What unites Jews throughout the world as one nation and one people? What is the most critical factor responsible for our amazing persistence as a unique historical entity, despite our having been scattered throughout the globe and subject to persecution and pogrom, despite our having been chased from pillar to post? What idea and ideal has prevented us from falling prey to assimilation, from disappearing into the sands of time as just another grain of sand, indistinguishable from the other grains, simply being “a part of” rather being “set apart from”? Why have we insisted upon Jewish exclusivity, Jewish separatism, Jewish apartness?
Our biblical portion of Matot makes a distinction between two technical terms which it doesn’t quite define: “If a man makes a vow [neder] to dedicate an object to the Lord, or takes an oath [shevua] to prohibit himself from partaking of a certain food or from participating in a certain activity, he must not desecrate his word” (Numbers 30:3). My revered teacher and mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik defines a vow as pertaining to an object (a person is on a diet, and he vows that henceforth bread will become for him as prohibited as bacon), and an oath as pertaining to a subject (the person himself will no longer eat bread).
In the first instance of vow, the emphasis is on the object, the bread, the “heftza”; in the second instance of oath, the emphasis is on the subject, the person, the “gavra.”
In the Talmudic school of Brisker methodology, much of the world may be divided between gavra and heftza, subject and object; indeed, in most instances a human being – especially if he is born to be free – ought be seen as a “subject.” However, if a person is enslaved, he ipso facto has been turned into an “object,” having been denied his fundamental freedom of choice.
This distinction can serve us well in attempting to answer our opening philosophical query about what sets Jews apart and makes us unique. But first a personal experience of significance. At the end of the Yom Kippur War, while on an El Al airplane on the way to Israel, I was shocked to discover that a acquaintance of mine, who had lost his first family in Auschwitz, remarried and had two sons on the West Side of Manhattan, had moved to Israel and lost his eldest boy in the Six Day War and had now lost his only remaining son in the Yom Kippur War.
I made a condolence call as soon as I got off the plane.
My disconsolate friend was sitting on the floor with his wife, surrounded by would-be comforters; no one, however, said a word, so that the atmosphere was tense with a heavy silence which shouted upwards to heaven in tear-filled protest. As I quietly intoned the condolence formula: “May the Place [Makom, a synonym for God] comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”, my friend looked up. “Why does the blessing use the word Makom and not Elokim or Hashem?” He didn’t wait for a reply, but himself offered the answer. “When I lost my first family in the Holocaust, I couldn’t even mourn properly and I could not be comforted; it all seemed so absurd and meaningless.
Now, however, although I am devastated and unable to speak to my comforters, I nevertheless do feel comforted.
The place comforts me; the fact that my second set of children were killed to preserve Israel and Jerusalem, to guarantee Jewish future and Jewish destiny.
Yes, the place comforts me…” Allow me to interpret this distraught but wise father’s words, on the basis of yet another insight from Rav Soloveichik. In Kol Dodi Dofek, my rebbe distinguishes between the Holocaust experience in which the Jews were united by a common fate (goral) foisted upon them from without, from a largely sinister gentile world cooperating enthusiastically with the “final solution” of Nazi Germany – and the Sinai experience – in which the Jews were united by a common destiny (yi’ud) which they accepted upon themselves, pledging to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers to convey God’s message of compassionate righteousness and moral justice to the world. It is this sense of destiny which brought us to Israel and compels us to fight against tyranny and terrorism.
The three pure and holy sacrificial Jewish victims of this last period – Gil-Ad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and Naftali Fraenkel – were captured and mercilessly murdered outside Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. And tragically an innocent Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir was cruelly murdered, seemingly at the hands of misguided and evil Jewish teenagers. The Gush lies geographically between Hebron – where God initially chose Abraham and made him the father of a multitude of nations including Ishmael because he was teaching his descendants God’s path of compassionate righteousness and moral justice (Gen. 18:18-19), and Jerusalem, where Jewish and world history will culminate in a Holy Temple from whence Zion’s message of a Torah of peace and redemption will be accepted by all the nations of the globe. Now too, the “place” (makom) comforts us in our period of national rebirth – among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, currently celebrating their 30th anniversary, and chief rabbi of Efrat. The fifth volume of his acclaimed Torah Lights series of parsha commentary was recently published by Koren Publishers.