"DOWN…BUT NEVER OUT"
In just over a week, we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuos--the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Although G-d had chosen Avraham to be the progenitor of the holy nation long before that event, Sinai marked our formal acceptance of that distinction (and mission): "And now [G-d commanded Moshe to say to the Jewish people], if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of peoples…a kingdom of ministers and a holy nation…The entire people responded together and said, 'Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do!" (Exodus: 19, 5-8; Artscroll translation)
It was an experience utterly unprecedented in all of history: a nation collectively experiencing prophecy, directly receiving communication (clear instruction--no static, no uncertainty) from the Creator of Heaven and Earth. The Torah, in Devarim, puts it this way: "For inquire now regarding the early days that preceded you…Has there ever been anything like this great thing or has anything like it been heard? Has a people ever heard the voice of G-d speaking from the midst of the fire as you have heard, and survived?" (Devarim: 4, 32-33) Before Shavuos, we could all benefit by reviewing this story of the Revelation in Exodus, and the stirring words of Moshe in the first part of Devarim as he recounts the event. And however deeply we may delve into the commentaries and analyses of that event, we should never lose sight of the starting point, the basic fact that represents the bedrock of our whole faith and destiny as Jews: G-d spoke to the Jewish people at Sinai.
But that's more properly next week's sermon (or "sermonette," as one of my friends quaintly termed this parsha essay I write). Today we start with Sinai, and the Covenant made there…but we follow our people in their journey from that exalted mount down to the "valley of tears" that--one might argue--has been our dwelling place for most of our history in the Diaspora.
For although we have had great successes in the last couple thousand years --private and public, spiritual and political (the State of Israel)--, we've endured more than our share of hardships. Unfortunately, many of us are more familiar with the litany of disasters and persecutions (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust) than we are with the verses of the Torah, let alone the chapters of the Mishna or the fascinating and rigorous legal debates of the Talmud; we have done, on the whole, a better job teaching our children about the tragedies of our heritage, than about its treasures.
And on that note, what might a person--gentile, or even Jew--"reasonably" think when confronted with the historical record of our suffering? What thesis might he propose to "explain" the Destruction of our two Temples, our exile from the Promised Land and our dispersion among the nations? Here's one possibility: "G-d has abandoned His people, G-d has revoked the Covenant because of His displeasure with the service of His 'holy nation.' The Jews might once have had the status of His chosen ones, but because of their transgressions [or His desire for novelty!], they were demoted."
Indeed, we recognize this view as the "classical" theological claim of Christianity, with the rejection of Jesus being the central crime of the Jewish people. William Nicholls summarizes this view in his comprehensive work, Christian Anti-Semitism: A History of Hate:
Not all Christians believe this, of course. (Charlie Ward, unfortunately, seems to be one who does.) Nicholls himself is a Christian minister and bible professor who ascribes to a very different theological position--as do many, many others. But this mythology, as he wrote, is the "traditional theology": G-D REJECTED THE COVENANT WITH THE JEWISH PEOPLE, AND THEIR SUFFERINGS IN EXILE ARE SOLID PROOF OF THE FACT. (Tragically, some Jewish people, bitterly invoking the Holocaust, utter some approximation of it.)
Which brings us to the second of our two Torah portions, Bechukosai. Here we have the Torah's clear, explicit and eternal rejection of this mistaken theology--along with the remarkable foretelling of the sufferings of our people in Exile:
"But despite all
this [i.e., the foregoing verses that describe the sufferings of exile],
while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been
revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul
My Covenant with them-for I am Hashem, their G-d. I will remember for
them the covenant of the ancients….to be G-d unto them-I am
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) reveals yet another dimension of these verses: G-d's refusal to reject us, or His Covenant with us, prompts Him to send to the Jewish people great Torah leaders in each generation--people who apply the Torah to our changing circumstances, elevating and educating us with their faith, ethical idealism and meticulous observance of the mitzvos. (We sadly lost just such a towering Torah leader a few weeks ago, at the age of 92: the brilliant and indefatigable educator and tzadik, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt'l-may his memory be for a blessing-whom I hope to write about in the future.)
No, G-d has not rejected His people or His covenant.
And the sufferings and hardships along the way? They are not proof that the Jewish people lost the status of chosen people; rather, they are part and parcel of that very status, the dark side--if you will-- of that covenantal relationship with G-d. [How and why that is so is an important and emotionally loaded topic, and one that needs to be addressed in a thoughtful way at another time.]
It's unfortunate, but it's true…and openly declared in the Torah (both in this parsha, and in Ki Savo in the Book of Devarim): our hardships are not some aberration of Jewish history, but part of its fabric. Our exile was not the revocation of our mission, but a new chapter in its realization. As Samson Raphael Hirsch beautifully writes (in his classic, The Nineteen Letters) of the second Temple's destruction:
In the darkest nights of our collective history, G-d has been with us. Not abandoning, not rejecting, not supplanting us. The candles of the Chanukah menorah remind us of this…as do the news stories of the Six-Day War a couple thousand years later. Or the remarkable re-birth of Torah study and observance in America and Israel after the Second World War. With a proper reading of this week's parsha (and its Divine declaration of allegiance to His covenant with the Jewish people), we are less likely to err in reading history.
We began by mentioning Shavuos. Why not begin your preparation for this festival with this parsha? You will still have questions, I'm sure, but you'll be reminded that no matter what happens (or has happened): He is our G-d, and we are His people. Period.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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