The Jewish People’s State of the Union Address
Article two, section three of the United States Constitution states that the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” George Washington on January 8, in the year 1790, was the first president to share his reflections and recommendations with the people, and Barack Obama on January 28 of 2014 was the most recent.
For the majority of American history the message was read by a clerk and not by the president. But one way or another, this yearly address was seen as a manifesto of the ruling administration and was therefore dissected, analyzed, and scrutinized by the American people to better understand the direction that their beloved country was heading.
The Torah describes a very similar law, something known as Hakhel. Not every year, but every seven years, the Jewish People who were already gathered in Yerushalayim for the holiday of Sukkos were to fill the courtyard of the Bais HaMikdash. Men, women, and children – the entire nation, from the Negev to the Golan – were in attendance. And the king of the Jewish People, King Solomon being the first, followed by all future kings, would address the nation and share with them his thoughts on the State of the Union. And after his address the people would dissect, analyze, and scrutinize every word that he said because they, like us today, wanted to know where their beloved country and their beloved nation was heading.
But there was one difference, a very significant difference – King Solomon’s State of the Union address was the exact same State of the Union Address made by King Agrippa the First approximately one thousand years later. And that’s because Hakhel, Judaism’s State of the Union address, consisted of reading key sections in the Torah; sections that would remind the Jewish People of their role in history and their role among the nations of the world. They read sections that would inspire the people to recommit their lives to Torah and to Judaism. King after king, century after century, the populace was expected to gain insight and direction from one text and from one book – the Torah.
There was no need for a new message. They never felt that the message was old or passé, because they understood that the Torah is an instruction manual for life, written by the One who created life. And so although some of the passages may not resonate with a modern reader – we may not farm and we may not have slaves, but the message of an eternal G-d certainly bears eternal relevance.
In this week’s Torah portion we are instructed to build the original Aron HaKodesh, the Holy Ark. And similar to our Aron that houses our Sifrei Torah, the original was built to store the luchos, the tablets that Moshe received from G-d. But there is one very unique feature about this Ark and that is that we were commanded to build staves, or poles, and attach them to the side of the Ark so it could be carried from place to place. All of the Mishkan’s items had staves to be carried with. However, when it came to the Aron, the Torah cautioned us to never ever remove those staves. They would stay attached to the Aron even when it sat in the Holy of Holies. They would stay attached to the Aron even when the Bais HaMikdash, a permanent home for the Ark, was built. The poles were never removed.
Our Sages teach us that this was done to remind us that the Torah is always ready for flight, it can always be moved. The message of the Torah is not limited to a specific geographical location, nor is it limited to a certain era. The Torah is as relevant in the North Pole as it is in Jerusalem, the Torah is as relevant in 2014 as it is in the times of the Temple. The Ark’s poles are a call of action to apply the Torah’s message to every new situation and to every new line of thinking and see if it can be held up to the Torah’s view of right and wrong, to the Torah’s view of morality. Be it the draw of the Greek and Roman Hedonistic lifestyle, the fear of the Inquisition’s fire, or the easy-going relativistic morality that we live through today, the poles of the Aron HaKodesh remind us to not leave the Torah behind; it reminds us that G-d’s instruction manual is eternally relevant. The State of our Union will always be judged by the light of G-d’s Torah.
Early in September, 1977, a drama began to unfold in Lakewood, New Jersey, where Siamese twins were born to a Jewish family. The twins were taken by helicopter, on September 15, to the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, where Dr. Everett Koop, who subsequently became the Surgeon General of the United States, was then the hospital’s Chief of Surgery. Immediately after the initial evaluation, it was obvious to all the many physicians called in to evaluate the twins that both would die unless they were separated. However, the only way one child would be viable was if the other child was killed during surgery. The question was referred to Rav Moshe Feinstein for his evaluation and decision.
On September 30, twenty doctors and nurses assembled in the meeting room to be brought up to date. Many were already disturbed by the lapse of time. They were all leaders in their fields and had gathered to be able to participate in the separation. Practically every surgical and medical specialty was represented, since no one really knew what they would encounter during actual surgery. Dr. Koop had prepared a team that would be able to handle any emergency that might arise. In brainstorming sessions, all possible problems were discussed. The simple problem of fitting a six chambered heart into the small chest of Baby B proved to be unexpectedly difficult and could be resolved only by building the chest larger by using part of the chest of Baby A.
Rav Moshe Feinstein eventually ruled that it would be Halachically acceptable to go ahead with the surgery and kill Baby A to save Baby B. But a few days before he issued his ruling, on October 3, the intensive care unit nurse assigned to the twins noticed significant changes in the heart rate and respiration and in the electrocardiograph tracings. The team wanted to operate immediately but Dr. Koop told them that they had to wait for Rav Feinstein’s decision. At one point the team grew extremely impatient, so Dr. Koop, not a Jewish man, quieted the group with the following statement: “The ethics and morals involved in this decision are too complex for me. I believe they are too complex for you as well. Therefore I referred it to an old rabbi on the Lower East Side of New York. He is a great scholar, a saintly individual. He knows how to answer such questions. When he tells me, I too will know.” (The above story is an excerpt/ paraphrase of an article written by Rabbi Dr. Moshe Dovid Tendler, titled “So One May Live.”)
Dr. Koop understood the message of the Aron’s poles. He understood that although the Torah does not speak of Siamese twins, but he understood perhaps not in details but in a general sense, that the Torah does teach us a story found in the book of Shmuel that served as the starting point of Rav Feinstein’s response, and that the story is analyzed in the Talmud, codified in the Shulchan Aruch, and one who knows all this can apply that ancient wisdom, that ancient instruction manual, to any given circumstance; to the legalization of marijuana, to the rights of a mother to abort her fetus, the definition of morality in the 21st century, and how to separate Siamese twins. The Torah serves us as an eternal manual to life.
But the truth is that the Torah is so much more than an instruction manual. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson made history by walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, from the White House to the Capitol building where he would deliver his Stare of the Union address in person; the first time a president would do so in over 100 years. The reason? President Wilson wanted to have a personal connection between himself and the people. And that my friends, is what the Torah is really all about. Hakhel, the reading of the Torah, the Jewish State of the Union, is done in front of all men, all women, and all children, not just the scholars or a select few, because the Torah is first and foremost the connection point between G-d and the Jewish People.
There are 612 Mitzvot in the Torah that demand from us to express ourselves through thought, speech or action. Each one of those Mitzvos ask us to direct our thoughts, words, or movements to G-d. But there is one Mitzvah where we are asked not direct ourselves to G-d, but rather to listen, to pay attention, as G-d speaks and directs Himself to us. Torah study is where G-d reaches out to us. He shares His wisdom, His essence, with mortal man, with you and me. Torah study is not limited to knowing what to do. It’s where we are given an opportunity to connect to G-d. The Kabbalists go so far as to describe the Torah as a love letter from G-d to His beloved people. When you receive a love letter, or a voicemail, or text message from someone that you really love, how many times do you read it? And reread it? And reread it?
G-d loves us and He gave us a letter – it’s a letter that contains instructions to live life to its fullest but it also contains Him, it contains G-d Himself, and He wants us to read it so we can develop a meaningful relationship with Him. We may never be able to attain the level of knowledge of a Rav Moshe Feinstein who can look to the Torah and weigh in on questions of life and death. But each and every one of us can, and must, develop a relationship with G-d.
There is no shortage of opportunities, whether it’s here in the shul, throughout the community, or on the internet, Torah is being taught and disseminated on all levels, in all languages and on every single topic. For the same reason that our founding fathers felt it necessary for a yearly state of the union address; so we could know how we’re doing and know where we’re going, G-d demands from us a constant engagement with His Torah for the very same reason.
I conclude with an invitation – a general invitation to the many classes given here in Ner Tamid on Talmud, Jewish Philosophy, or TaNaCh, but also a specific invitation for tonight’s family learning; an opportunity to come together, men, women, and children, of all ages and of all levels. And like our ancestors who stood on the Temple Mount and listened to the message of the Torah, we too will study the texts, study the guide to life, and study the love letter that G-d gave to His beloved People.
I really hope to see you all there.
In this blessing we ask G-d to “make the offspring of Dovid quickly flourish” – an allusion to King David’s descendant David, Mashiach, who will lead us in the Messianic era. In addition, we ask G-d to “Enhance his pride through Your salvation” – cause the Jews to no longer be downtrodden.
On a deeper level, the Eitz Yosef explains that these statements are a reference to two leaders that will lead us in the Messianic Era; a descendant of the Davidic family and a descendant of Yosef’s family (“pride” also means horn and Yosef is described in the Torah as being strong like the horn’s of an ox). After the rule of King Solomon, the Jewish People divided into two kingdoms; the kingdom of Yehuda ruled by descendants of King David and the Kingdom of Israel ruled by descendants of Yosef. This prayer alludes to the fact that these two leaders will work hand in hand and then and only then can we expect a final redemption. When the Jewish Peopel are united despite their differences and factionalism is eliminated we will merit the Messianic era that we await.
Before we begin the next prayer, a plea for G-d to bring about the Messianic era, it is important that we understand its significance. Ultimately, there is much debate as to what exactly will take place but a classic approach is that the Messianic Era is the beginning of the redemption. It is then that people will be less inclined to sin and the world will be a more peaceful place. As great as that is, it is not the goal. The purpose of such an existence is so that we can do as many Mitzvos as possible. Without all those distractions that we are normally plagued by, be it physical or spiritual, we will be able to grow immeasurably in our Avodas Hashem (service to G-d).
Blessed are You Hashem Who builds Yerushalayim.
The Sefas Emes questions why this prayer is written in the present tense. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if it were written in the future tense; Blessed are You Hashem Who will build Yerushalayim?
He explains that through every positive deed we know a brick is added to a celestial Yerushalayim. Though we may not see it, the city of Yerushalyim is being rebuilt every day trough our actions. Though it is true that one day G-d will rebuild the Jerusalem that we know of, but He will do so by transplanting the spiritual entity that is being built every single day.
Distance Yourself from Falsehood
I imagine many of you believe that Jewish people are cheap and stingy – we don’t like to spend money. You may not use derogatory terms to describe it but that’s what I imagine many of you believe. I imagine there are many people here who associate Jewish mothers with Sylvia Fine from the Nanny – the nagging worrying type. I could go on and on with different Jewish stereotypes; some which we would be insulted by and some I’m pretty sure we identify with. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that virtually all of them are lies – at the very least they are gross exaggerations. But as Josef Goebbels, y’s, allegedly said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”
Nowadays, the only people able to get away with perpetuating those stereotypes are fellow Jews – nothing like a good Jewish anti-Semite. But there are new lies that are being spread throughout the world; lies that don’t use the word Jew or Judaism, but they are thinly veiled attacks on our nation and our religion.
In 2010, the Jerusalem Quartet was booed off the stage in mid-performance at London’s Wigmore Hall. The next year, a performance by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra came to a stop by sustained audience protest at the prestigious London Proms concert series. This is taking place in England! A country which historically had led Europe in their tolerance of Judaism as a religion and acceptance of Jews in general.
Unfortunately, these protests and bans are not limited to overseas. Most recently, the ASA, the American Studies Association, voted to sever all ties with Israelis and Israeli institutions. DBS has been mildly successful in banning many Israeli made products from store shelves. And to top it all off – the most controversial commercial in this year’s Super Bowl is a commercial for Soda Stream – a company that makes modern day seltzer makers. The infamous Super Bowl commercials with all their sexually explicit and envelope pushing ads – and the ad causing the biggest stir is one by a company that makes soda.
The controversy? The fact that the soda machines are made over the green line in a place known as Ma’aleh Adumim.
Parenthetically, the company employs 900 Palestinians, paying them four to five times the amount they’d be paid anywhere else in the Palestinian territories, and is situated in a place that will definitely stay in Israel’s hands if a peace deal is ever made.
But no one seems to care about that. Instead, we hear lies – Israel called an Apartheid state. Israel blamed for the poverty of the Palestinians. And Israel blamed for not making peace with the Palestinians.
“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”
So what do we do? This is a new and strange battlefield. Israel learned how to fight armies bent on Israel’s destruction. Israel learned how to fight threats of terrorism. But how does Israel fight a war of lies? How does it fight a war that isn’t even taking place in Israel? The war is taking place here on our soil – in universities, in shopping centers and in grocery stores. There is a campaign to delegitimize what we know to be a legitimate country. A country that wants nothing but peace. A country that treats its Arab citizens better than any other country in the Middle East. A country that is a bastion of democracy and human rights.
This past week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. I should really read to you the entire speech – it was magnificent. But I’d like to read to you just a few lines: “We all know about the old anti-Semitism.
It was crude and ignorant, and it led to the horrors of the death camps.
Of course, in many dark corners, it is still with us.
But, in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more sophisticated language for use in polite society.
People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.
As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel.
On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students…this is the face of the new anti-Semitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation.
These lies are not a threat to Israel alone, they are a threat to the Jewish People. So how do we fight these insidious lies? How do we respond?
In this week’s Torah portion, there is a prohibition against believing a false report. G-d uses a very strange terminology when describing this prohibition. If I were to have written this prohibition I would have wrote “Lo ta’amin – Don’t believe” any falsehood. But G-d in His infinite wisdom writes, “Lo sisa sheima shav – don’t carry” or any falsehood. What does it mean to not carry falsehood??
I believe that G-d is teaching us is that falsehood and lies are so abhorrent that G-d wants us not only to not believe lies but He wants us to push it away with two hands, He wants us to not even go near it. Lo sisa sheima shav – Don’t allow lies to even cross the threshold of your mind. Don’t even carry a single word of falsehood.
How do we do so? How do we ensure that no falsehood even enters our mind for a moment? If we saturate ourselves with the truth we make no room for lies. If instead of even responding to fabrications, we broadcasted the truth, there would be no room for lies. If we proactively fortify ourselves with the truth – that we are Jews and we are proud to be Jews. We are proud to be a part of this nation, proud to be associated with Israel because Israel is governed by people who try to rule with justice, inhabited by a nation that wants no more bloodshed, and watched over by a G-d that loves peace – there will be no room for lies.
To do so we need be to be confident and we need to be resolute. The good news is that there is no shortage of role models in this battle for the truth.
Scarlet Johansenn, the spokeswomen for Soda Stream, is facing fierce criticism from different organizations for her endorsement of Soda Stream. And despite the mounting pressure she is standing up for what she knows to be right.
Perhaps we could look to Evgeny Kissin, a Moscow-born, world famous pianist, who last month applied for Israeli citizenship. The reason?
In his own words: “I am a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state – and since long ago I have felt that Israel, although I do not live there, is the only state in the world with which I can fully identify myself, whose case, problems, tragedies and very destiny I perceive to be mine…
When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet, I want them to come and make troubles at my concerts, too: because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared of the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish State beyond its borders.
I want all the people who appreciate my art to know that I am a Jew, that I belong to the People of Israel. That’s why now I feel a natural desire to travel around the world with an Israeli passport.”
Or perhaps, we need to emulate Aaron Leiberman, who a few weeks ago became the first basketball player in the NCAA division 1 to wear a kippah on the court. Yes, some of our professions may not be compatible with wearing a kippah, but what about in our homes? What about in the shopping center? What about when we walk down the street?
In a world that tries to make people ashamed for being associated with Israel, we have to scream from our rooftops – I am Jewish and I am proud to be connected to the State of Israel.
I conclude with the powerful words of my Prime Minister, Stephen Harper: “I believe the story of Israel is a great example to the world.
It is a story, essentially, of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading “start-up” nation.
You have taken the collective memory of death and persecution to build an optimistic, forward-looking land one that so values life, you will sometimes release a thousand criminals and terrorists, to save one of your own.
In the democratic family of nations, Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith, and principles to drive our national life.
And therefore, through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.”
And if I may add: that therefore through fire and water, we the Jewish People will stand with you. We will stand tall and tell the world that an attack on Israel is attack on me. Let’s saturate ourselves with truth and distance ourselves from falsehood. Let’s be ambassadors to the world that Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish Nation and the Jewish State, are intrinsically connected and we are proud to be Israel’s ambassadors and representatives.
The next blessing is a plea for the restoration of Jerusalem. The Torah teaches us that Sheim the son of Noach named the city Shaleim (perfection) and Avraham named the city Hasehm Yireh (Hashem will see). Hence, G=d calls the city Yerushalayim, a combination of these two names.
Based on chronology (Sheim having named the city well before Avraham) the city’s name should be Shalom-yireh. Why does the Torah establish its name using Avaraham’s name first?
Some commentators explain that Sheim recognized a perfection that emanated from the holy city. He was on to something – Yerushalayim is indeed the holiest city in the world. However, calling it perfect implied that it’s perfection is automatic and inherent. Avaraham came along and described the city as a meeting place between man and G-d. In Jerusalem it is easier to access our mission in life and we are more easily able to perfect the world, thus G-d could see us, so to speak, more clearly.
What G-d is teaching us by placing the words Yirah before Shaleim is that the true perfection can only come about when we realize that we play an integral role in bringing that perfection about. When we realize that our actions are necessary to perfect the world, then and only then will the true potential of perfection emanate from Jerusalem. When we inculcate this idea, G-d is watching us and our actions make a difference, then we will merit the rebuilding of the city of perfection, the city of Yerushalayim.
The conclusion of the blessing for the righteous is a blessing for those of us who are not on their stature. After acknowledging how essential of a role they play in history and in the good of the world we should be inspired to emulate these great people. We therefore ask G-d to “place our portion among theirs” – to please help us transform ourselves. Both because we want to emulate them but also “so that we will not be ashamed in eternity.” Meaning, while in this world our mistakes or sins are not known to all and therefore we are not always ashamed of what we do. In the World to Come our sins will be known to all and we will have to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. We therefore ask G-d to help us change a) for altruistic reasons – we want to be like the righteous and b) for the less ideal reason that we do not want to be ashamed in the World to Come.
The next blessing is a request for specific groups among the Jewish People; the Tzaddikim – those who are righteous and are meticulous in their Mitzvah-observance, the Chassidim – those who go beyond the letter of the law, Ziknei amcha – the elders, meaning those who lead and give advice to the Jewish People, P’leitas sofreihem – literally, the remnant of the scholars, a reference to Torah scholars, and Geirei hatzedek – converts.
Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz explains that we should pray for the welfare of these five groups of people because it is in their merit that all good comes down to earth.
The Gemara in Brachos relates a story involving the sage Rabbi Meir. There was an individual who would deliberately make his life miserable. One day he had had enough and so he decided to pray for the demise of the individual. His wise wife Beruriah suggested that instead of praying for the demise he should pray for them to repent.
The Vilna Gaon comments that this is exactly what we are doing in this prayer. We are not praying that sinners perish we are praying that G-d eradicate evil from the world. We see this quite clearly, explains the Vilan Gaon, in the opening sentence, “V’chol harisha k’rega toveid, all of evil should be destroyed. All the evil but not the evildoers.
The twelfth blessing is one that is directed towards those who oppress the Jewish People. This blessing was added years after the Shemoneh Esrei was composed. (This is why we call it Shemoneh Esrei, which means eighteen even though there are nineteen blessings.) It was added after the destruction of the Second Temple in response to the many religious factions that were fighting for the soul of the Jewish People. Some groups used reason other used political power but all in all it was very dangerous time for the continuity of Judaism as we know it. In response to these physical and spiritual threats Rabban Gamliel the Second the leader of the Jewish People at the time, sought a sage who could compose a prayer asking G-d to stop these people from their evil ways. Eventually, Shmuel ‘The Small’ was found and he composed this prayer. He was called ‘the small’ due to his humility. This was the reason he was chosen to write this prayer. Rabban Gamliel wasnted the prayer written written without resentment and in a pure spirit and therefore Shmuel the Small who was known for his humility was a perfect candidate.