Two thousand years ago, Roman armies surrounded and laid siege
to Jerusalem, and life inside the city became one continuous purgatory.
Huge boulders, flung by mammoth siege engines, came screaming over
the walls, smashing into buildings, pulverizing them and everything
inside. Hailstorms of arrows filled the air, and fires raged everywhere.
Some managed to find a bit of shelter, but there was no shelter from the
rampant disease and starvation.
On the Seventeenth of Tammuz, the Romans breached the walls of
the city, and the three-week-long destruction of the city began. This
past week, on the anniversary of this national tragedy, we fasted and
we grieved. We grieved for the pain and suffering of our people, for the
destruction of our homeland, and for the interminable exile to which we
We are accustomed to speaking about the “dark and bitter exile” of
the Jewish people, but let us stop and take stock for a moment. Those
of us living in the United States enjoy full rights under the law and
unrestricted financial opportunities. We are free, prosperous and
respected. Do we see ourselves as exiles? Do we feel any emotional
kinship with our ancestors who were led away in chains and sold into
slavery after the destruction of Jerusalem? How are we to relate to our
being in exile?
Perhaps we can find the keys to this dilemma in this week’s Torah
reading. After a close brush with disaster at the hands of Balak and
Bilaam, the Jewish people are corrupted by the Midianites who send
their own daughters to entice the Jewish people into sin. The Torah
exacts a terrible vengeance for this treachery, ordering the Jewish
people to crush the Midianites mercilessly. And yet, the Torah tells us to
be grateful to the Egyptians, even though they enslaved the Jews for
centuries, because they provided hospitality to our people in times of
distress. How incongruous this seems as first glance! The Egyptians
who oppressed, enslaved and tried to annihilate the Jews are to be
treated with kid gloves, while the Midianites are to be crushed?!
The commentators explain that the difference between the
Egyptians and the Midianites lay in the focus their attack. The Egyptians
sought the physical destruction of the Jews, and every decree was
designed to accomplish that end. The Midianites wanted to subvert the
Jews spiritually, and that is far more destructive. The direction, the
goal, the very life of the Jew is spiritual, and therefore, the attack of
the Midianites was direct and against the very essence of the Jewish
A king wanted to prepare his two sons for the responsibilities of
government, and so he dressed them as commoners and sent them into
the land to make their own way. They were not to return for ten years.
The older son immediately set about seeking employment. Over the
years, he moved from one job to another, and eventually he formed
connections with organized crime and grew very rich.
The younger son sought out different sages and mentors from
whom he could learn about his country. He had very little to eat and his
clothing became tattered, but his quest for knowledge was relentless.
As the day of reunion drew near, the older son hired the finest
tailors to dress him as befitted a prince. The younger son, however,
practically stopped eating and sleeping so that he could cram in as
much knowledge as possible before returning to the king.
After ten years both sons came before the king. On the day of the
reunion. The older son looked every bit the prince, but as soon as the
king began to converse with him, he was sorely disappointed. The
ostensible prince was no more than an empty-headed, shifty-eyed
shopkeeper! The younger son, however, despite his bedraggled
appearance, was a true delight, wise, intelligent, sensitive, clearly the
best choice to become crown prince.
If the Jewish people are to be the crown princes of the world, it will
not be their material possessions which qualify them but their spiritual
achievements. The freedom we enjoy in the United States today is
certainly a wonderful thing, but it also presents a serious danger. We
have been lulled into a sense of complacency. Our spiritual walls have
been breached, and we are under a relentless cultural attack. We are
indeed in exile, an exceedingly insidious and subtle exile. Our only
defense is to dam up the breach in our own personal lives, to saturate
our lives with the Torah spirit, to reaffirm our unswerving commitment to
Torah values and ideals. Our very survival as a nation is at stake.