Friday, March 15, 2002
First, apologies for not posting since Monday. It's been a busy week. Second, apologies for (a) being a broken record on the subject of the situation in Israel, and (b) not expressing with sufficient anxiety the emotions we all feel. It is not my forte.
On erev Rosh Hodesh Nissan (this past Wednesday), we (all Jews) were asked by the Israeli Chief Rabbis to fast in observance of a Yom Kippur Katan (a minor day of atonement) on account of the situation. It was an extraordinary request. I do not think that such a request has been made since the establishment of the State. The terms of the request called to mind the fast Esther called for her people to observe in advance of her approach to her husband and king, Achashverosh of Persia, to plead for her people's life.
This comparison is in itself extraordinary. Two striking things about the Book of Esther are: the absence of any explicit reference to the Almighty and the utter defenselessness of the people of Israel against the will of the King. I think most of us understand the Book of Esther as a paradigm of Israel's existence in exile, in our helplessness and reliance on a higher power that we cannot even name, and in the almost inscrutible evil of our foremost enemies. Zionism was supposed to change this paradigm for good. How strange, then, that in our day, with Israel a sovereign state with a powerful army, navy and air force, and supported by the greatest power on Earth, we must turn to the Almighty in the same terms that we did in the days of Esther.
I davenned mincha (which I do not ususally do at all, much less in a minyan) this past Wednesday at the Radio City synagogue. It's in an office in the diamond district, a small room already full when I arrived with men studying Talmud. The rabbi had a mellifluous voice, twinkling eyes and a great beard down to his protruding belly - he was almost a caricature of the rabbinic, and he read from the Talmud so quickly that I could not even catch the words, much less make out the meaning. After the Talmud study was over, he read a few words in English from the Chofetz Chayyim on that tzaddik's favorite topic, lashon hara (gossip, or, more generally, sinning with words). The little room filled with more and more men, until we were packed one against the other like a crowded subway car, until we flowed out the door into the antechamber. When the service began I tried to follow along, successfully enough when it corresponded to the regular weekday mincha service or with the more familiar parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy, less so when it drifted into passages that I had never read before. It is interesting how one loses one's hunger when engaged in continuous prayer, even if one is struggling to follow along. The tenor of the prayers is the same as Yom Kippur: we have sinned, and we confess it, and ask for forgiveness in the face of dreadful punishment. It felt strange to voice such sentiments out of their sacred season, and strange to think on this injunction to repent in the face of calamity, as if we could influence the Almighty in this way, as if the Book of Job did not put paid to this idea, as if the six million did not put paid to this idea, as if every cruelty daily visited by man or nature upon innocents did not put paid to this idea. It is a strange injunction, but it is somehow right in a way that is hard to articulate.
A book I read recently which I heartily recommend came to my mind several times that day and since: Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, by Alan Guelzo. It is an intellectual - or, better yet, a spiritual - biography of Lincoln. Lincoln was, strangely, both one of the least and one of the most religious Presidents in American history. In one sense, he seems to have seriously doubted the existence of God, and he was never an orthodox Christian or even a regular member of a church. But he meditated deeply on the workings of Providence, and over the course of the Civil War came to very different conclusions about that Providence than he had held at the war's start. At the outset of the Civil War, President Lincoln felt that "real" war would not come, or if it did it would be brief, because the South was violating the laws of nature (so he thought) by their actions in defense of the slave system, and the North would naturally prevail. But as the war ground on, and victory receded, Lincoln did not despair of the rightness of his cause, but changed his views of Providence. Lincoln came to the following conclusion (I paraphrase his words): that there is a Higher Power that wills this conflict, and wills it to continue. It was after this change in his appreciation of God's ways on earth (and, I think, in part because of it) that Lincoln moved further in the direction (always equivocal) of turning the war's aims against slavery itself, and not only against secession.
That phrase - "there is a Higher Power that wills this conflict, and wills it to continue" - is what had stuck in my mind particularly. We can know that God has a purpose in events, and know the moral contours of the conflict, and yet God may not will a quick victory for the side of right. As our current President said in his magnificent September 20th address (and I paraphrase again), we are in a conflict between good and evil, and God is not indifferent between them. But while we are told that God is a man of war, we can have no confidence with what arms and in which battles He will fight. The KB"H no doubt has His own reasons for putting us through the trials we are currently suffering, and He will not bring them to an end until His purpose has been served. This is not fatalism; it is humility, a recognition that the ways of God are not those of man, and that we should not be too confident that we understand God's purpose. But it is a humility of an exalted kind, for while we may not know God's purpose in events, we know His purpose for us - as human beings and specifically as Jews. And because that is the only purpose we know, it is appropriate in times of extremity to measure ourselves more stringently against that purpose.
Zionism changes nothing about the fundamental Jewish condition; I have said this before and I will repeat it. That is not a defect in Zionism; it is a fact about Judaism. The existence of the IDF changes nothing about our dependence on the Almighty, and it only changes, but does not eliminate, our dependence on the nations of the world. And so it is not strange for the Chief Rabbis of Israel to ask Jews worldwide to call out to the Almighty in a dark hour, as Esther did in what seem very different times.