I need not reference the Torah to find individuals that have failed to live up to the basic ethical tenets of modern society. Unfortunately, if the net of temptation is cast wide enough almost all of humanity potentially can be entangled in its webbing. A few days ago, during my morning Starbucks ritual, I was asked “How were the engineers at GM capable of deceiving themselves when they knew all too well about dangerous practices in their company?” It would be wrong to limit this question to a single corporation as sadly this moral discrepancy is prevalent in numerous companies. Many well respected individuals and democratically elected governments often act in ways that jeopardize the people who place their trust in them.
How can our government sanction the release of five senior Taliban commanders knowing full well that their way of expressing thanks would entail unmitigated violence and vengeance against those who freed them? How can our government continue to aid and support a Palestinian entity that joined forces with Hamas, a noted terrorist organization that seeks not only the destruction of Israel but more so the destruction of western values and the American way of life? How can our government continue to allow Iran to seek means of acquiring nuclear technology knowing all too well that given any chance they would target our soldiers and citizens? How can Chinese companies export toys laden with lead and other chemicals that will cause undue harm against innocent little children? How can companies promote the use of genetically modified produce without ensuring there are no safety risks to the end user? We have become impervious to the harm wrought upon a society by leaders that guide us down the path of destruction.
No, do not worry; I have no desire or intention of becoming a Bible thumping preacher who speaks about an impending doom. Rather, I find this pattern congruent to the history of humanity dating back thousands of years. The Torah portion this week speaks about spies – the twelve heads of each tribe who were asked to search for the truth. Their mission was to seek the best ways to advance the will of Hashem and conquer the land of Canaan. (Also known as the land of Israel.) Their mission was fraught with difficulties and their reporting was tainted by self-serving motivation that was not received with enthusiasm. These were fine, upstanding, esteemed people who were given positions of trust and honor yet allowed ulterior motives to challenge their moral compass.
At the end of the Torah portion the subject discusses the commandment to wear a tallit with tzizit: the fringes worn on the corners of garments. The text states that by looking at the tzitzit it should remind us of the all the other mitzvot. Furthermore it states that ‘v’lo taturu acharay levavchem v’acharay eineichem,’ that we should not be tempted to follow the dictates of our eyes and heart. In other words, the juxtaposition between the incident with the spies and the mitzvah of tzitzit is to explain that man is easily led astray by what their eyes perceive as an attraction or what their heart longs for. The antidote is as simple as casting a glance upon the corner of your garment; allowing your eyes and hearts to be reminded of what is truly essential for our future and longevity.
Yet for me personally, by looking at select individuals, I think I gain as much as looking at my tzitzit. In turning my eyes upon these individuals I am reminded of their selfless dedication and sacrifice. I can only barely imagine the hell they went through during the Holocaust and am amazed at their absolute commitment and belief in God. I am shocked after continuous trials and tribulations that they are able to open their lips and speak words of praise to Hashem on a daily basis. One such person is our chazzan, Henry Fuchs, who has gone to New York to stay with his children. Selfishly I allow my heart to ache and my eyes to well up with tears. Selfishly, I am reminded of all he has taught me and how much I still have left to learn. Selfishly, I already miss the tune of Kiddush on Friday night and the deep and haunting melody of the Yizkor. I say selfishly, because I know deep down that he personally will be happier by being closer to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I say selfishly, because I know he will receive better care and as a result improved health. I also know that we will all be safer and our plants will be thankful that a certain white Lexus will no longer be on our roads.
The Chazan has been an integral part of our shul and we wish him in the coming years only gezunt, good health, happiness. May the Almighty grant him a meaningful next stage of his life. For some ‘biz a hundred and tzvantzik’ (until 120) is a nice blessing, but the chazzan has asked that this be slightly altered to ‘biz a hundred and fertzig’(140). Yes, there are people whose lives we find difficult to fathom and we are unable to comprehend how and why they do what they do. Yet for me the world is in complete harmony and balance as the good bestowed upon the world by one Chazan easily compensates the evil perpetrated by many. Take the opportunity to look around and you will find similar inspiration by so many of our older members and survivors. They are our eternal blessing and may we reciprocate by beseeching the Almighty to grant them all numerous blessings for many more years.
Rabbi Jack Engel