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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeilech / Yom Kippur: Igniting our holy sparks
There does not appear to be a change in people's conduct and lifestyle from one Yom Kippur to the next. Rabbi Aaron of Karlin fainted when he heard the word 'Hamelech'. It is against all odds that the Jewish people still exist as a nation. The Torah warns that, if the Jewish people transgress the laws of Torah, G'd will conceal His face. G'd promised that the Torah will never be forgotten from the offspring of the Jewish people. There is a great measure of mercy in G'd's concealment. Assimilation does not eliminate the intense hatred amongst the nations of the world against the Jewish people. No matter what transgressions and sins we have done, no Jew will ever lose his holy spark.
No lasting impact
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Jews worldwide join in earnest prayer and fill the synagogues to capacity. Even Jews, who throughout the year show very little commitment to the Torah and its commandments, observe this day of fasting together with their more observant brothers and sisters. Those who follow the laws of Yom Kippur and attend the synagogue thus express their connection with G'd and His nation. We would expect that this Day of Repentance and Forgiveness would have a strong and lasting impact that would be noticeable after Yom Kippur. However, unfortunately, we do not see a major change in most people's conduct and lifestyle from one Yom Kippur to the next. We can understand that a person may eat matzah on Pesach, sit in a succah on Succos, and light the menorah on Hanukkah, because these are part of "Jewish tradition." But it is unlikely that someone would fast a whole day and immerse himself in serious prayer for the sake of a "nice tradition." Obviously, this person deep-down accepts that there is a G'd who has instructed us what to do and how to conduct ourselves. So why does it not affect this person the rest of the year?
There is a famous story about the great Rabbi Aaron of Karlin who stood in his place on Rosh Hashanah morning in the front of his congregation. As the cantor intoned the morning service with the word "Hamelech" (the "King", referring to G'd) Rabbi Aaron fainted. Later someone asked him what had happened. Rabbi Aaron answered that the word 'Hamelech' had reminded him of an incident related in the Talmud (Gittin 56a) where Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai presented himself to the Roman governor, Vespasian, and greeted him with the words: "Peace to you your majesty. Peace to you your majesty." To this Vespasian answered, in part, "You deserve to be executed … for if I am king, why have you not come till now to show your respect?" Said Rabbi Aaron, on the Days of Awe, when we proclaim G'd as King of the universe, who knows if G'd does not say to us as well, "If I am King, why have you not come till now?" Even this great Rabbi felt that G'd may have a complaint against him and his devoted congregants for lacking awareness of G'd in their daily lives.
Against all odds
In all fairness we should ask a totally different question: How is it possible that, after almost 2000 years of exile, persecutions and pogroms, Jews worldwide still gather in prayer, some only on Yom Kippur, but many on a daily basis. We have been dispersed among the nations of the world, expelled from one country to the next, and we have suffered untold hardships. It is against all odds that we still exist as a nation, and even more so that we still follow the commandments and laws of the Torah. Rabbi Yacov Emden marvels at this in his introduction to his commentary on the Siddur. He states that the biggest miracle in the history of the Jewish nation is the fact that we still exist. It is totally against all laws of nature that a nation continues to cling to their laws and traditions for hundreds and even thousands of years without having a land of their own. This, says Rabbi Emden, is a bigger miracle than the exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Mount Sinai. He concludes that the longer the exile, the bigger the miracle. So how have we managed? What is the secret that has preserved the Jewish nation throughout this long and bitter exile?
G'd conceals His face
Both of these questions are valid. On the one hand, how have we survived against all odds? On the other hand, why is it that the majority of Jews, despite the fact that they identify themselves on Yom Kippur with G'd and His nation, do not live accordingly the rest of the year? We may find the answer to both questions in this week's parasha. It says: (Devarim 31:16-21) "And G'd said to Moses … and this nation will rise and stray after the gods of the strangers of the Land …and they will forsake Me … and I will get angry on that day and I will forsake them …and I will surely conceal My face …and now write this song for yourselves and teach it to the children of Israel … and it shall be when many evils and distresses come upon it and this song shall speak up before it as a witness for it will not be forgotten from the mouth of its offspring."
Never be forgotten
The Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 10:2) explains that the song G'd instructed us to write refers to the entire Torah. The Talmud (ibid) states: "There was no more difficult time in the world than the time when G'd said to Moses: 'And I surely will conceal My face.' But at the same time I [the Jewish nation] have faith in Him [G'd] as He promised: 'for it [the Torah] will never be forgotten from the mouth of its [the Jewish people's] offspring.'" G'd's warning to Moses that our sins would cause G'd's anger to flare up, came to its fulfillment at the time of the destruction of the Temples. As we say in the Mussaf prayer on Yom Tov: "And because of our sins we have been exiled from our land …" Despite G'd's constant caring about us, He warned us that if we sinned and forsook Him, He would respond by hiding His face from us. When G'd "hides His face" it appears as if He does not take an interest in our welfare. Obviously, it is only we that cannot see G'd and understand how He conducts the affairs of the world. However, there was never an instant that G'd ceased to watch over us.
G'd's great mercy
It goes even further. G'd's concealment is not just a punishment. It involves a great measure of mercy as well. Rabbi Moshe of Triani (Beit Elokim Gate of Teshuva chapter 2) compares this to a person who transgresses the law of his country. He explains that if someone who lives in close proximity to the king and sees the king on a daily basis transgresses the law, this is much more severe than someone who lives far away from the king's palace and has never seen the king. In the same way, when G'd saw how the Jews transgressed the commandments, He took pity on us and concealed Himself. Had He continued to reveal Himself, our sins would be more severe and the punishment would have to be much stricter. Once G'd "concealed His face", the affairs of the world in general, and of the Jews in particular, became incomprehensible to us. Our transgressions are therefore less severe, and the punishment not so harsh.
Assimilation totally wrong
True, our exile has been full of pain and suffering. But at the same time, G'd has kept His promise. He constantly watches over us, and ensures that our enemies cannot annihilate us, G'd forbid. And at the same time, He will never allow us to forget our raison d'?tre, the Torah. Many Jews are not educated to understand why G'd has hidden Himself and lets the Jews suffer throughout our exile. These people have been influenced by their gentile neighbours who claim that G'd has forsaken us. They erroneously think that if they assimilate, it will eliminate the gentiles' hatred against us. Time and again this philosophy has proven itself to be totally wrong. The Nazis did not distinguish in any way whether a Jew lived a life of Torah observance or had totally assimilated into the gentile community. Similarly, despite the efforts of the leadership of the State of Israel to secularize the country, it becomes more and more apparent that Israel is treated with the exact same intense hatred amongst the nations of the world as Jewish individuals and communities worldwide.
Deep down every Jew is connected with G'd. As we say daily in our morning prayers: "My G'd the soul that you have placed within me is pure." Every single Jew can get up in the morning and make this statement. Despite all the transgressions and sins we have done, we can never lose this holy spark within us. This is G'd's promise that He will never let us forget who we are, and whatever we do, we can never sever the bond between Him and us. On Yom Kippur, when G'd is ready to forgive our sins, this spark within us is ignited and draws us to the synagogues, to identify with our Creator and Master.
As we look back over the past seventy years, we can only marvel at how we have bounced back and rebuilt ourselves from the ashes of the Holocaust, not only in a physical way, but even more so in a spiritual way. Only G'd's promise that we will never be forget the Torah can explain how this renaissance has taken place. It is incredible how just a few Torah scholars survived and managed to build up a host of Torah institutions in Israel and all over the world. However, we must always keep in mind the words of the Steipler Gaon. He reminds us that G'd's promise was given to us as a nation. It is up to each of us to attach ourselves to the Torah in order to ensure that we are part of this promise. This effort must be made not only on Yom Kippur but throughout the year as well. In this way, the spark that is ignited every year on Yom Kippur has the potential to grow and glow in all its glory. Only in this way can we feel secure that our children and grandchildren also will overcome the temptations of assimilation and intermarriage, and will pass our proud heritage from Sinai to future generations.
Wishing you and your loved ones a Gemar Chatima Tova.
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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