74. Mass'e - CROSSROADS

WE HAVE just read the last sidrah in the Book of Numbers. It presents a brief review of the places that the Israelites visited during the forty years of their sojourn in the desert. The entire book is replete with the torments and suffering they endured, the anxieties and doubts they experienced, the rebellions they staged and the severe losses they sustained.

In our sacred literature travel is portrayed as a source of danger and privation. The Talmud and Midrash frequently compare the journey of life to a journey on the road for which adequate and careful preparation and planning are needed. Let me cite one such example.

Our sages tell of a man who was walking in the darkness of night and was afraid of several things. He was afraid of thorns, thistles and pitfalls; of robbers and wild beasts; and he was lost and could not find his way. When he lit a torch, he was able to protect himself against the thorns, thistles and pitfalls. When dawn broke he was no longer afraid of wild beasts and robbers. When he reached a crossroads he was able to find his way (Yalkut Proverbs 6).

In this story, our sages have not only given us a true diagnosis of the anxieties and confusion which have tormented our people through the centuries of the dark galut but have also prescribed a remedy for these maladies. Israel, friendless and alone, has faced many thorns, thistles, and pitfalls. Who were these kotzim ubarkanim? They were frequently thorns that grew in our own backyards—men and women who were born Jews but who brought shame and sorrow to their people. The mosrim and meshumadim , the apostates and informers of the past, the American Council of Judaisms of the present —weren't they kotzim ubarkanim in our flesh?

A certain young man, a student in one of our leading universities, complained the other day that of all the classes that he missed last Passover only one instructor objected, and that one was a Jew. The Gentile professors excused his absence, but the Jewish teacher remarked cynically, "Who declared the Jewish Passover a legal holiday?" It is not very likely he would have adopted a similar attitude toward a Christian student who might absent himself on a Christian holiday. Such a man, and others like him, are thorns and thistles that cause us embarrassment and pain.

The way to handle these kotzim ubarkanim is to weed them out of the garden of Israel. Expose these renegades and brand them as open and avowed enemies of Jewry. Treat them as we treated the Karaites a millennium ago and they will no longer constitute the menace that they are today.

But weeding alone will not do. We must strive to prevent their growth. This can be achieved by tilling, planting and pruning the garden of our people. When a garden is neglected, it will produce thorns and weeds. Those who are afflicted with allergies are well aware of this fact. The same applies to our youth. Neglect the moral training, provide them with no Jewish knowledge, starve them religiously—and a generation of kofzim ubarkanim is bound to flourish. If we will but make a concerted effort to light the avukah, the torch of Jewish inspiration and learning, we will cultivate a veritable garden of joy and delight.

But the Jew has yet another cause for anxiety. "He is afraid of robbers and wild beasts." For many years, our people have been surrounded by enemies who were eager to strip us of our hard won possessions and to devour us.

Do you recall when some of our own people used to say, "No wonder we are despised! We are too clannish, and refuse to adopt the habits and manners of our non-Jewish neighbors. If we would but mingle with them, anti-semitism would be a sad memory of a dead past." Well, times did change to the point that one could hardly tell the different between a Jew and a non-Jew in the streets of London, Berlin, or New York. We threw ourselves heart and soul into the culture of the world. How painfully shocked were we when, contrary to all expectations, Jewry was nevertheless deluged with floods of hatred and barbarism by robber and beasts in human form.

Thank God for the amud hashachar, for the dawn of the new day for our people which came with the birth of the Jewish State. One needs only to attend a session of the United Nations to sense that the world has a different attitude towards the Jew today. True, the delegates of the Afro-Asian and Soviet blocs do not particularly like us, but even they have to take the Stateof Israel into consideration. The life of the Jew is no longer a hefker —free to be dealt with at the whim and caprice of a dictator or bigot, as it was previously. There is Israel to be reckoned with—the State that speaks not only for itself but for every persecuted Jew throughout the world.

Let us therefore say, thank God for the boker which has driven the robbers and wild beasts into hiding, and has thus given us a feeling of security and pride.

The greatest source of our lack of peace of mind today, however, can be attributed to an inner spiritual confusion on the part of a large segment of our people. There are many individuals who are lost in the proverbial woods, of whom it can be said, they do not know their way. There are people who are confused because they have no aim and no goal and are merely blundering along the path of life. This inner confusion is responsible for the psychosis of escapism which makes Jews run to resorts and gambling places to forget themselves, for attempts to crash Gentile society and restricted clubs and neighborhoods where they are unwanted and scorned.

It is in the religious sphere where the confusion which torments our people is most obvious. If it were not for the spiritual tragedy that they reveal, it would be worthwhile for some rabbi to catalogue examples of this affliction that come to his attention while engaged in his ministerial work, or while observing the scene of Jewish life about him. Such a catalogue would no doubt, provide comic entertainment coupled with spirtual shock. One can cite the advertisement in a New York daily that a prominent hotel will have High Holiday services conducted by a well-known cantor and that the menu will include such delicious tidbits as Maine lobster, Long Island crab, and blintzes , too. Or consider the tragic-comic picture of a healthy-looking gentleman leaving the synagogue after Sabbath services, and driving his car six blocks to his home while wearing a yarmelke on his head. Or watch an elderly lady rushing on the eve of Passover to the A & P to buy a fine turkey for her family and guests lekovod yorntov!

Meyer Levin, in The Old Bunch , describes a Seder scene in a wealthy Jewish home in Chicago. Among the guests there is a non-Jewish couple. There is matzo, horseradish and wine on the table. One of the guests makes a valiant effort to answer the questions of the non-Jews concerning the significance of the items on the table. When dinner is served the colored maid brings into the dining room a Virginia ham on a silver tray. What a combination—matzo and ham!

Are these not examples of spiritual confusion for which we ought to beat our breasts a little harder when we repeat the time-hallowed words of the Yom Kippur liturgy, "And for the sin which we have committed against Thee because of a confused heart?"

Several months ago the newspapers reported the tragic story of a lost child. After being missed by his parents for a number of hours, the police were notified. Neighbors joined in the search, but their efforts were fruitless. Several days later, the mother opened the door of a closet that was seldom used and discovered the suffocated body of her child. She became hysterical and cried over and over again, "Why did we run around in circles like mad! Why didn't we open the door of this closet in time!"

That's it! Many of us are confused and are forever running around in circles and getting nowhere in a hurry. We ignore the door that leads to Torah. We continue on the dirt-road that leads to a dead-end of bewilderment of mind and confusion of heart. Let us rather choose the royal road that leads to the service of God and man, to contentment and peace.

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