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לימוד תורה

Jewish standing together and the different time challenges

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald – The Parasha in our everyday life - Nitzavim - Rosh Hashanah – 5782

Rosh Hashanah is upon us. It is time for 'Cheshbon HaNefesh'- an accounting of the soul, and for setting goals for the coming year. Also for an ongoing 'Cheshbon nefesh' facing an existential challenge, which is more than three thousand and three hundred years old, since receiving the Torah, and perhaps it began about five hundred years before, with the beginning of Abraham Avinu's faith pursuit.

Over the years, there has been a built-in tension between a defined and solid life theory, and the renewed dynamics of life, which constantly produces new tools and new worldviews. This is the tension between tradition and innovation, between preservation and relevance and substitutions. Tradition comes from the established, structured and experienced place, yet human dynamics do not consolidate on the grounds, it goes forward, and creates a dynamic of change, renewal and refreshment. Renewal has a challenging advantage against the old, known and established that creates a commitment consciousness, and sometimes creates a sense of heaviness and limitation, devoid of joy of life. Renewal gives the sense of liberating freshness, it tempts, promises, inspires hope for the future, yet its disadvantages are not known, not to mention its damages. Sometimes the 'innovation' creates a trendy, powerful cultural human movement, with a huge and sweeping flow that is hard to resist. Many times, over the years, the 'innovation' loses its charm, its shortcomings and prices are exposed, and sometimes it is pushed aside by an up-to-date trendy 'innovation'.

Since the giving of the Torah and perhaps even earlier, since the faith breakthrough of Abraham Avinu, there has been a built-in tension between the Jewish world and its faith and the renewed worldviews that challenge it, in and out of the home. The ever-renewing pagan world has been a vibrant and enticing attraction that has challenged the people of Israel from the beginning. In times of the Second Temple the Hellenism, outside, Hellenistic and then elitist Sadducees from within. Then the rise of Christianity, and later Islam, and from within, the Karaites.

In the Middle Ages, the Crusades, the challenges of philosophy, conversions, the expulsion of Spain and the Inquisition, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution, the emancipation, the Enlightenment and secularism movement in the 18th century, Reform in the 19th century, modernism and the challenges to 'Religion and Science' in the 20th century. Anti-Semitism (which led to the Holocaust), to postmodernism and the liberal and progressive conceptions of today (partial list).

All of these created waves in their time, and existential challenges to the traditional Jewish faith-based approach, some more than others. Some gave up in advance, thought there was no chance of standing up against the strong currents, and were swept away.

There were those who sought to 'change' the character of Judaism and adapt it to the new trend, but even that did not succeed.

In all generations, however, there have been those who have taken responsibility. Leaders and ordinary people 'stood up' against the flow, adhered to their faith, pointed to the solid relevance of Judaism in the face of renewed and changing cultures, and knew how to differentiate between adopting the good parts of the new and between its contradictions, which could be harmful.

Judging by the results so far, there is a tremendous miraculous success story here. Despite everything, and the heavy prices, Judaism is more than three thousand years old, is alive, relevant, creative and influential. Its past challengers have completely disappeared or lost their strength. It does not allow us to rest on our laurels, we must stand up, all of us, the leadership and the ordinary people, take responsibility and face the renewed existential challenges of our generation.

Our Parasha opens with a general 'Standing':

אַתֶּ֨ם נִצָּבִ֤ים הַיּוֹם֙ כֻּלְּכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י ה' אֱלֹקיכֶ֑ם רָאשֵׁיכֶ֣ם שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֗ם זִקְנֵיכֶם֙ וְשֹׁ֣טְרֵיכֶ֔ם כֹּ֖ל אִ֥ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ טַפְּכֶ֣ם נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם וְגֵ֣רְךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּקֶ֣רֶב מַחֲנֶ֑יךָ מֵחֹטֵ֣ב עֵצֶ֔יךָ עַ֖ד שֹׁאֵ֥ב מֵימֶֽיךָ׃ לְעׇבְרְךָ֗ בִּבְרִ֛ית ה' אֱלֹקיךָ וּבְאָלָת֑וֹ ...

"You stand this day, all of you, before Hashem your G-d—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer— to enter into the covenant of Hashem your G-d… (Devarim 29:9-11)

We must all stand, all of us, big and small, in order to sustain Judaism in the face of its challenges:

שמא תאמר ישנן בני הזקנים, ישנן בני הגדולים, ישנן בני הנביאים! - תלמוד לומר כי אם שמור תשמרון את כל המצוה הזאת; מגיד הכתוב שהכל שוים בתורה! וכן הוא אומר (דברים לג) תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב, כהנים לוים וישראלים אין כתוב כאן, אלא קהלת יעקב. וכן הוא אומר (דברים כ״ט:ט׳) אתם נצבים היום כלכם לפני ה' אלהיכם ראשיכם שבטיכם זקניכם ושוטריכם כל איש ישראל. מה אלו לא היו במעמד זה, שעמד וקיים תורה בישראל - לא היתה תורה משתכחת מישראל. ומה אלו לא עמד שפן בשעתו ועזרא בשעתו ור' עקיבא בשעתו - לא היה תורה משתכחת מישראל. ואומר (משלי טו) דבר בעתו מה טוב, דבר שאמר זה שקול כנגד הכל.

"Lest you say: There are the sons of the elders, there are the sons of the great ones, there are the sons of the prophets (i.e., Let them study the Torah!) It is, therefore, written "For if keep, you (plural [i.e., all of you]) shall keep all of this mitzvah." We are hereby taught that all are equal in (the mitzvah of studying) Torah. And thus is it written (Devarim 33:4) "Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, the inheritance of the congregation of Yaacov": It is not written "Cohanim, Levites, and Israelites," but "the congregation of Yaacov." And thus is it written (Ibid. 29:9) "You are standing this day, all of you, before Hashem your G-d, your heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, all the men of Israel." If not for (all of) these, who stood and fulfilled Torah in Israel, would Torah not have been forgotten in Israel? And if Shafan in his time (viz. II Kings 22) and Ezra in his time and R. Akiva in his time had not stood up (on behalf of Torah), would Torah not have been forgotten in Israel? And it is written (Proverbs 15:3) "A thing in its time — how good!" The thing that this one (i.e., each one of those in his time) said is over and against all! (Sifrei Devarim 48)

In our generation, this standing united, will be part of our Rosh Hashanah soul searching!

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