The Rabbi's Essays




by Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM

A Unique Transition

In the third month (which we call Sivan) of the year 2448 from the creation of Adam – marking 500 years since the birth of Avraham Avinu – the nation of Israel passed from being “children of Noah” (like the rest of the world) to being “children of Abraham”. After all, Abraham was the first man to anticipate G-D’s Torah and observe it centuries in advance of it being given (see Gen 26:5).

If one were to pinpoint the exact moment of the transition it would appear to be when Moses heard the entire nation affirm with one voice, on 2nd Sivan – four days before the Ten Commandments were proclaimed – their enthusiastic acceptance (Ex. 19:8) of the mission statement with which G-D had presented them, namely, to be mamlekhet kohanim ve-goi dosh, “a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation” (19:6). To be en masse the mentors and illuminators of the world (as the kohanim would be to Am Yisrael) while at the same time retaining their kedusha, their exalted distinction. To play their pivotal part within the world while remaining apart from the world.

It remains for us to explain exactly what is meant by passing from being children-of-Noah to children-of Abraham.

Who Was Noah?

Noah was a tsaddik. The Torah says so. Be-dorotav “in his generations” (Gen. 6:9).

Before the Flood and afterwards.

Yet after the Flood, he withdrew into himself. He became a recluse.

Even prior to the Flood he had been apprehensive about interacting too much with his contemporaries lest he be adversely influenced and his righteousness compromised (see for example Zohar 1:58) After the Flood however, he was reluctant to even emerge from the Ark (Yalkut Shimeoni). He sought to escape from the world altogether (Gen.9:20-21) and left it to his descendants to repopulate (contrast Gen 9:28-9 and 11:10-26). In what sense was he a tsaddik in that post-deluvian generation? Whom did he positively influence during that time?

The answer is: one man. Abraham!

Abraham was 58 when Noah died. Sefer haYashar relates that Abraham dwelt with Noah and his son Shem for 39 years “and remained with them to learn the instruction of G-D and His ways”. He would assuredly have absorbed the weltanshauung of Noah to set himself apart so as not to be influenced by the wicked. He learned from Noah. But eventually he surpassed Noah. He transcended Noah’s mission.

Who Was Abraham?

Already in Haran. Abraham was “making souls” (Gen 12:5). He converted people to pure monotheism, thus bringing them “under the wings of the Shekhina” (Sifri). He “caused the Name of G-D to be proclaimed by all people”(Bereshit Raba 39:16) including every passerby (Sota 10b). He fearlessly engaged them in discussion, asking them whom or what they worshipped and challenging their pagan beliefs (Zohar 1:264b). He championed the cause of humankind as with his famous intercession on behalf of the people of Sodom (Gen 18:23-33). According to the Midrash Pseskita d’Rav Kahana, Abraham said to G-D: If you aren’t a bit lenient, the world cannot exist!

Yet when he heard the Babel rabble cry out “Let’s build a city with its tower reaching up to the sky, thereby immortalising our name!” (Gen 11:4) this same Abraham rose and mocked them and damned their project (Yalkut Shimeoni, Noach 62). And when Lot his nephew decided to allow his shepherds to graze their flocks on land which wasn’t theirs, Abraham politely but firmly separates from him entirely (Gen 12:8-9).

Abraham, like Noah, remained apart from the world. He was called Ivri because he stood on one side of the moral divide while the world stood on the other (Bereshit Raba 42:8). Yet, unlike Noah, he played a star part within the world!

Our Mission as B’nei Avraham

The first blessing of the Amida, the standing-prayer Jews recite thrice daily, acknowledges the legacy of our three Avot (Patriarchs), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Yet it ends by simply blessing G-D ”the Shield of Abraham”.

The very first time we mention the Avot in our morning prayers, we refer to ourselves as zera Yitschak, the seed of Isaac and adat Yaakov, the community of Jacob. But ahead of both these references we call ourselves bnei Avraham, children of Abraham.

We owe our peoplehood to Jacob and our resilience to Isaac. But Abraham is our parent. He and Sarah were “makers of souls” (Gen 12:5) and our primary role-models.

The Talmud (Pesachim 87b) states something so extraordinary and so challenging that we tend to shy away from its implications. Yet its message is compelling.

R’ Elazar said: The Holy One Blessed be He exiled Israel among the nations

only in order that geirim (converts) be added to its numbers

It is not our task to convert the whole world to Judaism. Insincere converts are not a blessing either to us or to themselves. Better a non-Jew keeps his seven Noachide laws well than that he ‘keeps’ Judaism badly. That is why we do not actively proselytise. Rather we are to act in such a way that will attract the right kind of geir.

R’ Shmuel Eisels, the Masharsha (1555-1631) elaborates. G-D chose exile for the Jews in order that the knowledge of the true faith be spread among the nations of the world. Perhaps he is hinting here that there is a mission for the Jew beyond adding geirei tsedek to their ranks, namely, to actively spread monotheism, the belief in the One G-D and the Noachide laws as our father Abraham did, and in so doing be, as Abraham was, an ohr goyim, “a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6)

Why is it then that when it comes to our dealings with the world, so many of us Jews in the so-called religious camp – and even in the secular camp – appear to take not Abraham but the reclusive lesser tsaddik Noah as our role-model?

The World View of the Netsiv

R’ Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), known by the acronym Netsiv, has a clear perspective on our role as an example to the world. On the verse I have formed you and appointed you to bring peoples to the universal covenant, to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6), the Netsiv writes: “This means that Israel was formed to improve the faith of every nation and enhance their moral and ethical conduct (derekh erets she-lahem)” (Ha’amek Davar, Bereshit 9:27).

Elsewhere he writes explicitly that our nation bears this responsibility even and indeed especially during its exile as the Talmudic passage we cited last week clearly states. Additionally, the Midrash (Vayikra Raba 6) declares in G-D’s name: If you do not tell of My Divinity to the nations, I shall hereby exact retribution from you!

Strong words indeed and ones that are not frequently cited!

This mission will, however, only be possible if, while imparting to the world, we remain apart from the world. The Netsiv himself (Sh’ear Yisrael), in a powerful analogy, compares our role in the world to fire and water. The Nations are the water which can be warmed by fire representing Am Yisrael. But the warming of the water by fire can only be achieved when the two elements are separated by a receptacle. Yes, the fire and water must be in close proximity to each other. Yet there has to be a firm divide – the pot – that acts as a medium for the process of warming. If that divide is removed, instead of the fire acting to improve the water – and boiling will also rid it of harmful bacteria – the water will douse the fire, forming a blackened, smouldering mess!

When we get too up-close-and-personal with the outside world we assimilate and disappear as Jews. More often than not en route to that assimilation, one nation or another will give us a brutal wake-up call in the form of pogroms and persecutions. (They don’t like getting too up-close-and-personal with us either!) On the other hand, when we keep ourselves too aloof, we relinquish our mission while at the same time inviting suspicion which again can lead to a vicious dose or two of Judaeophobia.

The right kind of pot to warm the global water by the Jewish fire has sadly eluded us over the aeons of history. Surely the time for its unveiling has finally come!

And Yet ….

In large swathes of what is popularly called the frum world, there is a curious reluctance to apply our fire to the pot. Alarm bells are rung when the internet-spawned pandemic of moral and spiritual degeneration, behavioural laxity and laissez-faire spread exponentially by the more insidious forms of social media, is assessed within this sector of Jewry – and the result is that (with notable exceptions such as Chabad) charedim flee as far away as possible from interaction with secular society. Whether it is fear of being “contaminated” or influenced, or simply lack of confidence, the tsaddik-in-pelz approach associated with Noah holds sway in much of the charedi world. There are two ways to warm oneself: either put on a heater or don a fur coat (pelz in Yiddish). The first way, others are warmed; the second way, only the pelz-wearer keeps warm and snug. This was the way of Noah closeted within his Ark, safe from dangerous inroads, not venturing outside his sheltering four walls into the buffeting storm for even a moment.

However an even stranger phenomenon is that the Noah approach has been adopted by much of the secular world too. Once upon a time, people debated social and political issues in a reasoned and reasonable way. Nowadays people, particularly on the political and social Left, seem unable to discuss issues such as climate-change, so-called gender-equality and personal autonomy without resorting to personal invective and insult. They preach tolerance but do not practise it. They would far rather associate only with people who think like them. This has extended to the Jewish world where cliquism holds sway like never before. Set ideological positions are entrenched. People hold forth but are not prepared to listen. On facebook, the attitude is “if you’re not like-minded, stay away, we won’t be accepting you as a ‘friend’!”

An Amazing Story of the Alter of Novhardok

R’ Yosef Yozel Hurwitz (1847-1919), known as the Alter of Novhardok, was a leading exemplar of the 19th-century Musar (ethical refinement) movement while engaging his students in worldly wisdom within the framework of intensive Torah learning.

Once he was engaged in a passionate debate with an exponent of the Haskala (liberalist) movement. In the midst of the debate, R’ Hurwitz turned to the maskil and exclaimed: “Listen! If it turns out at the end of our discussion that I am right, you must change your modern short jacket for a longer one like I wear. But if you prevail and convince me that your way is the true one, I shall be ready to take off my long jacket and exchange it for the modern clothes you wear – like this!” And as he spoke, he demonstrated by starting to take off his long jacket!

At the sight of R’ Yosef Yozel Hurwitz’s fiery countenance and his passionate desire for truth at all costs, the maskil was overcome with awe. “No, don’t!” he cried grabbing R’ Yosef Yozel’s hands to prevent him from removing his coat.

There are different ways to interpret this astonishing story. My understanding is that what frightened the maskil out of his wits was the thought that if he lost the debate he would have to change his lifestyle. He had no wish to do so! Seeing R’ Hurwitz demonstrating graphically that one or other of them would have to change – and fearing it might be him – the maskil grabbed hold of the venerable rabbi’s hands as if to say: I’m not ready for your challenge! Let’s stop right here!

In the 19th century, emancipation was the buzzword. The Haskala movement was extremely seductive and tempting. It promised to free the Jew from the ghetto walls once and for all. It made inevitable inroads to a limited extent even into Orthodoxy. And yet even so, a rabbi with the fire of R’ Yosef Yozel was able to ignite the maskil’s unstable, watery spirit. How much more so today, when the secular world is bankrupt and fractured, its relationships are unstable, its individuals struggle to find real values and purpose and many are beset by addictions and psychological disorders of all kinds. In such a world, a Torah Jew has so much to give!

How desperately we need to take upon ourselves the outgoing, soul-making, idol-smashing, compassionate yet rock-firm spirit of our father Abraham, comforting the challenged, challenging the comfortable and disbursing spiritual and ideological lifeboats to those floundering in the midst of the turbulent, nihilistic sea of 21st-century existence! We hold all the cards. They hold none!

Two Didactic Daily Blessings – An Inspirational Lesson

The birkhot ha-shakhar which kick-start the daily morning service consist of a series of mainly short berakhot, blessings, two of which are Ozeir Yisrael bi-gevura and Oteir Yisrael be-tif’ara. Blessed are You G-D (1) who girds Israel with might and (2) who crowns Israel with glory.

The former blessing is said to refer to the belt with which we ‘gird’ ourselves either literally or metaphorically to separate our upper and lower bodies or our ‘higher’ (spiritual) and ‘lower’ (animal) souls. It also symbolises the tefilin shel yad, whose box we attach to our arm and conceal with a protective outer box or with our shirt-sleeve, symbolising the inner-core of the Jew which he must protect from alien outside influences in order that we remain a goy kadosh, a protected, holy nation.

The second blessing refers to the crown of the tefilin shel rosh, the head-tefilin whose box is left exposed upon our forehead, seat of the brain. It is of this that the Torah declares: All the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of G-D is proclaimed (or read) upon you and they will be in awe of you! This is our public image to the world. A mamlekhet kohanim, a kingdom of spiritual exemplars who feel confident and secure to share our knowledge, our love of and our reverence for the One True G-D based on firm and glorious Torah principles with everyone with whom we come into contact.

A basic halakha of tefilin is that first we must wrap our shel yad, our arm-tefilin, then our shel rosh, our head-tefilin. And when taking them off, we first divest ourselves of the shel rosh, then the shel yad. Never (unless we are, G-D forbid, without arms) may we sport the shel rosh without also being wrapped in the shel yad.

As a sine qua non, it is essential that we start out as Noah. We must strengthen our inner-core by lifelong attachment to Torah study and growth. Moreover we must protect that inner core, just as we do the box of the shel yad,.and remain a goy kadosh.

But we cannot stop there. Because the shel yad is only half of the mitsva. In fact, truth to tell, the shel rosh is the superior half which is another reason we don it second. Ma’alin ba-kodesh v’ein moridin. We rise in matters of sanctity, we do not descend (Shabbat 21b). We must transcend our inner Noah and grow to be an Abraham!

The tefilin shel rosh is the acme of the mitsva. The proud, visible Torah message for all to see, learn from and revere. This is our role as a mamlekhet kohanim.

The world is ready to receive our unique message, our truth and our inspiration. We cannot be found wanting!