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 Va’etchanan 5783 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

08/09/2023 01:19:06 PM


That is Your Wisdom and Understanding

This week was my first “holiday” week at Ohev Sholom. Because the “holiday” in question was Tisha b’Av, I didn’t have to worry about cooking a big holiday meal, but preparing for Tisha b’Av was stll a major focus of the week. And, in the midst of my preparations for Tisha b’Av, I had stolen pockets of time to worry about Israel. At least for this “holiday” worrying about Israel did not feel like an inappropriate distraction from preparing for Tisha b’Av.

I waited online to pay at Giant on Monday and doom-scrolled social-media posts by friends in Israel lamenting the days’ political developments. While waiting for the Gan Izzy bus to come on Tuesday, I read essays describing the aggression, and even nascent violence, that characterized the growing fissure in Israeli society. On Wednesday I planned my pre-fast meal while reading news accounts from Israel, where Tisha b’Av had already begun, amidst a flood of gloom and despair and dread I had never witnessed before. And I began to ask myself, why had I not been invited to a Tehillim rally to pray on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Israel? Why has Federation not yet organized the American Jewish community in solidarity with Israel?  We know what crisis mode looks like and how our community is mobilized when our brothers and sisters in Israel are in distress. And yet we have been silent as Israel careens towards a clift in its most dire and destructive political crisis in my lifetime.

The answer to these questions is that because Israel is not under attack, this week, from external foes, but is rather beset by internal strife and discord, the organized American Jewish community does not feel empowered to act. It’s obvious that we can rally against rockets from Gaza or from the North or against the kidnapping and murder of civilians. But who are we supposed to rally against this month? The elected government of Israel or the sizable majority of the country who oppose their program of judicial reform? I count personal friends and family, both in Israel and in America, on both sides of the current divide in Israel.

I am not going to share with you my own special insights into the debate over judicial reform and Israeli democracy because I have no special insights, only my own opinions. You can all read the same essays and analyses that I used to form my opinions. In fact, some of you may have even written some of those essays and analyses. Furthermore, it would seem to be rabbinic malpractice to speak publicly about Israel, in a time of fierce division and struggle there,  in what is only my fourth week serving a new community. But when I saw pictures of Israel on the front page of every single American newspaper that was for sale in Giant earlier this week, I realized that not speaking about Israel, in a week such as this one, was just a different way of making a statement about Israel.

While I have no special insights into the debate over judicial reform,  I do see that if we step back from this specific battle over the courts and democracy and view the turmoil of recent months from 30,000 feet, we can see, not just a struggle over politics, but a struggle between two ideologies, that are competing for the allegiance of many Israelis.. And I think American Orthodoxy has a lot to say about how those two ideologies can be at peace.

Parashat Va’etchanan is the single weekly Torah portion that alone, more than any other, could be the foundation for an entire worldview and way of life. In this parasha we find the first paragraphs of the Shema. In this parasha we find the recapitulation of the Asseret HaDibrot, the so-called Ten Commandments. And in this week’s parasha we find a verse that has been one of the key orienting points of my religious life, and one which I saw in a new way this year.

Chapter four of Sefer Devarim begins with an exhortation from Moshe, one of many, to observe the Torah in a faithful and conscientious manner:

רְאֵ֣ה  לִמַּ֣דְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֗ם חֻקִּים֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֔ים

See, I have taught you the statues and the laws as the Lord my God has charged me, to do thus within the land into which you are about to come to take hold of it. And you shall keep and do, for that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the people who will hear all these statues and will say, ‘Only a wise and understanding people is this great nation.’.

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֮ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חׇכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כׇּל־הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם־חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

This means that our religious life, our practices of personal piety, our communal life, the stable and just and equitable society created by an allegiance to Torah and mitzvot are supposed to inspire wonder and amazement and respect from our non-Jewish neighbors who look at us and what we do and how we live and exclaim:

רַ֚ק עַם־חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

Only a wise and understanding people is this great nation!

But I had never noticed before that the two verses that follow present distinct and different characterizations for what it is precisely that will inspire that wonder and respect. The Torah presents two options:

כִּ֚י מִי־ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּה׳ אֱ-לֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכׇל־קׇרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו׃

For what great nation is there that has gods close to it like the Lord our God whenever we call to Him?

And then, in the verse that follows immediately, we here:

וּמִי֙ גּ֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר־ל֛וֹ חֻקִּ֥ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֖ים צַדִּיקִ֑ם כְּכֹל֙ הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם׃

And what great nation is there that has just statutes and laws like all this teaching that I am about to set before you today?

Each verse identifies a different source of Jewish difference and a different basis for Jewish pride. One verse roots our specialness in our intimate relationship with God who fell in love with Avraham and Sarah and their descendants and who took us out of Egypt and who cared for us in the desert for forty years. Another verse situates our special character as a people in our laws and the righteous administration of justice. 

Of course these two verses can coincide in harmony but today, in modern Israel, these verses, and the values they extoll, are pulling the country apart. There is an enchanting pull in modern Israel to cherish our identity as Jews because of the special bond we have had with God throughout the trials and triumphs of Jewish history. The Land of Israel is the crucible in which our love affair with God was forged and it is the setting in which God’s enduring love for the Jewish people is being demonstrated every day.

And there is an energetic current in modern Israel that celebrates the State of Israel’s valiant efforts to preserve and protect the rule of law, democratic self-government, scientific achievement, and dynamic culture  amidst all of the threats of war and conflict. It would be easier if each political party could rally behind its own Biblical verse. If that were the case, at least the contours of the debate would be clear. But the tension between those two verses is a tension that divides the souls of so many of those marching and rallying against or for the government, many of whom love Israel and love the rule of law.

This is not the first generation in which the Jewish people has been divided into factions and tribes. Writing a century ago, in an earlier age of rupture and revolution, Rabbi Avraham Kook described the Jewish people as being split into three ideological camps, which he described as the camp of the Holy, the camp of the Nation, and the camp of Humanity. The first group holds fast to all that is ancient and sacred in Jewish life. The second group organizes itself around love for and loyalty towards the Jewish people, and the third group celebrates the dignity of every human life. The tragedy and the potential of that moment, for Rav Kook, was that these three movements that were competing for the allegiance of the rising generation of Jews, Orthodoxy, Zionism, and Humanism, were each expressing facets of a Divine truth. All three were necessary ingredients in an integrated and authentic Jewish worldview.

The same is true today. Modern Jews should be proud Jews because God fell in love with our ancestors and we have stood by God’s side for thousands of years in a relationship that is without precedent.  And modern Jews should be so proud of the idealism that animates the desire to build a society of justice and righteousness and Hessed in Israel and in every land where Jews live. These two verses are juxtaposed in the Torah and they can be juxtaposed in our hearts as well.

And so I do believe that American Orthodoxy represents something helpful to our brothers and sisters in Israel. I don’t think we can solve their political crisis. But we can demonstrate through our very lives that the causes and ideals that divide them, are reconcilable, and indeed are reconciled within our own communities. I don’t believe that the people in this room feel much tension between Democracy and Torah. On the contrary, the patriotism and love for the democratic institutions of government have been palpable in this community. You understand how Democracy and democratic institutions created the substrate that has allowed American Orthodoxy to grow and to thrive over the past eighty years, and the values we learn from the Torah itself inspire us to be better citizens and neighbors, devoted to protecting the Tzelem Elokim, the Divine image in every human being. 

Famously, the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, for the second time, owing to the sin of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred. Some have suggested that the cure for Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, must be “Ahavat Chinam” or baseless love for those who are different from us. My teacher, Rav Amital z’l, rejected that approach. “Why should my love for someone who is different from me be considered “baseless,” he asked. Instead, he encouraged us to foster love for those who think and act differently, not despite our differences, but because of the many admirable traits possessed by other people and other communities. 

Indeed, if we try to do this, we will see that, often enough, a community with which we may be locked in a fierce ideological or political battle, is, in truth, merely prioritizing an ideal that we too celebrate, just as this week’s Torah portion is the foundation for both sides of Israel’s current divide.  

I am praying for Israel this week. Even without a Tehilim rally, I am praying for Israel with every tefilah that I recite here in shul and with every silent tefilah I recite when I see Israel on the cover of the newspapers. My prayer is for a speedy and non-violent resolution to the current political crises. And my prayer, in the long term, is for Rav Kook’s vision of synthesis and integration that can finally bring harmony and peace.


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784