Hold True to the Mission – Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5780

D'var Torah | Deuteronomy

The Talmud (Hagigah 5a) asks a question: what does the Torah mean when it refers to “many evils and troubles that befall them” (Deuteronomy 31:21)? Rav answers that “evils” and “troubles” are not two separate circumstances but interconnected: evils that become troubles one for the other. An example the Talmud provides is a person who is stung by both a hornet and a scorpion. The remedy for a hornet sting is the application of a cold poultice while the remedy for a scorpion sting is the application of a hot compress. Each is treated with the opposite medication: one cold, the other hot. In treating one, the other condition is worsened.


Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen sees a lesson here that applies to historical anti-Semitism. At different points in time the enemies of the Jewish people leveled charges that were mutually contradictory. For example, Haman – the villain of the Purim story – attacks the Jewish people as isolationists: a nation that lives apart and in accordance with its own law. Yet in the nineteenth century, Jews were attacked for being cosmopolitan, that is, a people without roots or loyalty and following no law. In the Middle Ages Jews were thought weak and impotent without a will to defend themselves. Yet after the establishment of the modern state of Israel, Jews were accused of being overly militaristic. The early Church condemned Jews to be moneylenders. Yet having found success in this enterprise Jews were accused of being greedy usurers. Where Jews embraced socialism they were condemned as communists and where Jews embraced capitalism they were condemned as the bourgeoisie. It seems that Jews cannot avoid anti-Semitism no matter what course of action is followed.


Indeed, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin have argued that anti-Semitism is simply unavoidable. However, realizing the inevitability of anti-Semitism is not the same as accepting it. The only course to defeat these “evils and troubles” is, according to Prager and Telushkin, to bring the world closer to the essential teachings of Judaism: the belief in one God and living an ethical life. Unfortunately, the Jews, according to Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, are messengers who have forgotten the message. Hence, as Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaches, it is time for Jews to recommit to both the message and the mission. Rather than wringing hands and bemoaning the persistence of anti-Semitism, Jews should universally rededicate to the message of Judaism and bringing that message to the world.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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