By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Our nation has just witnessed (we hope) the conclusion one of the most troubling periods in recent history. Not only were we forced to endure collective uncertainty following the boys’ abduction and subsequent struggle with Hamas, but Jews throughout the world were subjected to a public demonstration of anti-Semitic virulence and fervor, in the streets and in the court of public opinion, that has been unparalleled in recent decades.
While we all desire a return to more normative conditions moving forward, I doubt that any of us can make the assumption that all is right in the world. Besides for continued worry about Hamas’ next move and the state of Jews the world over, particularly in Western Europe, there are other developments that should be cause for serious alarm, including the refugee crises in Ukraine and Iraq (as well as other victims of the “Islamic State.”) We also have to figure out what to make of our president and State Department that complicity (of not explicitly) supported our enemies throughout the recent struggle and continue to turn a blind eye towards terrorist activity.
Uncertainty, of course, is a characteristic that our nation has been grappling with since time immemorial. We see numerous examples of national uncertainty in the Torah, even while witnessing direct Divine oversight, sustenance and protection.
At the end of parashas Ve’eschanan, Moshe promised Bnei Yisrael that they will enter the Holy Land under Hashem’s stewardship and easily dispose of all opposition, to the point of achieving complete annihilation.
When the Lord your G-d shall bring you into the land which you are entering to possess, and He will thrust away many nations before you… and… deliver them before you; you shall strike them, and completely destroy them. (Devarim 7:1-2)
Yet, at the beginning of parashas Eikev, we find that Bnei Yisrael are mired in agonizing doubt. “When (ki) you shall say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I; how can I drive them out?'” (Ibid 17 – This explanation follows that of Seforno. Yet even according to Rashi, who translates the word ki to mean “if” rather than “when,” the very fact that Bnei Yisrael could be suspected of considering such a thought implied a shallowness in their collective trust.) To that, Moshe felt the need to admonish his people “not (to) fear them” and recall that which Hashem had done to Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Furthermore, despite four decades of continuous provisions (“the way which the Lord your G-d led you these forty years in the wilderness… and (He) fed you with manna… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live. (Ibid, 8:2-3)), they still needed to be warned not to attribute future prosperity to their own successes, thereby “forgetting” Hashem in the process.
Look out for yourself lest you forget Hashem, your G-d, to not guard His commandments, His laws, and His statutes that I am commanding you today. Lest you… build good houses and… everything you own multiplies. And your pride increases, and you forget Hashem, your G-d… And you think, “My strength and the power of my hand have acquired this wealth for me.” (Ibid, 8:11-17)
At first glance, it is quite difficult to grasp why Bnei Yisrael should struggle so much with regards to their basic emunah and spiritual focus, especially in the context of all that Hashem had repeatedly done for them. Perhaps we can glean an understanding from Mesillas Yesharim.
It is obvious that a person does not concern himself with what does not occupy a place in his mind… For sentiments of saintliness, fear and love of Hashem, and purity of heart are not so deeply rooted within a person… In this respect they differ from natural states such as sleep, hunger… and all other reactions which are stamped into one’s nature… There is no lack of deterrents which keep saintliness at a distance from a person.
The willingness to achieve spiritual growth or to persevere in resolving doubt is an attitude and a commitment, something that exists in constant competition with our physical wants. The young Hebrew nation had benefitted for years from immeasurable divine support and protection. Yet, they were about to embark on a new stage in their journey, one in which national protection and sustenance would be tested in a novel manner. The warnings that were issued time and again pertaining to future faith and attitudes were needed simply because they were not “stamped into their nature” and required reinforcement and continued focus.
One of the things that jumped out at me over the past many weeks (as I studied the conflict from the vantage point of social media – my first such experience) was an obsessive focus on the words of political leaders and pundits throughout the world. We anxiously awaited tough talk from Prime Minister Netanyahu and clarifying opinion from news outlets and commentators that would put the slanted, anti-Semitic views of the NY Times, CNN and others in its proper place. We hoped to win the war much the same way that any other nation would, by channeling all of our physical, material and intellectual capital in that direction and to provide moral clarity, once and for all, to the UN and its band of anti-Israel propagandists.
I am not suggesting that these were not necessary or important considerations. However, I do believe that we cannot lose sight of what may have been the “unspoken hero” in this momentous struggle, our collective, restored faith and spirituality as well as our newfound ability to develop deep, sincere brotherliness and kindness despite preexisting factionalism that so often divides us. That, at the end, will do more to sway public opinion and our own self-doubt than anything.
Observe therefore and do (mitzvos) for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes, shall say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.‘ (Devarim 4:6)
Let us aspire, particularly in this highly unsettling time, to properly focus our energies on the one constant, everlasting aspect of our lives, namely our spiritual development and trust in our Creator. In so doing, we will gain the necessary strength and clarity to overcome even the deepest periods of pain and uncertainty.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff is an executive coach and President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or at email@example.com.