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By Rabbi Aron Tendler

Our National Character

Our calendar is designed to address the various dimensions of our relationship with G-d. In many ways, it is a well-organized program of review and reflection intended to focus us on our socio-spiritual and religious development. Each season, holiday and month has its related theme and direction.

From Pesach until Shevout, the focus of the calendar had been to prepare us to receive the Torah. For the present period, following Shevout and culminating with the Ninth Day of Av, it is important to understand what our focus and emphasis should be. However, it is important to note that every season and its theme is related to both the preceding and the following season as well. Therefore, in order to appreciate the theme of the present season, we must first review the theme of the season that just concluded with Shevout.

From Moshe's first prophecy at the Burning Bush it is clear that the purpose of the Exodus was to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai. "The proof that I have sent you will come when you take the people out of Egypt. You will then serve G-d's upon this mountain." (Shem.3: 12) This means that the seven weeks between our exodus from Egypt and Shevout was to prepare the nation for Mattan Torah.

We know that in order to receive the Torah the people had to attain a national level of, "As one man with one heart." This was the single most important criterion in order for G-d to give us His Torah. The underlying characteristic that allowed for approximately three million individuals to attain the unity and unanimity of "one man with one heart," was Chesed - kindness, compassion, caring, and generosity.

Imagine three million people living together under adverse and Spartan conditions. They had just left Egypt on moments notice without the necessary preparations for surviving in the wilderness. This was combined with a couple of inevitable stresses. First of all, being uprooted from all that was familiar and comfortable while heading toward an unknown destiny that was beyond their power to control or guarantee. Secondly, at the same time having to live in close proximity with so many other relatives, friends, acquaintances, and strangers all suffering the very same set of difficult circumstances. Imagine the mindset and commitment necessary for such a mass of people to simply get along with each other, let alone become "as one man with one heart!"

The fact is that the Jews had already exhibited their basic Chesed when they agreed to leave Egypt. As the Navi records, G-d reminisces about the great "Chesed" of the people when "You followed Me in to a desert, into a barren wilderness." The prophet refers to this as the "…Chesed of your youth the love of your betrothed." In taking their chances with Moshe and G-d, the Bnai Yisroel displayed their generosity and concern toward G-d in allowing Him to fulfill His promises to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. Without our willful participation, there never would have been a nation to receive the Torah! It behooves us to reiterate as often as possible the willful Chesed of our great-grandparents in expressing their love and trust in G-d, at a time when so many other, (4/5 of the Jewish population in Egypt) did not do so.

This underscores the fact that our relationship with G-d, even at a time of overt miracles, is a two way street. It is an equally important lesson for us to realize that our "Chesed" was acknowledged. It didn't go unnoticed. G-d did not take it for granted. G-d didn't assume that it was owed to Him because of all His caring and generosity. We should take heed and emulate G-d by acknowledging the daily kindness and generosities on the part of our loved ones and friends that we so often take for granted.

Given the reality of life in the desert, it is clear that the adverse conditions were the perfect setting to quickly develop the nations inherent Chesed. It forced the people to make the necessary compromises and to extend themselves to each other in a way that actualized the midah of Chesed and allowed them to become, "as one man with one heart." Later in history, after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdash and during the revolt of Bar Kochba, the 24,000 students' of Rabbi Akiva died during 33 days of the seven weeks of the Sefirah. The Talmud records that they died because, "…they didn't show proper respect for each other." In memory of their deaths, we practice a modified form of Aveylus - mourning during 33 days of the seven weeks of the Sefirah. Once again the primary focus of the weeks leading up to Shevout was revealed as the need for proper interpersonal relationships.

Rabbi Akiva's students were all Torah observant scholars of the highest caliber. However, their religious practices lacked a crucial element of "kavod - respect." Kavod - respect is synonymous with Chesed. If I value you, as another human being should be valued, then I will extend to you every courtesy and kindness possible. I will recognize and appreciate you for the infinite worth that you are. I will care and love you because you are G-d's creation and intent.

This focus on "between man and his fellow man" before receiving the Torah models the Talmud's story of Hillel and the Convert. In response to the convert's request that Hillel teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel says, "What is hateful to you do not do to your friend. This is the entire Torah. The rest of the Torah explains and elaborates on this one principle." G-d wishes that His chosen people be role models to the rest of the world as to how a human being is intended to behave. The actions of a Torah observant Jew, and more so, those of a Talmid Chacham (Torah scholar), are expected to be the height of integrity, sensitivity, compassion, concern, generosity, and kindness. The observant Jew is to be a paradigm of Chesed, proclaiming the sovereignty of G-d in all aspects of human endeavor. We are to be the true children of Avraham and Sarah, teaching His reality through the medium of our deeds. Therefore, before actually receiving the Torah the Bnai Yisroel had to maximize their quality of Chesed. If a Talmid Chacham or an observant Jew do not emulate the essence of kavod and Chesed, their Torah is faulty and can not be trusted.

Following Shevout, we enter the 40-day period leading up to the 17th day of Tamuz. On that day, Moshe returned to the Jews with the first set of Luchos (Tablets). Upon witnessing the Golden Calf, Moshe shattered the Luchos and punished the Calf's worshippers. According to the Talmud, only 600 men out of a population of 3 million actually worshipped the Golden Calf. The rest of the nation, including the great leaders of the people, was held accountable because they didn't stop the 600 from sinning. This was an instance of misguided Chesed. The nation had attained a level of respect and tolerance where they were reluctant to interfere with their fellow Jew's overt defection from G-d! In fact, the opposite should have happened! The opposite would have been the greatest expression of love - and Chesed! The love, caring, and concern for each and every fellow Jew should have galvanized the remaining, overwhelming, majority to stop their brothers from worshipping the Golden Calf. Because they didn't, because they failed in their fundamental obligation to be "Doer's of Chesed," we have suffered ever since.

Following the 17th of Tamuz, the Bnai Yisroel immersed themselves in Teshuva culminating in Moshe returning on Yom Kippur with the second set of Luchos. Immediately following that first Yom Kippur, the Bnai Yisroel were commanded to build the Mishkan - Tabernacle symbolizing G-d's acceptance and forgiveness. The building of the Mishkan, like the receiving of the Torah, required that the nation act, "as one man with one heart." With a singular unity, intent, and devotion, the Bnai Yisroel donated the needed materials, and in record time had constructed G-d's first home. Once again the Bnai Yisroel had actualized the intrinsic Chesed that made them worthy of having G-d dwell in their midst.

In the month of Av, as the Jews were preparing to enter in to Eretz Yisroel, the Miraglim, the Spies, returned from their mission and spoke Lashon Harah (slander) against the Promised Land. The Bnai Yisroel accepted the report and lost faith in G-d and in Moshe. The essence of Lashon Harah is the antithesis of Chesed. Where Chesed is generosity, self-sacrifice, and selflessness, Lashon Harah is the negation of one person's needs and privacy for the sake of another individual's personal agenda and gain. The one who speaks Lashon Harah is selfish, miserly, and a user, while the one who listens to the Lashon Harah is an accomplice in the performance of the sin. The speaker is like the 600 who worshipped the Golden Calf, and the listener is like the rest of the nation who stood silently and let it happen. Therefore, the Bnai Yisroel had to spend an additional 38 years in the desert working out the kinks in their expression of Chesed before they were worthy of entering Eretz Yisroel.

The 9th of Av commemorates the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Bais Hamikdash. The first destruction was due to the nation's defection from G-d - a lack in their man - G-d relationship. However, their interpersonal relationships and caring were strong and secure. Therefore, the exile to Babylon was as a whole nation, and lasted for only 70 years. The second destruction was due to the nation's lack of interpersonal relations and caring. Their religious observances and Torah study were exemplary, but there was no love for their fellow man. The Temple was destroyed because of "unwarranted hatred" - the opposite of Chesed. The exile that resulted dispersed the nation to the four-corners of the earth. The exile has lasted for two thousand years, and will continue until we are able to once again actualize our national trait of Chesed, and be "as one man with one heart."

In today's politicized climate of religious fervor, and secular worship, or secular fervor and religious worship, our attribute of Chesed has been the victim. The religious and the observant have become caricatures of hypocrisy. They wrap their left hand in Tefilin while their right hand picks their neighbor's pocket. The secular Jew wallows in abject ignorance as to the majesty of his heritage and miraculous history. He craves societal acceptance at the price of his children's souls. The observant should be his guiding light and anchor, but he has rejected them all because of who he thinks they all are, regardless of who they might really be. The non-observant-religious practitioner believes that he knows and practices the word of G-d. The irreligious-observant practitioner thinks that his special relationship with G-d allows him any and every indiscretion. In either case, the two see each other as adversaries doing battle for the soul of the nation.

Those of us who understand that there are two equal components to the Ten commandments, the man-G-d relationship and the man-man relationship, must make it our job to reach out to both sides, because they are both wrong. The non-observant-religionist and the irreligious-observant-religionist both need our love and concern, compassion and teaching. The question is, How do we do it? How do we reach out with Chesed and not compromise the validity of each and every Halacha - law? How do we reach out with Chesed and show them how irreligious they really are, regardless of their intense practices and observances?

I do not have an answer to those questions, but I do know how not to do it. Changing the Torah can not do it, and throwing rocks and bags of excrement can not do it. It can only be done through the power of Chesed, and our love for each and every Jew. May we merit in the coming period to reach the level of "as one man with one heart," and together build the eternal, Third Bais Hamikdash.

Copyright © 1999 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.



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