Acknowledging Realities

In the Russian city of Luban, there lived a moser we will call “Yankel.” Life under the iron fist of the Russian government made life hard enough for the Jews of Luban, but Yankel would make things even more difficult than they already were. He would run to the authorities, and inform them of every way the Jewish community attempted to circumvent the decrees which were meant to eradicate religious practice. It goes without saying that he was far from beloved.

One day, the head of the chevrah kaddisha heard a knock on his door. He opened it to find Yankel’s son, sent by his father, who was dying. Yankel had a request to make of the chevrah kaddisha.

“It is true,” he said, “that I was a moser. But I am now heading to the Olam Ha’emes, and I want a kapparah for my evil actions. Please, do me a favor and bury me face down, and may the embarrassment I bear from that sort of burial be a kapparah for my neshamah.” And with that, he expired.

The chevrah kaddisha was not sure what to do. They consulted with their Rav, the young, but brilliant, Harav Moshe Feinstein. His ruling was clear — they were not to fulfill the request of the deceased because it would be in violation of minhag Yisrael.

Soon after the burial, a regiment of soldiers poured into the Jewish cemetery. “Dig up Yankel!” they commanded. The chevrah kaddisha complied, and after they exhumed him, were promptly told to rebury him.

When they asked what was the point of digging him up, they were told that as he lay dying, Yankel sent a letter to the authorities saying they would be able to find proof of the Jews’ contempt for the Russians by disinterring him after his burial. Surely, he wrote, the Jews would bury him face down in an expression of disgust against the government only he had been loyal to. Thankfully, the chevrah kaddisha had listened to Rav Moshe and were saved from the treacherous plot.

I find myself thinking of this story as I follow the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel during the last few weeks of his presidency. Trying to make sense of the reasoning behind the United Nations resolution — which President Obama orchestrated in his position as the lamest of all lame ducks — is pretty challenging.

It is, however, the same kind of intent that motivated the moser to ask to be buried face down. Knowing his clock was ticking and time was running out for him and his relevance, the moser sought an area in which he felt he could still have an impact, assert himself and satisfy the needs of his ego. The moser knew he was close to death, but needed to feel as if he were— even then — still in control.

The same is true about Obama. With his final term as president nearing an end and his desired legacy in tatters, he needs to do things that can make him feel, as his presidency expires, as if he still matters.

The resolution and the damage it does to our brethren who live in the Holy Land is real, and it should serve as a reminder that until the coming of Moshiach, our existence will always remain, as comfortable as it may seem, like the kivsah achas bein shivim ze’evim — like a single sheep among 70 wolves.

But some people seem to be taking exactly the wrong approach to this. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lashed out at the president and the nations who voted for the resolution at the United Nations. And while he isn’t wrong to react strongly to the vote — it does, after all, make threats of isolation more real — one of the statements he made to justify his reaction is just so incredibly wrong.

“Enough of this galus [mentality],” he said. “There is no political wisdom to being obsequious. Not only were our relations with the countries of the world not hurt by this event, but they will actually improve over time. Countries respect strong states that stand on their own and do not respect weak states that are obsequious and bow their heads. Israel under my leadership is a strong, proud country.”

And that’s exactly the wrong lesson that should be learnt from this. Netanyahu won’t earn the world’s respect by being assertive. We are in galus, and this is a common enough occurrence for a people who are in galus. We are powerless to stop it from happening, and we need to be cognizant of that fact.

But Netanyahu refuses to be so. And most likely it is for the same reason Obama insisted on passing the resolution. Because for the prime minister of Israel, acknowledging we are in galus is recognizing that there are just some areas in which he is powerless. And, as we know, that’s an incredibly difficult thing to do.