The Hardest Part

Rabbi Amitai Adler
March 5, 2014
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The foremost challenge of hope-an ideal, a goal to be striven for-is the long arc of waiting.

In our personal lives, this may be comparatively manageable, a matter of days, weeks, or months as we wrestle with some challenge in our professional, avocational, or inner lives. But in our collective life as a people, the wait tends to be long. The classic example of this is messianism- af al pi sheyitmameha, b’chol zot echakeh lo… “Though he may tarry, I will yet await him…,” as Rambam put it.

But the challenges behind messianism, or tikkun olam (repair/amending/fixing the world, which seems to be the image preferred these days by folks who are uncomfortable with messianism), are the goals for which we have been striving for millennia: making truly just societies; cultivating empathy, compassion, and chesed (lovingkindness) in all people; seeking peace and not violence; ending poverty and hunger; cultivating spiritual awareness and commitment, and bringing everyone a richer, deeper, more satisfying, and more productive relationship with God.

We are often hampered in pursuing these goals, and quite frequently hampered by ourselves as much as by anything or anyone else.

The entire history of ancient Israel during the First Temple period is dominated by an abominable chaos of war, struggles for power, oppression, idolatry, and utter failure to fulfill even the most basic tenets of the covenant of Torah. Social divisions, more power struggles, and Hellenistic assimilation joined Roman persecution and sundry other dangers of the Classical Period in bogging us down and pulling us under during the Second Temple period and its aftermath. Despite mostly being under the heels of Christian and Muslim rule during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we still managed some internal backbiting, false messiahs, and a dandy conflict with the Karaites. And now in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, the same modernity which has freed and empowered us in so many ways has led us to assimilation, apathetic secularism, ignorance of Jewish text and tradition in the midst of an unprecedented age of accessible knowledge, spiritual disconnection, oppressive fundamentalism, power struggles left and right, and perhaps some other unsavory trends as well.

It’s hard to have hope in the face of this. There are so many days I wonder what the use of trying to keep the endeavor of the Jewish People alive really is. We have this amazing Torah, this incredible tradition of halachah, all our wonderful heritage of midrash and aggadah, poetry and liturgy, philosophy and mysticism, heroes and leaders and wise men and women aplenty, and so many Jews today don’t know, don’t care, and seem to embody the verse in Gen. 25:34, va-yivaz Esav et ha-b’chorah (“Esau had contempt for the birthright”).

But I remind myself that out of the ashes of the First Temple Period came the integration of the Torah into a single scroll by Ezra the Scribe, and the initiation of the tradition of public Torah reading. Out of the ashes of the Second Temple Period came the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Midrash, the foundations of our halachah, our liturgy, our theology, and everything else Judaism has become. During the oppression of the Middle Ages, our finest scholars produced many of our most treasured works. And we cannot know today what our remote descendants will make of our time-what works of this time will survive to be built upon, to support the next progressions of Jewish history and culture.

Rabbi Yehoshua reminds us (Pirkei Avot 2:16), lo alecha ha-melachah ligmor ve-lo atah ben chorin lehibatel mimenah (“You don’t have to finish the work, but you’re not free to not engage in it”).

Amidst all the turmoil and problems of his time, Ezra got us reading Torah every week. Amidst all the turmoil and problems of their times, the Rabbis saved our civilization and gave us structure and tools to ensure that we are able to make lives of Torah forevermore. But I doubt it looked that clear and decisive to them, or those they worked with. They no doubt did what they felt they could, what they had to do, and hoped.

We also have to do what we can, whatever we have to do, in the face of our turmoils and problems, and hope.

Because the hard part is knowing that the wait will not be over in our lifetimes. It may not be over in the lives of our children, or our children’s children. The hard part is knowing that we may never know if what we do makes a difference, or a great difference, or all the difference in the world. Only with the hindsight of history will our remote descendants be able to judge. And in order to ensure that they have their day, we have to keep hoping, keep striving, and keep waiting.

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