What unites Jews throughout the world as one nation and one people? What is responsible for our amazing persistence as a unique historical entity, despite our having been scattered throughout the globe and subject to persecution and pogrom, despite our having been chased from pillar to post? What idea and ideal have prevented us from falling prey to assimilation, from disappearing into the sands of time as just another grain of sand? Why have we insisted upon Jewish exclusivity, Jewish separatism, Jewish apartness?
Our biblical portion of Matot makes a distinction between two technical terms, which it doesn’t quite define: “If a man makes a vow [neder] to dedicate an object to the Lord, or takes an oath [shevua] to prohibit himself from partaking of a certain food or from participating in a certain activity, he must not desecrate his word” [Numbers 30:3]. My revered teacher and mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik defines a vow as pertaining to an object (a person is on a diet, and prohibits bread from his table), and an oath as pertaining to a subject (the person prohibits himself from eating bread).
In the first instance of a vow, the emphasis is on the object, the bread, the “heftza.” In the case of an oath, the emphasis is on the subject, the person, the “gavra.”
In the Brisker school of Talmudic methodology, much of the world may be divided between gavra and heftza, subject and object; indeed, in most instances a human being, especially if he is born to be free, ought to be seen as a “subject.” However, if a person is enslaved, he ipso facto has been turned into an “object,” having been denied his fundamental freedom of choice.
This distinction can serve us well in attempting to answer what sets Jews apart. But, first, a personal experience of significance: At the end of the Yom Kippur War, while on an El Al airplane on the way to Israel, I was shocked to discover news about an acquaintance of mine. He had lost his first family in Auschwitz, remarried and had two sons on the West Side of Manhattan. He had moved to Israel and lost his eldest boy in the Six-Day War — and had now lost his only remaining son in the Yom Kippur War.
I made a condolence call as soon as I got off the plane.
My disconsolate friend was sitting on the floor with his wife, surrounded by would-be comforters; no one, however, said a word. The atmosphere was tense with a heavy silence that shouted upwards to heaven in tear-filled protest. As I quietly intoned the condolence formula: “May the Place [Makom, a synonym for God] comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” my friend looked up. “Why does the blessing use the word Makom and not Elokim or Hashem?” He didn’t wait for a reply, but himself offered the answer. “When I lost my first family in the Holocaust, an atrocity which I suffered as a passive victim of monstrous Nazi fascist-racists, I could not even mourn properly and I could not be comforted; it all seemed so absurd and meaningless.
“Now, however, although I am devastated and unable to speak to my comforters, I nevertheless do feel comforted.
“The Place comforts me; the fact that my second set of children were killed because they chose to live in Israel, which is indeed a dangerous war zone, because they chose to realize our destiny which is Jerusalem, because they chose to guarantee a Jewish future by risking their own present lives. Both sets of children were sacred sacrifices, but the first set were passive objects whereas the second were dynamic subjects who actively fought for our Jewish future!
“Yes, the Place comforts me…”
In his famous address “Kol Dodi Dofek” (Listen, My Beloved Knocks), Rav Soloveichik distinguishes between the Holocaust experience in which the Jews were united by a common fate (goral) and a common destiny (yi’ud). Fate was foisted upon them from without, from a largely sinister gentile world cooperating enthusiastically with the “Final Solution” of Nazi Germany. Destiny extends from the Sinai experience, which they accepted upon themselves, pledging to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers to convey God’s message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the world. It is this sense of destiny that brought us to Israel and compels us to fight against tyranny and terrorism.
Efrat, where I live, is located in Gush Etzion. The Gush lies geographically between Hebron and Jerusalem. In Hebron, God initially chose Abraham and made him the father of a multitude of nations, including Ishmael, because he was teaching his descendants God’s path of compassionate righteousness and moral justice [Genesis 18:18-19]. In Jerusalem, Jewish and world history will culminate in the rebuilding of a Holy Temple from whence Zion’s message of a Torah of peace and redemption will be accepted by all the nations of the globe.
Once objects of fate, we are now subjects of our own destiny. Now, too, the “Place” (Makom) comforts us in our period of national rebirth.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.
Candlelighting: 8:06 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 30:2-36:13
Haftorah reading: Jeremiah 2:4-28;
Shabbat ends: 9:11 p.m..