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Torah Attitude: Parashas Nitzavim- Vayeilech: “All for one”
Everyone is standing in judgment before the Heavenly Court on Rosh Hashanah. The strength of the Jewish people lies in our being united like a bundle of branches. This weeks Torah portion identifies exactly what unites the Jewish people. Even with the different character traits of 12 tribes, the Jewish people received the Torah as one people. We entered the land of Israel as one people. We built the Temple as one people. The Jewish people have always transformed the many traits and qualities from many different countries into the service of G’d. Even character traits that at first appear to conflict with one another can be used in the service of G’d. One of the purposes for our exile, wandering from country to country, is to pick up the “Holy Sparks”. Just like an army requires different units, so too the Jewish people are better suited with our different customs. The common goal of the Jewish people is to serve G’d and fulfil His commandments. Everyone in the world is unique. Every Jew is unique. The Torah cautions us to maintain the common goal. As long as the common goal is in place, the Torah attitude is one of tolerance and acceptance. All Jews have a common goal and a common responsibility to fulfil this goal.
Every year during the week before Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, we read the Torah portion of Nitzavim, which says: "You are standing today, all of you, before G'd, the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, your small children, your women and your converts” (Devarim 29:9-10). This seems to be the message we need to receive before the Day of Judgment that each and every one of us is standing in judgment before the Heavenly Court. No one is too big and no one is too small. No one is too important and no one is too insignificant. Everyone will be judged and our future will be decided based on where we are holding on this Holy Day.
Bundle is stronger
The Midrash Tanchuma (Nitzavim 1) teaches us that it is common knowledge that a bundle of branches is very difficult to break. But even a child can break a single branch by itself. Similarly, the strength of the Jewish people lies in our being united like a bundle. The Midrash concludes that we will not merit redemption until we are united.
Meaning of Jewish unity
What does unity mean? For different people and different groups unity may mean different things, such as having things in common whether it is a purpose, a goal, a land or an interest. All these things can unite a people. But this week’s Torah portion identifies exactly what unites the Jewish people: "To pass into the Covenant of G'd ... to establish you today as a nation to Him and that He be a G'd to you" (Devarim 29:12).
12 Tribes, one people
The Jewish people from its inception consisted of 12 tribes, each with its own special purpose, and with a character and a nature suited to that purpose. The Ramban, when discussing the way the Jewish camp was set up, describes the unique character trait of each tribe: for Judah it was leadership, for Issachar it was the ability to learn Torah, for Zebulun it was the ability to do well in commerce, for Reuben it was the ability to repent, for Gad it was their strength, and so on (Bamidbar 2:2). Yet, even with all these different character traits, the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai as one people. We travelled for forty years in the desert as one people. We entered the land of Israel as one people. We built the Temple as one people.
In our exile, the Jewish people were disbursed in many different countries throughout the four corners of the world. We have acquired different character traits and different qualities, some of which we have picked up from the different lands of our exile. But we have always utilized and transformed these traits and qualities into the service of G'd.
Different traits and qualities
Sometimes the Jewish people have adopted conflicting character traits. For example, both the conservatism of the English and the revolutionary attitude of the French have made their way into the Jewish people. But even character traits that at first appear to conflict with one another can be used in the service of G'd. The English conservatism can be used to preserve the old traditions and to protect the word of G'd. On the other hand, the French revolutionary attitude can help us to repent and return if we fall and make improper choices. Even the music of the various countries that we have lived in the exile has been utilized in our liturgy, whether it is the Sefardi tunes influenced by the Oriental countries or the Eastern European melodies.
The Kabbalists refer to these various traits and qualities that we have picked up in the exile as the “Holy Sparks”. As the Jewish people have wandered from one country to the next, we have gathered many different traits and qualities that we would not otherwise be exposed to if we remained in the Holy Land. This is one of the purposes and reasons for our exile, wandering from country to country.
Jews in different countries have different customs in their prayer and in certain halachic aspects of their daily observance. The Chofetz Chaim was once asked whether it would not be better if all Jews prayed in the same way and conducted themselves in the same fashion, in order to reinforce the unity of the Jewish people. He answered that just like an army requires different units, so too the Jewish people are better suited with our different customs. If every soldier in an army were trained to do the same thing, the army could not function properly, if at all. The powerful army has many different units, each bringing its own uniqueness to strengthen the whole. Each part of the army is trained with unique abilities to perform either in the air, at sea or on the ground. The army’s power is because of these differences, not in spite of them.
It is the common goal of the soldiers of the different units to serve their country that unites them. Similarly, said the Chofetz Chaim, it is the common goal of the Jewish people that unites us. Our common goal is to serve G'd and to fulfil His commandments. Some commandments can only be fulfilled by the Kohanim or Levi’im. Some can only be fulfilled by Jews living in Israel. Each group has their own special purpose. But we are all a part of the total Jewish nation and together as one we are able to fulfil all of the commandments.
Everyone in the world is unique. We all have our own set of fingerprints that is different than everyone else. Our Sages say that just as the facial features of every individual are different than all others, so too are the character traits unique (Midrash Tanchuma Pinchas 10). In every society there are a host of different jobs that are required to be done, and we cannot all do the same job. As a matter of fact, the “Duties of the Heart” says that one of the special wonders of the world is that different people have different interests and want to do different things, because only in that way can society function and develop.
Maintain the common goal
Every Jew is unique. We are unique as individuals. We are unique as members of the tribes of Levy and Judah. We are unique as members of groups with different customs we have acquired from our various host countries in the exile. However, as long as we do not lose sight of our common goal, as long as we maintain the common vision, there is no lack in the unity of the Jewish people, even if we all do things in different ways. This week’s Torah portion cautions us to maintain the common goal: “Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away from being with G’d to go and serve the gods of other nations. And it will be when they hear the words of imprecation, they will bless themselves in their hearts, saying, ‘Peace will be with me, though I walk as my heart sees fit’ (Devarim 29:17-18).
Tolerance and acceptance
As long as the common goal is in place, the Torah attitude is one of tolerance and acceptance. The Torah recognizes that every individual has the right to be diverse in fulfilling G’d’s commandments in order to pursue the common goal. However, there is no tolerance for the person who says, “I will walk as my heart sees fit”. The Torah expressly states, strongly and unequivocally, that G'd will not be willing to forgive this person, among the other calamities listed (see Devarim 29:19-28).
All for one
Our sages teach us that all Jews are responsible for each other. We have a common goal and a common responsibility to fulfil this goal. On the High Holidays, we gather world wide to serve G'd in prayer and repentance. May this expression of unity flow over into the rest of the year. May we unite in the observance of our common goal. And in this merit, may we see the final redemption with peace and prosperity for all forever.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network