Asking the Right Questions
The Shofar blasts, writes the Rambam, are meant to awaken us from our slumber. Teru’a reminds us of something being shattered. What is being shattered (or should be)? We are – – as we attempt to break free of the ingrained patterns of our lives, our easy succumbing to the vanities of the world.
Removing the shackles of the past is a frightening process – “Can the Shofar sound in the city and the people not tremble” (Amos 3:6) – but it is also a liberating one, for it offers us the hope of a better future.
As a society too, the Jews of Israel are asking lots of questions in the wake of the perceived failures in Lebanon. The self-examination under way is as scorching as any undertaken by Israeli society since 1973. The war in Lebanon, as portrayed by Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz and others, was not simply a failure of the political and military echelons; it represents the failure of Israeli society in general.
These commentators conclude that a decadent society is ill-equipped to confront threats to its very existence. Signs of that decadence are everywhere to be found. Hedonism and the pursuit of material goods occupy the adults. Being a celebrity — regardless of achievements — is the primary goal of Israeli youth.
Prime Minister Olmert’s campaign pledge to turn Israel into a “fun” place to live pretty much sums up the attitude. Olmert – a real-estate speculator cum prime minister — represents for Shavit a profound “cultural affliction: the relinquishing of ideas, principles, basic beliefs, worldviews, and an overall grasp of reality — . . . sophistication without a [moral] compass. . . . ”
The elites, Shavit charges, have lost any connection to the Jewish people’s unique history, and convinced themselves that Israel can achieve a normal existence amidst a sea of Arabs. He accuses them of imagining Tel Aviv to be Manhattan, sounding almost like the Ohr Somayach warning decades before the Holocaust that if the Jews of Berlin continue to mistake Berlin for Jerusalem a great fire will go out from Berlin and consume the entire Jewish world.
To quell any qualms of consciences about their naked pursuit of the good life, the Israeli elites convinced themselves that Israel is so powerful, so insanely strong, that nothing can threaten it. That strength justifies their failure to show up for reserve duty or to send their children to combat units (a trend recently confirmed by the Chief of IDF Manpower Gen. Elazar Stern.)
Meanwhile they set out to undermine every element of national strength: making mincemeat of the old Zionist narrative, while failing to substitute anything else in its place; criticizing Israel’s militarism and denigrating military service; making mockery of the old communitarian values.
All this resulted in a loss of national vitality. The name of the game now, writes Shavit, is rebuilding national will, and all national resources must be directed towards that task.
A NEW FOCUS ON NATIONAL WILL IS to be welcomed. For too long have we ignored this crucial element in our confrontation with our Arab neighbors, as we convinced ourselves that military strength and technological superiority were all that mattered. That resulted in the failure, inter alia, to give adequate weight to the effect of unilateral withdrawal – first from Lebanon and subsequently from Gaza – on the morale of our enemies and their belief in their ultimate triumph.
Yet the fact that many thoughtful Israelis are now asking the right questions does not mean that they are close to having found the answers. National will is not something that can just be ordered up on a platter, It must grow out of something – from a rich soil of shared beliefs and goals. In societies in which national will and determination are strong, it need not be discussed; rather it develops organically from the totality of life.
Shavit and his colleagues have been far better at cataloguing aspects of the illness than at prescribing cures. The reason is not hard to find. At the end of the day, the determination necessary to survive in a very rough neighborhood cannot be separated from a renewed belief in the unique mission of the Jewish people. And that, in turn, leads back to Har Sinai.
Absent a deep sense of themselves as part of the long continuum of Jewish history and as inheritors of the role of revealing Hashem to the entire world, in the long run, there is little to hold in Israel those with the resources and talents to move elsewhere where life is not quite so pressured and the dangers are not so great.
That secular Israelis are at long last asking the right questions about what kind of society we have become imposes an even greater responsibility than ever on the religious community to provide the answers to their questions and to serve as a model of a very different type of society.
MEANWHILE THE WAR IN LEBANON requires another form of cheshbon hanefesh from the Torah community. If we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we too shared the general view that the IDF was invincible and capable of pulling off any mission. We too were enchanted by the miracles of Entebbe and Osirak. Until the very end, we shared the popular assumption that the IDF would somehow manage to pull out a clear-cut victory, even as it was clear that the hour-glass was nearly empty.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: How did we imagine that it would be possible to ape the worst of Western hedonism and decadence in Eretz Yisroel and that nevertheless the IDF would be able to protect us from all threats? Is that not a modern form thinking that we can ignore the “words of the oath,” do as we please and that all will still be well with us? We too have received a wake-up call as we prepare ourselves for Yom HaDin. Let us hope that we take it to heart so that the year to come is one filled only with life and blessing.
First Appeared in Mishpacha Magazine