In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn that the children of Gershon were assigned to carry the curtains and tapestries of the Tabernacle. The children of Merrari were assigned to carry the beams, poles, and sockets that comprise the walls. (Numbers 4: 21- 34)Why does the Torah go into detail regarding the minutia of all of the schlepping? To get a job done everyone needs to plays a role even if not glamorous. What do we see as the goal of our project? What is the not-so-glamorous part of our work? While few enjoy doing the schlepping, if we are truly committed to the mission, it does not feel like meaningless scut work.
A story is told of Reb Aryeh Levin, the Prison Chaplain of Pre-State Jerusalem, getting up early each morning for prayer. The story goes:
On his way to the synagogue, he made it a point to greet everyone he met on the street; and he was especially careful to wish a good morning to the street-cleaners, who also rose early to work. Once he told me why he did this: ‘I have affection for the street-cleaners. Just look: When everyone is still asleep, they take the trouble to come and clean the streets of Jerusalem, so as to support themselves by their own honest labor. Their work is not respected; they are not esteemed for it; their salary is niggardly. And still they take their pains to do their task faithfully.’” (Raz, A Tzaddik in Our Time 101)
We all have what to learn from the children of Gershon and Merrari. Just because we schlep things, that does not make us schleppers. If we commit ourselves to a holy mission, we become truly holy.
Recently there was another fiasco with an advertisement campaign done by Israel regarding their relationship with Diaspora Jewry. This campaign wanted to encourage Israeli parents to get their children to return from Galut- Diaspora. There were a few out there, many have been taken down. But this one is still up.
The first image is of a lovely American suburb. Inside you see a sweet boy wearing a football jersey (and not the soccer kind). He is drawing in the foreground and his father is passed out in the background (clearly tired from making their suburban life a reality). The son calls “Daddy”. With no response he goes to where he is sleeping to call “Daddy” again. When that does not work he whispers “Abba”. Immediately the man is roused from his slumber. Words come on the screen saying that your children will always be Israelis, but their kids will not. You should help your children who left move back to Israel. The simple meaning is clear, Israelis have fallen asleep in Galut. I fear that even the creators of this well done and horribly misguided video missed the deeper meaning of their work.
In the Talmud we learn:
Rabbi Yohanan said: This righteous man [Honi] was throughout the whole of his life troubled about the meaning of the verse, “A Song of Ascents, When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream”( Psalms 126:1) Is it possible for a man to dream continuously for seventy years? One day he was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted these for me so I also plant these for my children. (Taanit 23a)
We all know how the Jewish Rip Van Winkle story ends. Honi goes to the mountains where the mountain forms around him and he sleeps for 70 years. When he wakes up he goes down to the valley to see the next generation benefiting from the fruit of the labor of the previous generations work in planting the carob trees. But how did this resolve for Honi the meaning of “we were like unto them that dream”- the line that we say in Birkat HaMazon- Grace after meals. As we see in Jeremiah (25: 11 and 29:10) the original Diaspora was only to last 70 years. That explains the number of years, but, how could all of those years pass as if in a dream? What does it mean to be asleep in Galut?
We have lulled ourselves into certain comforts and we have forgotten our mission. Being Israeli has to be more than speaking Hebrew. It is clear to me that we are still inGalut even in Israel. We have found ways to lull ourselves to sleep there as well. But, it is not as simple as saying that Israelis need to return to Judaism. Judaism itself need to return to Jews. As we have seen in recent events in Israel the religious right has lost it moorings. We need to learn to wake each other up and rise to the occasion of seeking our higher mission. How will we as Jews make and enduring contribution to the world?
If we are willing to learn from Honi, we need to be willing to sit with the question our whole lives. There is no quick fixes to these issues. We must sow the seeds today and be patient to see the fruit of this labor in future generations. To mix metaphors, we need to set the alarm now to wake us up in the future to ensure that we do not stay asleep in our Galut, where ever that might be. This dream is becoming a nightmare.