“The Yoke of Kingship” Simchat Torah 5781

Last week, I read an excellent column written by Rabbi Chaim Navon. Rav Navon is an influential rabbi in the Modern Orthodox Israeli scene. He was ordained at Yeshivat Har Etzion and he considers himself a student of its former dean, Rav Aharon Liechtenstein, and of Rav Liechtenstein’s father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik. Rav Navon writes a weekly column in Makor Rishon, an Israeli newspaper aimed squarely at the politically-conservative religiously-orthodox crowd.

Rav Navon’s column was called “Ol Malchut” – “The Yoke of Kingship”. The topic at hand was Israel’s extremely poor performance in the second wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Israel currently holds the world’s highest per capita infection rate and this week we surpassed the U.S. morbidity rate per thousand inhabitants. Rav Navon attributes our poor performance to the infamous “Israeli mentality”. Israelis are excellent at thinking out of the box, cutting corners, and embracing risk. These are qualities that help define us as the “Start-up Nation”. But these very same qualities are also endangering our lives. Too many Israelis do not wear masks or when they do wear them, they wear them around their chins. Too many Israelis have reduced social distancing from two metres to two centimetres. And of course we always have a rebuttal ready for the police officer who attempts to enforce the law. Rav Navon brings an illustration but I have one of my own: About twenty years ago, we visited Fraser Island, a sand bar off the coast of Queensland. Fraser has no roads per se, just sandy paths that are little more than one car wide. Two cars that meet traveling in opposite directions must find a modus vivendi and manoeuvre around each other. It takes a few hours, but you quickly figure things out. We were driving along and we found ourselves face to face with a large SUV going in the opposite direction. No worries, we thought. We backed up, expecting him to do the same. Instead, he drove straight ahead until we were nose to nose. We backed up again, looking for room to pull off to the side and again he moved forward, capturing the territory we had just surrendered. This kind of behaviour was all too familiar. I rolled down my window and shouted in Hebrew, “Lachzor achora od k’tzat (Should I back up a little more)?” The driver of the other car yelled back at me in Hebrew, “Ken! Ken! (Yes! Yes!)” We are all too easily recognizable for who we are.

Rav Navon segues from the physical to the spiritual, where he claims that Israelis suffer from similar symptoms. We espouse high-adrenaline religion while eschewing “a simple life of following rules”. Israelis have great difficulty making peace with statements like, “We must do it because G-d said so”. Here, too, claims Rav Navon, we are paying a heavy price. He points to the incense offered by the High Priest in the Beit HaMikdash. The Torah explicitly forbids adding honey to the incense. A Baraita[1] in Tractate Keritot teaches, “If a person were to add only a modicum of honey, [the incense would smell so good that] no human could withstand it. Why, then, do we not add honey to the incense? Because the Torah teaches [Vayikra 2:10] ‘No leaven or honey may be turned into smoke as an offering by fire to G-d’”. Indeed, incense mixed with honey would smell utterly amazing but, nevertheless, G-d forbade it and so it is off the table. Being Jewish means negating our own intelligence before G-d. It means accepting the yoke of His Authority.

Rav Navon concludes with the following words: “We must obey the laws not because we understand them or identify with them but merely because they are the law. We can ask why, but even if the answer is not up to our standards, we must still obey. We must keep G-d’s laws because he is our Creator and our King. Similarly, we must keep man’s laws because without them, we would eat each other alive[2]” As alien as this concept sounds to some Israelis, sometimes “just because[3]” is the only appropriate answer.

Rav Navon’s column shook me. I found it terribly depressing. Is this how we Israelis really define ourselves? Are we doomed to continue forever down this path? Perhaps not. A well-known Midrash [Mechilta Yitro] teaches that before G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish People, He offered it to the other nations. First, G-d approached the descendants of Esav and asked them if they wanted the Torah. “What does it contain?” they inquired. “Do not kill,” G-d replied. “In that case,” they responded, “it is not for us. Murder is an integral part of the way we do business.” Then G-d approached the descendants of Ishmael and asked them if they wanted the Torah. “What does it contain?” they inquired. “Do not steal,” G-d replied. “In that case,” they responded, “it is not for us. We cannot live without robbery.” Similarly, the descendants of Ammon and Moab, nations whose origins are rooted in an incestuous liaison between Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his two daughters, rebuffed the Torah because it prohibits incest. The Midrash concludes with G-d offering the Torah to the Jewish People, who make no inquiries as to its content, simply declaring in unison [Shemot 24:7] “Na’aseh v’nishma” – “We will do what it says and we will listen to what it says.” The former Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem BeYavneh, Rav Chaim Yaakov Goldwicht, asserts that the response of the Jewish People to G-d’s query demonstrated that they had conquered their greatest weakness, an almost instinctive lack of unity and mutual respect –  G-d calls the Jewish People [Shemot 32:9] “A stiff-necked people” and Moshe chides them [Devarim 9:24] “As long as I have known you, you have been defiant toward G-d”. But when we declared in unison, “We will do, we will listen”, we demonstrated our ability to rise above the sum of our parts by putting aside our differences and becoming one nation in the service of G-d. And if we, as a nation, could rise above our tendency of being disrespectful, then perhaps we could also rise above our tendency of being unwilling to accept authority.

Let’s return to the Midrash. It just doesn’t seem fair. All of the nations that G-d approached had to choose between the Torah and a particular law that went against the grain of their culture – their national Achilles heel. What if G-d had given the Jewish People a similar test? What if He had told us that the Torah forbids eating milk and meat together, meaning that cheeseburgers are off the menu, or that one day out of every seven, we are forbidden from performing any meaningful start-up-nation-related labour? How would we have reacted? The reason that G-d and the Jewish People did not have this kind of conversation is because the Jewish People did not ask G-d what was written in the Torah. Each nation was shown a law that went against its DNA. When they could not overcome their national Achilles heel, G-d moved to the next nation and repeated the process. The national Achilles heel of the Jewish People was our need to ask “Why?” – our inability to blindly accept authority. When we said “We will obey, we will listen” without asking what was written in the Torah, we proved that we were worthy of receiving the Torah.

In just a few days, we will celebrate the holiday of Simchat Torah, which commemorates the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings. In previous years, on Simchat Torah we would dance the night away, have a huge Kiddush for the entire congregation, and the kids would get candy-bags. Not this year. This year, dancing, Kiddush, and candy-bags are verboten[4]. Masks and social distancing are the order of the day. Synagogues are closed – those lucky enough to live in a religious neighbourhood with a warm climate will pray in a “street-minyan”. Simchat Torah will be very different this year and perhaps that is not such a bad thing. If we can remember what we once did in order to receive the Torah, perhaps we can remember that we need to do the same thing today in order to properly celebrate the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya, and Iris bat Chana.

[1] A “Baraita” is a teaching of Tannaic origin that was omitted from the Mishnah.

[2]Ish et re’ehu chayyim bela’o”.

[3] “Just because” in Hebrew is “Kacha”. Rav Navon quotes Rav Benny Lau who interprets the verse [Psalms 145:2] “Ashrei ha’am she’kacha lo” – as “Happy is the nation who is satisfied with kacha”.

[4] Seems the kids are getting candy bags this year by us. They must have a very influential labour union.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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