I hope this note finds you and yours well.
Jews are the targets of a disproportionate amount of hate crimes, especially those who visibly identify as Jews and frequent specifically Jewish activities and spaces, including shuls, schools, kosher stores, and Jewish neighborhoods. Some would therefore conclude that engaging Jewishly is simply too dangerous.
There are certainly challenges and dangers that we face specifically because of our engagement in our faith, but our perspective on our faith is that it is life itself, כי הם חיינו, and there is nothing that would endanger us more than weakening our commitment and connection to Torah life.
Our Parsha (Shemos 20:14-16) tells the story of Sinai, where we received the Torah and truly became G-d’s people. The experience was both awesome and frightening, and Klal Yisrael responded by pulling back for fear that such an intimate engagement with G-d would kill them. Moshe responds by telling them not to be afraid, that the event would forever uplift and transform them. He acknowledged the intensity of the experience and even its risks but underscored the opportunity.
The Torah (20:21) continues to teach about the mizbe’ach, the altar that stood at the center of our service of Hashem, and warns us against desecrating it by cutting its stones with a blade. As Rashi quotes from the Midrash, the goal of our service of G-d is to create harmony and peace and it is therefore completely removed from the destructive blade of the sword. The Mikdash is בית חיינו, the source of our life, not the opposite.
There is a classic Talmudic story (Brachot 61b) regarding Rabbi Akiva:
Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Yehuda saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah [with them]. Said he to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?” Said [Rabbi Akiva] to him: “I’ll give you a parable. A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: ‘What are you fleeing?’ Said they to him: ‘The nets that the humans spread for us.’ Said he to them: ‘Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.’ Said they to him: ‘Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!’ The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Devarim 30:20), ‘For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’ such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it . . .”
The same Rabbi Akiva observed the ruins of the Mikdash and a fox wandering out of the Holy of Holies (Makkos 24b). Some have noted that perhaps the fox that he saw then was representative of the fox of his parable. When the Temple was abandoned and destroyed, when the Jewish people “checked out” of the Mikdash and ceased to be actively engaged and present within it, that was an indication that the fox had prevailed, luring us foolishly from the source of our life under the pretense of offering us safety.
עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה. It is a tree of life for all who grasp it.
We are grateful to Hashem for the positive resolution of the tragic episode that took place last Shabbos at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, and we reaffirm our resolve for ourselves and for each and every Jew to find life through commitment and connection to Torah and Jewish community, our ultimate source of life.
If you have a few minutes, please click this link to hear a thought from our Parsha relating to positive Jewish identity.
Have a wonderful Shabbos!