This week’s Torah portion has the finale of Moshe’s epic speech to the Israelites that makes up most of the Book of Devarim/Deuteronomy. In it is a curious comment regarding how the fate of the Jewish nation is perceived by Gentile nations. It comes on the heels of a warning about the people going astray from God’s Torah and Mitzvot:
And a later generation, your descendants, who will rise after you, along with the foreigner who come from distant lands, will say, upon seeing the plagues of that land and the diseases with which the Lord struck it… And all the nations will say, “Why did the Lord do so to this land? What [is the reason] for this great rage of fury?” Then they will say, “It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, God of their fathers, [the covenant] which He made with them when He took them out of the land of Egypt. (Deut 29:21-24)
This is not the first time Moshe mentions how non-Jews regard us. He did so earlier back in VaEtchanan towards the beginning of Devarim when he encourages the Jewish people to follow the Mitzvot.
Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me, to do so in the midst of the land to which you are coming to possess. And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Surely that great nation is a wise and understanding people.” (Deut. 4:5-6)
The theme here is that non-Jews pay attention to Jews. They are looking at us, and to us, and taking note – for better or, sometimes unfortunately, for worse. Both on a national and on a personal level.
I had a very good lesson about this exactly 10 years ago when we went to Toronto for Atara and Avi’s Sheva Berachot after their wedding here in Florida. Here is a slightly modified version:
Frances ended up sitting next to me on the flight to Toronto. An attractive 30 year old of Italian decent, she was an anxious flier and would get very nervous whenever we encountered turbulence. She tells me I look like her doctor, a Jewish fellow who practices in Mississauga. Addressing her nervousness, I assure her that travelling on I-95 (or the 401) was much more dangerous than any flight.
She tells me of her three-year relationship with a fellow who is 20 years older than her. She is not sure if she should stick it out with him. He still is not fully divorced and has two teenage children but she works for him, he treats her nice and she doesn’t want to go back to being alone. She asks what I think. I tell her that she already knows the answer but that she doesn’t have the guts to bite the bullet and leave him. “You two are in completely different places. What will be in 10 years when he is a retired old man and you are in your prime? Do you want kids, does he want more?” I then proceeded to give her a mini-class about marriage.
She tells me she smokes and knows it’s wrong and how does Judaism view sin. Do I sin? I do and quote her a verse from King Solomon that “there is no such thing as a completely righteous person in the land” and everyone even Moses sinned but we have a process called teshuva/repentance to remedy it. Just as a parent doesn’t give up their love for their child even though they see their flaws, struggles and failings, so too God doesn’t give up on His love for us despite our sins.
She asks about Heaven and Hell, what goes on there, will we see our loved ones in the hereafter and finally, what exactly is our purpose in life. We talk about this and she tells me that everything I say makes a lot of sense. I tell her to check out our website, aish.com which has tons of great material readily accessible to people of all faiths and no, we are not out to convert anybody.
A few days later, returning to Florida back at Pearson airport, Matt starts to chat with me in the customs line (You go through US customs at YYZ). He asks me why I was in Toronto and I explain the idea of Sheva Brachot – a week of dinners and celebration after my daughter’s wedding that just took place.
He was visiting his buddy who plays for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL. Yes, I have heard of Chad Kackert and he reminds me that Chad was the MVP in last year’s Grey Cup. He complains that the US customs agents are not too friendly and why can’t they simply wish you “Welcome Home” when you present your US passport.
We shmuz and he tells me he dated a Jewish girl once. He thinks Judaism is cool. He has a friend “who went to Israel for free just ’cause he was Jewish. That is so friggin’ amazing! I mean, nobody is sending me to Ireland for free because my family is from there!” He tells me that he thinks rabbis are so normal, that you can just go into their office, put your feet up and shoot the breeze and talk about life.
I also tell him that if you are friendly to others, even customs agents, then generally they will reflect that back and be responsive in kind. I gave him my card and we part ways at customs but then I see him again at security. “Hey Matt”, I call out, “Guess what the customs guy said to me? ‘Welcome Home!'”
Too often we Jews are inured from what we read in the papers about anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiments. We think the whole world is against us. We start to believe that the majority of people reflect the views of The NY Times or the BBC. But this is simply not the case. The average non-Jew has a tremendous admiration of the Jewish people. The look up to and respect us for what we have accomplished in the fields of medicine, entertainment and ideas. They appreciate that their doctor or lawyer is often Jewish and they see Israel as a beacon of strength and moral vigor in a part of the world where savagery is the norm.
Furthermore, as Frances and Matt made clear to me, all people appreciate a moral truth and piece of wisdom and deep down are looking for it. It makes no difference if they are black or white or Italian or Jewish or Swahili. We have what people want and we need to learn to get a little more comfortable in our own skin and deliver it to them without shame or suspicion.
Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. It is the day where God judges the entire world and hence the most universal of all holidays. It’s a perfect time for us to reflect upon our role and place in the world and appreciate that we have much to offer it and that non-Jews are open to receiving it. There are a lot more Matt and Frances out there. Let’s learn to embrace and touch them with our wisdom.
And many peoples shall go, and they shall say
“Come, let us go up to the Lord’s mount
To the house of the God of Jacob
And let Him teach us of His ways
And we will go in His paths”
PS I received this email from Chad the following week:
Dear Rabbi Nightingale,
What a refreshing newsletter I received from Matt! He had mentioned to me that he ran into a “badass” rabbi at YYZ. His judgement was spot on. I truly enjoyed reading your newsletter. Even though I have a strong Christian background, the universal truths are always refreshing.
Thanks for keeping the Good Word alive,