One of the unfortunate side effects of the advancement of technology is that as we do more and more on our cell phones, tablets and computers we become more and more isolated from each other and the world around us. Isolation takes many forms. How many of us go into our garages from our homes in the morning, drive to the garage at work and walk to our office never being outside all day? Add to this feeling of isolation the increasing sense of entitlement spreading throughout society and you get a formula that has led to the mantra of our time: “What have you done for me lately?”
We all pursue what makes us happy—even if it’s 4-6 hours a day of television and video games. Our technology has taught us to expect what we want—now! Amazon announced last month that it’s working on drones that will deliver our packages to our doors the same day we order them. No wonder we have such short memories and no wonder that we ask: “What have you done for me lately?”
And it’s not just society. It has significantly affected us—American Jews. Whether you noticed it or not, American Jews are raising a whole new generation who feel little or no sense of attachment to Israel or Jewish life. They don’t remember—because they weren’t born yet—how the fledgling Jewish state restored Jewish pride to all Jews after the Holocaust. They don’t know about the thrill the 6-Day War in 1967 gave Jews throughout the world as they held their heads high for the 1st time in thousands of years. And they never knew the absolute dread and terror we all felt in 1973 as the Jewish State—unprepared, caught with its pants down—was attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year when most soldiers were in shule.
Today, the latest surveys—like last fall’s Pew Research Center survey of Jewish Americans—report that almost a 1/3 of young Jews under 35 no longer identify themselves as Jews. They don’t remember the bubies and zeydies of old who showed us how rich and important Jewish life is. But that’s a sermon for another time. For them, their feelings for Israel and Jewish life are directed by the mantra: “What have you done for me lately?”
There’s a story of a man who approached his friend of many years and asked him for help. He was a retired World War II veteran and he had incurred serious medical bills. His assets were eroded by a bust in the real estate market, and the man to whom he entrusted his pension fund was last seen making heavy bets in a Bahamas casino.
“I need to pay my last 6 months’ mortgage payments or they’ll take my house,” he pleaded with his friend.
After a few moments he responded, “Why did you come to me?”
“Why did I come to you? Who crossed a mine field under enemy fire in World War II and carried you to safety?”
“It was you.”
“And when your business went under after the war and you were homeless, who took you and your wife and 4 kids into his home?”
“And who gave you the start-up loan for your hugely successful business when nobody would lend you money because of your lousy credit record?”
“So why won’t you help me out now when I need help? I helped you when you needed help.”
“That was 40 years ago—what have you done for me lately?”
Many years ago when I was a rabbi in southern New Jersey, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer that I saved because it told a great story. The President of Cyprus’ son was kidnapped. His kidnappers threatened to kill the young man if certain political prisoners were not released. The president refused and—after 4 very tense days—his son was released unharmed. As he arrived home, his mother rushed out, embraced him declaring: “This is the happiest day of my life!”
Rabbi Greenberg asked: Why should this be so? What did she have that day that she didn’t have 5 days before? She was back at the starting point. Or was she? Of course, you know the answer. She realized the value of something she had long taken for granted and then almost lost. Only when she faced the abyss, when she realized that she might never see her son again, did she realize how important he was to her.
The importance of things lies not in its price, nor even in our possession of it, but rather in the place it holds in our lives—like the person who complained about their lack of shoes until they saw someone who had no legs. We take so many things for granted—hearts that beat, eyes that see, ears that hear and other parts of our bodies that work every day 24/7—in spite of our lack of support for them and in spite of the abuse to which we often subject them. Only after one of them begins to break down do we suddenly realize how important it is to us. Like the First Lady of Cyprus, we really learn to appreciate that which we almost lost.
I wonder if the world would appreciate the Jewish people if they were lost. After the Holocaust we thought that the world finally understood about anti-Semitism. But the shame of the Holocaust has been too easily being forgotten—replaced today by a more sophisticated anti-Semitism called anti-Zionism with its BDS—boycott, divestment, sanctions—movement. It calls for a boycott of Israeli products, divesting from Israeli companies or companies that do business with Israel and for placing severe sanctions upon Israel. The BDS movement had not gathered much steam in the US until last month when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Now the Modern Language Association (MLA), a far more prominent group, condemned Israel at its annual meeting in Chicago last weekend.
Scholars at academic conferences are expected to offer original research and analysis in their presentations. The presenters at one MLA session called, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” were all supporters of the BDS movement with some comparing Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany. The moderator was, of course, a radical Arab, Prof. Samer Ali. While the MLA did not yet join in the boycott of Israel—that they left for another time—it did censure Israel. In essays and public statements their message was clear, reports the Wall Street Journal: “Israel, the worst human-rights violator on the planet, deserves to be made a pariah among nations.”
Meanwhile, the MLA denied press credentials to 2 reporters: one from a conservative paper, the Daily Caller and the other from the Jewish News Service. This shows that the MLA, the organization which claims a principled devotion to academic freedom, needs a lesson in freedom of the press! And the Wall Street Journal further reported: A truer indication of the real goal is the boycott movement’s success at increasing intolerance on American campuses. Junior faculty members sympathetic to Israel fear for their jobs if they make their views known…The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors. Period.
Charles Krauthammer in last Friday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote: And don’t tell me this is merely about Zionism. The ruse is transparent. Israel is the world’s only Jewish state. To apply to the state of the Jews a double standard that you apply to none other, to judge one people in a way you judge no other, to single out that one people for condemnation and isolation —is to engage in a gross act of discrimination. And discrimination against Jews has a name. It’s called anti-Semitism!
I say, let them boycott and divest from Israel. Only let them also be honest and true to their cause and boycott, that is, refrain, from using anything developed by Israel like key components in their cell phones, their tablets and computers…and let them refrain from using all the new amazing medical advances coming out of Israel…and refrain from eating produce grown with some of Israel’s amazing innovative farming technologies. With regard to the Jewish people, it can be said that we have given the world so much over the centuries and in each century. We have more than fulfilled Gd’s blessing to Abraham (Gen. 12:13): “And through you will all the families of the earth be blessed.” So when asked, “What have we done for the whole world lately?” We should answer with pride, “Plenty!”
Just wait for the Super Bowl. Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson—now known as the sexiest woman alive—will star in Israel-based SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial. SodaStream manufactures its products near Maaleh Adumim, which the Boycott Israel movement considers the dreaded Occupied West Bank even though it’s only 5 minutes from certain Jerusalem neighborhoods. It employs both Palestinians and Israelis with equal rights and conditions. Let’s see if the boycotters will be intellectually honest. Will they demand that people not see Johansson’s new movie, “Her?”
We Jews have also fallen victim to the “What have you done for me lately?” syndrome. We see it in last week’s Torah reading. Gd sent 10 plagues that brought the Egyptians to their knees. He parted the waters of Red Sea. And almost immediately the Jews forgot how much Gd has done as they began to kvetch, to “complain.” They complained about the lack of water because the water they were given was not so sweet. After Gd sent them a miracle food they called manna, they complained because they wanted meat. They were—in effect—asking Gd, “What have You done for me lately?” It took 40 long years till they got to the Promised Land, but they finally got the message.
And that message is that Gd always watches over us. When the people cried out for water, there were 12 springs of fresh water—one for each tribe—waiting just around the corner. All the people had to do was to trust that Gd would take care of them. When we lose our trust and faith in Gd, we become vulnerable and—as we saw in last week’s parsha—Amalek and the enemies of the Jews will attack us.
As the Pew poll of Jewish Americans pointed out, 1/3 of young Jewish adults no longer identify as Jews. Among the non-orthodox, that number is significantly higher. And the numbers are similar for how many young Jews today really care about the State of Israel.
In today’s Torah reading Gd reveals himself to the Jewish people with the 10 Commandments at Sinai. The Jewish people make a bris, a covenant, with Gd to keep His Torah and draw closer to Him and to appreciate what Gd does for them every day.
My friends, we ignore Gd at our peril. 10-15 years ago many of us had thought anti-Semitism was disappearing. But now we have seen its return in new, but still very potent forms. Is it a coincidence that as the Pew survey of Jewish Americans reveal Jews increasingly drawing away from Gd and His Torah, the BDS movement and world-wide anti-Semitism grows stronger and stronger? Yes, we ignore Gd at our peril!
How do we behave so as not to ignore Gd? Well, 1st of all, in the Torah Gd asks for regular meetings with us on Shabbat and holidays. In fact the Torah calls most holidays, mo-adim, “meetings.” It’s not enough to just show up on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and an occasional Bar Mitzvah. You show Gd that you’re not ignoring Him when refrain from eating those foods He told you not to eat. You show Gd that you’re not ignoring Him when you come to a class of Jewish learn and when you read a Jewish book.
One more thing. When a Jew rises in the morning, our tradition has him recite a blessing thanking Gd for giving us working organs. It reminds us that if any of these should seriously malfunction, our continued life would be jeopardized. This prayer tells us that we need to start every day reflecting on how our very lives are a gift, a miracle we live daily. Do we have to survive an Auschwitz, or a car crash, or a war in order to appreciate the redeeming significance of the ordinary, daily stuff—the beating heart, the morning kiss, the company of those whom we love or those with whom we work?
When we develop such an appreciative attitude, if we ask ourselves, “What has Gd done for me lately? we can answer with gusto, “Plenty!” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis