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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 to which 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 of something positive as opposed to the negative influence that can affect even a strong-minded person." There are many examples how the negative overpowers the positive. Throughout our 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 at 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 appears 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 Torah way of life, unfortunately even more assimilate and intermarry, or have a very shallow connection to Judaism. Jewish leaders all over 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 to which the Torah does not provide an answer and solution. If we look in this week's parasha, we find a paragraph that provides us with advice how to avoid the pitfalls of assimilation. It says (Devarim 12:29-30): "When HASHEM your G'd will cut down the nations … 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 does the Torah not allow us 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 prohibiting this after the local population were 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 to protect them. This teaches us, says Rav Dessler, the tremendous power and influence anything negative has. Whatever a person sees or hears damages the person's mind, similar to a sickness that contaminates anyone who comes close to the carrier of the disease. It is well known that by a physical illness, the minutest weakness in a person's immune system will let the sickness infect the one visiting the sick. In the same way, if a person has even a minor lack in his faith, his surroundings will influence his mind.
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 much of an 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 of something positive as opposed to the 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 where we find that the negative has a stronger effect 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 a danger that the healthy person will catch the sickness. In regards to the Torah law of purity and impurity, we find the same pattern. The impure will affect the pure rather than vice-a-versa. This is how G'd established it in this world. The negative forces overpower and influence the positive forces much easier than the positive influence the negative.
No assimilation prior to Emancipation
Throughout our 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
Since the onset of the Emancipation, we face 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.
When Jacob prayed to G'd's for assistance prior to this meeting, he therefore prayed both for himself and his family, as well as for his descendants. Jacob pleaded with G'd and 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. "From the hand of Eisav" refers to physical danger when Eisav, or his offspring, come and pursue us with inquisitions, pogroms and holocausts or wage war against us. However, the problem of assimilation is no less dangerous. This happens when they appear to promote brotherhood and equality by stretching out their hand to us as brothers.
Following in the footsteps of Jacob
We are still faced with both challenges. First and foremost, there is the physical threat in Israel where the offspring of Ishmael take any opportunity to harm us. But in the Diaspora we also 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 spiritual holocaust 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 better we prevent assimilation and help guarantee Jewish continuity.
Every Jewish home must strive to be a bastion of faith, providing a happy and positive environment where parents educate their children to appreciate their Jewish heritage. In addition, it is most important that we provide our children with solid Jewish schooling and take them along to the synagogue, showing them the importance of belonging to a Jewish community. However, the most important part of their education will always be at home, where we can impact them with real values for life. In today's society, where the internet and media inundate us 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 parasha. The Jewish people has such a rich heritage, with so much to study and investigate that will 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 the false ideals promoted by other nations. Rather, the Torah is well aware of our weakness, and how easily we are 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. Here again, there is need for parental and rabbinical guidance to create spiritual walls to guard our children against being attracted to what appears so glamorous.
Will and commitment
We live in a time where it is evident that there is a thirst for spirituality. This has enabled hundreds of missionary organizations 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 children 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 to see 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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