In his autobiography, Bob Dylan recalls sitting on his uncle’s shoulders in a cowboy suit during a parade for President Harry Truman in Duluth, Minnesota. Although only 7 years old, little Bob, born Robert Allen Zimmerman, described the exhilaration of the crowd, hanging on to the president’s every word as he spoke in a Midwestern nasal twang.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses gathered all of the Jewish people during their last days in the desert. They were meant to establish a covenant with G-d. Nobody would be excluded — whether he was a leader or a water-carrier, an adult or a child. Even the Egyptians who followed the Jews in the desert and often provoked them to sin were included. They had come this far and would be entering the Land of Canaan under the protection of G-d.
This was the second covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The first was at Sinai nearly 40 years earlier. But the betrayal by those who had left Egypt — whether through the Golden Calf or the refusal to enter the Land of Canaan — led to the decimation of an entire generation. Now, it was the turn of their children to swear fealty to G-d. The terms were the same: loyalty to G-d and observance of His commandments.
Why? “In order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your G-d, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, or Rashi, was troubled by this sentence. Why was another covenant necessary? G-d had already told His people everything that needed to be said. Through Moses, G-d spelled out the choice of blessings and curses; home or exile, life or death.
“He undertakes so much trouble (in making another covenant with you) in order that He may keep you for a people in His presence.”
The underlying message is stunning: G-d navigates history for one reason — to keep the Jewish people together whatever the cost. Some of them might turn away from the Torah; most of them might even do so. But G-d ensures that the people will come back to Him — whether in this or future generations.
This is Jewish history. For more than 100 years, German Jews tried to assimilate into gentile society. They converted to Christianity, married gentile women and raised their children in the spirit of Martin Luther. In the United States, the Jews adopted the Reform movement, which declared that the Jews were not a nation and no longer needed to follow the Torah. The movement opposed Jewish statehood as well as Jewish education. In the end, intermarriage exceeded 70 percent and the Jewish community dwindled from six million in the late 1940s to no more than two million Today, there is hardly a Reform temple open except for the High Holy Days.
In July 2020, a senior Israeli official relayed to the Knesset an astounding statistic. Dvir Kahana, director-general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, reported that 80 percent of the estimated 7.7 million Jews outside Israel feel no connection to their religion or other Jews. Not surprisingly, a leading Reform rabbi in the United States, Ammiel Hirsch, said his movement now needs Israel for survival. But Hirsch, in an article in May 2021, did not address how 50 years of Reform policies led to the decimation of the U.S. Jewish community.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen, better known as the Chafetz Chaim, wrote that the Jewish people don’t start out as wanting to betray G-d. But their presence in the Diaspora habituates them to the ways of the gentile. What first appears as unthinkable eventually becomes the norm because the Jew is drawn by gentile society. What is first done in secret becomes open behavior. The Christians spend an hour in church on Sunday listening to the minister and sing a few songs played on the organ: Why can’t the Jews do that as well? Then, both can make it to the golf course before lunch.
This week’s portion tells us that the covenant with G-d is uncompromising. The Jew cannot sin for six days and stand as a hypocrite in synagogue on the Sabbath. On the other hand, G-d made a promise to our forefathers that he would never replace the Jewish people. Keeping that promise requires divine patience. As the Midrash of Psalms points out, “No man can absolve himself from judgement.” When the Jewish people sin, they are punished in this world to save them from the world to come. Often, the penalty is painful, even lethal, but it is the decision of a patient and loving father.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, or the Or Hachayim, provides another perspective to the convening of all of Israel. He says the Torah’s insistence on listing every strata of the Jewish people is meant to stress their unity. But unity, he says, demands responsibility and accountability. The water carrier must answer to the leader. But the leader must justify his actions to the water carrier. When it comes to G-d, there is no parliamentary immunity.
Next week is Rosh Hashana, a time for soul-searching and repentance. Neither can be achieved unless there is an honest look at ourselves and our actions. That is not to be taken for granted. Many rabbis and educators. particularly those aligned with the government, ignore or even reject the need for repentance. But there are facts that cannot be denied. The path of assimilation — whether in Israel or the Diaspora — has failed. The pursuit of money and power has proven to be empty. The notion that one can be a faithful Jew without devotion to or belief in G-d is a lie. The notion that Judaism can be confined to the synagogue is as great a lie.
No amount of politics or media can change this. It is time to abandon the lie. Then, we will see G-d’s mercy and salvation immediately. There is not a moment to spare.