I’m a Jew and I’m proud and I’ll sing it out loud, ’cuz forever and ever that’s what I’ll be.”
These timeless words were adapted into Benny Friedman’s hit — “Ivri Anochi” — from an old Camp Gan Israel song I grew up singing.
The ugly head of anti-Semitism is rearing itself shamelessly all over the world, even in 2019. We see frum Yidden being kicked off planes, punched and kicked in the “shtetls” of Brooklyn, and blatant anti-Semites elected to governments in supposedly peaceful and religiously tolerant countries. Understanding and taking pride in the role of the Jewish People is even more important than ever.
The Nazis yemach shemam v’zichram were fastidious about the purity of bloodlines, believing that there are actually strains of humanity that are made from better “stuff” than others. While we rightfully do claim “asher bachar banu mikol ha’amim,” that we were chosen from all of the nations of the world, we believe that all of mankind was created equally.
Choosing to Be Chosen
In his commentary on parshas Noach, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l refers back to the creation story. He points out that many different species of animals were created, each one with a male and female counterpart. But Man came to this world as one finely crafted being; it is only later that Hashem “separated” him into Adam and Chava, and the many nations of the world emerged from their progeny.
Rav Yaakov quotes the Zohar in stating, “For this reason Adam was created as ‘yechidi,’ as one: so that no one could say to his friend, ‘My father is greater than yours.’” Just as each animal was created with many different species, Hashem could have created many different cultural subgroups, yet he created us all from one person to show that we are all of equal lineage.
While we may all have been created equal, the reason the Jewish People are the Chosen Nation is because we took on that role. In Shir Hashirim (2:3), Shlomo Hamelech says, “And like the apple among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the lads. In his shade I delighted and sat, and his fruit was sweet to my palate.” The Midrash Rabbah explains that apple trees provide little shade, so people refrain from sitting under them during a heat wave. It compares this to the nations of the world, who did not want to sit in the “shade” of HaKadosh Baruch Hu during the intense spiritual “heat wave” that was Matan Torah, in contrast to Klal Yisrael, who enthusiastically accepted the Torah.
It is both a privilege and a tremendous responsibility to be Hashem’s Chosen Nation. The Torah enables us to accomplish more spiritually than any other practice or religion could. The 613 mitzvos are Hashem’s guide to achieving perfection, each mitzvah with the potential to lift us to further spiritual greatness. But the pitfall of this supreme Sinaitic lineage also enables us to be great sinners. Failing in 613 ways is very different from failing in seven!
But let’s focus on the privilege inherent in being Hashem’s People. The Gemara in Menachos alludes to the intimacy of the relationship between the Jewish People and the Ribbono shel Olam: “A yedid (friend) will come, who is the son of a yedid, and will build a yedid, for a yedid, in the portion of a yedid, and yedidim will find kapparah.” Using specific verses from the Torah and Neviim, the Gemara illustrates how each of the following are called “yedid”: Shlomo the son of David will build a Beis Hamikdash for HaKadosh Baruch Hu, in the portion of Binyamin, and Yisrael will find kapparah.
Born a Friend
In the tefillos recited at a bris, a newborn baby is referred to as a “yedid mibeten,” a friend from the womb. Every Jewish child born is part and parcel of that friendship with Hashem, a relationship that we are bonded to for eternity.
What is the secret of feeling that yedidus, that close friendship with Hashem?
The pasuk in Koheles (2:3) tells us, “Shifchi kamayim libeich, nochach pnei Hashem.” Rav Wolbe explains this to mean we should pour out our heart like water, as if we are speaking to Hashem, Whom we envision standing opposite us, face to face, hearing our pleas (Alei Shur 1, Shaar 4). “Nochach” refers to a place deep in our hearts where the presence of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is experienced as a tangible reality. Every Jew has the ability to access this.
The yetzer hara traps us into getting stuck in the rut of “mitzvas anashim melumadah.” Our service of Hashem becomes perfunctory, and we stop appreciating the great value of being Jews, of the intimate relationship we have with Hashem. In his introduction to the Shulchan Aruch, the Beis Yosef emphasizes the importance of living according to the dictum of “Shivisi Hashem l’negdi tamid,” of being cognizant of Hashem at all times, and tells us that tzaddikim live with the constant accompaniment of Hashem.
Tap into Connection
Thus, the key to moving away from lackadaisical avodas Hashem and reinvigorating our relationship with Him is through being aware of His presence in the minutiae of our lives. We can tap into our connection to Hashem when looking for a parking spot, be aware of His presence when a recipe works and when it is an indisputable disaster. We can point out to our children Hashem’s involvement in every aspect of their lives, teach them to look for Hashem, and thank Him for everything He does for them.
“Ki heim chayeinu v’orech yameinu, u’vahem nehegeh yomam valailah. Torah and mitzvos are our life, and we will toil in them day and night.” Toiling is not easy, yet the satisfaction of accomplishment and spiritual growth is a happiness that cannot be compared with the ephemeral high of indulging our passions.
The Gemara in Yevamos (47a) tells us that if a person wants to convert to Judaism, he must be asked, “What did you see that made you want to convert? Don’t you know that the Jew right now is despised, pushed, dirtied, ravaged, and suffering so much?”
If he says, “I know and I still don’t feel worthy to be part of them,” we accept him immediately. Rashi explains “I am not worthy” to mean not worthy to endure their tzaros, of the opportunity to merit this experience.
This is the Jew throughout this long and bitter galus. This is the greatness of that Jew who stands tall and firm despite his suffering, the Jew who does not break. He sees everything associated with being Jewish — both the intimate connection to Hashem we acquire through Torah observance and the persecution we experience as the Chosen People — as a zechus. Only one who recognizes this can be a sincere convert.
Rav Wolbe tells us, “When Klal Yisrael comes to a place that is comfortable, and they feel safe from the yissurim of galus, galus will chase them!” Even cozy America is causing us to become a bit unsettled as we encounter governments, universities, and the uninviting masses who are clearly taking back any indications of a warm welcome.
Yet we remain singing with a vigor and a tenacity that is only stronger for each hundred years since this galus began: “I am a Jew and I’m proud — and I’ll shout it out loud ‘cuz forever and ever that’s what I’ll be!”