Monday, September 28, 2009

We Are Keva: Post Yom Kippur Thoughts

"Thus far, we have spoken of Aseh toratekha keva in two senses: 1) making Torah primary in terms of values, and regarding our relation to Torah - and to God via Torah - as all-pervasive in our lives; 2) making it a fixed element of our day, with the attendant commitment and discipline. But there is yet another sense of keva which is implied in a baraita:

'Aseh toratekha keva' - how so? This teaches that if a person heard something from a sage in the beit hamidrash, he should not regard it as transient but rather as permanent. And what a person has learned, he must do and teach others to do, as it says (Devarim 5:1), 'You shall learn them and keep them to do them.' And so it says of Ezra (7:10), 'He prepared his heart to study the Torah of God and to perform it.' and afterward it says, 'And to teach statute and justice in Israel.' (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 13:2)


The latter portion of the beraita presents Ezra as an example of someone who made Torah keva. What was it that Ezra did? Above all, Ezra ensured the permanence of Torah. During his time, the Jews returning from the Babylonian exile had a very tenuous relationship to Torah. Chazal tell us (Tanna De-bei Eliyahu Rabba, Chapter 31) that when the Jews went into exile in Babylonia, they came to the prophet Yechezkel and said, 'We are now exempt from Torah and mitzvot, because a slave whose master has sold him is no longer obligated to do the master's bidding.' The prevalent conception in classical antiquity was that religion was only a function of geography and society: you worship the local gods of the country and society in which you find yourself. All the more so was this the feeling among the Jews in exile, since their entire national fabric had seemed to disintegrate. When they went to Babylonia, they felt they were finished with avodat Hashem.

We read in the books of Ezra and Nechemia that there was a great deal of assimilation and intermarriage among the Jews in Babylonia. Moreover, those who returned to Israel were certainly not of the more established strata, nor members of the intellectual or social elite. Ezra was faced with a tremendous challenge: to ensure that Torah would become permanent within that community. He made it clear that Torah is part of the essence of Klal Yisrael; it is not dependent upon geography, history, or society - it is keva, permanent and essential. He did not just explain and extend Torah through rabbinic enactments, but saw to it that the people understood that adherence to Torah was not negotiable; it is part of what being Klal Yisrael means.

This is what Ezra did, and this is what each person needs to do within his own environment, as part of his or her historical and social responsibility. If you have learned some Torah, 'ya'aseh vi'yelammed acher' - observe it and teach it to others. If you are in a community where Torah is in danger of disappearing, see to it that it does not disappear. Make it kavu'a. Make it clear that there is no vanishing American, English, or French Jew. Judaism is here to stay. It is your responsibility to make it clear to yourself and to others that Torah and avodat Hashem are the very backbone of Judaism. Prove that all the sociological projections about the end of the Jewish people are nonsense. We are keva." --By His Light: Character and Values In The Service Of God (pgs. 64-66)

I would also like to point out that Torah and avodas Hashem are not just things like "keep Shabbos" or "wear tznius." They also include behaving with integrity - both in business and in your personal life, treating others with respect (which does not mean agreeing with them. It just means, simply, respecting them), trying not to speak lashon hara, etc. We can't forget that we are members of the Jewish nation - the chosen nation - and, as representatives of that nation, we ought to behave accordingly.

One of the Rabbis in my shul spoke about respect. He mentioned that even someone you disagree with deserves your respect. For instance, Moshe went to speak to "Pharaoh, Melech Mitzrayim." Why did it need to say "Melech Mitzrayim?" We know Pharaoh is the king! But it's reminding us that Moshe addressed and treated Pharaoh the way one should a king, even though Pharaoh was enslaving the Jewish people.

There is always a way to do something and a way not to do something. Respect, aside from being the proper thing to give to a person (generally), will also gain you respect in return. And guaranteed, whatever you wish to say will be heard and taken seriously if said with respect much more so than if said disrespectfully.

Another Rabbi in our shul spoke before Yizkor. His speech was incredibly powerful - about seizing every moment you have with people, especially parents. There was one line that struck me more than the others - perhaps in light of the various tragedies that have happened over the last few years to people I knew, knew of, or heard about. He said, "Don't assume the laughs are always going to be there tomorrow. They can just be taken away." I think that's another thing we really need to work on: appreciating other people. Our family, our friends...they're gifts. Yet so often we treat them much more poorly than they deserve. I don't mean that every second you have to be kissing their feet, but I think we can treat each other, in general, much better than we tend to. Even people we love (maybe especially people we love).

This story might sound a little morbid, but it made me feel this exact idea very strongly. A girl in a class I'm taking told a story about her and her friends on vacation. There was a particular guy on the trip who was a good friend of hers, but she was really annoyed at him for whatever reason and so was ignoring him. That day they went to the beach and this guy slipped off a rock and drowned.

The girl said the biggest lesson she learned from that was never to hold a grudge.

Another sad story:

My Latin teacher from a few years ago wrote me a super nice recommendation letter for a summer internship. I actually had no idea what was in it at the time, but I was so grateful to her for writing it because I knew she was about to go away for the summer. However, I waited a while before emailing her to thank her.

She was killed in a car crash before I ever emailed her. I didn't know until later, but she never even got my email.

I know that most of the time, we don't lose people unexpectedly like that. Especially not young, healthy people. But the message of those stories, and of the Rabbi's speech today, was that you really have to (sorry for being cliche) seize the day and the moments you have with other people.

If you ever watch or read The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, he talks about exactly that. Realize your dreams, strive for your potential, seize the moment, and appreciate the people in your life.

Wow...this post has gone in a very different direction than I originally intended. But okay!

On yet another tangent, a number of our tefillos today mentioned our being in exile. It made me feel extremely privileged to be able to go to Israel this year for Sukkos. I am leaving on Thursday, so I wish you all a chag sameach in advance!

I hope all your Yom Kippurim were meaningful and that your fasts went well. I have a funny story about our breakfast - maybe I'll write it up tomorrow (though it might have only been funny because it happened right after the fast when we were all a little light in the head, if you know what I mean).

L'shana Haba'ah B'yerushalayim!

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