Blog: Hidden in the Headlines
June 7, 1967, is a date planted forever in my memory. It was on that day my family moved into the house I grew up in.
Decades later, I discovered that it was also the day when the Jewish people reclaimed sovereignty over their eternal capital after 2000 years of foreign rule.
I didn’t just grow up in the house that became my home. I saw it built, literally from the ground up. My father was the contractor, so I watched as trenches were dug for water and sewage pipes, as concrete was poured for the foundation, as wooden framing gave it shape and stucco exterior transformed it into a dwelling.
I was six years old the day we moved in. For the next eleven years, that house was the place that sheltered me from the uncertainties of life and gave me refuge from all the scrapes and traumas of childhood and adolescence.
But then something unexpected happened. I went away to college. I made new friends. I experienced the thrill of new ideas and the passion of intellectual exchange. And when summer arrived and I returned to visit my parents, the place they lived was just a house, just a way-station for waiting out the days until I went back to where I belonged.
The following year my parents sold the house. I never missed it.
But college didn’t remain home, either. Even before graduation, I felt something pulling at me, calling me to search somewhere else for home.
THE END OF THE LINE
I remember the day before I first arrived in Israel. The ship that carried me cut across a Mediterranean Sea as still and clear as a sheet of glass, utterly surreal as it reflected the color of the sky. Night descended, and the lights of Haifa glittered on the water. Israel was not my first port of call, but an inexplicable feeling of anticipation stirred inside me, a feeling that could only be described with one word:
The next afternoon I was in Jerusalem; by an unlikely turn of events, I found myself being led through the stone labyrinth that is the Old City. As dusk fell on that Friday evening, I turned a corner and found myself face-to-face with the ancient stones drenched by generations of tears.
In that instant, everything stopped.
I knew nothing about my own heritage, nothing about Jewish tradition or Jewish history. I’d heard of the Western Wall, heard it called the Wailing Wall, but that was all I knew. I’d heard of the Sabbath, but the word meant nothing to me except as a holy anachronism. I wasn’t even sure if I believed in God.
But right then, as the last rays of the sun caught the top of those living stones and the mingled voices of hundreds of faithful wafted up from the courtyard, I felt an irrefutable connection to the three thousand years of tradition, devotion, and moral freedom that has kept my people alive while the countless empires that tried to destroy us have all vanished from the earth.
I had no memory of the iconic picture of the Israeli soldiers looking up in awe and wonder at the moment they liberated the Wall. But in a single moment, 14 years later, I felt what they must have felt: the vastness of infinity and the echo of destiny. I couldn’t imagine how I had lived my life without knowing what this was or what it meant. And my life has never been the same.
THE BEGINNING OF TIME
50 years ago today, according to the Hebrew calendar, on the 28th day of the month of Iyar, a small company of Israeli soldiers charged through Lion’s Gate and into the Old City of Jerusalem. Winding their way through the narrow passageways, they emerged at the epicenter of world history, at the last surviving remnant of the physical Temple from which the light of divine wisdom illuminated the world so many lifetimes ago.
The battle was over. But the war would go on.
The war goes on still: the war against self-serving leaders who oppress their own people, turning victimhood into a weapon against the tiny Jewish nation that wants only to live in peace; the war against irresponsible journalists who fabricate monoliths of falsehood from splinters of fractured truth; the war against well-meaning fools who enable the purveyors of hatred and bloodshed by legitimizing their cause; and the war against ignorance of history, which permits the loudest voices to rewrite the past.
But these are battles we will win. Because ultimately, Jerusalem is our capital and Israel is our true home, our only home. We built her from the ground up; we gave our lives for her and placed our souls under her protection. We will never abandon her; and she will never abandon us.
As long as we remember all Jerusalem stands for, we will carry her in our hearts and in our minds wherever we go, wherever we are. We will never stop fighting against ignorance and injustice, and we will never doubt the inevitable and undeniable truth of the words we cry out again and again, Next year in Jerusalem!
It’s bad enough that we have to endure fake news. But at least untruths and half-truths can be debunked.
More insidious than fake news is flake news — those trifling stories peeping out from beneath lurid headlines trying desperately to generate buzz without even the most lethargic mosquito’s wings to carry them.
SEE IT: Melania slaps away Trump’s hand in Israel, screams the Daily News, proving once again how the media can overlook the most substantive world events in rabid pursuit of the inconsequential.
The brief episode of finger-play probably meant nothing. And if the Trumps’ marriage is on the rocks, no doubt we will find out about it in good time. For the moment, however, let’s table the issue to devote a little more attention to the war on global terror and the quest for world peace.
A mutated spider bites Peter Parker and transforms him into Spiderman. Steve Rogers receives and injection of super-soldier serum and develops into Captain America. David Banner doses himself with gamma rays and mutates into the Incredible Hulk.
These are the fantastic tales of American comic book culture, in which ordinary people find themselves suddenly endowed with extraordinary powers and thrust, willingly or unwillingly, into the role of heroes. Indeed, who among us hasn’t fantasized about acquiring superpowers and using them to conquer his personal demons or to save the world?
But what if it weren’t a fantasy?
In 2006, Derek Amato dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool and stuck his head against the concrete bottom. The resulting concussion left him with chronic headaches and sensitivity to light, it also turned him into a musical virtuoso. Lacking either musical training or the ability to read music, Mr. Amato’s fingers dance over a keyboard like Mikhail Baryshnikov on a stage. He doesn’t know how he does it, but his life has been utterly transformed.
His case is not unique. After suffering a head injury in a childhood fall, Alonzo Clemens began producing exceptionally lifelike clay sculptures. A 10-year-old boy knocked unconscious by a baseball acquired the ability to do calendar calculations: he now remembers every detail of every minute of his life. A 58-year-old builder became an artist and poet in the wake of a stroke. A teenage boy woke up speaking fluent Spanish after he was hit in the head by a soccer ball.
Examples of acquired-savant, or accidental genius, go on and on. Who knows what potential for greatness lies within every one of us?
ILLUMINATING THE DARKNESS
One of the most compelling episodes from Jewish history is the story of Rabbi Akiva. He was an illiterate shepherd, content with his life as a simple laborer until his wife Rachel recognized his potential for greatness. At her urging, the 40-year-old Akiva found a kindergarten teacher to instruct him in the Hebrew aleph-beis so that he might learn to read and study.
But Akiva’s adult brain found the challenge of childhood learning too formidable a task. Dispirited over his failure, he was ready to abandon his efforts. But then he came upon a large stone marred by a curious indentation. When he inquired where the hollow in the stone had come from, he was told that the steady dripping of water over time had worn away the solid rock.
“If water can make an impression on stone,” he said to himself, “then surely the wisdom of the ages can make an impression on me.”
With that, he returned to his studies. Over the course of the next 24 years, he developed into the greatest sage in the history of his people, second only to Moses the Lawgiver.
TRIAL AND ERROR
But Rabbi Akiva’s life was not without hardship. He witnessed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the bloody suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Roman Empire. Worst of all, he saw the apparent undoing of all he had accomplished with the death of his many students.
At the height of his career, Rabbi Akiva oversaw an academy of 24,000 talmudists, a generation of scholars virtually unparalleled in their intellectual prowess. But something went wrong. For all their brilliance and erudition, these students somehow failed to fully absorb Rabbi Akiva’s fundamental lesson to love one’s fellow as oneself. They were not openly uncivil. But their academic accomplishment infected them with a whisper of overconfidence, which ever-so-slightly eroded the respect they showed for one another.
For such exceptional students, blessed with the greatest of teachers, this tiny flaw proved fatal. A mysterious plague began killing them off in horrifying numbers, and the survivors refused to look within themselves toward self-improvement until they too succumbed. Over the course of seven weeks, the entire academy was wiped out, and the light of its wisdom extinguished.
Rabbi Akiva might have mourned his failure and retreated into despondency. But the same resolution that drove him forward decades earlier steeled him in the face of tragedy. He renewed his efforts and, with a handful of disciples, rebuilt all that was lost and secured the future of the Jewish people.
One of his protégés was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose life and accomplishments were celebrated this week with the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. Building upon his teacher’s wisdom, he brought a new light of inspiration into the world, dispelling the suffering and confusion of exile by revealing the divine wisdom of eternity with a radiance that has inspired the Jewish people for nearly 2000 years.
THE LIGHT OF PERSEVERANCE
Heroism is not solely the stuff of comic books or legend. If a blow to the head can actualize hidden talents and abilities, what does that tell us about the potential that lies dormant within every human mind and heart? We may never become Vincent Van Gogh or Itzhak Perlman, but with persistence and determination any one of us can unlock talents and abilities we never imagined we might have.
In a way, the impatient, unfocused predisposition of contemporary culture might work to our benefit. In a world where everyone thrives on instant and effortless gratification, the competition for genuine achievement grows less and less. If 90% of life is just showing up, the advantage of those who truly apply themselves grows exponential.
The real measure of success is not money, fame, or power. It lies in self-respect, and in the respect we earn from people of quality who still recognize the virtues of discipline, refinement, and integrity. Pursue those values with sincerity, and every other blessing will follow.