Selichot: Learning to Listen to Leaders

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, Week 18, for Selichot: Learning to Listen to Leaders

As Ashkenazim begin saying selichot this Motzaei Shabbat, it works out well that this is the sermon of Aruch HaShulchan’s that we’re up to…

The Kinds of People We’ll Heed

Amos 7;12-15 presents a conversation between Amatzyah, a priest in Bet El, and Amos, the prophet. Amatzyah dismisses Amos, telling him to go to Judea, eat and prophesy there. Amos responds that he’s no prophet nor son of a prophet, he’s a shepherd and tender of sycamore fig trees, whom Hashem called to prophecy.

Aruch HaShulchan wonders what Amatzyah meant by sending Amos to Judea—why was that the better place for him? Nor is Amos’ answer immediately sensible. If Hashem called him to prophecy, he’s a prophet; what does his former profession have to do with anything?

Aruch HaShulchan’s solution clearly draws generously from his contemporary experience, in a way that resonates today as well. He says Amatzyah recognized Amos as holy and spiritual, but assumed he was too removed from real life for his advice to be relevant to ordinary people. Sure, everyone respected his sanctity, but what did he know of how life really works? People in Judea were more attuned to that kind of life, would be more likely to accept the ideas of such an otherworldly man.

Amos disputes Amatzyah’s characterization. He’s not some holy-roller who never worked a day in his life. He’s run two businesses, successfully, and would have continued but for Hashem assigning him a different role.

The Spiritual Moshe and the Military Yehoshua

That reading explains why Moshe struggles his whole life to secure the people’s obedience. Only at the end of his life, when he’s telling the people the book of Devarim does he get real “buy-in.” Yehoshua, the disciple, has no such problems—the people followed him from day one. Why?

His answer is that the people always respected Moshe, recognized his spiritual greatness, admired him. But they couldn’t relate to his life, and couldn’t believe that he could understand their concerns enough to have useful guidance. That’s why Devarim opens with the fact that Moshe said all this after defeating Sichon and Og, two mighty kings. Now that he’d done something practical for them, they were ready to listen.

Yehoshua was a general, leading them in the conquest of Israel [and had been one of the spies decades earlier] so they never doubted that what he said applied to their real lives [this seems to ignore the fact that Yehoshua spent the years in the desert primarily walking around behind Moshe, absorbing his wisdom from constant exposure].

Making It Explicitly Contemporary

In Tehillim 40, David speaks of his holy obligation to speak in public and adds, somewhat cryptically, and you, Hashem, know. What does Hashem know?

The answer comes from Malachi 3;14-16, where the people say it’s futile to serve Hashem, that the ones to admire and emulate are those who act wrongly, against Hashem’s Will. Exactly like our times, says Aruch HaShulchan, where those immersed in Torah study generally are poor, while those who focus on other wisdoms are comfortable. People draw the conclusion that those others understand the world better, are the ones to turn to for instruction.

Verse 16 there sticks out in that it drops in a comment about those who fear Hashem speaking with each other [this is a verse that mori ve-rabi R. Lichtenstein was fond of quoting, the kinds of conversations he hoped to have with people]. That’s because the natural reaction to the people belittling their advice is for people involved in Torah to stop speaking about the service of Hashem to anyone other than those already in agreement. If people won’t listen, why speak?

His answer is that you never know. Since someone might gain from these words, David and other yir’ei Hashem (the term in Malachi) say what they can, and—as David says to Hashem—only Hashem knows whether they will succeed at all in helping people find their proper path.

The Embarrassment of Our Failure to Listen

Daniel and Yirmiyahu referred to the Jews’ not listening to prophets as our boshet panim, our national embarrassment. We open selichot with Daniel 9;7, one of the verses that says that, lecha Hashem hatzedaka ve-lanu boshet hapanim, You, Hashem, are righteous and we are the ones to be embarrassed. Why is it embarrassing?

R. Tanchum b. Chanilai, Sanhedrin 93a, says that after Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah survived being thrown in a furnace, the non-Jews of the time all scorned the Jews for having abandoned a God so powerful. Why would that miracle in particular move them to say that—why not all the previous miracles of Jewish history?

In another reading that feels like it draws from issues of his time, he says the non-Jews of Bavel thought that, yes, in the past, Hashem favored the Jewish people with miracles. But once Hashem kicked the Jews out of Israel, He stopped caring, as it were (and they say this, notes the Aruch HaShulchan, despite specific verses to the contrary, which promise that being exiled is not a sign of complete abandonment by Hashem.

[An undercurrent here is that many non-Jews accept all the miracles of our tradition, yet find ways to tell themselves that now is different, that covenant is no longer in force].

When the incident with Daniel’s three friends proved that Hashem was still prepared to step in and protect righteous Jews, even miraculously, the non-Jews saw how terrible it was to have such a relationship with God and not worship Him always, not listen to His prophets.

The Evidence of Our Lives of Exile

When we tally up our year, we should see a similar dynamic, Aruch HaShulchan says, see with clarity that Hashem continues to protect us (otherwise, even all that we have undergone could be much worse). That fact makes our failure to heed Hashem that much more embarrassing.

That’s true of the exile as a whole. While the Babylonian exile, at seventy years, was so short that it took an event like rendering Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah immune to the furnace to prove Hashem’s continuing Providence, Jewish survival for almost two thousand years, with Hashem caring for our material needs throughout, should demonstrate it beyond all doubt.

That it does not, that many Jews are unsure or even deny Hashem’s continuing protection, is an embarrassment we confront annually.

The Embarrassment of Not Knowing What’s Evil

Another reason to say velanu boshet hapanim, we need to be embarrassed, is that many in his generation [it hasn’t gotten better] are the living fulfillment of his reading of Yeshayahu 5;20, where the prophet bemoans those who call good evil and evil good, dark light and vice versa, bitter sweet and vice versa.

The struggle with evil, says Aruch HaShulchan, can be at the purely practical level, where our temptations get the better of us. Such people, even if they eventually yield almost completely and almost always to their lesser selves, still know they’re doing wrong, as evidenced by their hope that their children will do better.

Sadly, some people take it a problematic step further, make it a matter of principle, come to assert that what is wrong or evil is good or valuable. They should know better, Yeshayahu is saying, since it’s like claiming that the dark is light or the bitter is sweet.

In his time [and ours], the embarrassment stems not only from our failure to do that which we know we should be doing, but from our losing sight of the definition of what we should be doing [a definition, I note, that he thinks is clear to all those who look carefully and sincerely].

Mother Rachel Looks Out for All Jews

Those two types of straying Jews—who, ideally, would use selichot as a starting point for return—were both represented in Rachel’s famous lamentation over her children. Yirmiyahu 31;14 speaks of Rachel crying over them, refusing to be consoled for her children’s absence.

The first phrase refers to those in exile who stayed faithful to the service of Hashem. She cries over their suffering. But the second group “are not” because they’ve lost their connection to observance, have lost sight of the whole framework in which they should be constructing their lives, leaving her no room for comfort.

Hashem’s response addresses both groups as well. The reward for her lobbying on behalf of her children is that they will return from the land of the enemies [I skipped a nice piece about the two kinds of enemies we have, those open about it, which Tanach calls a tsar, and those who pretend to be friends but are actually an enemy, an oyev].

For the other group, who no longer remember the value of Hashem’s service, the promise is of tikva le-achariteich, a hope for the long course of history, her sons will return to their spiritual borders, not just their physical ones.

All this is called an embarrassment of our faces, he says, because Hashem has differentiated us from the animals in our very faces, giving us a tzelem Elokim, an image of God, which we have cast aside with our many misdeeds. By returning to Hashem—in all the ways to which he’s already alluded, re-accepting the reality of Providence, of our obligation and privilege to be part of making that Providence more known in the world, of being better at resisting or conquering our urges—we can reap all the benefits waiting for us, should we only be wise enough to do so.

And, as he closes, amen ve-amen.

About Gidon Rothstein

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