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לימוד תורה

Identity, uniqueness and destiny

The Parasha in our everyday life, Parashat Ha’azinu - Sukkot 5783

Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald - Head of the Hesder Yeshiva 'Meir Harel' Modiin

One of the issues that accompany the existence of the nation of Israel on the stage of history, and up to our present day, is the question of its integration as a nation within the nations of the world, with international and cultural relations. The people of Israel have always been a special, different and extraordinary nation. At different times it had complex relationships with other nations. This complexity continued even when the nation had no kingdom of their own.

The religious and cultural uniqueness of the people of Israel survived and was preserved for thousands of years, unparalleled in human history. Mainly as a result of the insistence, to the point of Mesirut Nefesh – self-sacrifice, to preserve its unique identity, teachings, faith and cultural heritage. A 'uniqueness' that stems from the unique religious and moral 'destiny' of the people of Israel around the world.

Over the years there have been nations and cultures that have invested direct and indirect efforts to make this uniqueness blurry, to make us merge into the general culture and assimilate. Sometimes even by force. This did not work even when they presented the cruel 'choice' between assimilation and death.

 On the one hand, the people of Israel recognized the developing scientific and applied wisdom among the nations of the world, and therefore one who sees Sages of the nations of the world recites:

״בָּרוּךְ … שֶׁנָּתַן מֵחׇכְמָתוֹ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם״

“Blessed…Who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood.” (Berachot 58a)

"The Gemara relates: Rabbi Yoḥanan himself would stand before Aramean, i.e., gentile, elders. He said: How many experiences have occurred to these individuals. It is appropriate to honor them, due to the wisdom they have garnered from their long lives". (Kiddushin 33a)

The Rambam even emphasized: “Know, however, that the ideas presented in these chapters and in the following commentary are not of my own invention; neither did I think out the explanations contained therein, but I have gleaned them from the words of the wise occurring in the Midrashim, in the Talmud, and in other of their works, as well as from the words of the philosophers, ancient and recent, and also from the works of various authors, as one should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” (The Eight Chapters of Maimonides - Introduction).

However, there has always been a distinction between wisdom and science and 'Torah', morals and a way of life that should not be learned from others:

אִם יֹאמַר לְךָ אָדָם יֵשׁ חָכְמָה בַּגּוֹיִם, תַּאֲמֵן… יֵשׁ תּוֹרָה בַּגּוֹיִם, אַל תַּאֲמֵן,

“If a person will say to you: ‘There is wisdom among the nations,’ believe it… [If a person will say:] ‘There is Torah among the nations,’ do not believe it” (Eichah Rabbah 2:13)

Our title: 'Uniqueness and Destiny' is equivalent with the title of Ben-Gurion's book (Rebirth and Destiny) from the 1950s. One of the topics that he discussed a lot, in education to preserve the uniqueness of the people of Israel and the connection between the 'uniqueness' and the 'destiny': "There is no other example in history of a nation that was expelled from its land and scattered among the nations, and yet managed to maintain its uniqueness and independence for thousands of years. A superior moral force is implanted in us, which is not found among other nations, and this force has brought us to this point... However, all the changes and transformations in matter and spirit in political and social conditions that have occurred over the thousands of years of our existence, did not displace or undermine the wonderful vital force that has existed with us through all the vicissitudes of time, unlike many of its historical companions in different countries. Hidden in this nation is a wonderful vitamin that preserves its existence and independence and gives it inexhaustible strength to resist all foreign influences that contradict its national and moral essence... The guiding line in the education of the army, the youth and the nation is our national uniqueness, both from a political and economic point of view as well as from a moral and ideological point of view. National uniqueness is both a goal and a means. A goal - in so far as the uniqueness is a natural and historical right, a means - in so far as it is an obligation to fulfill the destiny, etc." (Ben Gurion – The Eternity of Israel 1954)

This is an important statement, especially these days, when there is a progressive tendency to blur any identity: national, cultural, religious and of gender calling it 'racism'.

In the Ha’azinu poem, there is mention of the process of separation between the nations, the lands and the cultures:

זְכֹר֙ יְמ֣וֹת עוֹלָ֔ם … בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיוֹן֙ גּוֹיִ֔ם בְּהַפְרִיד֖וֹ בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past… When the Most High gave nations their homes and set the divisions of humanity, [G-d] fixed the boundaries of peoples in relation to Israel’s numbers. For Hashem’s portion is this people; Jacob, G-d’s own allotment”. (Devarim 32:7-9)

בהפרידו בני אדם וכו'. כך נתפצלה משפחת האדם האחידה במקורה - שהרי כולם צאצאים של אדם - ונפרדה לעמים רבים השונים זה מזה בסגולות אופיים, וכל אחד מהם וכו'. מייצג צד מיוחד של אופי האדם

"When He separated the sons of Adam” …  "This is how Adam’s family split, which was originally united - after all, they are all descendants of Adam - and separated into many nations who differ from each other in their character traits, and each of them, etc., represents a special side of the human nature" (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch ibid).

"יש כל מיני בני אדם, כל מיני גוונים, אבל צריך לדעת שאין כאן פירוד, חס ושלום. העמים השונים אינם גרגרי חול מפוזרים ללא קשר, אלא חלקים של אורגניזם אלוהי אחד ואחדותי. כולם גוונים של צלם אלוהים שבאדם

It is not about a random process: "There are all kinds of people, a variety, but you have to know that there is no separation, G-d forbid!”. The different nations are not grains of sand scattered without connection, but parts of a single and unified divine organism. They are a diversity of G-d’s image" (Shichot Maran HaRav Tzvi Yehuda Kook זצ'ל Ha’azinu 1973). And the people of Israel also have a unique place in this system.

The Sukkot holiday expresses the complexity of the relationship between Israel and the different nations. According to the Ramchal, the Sukkot of ‘Clouds of Glory’ in the desert, were intended to differentiate and distinguish the people of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt: "This would have been an enlightened reality for them also that would place them alone, distinct from all the nations, and borne and taken from this world itself... And this was done for Israel at the time, to reach the highest level they deserve''. (Derech Hashem, Part 4 – 8:2).

On the days of the holiday, seventy bulls were brought to the Temple (the sum total of bulls sacrificed throughout the seven days) and correspond to the 70 nations of the world (Sukkah 55b), as they become fewer every day (Shabbat 21b). Whereas in 'Shemini Atzeret' only one bull was brought, representing the uniqueness of the people of Israel and its isolation (Sukkah ibid). The commandment of the four species (4 Minim) represents the four types of people of Israel that need to be united and strengthen their unity and self-identity:

אֶלָּא אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יֻקְשְׁרוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אַחַת וְהֵן מְכַפְּרִין אֵלּוּ עַל אֵלּוּ

“…but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said "bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those." (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12).

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