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Parshas Balak (5775)

The 17th of Tammuz and the 4th of July

Every summer around the beginning of July, I am always struck by the irony of the coinciding of July 4th, Independence Day, with the Jewish fast day of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, the Seventeenth Day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. (Every ten to twenty years, these two commemorative days actually fall on the exact same day – the last time that happened was in 1996 and the next time will be this year – but they are always within at least a few weeks of each other.)

As we all know, Independence Day, commonly known as the Fourth of July, is a federal holiday commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain and the right to live in freedom in our own land.

The fast of Shivah Asar B’Tammuz, on the other hand, traditionally marks the beginning of a tragedy-filled, three week period ending on Tishah B’Av (the Ninth Day of the Hebrew month of Av), when both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, and the Jewish people lost their independence and were exiled from their land. [To learn more about the “Three Weeks” and Tishah B’Av, click here].

Can you see the irony here? At the very same time that we, as loyal and patriotic American citizens filled with gratitude for this wonderful country in which we live, are meant to be enjoying the beautiful Fourth of July fireworks after eating hot dogs and french (american?) fries at the neighborhood barbeque, we are also, as faithful and traditional Jews, supposed to be pondering the flames that engulfed our Holy Temple so many years ago when the Romans killed many of our people and expelled us from our true homeland. Crazy, isn’t it?

I always wonder what would happen if the President of the United States of America would enter any synagogue on a typical weekday morning during Shacharis (the Morning Prayer Service) and listen to some of the traditional blessings being said by the congregants as part of the Shemoneh Esrei (“Eighteen-Blessing”) prayer, such as the blessing of Tekaa b’shofar gadol, in which we ask G-d: “Sound the great Shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth”. Or how about this one at the very end of the Shemoneh Esrei: “May it be Your will, Lord our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt, speedily in our days … and may we serve You there with reverence, as in days of old and in former years”. How do you think the President would react?!

Now imagine if Barack Obama were to join a Jewish family for the Passover Seder and, at the end of the long Seder, hear them all chant with great feeling and longing: “Next Year in Jerusalem!” What would he say to that?

With a confused look on his face, the President would probably ask the Shul congregants or his Seder hosts: What’s the matter … you don’t like the U.S.? What’s not to like? Are the politicians too dishonest? The cost of health care too high? Too many guns? And what’s this business about America being an “exile”? Jews are welcomed into our country with open arms and are treated very well! So why the rush to leave and go to the Middle East “as in days of old”?! You don’t hear Irish Catholics in their churches praying “Lord, bring us back to Belfast”! And you certainly don’t hear African-Americans chanting “Next Year in Zimbabwe”! So why is every Jew itching to get out of the U.S.?!

Now all this may sound like a big joke, but you need to know that not too long ago, there were many Jews who thought that “fitting in” as much as possible and being a part of the non-Jewish society around them would solve the problem of anti-semitism, and to whom the idea of publicly proclaiming in the synagogue (or even at the Seder table) that Israel is our true homeland and that we want to return to Zion “speedily and in our days” was anathema.

In fact, in the USA, in 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elo-him in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Posnanski stated that "this country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of G-d our Temple." And the Frankfort-on-the-Main Conference of (Reform) Rabbis on July 15-28, 1845, decided to eliminate from the synagogue ritual "the prayers for the return to the land of our forefathers and for the restoration of the Jewish state." Similarly, at the Pittsburgh Conference of Nov. 16-18 1885, the Rabbis declared: "We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community; and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning a Jewish state."

Of course, all that changed (for the most part) after the Holocaust, when even these Jews came to realize that “fitting in” with the non-Jewish neighbors didn’t exactly protect them from hatred and persecution. As well, when the State of Israel was established in 1948, it became a major source of Jewish identity for Jews all around the world who now embraced Zionism even as they continued to live in the Diaspora (outside of Israel).

Be that as it may, is still quite paradoxical for a Jew living in the Diaspora these days. Whereas, on the one hand, we are loyal, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of the host country in which we reside, on the other hand, one of the most fundamental tenets of our faith is the belief that G-d will bring the Messiah who will lead us out of this exile and bring us all back to the Promised Land of Israel. And for many Jews, it is no simple task to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory loyalties.

Still others are not sure that they would even want to leave the “exile” of North America, with all its creature comforts and relative safety, to follow some Messiah to (what they perceive to be) the unstable and uncomfortable Middle East. As the following story, told by Rabbi Yissachar Frand about the famous Chassidic Rebbe, Reb Nochum Chernobler (1730-1797), illustrates:

Reb Nochum was once staying at a roadside inn and he arose at midnight to say Tikkun Chatzos. (These are special prayers that holy Jews say at midnight, imploring G-d to bring the Messiah and end the Exile). The innkeeper, a very simple Jew, heard Reb Nochum reciting Psalms in the middle of the night and went down to him and asked him "What are you saying?"

Reb Nochum explained, "I am saying ‘Tikkun Chatzos’ that the Master of the World should end our bitter exile and that we should all go to the Land of Israel, and it should be finally over". The innkeeper was impressed. He went back upstairs, woke up his wife and told her, "You know, there is a Jew downstairs who is praying that the exile should end and that we should all go to the Land of Israel."

His wife turned over and said, "Go to Israel? What is going to be with the farm? What is going to be with the cows? What is going to be with the horses?" The innkeeper was bothered by his wife's questions. He went back to Reb Nochum and said, "But Reb Nachum -- what will be with the farm and the cows and the horses?" Reb Nachum said to him "You're worried about the cows and the house and the barn? -- And when the Cossacks come and the Tartars come and they pillage and plunder -- then you're happy? Is that what you want? G-d will take us to Israel -- no more Cossacks, no more Tartars!"

Again the innkeeper was impressed. He ran back upstairs and related Reb Nachum's response to his wife. The wife said "Go tell Reb Nachum that G-d should take all the Cossacks and all the Tartars to the Land of Israel and we'll stay here with the farm and the cows and the horses!"

I guess the take-home message for all of us – at this time of year when we celebrate Independence Day while entering into the saddest three weeks on the Jewish calendar - is this: As good as we think we might have it today, living in the most hospitable and friendly country the Jewish people have ever known, we must remember that we are still in ‘exile’. True, we might not be losing Jewish lives to pogroms, inquisitions and holocausts today like we did in Europe for well over a thousand years, but we are losing many, if not more, lives in other ways – through assimilation and intermarriage. Not to mention the general moral decay and breakdown of family values that has permeated much of Western society today, which makes it very hard for a Jew to live a deep, meaningful and spiritually fulfilling life in this environment.

It is for these very reasons that, even today in the “luxury” of North America, we should all be longing for a better time – a time when all of our Jewish brothers and sisters will be united as one happy family “as in days of old”, and the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d and with tremendous spirituality and meaning.

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