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Torah Attitude: Parashas Re'eh: "Walls" to prevent assimilation
We live in a time with an unprecedented high level of assimilation. The Chofetz Chaim used to say, there is no issue or problem facing the Jewish nation where the Torah does not provide an answer and solution. Anything negative has a tremendous influence on its surroundings. The Rebbe warned his disciple, "There is a big difference between the lack of influence when we deal with something positive as opposed to the strong negative influence that can affect even a strong-minded person." There are many examples in real life how the negative has a strong influence on the positive. Throughout our long exile, till the time of Emancipation, circumstances made it relatively easy to preserve Jewish continuity. The danger of assimilation was foreseen already by our Patriarch Jacob when he was about to meet his brother Eisav. There are two kinds of dangers when Jacob and his offspring meet Eisav and his offspring: physical danger of war, and danger of assimilation when Eisav stretches out his hand to Jacob to promote brotherhood and equality. The only way we can counteract assimilation is by following in the footsteps of our Patriarch Jacob. The most important place of our children's education will always be the parental home, where we impact them with their real values for life. There is a need for parental or rabbinical guidance to create spiritual walls to guard against being attracted to what may appear to be so glamorous. We have the power and the resources to stem the tide of assimilation; all we need is the will and commitment.
We live in a time with an unprecedented high level of assimilation. Although we see many young Jews returning to the faith of their ancestors, unfortunately even more of them intermarry or have a very shallow connection to Judaism, if any. Jewish leaders of all kinds are greatly concerned about this trend, and look for ways how to safeguard Jewish continuity.
Torah provides the answers
The Chofetz Chaim used to say that there is no issue or problem facing the Jewish nation where the Torah does not provide an answer and solution. If we look in this week's Torah portion, we find a paragraph that provides the recipe how to avoid the pitfalls of assimilation. It says (Devarim 12:29-30): "When HASHEM your G'd will cut down the nations … and you drive them away and you settle in their land, watch out for yourself lest you will stumble after them, after they have been destroyed before you, and do not investigate their gods saying, 'How did these nations worship their gods and I will also do so.'"
Tremendous negative influence
Rav Dessler (Michtav MeEliyahu Volume 2, page 113) asks why is it necessary to prohibit to investigate the ways of the gentiles who lived in the land of Israel prior to the entry of the Jewish people? The Torah is obviously referring to the time after the local population has been driven out. It is highly unlikely that anyone would be enticed to follow in their footsteps after seeing the lack of power of their idols. This teaches us, says Rav Dessler, the tremendous influence anything negative has on its surroundings. Anything a person sees or hears can damage the person's mind, similar to a sickness that contaminates anyone who comes close to the carrier of the disease. Just like in a physical illness, the smallest flaw in a person's immune system will allow the sickness to infect the person, in the same way, if a person has even a minute spiritual flaw in his faith, the influence from the surroundings can attach itself to his mind and affect it.
The Rebbe's warning
A disciple of one of the great Chassidic leaders once wanted to go and listen to a lecture by a philosopher whose ideology was far removed from Torah and belief in G'd. When the Rebbe heard about his disciple's plan he called him in to dissuade him from attending the lecture. The disciple defended himself and said, "But Rebbe, I attend your lectures regularly and they don't seem to have such a strong influence on me. So why are you so worried about the one-time influence this lecture will have?" The Rebbe warned his disciple and said: "There is a big difference between the lack of influence when we deal with something positive as opposed to the strong negative influence that can affect even a strong-minded person."
Clean become dirty
I remember how my late father used to point out several examples in real life where we see how the negative has a stronger affect on the positive, rather than the reverse.
When a clean piece of cloth rubs against a dirty one, the clean one becomes dirty; whereas the dirty one does not become clean. As mentioned above, when a healthy person comes into contact with a sick person, no healing effect is transferred to the sick person, but there is often a danger that the healthy person will catch the sickness. In regards to the Torah law of purity and impurity, we also find the same situation as the impure will affect the pure rather than vice-a-versa. This is how G'd established this world, where the negative forces much easier overpower and influence the positive forces, than the positive influence the negative.
No assimilation prior to Emancipation
Throughout our long exile, till the time of Emancipation, circumstances made it relatively easy to preserve Jewish continuity. The gentile society surrounding the Jewish population would in most cases not allow the Jews to mingle with them. The Jews were barred from commerce and higher education, and lived in restricted areas often closed into ghettos. In this way, they had no ability to assimilate and intermarry. Apostates were few and far apart, and the vast majority of the Jewish population was Torah observant.
Jacob and Eisav
With the onset of Emancipation the Jewish nation faced a new and difficult test. On the one hand, the spirit of the French Revolution of "libert?, ?galit?, et fraternit?" ("liberty, equality, and fraternity") bettered the standard of living of the Jewish population. On the other hand, it created a major danger of assimilation. This danger was foreseen already by our Patriarch Jacob. When he was about to meet his brother Eisav, he was well aware that whatever happened to him was a Divine revelation of what would later happen to his offspring throughout the generations.
As Jacob was praying for G'd's assistance prior to this meeting, he said (Bereishis 32:12): "Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav." The Beis Halevi explains that the apparent repetitious expression "from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav" is referring to two kinds of dangers that can occur when Jacob and his offspring meet Eisav and his offspring. There is the physical danger that they will come and pursue us with inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts and wage war against us. No less dangerous is the problem of assimilation, when they appear to promote brotherhood and equality by stretching out their hand to us.
Following in the footsteps of Jacob
We are faced with both challenges nowadays. First and foremost, there is the physical threat in Israel where the offspring of Ishmael will take any opportunity to harm us. But also in the Diaspora we find that anti-Semitism shows its ugly head in many places. On the other hand, we live in a society that provides us with equal rights and opportunities with the rest of the population. No doubt we greatly benefit materialistically from these rights and opportunities. However, this has opened the floodgates of intermarriage and assimilation. The only way we can counteract this is by following in the footsteps of our Patriarch Jacob. When Eisav suggested that they should travel together, Jacob declined and came up with any excuse possible (see Bereishis 33:12-15). The less we socialize with our gentile neighbours and business associates, the more we prevent assimilation and help guarantee Jewish continuity.
In addition, the Jewish home must be a bastion of faith, providing a happy and positive environment where we educate our children to appreciate their Jewish heritage. It is most important that we provide our children with solid Jewish schooling and that we take them along to the synagogue, showing them how important these values are to us. However, the most important part of their education will always be the parental home, where we impact them with real values for life. In today's society, where the internet and media inundate our homes with foreign ideals directly opposed to our Holy Torah, it is the sacred duty of parents to create their own walls of protection, guarding the holiness of their homes.
This is what the Torah emphasizes in this week's portion. The Jewish people has such a rich heritage, with so much knowledge to study and wisdom to investigate that can satisfy even the most inquisitive and curious mind. The Torah prohibits us to study and investigate the ways of the gentiles, not because the truth of the Torah cannot stand up against false ideals promoted by other nations. But the Torah is well aware of our weakness how we are very easily influenced by the temptations and attractions of the non-Jewish world. We may study any wisdom that can help us make a living, provided that there is no heresy involved. However, the environment in which this wisdom is being taught presents a danger in itself. Again, there is need for parental or rabbinical guidance to create spiritual walls to guard our children against being attracted to what may appear to be so glamorous.
Will and commitment
We live in a time where it is evident that there is a thirst for spirituality. This has provided hundreds of missionary organizations with fertile ground to ensnare many Jewish youths. Countless others have been attracted to various cults and beliefs. It is the Jewish communities' holy obligation to provide all Jewish youths with the opportunity to quench their thirst in the rich well of Judaism. The Prophet Amos foresaw this situation, as he said (Amos 8:11): "Behold, days will come says HASHEM, G'd, and I will send a hunger to the land. It will not be a hunger for bread, and it will not be a thirst for water, but it will be a hunger to hear the word of G'd." This is our challenge, opportunity and hope. If we rise to the occasion and provide our youth with a positive Jewish education, we will merit seeing Jewish generations for many years to come. We have the power and the resources to stem the tide of assimilation; all we need is the will and commitment.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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