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ב"ה

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A JEW?

Thursday, 26 August, 2021 - 9:12 pm

A couple is in the midst of a tremendous fight, as a gunman breaks into their home. Pointing his rifle at the woman of the home, he asks her for her name. The terrified woman mutters, “Elizabeth.”


“This is your lucky night,” the gunman responds. “I just can’t get myself to kill somebody who carries my mother’s name, may her soul rest in peace. My mother was a special woman. I won’t shoot you.”


He then points the riffle at her husband’s head. “What is your name?” thunders the gunman. The poor man is terror-struck. He knows that his answer will equal life or death, and pauses to think.

“If you don’t want your brains blown out, tell me your name right now!” the gunman shouts.

“My name is Harry,” the horrified man replies, “but they call me Elizabeth.”

It is a strange verse in this week's portion Ki Tavo. The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for forty years. Moses is speaking to the Hebrews just weeks before his own passing. 

Moses was saying that precisely then as they stood poised to finish their years in the desert and enter the land of Israel that they became a nation. But why?

The answer to this question is extremely relevant today.

When is the first time we, the Jews, are defined as a nation? When is the first time we are mentioned as a people? Who conferred on us first the title of Nation?

Throughout Genesis, we are not called a nation even once. Then we are a family. We are titled “the children of Israel,” coming from our father Jacob who was later named Israel. Who, then, decided to alter us from a family into a nation, a people?

The answer is astounding. The title “nation” is conferred upon the Hebrews by non-other than… Pharaoh, the tyrannical Emperor of Egypt, at the beginning of Exodus.

A new king arose over Egypt. He said to his people, "Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are.

Pharaoh then develops a program of genocide for the blossoming nation who, he fears, will take over Egypt expel the natives.

Indeed, in this week’s portion, it states: “Our ancestors went down to Egypt and there they became a nation.”

Some 130 years passed since Pharaoh made that claim, and Moses’ says Today you have become a nation! How can this be?

The Torah, in a subtle and sophisticated way, is addressing one of the great questions that would define the Jew throughout history. What does it mean to be a Jew? What makes you Jewish? What is the common thread that binds all Jews?

There are two answers to that question, and they essentially capture two definitions to Jewish nationhood. One was given by Pharaoh; the other by Moses. Pharaoh defines us as a nation in terms of anti-Semitism. We are the group that poses a challenge to the Egyptian Empire and to humanity in general. What makes us Jewish is that Pharaoh is threatened by us, loathes us, and is determined to destroy us. What binds us as a people is the fact that Pharaoh hates us.

Is it not astonishing that our first mention ever as a nation, as a people. The Egyptian monarch declares, that “behold this nation, the children of Israel, pose a threat to the rest of us.” What makes us Jewish? What is the definition of our nationhood? The group evokes deep hatred and triggers profound hate.


Moses’ definition of our people-hood is radically different. “You shall become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” he tells us at Sinai. Or in his words in


Ki Tavo: “Today you have become a nation, and you shall observe all of G-d’s mitzvoth.” We are bound together by a vision to construct a holy world, to grant history the dignity of purpose, to build a world saturated with light and love. What unites is a covenant of love, a shared commitment to recognize the image of G-d in every human being, and the unity of humanity under a singular G-d.

What binds us as a people, says Moses, is that you Pharaoh hates you but 


that G-d loves you.

Why is Moses so adamant declaring “TODAY you have become a nation.” Not yesterday, but today. I know that some of you might be tempted to define your nationhood in terms of negativity. I know that some of you may allow Pharaoh to define the meaning of being a Jew: the Jew is the one who is abhorred by tyrants of all times, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to the Iran mullahs.

No, says Moses. Don’t allow the Pharaohs of history to define the meaning of being a Jew. “Today you have become a nation.” The meaning of being a Jew is that you were chosen by G-d to be His ambassador to the world—an ambassador of love, light, hope, morality, justice, peace, and holiness.

I once asked someone who is extremely secular, “Are you, my brother?” He replied: “Yes I am,” “I am Jewish. A proud Jew.”

“What connects you and me?”

“We share the same destiny,” he said. “Hitler would have sent us both to the gas chambers. Isis, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, see us BOTH as a manifestation of the devil. You are a Jew, I am a Jew. We are subjected to the same fate.”

He is right. But he is wrong. This definition alone is the one that Pharaoh gave us. In his mind, we were a nation in the sense that our blood is less red, that our honor is meaningless, that our property can be taken, that our freedom can be snatched. We are a minority in Egypt with no rights at all. Discrimination against us is justified.


75 years ago, we experienced the same fate. Jews from Berlin and Jews from Warsaw had the same fate. Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Jews from Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine, Italy all shared the same destiny. Left-wing communist Jews and or Right-wing Zionists, reform and orthodox, were all decimated with the same glee and passion. We were united by hate.


Comes to Moses and tells the Jewish people, Today you have become a nation! Today! Here not there in Egypt.


You can’t inspire your children to remain proud Jews if our only understanding of Jewish identity is the bad things that happened to us. Why would you want to be part of such a people? Besides, when you are living in a blessed country that treats all its citizens with equal dignity, what keeps you Jewish then?


Will we be bound only in the covenant of fate? When we suffer together, when we face a common enemy, we will unite because we have shared tears, shared fears, so we will huddle together for comfort and mutual protection?

Or will we be bound by the fact that we share dreams, aspirations, ideals! Because we live and breathe the Torah and the Mitzvot!

Rabbi Riskin, related this personal experience from his youth in Brooklyn, NY:

“I had never been to this particular shul before, this renovated hospital turned into a synagogue about two miles from where I grew up in Brooklyn. Nor had I ever prayed with Hassidim. But the Klausenberger Rebbe, was particularly well-known as a saintly Chassidic master who had re-settled those of his Hassidim who had survived the Holocaust in and around the Beth Moses Hospital, in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. And so, one summer morning in 1952 on the Shabbat of Ki-Tavo I set out from my home on Hart Street to the world of black hats and round fur hats, eager for the opportunity to be in the presence of a truly holy man and to experience a Hassidic prayer service.

“Now the Torah reading of Ki-Tavo is punctuated by 53 verses which catalog the punishments in store for Israel when they forsake G-d’s teaching: “If you don’t obey the Lord your God and all His commandments and statutes, then these curses shall come upon you…


“Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the voice says louder came from the direction of the lectern upon which the Rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the synagogue.


“The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their Rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the warning out loud?


The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the Rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation, and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: ‘I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear, we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!’

“The Rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the scintillating out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat. I had heard that the Rebbe lost his wife and 11 children in the Holocaust… His words seared into my heart.


“I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!”


“After the Service ended, the Rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul.


“ My beloved brothers and sisters,’ he said, ‘Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move – hopefully the last one. G-d promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come. The blessings will come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.’


“And so Kiryat Sanz was established in Netanya where the Rebbe built a Torah Center as well as the acclaimed Laniado Medical Center.”


Rabbi Halberstam was right. We cannot be a nation that dwells on the “curses” that have befallen us. Of course, we must remember our past, and fight with unwavering clarity and passion against every enemy that wishes to bring curses to our people, heaven forbid. We must never ever forget that Iran and all fundamentalist Jihadists did not dot distinguish between the most Right-wing Chassidic Jew and the most left-wing liberal Jew. They want them both cursed and hunted down. We must thus unite as true brothers and stand up for our people, for Israel, for our homeland, and for justice and peace.


But our curses must never define us. Our blessings must define us more than anything.


Indeed, “it is time He sends the blessings!” It is time He sends the greatest and most vital blessings, the blessing of Moshiach and our true and complete redemption, now!

 

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova A Happy and a Sweet NEW YEAR,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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