Attaining Modern Day Redemption
Rabbi Kenneth Brander | May 6, 2019
While still a student at Yeshiva University, I was asked by the family of Rabbi Soloveitchik z”l, to serve with a small group of students as one of the Rav’s student aides. It was our sacred privilege to assist Rabbi Soloveitchik during his two and a half days of residence at Yeshiva University; we gained so much through the experience. I particularly remember the eve of Ta’anit Esther, when we were informed that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein z”l, one of the greatest halakhic leaders of the generation, had passed away. We were specifically asked by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s family not to disclose the sad news of this death as they wanted to inform the elderly Rabbi Soloveitchik at an appropriate time.
A few days before Pesach, as Yeshiva University was winding down before the holiday, I was called out of the beit midrash by one of the other students aides, who relayed the Rav’s request that I drive him to the airport. As we were driving to New York’s La Guardia, the Rav suddenly turned to me and asked: “Why didn’t you tell me that Rav Moshe had passed away?” I still vividly recall my shock and fright of that moment and the need to marshal all focus just to continue driving down Grand Central Parkway toward the airport.
It goes without saying that I gave a sincere reply, telling him that his family wished to spare him the sharp pain of a curt impersonal message. Once I felt more composed, I ventured to ask him: “But how did the Rav know that Rav Moshe had passed away?” He replied, “Every erev Pesach, for many decades now, we have had the custom of taking turns calling one other to wish a good yomtov. This year was Rav Moshe’s turn to call me; since he didn’t call, I understood. The only plausible explanation was that he was no longer among the living.”
Those of you who are even slightly familiar with the religious philosophy of these two great Torah luminaries of blessed memory (who also happened to be cousins) know that they had differences of opinion concerning important and even critical issues in the world of Diaspora Jewry. Notwithstanding their different perspectives, however, the friendship they shared transcended all dispute and controversy.
It is likewise important to understand that their friendship wasn’t only of a personal nature, one that prevails between people who share a mutual fondness for each other. Rather, their friendship was a true partnership, stemming from a mutual understanding that despite any differences of opinion, both played a key role in ensuring the future of Diaspora Jewry.
At this time of year, during Iyar – the month of redemption, it is imperative that we scrutinize the connection between accountability, solidarity and redemption. We have just experienced two periods of chagim, Purim and Pesach. I use the phrase “periods of chagim” intentionally, because Purim and Pesach are not merely one or two-day events. Both chagim are enveloped by a set of duties and obligations which turn them into deeply symbolic units of great significance.
Both commemorate a historical event of redemption and salvation; both celebrations center around a meal which includes the use of wine (the Purim se’udah, the Seder and Korban Pesach, which are to be eaten in a group); in both we are required to help the poor and reach out to the “other” (matanot l’evyonim and delivering misloach manot, kimcha d’Pischaand welcoming those in need to the Seder); both are preceded by a fast day (Ta’anit Esther, Ta’anit Bechorot); both have more than one day of celebration (Pesach Sheni, Shushan Purim) and in both, the protagonist is absent (God is not mentioned in the Megillah, and Moshe Rabbeinu is not mentioned in the Haggadah – with the exception of one late historical entry). In fact, in a leap year like this year, the Talmud insists that Purim be celebrated in the second Adar, to guarantee its proximity to Passover.
Notwithstanding the above similarities, we are still dealing with very different manifestations of redemption. The Pesach redemption was a singularly Divine act; termed by the Kabbalistic masters as It’aruta Dil’eila, meaning “an awakening from above.” The People of Israel were not central players in the act of redemption. God alone directed the “play,” in what was a Divine performance of great wonders and marvels. By contrast, the salvation of Purim was made possible as a result of what appears to be a series of random events, It’aruta Diltata, meaning “an awakening from below.” Mordechai and Esther were able to form a complex constellation that worked in their favor and ultimately brought about the downfall of Haman. In this performance, God as savior seems to play a secondary role or, at the very least, that of the producer, behind the scenes.
Celebrated with similar experiences, the rituals of both holidays focus on “the other” – for when it comes to redemption, it would seem that it is impossible to achieve without having total alignment and solidarity with the needs of the other.
What about Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, which we will be celebrating shortly? What type of redemption do they represent?
The two events appear to be intertwined: a redemption instigated from humankind, It’aruta Diltata, combined with a redemption orchestrated from above, It’aruta Dil’eila. Even the month in which they occur – the month of Iyar, known in the Torah as Ziv, meaning light – has symbolic significance. During the month of Iyar, the spring gradually allows us to feel the reawakened presence of God in nature. In our generation, the fact that we have a Jewish state after two thousand years of exile gives new meaning to the reawakening of nature and God’s manifestation in nature. The deeply-rooted ideology of Religious Zionism is one that combines both aspects of redemption, It’aruta Diltata and It’aruta Dil’eila, both of which are manifestations of the Divine in our modern times.
That said, total redemption in modern times is unattainable without social solidarity and strong ties between the various tribes of our people.
During Sefirat Ha’Omer, as we march from the Redemption of Egypt to our birth as a people at the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, we also commemorate the tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. Even if their death did not actually occur during these weeks of the Sefira – as it is historically assumed that they died fighting during the Bar Kochba rebellion – our Sages explain that the spiritual reason for the end of the Second Commonwealth, why the Bar Kochba revolt failed, was due to lack of solidarity between the leaders, as the students of Rabbi Akiva “did not treat each other with respect.” The lesson we take from the words of our Sages is that the month of Iyar, the month of light, cannot realize its full potential unless people treat each other with dignity and respect.
As we reflect upon this sacred period of the Jewish calendar, let us work together to ensure that the special light prevalent during this month will help us reveal the common denominators that unite us all. Moreover, let this auspicious time dissolve any feelings of distrust and animosity that cloud our souls as it makes way for the supernal light of unconditional love and selfless generosity which elevates us all.