Thursday, September 15, 2011






Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this Torah [asher lo yakim et divrei ha-Torah ha-zot] to do them.  And all the people shall say: Amen. (Deut, 27:26).

Our text is the final verse in the solemn and awe-inspiring ratification of the covenant between God and Israel.  The ceremony, orchestrated by Moses as part of his final exhortation to the children of Israel, was antiphonal.  The Levites encircled the Ark in the valley midway between Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival.  They first faced Mt. Gerizim and pronounced the blessing, to which the assembled multitude on the slopes answered Amen.  Then, facing Mt. Eival the Levites pronounced the curse, and the masses on its slopes said Amen. One can only begin to imagine the powerful impact of this awesome psycho-spiritual experience. 
But the meaning of the final verse is unclear.  The literal translation of the of the Hebrew phrase: Asher lo yakim et divrei ha-Torah ha-zot is “who will not lift up the words of this Torah.”  Because the literal translation does not seem to make sense, Rashi explains our text to be an oath to accept the entire Torah. Fulfillment of the commitment will bring blessing and non-fulfillment will be cursed. Accordingly, the Jewish Publication Society of America’s translation renders the difficult phrase:    Who confirms not the words of this Torah.”
Ramban acknowledges the awkward terminology of our text:  “Can the Torah possibly fall?” he asks.  Surely, if its intent was the curse for non-performance, the verse should have been written: Asher lo ya-aseh et divrei ha-Torah ha-zot—who will not do the words of this Torah.  What, then, is the special significance of the word yakim?  How can one lift up the Torah?
 In answer to his question “Can the Torah possibly fall?” Ramban responds with a resounding “Yes.” Those who rebel against and deny the Torah cast it down from the lofty place it has occupied in the hearts of the children of Israel.  The imperative of lifting up the fallen Torah is specifically directed at those who are in a position to raise it up from its diminished condition.
 Merely studying the Torah or even teaching it is not enough.  Not even diligent personal observance of the Torah suffices. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud declares explicitly:
If one has studied, taught, observed and performed the precepts of the Torah and had it in one’s power to strengthen it, but did not raise it up, one is included in the curse.  Rav Yirmiyah said in the name of Rav Chiyya:  If one did not study or teach or observe or perform and had not the means to strengthen the Torah, but did raise it up, one is included in the blessing  (JT Sotah 7:6). 
 Ramban indicates that political and religious leaders are especially charged with the imperative to uplift the fallen Torah.  A dramatic incident in Jewish history illustrates his point. In 637 BCE, Prince Josiah succeeded his wicked father Amon as King of Israel. Only eight years old at the time and a target for assassination, he was taken under the wing and protection of Chilkiyah the High Priest.  Under Chilkiyah’s tutelage he became a paragon of morality and scrupulous observance.  His father had established a culture of paganism in the land and persecuted those who remained loyal to God, seeking to destroy not only monotheistic worship but also its sacred texts. 
The influence of Chilkiyah upon the hidden King was profound:  And he did what was right in the sight of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his ancestor.  He did not turn aside to the right or to the left. (2 Kings 22:2).  
Ten years later, when Josiah was old enough to begin to exercise power effectively, Chilkiyah informed Shafan the Scribe that he had found the concealed Book of the Torah in the House of the Lord.  Shafan thereupon read the words of the Book to the young King and Josiah tore his clothes. (2 Kings 22:8-11). 
Why did Josiah rend his garments?  Scripture had affirmed that he was pure and incorruptible. What had he to mourn? What did he regret? Apparently the young king recognized that his personal conduct had not sufficed to raise up the fallen Torah. Since he had the power to elevate its status, it was incumbent upon him to do so.
Fast-forward more than 2600 years to contemporary times. At first blush, it would appear that our generation has finally fulfilled the imperative of our text. Ours is a period of revival of personal piety, commitment and learning.  There is ample evidence that more people are studying, teaching, observing and fulfilling the words of the Torah than ever before.  Jewish outreach has brought thousands of disaffected and alienated young people into the fold.  Arguably, there are more yeshivot in Israel, in the United States and elsewhere than there have ever previously been. 
Orthodoxy is clearly in the ascendant.  Recent Jewish population studies confirm this. During the past three decades the number of Jews who identify themselves as orthodox has risen steadily. Fewer that ten percent of New York Jews identified themselves as orthodox when I was working there in the 70s and 80s. That number has now risen to twenty-five percent. 
But we should harbor no illusions. Even as the percentage of orthodox Jews has increased, the process of assimilation has increased at an even faster rate.  Those who challenge the Torah and deny its authority are the majority.  Orthodox triumphalism is both premature and unseemly.   “Is there such a thing as a fallen Torah?”  Ramban asked.  The answer is an emphatic Yes. 
What are the words of this fallen Torah that require strengthening?  The first is the imperative of reciprocal responsibility.  The Talmud declares:  Kol Yisra’el areivim zeh ba-zeh—all Jews are responsible for one another. (BT Shevu’ot 39a). Jews are ultimately judged by the way they demonstrate caring and concern for one another.  Jewish communities are voluntary associations, whose members can confidently depend upon fellow members for support and in the pursuit of the common good, 
The notion of reciprocal responsibility transcends one’s own community. In 1911 Mendel Beilis, “the fixer,” was falsely accused of murdering a Christian child and using his blood to bake matzah.  So-called expert witnesses testified to the Jewish practice of using the blood of animals for ritual purposes in the ancient Temple.  One cited a Talmudic text to prove that gentiles were not regarded as human beings but as animals, whose blood could be used for ritual purposes:  You are called man [adam].  The gentiles are not called man. (BT Yevamot 21a; Bava Metzi’a 114b). 
The great Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin was called upon to rebut this shocking assertion.  He calmly gave the court a lesson in Hebrew grammar.  There are, he said, many Hebrew words for the human being.  Besides adam, the words ish, enosh and gever also mean “man.” With the exception of adam, the plural form of all these words is different from the singular.  The plural of ish is anashim.  The plural of enosh, too, is anashim, and the plural of gever is gevarim.  Adam alone means “man” both in the singular and the plural. 
This, testified Rabbi Meir Shapiro, is what the Sages meant by saying that only Israel is called adam.  The Jewish people is a single, indivisible organism.  Like the individual person, when one part of the body politic sustains injury, the entire body politic experiences the pain. A court in Russia threatens the survival of Mendel Beilis, and Jews feel his pain in London, New York, Warsaw, Johannesburg and Paris.  All are suffering with him because what happens to one Jew affects every other Jew.  If he had not been Jewish, it is unlikely that there would have been mass gatherings of solidarity by coreligionists in the other capitals of the world.  The Jew alone is a unique single organism, inextricably interconnected. 
Rabbi Shapiro’s testimony impressively articulated the Jewish notion of mutual responsibility.  We are responsible for other Jews irrespective of their ideologies and ways of life-wherever they may be. 
The notion of raising up the fallen Torah also involves the imperative of protesting against evil policies and conduct.  We who are bound by the Torah’s command to pursue justice dare not turn a blind eye to injustice of any kind.  My involvement in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa has been described elsewhere, but I have not previously disclosed one of my reasons for speaking out against the evils of that system and of risking detention without trial. 
At that time, I was not only the Senior Rabbi of the Province of Natal, but also Professor and Head of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of Natal.  Many Jewish students were vocal critics of Apartheid.  Unfortunately, large numbers had been inspired by Marxist ideology.  None of those to whom I spoke cited the ethical imperatives of the Torah and the Prophets as their inspiration for political activism.  After all, they told me, most South African rabbis had been silent about the horrors of Apartheid.  I was determined to prove to them that the ethics of the Torah were relevant and transformative, and so I became a spokesman of the university against Apartheid and was embroiled in the treason trial of the leaders of the National Union of South African Students.  In this small way I had taken steps to raise up the fallen Torah.  My political positions were vindicated not only by their essential rightness, but also by the new respect in which the Torah came to be held by so many young people.
The Torah has fallen in another respect as well. Reaching out and speaking out only partially fulfill the imperative of lifting up the fallen Torah. In the last analysis, our reaching up lifts it up.  The level of observance has indeed increased, but spiritual consciousness often lags far behind the punctilious performance of mitzvot.  Unconscious religious behaviorism is not the Torah’s ideal.  The mitzvot are meant to be springboards to personal transformation, sensitivity and connection with God. Unless they produce these results, the Torah can be said to be of diminished status, because its impact is necessarily measured by the spirituality and ethical sensitivity of its followers.
The covenantal formula for blessing is straightforward, but so is inevitability of the curse. Whether we personally elevate the fallen Torah or leave it where it lies makes all the difference in the world.


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