Guest Columnist: Eras end

We have navigated many eras of change successfully and basically we have remained the same.

December 17, 2010 15:18
3 minute read.
’Moses Receiving the Ten Commandments’

10 Commandments 58. (photo credit: Marc Chagall)

This Shabbat, the Jewish people complete the reading of the book of Genesis. In rabbinic literature, this book is known as the book of the avot – the book of our forefathers and mothers, the founders of our people and our faith. It was an era of individual greatness, of lone people in a hostile world whose pursuit of truth and loyalty to their creator influenced their world and all of humankind thereafter.

The next era, which will also produce great individuals such as Moses and Aaron, is nevertheless the era of nationhood, of the many and of forging a new society out of a disparate and large number of individuals.

There is a certain exhilaration in being the lonely individual standing against the many on matters of faith and principle. It is deemed courageous and, many times, selfless.

It entails the willingness to sacrifice and to endure indignities. Yet as difficult as it is for one to be such an individual, it is infinitely more difficult to successfully engage in nation building or forming positive societies.

An individual has a freedom of choice and need not worry about others. Not so one who is forced into forming societies and directing them. The great era of the founders and individuals ended, but the gargantuan task of building a people with a common sense of purpose and values demands a new era of greatness and leadership. And that is the message of the change in nuance and emphasis of the Torah from the book of Genesis to the coming book of Exodus.

The long and painful era of Jewish exile was not so much a time of building societies as it was a time of struggling for survival. As such, it required special mechanisms and social pressures to maintain a semblance of organized Jewish life. But to a great extent, especially here in Israel but perhaps even in large areas of the Diaspora, these mechanisms, tools, policies and outlooks are no longer really productive or relevant.

The era of nation building cannot rely on bans, pronouncements and impractical policies that may have had validity in a different era but are no longer effective. The Torah and its halachic standards do not change with the fashions of the time. But attitudes, goals and policies to create a Torah nation do change, and change they must. People often quote personal opinions – not Halacha – of great leaders of the past on societal matters and attempt to elevate them to the level of Halacha.

My feeling always has been: How do I know what these great people would have said had they lived today under the circumstances of Jewish nationhood, after a Holocaust and in the face of the modern interconnected world? Is it not slightly arrogant to think that a different era would somehow not have brought different responses to social and national problems, none of which are covered in Halacha? It is hard to identify eras when one is in one. They are best seen in retrospect with the perfect hindsight of history. It orders us to analyze and understand the tears – eras – of every generation separately. Yet the Torah also bids us to be aware that eras change and that time is not frozen. The tasks set before every generation may be the same in broad scope, but they certainly differ in nuance and detail. The task of building a Jewish society here is the same as it always has been, but the circumstances are not those of 1948, let alone of 1897.

The adjustment to that reality has been a most difficult one for the Jewish people. We do not recognize clearly the demarcation line that separates one era from the next.

But surely that line does exist and, more importantly, an attempt must be made to recognize it.

The secret that has allowed the Jewish world to survive has been its resilience and practicality, combined with faith and tradition. We have navigated many eras of change successfully and basically we have remained the same, true to our original identity and purpose. I am certain that this will be the case regarding our current era.

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