What’s the difference between innocence and naiveté?
It’s not unusual for young people who are naturally innocent and idealistic to be pumped up with passion in their desire to change the world. Whether it is climate change, carbon emissions, fossil fuel or the effort to “save the whales,” there is no shortage of causes for young people to get involved with.
But when we get older, slowly but surely, we seem to lose some of our idealism. Reality strikes, we settle down, and we seem to be more accepting of the status quo.
The seemingly perennial struggle between the energy and enthusiasm of youth, and the experience and pragmatism of age, was summed up rather succinctly by British statesmen Winston Churchill or perhaps Benjamin Disraeli. “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart. And if you are not a conservative when you are older, then you have no brain!” Or, as another man of experience once put it: “The definition of a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.”
This week’s Torah reading features the Akeidah, the famous story of the binding of Isaac, when Abraham takes the son he waited 100 years for up to the mountain to be offered up to G-d. Of course, we know it was only a test of faith that G-d put to Abraham, the tenth and supreme test our founding father would face.
Two times we read the exact same phrase, Vayeilchu shneihem yachdav—“And the two of them went together.”
The first time this phrase appears was at the beginning of their journey, when Isaac was still blissfully unaware that it was he who was intended to be the sacrifice. Abraham knew what a frightful and fateful experience this would be. But Isaac was completely naive.
During the journey, though, Isaac asks his father: “Hey, Dad, I see the fuel and the wood, but where’s the lamb?”
And when Abraham answers him somewhat enigmatically, the penny drops, and suddenly, Isaac realizes that it is he who is meant to be the sacrificial lamb.
And still, to his eternal credit, the Torah states: “And the two of them went together.” Both father and son continued on their mission with the very same sense of purpose and commitment. Indeed, nothing less than a total commitment.
What incredible faith! What unbelievable dedication! No wonder these giants of the spirit became our founding fathers.
I think that at some point in life, all of us lose our naiveté.
In my own experience, it happens with rabbis and congregants. Decades ago, when I became a congregational rabbi, I thought everyone would love me. I’m a nice guy; I’m not confrontational. My sermons are generally not the “fire and brimstone” type. I am tolerant of everyone, even those who are not as religious as I would like them to be.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that “you can’t win ’em all.” As hard as you may try, there will be some individuals with whom a personality clash is inevitable, and no matter what you do, they will not warm to you. That’s life. We do our best, but these things happen.
And as tolerant and understanding as a rabbi may be, if he is faithful to his mission and mandate, then he will do his best to improve the standards of Jewish life and the practice of our traditions. And not everybody enjoys being prodded. Most people are happy with exactly where they are and are not looking to “grow” or improve.
The Talmud states that “a rabbi who is loved by everyone is not a rabbi.” If every single person loves him, then clearly he is not making any demands of them and has no expectations of spiritual development in his community.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that “a rabbi with whom no one disagrees is not a rabbi. But a rabbi with whom no one agrees is not a mensch.”
Many Jews love their rabbis—until they are asked to do something that is somewhat uncomfortable for them. Then, their penny drops, and their youthful innocence is lost. I thought the rabbi was a nice guy. But now he’s making unreasonable demands of me. He’s looking for some serious commitment, even sacrifice. And I’m not ready for it.
And I think that today, in light of recent events, for millions of Jewish liberals, the penny has finally dropped. The world doesn’t like us. And while they may have voiced criticisms of Israel in the past, today it is abundantly clear that even when Israel is the victim of a monstrous massacre, the Jews will always be at fault. I think that many Jewish progressives are disillusioned with their friends, colleagues, professors, university presidents, and indeed, their own previous philosophy and outlook on life and the world.
Just the other day, a medical professional acquaintance of mine shared how, besides a few Jewish doctors, suddenly he has no friends on the hospital staff. People who would greet him now shun him. And while he always thought he enjoyed healthy and friendly relationships with his non-Jewish and Muslim colleagues, overnight he became a pariah.
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, guys. But if today you still don’t get it, you are not naive, you are delusional.
We should be grateful for those who do show friendship and loyalty to Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora. We could certainly use some good friends these days. But I cannot stop quoting Israeli founding father and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who said: “It doesn’t matter what the non-Jews say. It matters what the Jews do.”
Being naive is not something we Jews can afford. At the end of the day, “we have no one to rely on except our Father in Heaven” … and each other.