“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So Charles Dickens wrote in his epic “Tale of Two Cities,” his novel of revolutionary France. We could say the same thing about so much of what is happening in the Jewish community today.
It was the best of times. You don’t believe me?
More Jews in America and the world study Torah than at almost any time in Jewish history. On Aug. 1, it will take the Meadowlands Stadium to hold all who will complete studying the entire Babylonian Talmud, one page a day for seven years (check out mysiyum.com for the details of this year’s festivities).
American Jews who are involved in their synagogues are more knowledgeable about their faith than at virtually any period on record. This holds true across the movements in Jewish life (from Steven M. Cohen, “A Tale of Two Jewries: The ‘Inconvenient Truth’ for American Jews,” Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, November, 2006).
Jews make up the single most popular religious group in American consciousness (Robert Putnam, “American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Americans,” Simon & Shuster, NY, 2010).
Forty-five years after the Six-Day War, Israel ranks number 12 in the military rankings of world powers. It ranks number 10, right behind Japan and just ahead of Brazil, with Iran ranked at number 12 (according to globalfirepower.com).
And yet, it was the worst of times as well. Don’t believe me?
Israel’s 20-year goal of forestalling Iran from gaining nuclear capability may well fail, despite powerful economic sanctions and even more powerful cyber weapons aimed at Iran.
Anti-Semitic attacks against innocent Jews are increasing in Europe, especially in England, France and Norway.
For those who are not involved in Jewish life, the chances of producing Jewish grandchildren are around 10 percent (refer to Dr. Steven Cohen again).
Many American synagogues are facing daunting, if not crippling challenges of diminishing Jewish populations and resources.
In Israel, even some Modern Orthodox Jews feel intimidated by some of their Charedi neighbors (check out my “View From Jerusalem” blog post from Jan. 31, on the Temple Sinai website entitled, “What does it mean to be Charedi? A visit to Beit Shemesh”).
The violence by some Israelis in Tel Aviv against African immigrants takes our breath away as surely as the violence by some settlers against Palestinian farmers in the West Bank.
And yet, we have seen this before, the good and the bad together.
In this week’s Torah portion, Be’ha-a-lot-cha, there is strife and contention among our people and a mixed multitude. Instead of showing thanks for God’s bounty of manna, our ancestors rail against Moses for the foods they miss from Egypt (Numbers 11.4-5).
In the very same chapter, Moses and the 70 elders are blessed with a profound experience of God, leading to mass prophecy. When Eldad and Medad, two commoners, find their way into this elevated spiritual state, Joshua complains, but Moses smiles and says, “Would that all God’s people were prophets and God put the Divine Spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11.29)
Our mothers and fathers in the Torah lived with terrible extremes of blessing and hardship. So did our more recent generations. And now, so do we. Count me among those who embrace both our blessings and challenges. Knowing our past, we join together to ease suffering and hurt, to increase justice and peace for as many of God’s children as we can.
Despite setback and challenge, I thank God for this sacred task. Give me manna from the desert over the artificially sweetened fruits of slavery, slavery of all types, any day and twice on Shabbat.