It happens in airports around the world, or in random places including national parks, hospitals, convention centers, and sporting events. You see each other from a distance. As you get closer, you lock eyes for a moment and finally when you pass, you both knowingly bow your head a bit, maybe exchange a smile as well. Sometimes, it can be accompanied by a greeting—"shalom,” “shalom aleichem,” maybe if it is Thursday or Friday a “good Shabbos”—but often it is a silent nod, a quiet, yet deeply meaningful gesture of more than just an association, but rather a real connection. That nod is a moment in the present that acknowledges a common past and a shared future.
I don’t believe any other race, culture, or ethnicity practices the nod. Asian Americans who don’t know each other pass each other, African Americans, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists... I have never seen them nod, bow their heads, or offer a greeting.
The number of Jews worldwide stands at approximately 15.3 million, still less than before World War II, with 7,080,000 living in Israel and about 8.25 million outside Israel, including approximately 6 million in the United States. Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the foremost expert on Jewish demography, posits that if not for the Holocaust, the number of Jews in the world would likely today be at least 32 million. Indeed, if not for our history of expulsions, persecutions, pogroms, and systematic attempts at our extermination, the number could and should be much higher than that, in the hundreds of millions.
The bottom line is there aren’t that many of us. And so, when we pass each other, we don’t see strangers, we don’t focus on differences of dress, observance or Hashkafa. We see a long-lost member of our family, someone we are excited to unite with, if only for a moment. We are often in unfamiliar places when we see someone we have never met, yet who feels so familiar and we nod. (And we don’t think twice about asking this “stranger” to watch our bag while we buy a drink or use the restroom, such is our inherent trust in our extended family.)
This week, we will observe Shiva Assar B’Tammuz, the fast day that will launch three weeks of mourning, grieving, and reflecting on the historic and spiritual cause of why we remain so few in number.
On April 11, 1944, a young Anne Frank wrote in her diary:
Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly until now? It is God Who has made us as we are, but it will be God, too, who will raise us up again. Who knows – it might even be our religion from which the world and all peoples learn good, and for that reason and that reason alone do we now suffer. We can never become just Netherlanders, or just English, or representatives of any other country for that matter. We will always remain Jews.
Anne Frank was on to something. The Talmud asks, from where did Mount Sinai derive its name? After offering a few alternatives, the Talmud suggests that Mount Sinai comes from Hebrew word “sinah” which means hatred, because the non-Jews’ hatred of the Jews descended upon that mountain when the Jewish people received the Torah there.
Torah demands a moral and ethical lifestyle, an attitude of giving rather than taking, a life of service rather than of privilege, that has revolutionized the world. The Jewish people have been charged to be the moral conscience of the world, a mission they have not always succeeded at, but that nevertheless drew the ire, anger and hatred of so many. For two thousand years the Jews were bullied and persecuted simply because of their Jewishness and all that it stands for.
After the Holocaust, the world gave the Jews a reprieve from their hatred, and for a while we instead were beneficiaries of the world’s pity. But looking at events around the globe, it is rapidly becoming clear that the last 70 years was an aberration. We are witnessing the rise of antisemitism as the world reverts back to its ageless pattern and habit.
The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah 1) teaches that three prophets used the term “eichah” – o how! In Devarim, Moshe asks: "Eichah, how can I alone bear your troubles, your burden and your strife?" (Devarim 1:12) In the Haftorah for Shabbos Chazon, the Prophet Yeshayahu asks: "Eichah, how has the faithful city become like a prostitute?" Lastly, Yirmiyahu begins the Book of Eichah: "Eichah, how is it that Jerusalem is sitting in solitude! The city that was filled with people has become like a widow..."
Eicha – How? How is it that antisemitism persists? Why must they rise up against us in every generation? On Tisha B’Av we will sit on the floor and wonder aloud, eicha? How could it be Jews have to fear for their lives yet again? Eicha – how could it be that today, with all the progress humanity has made, antisemitic views are on the rise and becoming more and more acceptable? Eicha – how could it be that terror persists, that innocent and beautiful people are being murdered guilty only of being Jewish?
Rabbi Soloveitchik tells us that though the Midrash identifies three times the word eicha is used, in truth there is a fourth. When Adom and Chava fail to take responsibility, Hashem calls out to them and says ayeka, where are you? Ayeka is spelled with the same letters as eicha, leading Rabbi Soloveitchik to say that when we don’t answer the call of ayeka, when we don’t take personal responsibility for our problems and blame others, we will ultimately find ourselves asking eicha, how could it be?
We can ask eicha, how could all of these terrible things be, but we may never have a definitive answer. Our job is to make sure we can answer the call of ayeka, where are you? Are you taking responsibility?
We may not be able to fully understand why antisemitism exists, but we can and must remain vigilant in fighting it. We must remain strong in standing up for Jews everywhere. We must confront evil and do all we can to defeat it. And above all, we must do all that we can to take personal responsibility to fulfill the Jewish mission to bring Godliness into the world.
Our job is not to be discouraged by asking eicha, but to ensure that we can answer the call of ayeka. Antisemitism will not come to an end by assimilating and retreating. It will come to an end when we can positively answer the question that the Talmud tells us each one of us will be asked when we meet our Maker: did you long for the redemption and did you personally take responsibility to do all that you can to bring the redemption? Did you truly feel the pain of exile and feel the anguish of the Jewish condition in the world? Do you truly and sincerely care? Did you anxiously await every day for Moshiach to herald in an era of peace and harmony, an end to antisemitism and suffering, to bring about Jewish unity and love, to repair and redeem this world in Hashem’s image?
It isn’t enough to nod at Jews whom we never met and with whom we aren’t about to forge a relationship. We need to offer more than a nod but a hug to those we engage regularly, those who are similar, whose children go to the same school, who daven in the same minyan, who believe and observe just like us, and even more importantly those who make different choices for themselves and their families but who are forever part of our family. In public places our natural inclination is to focus on what we have in common with a fellow Jew and nod. Why is it in our more private lives we are drawn to see our differences and negate?
Fast on Shiva Assar B’Tammuz and fast on Tisha B’av if still necessary, but in between, don’t just abstain from music, haircuts and shaving, engage in going beyond your comfort zone to invite, host, befriend or connect with a fellow Jew who is different than you.
It is not enough to hope for redemption, we must be the catalyst for it. It is not enough to be tired of eicha, we must answer ayeka.