Shabbat candles: 8:06 p.m.
Torah: Num. 30:2–36:13
Haftorah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4; 4:1-2
Havdalah: 9:06 p.m.
What unites Jews throughout the world as one nation and one people? What is the most critical factor responsible for our amazing persistence as a unique historical entity, despite being scattered throughout the globe, subject to persecution and pogrom?
What idea and ideal prevented us from falling prey to assimilation, from disappearing into the sands of time? Why have we insisted upon Jewish exclusivity and separatism?
Our biblical portion of Matot makes a distinction between two technical terms that it doesn’t quite define: “If a man makes a vow [neder] to dedicate an object to the Lord, or takes an oath [shevua] to prohibit himself from partaking of a certain food or from participating in a certain activity, he must not desecrate his word” [Numbers 30:3]. My revered teacher and mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik defines a vow as pertaining to an object (such as a person on a diet vowing that bread will become for him as prohibited as bacon), and an oath as pertaining to a subject (the person himself vowing that he will no longer eat bread).
In the first instance of a vow, the emphasis is on the object, the bread, the “heftza.” In the second instance of oath, the emphasis is on the subject, the person, the “gavra.”
In the Talmudic school of Brisker methodology, much of the world may be divided between gavra and heftza, subject and object. Indeed, in most instances a free human being ought be seen as a “subject.” However, if a person is enslaved, he ipso facto is turned into an “object,” having been denied his fundamental freedom of choice. This distinction can serve us well in attempting to answer our opening query about what sets Jews apart and makes us unique.
At the end of the Yom Kippur War, while flying on El Al to Israel, I was shocked to discover news about a friend. He had lost his family in Auschwitz, remarried and had two sons in New York, moved to Israel and lost his older boy in the Six-Day War. I discovered that he had now lost his only remaining son in the Yom Kippur War.
I made a condolence call as soon as I got off the plane. My disconsolate friend was sitting on the floor with his wife, surrounded by wouldbe comforters; no one, however, said a word. The atmosphere was tense with a heavy silence that shouted upwards to Heaven in tearfilled protest. As I quietly intoned the condolence formula: “May the Place [Makom, a synonym for God] comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” my friend looked up. “Why does the [condolence] use Makom and not Elokim or Hashem?” Without waiting for a reply, he offered the answer. “When I lost my first family in the Holocaust, I couldn’t even mourn properly and I could not be comforted; it all seemed so absurd and meaningless.
“Now, however, although I am devastated and unable to speak to my comforters, I nevertheless do feel comforted. The place comforts me; the fact that my second set of children were killed to preserve Israel and Jerusalem, to guarantee a Jewish future and Jewish destiny. Yes, the place comforts me…”
In Kol Dodi Dofek, Rav Soloveitchik distinguishes between the Holocaust experience in which the Jews were united by a common fate (goral) foisted upon them from outside, from a largely sinister gentile world, in comparison to the Sinai experience, in which the Jews were united by a common destiny (yi’ud) which they accepted upon themselves, pledging to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priestteachers to convey God’s message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the world. It is this sense of destiny that brought us to Israel and compels us to fight against tyranny and terrorism.
At this time, we remember the three pure and holy sacrificial Jewish victims of one year ago — Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel who were kidnapped and mercilessly murdered outside Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. Tragically an innocent Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, was cruelly murdered at the hands of misguided and evil Jewish teenagers. The Gush lies geographically between Hebron and Jerusalem. Hebron, where God chose Abraham, making him the father of a multitude of nations including Ishmael, because he was teaching his descendants God’s path of compassionate righteousness and moral justice [Gen. 18:1819]. Jerusalem, where Jewish and world history will culminate in the rebuilding of a Holy Temple from whence Zion’s message of a Torah of peace and redemption will be accepted by all the nations of the globe.
Now, too, the “place” (Makom) comforts us in our period of national rebirth — “among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.