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Living "Chosen"

Shavuot (Exodus 19:1 - 20:23 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

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Rabbi Simoi taught: When Israel said, 'na'aseh venishma', "we agree to accept the Torah although we do not yet understand the demands this undertaking will impose on us," 600,000 angels descended, an angel for each Jew, and they attached two crowns to each Jewish head; one crown for 'na'aseh', and a second for 'nishma'. (Shabbat, 68a)

The burden of Torah has proven to be onerous indeed. No nation in history has suffered as long and as heavily as the Jewish nation. This extraordinary suffering is clearly a direct result of the Jewish people having accepted the Torah. There is no other detectable difference between Jews and the rest of humanity that can account for it.

Jews are not a distinct race or even a distinct language group. Most of us look no different than the people among who we reside; we invariably learn to speak the language of whatever country we live in as fluently as anyone, and whenever we are not forcibly prevented from doing so, we always rise to the higher ranks of the intelligentsia.

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History bears testimony to the fact that Jews have consistently contributed significantly to the general welfare in every culture we have been a part of, and that the size of our contribution was generally out of all proportion to our numbers. Any objective assessment would have to lead to the conclusion that Jews constitute a valuable asset to any nation that is fortunate enough to attract us to settle. Rather than being the pariahs that we have always been, reason would appear to dictate that we should be positively sought after.

Although no one fully comprehends the reasons behind the anti-Semitism that has always caused the nations to reject such a clearly positive addition to their ranks, the hatred of Jews is clearly related to the Torah we accepted at Sinai. This correlation between acceptance of the Torah and rejection by the nations is so inherent that the very word 'Sinai' expresses it. Sinai is related to the Hebrew word 'Sinah', which means hatred. (Shmot Raba, 2,4)

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To appreciate Israel's act of blind acceptance, let us consult the following scenario: a conservative, responsible person embarking on a dangerous journey without having the slightest idea of whether he can survive the dangers along the way. What runs through our minds when we observe a generally cautious and highly capable person tackle an obviously dangerous task? Do we think that he suddenly stepped way out of character and became a reckless idiot? Hardly. We automatically assume that he has carefully considered and weighed his options and found no alternative course available. If I know I need something in order to survive, I will go after it no matter how great the obstacles and dangers are.

A difficult life is still better than no life at all. In light of all the suffering the acceptance of Torah has brought upon us, Israel's 'na'aseh venishma' demonstrates that the Jewish people took on the burden of Torah observance because they realized that it was the only option available to them. Without the Torah there was no viable Jewish nation. It is not that we were blind to the downside of accepting such a dangerous burden. The Torah was a necessity of our national existence, and the downside was therefore irrelevant.

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When we look around the world today, we see that the majority of the Jewish people are no longer Torah observant. Jews aren't stupid as a rule; by now we should all have realized that anti-Semitism is here to stay.
The Holocaust should have allowed us to finally internalize the bitter truth; we will never be willingly absorbed by any nation, no matter how advanced and progressive that nation, and no matter how eager we Jews are to bend over backwards to fit in and assimilate.

There was no nation on earth more progressive than Germany, the perpetrator of the Holocaust, and the Jewish people were never as willing to drop their Torah observance and become indistinguishable from the host culture as they were in pre-war Germany. The attempt to establish Berlin as the new Jerusalem was our most intense effort at outright assimilation in our history, and it failed tragically.

Our alternate strategy to secure acceptance was the re-establishment of the State of Israel as the Jewish homeland. This attempt to secure for ourselves a welcome from the nations of the world has also turned out to be a major disappointment. Despite the fact that we have successfully created a modern democratic state, indistinguishable in its humanitarian values and practices, its economic and cultural sophistication from the most advanced nations in the world, and despite the fact that the establishment of Israel was clearly the only solution that was available to us following the Holocaust, we have not managed to gain entrance into the family of nations as a member in good standing. The UN, the body that represents this family and speaks with its voice, has spent more of its sessions censuring, criticizing and condemning us than it has spent on any other activity.

If the majority of Jews are still not observant despite this clear evidence of rejection by the rest of the world, it is clearly not due to the vain hope of one day being accepted among the ranks of 'normal people.' We know fully well, at least subconsciously, that we are permanently tarnished by the stigma of Sinai in the eyes of humanity and will never be welcomed. Our fate is to be stuck outside in the cold with our Torah peering through the window at 'normal life.'

Nor can one seriously argue that the abandonment of observance is due to the fact that the modern mind cannot relate to the wisdom and truth of Torah. The flourishing worldwide Baal Teshuva movement of the past decades has demonstrated that the thinking Jew who decides to explore his or her Torah roots finds ample answers to all of his or her doubts in the tradition and wisdom of Torah, and emerges a believer in God and an observer of His Torah on some level.

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The true reason behind the general lack of observance must be attributed to the fact that most Jews perceive the Torah as being irrelevant to their lives. We have gone from being a people who felt that it was impossible to live without the Torah to a people who find the very idea of observing the Torah so irrelevant, that we do not even consider it worth exploring in spite of the fact that we are clearly suffering rejection only because we are stuck with it. We are in the unbelievably ironic position of suffering for the sake of a Torah that we ourselves reject as irrelevant to our lives. How can we explain this incredible scenario?

The Torah itself suggests the answer. "He afflicted you and let you hunger, then he fed you the manna that you did not know, nor did your forefathers know, in order to make you know that not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God does man live (Devarim 8,3)." God informs us that He put us through the desert experience to teach us that living by the words of God, the Torah, is a necessity of Jewish life in the same way that eating is essential to living. The words of Torah stave off starvation, and without them we die.

But does this analogy make sense? The person who fails to realize that he will die if he does not eat starves all the same. Food is an objective necessity of life. Yet there have been many people, among them multitudes of Jews, who have not observed Torah and yet have managed to live long lives. If the Torah is an objective necessity of life, shouldn't they have starved to death?

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Indeed, the Jews have starved. God did not mean to imply that the Torah is a physical necessity. He did not even mean to suggest that individual Jews cannot manage without Torah, even spiritually. It is the Jewish people as a collective entity who cannot survive without Torah. The suffering of Jewish history is the outward manifestation of Jewish starvation for Torah. What we perceive as the evil of anti-Semitism is actually the direct consequence of the lack of Torah observance. Torah observance is necessary to stave off anti-Semitism just as food is necessary to stave off physical starvation. That is the essence of God's message, and history fully bears Him out.

This is an important idea for a Jew to internalize because it is the key to understanding the tragedies of his history. According to God, we see the world backwards. Whereas we trace the origin of our problems back to the acceptance of Torah, an act that we perceive as avoidable, the phenomenon of 'na'aseh venishma' directs us to look at things the opposite way around. We accepted the Torah because we knew that it was the staff of our national survival. Our troubles should not be interpreted as arbitrary retribution for failing to execute God's orders, a fate that we could easily have avoided by never undertaking to obey them. Our troubles are due to the lack of the necessary input of Torah that we need to keep us alive and healthy.

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Let us accept the proposition that Jews need Torah in order to live and analyze the implications. The first major conclusion is that Jews really are different than other people after all. We were 'chosen' by God to accept His Torah because we were different to begin with. We are not different as a consequence of this Divine choice.

How are we different? As we have argued, we look no different, act no different, and bleed no different. If a difference really existed, shouldn't we be able to see it? Occasionally, one must look at oneself through the eyes of one's enemy in order to see oneself clearly.

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Hitler's thesis in 'Mein Kampf' is that the Jews are responsible for the spread of Judeo-Christian values accepted by modern nations as the foundations of proper human behavior. He argued that if the Jewish people were exterminated, the values they advocated would die with them. In his view, absent the Jew and the ideas he stands for, and mankind would pursue adventure, conquest and glory instead of social justice and universal welfare. The mighty Aryan race would be free to claim its natural place at the top of the human heap instead of dissipating its might and resources supporting the weak of mankind.

Instead of looking at these ideas as the ravings of a lunatic, let us test their veracity by means of a 'thought experiment.' What would have happened if the Jews would have been accepted as an integral part of German society and Hitler would have attempted to practice genocide against the Turks, let us say? Could he have succeeded? Can we imagine the multitude of the Jewish intelligentsia of Germany standing silently on the sidelines while Hitler's Nazis systematically butchered the Turks in the ovens of Auschwitz? Can we imagine Germany practicing systematic genocide in the face of fierce vocal opposition to it in the country and in the light of full exposure of all its incredibly gory details?

Could Hitler have succeeded in leading the German nation on an unprovoked rampage through civilized Europe with the Jewish people firmly integrated into its midst? Would the Jewish journalists, the Jewish professors and social workers, the Jewish doctors and lawyers musicians and poets have stood by, uncritically silent?

Just as we cannot imagine this happening, neither could Hitler.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. You can see just how right Hitler was by looking at the results of the demonization of Germany's Jews. All he had to do was subtract the Jewish people from the German mix and all his bloodiest dreams were suddenly possible. Not only did the German people extend him their uncritical, adoring support, but the entire civilized world stood silently watching while he went about stripping innocent, intelligent citizens of their human rights; for even supposing that the rest of civilized humanity was totally ignorant of the mass murder going on [which by the way is highly incredible], the disenfranchisement of German Jewry was certainly a matter of public record. [Just as the dehumanization of Jews and the rabid anti-Semitism of the Arab press is totally ignored today.]

We have only to look at the backgrounds of the original white leaders of the civil rights movement, the fight against apartheid, the leaders of the opposition against the war in Vietnam or at a thousand other struggles for human rights and justice to confirm Hitler's thesis. Jews as a group were the loudest and most articulate voices in all these battles.

This is not to say that many worthy individuals from among the nations did not join them. There are good people everywhere, and the articulation of the principles of justice always creates a great impact. But the German experience powerfully demonstrates the predictable consequences of subtracting the Jewish people from the human mix. When you remove the Jews what you have left are the 'sounds of silence.'

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It isn't only our enemies who have been able to detect this aura of 'chosen-ness'. Here is what Paul Johnson, a Christian historian, has to say about us:

Humanity might eventually have stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. (A History of the Jews)

Mr. Johnson is entirely correct, except that he left out one particular. These great moral ideas may be the basic furniture of the human mind, but they are useful only insofar as they also pound in the human heart. The Jewish people not only originated these ideas, they remain their living embodiment on the face of the earth, as Hitler realized. Jews are the only people who, as a people, find life impossible and meaningless in the absence of moral ideas.

None of these Jewish ideas of morality have any basis in the physical world. The secular theory of evolution would logically reject most of them outright. They are all antithetical to the spirit of the survival of the fittest. The theories of Darwin lead inevitably to some form of Hitler. After all he only took the idea of the survival of the fittest to its logical limits.

The Jewish ideas of morality are all based on the idea that man was created in the image of God. All human beings have the ability to refashion themselves in this divine image through following the moral principles that the Jewish people has taught humanity, but the Jewish people never had to learn them. We live them. We are them.

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Nations who are not living embodiments of God's image can survive without Torah. It is not their existential purpose in life to teach humanity how to live in the world as God's image. But we Jews exist in the world as a nation for this purpose only. It is our responsibility to teach mankind that man is not a great ape who has struggled to climb out of the primeval slime, but is cast in the living image of God.

The Torah is a book of instructions that teaches a human being to express himself as God's image in all the areas of life. When the Jewish people are fully observant we are able to deliver our message to mankind by inspiration.

See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as YHVH my God has commanded me, to do in the midst of the land to which you come, to possess it. You shall safeguard and perform them, for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, "Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!" For which is a great nation that has a God Who is close to it, as is YHVH our God whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous decrees and ordinances, such as this entire Torah which I place before you this day? (Devarim,, 4,5-8)

The nations are inspired by our righteous laws even from afar, but only when they are perceived as effective and advantageous. When God is obviously close to us and invariably answers our prayers, it is clear to everyone that we must be doing something right, and the nations proceed to emulate our righteous ways in order to enjoy the same degree of worldly success. But when God is not close to us and does not always answer our prayers, we are unable to inspire the nations to emulate our moral principles from afar.

This, however, does not mean that we are released from the responsibilities of 'chosen-ness'. The raison d'etre of our existence is still the dissemination of the values and principles enumerated so eloquently by Mr. Johnson. If we do not spread them by inspiration, than we must fight for them in the trenches. When we abandon observance we go into exile among the nations. As we join other cultures and rise to positions of influence, we become vocal advocates for human values. Johnson is correct. When someone expresses the basic moral values in clear articulate language, the ideas have enormous power and they inevitably gather adherents.

But when no one trumpets them, despite the fact that they are obvious once they are elucidated, they have no following. It isn't that anyone formally abandons them. Germany embraced all the basic moral ideas at the very height of the Holocaust; but Germans felt no inner compulsion to apply them to anyone who they labeled as sub-human. The Jewish conscience never allows for exceptions of this sort, and wherever Jews have a powerful voice, no such exceptions are successfully made. That is why Jews are essential to the human mix.

Observing the Torah brings one close to God. When the Jewish people are following God's directives, God answers our prayers, we are seen to prosper, and the teaching of moral values through inspiration works. When Jews are not observant, they are still Jews. The basic moral values are a fundamental part of the Jewish personality and can never be abandoned. But the Jewish people are no longer close to God, and He doesn't respond to their prayers. We, the Jewish people, must then go into exile and climb down into the trenches to do our job, and the inevitable results follow. Trenches are deadly.

[We have dealt with the same themes we have examined here in a previous essay, "We shall Do and We shall Hear." Torah ideas often have multiple facets. In this particular case, the previous essay attempts to deal with the topic of Na'aseh Venishma closer to heaven, while we have attempted to explore how the same spiritual ideas operate when we look at them closer to the earth.]


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