Meir Feldman
Founder Project 97b

5th Night of Hanukkah – Torah Must Lead to God

On Day 3, we asked about the ultimate goal, the binding thread of everything we Jews are called to do.  Is the overarching purpose of all we do: love of G-d, love of Torah, or love of Israel?  אוהב השם, תורה או ישראל?  (Rabbi YY Jacobson raises this question in a powerful way.) On Day 3, we set forth the claim that love of Israel is the binding thread to everything we Jews are called to do. 

But why?  It’s simple.  If one is not promoting, inspiring, modeling a love of every Jew, then it is categorically, definitionally impossible that he/she is a lover of Torah or Hashem.  As the Zohar says, they are all one, חד הוא.  If one of them is absent, then they are all absent, they are not happening by definition.  A genuine, embodied love of Israel is objective evidence of a love of Torah and of God.  A genuine, embodied love of God or Torah must also manifest in a love of Israel, in order for that love of God and Torah to be genuine and authentic.

Today, let’s look at a related question.  There is more Torah learning today than any time before, in all of Jewish history.  It’s glorious, incredible, extraordinary.  Obviously, naturally, inevitably, there must be, there should also be more peace in our Jewish communities, throughout the Jewish people everywhere.  “All her ways our peace . . .” וכל נתיבותיה שלום, we say, every time we return the Torah to the Aron HaKodesh.  But it’s clearly not the case.  Animosity, extreme divisiveness more defines our relationships with Jews different than us than peace.  We must say this, although with great regret.  

What is going on when the study of Torah is not producing a love, an intense love for all Jews?  An extraordinary teacher of Torah, Yiscah Smith, recently shared this.  What if we’ve forgotten that G-d should be the goal of every experience of Jewish learning.  Closeness to Hashem must be the aspiration, the destination of every encounter we have with G-d’s sacred texts.  Genuine, authentic experiences of Jewish learning must constantly deepen our connection with Hashem and that will inevitably cultivate a deeper love of every Jew (and every human being as well).   Thank you Yiscah. 

Hanukkah is about the faith that a small but bright light can overcome darkness, evil.  Today we are so blessed to have more learning opportunities than ever before in Jewish history.  This is a nes gadol (great miracle) beyond measure.  But, consider the blessing we give to our children every Friday night, “May G-d bless you and keep you.”  Rashi asks, what’s the difference between יברכך and ישמרך – to bless and to keep/observe/protect?  Rashi suggests that sometimes our material blessings face the risk of being stolen or lost. Sometimes we fail to recognize what’s at the core of our blessings.  Sometimes we take them for granted, we lose our connection with their essence.  It does seem that in the great abundance of Jewish learning happening today, we have so much progress to make in our search for an ever-deepening connection with God, Torah and the Jews around us.

I’m thinking about a teaching from the Sefat Emet on the Passover Haggadah.  Every Seder, we sing, והיא שעמדה לאבותינו ולנו – שלא אחד בלבד עמד עלינו . . . that in every generation, not just in the one generation of Pharaoh who enslaved us, a tyrant, a terrible anti-semite rises up to destroy us.  Antiochus is the Hanukkah anti-semite.  There are so many Jew-haters.  It seems there is at least one in every generation. 

But, the great Hasidic master, Sefat Emet, who died in 1904, makes a radical interpretation of this song.  He offers a profoundly different understanding.  He says that the reference to “״אחד, to “one” means something entirely different.  “Sh’lo echad bilvad” means that “when we Jews, when the Jewish people are not echad,” when we are not one, united, that is the terrible tyrant, the powerful, single force that comes to destroy us – G-d forbid, in every generation.  

Throughout our Hanukkah story, intra-Jewish violence is a powerful and striking thread.  We totally failed at coming together, at learning from one another, listening to each other’s life experiences, abilities and limitations.  The pious and zealous Jews knew the word and the concept of teshuva very well but failed to heed its call.  The increasingly hellenized Jews failed to learn and immerse themselves in the deep, profound power of teshuvah.  They all suffered.  We suffered as a people.  This Hanukkah give the gift of teshuva

About the Author
One of the most profound and inspiring experiences of my life was attending the Wednesday night Bible Study class at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That was July 1, 2015, just 2 weeks after the tragic and horrific murder of the Charleston 9. The pain and faith, the heartbreak and hope of the grieving family members we met (and hold as dear friends to this day) was one of the most uplifting religious experiences of my life. Alongside Rabbi Tara Feldman, I served as a congregational rabbi for over 20 years, including the last 13 years at our beloved Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, New York. There were so many highs throughout those years -- one of them was to bring 8 amazing sisters of Myra Thompson to Great Neck. What I now know is that for many years as a law student and attorney, long before my rabbinical journey, I yearned for a different sense of meaning and purpose. That was what I discovered in my second mountain, in my steep and beautiful climb into a passionate Jewish life (taking a term from David Brooks). And now, having made aliyah with my wife and children, I think that I am experiencing the blessing of a third mountain. That is what Israel, Jerusalem and Project 97b feel like – yet another inspiring and deeply challenging ascent to a beautiful and unattainable peak.
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