“My Friends, We Were Robbed!” is the title of a book by Rabbi Uri Zohar which describes his journey of return to our spiritual heritage. In this letter, we will discuss the meaning of the title of his book, and our discussion will begin with some information about his life before he became a rabbi:
Rabbi Uri Zohar is an Ashkenazic Jew who was born in Tel Aviv in 1934, and he was educated in secular Zionist schools. The State of Israel was established in 1948. In 1952, he graduated high school, and within a few years, he became a popular stand-up comedian. In 1960, he studied philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and this interest in philosophy would later lead to spiritual changes in his life. During the 60’s, he directed and starred in Israeli films; moreover, he became a popular television and radio talk-show host. During the 70’s, he reached the height of his entertainment career, as he was considered by many to be the top comedian, television and radio talk-show host, social satirist, actor, and film-producer on the Israeli scene. His performances were valued not merely for the entertainment they provided, but also because they provided astute and sharp-tongued observations about Israeli society.
It was during the late
1970’s that he began to
search for his spiritual
roots. This process
began after his
encounter with a wise
Torah teacher in
Jerusalem who challenged
some of Uri’s secular
Judaism. Uri therefore
began an attempt to
investigate the veracity
of Judaism’s claim that
the Torah is of Divine
origin. His serious and
long investigation led
him to accept the Torah
as Divine truth, and on
a step-by-step basis, he
began to keep the
mitzvos of the Torah.
The commitment of this famous Israeli personality to the spiritual path of his people shocked many secular-oriented Israeli Jews. The first shock was when they noticed that he began to wear a yarmulke on the television show he was hosting. They were even more shocked when he gave up fame and fortune in order to study Torah. In fact, after he decided to study Torah at a yeshiva, he received a million dollar offer from some Hollywood producers. His answer was: “Sorry Gentlemen, I won’t be able to make it. I’m going off to yeshiva.”
His studies led him to become a rabbi. He then became a noted teacher and activist within Chareidi organizations that are engaged in spiritual outreach to secular-oriented Jews in Israel.
As part of his outreach work, he wrote several books, and one of the books is a spiritual autobiography titled, “My Friends, We Were Robbed!” The title expresses the shock and anger that he felt when he discovered that the secular Zionist education that he received when he was growing up in the Land of Israel “robbed” him of the spiritual heritage of the People of Israel. In order to understand his shock and anger, we need to be aware of the following aspects of the education that he received:
The students in the
secular Zionist schools
learned about the
military victories of
our ancestors in the
Land of Israel; however,
with rare exceptions,
they did not study the
teachings of our
prophets that reveal the
spiritual purpose of the
Land of Israel. In
addition, the students
were taught about the
political and military
factors which led to our
exile from the Land, but
they were not taught
about the underlying
spiritual causes. For
example, they were not
exposed to the following
“For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert, without a passerby? Hashem said: Because of their forsaking My Torah that I put before them” (Jeremiah 9:11, 12).
The students were not given information on how Jerusalem served as the spiritual center of our people through the Temple, as well as through the Supreme Court of Torah sages which was located in one of the courtyards of the Temple. In addition, they did not learn about the Torah centers that existed in the Land after the destruction of the Second Temple. They therefore did not know about the Mishnah – the classical text of the Talmud – which was written in the Land during that period.
They were also unaware of the prophecies which reveal that Jerusalem will become a spiritual center for all humanity; thus, they were not familiar with the following prophecy which became part of the traditional liturgy of our people:
“For from Zion will go forth Torah, and the Word of Hashem from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).
The students did not learn about the spiritual accomplishments of our people during the centuries of our exile. They did not even learn about the basic principles and precepts of our spiritual heritage. For example:
They did not learn about the Torah’s path of mitzvos. They were therefore unaware that there are mitzvos which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And they were also unaware that there are mitzvos which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves.
They did not learn about the spiritual aspects of the sacred Sabbath of our people and how this sacred day enables us to experience serenity and shalom through reconnecting to our Creator and all creation.
They did not learn about the Shema – the following proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity which expresses a central principle of our faith:
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!” (Deut. 6:4)
Jews from the Diaspora who would visit Israel or settle in Israel were often shocked to discover that the majority of Jewish children in Israel were unaware of the Shema. The following story about Rabbi Irving Bunim, a prominent American Jewish educator and community activist, can serve as an example:
During a trip to Israel in the late 1950’s, Rabbi Bunim visited Tsfas (Safed) – a city in the north of Israel. He met a Sephardic boy on the street for whom he recited the Shema. Rabbi Bunim smiled, and asked the boy, “What I am saying?” The boy stared back quizzically. Rabbi Bunim, still smiling, repeated the Shema a bit more loudly. The boy, however, simply shrugged.
Rabbi Bunim was in tears. Standing before him in the Holy Land was a Jewish boy who did not have the slightest knowledge of this basic tenet of his own faith and heritage. Rabbi Bunim vowed then and there to increase his efforts on behalf of “Chinuch Atzmai” – a network of Torah-committed schools in Israel that were under the guidance of leading Torah sages. (This story appears in the biography of R. Irving Bunim titled, “A Fire in His Soul.”)
The ignorance of the Shema still exists within Israeli secular schools, and this was discussed in an article in the Jerusalem Post by Daniel Gordis, (“Why not Uganda?” Sept. 18, 2008). After describing his son’s encounter with a gifted high school graduate who never heard of the Shema, Gordis points out: “An exceptionally talented kid, he’d gone to Israeli schools his entire life and didn’t know something so basic that almost any American Jewish kid getting even a rudimentary Hebrew school education would have considered obvious.”
The educational policy of Israel’s secular Zionist schools was based on the idea that Jewish nationalism had replaced the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people; in fact, the World Zionist Organization adopted a resolution in 1911 which stated, “Zionism has nothing to do with religion.” Rabbi Uri Zohar was therefore correct when he proclaimed, “My Friends, We were robbed!” He and his friends who received the secular Zionist education were robbed of their spiritual heritage, as it is written:
“The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Community of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)
According to our tradition, the above verse is the very first verse which is taught to each Jewish child when he or she first learns to speak. In this way, Jewish children are made aware at an early age that the Torah is the heritage that belongs to each of them and to all of them.
Through the outreach efforts of Rabbi Uri Zohar and many other Torah-committed men and women, a growing number of our brethren in Zion are rediscovering their spiritual heritage. They therefore find special inspiration when they chant the following words from a traditional morning prayer:
“How good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage – we, who early and late, morning and evening, twice each day, proclaim:
‘Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!’ ”
Have a Good, Pleasant, and Beautiful Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
1. It is good that we have Torah-committed speakers, teachers, and writers who are engaged in spiritual outreach. We need to be aware, however, that one does not have to be a speaker, teacher, or writer in order to engage in spiritual outreach. As we discussed in the previous letter about the loving hospitality of Avraham and Sarah, one can also engage in outreach through the spiritual power of one’s own noble example, especially in the way one treats other people.
2. “My Friends, We were Robbed!” was published in English by Feldheim Publishers in 1994, but it no longer appears on their website. You may still be able to get copies at some book stores.
3. “A Fire in His Soul” is a biography of Rabbi Irving Bunim, whose Hebrew name is Yitzchok Meir. The author is his son, Rabbi Amos Bunim, and the publisher is Feldheim: www.feldheim.com .
4. Tu B’Shvat – the New Year of the Trees – begins on Wednesday evening, January 19th. Regarding the Torah, it is written, “She is a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:19). May we therefore be nurtured by her life-giving fruits.