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The Best Response

Rabbi Avi Shafran

In these frightening times of political cynicism, murderous hatred and relentless terrorism in Israel, many Jews' first reflex is to strike out at what is readily apparent and available: the Islamic teachings invoked by some as justification for their animus, the political considerations that impel others to try to force Israel to endanger herself, the subtle - and often hardly subtle - bias of some of the media against the Jewish State. But might we also consider the possibility that those evils are mere symptoms?

Our people's tribulations today, after all, are not limited to Israel. A Jewish husband and father is murdered by an angry man in a New York parking lot. An elderly Jew is gunned down on a Zurich street.

Nor are the tragedies we have endured in recent memory all born of others' hatred. Precious Jewish children have been taken suddenly not only by inhuman snipers but by unexpected biological events. A major Jewish educator, his wife and their child are killed in an Israeli traffic accident. A wedding hall collapses on hundreds gathered to celebrate a Jewish marriage. Illnesses once unheard of seem to have become almost commonplace. The pain is excruciating, and made even more so for betraying no obvious pattern.

And if the crisis facing the Jewish People today is broader than the hatred-fueled intifada, countering it cannot be limited to treating its symptoms - marshalling moderate Islamic scholars, denouncing cynical leaders, disseminating accurate information, writing letters to the editor or gathering in mass rallies on behalf of Israel.

Our challenge may lie, rather, in the simplest of realizations: that what Jews choose to do and not to do each and every day - in our homes, our places of work, our synagogues and schools and local communities - has infinite worth. Wherever we may exist on the spectrum of Jewish observance, might we not properly consider intensifying our prayers on behalf of all Jews, and our observance of the Torah's laws, both the ritual and the interpersonal?

One extraordinary opportunity all Jews currently have happens to relate directly to the Holy Land, and demonstrates something essential about it - that it belongs to G-d. We can help support the thousands of heroic farmers across Israel who, in keeping with the biblical directive to refrain from working the land every seventh year, are allowing some 250,000 dunam of land to lie fallow during the current "Sabbatical" year.

A respected organization, Keren Hashviis (42 Broadway, New York, NY 10004), exists entirely for the purpose of helping those farmers and their families make ends meet during Sabbatical years like this one.

Another response we might consider is joining the thousands of Jews who are following the suggestion of the Council of Torah Sages - comprised of renowned Torah scholars - which has called on Jews to recite three specific chapters of Psalms each day (numbers 83, 130 and 142) to help merit the lifting of the current tragedies from Jewish shoulders.

And then there is the prayer, in its most simple sense. Any Jew who does not own a siddur can easily buy one these days. The ArtScroll siddur, with its beautiful, accurate and readable English translation, is the choice of countless Jews, including men and women of all affiliations. And any of us who prays daily, if he or she takes an extra moment or two, can find and bring special concentration to dozens of phrases in the traditional daily and special services that relate directly to Jewish security, health and the Holy Land. Who can say that heartfelt prayer - what our tradition teaches that G-d seeks from us all - will not prove the most effective campaign for Israel's protection and the Jewish people's salvation from adversity? This writer hopes to heed his own words.

An esteemed rabbi, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus, zt"l, noted something striking at an Agudath Israel national convention this past November, mere months before he himself was tragically taken from us. The war being waged against Israel, he observed, is not really being waged against an army but against Israelis, or better, Jews. The tragedies the Jewish People is enduring, he observed, are individual tragedies. And thus, the solution to our crisis - its Israeli manifestation as well as its other ones - must lie, in the end, on all of us as individuals.

It may be enticing and even worthwhile to sign petitions, write letters, join gatherings of fellow Jews - to take heart and pride in numbers and noise. But, from an authentically Jewish perspective, it is infinitely more meaningful (not to mention more difficult, a telling fact) to make the effort to change oneself. To undertake and sustain a new or intensified Jewish observance, to recommit oneself to honesty and integrity, to shun the ugly materialism that has crept into our lives, to increase our study of the Torah that is the ultimate Jewish missile defense shield.

The true mandate of the hour - of Jewish history for that matter - lies, in the end, in "walking humbly with G-d," in the recognition that true victories will be brought about "not by armies nor by physical strength but by My spirit, says G-d." In the end, it is our relationship with Him - not with Yassir Arafat, the United Nations, The New York Times or CNN - that alone will determine when we Jews will finally be able to live in peace and prosperity, throughout the world and in the land He bequeathed us.


Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs.



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