When the Jewish people committed the sin of the golden calf, Hashem said to Moshe (Exodus 32:9,10):
(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל משֶׁה רָאִיתִי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה וְהִנֵּה עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא:
(י) וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל
9. Hashem said to Moshe, “I have observed the people and they are a stiff-necked people. 10. Now, let go of Me, and I will unleash my wrath against them to destroy them. I will then make you into a great nation.”
What did Hashem mean when He said, “Let go of Me?” Was Moshe holding on to Him? Rashi explains,
(י) הניחה לי – עדיין לא שמענו שהתפלל משה עליהם, והוא אומר הניחה לי? אלא כאן פתח לו פתח והודיעו שהדבר תלוי בו שאם יתפלל עליהם לא יכלם
We don’t see that Moshe had begun praying for them yet, so why did Hashem say, “Let go of Me?” With these words Hashem indicated to Moshe that the matter was up to him. If Moshe would pray for them, Hashem would not terminate them.
Moshe’s dedication to his people is remarkable. Hashem offered to create a new Jewish nation starting with him, but Moshe instead ignored it, instead, beseeching Hashem to forgive the Jewish people. Indeed, later on (33:32), Moshe gave Hashem an ultimatum: “If you don’t forgive them, erase me from the book that You have written.”
The Talmud (Berachot 7a) teaches us that Moshe seized this moment, when Hashem was so gracious to him, to request three things:
ואמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יוסי: שלשה דברים בקש משה מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן לו; בקש שתשרה שכינה על ישראל ונתן לו, שנאמר: הלא בלכתך עמנו, בקש שלא תשרה שכינה על אומות העולם ונתן לו, שנאמר: ונפלינו אני ועמך, בקש להודיעו דרכיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא ונתן לו, שנאמר: הודיעני נא את דרכיך
Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Yossi saying: Moshe requested three things from Hashem and his requests were granted. 1. He asked that Hashem’s Shechina – Divine presence, rest directly upon the Jewish people…, 2. He asked that Hashem not bestow His Shechina – Divine presence, upon any other nation…, 3. He asked that Hashem reveal to him His hidden ways….
Hashem had previously told Moshe (33:34) that He would no longer lead the Jewish people Himself, in a revealed and miraculous way. Rather, He would send an angel to lead them. Moshe’s first request responded to this diminished relationship that the Jewish people would now have with Hashem. Moshe asked that Hashem please lead the Jewish people Himself and not through an angel. Hashem granted his wish.
Having such a close and open relationship with Hashem carries with it tremendous and frightening responsibility, as if being in the throne room with the king, where the slightest mistake could be fatal. Moshe soon addressed this issue.
After Moshe’s spending the next 40 days in heaven pleading with Hashem to forgive the Jewish people for their blunder, Hashem acquiesced and agreed to give them a second set of tablets, whereupon Moshe said to Hashem (34:9).
(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲמֹנָי יֵלֶךְ נָא אֲמֹנָי בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ כִּי עַם קְשֵׁה עֹרֶף הוּא וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ
9. He (Moshe) said, “If you are indeed pleased with me, Hashem, let my Lord go among us. This nation is stiff-necked, but forgive our sins and errors and make us Your own.”
This sounds like Moshe’s first request, that Hashem Himself lead the Jewish people. Why is he repeating it? Moshe realized that the close relationship with Hashem could result in disaster for the Jewish people; in a moment of anger for any infraction, Hashem may destroy them once and for all. Moshe accordingly asked that Hashem make a covenant with the Jewish people never to destroy them. Again, Hashem granted Moshe his wish.
(י) וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי כֹּרֵת בְּרִית נֶגֶד כָּל עַמְּךָ אֶעֱשֶׂה נִפְלָאֹת אֲשֶׁר לֹא נִבְרְאוּ בְכָל הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל הַגּוֹיִם וְרָאָה כָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בְקִרְבּוֹ אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֹוָד כִּי נוֹרָא הוּא אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה עִמָּךְ
10. Hashem said: “I will make a covenant before all your people, and will do miracles that have never been brought into existence in all the world among any nation. All the people among whom you dwell will see how fearsome are the deeds that I, Hashem, am doing with you.”
To what miracle is Hashem referring? The miracle that we are all part of, the continuing miracle of the Jewish people’s existence. Despite all that the Jewish people have been through over the last 3,000 years, the Jewish nation, without a land or a common language, is alive and well.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) wrote the following in the preface to his commentary on the Siddur.
אנחנו האומה הגולה שה פזורה אחר כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים ואין אומה בעולם נרדפת כמונו מה רבים היו צרינו מה עצמו נשאו ראש הקמים עלינו מנעורינו להשמידנו לעקרנו לשרשנו מפני השנאה שסבתה הקנאה רבת צררונו גם לא יכלו לנו לאבדנו ולכלותינו כל האומות הקדומות העצומות אבד זכרם בטל סברם סר צלם ואנו הדבקים בה’ כולנו חיים היום לא נפקד ממנו בכל תוקף אריכות גלותינו אפילו אות וניקוד אחד מתורה שבכתב וכל דברי חכמים קיימים לא יטה לארץ מנלם לא שלט בהם יד הזמן ולא כלם מה יענה בזה פילוסוף חריף היד המקרה עשתה כל אלה חי נפשי כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה גדלו אצלי יותר מכל נסים ונפלאות שעשה השי”ת לאבותינו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר נתאמת הנס יותר ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו
We, the exiled nation, a wandering sheep, after all that has happened to us – the troubles and sufferings for thousands of years, such that no their nation in the world has been pursued like us- how many were our troubles, how powerful were those who stood up against us from our earliest days to annihilate us and uproot us from our source because of their hatred for us which stemmed from jealousy. With all their efforts they couldn’t destroy us and put an end to us. All the awesome ancient nations have perished without leaving a trace. But we, who cling to Hashem are all alive and well. In all the long difficult years of the exile, not one letter or vowel from the written Torah has been lost, and all the teachings of the Rabbis are upstanding, and not one has lost its relevance. The passing of time has not affected them. What will a wise philosopher say to this? Could all of this be by chance? I swear, that when I contemplate these wonders, they are greater in my mind than even the miracles and wonders that Hashem did for our forefathers in Egypt, in the wilderness and in Israel. And the longer the exile continues, the greater the miracle becomes, as the great deeds of Hashem become more recognized.
This covenant answers Mark Twain’s famous question, posed in an article he wrote in the September 1897 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extremely out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contribution to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind.
All things are mortal but the Jew;
all other forces pass, but he remains.
What is the secret of his immortality?
In this week’s parsha, Bechukotai, we read the Tochacha in which Hashem sternly warns the Jewish people what will happen to them if they abandon their connection to Him and His Torah. Among the many horrific predictions, Hashem announces (Leviticus 26:33-44) that He will disperse them among the nations and that they will suffer greatly at their enemies’ hands. This refers to the Jewish people’s exiles after the destruction of the Holy Temples.
In Talmud (Sanhedrin 105a) Shmuel the Sage relates the following conversation between the Prophet and the elders of the generation after Nebuchadnezzar’s takeover and destruction of the first Holy Temple.
שמואל אמר: באו עשרה בני אדם וישבו לפניו, אמר להן: חזרו בתשובה. אמרו לו: עבד שמכרו רבו, ואשה שגרשה בעלה, כלום יש לזה על זה כלום? אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לנביא: לך אמור להן, אי זה ספר כריתות אמכם אשר שלחתיה או מי מנושי אשר מכרתי אתכם לו הן בעונותיכם נמכרתם ובפשעיכם שלחה אמכם.
Ten elders came and sat before the prophet. He said to them, “Repent!” They replied, “A master who has sold his servant or a husband who has divorced his wife, can they have any demands on each other?” Hashem responded to the prophet, “Go tell them, ‘Where is your mother’s divorce document indicating that I have sent her away, and who is the creditor to whom I have sold you? You have been exiled because of your sins.’” Hashem then tells them the following verses from Ezekiel (20:32,33).
והעלה על רוחכם היו לא תהיה אשר אתם אמרים נהיה כגוים כמשפחות הארצות לשרת עץ ואבן חי אני נאם ה’ אלהים אם לא ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה ובחמה שפוכה אמלוך עליכם
32. As for what enters your minds – it shall not be! As for what you say, “We will be like the nations, like the families of the lands, to worship wood and stone,” as I live – the word of Hashem Elokim – I swear that I will rule over you with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath.”
The Jewish people thought that because they were in exile, Hashem had sold them and they were no longer His servants. They thought that their covenant with Hashem, a bond like that of husband and wife, was severed, and that they were no longer bound to keep the Torah and its commandments. They thought they were free to assimilate and adopt the customs and practices of their host country without consequences.
Hashem told the prophet, to set the record straight; He has not sold them and the covenant is still binding. And even though we may have abrogated our side of the covenant, Hashem will never relinquish His side. When we venture too far from Hashem and the ways of His Torah, He uses His strong hand and outstretched arm and outpoured wrath, to reel us back in; but Hashem will never allow us to assimilate into extinction because of the covenant that He made with Moshe.
How ironic it is that Hashem uses the very nations among whom we live to keep His covenant with us. With vengeance and hate they turn against us; but their not allowing us to join them is what preserves our separateness and keeps us from ultimately disappearing.
After describing the difficult and painful methods Hashem would use to bring us back, Hashem says (Leviticus 26:44):
(מד) וְאַף גַּם זֹאת בִּהְיוֹתָם בְּאֶרֶץ אֹיְבֵיהֶם לֹא מְאַסְתִּים וְלֹא גְעַלְתִּים לְכַלֹּתָם לְהָפֵר בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם כִּי אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵיהֶם
44. But despite all this, while they will be in the land of their enemies, I will not have been revolted by them and I will not have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul my covenant with them – for I am Hashem their G-d.
The Midrash Sifra on this verse asks:
ספרא בחוקותי פרשה ב תחילת פרק ח אות יא
לא מאסתים ולא געלתים לכלותם, וכי מה נשתייר להם שלא נגעלו ושלא נמאסו? והלא כל מתנות טובות שנתנו להם נטלו מהם, ואילולי ספר תורה שנשתייר להם לא היו משנים מאומות העולם כלום:
What remains of them that Hashem hasn’t become disgusted and exasperated with? All the good presents that He gave us (the Holy Temples, the Land of Israel, the sovereignty of King David, and the service of the Cohanim), He has taken away. If not for the Sefer Torah, which we still have, we would be the same as the nations of the world.
This Midrash echoes the Sages’ question to the prophet. It seems that Hashem has abandoned us. We don’t have the Holy Temples with the service of the Cohanim, and we don’t have the Land of Israel with the Kingdom of David in control, so how can we be expected to maintain our connection to Him? He has taken away all of our precious presents.
The Midrash provides the answer. Despite all that has occurred to us, we still have Hashem’s greatest present to us, His Holy Torah, and through it we can still stay connected to Him. It can take the place of all the other presents.
A second Midrash adds an essential dimension to this answer.
ילקוט שמעוני תורה ילקוט שמעוני על ויקרא פרק כו רמז תרעה
דבר אחר: לא מאסתים בימי כשדים שהעמדתי להם דניאל חנניה מישאל ועזריה, ולא געלתים בימי (מדי) [המן] שהעמדתי להם מרדכי ואסתר, לכלותם בימי יונים שהעמדתי להם שמעון הצדיק. להפר בריתי אתם בימי רומיים שהעמדתי להם רבי וחכמי הדורות. כי אני ה’ אלהיכם לעתיד לבא שאין כל אומה ולשון יכולה לשלוט בהם
Referring to each of the negative words in the verse, the Sages explained how Hashem saved the Jewish people when their enemies arose to destroy them:
I did not become revolted in the days of the Casdians – Nebuchadnezzar, by giving them Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria the prophets to guide them.
I did not reject them in the days of Haman, by giving them Mordechai and Esther to save them.
I did not obliterate them in the days of the Greeks, by giving them Shimon the Righteous to guide them.
I did not annul my covenant with them in the days of the Romans, by giving them Rabbi Judah the Prince and all the great Sages throughout all the generations.
For I am Hashem their G-d when the Mashiach comes. Then, no nation in the world will be able to reign over them, for I alone will be their G-d.
This Midrash supplies the insight into how in spite of Hashem’s having taken all of His precious presents from us, He has not abandoned us to the elements of history. Though it may appear as if Hashem is revolted by us and has rejected us because we are beaten and persecuted by our enemies, our existence as Hashem’s eternal nation is nevertheless guaranteed. This is because with the Torah, we have everything. The Jewish nation’s eternal existence stems from its connection to the eternal Torah – its natural mate. Because Hashem and His Torah are one, through the Torah we are connected to the Eternal one Himself, Hashem.
The Midrash shows us the validity of this truth, and that truth has been proven throughout our history. In every attempt to annihilate us, Hashem has made sure that a holy Torah leader was in place to save His people. Through the Torah Sages, who are the living embodiment of the Torah, we still have an eternal connection to the Torah. In turn, they guide us and teach us how to have a strong meaningful relationship with Hashem in a hostile and atheistic world even in the absence of the missing “presents.” To the degree that we lose this connection to the Torah, we will lose our connection to eternity, and fall into oblivion.
Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman זצ”ל (1886-1969) the Rosh Yeshiva of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak, was a gentle and pure individual. How shocked was Dr. Moshe Rothchild, as the two of them travelled together in a taxi through the streets of Rome, to hear Rabbi Kahaneman saying over and over, “I am going to finish my account with him, once and for all.” The mystery resolved when they reached the Arch of Titus, where the rabbi asked the driver to stop the cab.
Rabbi Kahaneman exited the cab, and then, facing the carving of the Menorah carried by the captives leaving Jerusalem, straightened his hat, put his clothes in order, and proclaimed in a loud voice.
“Titus, Titus! 2,000 years ago you wanted to erase and annihilate the Jewish nation, not leaving them a remnant. See, Titus, who recognizes you today? When people walking here on the streets of Rome would ask a child, “Who was Titus?” the child wouldn’t even know how to say your name correctly. Is there any place in our world today where people see themselves as carrying on your legacy?
But I come now from Bnai Brak, Israel, the country that you tried to destroy. At this time, there are more than 500 students studying the Torah that you tried to have us forget. And that’s just in my Yeshiva, and not counting the hundreds of other Yeshivot and institutions of Torah learning across the land, which have many more thousands of students learning Torah.”
By this time, a few young Romans had gathered around him; unfazed, he continued to settle his account with Titus.
“You disgraced the Holy of Holies and degraded it in a horrific way, but I would suggest that you come now to the Western Wall, the remaining wall of our Holy Temple, and see how day and night Jews stand there and cry about the destruction of the Temple, and yearn and hope for it to be rebuilt. They study and review building plans for the sanctuary and all its components. This is living proof that the Holy Temple will indeed be built soon.
You are forgotten forever, and your name is lost, but the Jewish Nation will continue to live and thrive!”
The weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are spent preparing ourselves for the special day of Shavuot at which the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai. Let us use these days to strengthen our connection to the Torah, and by doing so acquire eternity for ourselves and for the entire Jewish nation.
Am Yisroel Chai!