|By Roland S. Süssmann|
One of the best-known questions related to the festival of Pesach is Ma nishtanah – what’s different? Of course, this refers to Seder night. But it can easily be paraphrased to refer to Rosh Hashanah, by asking in what way does the change of year and the Jewish High Holy Days vary from one year to another? Each time, we get to thinking, each time we acknowledge our faults, which is no small thing in itself, and each year we decide to improve ourselves and to abandon our bad habits. Unfortunately, however, every year at the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we realize that in fact we are practically at the same point where we were a year ago. To have an idea in what way we ought to approach the seriousness of the new year and guide us in our thinking, we met Rabbi David Fox, one of the great educationalists in Israel.
In the final analysis, one year follows another and in general they seem like each other, at least in our personal conduct and perhaps that of the nation. Do you believe it is really sensible each to time to renew our introspection and to make all those good resolutions, which at the end of the day will not be observed, or only a little bit. In what way should this year be different from previous ones in the way we approach such a crucial period?
Firstly, I hope each one of us asks themselves this question. I think these problems apply equally at both the national and personal levels. Over recent years many extremely important things have happened in Israel at these two levels. But before talking about the people as a group, I would like to recall that at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur each us comes individually before the Almighty and asks himself or herself, “Where was I, where am I now and where do I want to be?”. Everyone should also ask himself or herself what lessons they have drawn from their mistakes and successes, and especially to what extent they have lived up to their responsibilities and how much they have contributed to the development and wellbeing of the nation. Each of these is a massive issue in their own right, but they are also linked, since the more individuals progress, the more society and the environment progress. The more people are educated, the more they are experienced, the more they are prepared to make their contribution to society and have some sort of influence, however small it is. Having said which, it’s certain that every personal development immediately has a direct effect on the actions of each and every one of us. That is the reason that in Jewish law, each one comes individually before G-d. It is true that during New Year, the Almighty judges both individuals and nations, but Rosh Hashanah is the time for each to make good decisions and make a choice about how much to contribute to the country and the nation. To illustrate my thesis, I will give you an example that in fact does not only concern the religious world, but is significant. For many years I have been involved in a series of educational projects. A few years ago we launched the concept and program of Yeshiva Colleges. At the beginning this affected only a very few people, but gradually this small entity got bigger and today there are about 7,000 students in this type of institution around the country. You have to understand that the concept of combining secular studies with Jewish studies was completely revolutionary, if not almost heretical. This type of education has become accepted, especially among the national religious public. If this constitutes a success in and of itself, the true, positive result is the fact that now hundreds of former students are active in education throughout the country... in non-religious schools.
Are you giving us this example to tell us that effectively the whole issue of introspection and individual development is fundamentally a question of education?
One might have thought that if people had better education they would be better, more serious, more responsible etc. This unfortunately is not the case, even though a good education undeniably contributes to a person’s development. When you see the newspapers everyday, you could believe that the principal problem Israel faces daily is that of security. It is certainly important, but in truth our biggest problem lies in education. There can be no doubt that if it was better, we would not have to make such a massive military effort.
In a conflict with your enemy, you first of all need to know how to behave towards him. In this regard I will quote from the end of the third Book of Moses, where the Almighty states what are the rewards and the punishments if we do not act according to His precepts. Thus it says (Leviticus 26:3-7), “…If ye walk in My statutes, and keep My commandments, and do them…I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land.” The importance of this blessing can be easily understood if we note what is happening in Sderot, where for almost seven years, the inhabitants no longer sleep without fear and no longer know what is undisturbed sleep. But if we take a closer look at the text, the following question has to be asked. Is it not curious that at the end of the sentence, it is stated, “neither shall the sword go through your land”, whereas at the beginning the Almighty had said “I will give peace in the land”? Nachmanides answers this question by saying that there will be no more swords in the land when we have established peace among ourselves! This plainly means that if our enemies see that we are divided, they will note our weakness because we will be using our force to fight among ourselves. In Israel and in the Jewish world in general today, differences between the observant and non-observant, religious and non-religious, left and right are much too large. I believe that the only way to end these differences that are eating away at our society and that are greatly weakening us, is to promote Jewish education and teaching.
Do you not think that this will quite simply lead us to a type of uniform society directed by a single mode of thought?
Quite the contrary. The Midrash tells us that when Moses brought the Torah to the Jewish People, he was faced by innumerable commentators, each of whom interpreted the Law as he saw fit. So Moses spoke to the Almighty, asking Him to tell him the sole, unique interpretation that was right. And G-d answered him, “The Torah has 70 faces (or aspects)”. We are not robots and throughout all our religious literature there has been continuous, open debate.
Does not such a concept open the door to Liberal or Reform Judaism?
Throughout the ages, starting with the highly knowledgeable students of Rabbi Akiva, discussion and argument were appropriate, though always within a well defined framework. We are indeed talking of the “70 faces”. Now everyone one knows that no face resembles another, they remain faces and do not adopt the shape of a foot or a hand. First and foremost, religious interpretation must be carried out with respect for the Other, which does not mean under any circumstances that it should be a libertarian or anarchic doctrine. An interpretation that is not in the Torah spirit will lead inexorably to the destruction of the Jewish people and of Israel. And that’s how we get back to what happens on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Those among us who live according to their own idea and explanation of the Torah and are comfortable with this way of life they have created for themselves, will never start to feel the need to ask themselves questions, to undertake introspection and to make good resolutions. It is exactly for that reason that this period of the year, starting at the beginning of the month of Elul and until Hoshana Rabba, provides us with the chance to renew ourselves, to reset everything to zero and start off on a new track without tying ourselves down to a routine or some religious comfort that we perhaps created on false premises. The Almighty has given us enough material to tell us what is right and what is wrong. I will take an example from the physical world. Various rules allow us to build a plane or a rocket that will reach the moon. On the other hand, the laws of gravity do not allow these devices to take off. Yet by using certain principles of physics properly, our aircraft will take off without a problem, though there is one condition. The laws of physics must be properly applied and that there are no excesses. The same goes for our religion. And here too, each of us is required to know and be aware of what G-d expects of us, and what, according to His commandments, is the right and proper behavior to adopt.
According to this idea, the responsibility for the spread of Judaism and its precepts is above all in the hands of those Jews who have had the privilege of studying. They have the responsibility of interesting those among us who have not studied, who come from non-religious or even anti-religious circles. Do you think that this is what happens in practice?
It is interesting to note that this question does not date from today, but that it is two thousand years old. At the time there was a major debate on this subject between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, the two leading schools of thought among the Jewish people. To understand the different concepts of teaching of these two schools, let me quote the famous example of the non-Jew who first went to Shammai and asked him to explain Judaism in the time he could manage to stand on one leg. Shammai chased him away. He then went to Hillel and asked the same question. He answered him, “Do not do to others what you would not have done to yourself. All the rest is just commentary”. Does this mean that the one was intolerant and that the other got rid of this intruder, who was probably making fun, with a flippant answer? Absolutely not. Shammai was of the opinion that Judaism must be studied and practiced in the most rigorous and profoundest manner, and believed he could not provide a satisfactory and complete answer for this man in the time he had said. Hillel for his part understood that the question was about knowing what were the fundamentals, the essence of Judaism. So he told him, “Be responsible towards your neighbor, yourself, your environment and your people. A Jew’s first duty is to act as a responsible being”.
Bet Shammai and its disciples were always the minority because they believed that by being the most rigorous possible and by living as close as possible to the letter of the law that they would be followed by giving the right example of serving G-d and living as Jews should. They clearly represented a highly selective and very closed club. The disciples of Hillel were more open and believed that one needed to include the maximum number of people within their group. A maximum, yes; no matter who, no! The debate between these two schools lasted two hundred years, but throughout Jewish history, the spiritual leadership always related to one or other of the trends, relative to the situation of the communities. Thus during periods of danger, communities tended to close up more, while in calmer times the tendency was to openness, at times even exaggerated. Today I would say that the ultra-orthodox are closer to Bet Shammai, whereas the national religious camp is closer to the teachings and principles of Bet Hillel and makes an effort to be in contact with the non-observant part of society. In my opinion, acting that way they are meeting their responsibility, which is to spread Judaism in such a way that it is attractive and interesting for circles that do not consider themselves as being interested in this issue. It should be clear that the purpose of all this is to allow individuals to improve themselves, so that we can live in a society that will enjoy increasingly positive development at every level. Incidentally, this is bearing fruit, since slowly but surely we are witnessing a change of attitudes in Israeli society, which is moving away from materialism and is seeking a certain spirituality. When people discover the beauty and the profundity of the Torah’s message, they become increasingly aware of what it gives them to improve the quality of their lives.
In this spirit, how should we approach Rosh Hashanah 5768?
A crisis is never desirable. However, it is in times of crisis that a person is obliged to make choices and to take decisions, often fundamental ones. To illustrate my idea, I will quote another example from a revolutionary educational program in which I am actively involved. Today more than ever, the time has come to make both individual choices and those of society that will let us hope that things are going to change for the good, and this naturally starts with education. Now it is clear that the existing educational system is not functioning and is insufficient. We have therefore been obliged to act differently. We have decided to launch a teaching that is interesting and attractive for students of our circles and in which we directly involve their parents. These come for a few hours each week to take part in classes and to go away with homework. For example, when we teach the idea of responsibility, we do not just teach the Talmudic passage (from the 2nd chapter of Tractate Makot) that talks about causing death accidentally. The examples given are very far from daily life. We decided to present this problem from the angle of a driver’s responsibility. In Israel there are several hundred fatal accidents annually, most of which could have been avoided if drivers drove responsibly. In the Talmud the three levels of responsibility – inadvertence, accident and what we are forced to do against our will – are clearly defined, but with examples that are too abstract for our times. Now it is essential to explain to a young person the value of life, that it isn’t good enough to say sorry afterwards but that you have to think before you act. This sort of awareness raises our sense of responsibility to a different level. The improvement of our society will above all occur when it feels a sense of responsibility. According to the principles of the Torah, when you knock into someone in the street inadvertently, you are responsible.
And individual responsibility leads to collective responsibility. On Yom Kippur, in the Al Chet prayer, the very first transgression for which we ask the Almighty to pardon us is that which we have been forced to commit against our will (be’onness). But can we be held responsible for acts committed against our will, in other words, which we could not have prevented? This is exactly where responsible thought comes in, in all its importance. This prayer is telling us, “Think a bit and you will realize that you could have avoided this or that action”.
I believe that the teaching of the Torah and responsibility is today more appropriate than ever. When a young person who has received this sort of education goes to the army, he will be a more responsible soldier and therefore a better soldier, and eventually a better citizen.
To conclude, I would say that we can approach the New Year with a hefty dose of optimism, because the challenges we face are great and we have several new ideas to handle them and succeed, both at the national, Israeli level and in the Diaspora. We are only at the start of a long road, but by attempting to create a more responsible society, we are preparing for a better future. A society of people who have become responsible will know how to select both a political and a religious leadership, which will think before acting and which will feel responsible for the mission with which it is charged.