I have heard about the celebrations around the 350th Anniversary of Jewish Life in the America. Why are we celebrating? Being here in the United States is a national tragedy and part of the Divine punishment imposed upon the Jewish people. As we say in the liturgy, "Because of our sins we have been exiled from our land." I don't think it is appropriate to celebrate our chastisement and punishment; it just doesn't sit right with me. What do you think?
You make provocative point. What are we celebrating? We are, after all, in exile, stationed here in a stopover on the way toward the ultimate redemption, which we hope will bring an era of peace and the fulfillment of the promise of ingathering of the exiles to Zion. However, in spite of this I do think that we have two significant reasons to recognize this particular milestone in our long history. They are grace and gratitude.
First the grace: the initial exile inflicted upon the Jewish people was the exile to Babylonia around the year 586 BCE.
The tragedy was almost unbearable. Is there Judaism outside of Israel? Those who had been exiled cried out, "How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?"
Jewish praxis and the Holy Land were linked intrinsically in their minds, and the startling realization of the disjointing of the two was almost inconceivable. The prophet Jeremiah, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, counseled the exiled with words from God. At the same time he provided generations of future Jews with compelling words of guidance for living in the Diaspora:
"Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel,
To the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon;
Build houses, and live in them, plant gardens, and eat their fruit;
Take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons,
and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters;
that you may be increased there, and not diminished.
And seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you to,
and pray to the Lord for it; for in its prosperity shall you prosper."
Each time I study this passage I am amazed and deeply moved. Here we Jews are being punished, banished and degraded, yet we are given a twofold directive. First, don't despair, build yourselves up - don't stagnate. Second, the fate of your host country is your fate.
Ironically, the nations to which you have been exiled are not to be objects of ire, but rather they are to be prayed for and supported. I believe it is these words of Jeremiah that served as a modus operandi for our people through our lengthy and extensive sojourns.
With grace, deal with what you have been dealt. Though we are separated from the Holy Land, do not despair. The fiery chariot of the Prophet Ezekiel symbolizes the powerful idea of the Divine Presence that travels into exile with the people.
There can be spirituality outside the land; the Shekhina journeys together with the Jews - sanctity can surely be found even outside the land of Israel. You can feel it in houses of worship and places of study, though this is no simple pursuit.
In Eric Selinger's wonderful book, Jewish American Poetry, the chapter titled "Shekhina in America" explores the ideas of spirituality and the struggle and tension of seeking holiness inside a foreign culture. I think we can be proud of our attempt. With grace we have handled the challenge. With grace we have built schools of Torah. With grace we have drawn the Shekhina down, even into America.
The second significant reason for marking this milestone is gratitude. Let us not for a moment forget the sanctuary that the United States has been for our people, from that first moment 350 years ago when a boatload of Jews arrived from Brazil. Many of us have our survival story of how America was the sanctuary for our particular family seeking religious freedom.
Let me share my own story, one of dramatic contrasts. It is the difference between February 1919, and December 2004, the difference between the Ukraine and the United States. On January 11, 1919, the following announcement was posted in my grandfather's shtetl, Felshtin, by the head of the Information Bureau:
"The first warning to the Jewish population. I have learned that the Jewish population is confusing the minds of the peasants. I warn the Jews that the Information Bureau is well instructed. They will all have to pay dearly for this offense, and the peasants themselves will make them pay. You have no one from whom to expect help!"
Six hundred Jews were killed in that pogrom in February, including my grandfather's first wife and two daughters. The carnage was unspeakable. Brutally wounded, he was left for dead.
Flash forward 85 years to 2004. As I climbed the red-carpeted White House stairs this past winter, it was the image of my grandfather who appeared in my mind. I heard music and slowly identified the tune that the uniformed band was playing: "Sivivon Sov, Sov, Sov," a Hanukkah song. I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears began to flow.
I thought to myself, "Why am I walking the stairs to meet the President, perhaps the most powerful person in the world, and why did my grandfather lay in a pool of blood? Why am I honored and my grandfather left for dead?"
Some questions always remain. I am indebted to this country for embracing both of my grandfathers, grandmothers and my parents. If not for the welcoming shores of New York of the late 1920s, I would not be here. Gratitude does not preclude our hopes and dreams for a Messianic tomorrow, but rather it is the stuff upon which we build those dreams.