn for You have the confidence to share with the world the revolutionary vision of Judaism that the spiritual and the physical can be seen as one. And that G-d, Israel and Torah are inseparable.