Rabbi Nachman of Breslov told the following story:
The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would became insane. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”
“Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the not normal ones.
“Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”
The World of Galus
This perspective has, for the past two-thousand years, been the view of our nation in exile. There was once a time when the world was sane, when the Jewish people lived securely in our own land, when we were cultural leaders of the world. There was a time that Yerushalayim was the center of morality, ethics and law for the world - כי מציון תצא תורה - from Tzion came for the wellsprings of wisdom.
But then the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, our nation was sent into exile and the world became insane. Instead of looking at our people, the people of the book as a source of divine wisdom, moral understanding and compassion in the world, we began to be viewed as vermin, the embodiment of evil, emissaries of the Devil. This insanity became our new reality. The grain of the world became tainted with the poison of exile, with the sickness of anti-semitism.
And we Jews had only one choice. We ate from that same crop. We too became insane. From being princes of the universe, we became scum of the earth. Dirty Jew, they called us, greedy Jew. And slowly but surely we started to look at ourselves in the same light; desperate, lonely and sad. As time went on, we longed for the embrace of the nations of the world. Some of us gave up, some of us gave in. We took solace in the cries for "tolerance", the kindness of our saviors, the compassion of our protectors. All the while wondering how it could be that we became so needy.
But every now and then, we turned to each other, and noticed there was a sign on our forehead, our Yiddishe Kop, that reminded us that this was not the way it was meant to be. And so, in secret, the majesty of the Jewish people continued. It was found in the four amos of Halacha, in the great writings of Mikra, Mishna, Talmud and Agados. As Chazal said: מאן מלכי, רבנן - The place of kingship is with the sages. The sign on our heads reminded us that the we were the sane ones in a world that was growing increasingly more insane.
Every time a Jew was killed for being Jewish, every time a shul was desecrated, a city destroy, a cartload of books set aflame, we drew further inwards, trying desperately to hold onto sanity, remembering that the world is crazy. We looked to the signs on each others foreheads, and dreamed of a time that we could live beyond the insanity of a world where senseless murder is an even an option.
The World of Geulah
But Rebbi Nachman also told a different version of this story (שיח שרפי קודש (ברסלב) א-רעא):
In this version, it was the star gazer who suggested that they would have to eat from the tainted grain, but the king vehemently rejected this, saying that just because the whole world was crazy, they do not, and should not be crazy. And if they would appear to be crazy to the rest of the world, so what. That is no reason to eat the grain that makes people crazy. So they would prepare grain for themselves.
This version of the story has had far fewer adherents throughout our history. But in every generation there have been Jews that never gave up on their own majesty, and have insisted on the majesty of the Jewish people. There have always been those who subsisted on tiny amounts of grain from the ancient fields of Yerushalayim rather than eating from the tainted grain of the world. They reached deep into the store houses of the Beis HaMikdash Shel Maalah, and ate meager meals of Jewish pride.
For these brave souls, every single Jew has always been and will always be a בן/בת מלך - princes and princesses of the King of the Universe. We have never stopped being an אור לגוים - a shining light to the nations of the world.
For those that have never tasted those tainted grains, when faced with the horror, shock and pain of anti-semitism, they did not give up, they did not give in. They rallied around one central cry: We are not OK. This is not normal.
They gathered together and dreamed of, or rather, described and lived, a world where Jews were not simply safe from persecution, but beacons of hope and light for the world.
In their eyes, safety and security were tropes from the world of Galus, from a world where we are ashamed of our nation, our Torah and our God. In the world of majesty, safety and security are not granted by a benevolent host country, they are expected, assumed and obvious.
The Seeds of Geulah
For those who are wondering, where we can find some of these ancient grains, the field was planted in this week's parsha, when the Torah describes Yitzchak Avinu going into the field:
וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב - Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the evening.
Chazal tell us that at this moment, Yitzchak instituted the Tefillah of Mincha. Indeed, the Gemara details how Avraham instituted Shachris, Yitzchak instituted Mincha, and Yaakov, Arvis.
In his beautiful Olam HaTefillot, Rabbi Eli Munk relates these three Tefillos to the lives of the Avos. Avraham lived during a time of great light; the dawn of Yiddishkeit. He experienced regular engagements with the Ribbono Shel Olam, and enjoyed success in every aspect of his life: וה׳ ברך את אברהם בכל. Yaakov lived a very different life; a life of Galus. Aside from the years of his youth, he admits to Paroah that his life has been shorter and more bitter than the years of his predecessors.
But what of Yitzchak? Yitzchak lives a life that begins in the sunshine, and ends with the clouds of exile swirling around his head. It is in this life, not quite sunshine, not quite darkness that Yitzchak plants the seeds of Mincha. What is Tefillas Mincha?
Mincha is Yitzchak Avinu's insistence that we not eat from tainted grains, that we not accept the darkness of hatred, despair and subjugation. Yitzchak stands alone crying for us to abandon the madness.
The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas put it succinctly:
Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The Kedushas Levi explains: In times of great light, we praise God. That's called Shachris. In times of tragedy, we cry to Him, that's Maariv. But this tefillah, the cry of holding back the night, is called Mincha, a gift. It's the greatest thing we can give to Hashem.
Our gift to Hashem is our refusal to accept that we are anything less than royalty, despite what the world may say or do to us. Despite how they make us feel.
How Do We Know?
The question then arrises: How do we know if we have eaten from the tainted grains and gone mad, or if we are still sane? In a crazy world, there is only one acid test:
If, in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, are we driven to point fingers, cast blame and spew hatred, then it is clear we have imbibed the same poison as those who wish to destroy us. We have accepted their madness that a Jew is not inherently beautiful, wonderful and amazing. We have chosen to believe that a Jew is only as good as how useful they are to me, my country, my Beis Medrash or my political party and agenda.
But if, instead, we cry: This is not normal, We are not OK!, then perhaps we retain a shred of sanity from the world of truth. If we are now inspired to gather together with Ahavas Yisrael, then we might still have a chance of shaking this malady.
We must ask ourselves: are we willing to see that the differences between right and left are only so stark if they are not hands connected to the same body?
Are we able to understand that the roots of anti-semitism were planted by Jews who sent us into exile because of Sinas Chinam? Do we realize that we are ones who taught our enemies how to hate a Jew?
Are we able to mourn the loss of eleven Jews who were murdered on Shabbos, in shul, not because "it could've been us," but because it is us? Because our world is broken. Because we don't feel like royalty when we keep mitzvos, because we don't treat each other as royalty when we disagree.
Where to Begin?
For those who fear that we too have been tainted by the madness of anti-semitism, we should begin with the advice of Rebbi Nachman - to find sanity by looking at each other. If we would look, really look, into the faces of our family, friends, neighbors, and rivals, would would see the beauty of the Jewish people.
But the challenge of restoring Jewish majesty does not stop at Ahavas Yisrael. We need to see ourselves as privileged to be Avdei Hashem. We need to daven loud and proud. To wear our Yiddishkeit proudly on our sleeves, and abandon the cynicism that often accompanies our shmiras hamitzvos. Most importantly, we need to see each other as partners; to encourage, assist and cheer each other on, as we grow in Torah and mitzvos.
This past shabbos, we in Boca lost a shining light of our community; a teacher of many of the kids in our shul, Mrs. Dannie Grajower. One of my students, a student of Mrs. Grajower wrote about his teacher:
Mrs. Grajower was a smart teacher. She was creative, witty, and hardworking. She always made three different versions of the test we were taking; each appropriate for the right level of the student. Every class was well thought out and prepared to complete detail.... Mrs. Grajower really was a שרה אמנו. She looked out for others and made things happen while going through the impossible. Every day I sat through class for two years and had no idea. No idea that while I sat worried about tests, sports, and the weekend. Mrs. Grajower was teaching full time, raising a family, and receiving radiation treatment after school each day.
If a mother of three, undergoing radiation could take the time to value each and every student, then I believe we too have a job to do. Eleven lights were extinguished last Shabbos in the broken of a world that doesn't understand the value of Jew, of a shul, of Torah and of a life. It is up to us to rekindle the light that was lost, by embodying the opposite: Treating each Jew as royalty, filling our shul with the sounds of davening and learning and abandoning the pettiness that keeps us apart. Perhaps then we will merit to live in a world of sanity.