Friday, Apr 12, 2024

Atop the Mountain

A secular man walked into a small makolet grocery store somewhere in Israel and searched for the owner to help him fetch the bread, milk, tomatoes and leben he desired for breakfast. The owner was nowhere to be found. He asked a bearded religious man who was in the shop if he knew the whereabouts of the owner. The man responded that the store has no owner.

“How can that be?” the other man asked.

The religious man told him that a ship exploded off the coast of Chaifa and some of the pieces landed on this spot. They joined together and formed a store. That is how the store came to be and how everything got there.

The other fellow was incredulous.

“Are you crazy?” he asked. “How can that be? What are you even talking about?”

I’m the crazy one? You’re the crazy one! Since you are not a Sabbath observer, that means that you don’t believe Hashem created the world. And if the world does not have a Creator, that means that everything in the world came into existence by itself. There was a Big Bang, and particles flew out of that, and through evolution and other processes, the world came into being. So, if you believe that the whole world was formed that way, why can’t you accept that this tiny store came about from a big bang?”

This week, we begin anew, following Elul, the Yomim Noraim, Sukkos, Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. We joyfully celebrated completing the study of Chamisha Chumshei Torah and now embark on beginning again from Bereishis and the story of creation.

Jews around the world open their Chumash and begin studying the Torah’s first posuk. They look down to the first Rashi, and once again are reminded of the question of why the Torah begins with the story of creation. Since the Torah is about what defines and obligates us, should it not have begun with the parsha of Hachodesh Hazeh Lochem, which describes the first commandment given to the Jews as a nation?

We read Rashi’s answer: This way, if the nations of the world accuse the Jews of stealing the land of Eretz Yisroel from other nations, you will be able to answer them and tell them that the entire world belongs to Hashem; He created it and He can give it to whomever He pleases…and He gave it to us.

As we read that response, we inevitably wonder if the nations of the world really care about what it says in the Torah. Will those who accuse us of thievery be satisfied with an answer based upon what it says in the Torah? We may wonder, therefore, why, even if it is important to establish Hashem’s ownership of the world and our rights to the Land of Israel, the Torah must begin with this.

But then we get to the next Rashi, where he writes, “Bereishis, bishvil Torah shenikreis reishis ubishvil Yisroel shenkire’u reishis… The Torah opens with the word bereishis because it signifies that the world was created for the Torah, which is also referred to as reishis, and to teach us that the world was created for Am Yisroel, who are also called reishis.”

As we ponder the connection between the two Rashis, we begin to think that Rashi doesn’t actually mean to say that the goyim will be influenced by the arguments of the Torah. Rather, his intent is for us to continually remind ourselves of some fundamental truths that dictate our purpose in this world: Hashem created the world and singled out the Jewish nation as His chosen people for all time. He designated them as the recipients of the Holy Land, where they can elevate themselves through studying and observing Torah to perfection.

Since time immemorial, Jews have been singled out for hatred by the nations of the world. We have been accused of every conceivable sin as the other nations have sought our destruction. The Torah opens with the statement of creation and Hashem’s dominion over the world to remind us that wherever we are and no matter what the nations of the world accuse us of, we should not become dejected.

The AlefBais of Torah is to know that Hashem created the world and fashioned a special place for us in that world. This is why the second Rashi tells us that the world was created for Torah and Am Yisroel.

The Jew appreciates this and is able to stand up to all the scoffers who mock his devotion to Torah. The Jew recognizes that the Torah is not a history book designed to trace the odyssey of a people. It is the Creator’s “guidebook,” whose purpose is to teach His people how to live in the land he created in six days. Nothing that anyone says or does can change that immutable fact. We cleave to its every word and base our lives upon it.

On the day we end the annual cycle of study and begin anew, our celebration and joy are unparalleled. On this happiest of days, we dance and sing songs of praise of Hashem and thank Him for choosing us and for giving us the Torah. We sway to tunes that express our love for the Torah and our devotion to it. Nobody can prevent us from our celebration.

We realize that the Torah is as relevant today as on the day it was delivered to the Bnei Yisroel on Har Sinai and on the first day of creation. That awareness increases the fervor of our dancing and heartfelt simcha.

As we celebrated, we understood why Sukkos follows Yom Kippur and why Simchas Torah follows Sukkos. Because the sukkah helps us hold on to the spiritual levels we reached from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Sitting in the sukkah and absorbing its messages separates us from the temporary and conditions us to focus on the real and the permanent.

We sat in our sukkah looking up to the heavens, realizing that we are never alone. That knowledge brought us joy, contributing to the happiness of the Yom Tov. We enjoyed the simcha that comes from working to understand Torah, simcha that comes from knowing that a Jew is never alone, simcha that comes from properly observing a mitzvah. The simcha of sitting in a sukkah and Simchas Torah was only rivaled by the joy experienced while holding the lulav and esrog.

When Yom Tov ends, although we have by now returned to the temporary world we have been spared from over the past couple of weeks, we are able to preserve the simcha in our hearts. That simcha, that feeling of joy, carries us as we once again face the countless pressures and challenges that are bound to confront us. We must do our best not to allow anyone or anything to take from us the joy and satisfaction we felt over Yom Tov.

Following Elul and Tishrei, we are armed and prepared for a fresh start. Studying Bereishis reinforces that. We are reminded that nothing that happens is by chance and everything that transpires is ratzon Hashem. No matter what the coming months bring us, we will not be broken or depressed. We will not raise our hands in utter despair and lose hope in the future.

Already during Sukkos, ill winds began blowing, as our people were once again unfairly singled out for derision and punishment. We had thought that the adage of Pirkei Avos regarding the nature of politicians and their relationships with us was no longer valid. We thought that in our day and age, as our people have achieved social acceptance and high positions in government and the private sector, and as we have achieved unprecedented wealth, education, erudition, sophistication and articulation, we would no longer be turned into scapegoats by vindictive, small-minded leaders.

Yet, we have now seen the familiar story play out again. New York’s governor, who has dealt with our community with derision and contempt, had the temerity to claim that he was “doing this for a very simple reason—because I have such respect and love for the Orthodox community. …It’s out of respect and love, and because I want to protect them.” Acting capriciously, he unleashed a stream of invective and media articles all but blaming Orthodox Jews for New York City’s corona uptick.

He and the city’s worst mayor ever promoted the lie that we don’t care about health, as they threw pesukim at us, as if they know them better than we do. They paint us as backward illiterates and worse. They ignore rising rates in other sections of the city, as if they do not exist. They punish people who live in the same zip codes as the evil Orthodox, shutting their schools and stores, and letting them know that it is the fault of the Jews.

The very same people who publicly condoned mass protests and gatherings are bent out of shape by people exercising their rights to practice their religion. As the World Health Organization issued a warning that lockdowns should not be used to fight the virus, the governor and mayor were locking in on a lockdown on so-called Orthodox zip codes. A WHO spokesman said, “The only time we believe a lockdown is justified is to buy you time to reorganize, regroup, rebalance your resources, protect your health workers who are exhausted, but, by and large, we’d rather not do it.”

Which brings us to the reason lockdowns were implemented as the virus spread wildly in March and April. We were told that this was done to flatten the curve of disease so that hospitals and medical workers would be able to keep up with the increased demands for care. In fact, the recent upticks of people testing positive has not led to anything close to crushing demands of hospitals and health professionals, neither of whom have been overwhelmed. Nor has the uptick led to increased deaths, as 99.97% of people under 70 who contract the disease survive. People over 70 survive 94.5% of the time. Every life is precious and important, but the low numbers do not justify the damage that is caused to children – and their parents – when schools are closed. They also do not justify forcing businesses to close, many of them forever.

There is certainly no justification for limiting houses of worship to no more than 10 people, irrespective of the size of the sanctuary. It makes no sense to close schools that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that they comply with all health regulations. It makes no sense to close schools that have had no, or minimal, cases of children who were deemed positive in the regular system of testing. There is no justification to single out one ethnic group and throw everything at them, while ignoring rising rates in other communities. There is no good reason why the compliant media glossed over the protests which riled American cities as the virus raged, delivering miles of gushy reportage about the heroic protesters and their essential cause, and mocked religious Jews and everything about us.

Covid is a serious disease that sickens, injures and kills. We need to do everything possible to stop its spread and save lives. But government regulations need to be rational and justified, irrespective of the arrogance of the people issuing the edicts, or their political problems and ambitions.

Why does the Torah begin with Bereishis? To enable us to tell the nations of the world who mock us that Hashem created the world. Will they care? Will they honor the response? No, they will not, but when we are mocked and vilified, we need to be reminded of the truth. We do not respond in kind; that is not our way. We are the am hanivchar, who stood at Har Sinai and were addressed by the Creator. We have a mission in this world. We follow the law and are good, loyal citizens. We don’t mimic the actions of others. All we ever ask for is to be treated fairly and justly; it seems like a simple request. This country was different. It afforded us unprecedented protections for which we are most thankful, as we pray for the future.

When the Chiddushei Harim passed away, his young grandson, the Sefas Emes, was selected to serve as Gerrer Rebbe. Certain people objected to the selection, which seems like the obvious choice in hindsight. They said that he was too young and there were older, better qualified people who should become rebbe.

The Sefas Emes addressed the issue head-on. He said that there was a tall peak that people worked hard to conquer. Finally, a group of mountain climbers joined and, through dividing responsibilities and working very hard together, they were able to climb to the top of the mountain. When they got there, they found a young child sitting there, smiling at them quite contently.

The mountain climbers were astounded and asked him how he got there.

“How were you able to get all the way up here?” they asked.

He answered them, “Oh, it’s simple. I was born here. I did not have to expend all my energy getting up here. My parents did all the work for me.”

Said the Sefas Emes, “This is why I am able to lead the great chassidus. I was born on the top, obtaining my strengths from my holy fathers who came before me. Thus, although I am young, I possess the strengths necessary to lead the flock.”

We were all born on the top. We are all children of holy parents. Our souls stood at Har Sinai as Hashem delivered the Torah to us. We are all children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. We come from a long line of people who sacrificed everything so that we could be born on top of the mountain. We are a people forged in the cauldrons of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Yevsektsiya, the Holocaust, pogroms, privation, and ghettos. It’s never been easy for us, but we are here and those who worked so hard to demoralize and destroy us are gone.

We stand on the shoulders of great heroes who lived their lives loyal to Torah, morality and the law. And there is nothing anyone can do to take that away from us as we continue our centuries-long march to the Promised Land, which will soon reopen and welcome us all to its borders as the Bais Hamikdosh is rebuilt, bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.



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