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June 11, 2015 6:06 pm

Why is it So Difficult for Jews to Find the Positive?

avatar by Mitchell Wohlberg

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The IAC congratulated Jewish Cavaliers coach David Blatt on reaching the NBA Finals. Photo: Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons.

David Blatt. Photo: Erik Drost via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the time of year for travel! One of the most visited tourist sites worldwide is the Vatican. According to the Wall Street Journal, on the Trip Advisor website, the Sistine Chapel has received more than 2,600 reviews marked “excellent” and 94 reviews marked “terrible.” And I asked myself: How terrible can it be? I’m sure the critics must have felt that they could have done a better job, but still! And then I had a more painful insight. Is it possible … is it just possible … that the 94 “terrible” reviews have come from Jews?

Why would I ever think that? It’s not for religious reasons. I can’t imagine a Jew denouncing the Sistine Chapel because of his Jewishness. If that was the case, he never would have gone there in the first place! So what makes me think that it may have been Jews nonetheless? For that, you have to know who David Blatt is.

If I asked: how many know who LeBron James is, I think most people would know the answer. But you have to be a bit of a sports connoisseur to know who David Blatt is. David Blatt is LeBron James’ coach. He is the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. And he is a Jew … a proud Jew. Blatt grew up in Framingham, MA, and after spending a summer in Israel he decided to make aliyah and join the Israeli army. He eventually became the head of the Israeli National Basketball Team. In 2014, he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euro League championship … making him good enough in the eyes of basketball connoisseurs to coach LeBron James into the finals that are now being played in the NBA.

It all sounds so good! But there is a side to this story that most don’t know. The highly respected Israeli writer, Ari Shavit, was the one to point out, and I quote: “Only a year and a half or two years ago, he was being vilified here day and night. When Maccabi Tel Aviv ran into trouble in the middle of last season, the media lynched the Boston-born coach. Many people affiliated with Maccabi – executives, players and fans – heaped scorn on him. He was perceived as too expensive, too arrogant and too American. He wasn’t chummy enough. He didn’t go out to eat with the guys. In a way that is difficult to describe today, the coach who two weeks from now might win the most prestigious basketball title in the world was seen by many Israelis as not good enough for the Israeli team that has been on the ropes ever since he left it.”

Mr. Shavit wrote his article not simply to point out how Israelis treated David Blatt, but to point out how Israeli Jews tend to treat each other; always with negativity, always with cynicism. In Mr. Shavit’s words, “From morning till night we take pot shots at each other. Year after year we slog through the toxic swamp of gossip, jealousy, slander and defamation.”

Yes, David Blatt is good enough for LeBron James, but wasn’t good enough for Israelis. There seems to be something in our Jewish genes, or in our character, that always manages to see the flaws causing us to be blind to people’s virtues. This is dangerous – very dangerous – as we learned from the Biblical story that tells of Moses sending 12 spies to scout the land of Israel. Ten come back with a negative report, telling of powerful armies and walled cities, of a strong enemy that may be invincible. Two come back with a positive report, telling of a land that flows with milk and honey.

So who was telling the truth? The fact of the matter is, they were both telling the truth. But only one was responding to the question that Moshe had asked them to answer. Moshe’s mandate to them was to go to the land of Israel and see “hatovah hi im raah” – which we usually translate – “Is it good or is it bad?” But with the change of one letter – a silent letter – the alef of “im” to an ayin – it can be read, “Is there some good with the bad?” I know we are going to be confronting a difficult and dangerous enemy, says Moshe. I know all that! But is there good – is there something positive that can be found amidst all this that will give us hope that we can endure? “Is there some good with the bad?” is a question the spies should have given some thought to. It is a question all of us as Jews should give some thought to.

While most Jews here in the U.S. are not aware of it, there is a major religious battle taking place right now in the State of Israel in regard to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. You have to know who this man is … he is one of the guiding lights of Modern Orthodox Judaism. It was he who inspired me – and many others of my generation – to enter the rabbinate and to be the kind of rabbis that we are.

In the early 60’s he started a synagogue in the area of the Lincoln Center in New York. It became a center of Jewish prayer and Jewish learning for the whole west side of New York. He had everything going for him, and then he picked up and moved to what was then a no-man’s-land in Judea, several miles outside of Jerusalem. He established the settlement of Efrat, which now has more than 10,000 people living there and ever since he has served as Efrat’s Chief Rabbi. He is now 75 years old and the Chief Rabbis of Israel are questioning whether to allow him to continue as Chief Rabbi of Efrat.

The problem the Chief Rabbis have with him is some of the liberal positions he has taken regarding conversion, the role of women, and relations with non-Jews. Chief Rabbis: “hatovah hi im raah” – is there some good with the bad? Even if you disagree with some of what Rabbi Riskin has said, should that blind you to all the good he has done, and continues to do? One Chief Rabbi accused Rabbi Riskin of believing “that men and women have equal rights!” Now, I know how ridiculous that is! But still! The school of Shammai and the school of Hillel disagreed on over 300 issues of Jewish law. But they continued to learn from each other, respect each other. And while we’re at it … who are you, Chief Rabbis, to judge him when your only claim to the positions you hold was that both your fathers had served as Chief Rabbis.

Last week I wrote about American Pharoah – the horse that attempted to win the Triple Crown. I told you how the owner of the horse and his family are Orthodox Jews, Sabbath observant? And so, both for the Preakness at Pimlico and with the Belmont Stakes in New York they had stayed in a large RV on the racetrack grounds, so as to not drive on Shabbos. Well, lo and behold, American Pharoah won the Triple Crown and the next day one of New York’s newspapers had a headline article: “Orthodox Jewish Horse Violates the Sabbath to Win Triple Crown.”

You tell me: is this nitpicking, the finding fault, this always seeing the worst rather than the best a distinctly Jewish trait? I don’t know, but when they tell that joke about the waiter asking the couple when he presents the bill: “Was anything okay?” it seems to work much better when told of a Jewish couple than a French or Italian one.

The Jews in the wilderness would have done themselves – and all of us – a favor had they asked that question of the spies. For our tradition tells us that when the spies gave their negative report, the Jewish people began to cry. And according to the Talmud, God said: You cry on this day for no reason. There will come a time when it will be a day for you to cry for a reason. This event took place on the 9th day of Av – Tisha B’av – the day on which the two temples were destroyed; the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Yes, sometimes our cynicism and negativity in viewing others ultimately just brings misery upon ourselves.

Summer is just around the corner … the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer and the time for us to slow down a bit, sit back a bit, and look at what we have. If we ask ourselves: is there some good with the bad, I think most all of us will think of the Sh’hechiyanu prayer, thanking God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this joyous moment in life. Amen

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