In a recent piece on the Chilean miners who were rescued after 69 days trapped underground, I speculated that their lives would be changed forever by the realization of their own capacity for bravery and discipline. But a chance comment from a good friend, about a recent gathering of some of the most prominent refuseniks from the former Soviet Union, called that conclusion into question.
The bravery of the refuseniks far eclipsed that of the Chilean miners: The latter were thrust into a situation; the former chose a course that could have, and often did, result in long imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag. The heroism of the refuseniks inspired the worldwide Soviet Jewry movement. I have good friends whose journey to full Torah observance began in that movement.
My friend attended the gathering because he made a number of trips to the Soviet Union during the refusenik period. He confided that he felt saddened to find so many of his former heroes looking so gray and old, with nothing of their former fire evident in their outer appearance. He added that few had ever achieved anything in Israel commensurate with their former heroism.
The first observation strikes me as somewhat superficial – nothing more than an observation on the ravages of time. We might feel the same sadness at an Old Timers baseball game, as we contrast the graceful athletes of our childhood memories with the old men now before us. But that does not diminish their former glory.
Nor do I find compelling the second observation about not having subsequently achieved anything commensurate with their earlier heroism. For one thing, none of us can evaluate another's life. I don't know enough about the struggles of the former refuseniks after they reached Israel. Newspaper clippings are no measure of what a person does with the circumstances dealt him or her in life.
Even the greatest heroes do not spend the rest of their lives endlessly repeating heroic deeds. Hashem only had to test Avraham with the Akeidah once. That was enough to reveal to both Avraham himself and to the entire world, just who Avraham was. Had Major Roi Klein, who died throwing himself on a live grenade to save the IDF soldiers under his command, somehow miraculously survived, the likelihood is that he would never have had another occasion to fall on a grenade. But he would nevertheless have remained the person who did so when put to the test.
That does not mean that a person is fully defined by one moment of greatness. One of the enduring marvels of Israeli politics is how many of our political leaders who once displayed remarkable courage on the battlefield utterly fail to do so later in life in the political arena.
And certainly we can never rest on the laurels of some past achievement – no matter how great. People who dwell too much in the past arouse only pity. In a famous American novel, one of the leading characters is introduced as "having played football at Yale," and we are informed that nothing in his life ever equaled that youthful experience. That description is meant to make him pathetic.
No past achievement can exempt one from striving in the present. That is the message of the opening words of parashas Ve'yeishev. After all the travails of his life, Yaakov sought just a bit of peace. Instead he faced the loss of his most beloved son Yosef. There is no rest for the righteous in this world, Chazal teach us.
Ultimately the most impressive heroism is that of someone like the Chazon Ish, whose whole life was one non-stop effort to reach the highest possible level of avodas Hashem every single moment, to extract the maximum from his G-d-given kochos (strengths).
But still I'd like to reframe the former refuseniks in terms of an insight that I heard from Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky last week on the phrase, "Ve'yifgah b'makom," at the beginning of parashas Va'yetzei. "Ve'yifgah," Chazal tell us is a language of prayer. And makom – place – is also a name of Hashem, Who is the dwelling place of the world.
At first glance, the word place seems the antithesis of Hashem. When we speak about a place, we refer to a location with specific coordinates on a map. It is a specific detail in a larger picture, whereas Hashem is all encompassing. But at a deeper level, each makom, place, is a revelation of a particular aspect of Hashem. The multiplicity of places reflects a diversity that has its ultimate source in Hashem.
Yaakov Avinu was on his way into galus, exile. His task was the hardest of all – to reveal Hashem in a multiplicity of places. One of the reasons for galus, according to Chazal, is to gather geirim, converts, to Klal Yisrael – not necessarily many geirim, but one from every place, because each place imbues its inhabitants with a certain character, and all that diversity has to be ultimately related back to Hashem.
Seen in this light, each place or situation in which a person finds himself is an opportunity for a particular gilui, revelation, of Hashem. Each "place" has its own bedrock materials – represented by the stones Yaakov Avinu placed around his head – with which we can confront the challenges – i.e., the wild animals – of that place. Our deepest prayer is that in whatever place we find ourselves we should discover the necessary tools within ourselves to reveal unique aspect of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
That is what those veteran refuseniks did under the Soviet jackboot. In the most oppressive circumstances, they sent out a ray of light to the world. And for that we are still in their debt today.
It is a remarkable coup for Mishpacha to have secured the commentary of Tevi Troy, one of the most highly placed Orthodox Jews in Washington policymaking circles. In his debut column, Troy notes that Jews voted for Republican candidates in the recent midterm elections at significantly higher than their historical rates for such elections – 31% versus 24%. Troy, a former senior advisor in the Bush White House, appears to take a "glass half-filled" approach to those numbers.
To me the glass looks half empty, especially with respect to the very close senatorial races in Pennsylvania and Illinois, where the Jewish vote could easily have been decisive. In the Pennsylvania senatorial race, the strongly pro-Israel Republican candidate Pat Toomey won only 31% of the vote running against Joe Sestak. Had he been elected, Sestak would arguably have been the most anti-Israel senator. One clue: he was endorsed by J Street, the self-described "pro-Israel" organization, which somehow manages to oppose every policy of every Israeli government. Sestak was a keynote speaker at the annual dinner of CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), which was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land terrorist funding case. And he described former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as the senator he would most like to emulate. During his years in the Senate, Hagel was the most reliable nay vote on any pro-Israel resolution passed in the Senate.
In Pennsylvania, at least Jewish voters could point to Toomey's conservative views as justifying their vote against the more pro-Israel candidate. But in Illinois, Republican Mark Kirk won only 32% of the Jewish vote against the Democratic candidate, 34-year-old state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, despite being a moderate on the social issues dear to liberal Jewish hearts. Kirk is far more than an ardent supporter of Israel. He has a distinguished background in military intelligence, and is widely considered one of the most knowledgeable and articulate proponents of Israel's crucial significance to America's defense.
Together the two elections stand for the following proposition: No matter how bad a Democratic candidate is on Israel or how good a Republican candidate, the Republican has little chance of winning more than one-third of the Jewish vote. And that is true even at a time when Israel's situation is precarious, and the Democratic president frequently hostile.
Gabriel Latner, 19-year-old Jewish law student, created something of a tizzy at a Cambridge Union Society debate on October 21. Assigned to argue the affirmative on the motion, "Israel is a rogue state," he pointed out that the term "rogue" is not necessarily pejorative. Its dictionary definition is "anomalous, misplaced, occurring in an unexpected place or time."
Using that definition, he argued Israel is certainly a rogue state in five respects: it is the only Jewish state in the world; its humanitarian response to the plight of refugees from Darfur and elsewhere contrasts sharply to its neighbors; it alone negotiates with terrorists – can anyone imagine President Obama conducting negotiations with Osama bin Laden? Latner asked; it is the only liberal democracy to ever exist in the Middle East; and finally, it is the only country in the world that would send a senior diplomat – Ran Gidor of the Israeli Embassy in London – to debate its own legitimacy.
And, oh yes, Israel definitely acted as a rogue nation when it bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. Would anyone today with that it had been otherwise? Latner asked