Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

Embracing Our Jewish Exceptionalism


When Leah Imeinu named her first son Reuvein, the Torah itself explains her reason. However, Rashi, in the name of Chazal (Brachos 7b), adds another layer of meaning to this appellation of the first of the shevatim. “Behold the difference,” Leah was declaring, “between my son and [Eisov] the son of my father-in-law.” She pointed out that even though Reuvein lost his bechorah, the lofty title of firstborn, to Yosef, he attempted to save his life. On the other hand, Eisov, who willingly sold his firstborn rights, harbored a grudge and eternal enmity toward his brother.

Although there are myriad interpretations of this apparent addition to the Torah’s own explanation, Chazal are teaching us a crucial lesson. A Yid must always recognize, remember and take to heart the difference between us and the nations. The concept of havdalah is embedded in the halacha that separates all kodesh and chol, Shabbos and weekdays, light and darkness, and many other distinctions. However, at this moment in time, it has grown in importance on a virtually daily basis. For a brief what seem to be few moments, the world gasped at the horror of Hamas’ savage pogrom against the Jewish people on Shemini Atzeres. But almost immediately afterward, the old anti-Semitic moral equivalent rule crawled out from beneath its rock.

There should be some recognition that there is a foundational difference between an attacker who takes babies as hostages, murders and dismembers them, commits mayhem upon innocents and revels in the horror, and those who are merely defending themselves. Human civilization has always recognized the justice in self-defense. Nations particularly have a mandate to protect their citizens from harm and especially savagery. But now, as we have heard just last week, presidents of Ivy League universities cannot find it within their lexicon to condemn threats of genocide and Hitlerian extermination against the Jewish people. Although the sight and sound of these cowards and Jew-haters has disgusted many decent gentiles, the world at large has once again reverted to the ancient false equivalence of condemning both villain and victim in one breath.

This is where we must side once again with Leah and her wisdom. We must not be shy about declaring our moral superiority over Harvard and Columbia and, of course, Hamas and their extended supporters. From Leah we learn that being different is not a coincidence, but part of our very DNA. Let us therefore explore a bit of this essential aspect of our existence as a nation and as individuals.

The now disgraced congressman, who briefly claimed to be Jewish, later recanted that he only meant that he was “Jew-ish,” which, while seemingly funny, may have defined so many of our people. I do not speak of those who abandoned Shabbos for Sunday or Rachmana litzlan celebrate the season with a menorah and a tree. We ourselves sometimes require spiritual surgery to remove the vestiges of Yovon and its many descendants from our national bloodstreams. The false claims of moral equivalence can only be counteracted by a healthy transfusion of healthy, uncontaminated Torah blood into our collective bloodstreams.

Let us begin, as the saying goes, at the very beginning. When and how did we actually become a nation? The Torah records several stages and definitions. Hashem promises us, “I shall take you to Me for a people” (Shemos 6:7) and “You will be a people unto Me” (Vayikra 26:13). Still later, the Torah tells us that we will be “a nation of heritage” (l’am nachalah) and a “holy people” and “a treasured people” (Devorim 7:6; 14:2). At some point, Hashem actually defines the moment: “This day you have become a people to Hashem” (Devorim 27:9). Rav Saadya Gaon famously teaches that all of these statements mean that we are a nation only because we keep the Torah. Rashi (Devorim 29:3), too, makes this clear. The Gemara (Yevamos 47b) points out that when Rus (1:16) declares her loyalty to Naomi by stating, “Your nation is my nation,” she meant that she would keep all the mitzvos. Thus, Jewish exceptionalism has nothing to do with politics or land. It is our eternal commitment to the Torah.

I remember hearing Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky answering a shocking question at a convention. “How, rebbe, are we different from the Nazis?” the somewhat impudent interlocutor demanded. “The Nazis claimed that they were different because they were the Aryans and we claim to be the Chosen Nation,” he concluded.

Rav Yaakov was not nonplussed. He calmly made the distinction. “We make no demands upon the world. We want nothing from anyone. All we want is to be left alone to take on stringencies that we alone will follow. We will refrain from many foods, from working on many days, from marrying certain people. We will fast on many days and live with myriad restrictions. On the other hand, the Nazis claimed exceptional status so that they could conquer the world, so that they could murder and pillage. Do you see that as equivalence?”

Rav Yaakov’s clear-eyed view of history and the world tore apart the current rush to equate people and things that should not even be mentioned in the same sentence. Perhaps this is all to remind us of the havdalah that we have not sufficiently made in our own minds. The current religious revival in Eretz Yisroel has often been noted over the past few months. Perhaps, as ikvisa d’Meshicha and chevlei Moshiach are setting in more earnestly, Jews all over, but especially in Eretz Yisroel, are recognizing the need to identify ourselves only in terms of Torah and mitzvos. One of the moving stories is about a hitherto secular Jewish mother who lost her only child to Hamas. When asked by the American visitors who came to attempt consolation what they could do for her, her only response was that she would like to have a Sefer Torah donated to the IDF in his memory. The story has sadly replicated itself many times in many forms. But return seems to be in the air. The Rambam rules that at the End of Days, Klal Yisrael will do teshuvah. There was, however, no promise that it would come easily.

In halacha, we even find a mandate to make sure that no nation even appears to be holier or more religious than us. The Mogein Avrohom (244:8) states that in pure halacha, it might have been permissible to allow a shul to be built by gentiles working for us on Shabbos within certain guidelines. However, he forbids this method, because in his time even idolators disallowed their buildings to go up on their holidays. This would have constituted a chillul Hashem even if it were permissible for us. Rav Dovid Cohen (Gvul Yaavetz) cites other sources (in his new sefer, Knesses Yisroel, pages 254-55) that follow this pattern as well. One of these is the Levush (Yoreh Deah 254:1), which forbids Jews to accept charity from gentiles because it might seem that we don’t take care of our own poor and indigent.

This leads us to the conclusion that at this precarious time in Jewish history, we must be extra careful never to do anything approaching a desecration of Hashem’s holy name. This certainly includes doing things that might technically be permissible, but are frowned upon by people who are moral and careful to conduct their businesses with integrity. Having a hetter these days would seem to be insufficient and cast both Klal Yisroel and the Ribono Shel Olam in a bad light. We have all heard the story of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, who brought a becher he had received as an award to a pawn shop so that he could evaluate it properly to be listed in his income for paying his taxes. This was surely unnecessary, but followed the Mogein Avrohom, the Levush and other poskim who hold us to the higher standard of Am Kadosh and Am Segulah we mentioned earlier. If there was ever a time for such chumros, surely this is the era to make clear that we are indeed exceptional in every good and ethical way.

We have just celebrated the beautiful Yom Tov of Chanukah. We commemorated the triumph over the darkness of Yovon with the light of the neiros. But the Medrash this week (Bereishis Rabbah 89:1) also picks up on the word Mikeitz, meaning an end. Hashem has promised that there would be an end to the darkness (Iyov 28:3), but this depends upon us. Not only are we the only ones who wage war morally, notifying our enemies that we must drop bombs and send rockets, but we will suffer casualties to do so. This is surely a kiddush Hashem, although it is sadly and tragically unappreciated by the world. But at the very least, in our own private lives, we should make that effort to be the ohr lagoyim of which the Torah spoke and Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch stressed. That will, hopefully, help to hasten the time when all the nations will recognize our true exceptionalism with geulos v’yeshuos.




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