You don't have to be Golus Jew!

By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida

A renowned Maggid (traveling preacher) arrived one day at the hometown of Reb Shmuel Munkes, a noted disciple of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi. After reading his letter of approbation, lauding him as a Tzaddik wont to wander from town to town for the sole purpose of inspiring fellow Jews, the townspeople invited him to preach.

Throughout his sermon the Maggid berated his simple audience, accusing them of dreadful sins. He proceeded to describe in vivid detail the severe punishment that awaited them as a result of their evil ways. When finished, the proud orator quickly retired to his room, leaving his crestfallen audience to wail over of the Divine retribution about to befall them.

No sooner had he made himself comfortable, when a man with a long knife and sharpening stone entered his room. To the Maggid’s utter surprise, the armed visitor was none other than R’ Shmuel himself.

Bolting the door behind him, R’ Shmuel proceeded to sharpen his knife. After a few tense and wordless moments, the Maggid broke the silence. “What’s this all about,” he asked with a look of astonishment.

His eyes still trained on the sharpening stone, R’ Shmuel replied in mock sincerity: “As the honorable Maggid knows, we simple folk never had the merit of having a righteous scholar in our midst. Who knows, perhaps it is because of our wanton sins.”

Bemused as to where this was heading, the Maggid replied, "Yes, yes, but what does any of this have to do with the knife?"

“Well,” retorted R’ Shmuel, "We were taught by our parents that before Rosh Hashanah one should pray at the gravesites of the righteous.”

“Of course, of course," nodded the Maggid. "But why the knife!?"

“It's rather simple,” explained R’ Shmuel calmly. “The nearest burial site of a Tzaddik is very far from our town. It is extremely cumbersome for the townsfolk to make the yearly trek.”

Now the Maggid was beginning to feel uneasy. “But you still have not explained the reason for the knife,” he ventured, his temples evermore clammy.

"What is so difficult to understand,” asked R’ Shmuel. “The reason for the knife is because it’s high time that we folk have our own righteous burial site!”

As the grim reality began to set in, the Maggid adeptly switched course. “Come to think of it,” he stammered, “I am not all that righteous after all. I have committed some small sins here and there; they were obviously all inadvertent. . .”

R’ Shmuel dismissed the Maggid's confession: “Honored Maggid, you are still very righteous and learned. As for the transgressions? They are so minor; who would even know that these were sins. Your humility is nothing but proof of your exceptional righteousness.”

“On second thought,” stuttered the Maggid, “Some of my transgressions were a bit more serious, such as. . .” R’ Shmuel quickly dismissed these as well: “To us you are still a great Tzaddik. You are far better than anything we have.”

This strange dialogue continued for some time with the Maggid admitting to ever larger transgressions and R’ Shmuel assuring him that he was still well qualified.

Finally the Maggid confessed to some rather ugly and embarrassing transgressions. He admitted that in truth he was far from the great Tzaddik that he portrayed himself to be.

Now R’ Shmuel no longer played the simpleton. Putting away the knife, he rebuked the Maggid for causing the simple, yet sincere, Jews so much anguish.

When satisfied that the Maggid fully understood how to treat his coreligionists, R’ Shmuel unbolted the door and sent the Maggid on his way, a much wiser and more sensitive man than the one who had arrived.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Many years ago I participated in a debate with a group of Conservative and Reform Rabbis on the merits of Orthodox Judaism versus the other sects. (I was subsequently informed that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was not in favor of such debates).

The following is one of several points I raised: Since “Halacha” has been the sole arbiter of Judaism from its inception, three thousand years and counting, how had this Divine and immutable dynamic been substituted by the ideologies that have allowed it to be abolished? In other words, is there another criterion by which Judaism is defined in the absence of Halacha? Is this new definition Divine and immutable, or is it artificial and arbitrary? And if such a standard exists, what might it be?   

The response which I received to this critical, and in my opinion reasonable, question was not at all what I had expected and essentially begged the issue: “Rabbi,” exclaimed one of the panelists, “If Halachic Judaism was so good, why has there been so many defectors? You’re certainly aware that the founders and original constituents of our movement were for the most part Orthodox Jews.”

To this I responded: “Of course I’m aware, but are you aware that it took nothing less than the systematic obliteration of Judaism and Jewish life in Europe, the bastion of Torah practicing Jewry, to cause the breakdown? Indeed, nothing short of a full blown holocaust would allow the fracture of a link in our preciously guarded, three thousand year old, chain of Halachic observance and loyal dedication to the Torah”.

With all the problems facing us these days as a people – staggering Jewish illiteracy, unprecedented assimilation and intermarriage, the post Zionist mentality and the loss of Jewish values – it’s easy to forget who we really are. Our unique essence is completely eclipsed by all the talk about what’s wrong with us Jews. Our sterling history of devotion to our religious mandate – often to the point of self sacrifice – seems to have become diminished by the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Well meaning Rabbis, who are forever badgering their congregations with the dire circumstances and bleak outlooks facing world Jewry, threaten to do more harm than good. “Holocaust Judaism” – the notion held by some that Jewish identity nowadays should be defined by our victim status – likewise doesn’t seem to do much good.

Worst of all however, are those who have given up. Those who lost hope in the Jew’s and Jewry’s ability to make it without selling their souls, or majorly compromising their identity, in the process. Allan Dershowitz, in his book The Vanishing American Jew, for example, suggests that there is no future for Judaism unless it is ready to make radical amendments to its three thousand year old rules regarding Jewish identity, i.e. patrilineal decent and intermarriage. The greatest affront to Jewry, past present and future, is to underestimate its true soul and resolve.

When G‑d told Moshe in our Parsha, Shemos, to gather the elders of the Jewish people in order to facilitate the impending redemption, Moshe protested that they would not believe him. Our Sages explain that by questioning the faith of the Israelites, Moshe spoke improperly.

Upon his expression of skepticism regarding Israel’s willingness to listen and their ability to lift themselves up, G‑d asked him, “What is that in your hand?' And he said; a staff.” According to Rashi G‑d was intimating by this that Moshe was worthy to have been beaten for ‘speaking unfavorably about My children.’” Similarly, the signs Moshe was given, his staff turning into a snake and his hand turning leprous, are interpreted as reflecting G‑d's displeasure with Moshe's “Lashon Hara” about the Jewish people.

It is not hard to understand the source for Moshe's skepticism; he was after all quite aware of the many decades that the Jews had spent in exile. He was cognizant of the fact that the Israelites had stooped to the forty ninth level of impurity and even worshiped idols; he hence felt that they would be slow to respond. Yet G‑d was unhappy with Moshe for speaking ill of his badgered flock. ”What right do you have to prejudge my people? Do you know better than I the resilient nature of their spirit, the invincible temperament of their soul?

G‑d told Moshe that he failed to appreciate the character of the Jews; they are “Believers and the descendants of believers.” This is their essential nature; they are essentially in-salvable, they will therefore never adjust to the state of exile. On the contrary, they would trust that their redemption was imminent.

This idea is further reflected in the conclusion of our Parsha. After Moshe delivered G‑d's message to Pharaoh, our Parsha relates that Pharaoh responded by increasing the severity of the oppression. Upon seeing this, Moshe protested to G‑d: "O Lord. . . Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has further harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people” (Exodus 5:23).

G‑d responded by assuring Moshe that the redemption would come immediately from the most severe depth of slavery. How can this be? Because the Jews are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, as such, they are entireally above exile and are able to go directly from its darkest state to complete redemption.

Based on the above, we can understand why the Jews are described in our Parsha as “Coming into Egypt,” in the present tense. Despite the many years which they had already been in Egypt: Because on any - every - given day, it could be considered as if they had entered Egypt that very day.

Since Jews are bequeathed with all the qualities of the Patriarchs, including those of Yaakov, i.e., the potential to “Strive with angels and men and prevail,” we are, in essence, above the exile. Thus, our existence within the exile is a new development; a present happening. And since, in essence, we are above the exile, even when we are found within the exile, it does not limit us.

This gives new meaning to the verse: “In each and every generation (and as the Alter Rebbe adds, in each and every day), a person is obligated to see himself as if he is leaving Egypt (that day)."

There is a relevant lesson here for our present situation. One must be extremely careful not to prejudge or speak unfavorably about his fellow Jews. If G‑d punished Moshe for prejudging the Children Of Israel before the giving of the Torah, and told him that they are all “Believers and the descendants of believers," how much more so is it the case after the giving of the Torah, after they have been selected by G‑d as “A nation of priests and a holy people.” It is especially true after thousands of years in which the Jews have sanctified G‑d's name through the observance of the Torah and its Mitzvahs to the point of self-sacrifice.

The timely lesson of the above is that we Jews are not the products of Golus but its beneficiaries. No one has the right to render us doomed to its ill effects or prejudge our ability to rise above it. Nor does anyone have the power to predict the failure of our Divine ordained mission as a people which is G‑d's desire for creation as described in his Torah and defined in the Code of Jewish Law/ Halacha. It is only our own perception and additude that can lock us in to a Golus mentality.

By recognizing the true essence and capacity of our souls we will not only avoid becoming subjugated to Golus but actually enjoy its windfalls and reap its rich rewards as promised by G‑d and reiterated by the Prophets throughout history with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.