By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
במדבר הגדול והנורא
That great and awesome desert
Much has been said and written about the “galut mentality,” the subservience felt by generations of Jews living in the Diaspora. As second-class citizens for so many generations in Eastern Europe and the Arab countries, Jews, conventional wisdom says, came to lose their self-esteem. Finally, in our own time, the old ghetto Jew would be replaced with a proud, strong, independent Israeli. No more would Moshke the Jew cower before his poretz, the country squire. Jews would now walk tall.
In our parashah, Moshe reminds his people never to forget that it was G‑d who took them out of Egypt and who led them through the wilderness into the Promised Land. And he describes the wilderness as that great and awesome desert. The wilderness before we reach the Promised Land represents the state of exile. And the problem with this wilderness is that we are impressed with it. In our eyes, it is great. The big, wide world out there is great, powerful, impressive, and overwhelming to the Jew.
I think we sometimes forget that the real galut mentality is not necessarily living in a ghetto, but considering the non-Jewish world to be so great. The real exile is the exile within, the exile inside our own heads and hearts. When we attach so much significance to the outside world, we are still living in a state of exile and with a galut mindset, no matter where we may be geographically.
And once we start attaching greatness to this wilderness, our sense of self-worth is further eroded and we begin considering this wilderness not only great but also awesome, even terrifying.
But why? What is so great and awesome about this outside world, about this wilderness? Why does what the non-Jewish world thinks unsettle us? Why do we get so upset, so disturbed by what the world’s media say about us? Why does a cartoonist’s poison pen distress us so? The new Israel was supposed to be different. No more weakness, no more cowardice, gone with the Old World syndromes. So why do we still care what they say? If we are convinced that justice and morality are on our side, then it shouldn’t bother us what others say. If they have a problem with an Israel that can defend itself and stand up and fight its own battles, that’s their problem, not ours. We will do what we need to do.
Why should I respect a world that has lost its moral bearings to the degree that genocide in Africa or Asia goes unnoticed, and Israel – a country that defends its civilian population from terror is characterized the most immoral country on the globe? Why should we be intimidated by a world that smiles upon state-sponsored terrorism while heaping abuse upon us? Why does it still pain us when we hear them say we are guilty of disproportionate responses and excessive force? Why do we suffer anxiety attacks every time the United Nations condemns us?
The answer is that the big, wide world is the wilderness we live in. And that wilderness is perceived by us as great and awesome. And as long as a corrupt, hypocritical, morally bankrupt world impresses us, we will continue to be demoralized by its negative opinion of us.
So know, Jew, that there is nothing whatsoever to be impressed with — that this world is nothing but a wilderness — and a moral wilderness at that. The world’s presidents and prime ministers with all their moral indiscretions give us precious little to be overwhelmed about. The princes of the wilderness society are paupers of the spirit.
Antisemitism is a fact of life and the sooner we accept that reality the healthier and saner we will all be. By all means, wage the diplomatic war; do battle with media bias. Don’t tolerate the blatant hypocrisies. But don’t fret if you fail to turn public opinion around. Remember that the first step to leaving exile is to stop being impressed by it. In order to redeem our land and our people, we must first redeem our own souls and our own self-respect.
May we never forget where our true strength lies. When we remember who took us out of Egypt and led us through the wilderness and who is truly the Great and Awesome Being, then we will truly be able to walk tall and stand proud forever.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.