Friday, February 22, 2013

National Identity Crisis – Assimilation and Brotherhood

Guest Post by Netanel Gertner

The Nation of Israel at Sinai
Last Motzoei Shabbos, was the 7th day of Adar. That is the Yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbenu and the day that the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) in Chicago has its annual banquet. This year we were privileged to hear Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University address us.  It is one of Chicago’s great strengths that the members of an organization like this consists of people from the entire spectrum of Orthodox Jewry.

Active in this organization are Chasidim from Satmar, Ger, and Lubavitch; Yeshivaleit from Telshe, and Skokie (HTC); members of the various Kollelim…  All were represented that evening – Charedim and Chasidim; Modern Orthodox Jews and Yekkes (Jews of German heritage). 

We all more than just get along with each other. We often work together in common cause as is the case in the Chevra Kadisha.  And we all treated Rabbi Tendler with the respect due a Talmid Chacham and Zaken of his stature. 

It may be self serving to say this but no matter how much Chicago has grown as an observant community, I believe there is a sense of Achdus here that is uncommon in other cities with as large an Orthodox population.

Rabbi Tendler’s message was about Am Yisroel. Haman chose the month of Adar to exterminate the Jewish people because he believed it to be an unlucky month for us. Unlucky because that is when our great leader, Moshe Rabbenu died. But he miscalculated. He didn’t realize that this was also the month that Moshe Yahrzeit was also his birthday.

So what’s so great about the fact the he was born on the same day that he died? After all it does not alleviate the loss felt by the mourners to know that the deceased was born on the same date in history many years ago. The answer is that in Moshe’s case it was under his leadership that the Bnei Yisroel (children of Israel) became Am Yisroel – the nation of Israel.  Haman could kill individual Jews but he could never kill the nation of Israel… as that was God’s promise to us when he made us a nation.

Because of God’s promise - one cannot understate the importance of being a people; a nation – and not just a religion. Nationhood requires Achdus – the kind I have just described about the very special community in which I live. It is with this in mind, that I present a similar themed D’var Torah by Netanel Gertner. It follows in its entirety.

Two of the mitzvos particular to Purim are Mishaloach Manos, and Matanos L’Evyonim – giving gifts to people, and distributing charity freely. The Sfas Emes explains that the function of these mitzvos as they relate to Purim is that they increase unity and brotherhood.

Unity is the anathema of Amalek, who Haman was descended of. His complaint to Achashverosh:
יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם – There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among all the regions of your kingdom, and they are different from everyone else. (3:8)

Even in exile, Jews must maintain identity, and resist assimilation. Haman points out their refusal to integrate, they remain עַם אֶחָד – one nation; this in spite of how the Purim story begins with the Jews attending Achashverosh’s party celebrating their own downfall with the parading of the sacked Temple’s artifacts. The Jews lost their identity and it paved the way for Haman’s nefarious plans to destroy them all – the moment they let their guard down.

The resolution came at the hand of Mordechai and Esther. She tells him to unite the people and impress on them the severity of their futures:

כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם – Gather all the Jews in Shushan. Fast for me; don’t eat or drink for three days and nights. (4:16)

The threat is faced when they gather once more, when the Megila tells us that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם – it does not say ועמדו in the plural, that they stood for their lives, but in the singular. Their national identity had discovered. The Jewish nation had united and defended itself from attack.

It is famously expounded in Chazal that Purim also celebrates קימו מה שקיבלו כבר – the Jews had no choice to accept the Torah at Sinai, but after Purim they accepted the Torah afresh, voluntarily. A prerequisite to the Torah is unity; ויחן שם נגד ההר – The nation camped by the mountain, in the singular – not ויחנו – like one man with one heart. The Sfas Emes teaches that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם is directly parallel to ויחן שם נגד ההר.

Unity is fortified with acts of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – loving ones fellow as oneself. If people identify with the nation, they have a very direct connection to the Torah and Sinai. It is quite reasonable to suggest that due to this, it is taught that זה כלל גדול בתורה.

The Gemara says that Mordechai is identified as an איש יהודי. It asks that he was not from Yehuda, but from Binyamin, and answers that we do not read it יהודי, but יחידי – from the root אחד. He brought unity and identity back to Jews who had lost it, cementing their faith, culminating in a new acceptance of the Torah. All mitzvos of the day will reflect unity and friendship to some degree.

about the author
Netanel Gertner learns in Yeshivas  Mir Yerushalayim and has posted here before. He studied at Hasmonian in London and describes his Hashkafos as moderate Charedi  influenced by Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He also posts Divrei Torah on his own website