Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Merits of Performance

Parshat Va'etchanan

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Tisha B'Av is a date on the calendar most noted by observant Jews. It is not so much that it is otherwise ignored, but differently affiliated Jews generally confine their annual Jewish fast days to Yom Kippur. The concept of sadness or a connection to the darker side of our People's history is by no means exclusive to any group. History's enemies of the Jewish people (some of whom continue to make history now) never differentiated between how people practiced their Judaism, as much as they obsessed over the fact that Jews identified as Jews.

The question becomes, for how much longer will those who know not of Tisha B'Av identify as Jews?

The last verse in Devarim chapter 6 states: "It will be a merit for us if we are careful to perform this entire commandment before the Lord our God, as He commanded us."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spells out his understanding of this verse in simple language. "We can discharge the tasks of our life's mission only if we keep the whole Torah as "mitzvah"; only if we observe all the laws, without differentiation, as God's commandment, our Divinely-ordained assignment to our life's station; only if we do every mitzvah carefully, without diminishing from it or changing it, all in accordance with the content and manner prescribed by God We do not have the right to abrogate or reform any of it."

In Hirsch's view, there is no question that an observance of Judaism that follows the letter of the Law as described in Devarim and elsewhere in the Torah, is meritorious for the Jewish people. Obedience to Divine dictates, as it were, is a lifestyle that is timeless, and is not meant to ever be viewed as being outdated.

When Rabbi JH Hertz's assumed the post of Chief Rabbi of England in 1913, his inaugural sermon invoked the message of the Men of the Great Assembly as recorded in the first mishnah in Avot, focusing on their three-tiered message, which concludes with "make a fence for the Torah."

His words are as relevant today as they were then.

"Ours will be no Platonic admiration of the Torah; ours no "fulfilling" of the Torah by abolishing it. For well we know that, when the framework of the ancient Law falls away, when the immemorial rites, customs, and ceremonies go, we are left without God in our lives. We may – for a time – remain an ethical, but we are no longer a religious people. And then our days are numbered; for in our Religion alone lies the secret of our deathlessness.  When Malachi's contemporaries asked for proof of the love of God, he bade them contrast the history of Israel with that of the neighboring Bedouin tribes. And verily, with all their outward similarity and kinship of blood, how different were the ultimate fates of Israel and of Moab, for example. 'The history of Moab, loses itself obscurely and fruitlessly in the sand; that of Israel issues in eternity.' Why? Israel had the Torah, statutes, judgments, 'fences'; ceremonies which in a world of maddening brutality, sweetened the life of the Jew; customs which linked generation to generation in filial piety; observances which in the face of countless cataclysms and dispersions unified, as nothing else could, the scattered atoms of the House of Israel – dykes built by inspired engineers to save us from all the waters of heathenism and animalism."

Tisha B'Av is therefore a microcosm of a much larger concern facing our generation. Through our history, the Jewish people were either ridiculed for not conforming to the standards of the majority population, or were singled out as scapegoats and victims for the problems and aggression of their anti-Semitic tormentors, who detested the Jewish moral righteousness and high ethical standards to which the Torah demanded the Jew to abide by.

How long will Judaism without Torah remain Judaism? Which generation of Israeli politicians will drop their 'standards' because it doesn't get them anywhere with the West and with the domestic problems that are aggravated by local enemies?

How many more generations of un-Jewishly-educated Jews will it take for Judaism to drop from their ranks and files because it will be completely out of touch, and too ancient?

The time is right for all Jews to pursue an authentic Jewish education, and to bring a dose of traditional Judaism back into the home and one's lifestyle choices.

Ethics are beautiful, but they only work when the source of the ethics are understood as not only instructive to our lives, but as a small ingredient of a larger recipe that creates a fulfilling life. The other ingredients are not self-motivated or self-understood. They come from thousands of years of a tried and true tradition that works when it is adhered to, and has proven disastrous time and time again when ignored.

As the verse says, "It will be a merit for us if we are careful to perform this entire commandment." I hope we agree that we can use all the merits we can get.

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