24 August 2010

Compelled

14 Elul 5770
The establishment of the State of Israel is a contemporary example of God's intervention to an undeserving generation.  Although previous generations of Jewish leadership were spiritually exalted, why did Hashem see fit to bestow the State of Israel to our generation, in an age of religious and moral midgets, as it were?  The reason is that earlier generations did not need a State of Israel for their Judaism to survive.  Ezekiel was able to experience God in exile, in a concentration camp in Babylonia.  In contrast, without a State of Israel today the Jewish people would be lost in a tidal wave of assimilation.  Hashem approaches man on Yom Kippur because, in a real sense, He has no choice.  He is compelled to forgive His people:  "Peace, peace to him that is distant and that is near, says Hashem...and I will heal him."  (Isaiah 57.19)--from Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the Days of Awe.
One of the most challenging of theological constructs but one which, in a complicated and deeply conflicted way, I believe with all my heart.  I read this essay of Soloveitchik's each year at this time and this year, I sat still afterward and thought of all the ways that Israelis and the Israeli experience have influenced countless Diaspora Jews to actually remain Jewish, an explicit goal of early Zionism, which understood that not only anti-Semitism but the process of assimilation was an existential threat to the Jewish people at the close of the 19th century.  Early Zionist thought was about saving the Jews in their national and historic homeland, to be sure; but it was from the dual external threats of both violence and acceptance, depending upon the specific set of circumstances under which Jews were living at any given time.  And while it's true that I don't see God's hand *specifically* in the establishment of the state, I do understand as miraculous not only its existence but its revived language, its diverse and multicultural population, and its place among the nations as a source of good (obviously made all the more complicated when, as a nation, it behaves *badly*, as of course, all nations do from time to time.)

Soloveitchik makes me come to terms with the way in which historical forces have the tidal sweep of the Divine, the Source of Life, embedded in their very nature.   We humans make history and history in turn makes us--it's an age old debate, considered by countless philosophers and religious leaders over the ages.  Here Soloveitchik cleverly teaches that repentance cannot be complete without our role in understanding our inherently sinful ways but that for that understanding to be realized, we need Hashem, here understood as the What Is, What Was and What Will Be, to be compelled to act, meet us, forgive us, and heal us.  A humbling so overwhelmingly powerful as to absorb us into the very process that brought us forth into the world.

Soloveitchik reminds us that this why, on Yom Kippur, the service leader fully prostrates himself before God, in front of Ark, on behalf of himself, his family and his community--one has to physically change one's condition in order to fully subjugate oneself to a higher will.  The Great Aleynu is the quintessential moment of re-starting one's place from the ground up.

The first time I traveled to Israel in 1985, I walked for what felt like two straight days.  Jerusalem overwhelmed me and I couldn't stop walking.  Despite the enveloping July heat that year, I walked for miles and miles, taking in what I could at every place I could.  And then I got sick for a week.  Dehydrated, disoriented, I had to be hospitalized for a day until some fluids could be pumped back into me and my brain could re-orient itself to a new reality.  My doctors at Hadassah Hospital were amused by my bright eyed optimism and as I came to, we bantered about Milwaukee and Jerusalem, Europe and America, and all the lives lived and lost to create a nation.  One of the residents was a bit older than me but his dad was my dad's age and we compared notes about what our fathers were doing in the 1940s.  I told him stories about my dad's exploits in Madison, his service in the Second World War, and his time back in Madison on the GI Bill, graduating in 1948.  His dad lived an equally romantic youth, while also creating a state.  Each young man, in their twenties at the time, had very little choice in the matter of what they did--they were swept up in the process of making and being made, never too sure when they were doing the pushing themselves or being pulled along.

But without a doubt, one young man fought for his country in order for a Jew to be an American; and another young man fought for his country in order for a Jew to be a Jew.  Both raised sons to be Jews, to be sure; but with all my freedoms, I've had to fight harder to be an internal Jew while my resident, no doubt, fought harder to be an external Jew.

Two religious and moral midgets, in a hospital room on Mount Scopus, trying to figure out how we got there and why.  It was early July when I got sick that year; by mid August I was tearing up my ulpan class and fully moving into the rhythm of the year.  And by Yom Kippur that September, I watched the service leader kneel down on the floor and lay his head down, to diminish himself physically in order to attain a spiritual humbling not only before God and the Source of Life but the Forces of History as well.

"He has no choice.  He is compelled."

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