It never ceases to amaze me how the weekly Torah readings have so many relevant messages for contemporary life.
But first, a little story I once heard from my dear father of blessed memory: The Hasidim of Karlin are famous for their very loud davening. I remember once leading a tour of Israel for my Johannesburg congregation, and we had our own minyan at the Kotel in Jerusalem on the Friday night. We couldn’t hear a word because the Karliner Hasidim were around the bimah right next to ours and davening at the top of their lungs as per their custom. We simply had to wait for them to finish before we could hear ourselves.
My father would tell the story of a Jew who observed a Karliner Hasid davening in just such a manner, really crying out to the heavens in loud, raucous prayer. The fellow went over to the Karliner and asked him pointedly, “Tell me, Reb Yid, have you tried talking to Him nicely?”
This week in the Diaspora, we read Chukat and Balak. In the second reading, King Balak of Moab hires the heathen prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. Moses and his men had already defeated the mighty armies of Balak’s enemies Sichon and Og. What chance did Balak and Moab have?
So, Balak tried something creative. If he couldn’t beat the Israelites in battle, perhaps Balaam could put the whammy on them, as he was renowned for being able to curse people with devastating, even lethal effect.
But try as Balaam might, he was simply unable to curse the Israelites. Clearly, God was protecting His people from Balaam’s destructive curses. Every time Balaam opened his mouth to curse the Israelites, out came the most beautiful blessings instead, including the famous “Ma Tovu” prayer, which is still recited in our synagogues daily.
When Balaam eventually gave up, he offered some free advice to Balak: The Israelites’ God despises immorality, he said. If Balak could get the Israelite soldiers to sin with his maidens, God Himself would punish them.
Balak did just that. The young Moabite princesses were successful in enticing and seducing the Israelite soldiers and, in a moment of passion, even persuaded them to worship their idols. The result wasn’t long in coming: A terrible plague took the lives of some 24,000 Israelites.
Like the fellow praying very loudly, Balaam saw that screaming and cursing didn’t work. But seducing others with love was very effective indeed.
Is this not the tragic story of our own generation? Today, we are succumbing to love more than we ever did to hate. We are currently losing well more than a third of our people to intermarriage and assimilation. The warm, welcoming “melting pot” of America and Western countries and cultures is doing what the haters could not.
Recent Pew reports list intermarriage statistics in a variety of categories, but among the non-Orthodox it is above 70%.
I remember being invited some years ago to deliver a keynote address at a dinner in Phoenix, Ariz. After the dinner, a rabbi from Tucson who was in the audience asked me what the intermarriage rate was in Johannesburg.
We had, in fact, just completed a survey on the subject, and I was able to proudly reply that ours was a remarkably low 9%. (We do have one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in the world, but sadly, it is more like 14% today.)
“Nine percent,” said the rabbi. “Just like Tucson!”
“What?” I asked incredulously. “Tucson has only 9% intermarriage?”
“Well, it’s the same numbers. Yours is 9% and ours is 90%!”
Now that may be purely anecdotal, but whether it’s 50%, 70% or 90%, it’s still shocking and frightening to see what we are doing to ourselves.
Our eldest son is a rabbi in Philadelphia. He once told me of a young Jewish boy and girl who were dating. Can you believe that it wasn’t until the third date that they discovered they were both Jewish? What does that tell us? Sad but simple: Their Jewish identity is not at all relevant in their lives.
Can we really expect non-Jewish spouses to raise their children Jewish, even if they say they intend to do so? They simply don’t have the tools. It’s not even fair to ask them.
I pray that somehow, we can reach out and educate the younger generation and manage to reverse these frightening statistics. In the name of Jewish destiny, we must all do our share.