Last week in Daf Yomi, we learned that Rav Ashi stated that the words “vay’hi biymei – and it was in the days of” is “lashon tzaar–painful language.” In his shiur, Rabbi Shalom Rosner brought a beautiful word from the Gra (the Vilna Gaon).
In Hebrew, we have the concept of vav ha’hipuch. Adding a vav at the beginning of a word transforms the tense. “Y’hi–it will be” is the future tense. When we add a vav at the beginning, it becomes “vay’hi – and it was.” When we turn the future into the past, that is a source of pain. When we look at all that has gone wrong in our past and believe that our failures define us, we will lose hope for the future.
“Hayah – it was” is the past tense. When we add a vav at the beginning, it becomes “v’hayah – it will be,” the future tense. When we turn our past into the future, it is the language of simchah – joy. When we build on the accomplishments and learn from the failures of our past, we can look forward to a hopeful future.
This thought from the Gra explains so much about what is happening in America and in Israel today.
The United States has provided more freedom and more opportunity to more people than any country in the history of the world. Yet slavery, segregation, and racism are also an important and shameful part of our history. The civil rights movement of the 1960s sought to build on what was right about our past to bring about justice and change. Martin Luther King respected the ideals on which the country was founded. He invoked them, when he called upon the nation to “rise up and live the true meaning of its creed that ‘all men are created equal.’” The anthem of the movement was the forward-looking “We Shall Overcome.” They sought to transform the past into the future and achieved considerable success.
Those who call for social justice today have a different approach. In academia and the media, the idea that 1619, the year in which the first African American slaves were brought to Virginia, marked the true founding of America, has taken hold. The country was founded on slavery. The self-proclaimed ideals of the American Revolution were a sham. Our founders were motivated by the desire to preserve slavery.
Society is hopelessly racist. People of color and LGBT people are the victims of racist white scions of privilege.
People who view their past with contempt will come to view their future with despair. Confidence in our institutions is at an all-time low. Grievance-based identity politics, in which different groups compete for the title of who is the biggest victim and the right to impose their agenda on the rest of us, is tearing the country apart. Symbols that once united us, like the flag and the national anthem, have been made divisive. Our national motto is “e pluribus unum – out of many one.” Yet the “unum” has been forgotten, as we have degenerated into a society of warring tribes.
In academia and the media, the in thing is to be a victim.
Over the years, we have convinced ourselves and others of the image of Jews as victims. We have made the Holocaust the focal point of Judaism. In a recent poll, more than 80% of Jews viewed remembering the Holocaust as essential to being Jewish. Fewer than 20% saw Torah and mitzvos as central to Jewish identity. We have built Holocaust memorials and demanded that the Holocaust be taught in schools. Schindler’s List won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The United Nations has an annual Holocaust memorial program. The world is in love with the image of Jews as victims. We have portrayed Israel as a refuge for oppressed Jews around the world. So how is it that the people who claim to champion the cause of victims, including far too many young Jews, are the most vociferous critics of Israel and supporters of BDS?
When people look at the Israel of today, they do not see a nation of victims. They see a country that has become a military, economic, and high-tech powerhouse. For 2020, we were ranked as the eighth most powerful country in the world, the highest of any country that gained independence after World War II.
Our GDP, which measures economic prosperity, is the third highest among the ten most powerful countries. A world that loves Jews as victims now sees an Israel that has rejected victimhood and has emerged as a major player on the world stage. Israel has shattered the image of Jews as victims, and we can no longer expect the support of many people who claim to champion the poor and oppressed.
Many young Jews today find themselves on college campuses or in other places where political correctness, cancel culture, and grievance-based identity politics rule the day. Some, who grew up on the ideal of Jews as victims, are embarrassed by a strong and successful Israel. They react by joining Israel’s fiercest critics. Others are intimidated from speaking out because they don’t know the facts, or fear being ostracized by their woke professors and peers.
We will never convince the antisemites to like us. But we can offer those who are sincerely interested in championing the cause of the oppressed and promoting social justice a more promising path. It is the path of v’hayah – transforming a difficult and often tragic past into a hopeful future.
We remember our tragic past. We mourn those who were slaughtered along the way and cherish their memory. But we know that the real answer is not just to mourn but to move forward. Many of those who perished in the Holocaust sang “Ani Maamin,” whose words express the belief in the coming of the Mashiach, belief in the Jewish future. These were people who knew they were literally walking “through the valley of the shadow of death.” This would be their last chance to send a message to posterity. Their call to us was to believe in the Jewish future, to build the Jewish future.
What has marked the Jewish people throughout our history is not victimhood but resilience. In the face of unspeakable persecution, we made major contributions in science, literature, and culture. Time after time, we were knocked down by pogroms, inquisitions, and holocausts. But while we were often knocked down, we were never knocked out.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, with G-d’s help, survivors built families, businesses, and institutions.
Torah is being learned by more people at a higher level than ever.
We became the first indigenous people to return to our historic homeland and to reunite our ancient and sacred Capital. From the depths of our greatest tragedy, that very nearly destroyed us, we emerged to become stronger and more influential than ever before.
We did this because we understood that the greatest revenge on those who destroyed us is to transform our past into our future by preserving Jewish life and Jewish tradition.
Turning our future into our past by defining Jews as victims is harmful in many ways.
It defines us by what others have done to us, rather than by who we are and what we stand for.
It deemphasizes the importance of Torah and mitzvos.
It is at odds with the reality of where the Jewish people and particularly Israel are today.
It encourages young Jews to make common cause with some of our most vociferous critics.
So how can we transform our tragic past into a hopeful future?
At the beginning of the Torah, Rashi wrote that the Torah begins with the creation of the world because a day will come when the nations of the world will accuse of being thieves for stealing the land of other people. We will be able to respond that Hashem created the world, and it is He who gave the Land of Israel to the People of Israel. We should be bold and unapologetic in proclaiming that we are not in Israel because it is a refuge from oppression. We are in Israel because it is our historic homeland, promised to us by G-d.
In VaEschanan, we are told that it is Torah and mitzvos that make us wise in the eyes of other nations.
Towards the end of the Torah, we are told “Z’chor y’mos olam – Remember the days of old.” We must remember those who have gone before us to preserve their memory and to learn from their experiences.
I began by citing how a simple letter vav can change to the present and the present to the future. I want to end with how a subtle difference in wording is the essential difference between Judaism and other religions. Others say, “We are sinners.” We say “Chatanu – We have sinned.” Saying “We are sinners” defines who we are. It means that we can improve ourselves, because sin is the very essence of our nature. The beginning of t’shuvah – repentance – is to say, “We have sinned.” We regret our sins because they are not who we are. We have the potential to do better. We have the capacity to do good. What life is all about is a journey towards perfecting ourselves and the world around us.
It is time to stop turning our future into our past and to concentrate on transforming our past into our future, to once and for all reject the image of Jews as victims and to stand proudly for a Judaism of faith, commitment, and resilience. It will win us the respect of those around us. More importantly, it will enable young Jews, now and for generations, to come to carry our banner with their heads held high, remembering our past and being true to our timeless ideals and values, as we march with pride and confidence towards the future.