Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Walk Article-Vayigash

S'iz Shver Tzu Zein a Yid


Rabbi David Walk


            It's a shame that many of us in the Modern Orthodox camp don't know more Yiddish.  It's a wonderfully expressive language.  My parents articulated emotions in Yiddish that English just couldn't convey.  However, there are certain expressions which even those of us with exclusively English and Hebrew educations still know.  Of course, many of these expressions are food related, like kugel, kichel, chulent, gefilte, and kishke.  But there are some other expressions (a few of which I can't use in a family oriented medium) which the bulk of us do know.  Included in that short list is S'iz Shver Tzu Zein a Yid.  This means 'It's hard to be a Jew.'  We've been kvetching about this reality for a very long time.  But what exactly do we mean by it?  I'd like to explore the significance of that expression and then apply it to this week's Torah reading.

Before I warm to my task allow me to give an opposing opinion.  There are many who feel that this famous dictum is a disservice to Judaism. Here's a quote from the Waterbury Yeshiva web site:  'This hashkafah (philosophy) is sheker (false) and very harmful. Hashem did not give us the Torah to tax and oppress us in this world, but rather to enhance and beautify our lives. The Alter of Novardok beautifully expresses this idea in his classic work, Madreigas Ha'adam (Tikkun Hamiddos, Perek Gimmel), where he writes that the path of Torah only serves to facilitate one's success in life. "Deracheha darchei noam – The way of Torah is sweet" (Mishlei 3:17). Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l is famously quoted as saying that these words led many children to ultimately leave the path of Torah and mitzvos. Their parents were moser nefesh to keep Shabbos, losing their job from week to week, but since they complained, "Es iz shver tzu zein a Yid," that it is difficult to be a frum Jew, their children did not have the will to make the sacrifice. They did not possess the emunah of their parents to overpower the desires and temptations that America had to offer.' I'm very sympathetic to these positions, and I think that philosophically the Torah lifestyle is rewarding.  I understand people did give up their commitment to a Torah life style because their parents made it sound so difficult. But the expression is so very famous because there is a truth in it, and it rang true to many generations of Jews.  Let's explore it.   

            This idea can, of course, mean many things to different people and in different times.  There must have been periods when people said it because their gentile neighbors were beating them up.  I'm sure that some of us have felt that way when traveling and couldn't find a kosher meal.  I definitely felt that way when I had a ticket for a World Series game which fell out on Rosh Hashanah.  There are often Jewish obligations which interfere with business or educational responsibilities.  In the personal arena the difficulty is often closer to inconvenience; on the national scale the issues have often been life or death.  Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz came to Stamford, CT a few years back and addressed this issue.  He claimed that the true difficulty in being Jewish is the constant nature of the Halachic system.  There is no time off.  He felt that the relentless demand to conform to the Jewish legal system is onerous.  These explanations are interesting and, of course, present valid positions, but they generally discuss the issue from the personal or present point of view.  I believe that our parsha presents the national and historic perspective.

The best known Jewish text is probably the Haggadah.  A higher percentage of Jews worldwide participate in a seder than any other annual Jewish ritual.  This important ceremony refers to an event in this week's Torah reading, but from the perspective of centuries later:  And I took your father Abraham from beyond the river, and I led him throughout the whole land of Canaan. I increased his seed and gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I gave Mount Seir to possess it, and Jacob and his sons went down to Egypt (Joshua 24:3-4).  Both of Yitzchak's sons are given their own country, but the descendants of Esav get theirs immediately while the heirs of Ya'akov must wait centuries to acquire their land.  This same phenomenon is hinted at back in chapter thirty-six.  All the chieftains and kings who descend from Esav begin to rule approximately five hundred years before we Jews crowned a king. 

This reality is also expressed by a Midrash on this week's parsha.  When Yehudah confronts Yosef about the charges against Binyamin, he complains about the treatment they've received since their first arrival.  The Midrash has Yehudah state:  From the start you were trying to trap us. How many nationalities come down to Egypt to buy food, but you have never questioned any one of them, only us! (Bereishit Rabba 93, 8).  Rav Yehudah Amital ZT"L noted the brothers' distress and he commented:  There is no doubt that our forefathers lived with a special historical awareness. They knew that they were destined to establish the chosen nation, and that everything that happened to them during their lifetimes would define the nature and character of the nation in the future. Beyond the personal difficulty experienced by the brothers in their descent to Egypt, they feared that their problem-ridden experience there was related to future events that the nation was destined to endure. Indeed, this was to be the case: from the time of the brothers' descent to Egypt and until today, the history of Am Yisrael has been strewn with innumerable difficulties.  Today, after thousands of years of Jewish existence, we are only too conscious of the phenomenon that so aroused the brothers' bewilderment: events and activities that go smoothly for other nations of the world happen, in the case of Am Yisrael, through struggles and battles.

 People mistakenly think that difficult means negative.  Not so!  Our historic choseness has carried many challenges, but they come our way because of the attention we attract from being at the center of most world events.  God's special concern and assignments for us have come at a cost, but, thank God, we're still here to fulfill our role and advocate for God's agenda.  Okay, it's hard to be a Jew, but it's worth it.