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Parashat Kedoshim 5774 — 04/23/2014

Parashat Kedoshim 5774 — 04/23/2014

Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the members of your people. (Vayikra 19:18)

And in his classic work, Shemirat Halashon (Shaar Hatevunah) he echoed a beautfiul idea whose source is the Talmud Yerushalmi (Nedarim ch. 9), and which also appears in the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Smag).  Imagine that a person is walking along when suddenly one leg knocks against the other. He trips and falls to the ground, where he sustains injuries to his face and to other parts of his body, including the leg that tripped him up initially. Not only will the person not dream of “taking vengeance” against that leg by not treating the injury to it; he harbors no “hatred” whatsoever towards that leg. After all, his leg and face are all part of one and the same body – simply components of the same entity. Thus, he realizes that his sins must be the real culprit.

   So must it be if a fellow Jew disregards his request for assistance, or hurts him physically, or even insults him. He must not take revenge or bear the slightest grudge towards him. He must not hate him in his heart, because both he and that individual stem from the same root, as it is written, Who is like Your nation, Yisrael, the people on earth who are one? (Shmuel II 7:23). So too, although Yaakov’s family numbered seventy souls, the verse speaks in the singular, Kol hanefesh haba’ah l’Yaakov – [lit.] All the soul that came with Yaakov (Bereishis 46:26). It is not written, hanefashos – souls, because the Torah wants to teach us that above, in Heaven, all Jewish souls are like one soul.  (Chafetz Chaim)

Next to “Jewish continuity,” “Jewish unity” is one of the biggest buzzwords, not just of our time, but of our history.  In fact, it is perhaps one of the most fundamental issues with which we have had to deal, if not from the time of Avraham Avinu, certainly from the time of Ya’akov’s sons, the tribal progenitors.  A brief list of the schisms we have endured should suffice:

  • Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery
  • The enslaved Jews quarreled among themselves in Egypt (Dathan and Abiram most notably)
  • There were quarrelings and rebellions during the 40 years in the desert – that is the reason that there were 40 years in the desert
  • There were wars between the tribes in the pre-monarchy days, and the tribe of Binyamin was almost wiped out
  • The monarchy was united under David (except for Avshalom’s rebellion) and Solomon, but split into two kingdoms under Solomon’s son Rechav’am, and remained split through the destruction of both kingdoms by the Mesopotamian empires
  • When the Jews were given permission to return to Israel and to rebuild the Temple, only a small fraction actually did so
  • The Talmud records the rise of various heretical sects during the Second Temple period
  • Jerusalem fell to the Romans because of infighting among the defenders
  • And in modern times, Chasidim are fighting mitnagdim, reformers can’t get along with traditionalists, the left can’t tolerate the right and vice versa.

The old joke is sad but true – many believe that if the Arabs really wanted to destroy Israel, they’d leave us alone and let us destroy ourselves, Gd forbid.

On the other hand, when we are united, nothing can stand in our way.  The greatest example of this is the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Torah speaks of the encampments between the splitting of the sea and Mt. Sinai in the plural: Israel encamped (plural).  Only when we reach Sinai does Torah switch to Israel encamped (singlular – the verbs are conjugated differently in Hebrew, unlike in English).  Rashi comments as one man with one heart, and it was on the basis of this unity that Gd revealed Torah to us.  Later, in the days of the wicked Ahab, our Sages point out that even though the King and the people were great sinners, they were always successful in battle because they acted with love and brotherhood to one another.

What is the nature of this unity among Jews that is inherent in our nature as a people, yet seems to be so difficult to realize in practice?  In an essay called ” Unity,” R. Adin Steinsaltz identifies the kind of unity towards which we should be striving as the unity of a family.  After all, we are a family – the family of Ya’akov Avinu, descendants of the 12 brothers, and we have, according to our tradition, 12 different paths to serving Gd, all of which are equally necessary to the smooth functioning of the collective and the fulfillment of our mission on earth.  In a family, siblings may fight, but when push comes to shove, they are brothers and sisters and they stand by each other against outside threats.  What R. Steinsaltz finds frightening is the degree to which Jews feel that they have no connection at all with fellow Jews who may be on the other side of some divide, be it religious or political.  He compares such an attitude to an autoimmune disease – where the body identifies its parts as “other” and destroys itself.  (R. Steinsaltz wrote this 15 years ago.  The second war in Lebanon, where thousands of rockets terrorized the north of Israel, perhaps demonstrated that we have not lost the family feeling completely.  Israelis of all stripes who were out of rocket range took in Israelis from the north, also of all stripes, and not just of the same stripes as they.  Although the war did not succeed in destroying Hizbollah, it did succeed in driving home the point that we are all one family.)

The Chofetz Chaim appears to take a deeper approach.  Rather than emphasizing the family aspect of the Jewish people, he emphasizes that the Jewish people is inherently one in the same way as a body is an integrated whole.  Just as we have separate limbs, but the limbs really have no independent life or identity other than as parts of the whole organism, so a Jew’s relationship to all other Jews is like the relationship of one hand to the other.  This is obviously a much closer relationship.  The analogy is not perfect of course, as each individual is a whole person, with individual free will, who can choose to play his or her role in the collective mission, or otherwise.  Nonetheless, whether we care to acknowledge it or not, unlike a family our people can not function properly if we are fighting one another.  Perhaps the autoimmune disease analogy that R. Steinsaltz proposed actually fits better in the Chafetz Chaim’s formulation.

The Chafetz Chaim takes his point even deeper.  According to our Sages, every individual soul has a “root” in the celestial realms.  Thus all Jews’ souls have a root in one of the 600,000 souls that stood at Mt. Sinai (actually, this was just the number of men between military age – the number is either used to mean “everyone who stood at Mt. Sinai” or is the real number and the souls perhaps of each of the family units headed by one of these men came from a single root), but on a more fundamental level, we all come from one soul root.  As we approach the absolute Unity of Gd, we would expect, in fact, that the soul roots would converge.  This will be the ultimate source of Jewish unity, once we open our awareness to it.  On this level, all differences are harmonized (not homogenized) into a multifaceted whole.  As our tradition holds, when we function from this level, then each one of us becomes a sparkling jewel in the crown of the Almighty!

A Dear Son to Me

For the last several years I’ve been writing a short piece on one of the Mishnayot in the chapter of Pirke Avot that is read at Shabbat Minchah in the period between Pesach and Rosh haShanah.  I just recently received a small book of talks and essays by R. Adin Steinsaltz, one of which I mentioned above.  R. Steinsaltz is one of those sages who, when you see something he has written, you immediately drop what you’re doing and read it, and you end up a better person for it.  There are 23 essays in the book, which I would like to share with you, one a week, through Shabbat Shuvah (which is one week past where we would go with Pirke Avot).  The book is called A Dear Son to Me and is published by Maggid Books, which is a division of Koren Publishers, Jerusalem (which publishes R. Steinsaltz’ beautiful translation and illumination of the Babylonian Talmud).  The original was published in 2002 and was translated into English by the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications in that year.  The Maggid edition (ISBN: 978 159 264 282 3) was published in 2011.

It goes without saying that any errors of fact or interpretation are mine alone and not R. Steinsaltz’.

The first section of the book (6 essays) is called To the Jewish People.

Essay 1: On Whom Can We Rely (1994)

The title of the essay comes from a passage in the Talmud (Sotah 49a-b).  R. Eliezer the Great said:

From the day the Temple was destroyed, the sages began to be like scribes and the scribes became like public officials, and the public officials like the common people, and the common people are themselves deteriorating.  And no one demands, and no one seeks, and no one asks.  On whom can we rely?  On our Father in heaven.

R. Steinsaltz analyzes the passage in great detail; I’ll just give a short summary.  The Temple was the source of holiness and knowledge for the Jewish people, and indeed for the whole world.  It was our connection with Gd; the service performed there allowed Gd’s blessings of material and spiritual plenty to flow to us.  Once that connection was (at least partially) severed, everything it nourished began to dry up, like a cut flower does once it has been severed from its roots.  The knowledge of Gd began to be lost, and the quality of people, from the greatest of them to the least of them, went down at least a notch, maybe several (certainly several by now, almost 2000 years later).

This loss of knowledge through the generations is perhaps inevitable.  A teacher teaches from his level of wisdom, but a student can only understand from a lower level.  Unless the teacher can bring the student up to full comprehension of the teacher’s level, the student’s students will be on a lower level still, and the process will go into a tailspin.  But in order to do this, the teacher himself must be connected to the Source of knowledge and sanctity.  Nurturing this connection, and being nurtured by it, is the work of a lifetime.  With the Temple destroyed, that connection is extremely difficult, if not impossible to maintain.

“On Whom can we rely?  On our Father in heaven.”  R. Steinsaltz emphasizes here that this is not R. Eliezer throwing up his hands in despair – rather, it is a statement of fact.  We can rely on our Father in heaven, Who can ask no more of us than that we make our best efforts to come close to Him.  We can rely on Him as individuals to help us in our quest, and we can rely on Him as a people to fulfill the Messianic promises He made, that He will restore Israel to its former glory, both material and spiritual, forever.