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  Covenant and Community from
A Gift For Yom Tov
Provocative and penetrating insights on the Festivals - Pesach, Shavuos, Succos, Purim and Chanukah

By Rabbi Yisroel Miller 

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Covenant and Community

A question in political science: If the people of the United States wish to pass a new law or to change an old one, in most cases a majority vote of their elected representatives in both houses of Congress will suffice to effect the change. If, however, the proposed change affects any law in the federal Constitution, then even a unanimous vote is not enough. Changing the Constitution requires a laborious and time-consuming process involving most of the states, a process which may drag on for years, as required by the rules set down in the Constitution itself.

The question is: America’s Constitution is over 200 years old. Its creators are all long dead, and none of us alive today had any say in its creation. How, then, can all of us today be bound by such a document, and is it morally right to be bound by such a document, to which we did not consent? This is a famous question to which there is no thoroughly satisfactory answer, except to say that the American system of government, flawed as it is, is probably superior to most other systems the pre-Messianic era has to offer.

Now, to consider, lehavdil, the constitution of the Jewish nation, our Torah: Hashem gave us the Torah only after asking for our ancestors’ consent, which they gave enthusiastically (“Naaseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen”) more than 3,300 years ago. But if the Torah was only given with the recipients’ consent back then, why is the Torah still binding on every Jew today, consenting or not? There is no question that all Jews are bound by the Torah (Deuteronomy 29:14), and whether or not we understand why we are obligated does not affect the obligation itself. But as part of our obligation to learn and try to understand the Torah, it is a worthy question to ask, how the original ancestral consent at Mt. Sinai continues to obligate us today. (Special thanks to Reb Avi Shulman of Monsey, New York, for raising this question in one of his newsletters.)

There is no “official” answer to this question in Tanach or Gemara, but there is the famous Gemara (Shabbos 146a) that at the giving of the Torah the souls of all Israel were present at Mt. Sinai, including the souls of Jews yet unborn. This would answer our question by saying that obligation does indeed require personal consent, but all of us gave consent when our souls joined the chorus of commitment at the very beginning.

Two minor objections to using this Gemara as “the” answer: (1) It is surprising that such a fundamental principle (and what is more fundamental than our obligation to keep the Torah?) is not more clearly explained. The Gemara itself is referring to future converts to Judaism, not future Jewish descendants. Sifsei Chachamim (Deuteronomy 29:14) writes that the idea of future souls present at Mt. Sinai applies also to Jewish descendants, but he also suggests that the obligation on future generations stems from a completely different source, i.e. that “the son is the foot of the father,” an explanation which requires an explanation itself. (2) One might argue that it is unfair for unborn souls to accept obligations, because souls do not suffer temptations of the flesh, and had we been present with both body and soul together we might not have accepted at all!

A different approach was suggested by the famous Torah philosopher Dr. Isaac Breuer. His answer was that the Torah was not given to individual Jews, but to the Jewish nation as a whole; and anyone who is part of the nation becomes subject to its laws.

By way of analogy, foreign visitors to the United States cannot exempt themselves from the obligations of American law. If they are here, they are subject to the laws. In the same way, being a Jew (by birth or conversion) means to be part of the Nation of Hashem, a nation whose essence is defined not by territorial boundaries or language and culture, but by the national covenant with Hashem. If you are Jewish, if you are part of this nation of the covenant, you are then bound by Torah law. Whether or not you possess religious “faith,” it is sufficient that a “citizen” must obey national law.

Dr. Breuer’s explanation leads naturally to the question: May one renounce one’s citizenship, and resign from the Jewish Nation? The Torah says it is not possible. When the Torah warns us that the soul of the wicked is cut off (kares), it sometimes says “the soul will be cut off from before Me.” The Midrash explains: You might think that a Jewish soul cut off from Israel could find a resting place elsewhere. The Torah therefore says, “cut off from before Me,” cut off from Hashem, from everywhere that is; because for a Jew, outside the Jewish people there is no place else.

These are deep waters. But even on the simplest level of understanding, Shavuos is a time to remind us that we accepted the Torah as part of a people, all of us in it together. At Sinai, Hashem gave His Torah to a tzibbur, a community, and it is only as a community that the Torah can be fully lived.

We often tend to think of the Jewish community in terms of institutions which provide us with services (shuls, yeshivos, chesed organizations), or who need our help to enable them to provide service for others. But above and beyond the needs of worthy Jewish institutions, the neshamah, the Jewish soul, is incomplete without the community, for many reasons.

One reason why we need one another is that no single person can fulfill all 613 mitzvos. A Kohen cannot perform the mitzvah of burying the dead, and a non-Kohen cannot fulfill the Kohen’s mitzvah of avoiding contact with the dead. Not everyone has a firstborn son to redeem, and not everyone will commit a robbery in order to have the mitzvah of returning a stolen object. By being part of the Jewish Nation, the mitzvos of all Jews are a collective accomplishment, and we receive some credit for the good deeds of all Israel (for the bad deeds, we also share in the blame, but on balance we end up far ahead).

A second reason why we need our community is that people on their own run the risk of becoming more than a little meshuga. Just as solitary confinement sometimes drives prisoners insane, so too religious solitude, being alone without other sincere Jews with whom to compare notes, can cause people to go astray without realizing it. “Make for yourself a teacher, and acquire for yourself a friend” (Avos 1:6).

One example is the young man or woman from a Torah-observant home who pursues a university education in another state, and who abandons Jewish observance along the way. When this occurs the cause is usually not because the student faced difficult philosophical challenges, but because the student lacked a network of emotional and spiritual support, observant friends and teachers at hand to keep them afloat.

The other extreme is the person who sincerely seeks spirituality, but who is not part of a group of friends and teachers. Without a community we can end up engaging in the most self-destructive behavior without realizing it, which is why the Chazon Ish wrote in a letter to a yeshivah student to “beware of doing anything different from all your friends, and to be especially careful about this.” Of course, if our peer group does not share Torah ideals then we must act differently from them, but it is then vital to seek out a different peer group of which to become a part.

Yet another reason why belonging to a community is important is that people in close-knit communities end up doing a great deal of good out of feelings of embarrassment in front of their neighbors. The ethical classic Chovos Halevavos states that a sense of shame is the major factor encouraging us to give tzedakah and honor our parents and help our neighbors and much, much more. As Rav Yitzchak Hutner put it: “Once a town has two shuls, a Jew then has the option of attending neither” (heard from Rav Avigdor Miller). Ideally, we should always do the right thing for the right reasons. But -- especially when we truly desire to do the right thing, but we are weak -- it is better to do good out of embarrassment than not to do good at all.

In Parshas Yisro, immediately before the giving of the Torah, the Chumash (Exodus 18:21) tells how Moshe Rabbeinu set up an extensive system of officers and leaders for Israel; “sarei alafim sarei meios sarei chamishim v’sarei asaros, leaders for every 1000 people, for every 100, every 50 and every 10.” It was a complete structure, each Jew belonging to “a little platoon” which was part of a larger group, and every 10 Jews had their own leader, someone to encourage you, and to remind you to uphold your own ideals.

Shavuos, when we reaffirm our personal commitment to the Bris, the Covenant of Sinai, is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the Community of Sinai as well. Whether attending more shiurim or giving more tzedakah, davening with a minyan or showing concern for a neighbor, we should recognize that in building a community, we are truly building ourselves. Saying Yizkor is also a reminder that our community goes back in time, and we are still linked to those who are gone. Their memories are part of us, and we pledge tzedakah at Yizkor to show that they continue to inspire us in the way we act today.

It is said that after the great Rav Yisrael Salanter passed away, a certain Jew came into possession of Rav Yisrael’s hat. The hat was old, creased and faded, but the new owner always made a point to wear it on Shabbos. He said: “With Rav Yisrael Salanter’s hat on my head, I find that I simply cannot speak lashon hara.”

We all wear the hats of our parents and grandparents, and to some extent all of us are wrapped in the clothing of the community in which we live. By focusing on the right memories, and bringing ourselves closer to the right friends and neighbors, we can clothe ourselves in true garments of Yom Tov, garments in which to receive the Torah, and rejoice with it through the year.

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