Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Converts and Jewish Unity - Guest Post by Yosef Hakohen
In the Torah portion of this Shabbos, Moshe begins to review with the people before they enter the Promised Land some of the history of their journey through the wilderness. He also mentions some of the difficulties he had leading them, and he reminds them of the following statement that he had said to them during an early stage of their journey:
“How can I alone carry your trouble, your burden, and your quarrels?” (Deuteronomy 1:12)
“Your quarrels” – They quarreled one with the other. (Commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Rabbeinu Bachya)
As we discussed, a convert joins our people through accepting the responsibility to fulfill the Covenant of the Torah. Just as all Israel became the people of the Covenant by proclaiming at Mount Sinai, “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7), so too, the convert joins our people by making a similar commitment. The spiritual journey of the convert therefore leads to Mount Sinai.
Regarding the arrival of our people at Mount Sinai, the Torah states:
“They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.” (Exodus 19:2)
“And Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.” Unlike the previous verbs in this section which are written in the Hebrew plural form, the verb “encamped” in this phrase, which refers to their encamping at Mount Sinai, is written in the Hebrew singular form. The classical commentator, Rashi, therefore explains this change in the following manner:
Israel encamped there as one person with one heart, but the other encampments were made with complaints and argumentations.
Rashi’s statement is based on the “Mechilta” – a midrashic work on the Book of Exodus. The Mechilta points out that whenever the Torah previously states “they journeyed” and “they encamped,” it uses the plural form of the Hebrew verb, for they were not yet united as one, for “they would journey with arguments and encamp with arguments.” When they arrived at Mount Sinai, however, the Torah uses the singular form of the verb when it states, “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.” This teaches us that when they arrived at Mount Sinai to receive the Divine Teaching, they achieved a state of unity and were of “one heart.”
It seems that their readiness to receive the Teaching of the Unifying One made them aware of their own unity. An allusion to this idea is found in the following words of a song that is sung at the Shabbos table during the first Shabbos day meal:
“And they came into the Covenant united, ‘we will do and we will hear,’ they said as one. And they opened their mouths and responded, ‘Hashem is One!’ Blessed is the One Who gives strength to the weary.” (Yonah Matsa Vo Manoach)
In a deep sense, converts connect to the unifying experience at Sinai through their own personal acceptance of the Covenant. Many converts are therefore shocked and dismayed when they discover that our people are badly divided through various arguments which often lead to distorted views of individuals and/or groups. Although converts learn to appreciate the fact that the Jewish people have a noble tradition of discussing and debating ideas, they are greatly troubled when this leads to the development of distorted stereotypes and hatred.
The following comments by David Starr-Glass, a convert from Scotland who moved to the Land of Zion, can serve as an example of this concern. These comments appear in David’s book about his spiritual journey titled “Gathered Stones” – a literary gem which inspires the soul. David writes:
“We know that the yezter ha-ra, the evil inclination which an individual has, is commensurate with the yetzer ha-tov, his good inclination. In a similar way, it seems that our central mission of unifying God’s Name and Presence is shadowed by a tendency to do just the opposite.”
David adds: “One of the main roots of the problem lies in making assumptions about external clues, rather than groping for internal values.”
I will conclude this letter about the need for Jewish unity by introducing you to the Kaliver Rebbe, a Chareidi leader who has become a unifying figure within the Land of Zion. He is an elderly Chassidic Rebbe – a Holocaust survivor – who has devoted his life to helping all segments of our people to rediscover the internal spiritual values of our heritage which form the basis of our unity. Under his leadership, the Kaliver Chassidim sponsor classes and lectures which enable Jews of diverse backgrounds to study Torah. The Kaliver Rebbe himself travels all over the Land to speak to diverse Jewish communities and groups. He often sings for them one of the soul-stirring nigunim – melodies – of the Kaliver Chassidim.
At the end of each talk, he calls upon everyone to join together and chant “Shema Yisrael” – our ancient proclamation of the Divine Oneness and Unity:
“Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
An especially moving talk of this Chareidi leader was his address to the students of Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav – a major yeshiva of the Religious Zionist movement. It was a week after a Palestinian Arab terrorist murdered several boys from the high school of the yeshiva when they were studying in the school library. The Rebbe spoke to a crowd of nearly 1,000 people in Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, in memory of the young holy martyrs. The Rebbe spoke for nearly an hour, in order to strengthen the mourning students of the yeshiva. With heavy sobs, the Rebbe concluded his talk by standing up together with all the students, and he led them in the chanting of “Shema Yisrael.”
During World War II, when the Rebbe was in a concentration camp, the Nazis brought him to the crematorium. Facing death, the Rebbe said to Hashem:
What will my last “Shema Yisrael” add to You? Give me life and save me, and I will bring You “Shema Yisrael” to many.”
The Rebbe’s prayer was answered. Somehow, the plans were changed, and the Rebbe was spared. The Rebbe kept his promise. He is bringing the unifying message of Shema Yisrael to many.
This Tuesday night is the beginning of the Jewish month of Av. It is also the beginning of the nine days of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. May we be blessed with a month of renewed unity, and may our words and deeds lead to this goal.
Shalom Al Yisrael – Peace and Harmony upon Israel,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
1. To hear the Kaliver Rebbe chant a slow and moving nigun composed by the Rebbe who founded the Kaliver dynasty in Hungary, visit: http://www.avakesh.com/2007/12/kaliver-rebbe-s.html . The Rebbe sings without the accompaniment of musical instruments.
Most of the words of this poetic song are in Hungarian, with some Hebrew words at the end. The song expresses the yearning of our exiled people for the dawn of the messianic age and the rebuilding of the Temple. The following is an English translation of this song:
The rooster crows,
Dawn brightens the sky
In the green forest, in the verdant meadow
A little bird skips around.
Who are you, little bird?
Who are you, little bird?
Of golden beak and golden feet
That waits for me.
Just wait, dear little bird!
Just wait, dear little bird!
If G-d destined you for me,
I will be one with you.
The rooster sings his morning song,
The sun is slowly rising--
Yibaneh hamikdash, ir Tzion temalei
(May the Temple be rebuilt, the City of Zion replenished)--
When, O when will it be?
Vesham nashir shir chadash uvirnana naaleh,
(There shall we sing a new song, with joyous singing ascend),
It’s time, O let it be!
2. To view photos of the Kaliver Rebbe’s visit to Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav, click here and click on the photos to enlarge them.
Hazon – Our Universal Vision
Picture courtesy of M2M