Within the first several weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, during Sefira, the counting of the Omer, we encounter four, recently-established special days, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Fallen Soldiers Remembrance Day and Israel’s Independence Day and Jerusalem Liberation Day. These come in the period of time that while we eagerly experience and anticipate our spiritual elevation from the miracle of leaving slavery to transcendental revelation at Sinai, we also restrain and restrict our happiness out of memory of the slaughter of our people during the Great Revolt which closely followed the even greater disaster of the destruction of the Holy Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and our not-yet-finished exile. This time frame represents massive transition and, with the introduction of these four days, illustrates the dynamic nature of our eternal Torah.
Our holy sages have taught that the Torah is, indeed, eternal, in that it teaches each and every generation the best way to worship and engage with The Creator. The evolution of Halacha, including the creation of these four holy days, however, teaches us that the lessons and approaches for yesterday aren’t necessarily the lessons and approaches for today. What is eternal is our holy service through the modality of Torah and Mitzvot.
For example, at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai arranged to be smuggled out of Jerusalem in order to meet Vespasian, then the leader of the conquering Roman army. He negotiated a settlement with Rome in which the Jewish people would establish an academy of Torah in Yavne in order that the teaching of Torah not perish along with our Temple. At that point in our history, it was absolutely right and necessary that Torah study survive, even at the expense of the Temple, Jerusalem and countless Jewish lives. However, we don’t and can’t really know how the outcome might have changed had those Torah scholars instead dedicated themselves to the physical defense of Jerusalem.
That was then, but now, almost two thousand years later, we once again have Jewish sovereignty in Israel. Jerusalem, in the process of rebuilding, is, finally, restored to the Jewish people. And, once again, this time in the face of radical Islam aggression, combined with western, European and American indifference, the Jewish People in Israel are once again faced with the very real threat of annihilation.
I celebrate the renaissance in Jewish learning, the miraculous rebirth in just a little more than sixty years since the Holocaust. I devote much of my life and time to studying and teaching our tradition. I absolutely support this vital activity and work to see ever more Jews engage in Torah study. I also recognize that we are no longer at the crisis we were in several short decades ago, with the finest of our scholars recently slaughtered. As a people, we have nurtured a tremendous array of Torah institutions that now cover the globe like no time in the past.
I think we need to acknowledge our success to date. Part of that acknowledgement is the realization that even if zero army-aged young men and women in Israel were to receive draft deferments, there are myriads of others, both in other age ranges as well as those currently outside of Israel, who will continue Torah study. And, with the help of God, all those who would serve in the IDF will be able to return to their own studies after fulfilling their other obligations to God and Israel.
Perhaps the Torah’s lessons and mitzvot for today’s battles and challenges require a different response than in Rabbi Yochanan‘s time. Perhaps if the young people of today’s Torah world were to join their less-observant brothers and sisters in the IDF, this time the Jewish People will prevail. And, perhaps if we join now in the defense of Israel, with a secure and peaceful future, our secular brothers and sisters will then join us in the study, practice and celebration of our shared Torah.
I pray that with this resolve we receive the Torah this year at Shavuot in a profound and revolutionary way, finally living up to the potential of the experience.