A few days ago, my son Simcha sent me a video clip of scenes from Mars taken from various American spacecraft that are parked there long-term. It was quite incredible to watch. I had a hard time digesting that I was looking at the daily landscape of a planet 40 million miles away from our own.
Aside from the total lack of water, and of course life, the Red Planet looked remarkably similar to Earth. There were hills and valleys, great mountains and gaping gulfs, rocks and pebbles – each region with its own assigned name. The word that comes to mind in describing the planet is “desolate.”
You can’t help but wonder how any serious person can believe in random evolution. Here you have this huge celestial form, one of countless billions, without any intelligent being credited with its creation. “It just happened, a Big Bang or something.”
Even more striking is the stark difference between Earth and any of the other planets or stars. Mars is totally devoid of any form of life. Not a lichen grows there. It is perfectly motionless like the rocks that form it, with nothing dynamic occurring. On the other hand, Earth is lush, full of life. Flowing waters. Thriving organisms. Huge trees and tiny plants. Oceans and deserts. Gnats and elephants. Every form of life right through the marvelous human being that continues to create on its own.
It seems to me a people, or a nation, is very much the same. If the people of that nation have no spirit, no history, no sense of purpose, no credos, then that nation is just a wasteland. Barren. Desolate.
Our country, the great United States of America, is fast becoming that wasteland. No values, no belief system, and our history is being ignored or reinvented to suit a popular cause. It is so awfully tragic that this can be happening in front of our eyes. But that is not the topic of this essay.
In the haftarah we read this past Shabbos, known as Chazon, taken from the opening chapter of Isaiah, which is always read on the Shabbos before Tish’ah B’Av, the prophet depicts a people whose land will become “desolate, your cities burned…as if overturned by strangers.” Nothing is more cursed than desolation.
Yet, desolation can be a blessing, as well. The Torah was given to us in a desert. The Chazal take note of that on several occasions. In the Midrash (BaMidbar 1:6), we are told that the reason that the Torah was given in a desert is that if someone does not consider himself ownerless like a desert, then he cannot acquire wisdom. To flourish, we need to be totally unencumbered by outside distractions.
We Jews have been the best at producing under the most difficult circumstances. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (B’reishis 45:11) writes how we were the most productive during the Ghetto years. Most of our greatest Torah scholars grew under excruciating duress. Look at Israel today. It has literally turned a desert into a thriving country while its neighbors pound sand.
Yet, I’m afraid that as a people in the Diaspora, we are turning what once was thriving existence into a barren desert. Assimilation and the pull of Leftism has completely consumed our generation, to its own peril. And the coming generation of Orthodox youth is not immune, especially those exposed to the secular way of thinking without a strong Torah background. We see Jews who have already sacrificed their religion on the altar of liberalism at the expense of Jewish welfare.
It is now not only popular among Jewish elite to be critics of Israel, but calling for the dismantling of the State of Israel is now on their agenda. Max Strasser (who recently replaced the Zionist leaning Bari Weiss on The New York Times editorial board), Peter Beinart, Thomas Friedman, and Jay Street are all becoming quickly accepted into the Jewish mainstream for today’s generation as they call for the disappearance of the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Liberalism uber alles.
One of my “favorite” segments of Kinos is number 19, in which we state, “Yours, my L-rd, is the righteousness, because although the destruction of the two Temples was caused by our corruption, we ourselves were spared.”
Think about that. We do not blame our catastrophic downfall on our oppressors, on our evil occupiers, on political winds; we blame it on ourselves. At the same time, we tell our G-d that we are grateful that He spared us. We can continue to live and produce despite the crippling effects of our geographic, political, spiritual, and human losses.
Mars is barren. It is desolate. We Jews could have been the same way. Israel could have turned out the same way. And for tragic periods, we and Eretz Yisrael indeed were, as the navi described. We recall those awful periods as we mourn on Tish’ah B’Av. Miraculously, we have remained alive and dynamic precisely because we do not forget those times! We learn from them. If we keep faithful to Hashem and His Torah, we will have a glorious future to welcome. We will live to see the fulfillment of Tish’ah B’Av becoming a festive holiday, as Yirmeyahu alluded to in Eichah (Lamentations) 1:15. We will live to see the uplifting conclusion of the haftarah of Chazon: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice and her returnees with righteousness.” Amen!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.