Lag BaOmer: Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai: the Scholar Warrior

As Log B’Omer rolls around, one is reminded of the holy Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi). The multitudes of Jews from all sects of Israeli life who flock to his grave site in Meron is testimony to the deep admiration that that the Jewish People have for this very special Jewish figure. The question may be asked: What makes Rashbi so special?

Rashbi was the prized student of Rabbi Akiva who was one of the Ten Martyrs of the Jewish Kingdom. Not for nothing did the Romans punish Rabbi Akiva with the death penalty and torture, for he played a central role in the organization of Bar Kochba’s rebellion. The Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Milachim even says that Rabbi Akiva was Bar Kochba’s “armsbearer”. The 24,000 students who went in Rabbi Akiva’s footsteps and fell in the war against the Romans, died during the “Sfirat HaOmer” period, and the traditional restrictions we practice today are an expression of the struggle of the Jewish nation for spiritual independence. Rabbi Akiva himself sat in prison for several years for denying the Roman decrees by holding public Torah rallys. For this he was eventually tortured and executed.

These were the two sides of the leadership of Rabbi Akiva: The willingness to go out and sacrifice for national sovereignty as well as the ultimate self-sacrifice for Torah. The fierce combination of nationalism and Torah that burned in his bones was passed on to his students, and the greatest of them all was the scholar-warrior Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who was ordained by his Rav after the rest of the students were killed in the revolution.

Rashbi established the basic Torah foundations of the Oral Law as we know them today. His Yeshiva put out the likes of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi who arranged the Mishnah. But just like his “Rav”, Rabbi Akiva, Rashbi went beyond the learning and teaching of Torah. He never stopped trying to bring back Jewish sovereignty to Eretz Yisrael, and abhorred with all his soul the Roman occupation. His belligerent attitude towards the Romans he made no secret of, even when it meant putting himself in danger for just expressing such opinions. We are told in Trachtate Shabbot, 33: “Once Rabbi Yehuda said, ‘How fine are the works of this nation (Rome). They have made streets, they have built bridges, they have erected baths’. Rabbi Yossi remained silent (from fear). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai answered and said, ‘All that they have made they have made for themselves; they built market places to put harlots in them; baths to rejuvenate themselves; bridges to levy toils for themselves’.” When these words got to the Roman authorities, a price was put on his head and he was forced to go underground for 13 years. During this time, he and his son Elazar were miraculously kept alive, and to them were revealed the wonders of the hidden Torah (which was collected in the “Zohar”). These difficult times did not break him, but only reinforced his hatred for this evil empire and he continued his struggle against the Romans to liberate the Jewish People.

Though Log B’Omer falls during the “sfira” where we mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, it is a day of rejoicing. For when all the other students of Rabbi Akiva were killed in war, Rashbi managed to survive. He symbolizes the vitality of those who fought the Romans. He represents the continuation of the scholar-warrior. He is the eternal flame that cannot be extinguished, and will remain enkindled until the final victory of complete redemption, may it come speedily in our days.

Pesach: Fifty Strides Toward Holiness

The fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot teach us the meaning of true in dependence; after fifty years of statehood, we should evolve from a “Nation”to a “Holy Nation.”

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the state of Israel, it is important to examine what the concept of independence is. This can be accomplished by studying the holiday of Pesach, since Pesach, in a sense, is our first Independence Day. Indeed, Pesach is termed, “Chag HaCherut” – the Holiday of Freedom. For on this day we were liberated for the first time, from the yoke of foreign rule and bondage. Subsequently we were able to proceed towards the actualization of our national destiny. However, this was only a beginning. Another fifty strides were necessary -the fifty days it took to reach Mount Sinai. Only then was our independence complete.

There are two conditions which must be met in order for the Jewish People to achieve true independence, and the fulfillment of only one will not suffice.These conditions are: 1) Liberation from the rule of the gentile – whether it is liberation from his land, or from actual slavery. 2) The acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, the G-d of Israel.

What is Bondage?

The first condition can be better understood when analyzing the essential part of the story of our exodus from Egypt which we read in the Haggadah.”We were slaves to Pharo in Egypt…Had not the Holy One Blessed is He, taken our fathers out from Egypt, then we, our children and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Is this statement not a bit far-fetched? How can we be sure that in a later generation, a merciful king would not have arisen and “emancipated” us? The answer is, that it is indeed likely such a thing might have occurred, but this would not have been considered liberation from bondage. For the essence of bondage is living as a minority under the rule of gentiles in their land. Certainly there are various degrees of exile and bondage. Sometimes, the Jew is humiliated. At other times, he is an actual slave. Still, other times, he is sent to the gas chambers. But it is all just a matter of degree, since in each case he is in exile, lacking independence and at the mercy of the gentile. In other words, even if there is a certain period where Jews livein an illusion of comfort in the exile, this is still “bondage”, since they are prevented from fulfilling their destiny as the Nation of G-d!

No Pesach Without Shavuot

The second condition is expressed in the fact that although Pesach is the”Time of Our Freedom”, this only made us into a nation like any other. Another fifty days were needed until we became a “Holy Nation”, and this occurred on Shavuot, when we received the Torah. In order to teach us that our purpose is to be a holy nation and not merely a free nation, G-d connected our national liberation to the giving of the Torah. This connection was made by the counting of the Omer. By counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, we are made aware of the connection between these two holidays.

A Jew needs two legs to walk. If he only has one leg, he is a cripple. That is, if he meets only one of the aforementioned conditions, he hobbles on one leg. Unfortunately, this situation is quite prevalent. On the one hand,there are those Jews who believe that Jewish independence is entirely realized through sitting and learning Torah. For them, it does not matter ifthis learning is done in Germany, Morocco, Israel, or a ghetto in Poland. It does not dawn on them that there can be no freedom – physical or spiritual -while under the rule of gentiles.

On the other hand, there is the other kind of cripple: those who seek only physical freedom. For them, the “Holiday of Freedom” suffices. They are not interested in holiness. But when you remove the “Holy” from the “Holy Nation”, what is left? A “nation”, no different than any other. And the situation gets worse. Today, we see that those who rejected holiness in order to be a free nation, are losing their physical freedom as well. Because of their lack of faith in G-d, they have become completely dependenton the gentiles! We hear from them how they must accept the dictates of the United States, as one of them recently said, “Our entire existence depends on America.” How tragic to hear this after 50 years as a state!

Moment of Truth

Fifty years! This reminds us of the fifty days which connect Pesach to Shavuot. Just as the freedom and independence of Pesach is meaningless without it’s connection to the holiness of Shavuot – so too the independence of Israel is meaningless without the faith that only G-d can bring us salvation.

This season should serve as a warning for us. We can no longer sustain a freedom which is detached from holiness and faith in G-d. We are nearing the end of the period of “Giula BiEta” (the slow, painful redemption), and we are approaching the moment of truth. Our very souls are at stake. Will we choose: “Repentance” and “Holy Nation”, which will bring a glorious redemption; or will we remain in our sorry state of lack of faith in G-d andtrust in the gentiles, which will lead to untold suffering until the redemption finally arrives?

Pesach: Divrei Torah

“And Pharaoh called to Moses, saying: Go and worship the L-rd. Only your sheep and cattle will remain – your children will also go with you. And Moses said: You will also give us offerings and sacrifices for the L-rd our G-d, and our flocks will go with us…” (Shmot 10:24-26)

The ninth plague-darkness – has struck Egypt with a vengeance and Pharaoh breaks. Step by step he has retreated and after the eighth plague – locusts – he was prepared to allow the Jews to leave except for their children. Now he surrenders almost entirely as he agrees that all the Jews can leave. He only asks one thing, one compromise, one small victory for himself, that the Jewish cattle remain behind.

Consider; the Jews have been slaves for 210 years. They have lived in misery and persecution. They suffered decrees such as the one casting their male children into the sea. They cried out unto the L-rd for freedom and salvation. Now, apparently the great moment has arrived! Pharaoh agrees that they shall go free! What does it matter that he asks for their cattle? Give it to him! The main thing is peace and salvation and we are willing to give up cattle for peace!

But Moses knows that this is not the purpose of the freedom of the Jewish people and of the story of the slavery and exodus. He is not prepared to compromise one inch because he knows what the purpose of G-d is. When Moses first entered the presence of Pharaoh and said: “The L-rd, G-d of the Hebrews, has said: Let my people go!” Pharaoh contemptuously answered: “Who is the L-rd? I know not the L-rd and will not let Israel go!” Here is where the battle was joined. Here is the purpose and aim of creation – to have the world recognize the dominion and kingship of the L-rd being challenged. Pharaoh must be made to recognize and totally acknowledge the sovereignty of the L-rd over him and his people. He cannot make compromises; he cannot strike bargains. He must submit totally!

“And I shall be glorified through (the defeat of) Pharaoh and his army and Egypt shall know that I am the L-rd.” Only the total defeat of the wicked can raise and honor the name of the L-rd, says the Biblical commentator Rashi. This is why there will be no compromise with Pharaoh. He must totally submit, he must totally surrender.

And even when he apparently does this, after the plague of the first born, when he runs to Moses and says: “Get out, take your flocks with you, just leave and ask the L-rd to bless me!” Moses refuses and in the words of the Mechilta; “And he called unto Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night and said: get up and leave! Said Moses unto him: No, we have been ordered not to leave our houses until morning. What are we, thieves that we should slink out in the night? No, we will leave only in the morning with an upraised arm before the eyes of all the Egyptians!”

Not one inch of retreat here. The lesson of the L-rd being the Omnipotent, king of the universe must be seen and acknowledged.

The lesson is an eternal one and must be learned in our time, too. The question of peace in the Middle East is a question of the Arabs and the world acknowledging the total sovereignty of the Allmighty. There can be no compromise on this. It is only a peace that comes with Arabs submitting to the yoke of the heavenly kingdom that will be a permanent one and the Jew who gives up part of his land as a compromise, violates the entire purpose of the rise of the Jewish State and the demand of the All Mighty that the nations acknowledge Him as King. There can be no retreat from land because that is in essence a retreat also from the Kingship of the L-rd.

Special thanks to Barbara Ginsburg for circulating this article.

Purim: The Hidden Hope Which Lies in the Hidden Messsage of Purim

Two points in Megilat Esther are not clear. Firstly, what brought on the decree to destroy all the Jews, and secondly, what suddenly happened that caused the decree to be canceled? To understand this, we will look at the story of Purim.

Like a bolt of lightning, the decree “to destroy to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day” fell upon Persian Jewry. The reaction of the Jews to this edict was quite puzzling. The Megilah says that the “City of Shushan was in consternation”. Consternation? Certainly, a more normal reaction would be to shout or cry. But “consternation”?

But if we take a glimpse at the of situation Persian Jewry at the time, we would see that consternation is the reaction we might expect after all. For it never entered their minds that such a thing could ever happen. They were the biggest patriots! They were the most loyal to Achasverosh! That is why when Achashverosh (nine months earlier) sent out invitations for the 180-day feast, the Jews were the first ones to confirm their attendance. All this despite the protests from the “extremists” such as Mordechai, who warned against their participation in such a feast, since it’s intention was to make the Jews assimilate. But the Jews wanted to prove that they are not different than the rest. Thus the reaction of consternation upon hearing the shocking decree.

But then the Megilah continues: “And Mordechai knew all that was done…” He had no illusions, and understood fully what caused the decree. He knew that the assimilation – precisely what the Jew thought would ease anti-Semitic tensions, was the very cause of the decree! For the rule was learned since our days in Egypt: Whenever the Jew tries to water down his Judaism and be accepted by the gentile, the latent hatred (which is always there) of the gentile towards the Jew outwardly manifests itself.

If so, why was the decree annulled? Because immediately upon receiving word of the decree, Mordechai, as we mentioned, knew the reason for it, and did not give up. He also did not go on a boot-licking campaign to plead the case of the Jews to the king or his cabinet, despite the fact that he was no stranger to the palace and had connections there. What he did was to undergo a last-ditch effort to awaken the Jews to understand the real cause of the problem – that precisely their effort to shed their uniqueness as Jews and to blur over their Jewish identity and be like goyim is what brings upon them bad times.

Indeed, it is not easy to convey such a message to a Jew, when he is socaught up in having the goy love him. Because such a message seems tocontradict all logic. But in Shushan, a great miracle occurred, and it is the real hidden miracle of Purim – the Jews did “Tsheuva”! And not just “Tsh’uva” of talking without backing it up, but rather one of deeds. Instead of continuing to grovel to the Persians and bring down barriers as most Jews naturally react, they made themselves subservient to the truth of Mordechai only, admitting to their original mistake of participating in the forbidden banquet. This was the significance of the mass fast which was declared. It signified a genuine “Tsheuva” to G-d.

By the way, now we can see why the Name of G-d does not appear in Megilat Esther, despite the fact that the theme of the story is “Tsh’uva to G-d”. It is to tell us that when there is distress, one should not just rely on G-d to solve our problems in some miraculous fashion. Rather, we must prove by our actions that we understand the reason for the distress, and then do the right thing, even if it appears to be “illogical”.

This should give us encouragement for today. For the problem of today is the same: Our need to copy the gentiles, to blur over our uniqueness as a people, and our absolute dependency on the world. At times it seems there is no hope. Can our people ever understand that America won’t save us? And behold, we have a precedent in our history where from great distress, the Jewish People were able to wake up and to cling to the truth of Hashem. May we see the same awesome “Naha-Fochu” (a turning of the tables) quickly.

Yom Kippur: Mission of the Prophet – in These Times as Well

On Yom Kippur it is the custom to read the Book of Jonah during the Mincha service, since the repentance done by the people of Ninve is supposed to awaken us on the current Day of Atonement. Many people forget, however, that before Jonah even arrived at Ninve to prophesize, he underwent an experience that carries for us an important example for today and for Yom Kippur as well.

The sages tell us that there are several types of prophets who are obligated to receive the death penalty. One of these is the prophet who “suppresses his prophecy”. That is, he has received a prophetic vision and is commanded to reveal it, but refuses to do so. Jonah came dangerously close to falling into such a category – fleeing the Land of Israel so that the “Divine Presence” will no longer rest upon him, and thus no longer be able to carry G-d’s message. The sages tell us that all this stemmed from Jonah’s love for the Jewish People. Jonah knew that the gentiles of Ninve would heed his call to repentance. Consequently, this might awaken the wrath of G-d against the Jewish People, since they, in contrast to the gentiles of Ninve, did not heed the words of the prophets and repent. He therefore chose to flee from his obligation to warn the people of Ninve, lest they “show up” the Jews.

Despite this love, and despite all his good intentions, Jonah was wrong. The role of the prophet is to speak the word of G-d, whether the message finds favor in his eyes or not, or if saying it endangers his life. It is irrelevant whether or not he has the most seemingly logical justifications for NOT saying the message. Speaking the truth can be very difficult, as Rabbi Kahane, HY”D, in his last article in the “Jewish Press” wrote, “You think it is pleasant to speak painful truths that cause pain to those who refuse to listen and who then react with pain and hate against the one who speaks? You think it is easy to be the messenger that brings forth the reaction, ‘Kill the messenger?'”

What this means is quite simple. A Jew who elevates himself to the level of a prophet has established a very special connection to G-d. But it is not enough. For a prophet to be a prophet, he must go out to the people and speak the word of G-d. Rabbi Kahane would convey this principle by quoting Eliyahu in Kings 1, chapter 10: “I am left all alone as Hashem’s prophet”. The Rav asked: Was it really so? Was Eliyahu the only prophet not killed by Achav and Izevel? What about the 100 prophets mentioned only a few verses before that were hidden in a cave? The Rav would explain by saying that Eliyahu was teaching a tremendous lesson for all to learn: A prophet hiding in a closet is not a prophet! The whole point of a prophet is to go out to the people and speak the truth without fear. Eliyahu WAS the only prophet around because he was out there fearlessly chastising the Jewish People at the time. Thus, Jonah, regardless of the reason he had, betrayed his special mission.

This is a vital lesson of Yom Kippur, for all the “Bnei Torah” and “Bnei Yeshiva” and rabbis who are also in a certain sense leaders or prophets of the generation. So many choose to sit quietly, afraid to attack the Hellenistic left and thus save the Jewish State from them. All these years they have refused out of fear to state the simple “Halacha” and real solution to the basic and burning Yishmaelite problem – whose status is so obvious according to Torah law that no honest rabbi could differ with it. The problem is that in public, everyone is suddenly silent. All these leaders are in a sense “prophets who withhold their prophecy” – for they know the Divine truth yet refrain from saying it. How we are now suffering from this silence!

May it be G-d’s will that on Yom Kippur the first to repent will be those who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the nation. May they warn and chastise the Jewish People and no longer become a partner to the sins of the generation by way of their silence, and as a consequence, the Jewish People will repent and bring the Redemption.

Rosh Hashana: “The Righteous Will Be Saved”

Our sages teach that there are two distinct ways in which the final redemption can occur: Either it will be a “hurried” (Achishena) redemption which comes with majestic glory and free of pain and tragedy, or it will be “in its time” (Bi-Eta). “In its time” means that the redemption will come despite our unworthiness, accompanied by terrible destruction and holocaust as the deserved punishment that precedes the final glory and salvation. G-d stretches the process out, one painful step after another. This suffering is known as the “birth pangs of Moshiach.”

End of Final Grace Period

These painful steps are actually periods of grace which G-d, in His abundant mercy grants us, in the hope that we will heed His warnings and do “Tshuva”. They are warnings intended to awaken us to repentance, so that we may prevent the final stage of “redemption in its time”, in which we will experience unprecedented suffering and holocausts. However, there is a limit to these grace periods. Our teacher, Rabbi Meir Kahane, HY”D, constantly warned in his speeches, classes and books, that we are extremely close to the final hour, after which there will be no more grace periods. In such a scenario, G-d will pour forth His wrath, and only afterwards will He bring the redemption. Only a few will remain to see it, and according to our rabbinical sources, the remnant will include only the righteous.

Who Will Be Written in the Book?

This is what the prophet Isaiah says (6:13): “And if one tenth remain in it, then that shall again be consumed… the holy seed will be the vitality ofthe land”. Rashi explains this passage: “And that remnant G-d shall cleanse one step after another, and it shall be barren until there will remain only the totally righteous, who will return to G-d with all their hearts.” (also see Ketuvot 112).

More words of the prophet (4:3-4): “And it shall come to pass that he that is left in Zion, and he that remains in Jerusalem, shall be called holy (Rashi – they will all be righteous), every one in Jerusalem that is written
to life (Radak: it will be decreed upon them to live because of their uprightness and good deeds): when the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Yerushalayim from its midst by the spirit of judgment (Rashi – through suffering) and the spirit of burning (Rashi – to burn them out from this world).

On the verse 26:20 in Isaiah, Radak comments: “This is talking about the war of Gog and Magog, in which troubles will befall Israel for a short time…the righteous will cloak themselves with good deeds and complete repentance, because for a moment there will be fury and then it will pass -and the righteous will be saved, as it says – all that are there will be written in a book.”

And in Daniel’s awesome vision (12:1): “And at that time shall Mikhail standup, the great chief angel, who stands for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was seen since there was
a nation till that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered,every one who shall be found written in this book.” The Ibn Ezra comments: “They will only be salvaged because of the great heavenly prince Mikhail. Therefore, only those written in the book will be saved – and they are the righteous.” Rav Sadia Gaon explains it the same way.

Total “Tshuva”

Only those who sincerely believe in G-d will be saved. Only those who understand the obligation to stand up to the test of faith and trust in G-d during difficult times when external and internal enemies are poised against us will be salvaged. While Shabbat, Kosher food, and the laws of family purity are great mitzvot in which one can attain eternal life, they are simply not enough. Without genuine trust in G-d, then all these mitzvot have no real meaning. When G-d’s Name is being desecrated daily and we persist in perpetuating national Hillul Hashem by our refusal to fulfill mitzvot which may anger the nations, fulfillment of private mitzvot will not suffice. By not performing “difficult” mitzvot which express real faith in G-d, we remain mere practitioners of sterile ritual.

Who really believes in G-d? Who really says, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will make mention of the Name of the Lord our G-d”,and means it? Does he really believe that the Syrian tanks, the Iraqi missiles, and most importantly, America’s money are not the least bit relevant in light of our obligation to fulfill G-d’s “national”
commandments? This is the true “tshuva”; this is “the return will all their hearts” which Rashi spoke of.

Let us not smooth things over, but rather take these words very seriously. We are speaking about facts which our prophets and sages warned about if we do not do complete “tshuva”. Just as all their previous words have come true to this day, there is no reason to believe that the rest of their words are mere “doomsday fairy tales.”

A Plea to Individuals

No one amongst us really knows the precise accountings of G-d and how much of an extension He will grant us before the final stage of the redemption. But one thing is clear: We know the tragedy the nation is facing, as they
follow their wicked leaders whose motto is “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” And so it is our obligation to at least turn to individuals who want to save themselves. Perhaps by pleading to individuals, who by nature want to save themselves and their loved ones, we can find hearts open to our words. Perhaps this reawakening, with G-d’s help, will effect the general populace.

Our sages made an additional comment on the passage, “And if one tenth remain in it, then that shall again be consumed”: “G-d said to Isaiah… I have created for them ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so that they would repent completely during these days.” Incredible! Instead of punishing us blow after blow until “she is consumed”, G-d gives us a ten day grace period to repent and salvage ourselves from these horrors. It is our last chance to bring in the redemption with splendor and majesty. Today, if we will listen to His voice.

Ki Tetze: To See the Evil Growing – And to Uproot It

The sages in the Talmud (one opinion) tell us that there never really was a perverse and rebellious son. If this is so, the Talmud asks, why were we given a mitzvah which is impossible to fulfill. The answer: This mitzvah was given “to learn about and receive reward”. All this arouses the curiosity. After all, the Torah was given in order that we may fulfill it. If so, what is this strange mitzvah which was given to us, even though we will never be able to carry it out. Would the Torah bring something down which is solely theoretical and for the purpose of making nice “vorts”, but inapplicable in the real world? Would this not contradict the very purpose for what the Torah was given for?

The matter becomes much clearer when we realize that the Torah was given for a much deeper reason than for the sterile and rote carrying out of mitzvot. The Torah was not given so that we arise each morning and with our eyes half-closed put two black leather boxes called “Tefilin” on our arm and head, and then mumble half-heartedly incomprehensible words called “prayer”. The Torah was given with an idea. Behind every personal mitzvah stands an idea, and behind all of the mitzvot together, there stands a general idea. And a person who fulfills the mitzvah with the proper understanding is fulfilling a living mitzvah, with purpose and soul, and is not simply performing some sterile ritual like a monkey.

This is the purpose of the mitzvah of killing the perverse and rebellious son. In truth, it is virtually impossible that all the conditions will exist for us to actualize this mitzvah. In any case, G-d gave us this mitzvah to teach us that even though it might never happen, it is critical for us to understand the idea that stands behind the mitzvah – and it is an idea which is indeed a very practical one!

The idea here is the burning out of evil from the world, and to teach us that doing so is not only good for the world, but it is also for the personal good of the son himself. For the sages say that the perverse and rebellious son is punished for what he will eventually become, and not for what he is now. The Torah, knowing that the day will come when this impetuous lad will steal, rob, and pillage, has taught us in a very effective and powerful way an awesome lesson. Though this perverse and rebellious son has barely turned 13 years old and hardly knows his right from his left, we must kill him nonetheless before his evil starts manifesting itself. And so, despite the fact that the actual carrying out of this mitzvah is limited to almost impossible circumstances, we learn the idea that in our eternal and uncompromising struggle versus evil, there is such a concept of rooting it out before it actually reveals itself.

All this clearly contradicts western culture where even the most blatant evil is not given a death blow, and all for reasons of “ethics”. Judaism is truly merciful, to such an extent that it distances any potential evil that even threatens to do harm, in order to teach us the basic concept of hating evil, and the obligation of the Jew to burn it out.

Shoftim: Fulfilling the Mitzvot with Love – through “Religious Coercion”

When the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai, they proclaimed without hesitation, “We will do and we will listen” before even receiving the Torah.

But if the Jewish People were so willing to receive Torah by their own free choice, the question that begs asking is: Why was it given to them through coercion? After all, Tractate Shabbat (88 ) brings down the following: “To teach that the Holy One Blessed Be He overturned the mountain (Sinai) upon them like an (inverted) cask and said to them: If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there (underneath the mountain) shall be your burial!”. But if they already accepted the Torah willingly, what was the need for all this?

The Maharal from Prague (in the book “Tiferet Yisrael”) answers upon this very basic question in the following way: Being that the Torah is the very essence of the Jewish People who without it have no reason for existence,
there is no way that the Torah can obligate us simply because we chose it to be that way. It must go deeper. It must be made clear that there is no connection between the personal decision of Am Yisrael to receive Torah (“We will do and we will listen”) and the fact that the Torah was given to us. It must be made clear that even if G-d forbid “we will not do”, the Torah was given to us against our wills! Therefore, G-d turned over the mountain upon us in order to convey to us that we must not think for a moment that we fulfill the Torah because we decide to, but rather we must realize that it is a Divine obligation – the yoke of heaven!

This concept is certainly pertinent today, since the basic western concept dominating society of “Live and Let Live” has become quite popular among a high percentage of religious Jews. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear
skullcap donning Jews throwing around the slogan “live and let live” as if it is one of the ten commandments. The fact is, many use this concept to dismiss themselves, so to speak, from taking responsibility for “Klal Yisrael”. By so doing, they on one hand give legitimacy to every Jew to choose the “faith” he wishes, while on the other hand they give themselves legitimization to dismiss themselves from the unpleasant obligation of “Tochacha” (chastising).

Indeed, one who has been exposed to a western culture for so many years will have great difficulty accepting the idea that the Torah was given under coercion, for it is an idea that stands in direct contrast to the basic democratic concept of “live and let live”. For the concept of “religious coercion” has become a dirty word today, even amongst an increasing number of religious Jews who really do not pay attention to the words they say. We will now cause them to pay attention.

Torah Without Coercion?

Did there ever exist a system of laws in this world that did NOT require coercion? Of course not. After all, such a system would lead to absolute chaos! Now – if we believe that the Torah is the exclusive system of laws for the Jewish People, how can we possibly say that there is no coercion necessary?! And if this is so, why all the guilt and inferiority complexes on the subject?! Is the system of laws brought down in our Torah somehow unworthy that less be demanded of them than from any other set of laws?!

Ours sages tell us: “If there are no police officers – there are no judges.” In other words, without a coercive body to enforce the law, there is no justice! And so the Torah is filled with punishments which the court system (and let us not even speak of the Heavenly Court) must impose to punish transgressors. If that isn’t “religious coercion”, than what is?

There is a popular self-righteous argument which says: “We must educate the people to love Torah, so that they may fulfill it with love and not under coercion”. Of course this is true! But it is true in the same way concerning
bankrobbers. It is important to educate muggers not to rob banks, but in the meantime, until everyone is educated, we have policemen and judges who punish the muggers, thank G-d. But isn’t that coercion? Nu, what can on do?
Sometimes one must take undemocratic measures such as preventing man’s basic right to rob banks….

The “Sefer HaChinuch” (Mitzvah 491, Shoftim) brings this down in a revolutionary manner. It explains that the way to educate man to fulfill mitzvot is through love, via coercion. Here are the words of the “Chinuch”: “ appoint judges and police officers who will force the people to do the mitzvot of the Torah, and will return the strays from the true path against their wills.. and out of habit in going down the straight path out of fear, the people will learn in a natural way to be righteous out of love and through a recognition that it is the true way..”(see more).

Yes. Ironically enough, the way to fulfill mitzvot out of love is through: “religious coercion”!

Re’e: The Jew Is Never “Beinoni”

It is common knowledge that to be a Jew is a great responsibility, yet along with the great privelages that come with it, there are also deep obligations. This double-edged sword hovers over the Jew and obligates him from the moment he is born to the moment of his death.

The question that arises is whether or not a Jew can get up one day and say: “I didn’t choose this destiny. I didn’t ask for it, and I don’t want any part of it.” Perhaps a Jew doesn’t want to be “chosen”, and doesn’t feel anything good about being “special”. He simply wants to be part of “humanity”, free to do as he pleases, without being restricted by the 613 mitzvot of the Torah and the countless ordinances of the rabbis. The fulfillment of his Jewish destiny is not for him – it is too “heavy” for him to handle.

Is such a claim legitimate? Can a Jew ignore his lofty mission, his awesome future – and thus be “exempt”, that is, off the hook from fulfilling this great but difficult destiny? Is it possible for a Jew to cast away the observance of Torah, which includes being a light unto the nations (in the true meaning of the concept), and clinging to G-d.

Obviously, there is no need to answer this question. Without a doubt, a Jew can not escape his destiny. He was born a Jew and he will stay a Jew, with all rights and obligations included. “LaHavdeel”, one can compare it to one who was born a prince. Despite the great “kavod” and greatness that is intrinsically in him the minute he is born, he is also subject to all kinds of edicts and restrictions. There have been many instances when one born into a royal family despised his destiny, feeling miserable and unfortunate, but he had no choice – he was bound forever. This example isn’t really a totally accurate one, since the Jew isn’t “miserable and unfortunate”, as we will soon explain. On the other hand, it is a perfect example since the Jew is indeed a prince, the son of a King! He can never escape his royalty. Even if he becomes a slave, a Jew is still a prince, as Ze’ev Jebotinsky wrote in his famous song: “The Jew – even in poverty is a prince … if slave or wanderer, you were created the son of a King, adorned with David’s crown!”

This entire concept is brought down in the very first verse of our parsha, “Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; a blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d … and a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your G-d.” What is the meaning of such a choice? Does it mean that the Jew is given the right to choose his own way in life, to determine his own destiny? Not quite.

The commentary of the “Sforno” on this verse is the following: “Look (Re’e) and behold, so your eyes WILL NOT BE UPON THE WAY OF THE “BEINONI” (MEDIOCRE) as is the way of most people. For indeed I give before you today the blessing and the curse, and they are two extremes; for the blessing is success way beyond the average good, and the urse is calamity way beyond the average bad, and both these poles lay before you in order to attain – all according to what you choose.” In other words, G-d gives us two options. The first option is to be blessed, the second option is to be cursed. THERE IS NO THIRD OPTION. There is not an option of mediocrity; of being neither blessed nor cursed, but “just one of the guys”. Either he fulfills his destiny, and then he is blessed, or he does evil by not fulfilling his destiny, and he is cursed and consequently punished.

Someone who thinks that he is unfortunate because he was born a Jew andwants to escape it can only be pitied. He really is an unfortunate “nebish” – not because he was born a Jew, but because he does not understand the special greatness that he was intended for. He is similar to the crazy man who finds gold and throws it away in disgust.

We are Jews that recognize the greatness of our special destiny. We have absolutely no complexes about it – “We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage!!”

Behar: For They Are Servants of the Lord

I write these words on the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel’s Independence, from behind prison walls, only a few days after being tossed behind bars after my sentencing of nine months in jail. In parshat Behar I will seize the opportunity to show a surprisingly similar connection between my situation and a teaching found in Midrash Raba on parshat Behar: “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all it’s inhabitants” (a passage referring to slaves).

What is so terrible about being a servant? One of the central themes of parshat Behar is the shame that exists for the Jew who is a slave. “To Me are the children of Israel servants, for they are servants of the Lord, who took them out of the land of Egypt.” We see that the Torah finds great fault with the idea of a Jew becoming a slave. Therefore, the Torah places boundaries on servitude, (both regarding a person who sells himself out of poverty, or because of thievery) and limits the time of servitude to a maximum of six years. A slave who wants to extend his time of servitude must have his master bore a hole in his ear as is described in parshat Mishpatim, and then he remains a slave only until the 50th Jubilee year.

What is the reason? The answer lies in our sages words (Kidushim 22): “Why is the ear different from any other part of the body? G-d said, the ear that heard My voice on Mount Sinai, when I said, to Me are Israel servants, and not servants to other servants” (i.e. other Jews). What is so awful about being a slave? After all, we are referring to a person who is more than likely serving an acquaintance of his, which is certainly not a sin in andof itself, nor does it cause him to sin in any way. If so, what prevents a slave from being a most righteous and G-d fearing man? What is so bad about being a slave?

The answer is that a slave is not merely a servant. Rather, he is a person who relinquishes his individuality in drastic fashion to another human being, flesh and blood. The desires of the slave himself become the desires of his master instead. He is completely nullified as an independent entity. He hands over his identity and individuality to the whims and desires offlesh and blood, and as a result, forfeits responsibility over his own life. And so the slave does not have the opportunity to work on his spirituality, or enrich it, and thusly he cannot advance towards the true purpose of being a Jew – sanctifying G-d’s Name and coming closer to G-d’s attributes. A Jew must be his own individual, a free man, submitting himself only to G-d’s will, and responsible for his own actions and his direction in life. A slave is neutralized from the very outset, and cannot achieve his goal as a Jew, since he his wholly subservient to his master.

The Jubilee year sets forth the notion that every Jew is truly free. True freedom, and not the decadent concept of “freedom” which is so prevalent in alien western culture. Rather it is a freedom of spirit in which the Jew removes from upon himself the yoke of foreign concepts and replaces it with the only yoke that he is allowed (and obligated) to accept – the Yoke of Heaven. As stated by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “Slaves of the times (i.e.- the latest American craze) are slaves of slaves: Slaves of G-d are truly free”.

Though there is much disgrace in slavery, we see that the Torah, for a limited amount of time, prescribes this form of punishment. The Torah does not prescribe prison, despite the fact that today prison is considered the most humane, effective and “progressive” form of punishment. But anyone who understands prison life knows that it brings about a situation even worse than that of slavery. For while a slave may be nullified, he is at least in the shade of his master – something which gives him content and identity. In contrast, the situation of a prisoner is one in which a person loses all semblance of a human being. He is pushed into a small cell (and in so doing, the authorities think they have solved their problems), and treated like an animal. All concept of time is lost, as the prisoner lies on his bed all day, serving no purpose, bored to death and void of any content in his life. All that concerns him is the taking care of his most base physical needs. Most prisoners lose all hope in themselves and in their future. They abandon all sense of responsibility due to the lack of a daily regiment. This inactivity increases the prisoners feeling of emptiness, and so it is no wonder that there is such a high percentage of ex-prisoners returning to crime, a destructive and vicious cycle.

But for those few who possess a sense of self-worth and purpose, being behind prison walls does not hamper their individuality from shining forth. It is as if the prison walls and the prison guards do not exist. For them, it does not matter where they are. On the contrary, the experience of being behind bars serves as a catalyst, invigorating their spirit and confirming their inner sense of independence and conviction.

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