We saw the Moon in the Morning in the East, but in the Evening in the West:
On the Destiny of Contemporary Jews and Judaism:
Lessons from Jewish History in a Time of Crisis and Transition
An early Yahrzeit Lecture by Rav Joseph D. Soloveitchik
Edited by Rabbi Basil Herring
Responding to the Newest Resurgence of Anti-Semitism
In the second part of this shiur, delivered in 1943 as the horrific contours of the Shoah were becoming clear, the Rav analyzed various typologies of classical and modern manifestations of anti-Jewish attitudes and behavior. In this section the Rav turns his attention to an analysis of a variety of Jewish responses to such manifestations, whether that of the Israelites in Pharaonic Egypt, or that of the contemporary Jew in the shadow of the Shoah.
This section is particularly noteworthy in that it presents for the first time a number of themes that are encountered later in Kol Dodi Dofek, the Rav’s classic and much-quoted statement of Religious Zionist thought that was delivered in 1956. The context here is quite different, however, focusing less on the State of Israel (which obviously did not yet exist in 1943), and more on the Holocaust, and the divisions and pathologies afflicting diaspora Jewish life in general. In addition we find here a number of profound and original analyses of Torah texts that are not found in the later essay.
On the Difference between an Edah and a Machaneh
Make two beaten silver trumpets to summon the edah and move the machanos on their journey… when you sound the teruah the camp will journey forth… and when you gather the kahal you should sound the tekiah but not the teruah… When you go to war in your land you shall sound a teruah with the trumpets, but when you celebrate in your appointed seasons and new moons you shall sound the tekiah with the trumpets… (Nu. 10:1-10)
A machaneh and an edah/kahal represent two different sociological phenomena, two very different kinds of groups, with very little in common. This distinction is similarly found in the Rav’s Kol Dodi Dofek (Besod Hayachid ve’ha-Yachad, pp. 381-383.) What is missing there, however, is the tekiah/teruah distinction found in the following … Continue reading
A machaneh (camp) is built on pragmatic considerations, while an edah/kahal (community) is the product of a shared commitment to implement a moral idea. In the case of the edah of Israel (Adas Yisrael) it is a commitment to implement the idea of holiness in the world.
To explain further, a machaneh is not unique to human beings. A machaneh can also exist in the animal world whenever living things come together when they face shared dangers, instinctively seeking safety in numbers. So too with human beings the fear of death or injury at the hands of an enemy or other threat can be an impetus to form a camp to compensate for their weakness as individuals or to provide for a variety of physical and emotional needs. This is why the Torah says “when you go forth as a machaneh to meet your enemy…” (Deut. 20:1). Consequently camps usually disintegrate when the danger or shared need pass, for at that point their members have no further use for them.
This is the opposite of an edah, which is a unique expression of human spirituality. It is formed not as the result of negative impulses (such as fear, anxiety, or weakness) but of positive factors. It is a gathering of people with an awareness of a shared past and collective future expressed via profound ideas that draw strength from a collective soul that longs for a world filled with goodness and beauty. An edah is founded on a shared tradition and legacy with roots in antiquity and branches reaching forward to the end of days. It encompasses not just those who are now alive, but all those who were part of the edah in the past or who will belong to it in the future. For they all give expression to the timeless edus (testimony) that exists at the heart of the edah, sharing in a mission to bring to fruition the sublime ideas that will bring this world to perfection. The Rav elsewhere developed a parallel theme in describing a thriving and lasting marital relationship. Building on the Rambam’s idea (Commentary to Pirkei Avos 1:6) that a lasting friendship is … Continue reading
When there is Lasting Unity, or its Absence: Tekiah versus Teruah
The Jewish people constitute an edah when they are united in acknowledging and loving God, and when they have a shared desire to live a sanctified life. In such times they form an edah not because they take pride in their intellectuals, scientific geniuses or inspired authors. Their edah is distinguished by virtue of its embrace of the inspired prophets, tannaim, amoraim, and other holy and heroic people who forged the character of the nation of Israel. When constituting such an edah, the Jewish people is recognized for its holiness, ethical purity, humility, eternity and nobility of spirit. In all these ways it sanctifies its physical existence in relation to both man and God. In such times Adas Yisrael is bathed in a sea of divine light, an ocean of eternal radiance, from which God’s Shechinah emerges. Blessed are the leaders who are privileged to stand at the head of such an entity, filled with tranquility, joy and spiritual fulfillment in leading the Jewish people in accordance with the Torah of Israel and the mesorah of its forefathers!
Such an edah is reflected in the quoted verses that describe how it is to be summoned: via a tekiah rather than via a teruah. For a tekiah is a short simple note, which is all that is needed to gather an edah. The unity of an edah does not require its leadership sound a complex teruah or shevarim alarm in order to respond effectively to an impending crisis. Simple tekiyos suffice to mobilize and prepare an edah to achieve its highest aspirations, by happily shouldering the burdens of the mitzvos and their protective enactments, and whatever other steps are necessary, all without complaint.
Thus, for instance, when Chmielnitzki ravaged Ukraine in the 17th century the Vaad of the Four Lands imposed a heavy tax on the communities of Poland to rebuild what had been destroyed, and the people responded enthusiastically. Anyone who reads the history of Lithuania knows the great authority and influence wielded by the rabbinic leadership, and how the masses subjected themselves without reservation to the rabbinic authorities who controlled every aspect of communal and personal life, no matter how intimate. No one asked “who appointed you to be ruler and judge over us?” The people were a single edah, united in heart and soul, sharing ideas and ideals, hopes and aspirations, dreams and a spiritual vision. So it was too when the edah celebrated its festivals and new months. A simple quiet tekiah was enough to express the joy of an elevated life, with no need to engage in other complex communal strategies.
On the other hand there are times when Jews come together as a machaneh – whether out of the fear of an Amalek or a Haman, or because it is impossible for them to assimilate. Such is the case in our own time, when our sanctity is diminished, Shabbos is in exile, Jewish family life is under assault, and our past spiritual glory is in tatters. We are bereft of the ancient commitment to spirituality that united us in the past. Today we are forced to invoke intellectual and pragmatic considerations for Jewish solidarity, such as fear of the enemy who despises us, or shared economic interests that often entail a disregard for the mitzvos. But such things by themselves cannot bind our camp together in lasting fashion. Yes it is true that some of us come together occasionally for the sake of mutual protection, but this has no staying power, for there is no strong group identity. Proof can be found in the dismal failure of American Jewry when it comes to its organizational life. How much ink has been spilled, how many quills have been broken, how much energy and effort expended in attempting to consolidate the Jews in this country into a single entity! It is all to no avail. In this passage one senses the Rav’s frustration with American Jewish life and its failure to overcome its many divisions even when faced with the dire situation of European Jewry. These words were … Continue reading
No wonder the Torah decrees in our verse that gathering a machaneh to its shared purposes requires not a simple tekiah but a sustained teruah. Where there is no shared spiritual vision, fear and trepidation are the only recourse to bring people together. But fear is a negative emotion, utterly incapable of building a lasting unity. Even though a machaneh might be formed on an emergency basis, its internal divisions will always resurface once the danger has passed. The only unity among Jews that can persist over time is the unity of an edah, which like a tzibbur or kahal is characterized not by shared fear or anxiety, but by a collective spiritual goal and purpose.
Can a Machaneh be Transformed into an Edah?
Even a first grader knows that primitive fear cannot produce reverence for God. Religious life is like a tree that requires the right nourishment and light. When all that it feeds on is raw anxiety, and its branches incline only in the direction of pragmatism, religious life cannot flourish for long. Fear of death cannot give life to spiritual rhythms and ritual sensitivities that require a joyous affirmation of life. It is true that suffering and distress sometimes lead to repentance, but such feelings do not produce long-lasting fruits.
Some might object that the Torah itself tells us that as a result of its suffering and hardships in exile the Jewish people will repent at the end of time, in the words: “In your distress (batzar lecha) when all of these things will come upon you, you will return to your God…” (Deut. 4:30.) To this I say that it all depends on the circumstances. If the distress indeed purifies and sanctifies one’s spirit while cleansing one’s thoughts, it can lead to a spiritual awakening that transforms every facet of one’s personality. Such anguish leads to redemption, as when Yirmiyahu proclaimed, “it is a time of trouble for Yaakov, but out of it will come salvation” (Jer. 30:7). In such cases the suffering itself is the cause of lasting redemption because it neutralizes sin and atones for a soul that has been defiled. Such misery leads to repentance and redemption, as was foretold by the prophets regarding the birthpangs that will precede the coming of the Mashiach.
But there are times when suffering does not lead to spiritual crisis or psychological upheaval. In spite of his or her pain a person can yet be incapable of inner reflection or self-examination that would lead to self-purification. It is quite possible that in spite of everything we have gone through, we can remain mired in our habitual behaviors and usual thinking. When that happens, any passing thoughts of repentance disappear as soon as circumstances change for the better. In such cases hardships do not lead to a rejuvenated spiritual life, sparks of repentance fade quickly, prayers do not rise up to heaven, and the gates of repentance are shut. See Kol Dodi Dofek, pp. 339-342, where the Rav quotes the same verses, and goes on to describe the appropriate response to personal suffering, which should be an impetus to self-examination leading … Continue reading
The God of Israel and the God of the Hebrews
And afterwards Moshe and Aharon came and said to Pharaoh: “Thus has Hashem the God of Israel said: ‘Let My people go so that they can hold a feast to Me in the desert.’” And Pharaoh said “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Hashem and I will not let Israel go.” And they said “The God of the Hebrews has been revealed to us, let us go on a three day journey into the desert and sacrifice unto Hashem our God, lest He afflict us with the plague or the sword.” (Ex. 5:1-3)
The response of Moshe and Aharon does not address Pharaoh’s objection. Pharaoh said that he did not know Hashem and thus would not let them go, and yet in response they repeat their request to let them go on a journey to serve Hashem. Furthermore why do they refer to “the God of the Hebrews,” rather than, as they originally did, “the God of Israel”? The distinction between the God of the Hebrews and the God of Israel is also found in Kol Dodi Dofek (see pp. 370-371, 380), but the detailed analysis of these verses that is found here, and which … Continue reading
It would appear that Pharaoh, who did not know “the God of Israel,” knew “the God of the Hebrews.” For God appears to His people in two ways: to the edah He is revealed as the God of Israel, whereas to the machaneh He is revealed as the God of the Hebrews.
The “God of Israel” is revealed to the Jews as a result of their love and devotion to Him, derived from the patriarchal tradition passed down to their descendants. They experience the God of Israel when they safeguard the radiance of the Shabbos queen and the sanctity of Jewish family, when they live according to the written Torah and its oral tradition, and when their children sit at the feet of their teachers in shared longing to know the word of God, while they sing His praises for having given them His blessed and sanctified world,
But the “God of the Hebrews” is revealed to the Jews in times of fire and brimstone, when there are streams of tears and rivers of blood. The God of the Hebrews is revealed in a thoroughly profane and confused world, one in which Satan is triumphant and assimilation prevails, when the realm of the sacred has been defiled and the world is filled with rampant materialism and spiritual debasement. That God of the Hebrews appears when the Jew has rejected the God of Israel and turned against His Shabbos, His Torah, and His holy ones; when the Jew has turned against the chain of tradition and rejected the notion that we are an eternal people.
In other words, the God of Israel dwells in the midst of Knesset Israel, the holy edah that longs for its Beloved and values His Torah. But the God of the Hebrews (Ivrim) descends onto a persecuted and confused machaneh that has betrayed its faith and history by denying that it is a people that is lonely and alone, with all the world on one side (me’ever echad) and itself on the other (me’ever sheni), never to find lasting favor in the eyes of its enemies.
There is no Escaping the God of the Hebrews
Can the God of Israel be expelled from His place at the center of the people of Israel? Indeed it is possible. For when Jews defile their tables and beds, desecrate the Shabbos, pollute their lives, and are indifferent to the suffering of their fellow Jews, then the God of Israel Who had dwelt within their tent goes into exile.
Can the God of the Hebrews be expelled from the dwelling places of the Hebrews? Certainly not. The events of the recent past have proved this. As long as a drop of Jewish blood flows in a Jew’s veins and as long as his flesh is the flesh of a Hebrew he will have no choice but to serve the God of the Hebrews, albeit with fear. For a Jew there is no avoiding the God of the Hebrews, Who aims His wrath against any Jew who rebels against him, and Who sets a trap for those who betray Him. No matter how high the assimilating Jew and his cultural achievements will rise, there they will encounter Him. No matter how far their socialist and nationalist longings might take them, there too His hand will come upon them.
When Moshe and Aharon came before Pharaoh and declared “Thus has Hashem the God of Israel said: ‘Let My people go so that they can hold a feast to Me in the desert.’” Pharaoh replied “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to let Israel go? I do not know Hashem and I will not let Israel go.” What Pharaoh was saying was: “Do the masses of Hebrews in my realm serve the God of Israel in whose name you are speaking? Do they recognize the God of Israel and subjugate themselves to Him? Tell me Moshe and Aharon, does the God of Israel dwell within the tents of your brothers who only thirst for this-worldly pleasures and are consumed by sensory desires? Does the presence of that God hover over their intimate lives? Does their existence that is so consumed by finding a mess of pottage reflect the will of the God of Israel – or do your brothers reject the God of Israel Whom you would like them to serve? It seems to me that they refuse to serve Him or heed His voice, and that they reject the legacy of their patriarchs. Why then do you prophecy in the name of ‘the God of Israel?’”
The Midrash Rabbah (Exodus 5) relates that Pharaoh had in fact researched the Egyptian records relating to the various nations and their gods. He then said to Moshe, “I searched our records and found that there are many minorities in my empire. Among them, the Moabites, Amonites, and Sidonites are faithful to their respective gods, and are prepared to sacrifice their lives for them. But I have yet to find that the people of Israel truly serve someone called the God of Israel. They only want a God Who will serve their personal needs.”
At that moment Moshe and Aharon had to confess that Pharaoh was right, in light of the spiritual poverty of the Jewish masses. Therefore they henceforth spoke in the name of the God of the Hebrews, saying “the God of the Hebrews has met with us.” But we must understand how their use of “the God of the Hebrews” is connected to their subsequent words, “let us go on a three day journey into the desert and sacrifice unto Hashem our God, lest He afflict us with the plague or the sword.” The answer is that they were really telling Pharaoh: “You yourself must admit that even though they have rejected the God of Israel they are still subject to the will of the God of the Hebrews, for it is impossible for them to cast Him off. That is the only reason that you have been able to enslave them and impose your cruel decree to bathe their babies in blood. For were it not for the anger of the God of the Hebrews they would by now have successfully assimilated into Egyptian society, enjoying the melons and radishes of Egypt, having long ago forgotten that they are descended from the people of the God of Israel. Without the God of the Hebrews you yourself would not have descended as you have to the lowest rung of bestiality. Without the God of the Hebrews you would have acted like a normal ruler, and the children of Israel would have ceased to exist as a separate people. It is the God of the Hebrews Who decreed that the assimilationist impulse of the Hebrews would fail. For whenever they forget the God of Israel, it is the God of the Hebrews Who brings upon them pestilence and the sword, and eventually punishes those rulers whom He has used for this purpose. So allow them to go and worship ‘Hashem our God,’ i.e. to reconnect at long last with Hashem Who is the merciful God of Israel, so that they no longer need to be punished, and you no longer need to do the will of the God of the Hebrews and thereby incurring His wrath upon yourself.” This extended passage is remarkable for its placing the travails of European Jewry in an Egyptian context, both in terms of the respective histories of the Hebrews in Egypt and European Jewry in the … Continue reading
To our great sorrow the modern Jew has responded to the terrible afflictions and catastrophes that have befallen our people in the recent past exactly as did the Jews of Egypt, i.e., as a machaneh, a camp of Hebrews serving the God of the Hebrews in a barren pragmatic spirit. It is an old story: mistaken leaders, a false religious ideology, superficial values that are bereft of any hint of the presence of God of Israel in their midst. The contemporary crisis has not led to deep introspection or a crying out to God. Nothing changes, what was in the past remains so in the present – a secular camp, holiness violated, brute fear, and the Shechinah in exile.
How the God of the Hebrews can be Defiled and then Purified
How beautiful are the words of Midrash Rabbah to Exodus 14:
Said R. Shimon: Great was the divine love revealed to Israel in that place of idolatry, filth, and impurity! This can be compared to a Kohen whose terumah fell into a cemetery, whereupon he said, “What am I to do? I cannot defile myself to enter the cemetery to retrieve it. I also cannot just leave the terumah to be further defiled there. Faced with such a choice, it is preferable that I become impure and afterward purify myself, rather than abandon the terumah to its fate.” So it was with our forefathers in Egypt. They were God’s terumah in the Egyptian graveyard, as it says, “there was not a house in Egypt where there was not one dead” (Ex. 12:30). God said, “I cannot leave my terumah in such a place. I shall defile myself to save them.” And it further says “I went down to save them from the hand of Egypt” (Ex. 3:8). It was for this reason that after bringing them out of Egypt God summoned Aharon to purify Him, as it says, “He shall make atonement for the most holy place (mikdash ha-kodesh)” (Lev. 16:33) and “he shall make atonement for the holy place (al ha-kodesh) (Lev. 16:16).
In other words, God descended from His glorious heavens to enter a world of judgment and turmoil, leaving His seat of mercy to sit on His throne of justice as the God of the Hebrews. This entailed a diminishing of His infinite glory. For when redemption comes to the world as an expression of divine love, the Shechinah is elevated, hidden lights burst forth to illuminate the cosmos, and all the world rejoices at the redemption of Israel. Such redemption represents the realization in the very midst of the edah of the idea of holiness. at such a time God is elevated and sanctified, His Shechinah is revealed from one end of the world to the other.
But such redemption (geulah) can only come about when those who are redeemed have devoted their utmost efforts to that goal as an edah. By contrast, a machaneh can only experience salvation (hatzalah). And when God must defile Himself to save (lehatzil) His machaneh rather than abandon it, He must subsequently be purified. In Egypt, God was initially revealed to His people only as the God of the Hebrews insofar as they had forgotten the God of Israel. Thereafter He revealed Himself in the same way to the Egyptians, as a God of judgment. As a result the Egyptians were punished and had to bury large numbers of their dead, even though God does not relish the sufferings of any of His creatures. So too He did not welcome the song of the angels when His creatures drowned in the sea at His hand. This too was a case of “better that I am defiled than that my terumah be abandoned.”
Now who was chosen to bring such atonement for the defilement of God? It was none other than Aharon, acting as proxy for the Jewish people. Because God revealed Himself to them as the God of the Hebrews to save them, it was their responsibility as an edah to atone for His defilement by acts of sanctification, and in so doing to allow the God of Israel to reveal Himself once more.
“He shall take from the edah of the people of Israel two goats for a sin-offering” (Lev. 16:5). How profound is the pain of God in our own days when His beloved nation wallows in its blood! The same God Who in our days has revealed Himself to the people of Israel as the God of the Hebrews, is now revealing Himself with a strong hand and an outstretched arm against our enemies. He has descended even now from His heavenly abode to turn His fury on His enemies and bring vengeance on all those whose hands are covered with the blood of the righteous. In our day God has defiled Himself so as to save His terumah. The “Judge of all the world” has bestirred Himself to put on garments of vengeance. The God of the Hebrews is exacting punishment for the blood of the innocent that has been spilled by the evil and blood-thirsty tyrant who arose to overturn the entire world. He is executing vengeance in Poland, Lithuania and the rest of Europe. We give thanks to Him for directing His anger against that cruel and arrogant nation, even if He must be defiled. And as with Aharon, when our nation will be redeemed we will indeed bring purification in the Holy of Holies. This passage is noteworthy for going beyond the mere notion that God’s name can be desecrated in the course of the affairs of man. Here it is God Himself, so to speak, Who is defiled, or better yet … Continue reading
75 years after the publication of this lecture, the words of the Rav have come back to haunt the Jews of the diaspora. In the years following World War II, Jews came to enjoy an unaccustomed respite from the newly discredited scourge of anti-semitism. Many felt increasingly accepted into the social, economic, and cultural mainstream, and they concluded that the dangers that had in the past brought Jews together in search of a protective machaneh had largely passed. As the Rav foresaw in 1943, however, this mentality would result in more and more Jews losing the motivation to remain within the confines of the camp, and make the necessary sacrifices to sustain what was, in their eyes, a redundant relic of the past. Like the Jews of Egypt, one might say, such Jews pursued their personal dreams and pragmatic aspirations at the expense of their edah commitments.
The results have become increasingly evident, reflected in a variety of surveys and studies, and most recently in the 2013 Pew Report titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Outside of the Orthodox community, the portrait is that of a community beset by soaring rates of intermarriage, widespread loss of Jewish identity in the younger generation, disaffection from organized Jewish life at every level, and growing Jewish institutional decay, as the machaneh loses its appeal and its viability.
And yet, to use the frame of reference of the Rav, such Jews cannot for long escape the God of the Hebrews. And indeed, with the passage of time the world is now witness to the unsettling reality of a resurgent anti-semitism, often thinly disguised as anti-Zionism, in the Middle East, Europe, South America, and yes, in certain quarters in the United States as well, particularly among the intellectual elites. Déjà vu indeed.
The challenge of our time will be to chart a path that will reflect both an enduring commitment to the ideas and practices that sustained Jewish life in centuries past, and a willingness to embrace and support the providential reality of the existence of a proud and ever stronger Jewish State at the epicenter of 21st century Jewish life.
In so doing, we will once again come to know and be blessed by the God of Israel, with the reconstitution of the Jewish people as a sacred edah, responsive to the call of the tekiah, and unified by a shared vision of Jewish life reflecting and embodying the best of our glorious past, while newly configured to meet the enormous challenges of a new age.
(Reposted from Dec ’14)
|↑1||This distinction is similarly found in the Rav’s Kol Dodi Dofek (Besod Hayachid ve’ha-Yachad, pp. 381-383.) What is missing there, however, is the tekiah/teruah distinction found in the following paragraphs, as well as the modern Jewish historical context that the Rav provides here.|
|↑2||The Rav elsewhere developed a parallel theme in describing a thriving and lasting marital relationship. Building on the Rambam’s idea (Commentary to Pirkei Avos 1:6) that a lasting friendship is one that shares the same value or ideal, the Rav (Man of Faith in a Modern World, p. 63) explains that a truly successful marriage is one in which the spouses both subscribe to a set of higher ideals to which their union is devoted, rather than merely sharing a pragmatic or emotional bond.|
|↑3||In this passage one senses the Rav’s frustration with American Jewish life and its failure to overcome its many divisions even when faced with the dire situation of European Jewry. These words were written a few months after the historic agreement that resulted in the Biltmore Program that united the various Zionist factions. One senses the Rav’s skepticism that the hard-won unity would stand the test of time. One should also note the Rav’s painful awareness in this passage of the dire spiritual condition of American Jewry in the early 1940’s, when Orthodoxy was a tiny and beleaguered minority, and halachic observance was mostly honored in the breach. In sum, when these words were uttered, they were in every respect dark days indeed, especially for one like the Rav who had only a decade earlier left a thriving Eastern European Jewish life that was now facing annihilation.|
|↑4||See Kol Dodi Dofek, pp. 339-342, where the Rav quotes the same verses, and goes on to describe the appropriate response to personal suffering, which should be an impetus to self-examination leading to self-purification.|
|↑5||The distinction between the God of the Hebrews and the God of Israel is also found in Kol Dodi Dofek (see pp. 370-371, 380), but the detailed analysis of these verses that is found here, and which forms the fundamental scriptural basis for the entire set of ideas that follows, is only developed here in this shiur.|
|↑6||This extended passage is remarkable for its placing the travails of European Jewry in an Egyptian context, both in terms of the respective histories of the Hebrews in Egypt and European Jewry in the modern era, as well as the respective fates of Pharaoh and Hitler with their allies and supporters. As noted earlier, this shiur was delivered at a time when the Allied forces appeared to be successfully turning the tide of the Second World War in their favor.|
|↑7||This passage is noteworthy for going beyond the mere notion that God’s name can be desecrated in the course of the affairs of man. Here it is God Himself, so to speak, Who is defiled, or better yet Who defiles Himself so as to save His people. Even further, the Rav puts forth the notion that it is the Jewish people that can and must reciprocate by “purifying God” so to speak, in due course, as did the Kohen in the Holy of Holies. This echoes the Rav’s philosophy that emphasizes man’s initiative and creativity in all things. What is remarkable, however, is the way in which the Rav here affirms that the Jewish people, having been redeemed by God from its enemies, can through its restored spiritual greatness purify and restore God Himself, so to speak.|