Us and the world

Joseph Aaron

It is by far my least favorite part of the Passover Seder. Indeed, it is my least favorite line in all of Jewish life.

It is this that has stood by our ancestors and by us. That not one alone has risen up against us to destroy us, but rather in each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.”

I think that line typifies what so dominates so much of the minds of Jews and so much shapes so much of what goes on in Jewish life. The world is out to get us, they have always been out to get us, they will always be out to get us.

That is the fate of the Jewish people. No getting around it, it’s what we have always had to deal with and will always have to deal with.

I find it hard to come up with anything that has done and is doing more damage to Judaism.

There is a reason that so many young Jews are turning away from Judaism, are not interested in Judaism. And it’s hard not to blame them. If we tell a young person, just starting out in life, full of dreams and full of promise, that if they associate themselves with things Jewish, they are destined to be part of a people where ‘in each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,’ you can understand why they might pass.

But those words from the Haggadah, known as the Vi-He She-Amda, negatively affect more than young people, they affect all Jews. So much of Jewish life is marinated with the thought that everyone hates us. The media hates us and Obama hates us and the United Nations hates us and well, pretty much everyone hates us. Hard not to think that when every Seder of our lives, we read about how in each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.

Think what that does to the Jewish keppie, how that shapes how we view the world, how that causes us to overblow everything, exaggerate every danger, devote so much of Jewish life, so much time and energy and money, so many organizations to fighting all the enemies out there against us.

Yes, there may be three Jews on the Supreme Court and yes, three of the last four chairmen of the Federal Reserve were Jews and  yes, Rosh Hashanah and Chanukah get major attention in American society, and yes, Jews have won a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes and yes, Israel has one of the strongest militaries in the world and yes, Jews throughout the world are able to live in freedom and live fully as Jews, and yes, the chancellor of Germany is a strong supporter of the Jewish state and yes, the most powerful country on earth the United States gives Israel more aid each year than it does any other country, but still we can never rest easy, never feel comfortable, never devote ourselves solely and fully to building Jewish life, because we always need to be on guard, always need to be wary, always need to feel that any minute it will come crashing down because, as we well know, in each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.

How I despise that part of the Haggadah, that part of the Seder, that part of Passover, that part of Judaism.

And, by the way, one does wonder if that is even literally true. Of course, if you are conditioned to believe it is so, then you make it true. You see bogeymen everywhere, are convinced that every nasty word directed our way, every ugly action taken against us, is nothing short of an attempt to destroy us.

A couple of years ago, the website actually came up with a chart to prove that indeed in each and every generation they have risen up against us to destroy us.

What fascinated me about that chart is that even it couldn’t come up with things to prove that it has happened in each and every generation. The chart begins with ‘Slavery in Egypt’ in 1430 BCE, but the next listing is ‘Haman’s attempts genocide of the Jews’ in 356 BCE. Well, what about the almost 1,100 years in between? I mean it says each and every generation and there were a whole lot of generations between 1430 BCE and 356 BCE. But if you want to keep Jews always everywhere on edge, you gotta say each and every generation, not from time to time.

And while slavery in Egypt and Haman’s plan for genocide were definitely attempts to destroy us, no question about it, many of the other things listed in the chart, while unpleasant, hardly qualify as attempts to destroy us. Among the listings on that chart of all the rising up against us to destroy us is ‘General Ulysses S. Grant expels Jews from Tennessee’ in 1862.

Look, obviously, there is no question there are some horrible events on that list, a tragic litany of mistreatment of Jews, persecution of Jews, murder of Jews. And some are beyond horrible like the inquisition in Spain, the pogroms in Russia and the systematic extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust.

So yes, in some generations, some have tried to destroy us. And we must always remember that and must never forget that.

But we also must not let the notion that it has been an unending, nonstop, in each and every generation kind of thing, take hold. For a thousand years, Jewish life in Poland was glorious. So it has been in many other places. Not everyone everywhere in every generation has tried to destroy us.

That’s important to remember because we need to recognize that it isn’t happening now and there is no reason to believe it will happen in the future. Jewish life today is amazing, life has never been better for Jews, never have Jews been freer and safer and more able to be fully Jewish. And yet we are squandering that because we don’t trust it, have so baked into our kishkes the idea that in each and every generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us, making us believe we are just as vulnerable today as Jews have ever been and always will be.

And so when Ahmadinejad opened his big mouth in Iran and denied the Holocaust and said he was going to wipe Israel off the map, we were terrified, filled our communal agenda with lectures about it, devoted all kind of Jewish organizational resources to it. When Louis Farrakhan said truly ugly things about Jews, called Judaism a gutter religion we were in a tizzy. So it was when a right wing anti-Semitic politician in Austria got more votes than expected, when the prime minister of Malaysia accused Jews of horrible things. Since we have been conditioned to believe that in each and every generation they rise up to destroy us, we can never be sure when our time has come.

Well, guess what? Ahmadinejad is out of office, Farrakhan is irrelevant, the Austrian politician is long retired, the Malaysian leader finished his term. I’m not saying we should just ignore all threats, dismiss all ugly words directed us. I’m not saying there aren’t anti-Semites out there; I’m not saying there aren’t those who wish to harm us, who say horrible things about us. We should be always vigilant. But we must learn not to overdo it, not to always assume the worst, always see ourselves as a target, under the gun, not assume Israel is always this close to annihilation when it is one of the strongest, most vibrant, most supported countries on the planet. We must not always panic when something bad happens, assuming it will only get worse, we must not waste so much of our resources, so much of our emotional energy, so define our Judaism by the crazy haters who say and do nasty things to us.

No, it has not been and is especially now simply not true that in every generation there is someone who rises up to destroy us. Destroy is a very strong word to be used very carefully and sparingly. We must learn to be grateful that there is a Jewish state today, we must learn to enjoy that we live in the United States where we are accepted and respected and powerful. We must learn to understand that Jews everywhere in the world are fully able to live as Jews.

Those are not small things, those are things we need to absorb and let shape how we see ourselves as Jews and how we see Jews in the world.

Who scares you today, who do you think wants to destroy us today? The ayatollah in Iran? First, he’s a sick old man, second, Iran is overwhelmingly a youthful population much more intested in living their lives than in hating Israel and third, the Iran deal, as much as Trump and Bibi are trying to trick us into believing otherwise, has frozen Iran’s nuclear program and made clear to Iran how much it has to gain not pursuing it, how much it has to lose if it does. Are you scared of Hamas, Hezbollah? Yes, they are dangers, need to be watched, need to be defended against us, but while they might say they want to destroy us, they don’t have the ability to rise up against us to do so, could and would be crushed by Israel’s military if they tried.

Almost no one today wants to destroy us and those who do, aren’t able to. Problem is we assume there is always someone ready to do so and that distorts how we live our Jewish lives. So please don’t pollute your Jewish soul with irrational fear, don’t warp your mind believing that it is our fate, our lot for someone to rise up against us to destroy us. Jews today have so much to be grateful for, and yet we waste so much of our Jewish lives wondering who to be fearful of.

And so when you come to that part of the Haggadah where it talks about how in each every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, do as the old song goes, namely accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Focus on what comes right after that sentence about destroying us. What comes next is this: “And The Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands.”

What is truly eternal in Judaism, each and every generation, is that G-d is always with us, with us as the Jewish people and with each and every one of us. There is a G-d who loves and protects us, who made us His Chosen People and we need to always remember that, always be comforted by that.

And so instead of letting the first part of the Vi-He She-Amda scare and depress you, make you feel it is inevitable someone will be out to get you, put your Jewish heart and soul into the second part, the part about G-d always rescuing us, meaning He is always there with you, that the one above is always caring for you.

1 Comment on "Us and the world"

  1. Everytime I read an article in the CJN that I simply can not agree with, it turns out to be written by Joseph Aaron. This as been going on for as long as I can remember.

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