The Secret to Jewish Continuity
Rabbi David Brofsky is a Ra’M at Midreshet Lindenbaum
In this week’s parasha, Parshat VaEtchanan, the Torah relates Moshe Rabbeinu’s final words to the Jewish people, before they enter the land of Israel.
Moshe instructs the people to follow the commandments of the Torah: “And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that God, the God of your fathers, is giving you” (Devarim 4:1). He adds that the observance of the commandments will have a profound impact of the nations of the world, who will surely conclude that “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people” (ibid. 9).
However, as time passes, and the Jewish people face personal and national challenges, how are they supposed to maintain their commitment to the Torah? Interestingly, the Torah appears to suggest a strategy:
“But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live. And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: The day you stood before your God at Horeb, when said to me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words, in order that they may learn to revere Me as long as they live on earth, and may so teach their children” (Devarim 4: 9-10).
The Ramban asserts that this verse teaches a negative commandment (lo ta’aseh), not to forget what we were taught on Mount Sinai, and a positive commandment (aseh), to relate the experience of Matan Torah to our children, generation after generation.
Interestingly, the Ramban emphasizes the danger in teaching that the Torah was taught by Moshe Rabbeinu, and how important it is to stress that the Torah was given, by God, at Mount Sinai. However, the emphasis upon relating the experience of Matan Torah to our children, and to their children, still deserves an explanation. Why does the Torah portray the continued observance of the commandments as dependent upon this pedagogical message? How does the Torah instruct us to maintain our belief and commitment, generation after generation?
Some Rishonim maintain that admiring the beauty of the world will bring one to worship God. Indeed, the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) writes:
“But how may one discover the way to love and fear Him? When man will reflect concerning His creations, and His great and wonderful creatures, and will behold through them His wonderful, matchless and infinite wisdom, he will spontaneously be filled with love, praise and exaltation and become possessed of a great longing to know the Great Name.”
The Rambam maintains that the study of the natural sciences leads to a desire to become closer to God. Of course, the blessings instituted upon seeing the wonders of creation appear to strengthen this argument. If so, then why does Moshe Rabbeinu emphasize the need to remember the great revelation at Mount Sinai?
I am writing these words during a short family trip to Switzerland. Some relate that R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch insisting on visiting Switzerland towards the end of his life, explaining: “When I stand shortly before the Almighty, I will be held answerable to many questions. But what will I say when God asks – and he is certain to ask – “Shimshon, did you see my Alps?” With this story in mind I admire the beauty of the mountains and lakes of this beautiful country, and attempt to deepen my relationship with God and my religious experience through the wonders of nature.
However, recent studies report that religious affiliation in Switzerland is declining, and the majority of Swiss citizens do not believe in God. In other words, apparently the wonders of nature, beautiful mountains and lakes, and the awesomeness of the natural order, do not necessarily inspire belief in God.
Moshe Rabbeinu, clearly aware of this, teaches that the secret to religious observance and continuity lies in the sense of “tradition”, to tracing one’s core beliefs and practices to the revelation of Mount Sinai, as it was passed on from generation to generation, until it reached our parents and teachers, and then to us and to our children and students.
The Swiss Alps are truly awe inspiring, and the beauty of God’s creations, whether it be in nature, or in the laboratory, continue to deepen our religious belief and commitment. The secret to Jewish continuity, however, lies in our insistence that we are only one link in a long chain of tradition, and in our commitment to family and community.