July 14, 2009
Fruit of the Vine
Parashat Matot-Masey (Numbers 30:2-36:13)
I led a summer Jewish history trip through Central Europe several years ago, which took us to Bratislava and its famous Jewish cemetery, where the great 19th century rabbinic leader, the Hatam Sofer, is buried. Our first stop in Bratislava was at the Danube Hotel, where we were to meet our local guide. It was raining that morning, and a lady was standing outside under an umbrella as we pulled up to the hotel. I opened the door to the bus and asked her if she was a tour guide waiting for a group. She said she was and came on board.
I told her that our first stop would be the Jewish cemetery.
“Are you sure you want to go to the Jewish cemetery?” she asked.
I answered that indeed, we wanted to visit the cemetery.
“Well OK, if you insist,” she said.
“Why are you so surprised?” I asked her.
“I don’t understand what an Irish Catholic group wants in the Jewish cemetery,” she said.
I looked at her. “Irish Catholic? Who is Irish Catholic?”
“Aren’t you Irish Catholic?” she answered. “I am supposed to lead an Irish Catholic group.”
“If you are the Irish Catholic guide where is the Jewish guide?” I asked.
“He is inside the hotel waiting for your group,” she said.
As soon as the guide left, one of the members of our group said, “Our guide wouldn’t wait in the rain. Jewish instinct taught him to seek shelter.”
Jewish instinct has guided us for centuries. But what is it that has allowed us to survive for so long? Perhaps the answer can be found in this week’s haftarah from Jeremiah, which repeats itself in the words of Isaiah in next week’s haftarah. Both Jeremiah and Isaiah describe the Jewish people with the image of the grapevine. “I had planted you a noble vine ... have you transformed yourself before me into a degenerate alien vein?” (Jeremiah 2:21).
And next week the words of Isaiah (1:8), “And the daughters of Zion shall be left like a hut in a vineyard ... like a besieged city.”
Both of these verses sound extremely depressing. That is true until you recognize the real identity of the grape. Unlike other fruits that grow on trees, the grape has the weakest infrastructure. It can easily be destroyed, and when it is set on fire it quickly is consumed leaving nothing behind, not even material suitable for fertilizer. And yet from one little shoot so many grapes can be produced. It grows quickly and yields a precious harvest, a fruit that can produce wine. The grape’s mission is to produce only the highest quality byproduct.
No wonder the grape is the only fruit endowed with three blessings, and it is the only fruit whose juice has a different blessing than the fruit itself. If one eats the grape’s bark or vine, one recites “Borei pri ha’adama”; for the grape, one recites “Borei pri ha’etz”; and if one drinks wine, one recites “Borei pri hagefen.” Bottom line, the grape was created to produce goodness in all its facets.
So too the Jew. From the Jew come more Noble Prize winners than any other group. From the Jew come leaders of every cause, and from the Jew comes the greatest philanthropy man knows.
We have to keep this in mind for constantly we find even our “friends” forgetting this. In 2003, a 5,500-word handwritten diary by President Harry Truman was found. In it were three pages containing vitriolic comments about Jews. What appeared to stimulate the president was a call he received on July 21, 1947, from Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR’s treasury secretary. Morgenthau called because 4,500 Jewish refugees seeking entrance into Palestine aboard the ship Exodus had been seized by the British. Morgenthau attempted to enlist the president’s help.
Although Truman said he would speak to George Marshall, his secretary of state, he wrote that Morgenthau had no business calling. “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish,” Truman wrote. “They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as DP as long as the Jews get special treatment.”
I was devastated by this revelation. Truman was a “Jewish friend.” How could he write such remarks? What I found reassuring, however, was a comment that William Safire wrote in his column on this story. He ended by saying that he contacted Morgenthau’s son, the famous Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who replied, “I’m glad my father made the call.”
We will always make the call if we remember that we are compared to the grape. The Jew’s secret of survival is that he is like the grapevine — even when crushed, he rises above those who try to destroy him.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area.