By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
OK, I admit it. I’m not sure how I would have behaved if I were in the position of the Jews back in the Wilderness. We always criticize their lack of faith in G‑d and the rough time they gave Moses. Even as G‑d was providing them with the most incredible miracles — bread from heaven and water from rocks — they were busy moaning and groaning throughout. But would I have acted differently? Who knows? You think it was easy to live in a desert, even with all the miracles in the Bible? So I’m not all that confident that I would have never complained myself. I suppose a lot depends on a person’s attitude and perspective in life.
I once heard a powerful insight in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein, one of the outstanding halachic authorities of our time, who passed away in 1986. He was speaking of the generation of Jewish immigrants to the United States who spawned what became known as the “lost generation.” Why was it that the children of parents who were religious, or at least traditional, moved so far away from the Yiddishkeit of their parental homes?
Reb Moshe argued that it could be summed up in one simple question of attitude. Did those parents convey to their children that Judaism was a burden or a bonus, a pleasure or a pain? Was the constant refrain these children heard at home “Oy, es iz shver tzu zein a Yid!” (Oy, it’s hard to be a Jew!) or “Ahh, es iz gut tzu zein a Yid!” (Ahh, it is good to be a Jew!)? Was being Jewish in those early days in America something to krechtz and sigh about, or something to celebrate and sing about? Whether children grew up hearing that Judaism was a pain or a privilege would determine whether they embraced it happily or escaped from it at the first opportunity.
According to Reb Moshe, the success or failure of an entire generation hinged on attitude.
Indeed, we know of many Jews who survived the Holocaust and because of their horrific experiences perceived being Jewish as a “death sentence.” There were those who sought to run as far away from Europe as possible. Many found their way to Australia and became “closet Jews.” Some never even told their children that they were Jewish.
It was for this reason that the late chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits argued that while Holocaust education was very important, there was a danger in overemphasizing the Holocaust in Jewish day schools. We want our children to see that Judaism is a blessing, not a curse. Our Jewishness should not be dark and depressing, but bright and joyous.
I remember having a discussion with a group of businessmen some years ago, when we were trying to put together a slide show to promote one of our local institutions. We were looking for a particularly powerful scene. One prominent doctor suggested that, for him, the single most powerful scene in Jewish life was the rabbi walking into the house of mourning carrying his bag of prayer books. To him, that may have been powerful, but, as a rabbi, I had never heard anything so depressing. What am I, the Angel of Death?
The Jews in the Wilderness had their own issues. We should try to learn from their mistakes and be more faithful and trusting in the leadership of the Moses of our own time. But beyond that, let us not whine and whimper about the challenges of Jewish life. Let us convey to our children that Judaism is a joy and a privilege. Then, please G‑d, they will embrace it for generations to come. v
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.