Imagine a State of the Union address that – instead of measuring progress relative to the promises made during the most recent election campaign – used the yardstick of the values and goals articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Such an exercise would certainly provide a deeper and broader assessment of where we stand as a nation relative to our truest goals.
For the State of the Jewish Union, we can perform this exercise by exploring the story of our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, the moment that we accepted Hashem as our King and adopted the Torah as our constitution. The Torah’s account of these events is filled with instruction about the fundamentals of building Klal Yisrael. What follows are a number of those core issues that bear notice and strengthening, especially at this juncture in American Jewish life.
- Expanding and Empowering Leadership: “You shall choose (individuals) from amongst the people … and you shall appoint them as leaders…” (Shemos 18:21). Yisro identified an ongoing challenge: insufficient leadership resources. Rabbis have long lines, and communal leaders have full plates. We need more people to do more. The son of the Chafetz Chaim (Letters of the Chafetz Chaim (Hebrew), Samples of My Father’s Approach no. 48) records how his father did not approve of his extensive personal efforts as a communal Rav to help individuals and establish communal support systems, as he said one person does not have the ability to address the needs of a community of even fifty families. Instead, he charged him to activate others and empower a broader swath of the people to engage in these activities, producing exponential results. We must find ways to do the same, to activate and energize more members of our communities to assume responsibility for others, to shift from consumers to providers.
- Addressing Individuals: “You shall appoint … leaders of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties and of tens” (Shemos 18:21). One size does not fit all. By creating many levels of leadership, we can provide guidance and instruction “retail” instead of “wholesale”. The particular needs of individuals, the tone and the content of the Torah they study, can be properly tailored and tapered. Indeed, our Sages taught that G-d’s voice at Sinai reached every individual with their individual strength, b’kocho shel kol echad v’echad (Shemos Rabba 29:1), and the many and varied facets of Torah were included in His word, Vayedaber Elokim es kol hadevarim ha’eileh (TB Chagiga 3b). We must do the same, finding ways to reach more of our communal members – young and old – with a message that resonates with them, and that addresses their particular interests and needs.
- Justice Delayed and Denied: “You will surely wear out, you and the people who are with you (Shemos 18:18). There is a genuine concern that the community will wilt and fail as they wait for justice to be served. As Rabbenu Yonah taught (TB Brachos 19b in the pages of the Rif), when there is an absence of proper justice, people feel confused and abandoned – by G-d and community. This is an acute issue, as many who experienced hurt, trauma or abuse within their communal, familial or educational experience are crying out for help, or feeling the confusion and abandonment of previous cries that were not properly heard and addressed. This has led to significant disenfranchisement, and the creation of both virtual and real communities of the disaffected. We must more readily and efficiently address the grievances and the hurt of others.
- Strengthening Unity in our Ranks: “The Jewish people encamped opposite the Mountain – as one man with one heart” (Shemos 19:2, Rashi). Our community is increasingly fractured. First, as segments of the community have grown in different directions, we have grown apart. The gap between the orthodox and non-orthodox worlds is significant, as are the gaps between segments of orthodoxy. And our arguments are characterized by a stridency that seems to place victory and narrow principle over the value of brotherhood, peace and community. We are one nation but we act as if we do not need one another.
These divisions have been significantly exacerbated by technology, as the new media has brought new levels of segmentation and of vitriol into communal discourse. Any effort to accomplish anything in Jewish life is surely to be met by public attack from the skeptical and the oppositional. A strong stance has to be taken for Jewish unity as the core value that must be part of every debate over specific issues and policies. This core value must inform how we debate issues, and how we reach decisions.
- Engaging Women: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob (Bais Yaakov) and relate to the Children of Israel” (Shemos 19:3). Moshe was told to first address the women, before speaking to the men, as engagement of the women of the community is a critical first step to engaging the community as a whole. In one way or another, they lead the way for the rest of us, as taught in the Midrash Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer (Ch. 41), and echoed by the many modern-day Torah leaders who saw the continued engagement of women in Torah life as more vital to the continuation of Torah than the Yeshivos themselves (see HaRav m’Brisk 3:40, 48). Nonetheless, what the specific character of that engagement is supposed to look like remains elusive. The role of the woman in society in general has evolved dramatically, and we need to be discriminating before blindly accepting these changes and adjusting our own communal norms.
Yet, even within a firm commitment to traditional orthodoxy and an aversion to altering traditional norms, it seems clear that in our own community we can do much more to engage women. Much will be gained by developing more accessible and competent female-to-female guidance, following the model of Miriam, who was the direct leader and guide of the Jewish women, as the Targum to Micha (6:4) explains (ומרים לאוראה לנשיא). We must craft an approach – consistent with both our eternal values and contemporary needs – to enhance the engagement of women in Jewish life, specifically by providing an appropriate framework for female-to-female leadership.
- Inspired Engagement in Jewish Life: “You have seen what I did to Egypt, how I have borne you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me” (Shemos 19:4). It is hard to imagine our living in a more inspiring moment in modern Jewish history. With all of our challenges, we are experiencing a period of incredible opportunity. While assimilation continues at a terrifying pace, orthodox Jewish life in America is growing and thriving. At the same time, carried on the wings of eagles, six million Jews live in the land of Israel! The reborn Jewish State is home to a burgeoning Torah community, booming Torah scholarship, and a widespread return to tradition. And Israel has become an economic, technological, social and military powerhouse. We need to enhance awareness of our generation’s unique and historic privilege, to the point that every Jew celebrates our chosen-ness and cannot imagine setting aside Jewish identity and engagement.
- A Holy Nation: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemos 19:6). “Holiness” is difficult to define precisely, but without question it implies a level of transcendence and detachment from materialism. Sadly, this would not be an apt description of our people at this moment. While we have built our capacity for Torah study, Mitzvos, and acts of kindness, we are simultaneously becoming more and more materialistic. We must reverse this trend, for both our spiritual and financial well-being.
- Building our own Sexual Ethic: “Be ready after a three-day period of limitation, (during which you) do not draw near a woman” (Shemos 19:15). Despite the Torah’s encouragement of healthy intimacy in marriage, we could not approach Sinai without a break from the distorted sexuality of Egypt. Within contemporary society, as was the case in the Egypt of our exile, there is profound emphasis on sexuality that goes far beyond “permissive”; it is “obsessive”. The ramifications of this phenomenon profoundly impact the experience of youth, marital health, female dignity and self-concept, and the personal safety of both young and old. We must positively and effectively build our own healthy sexual ethic.
- Compelling and Absolute Values: “They stood beneath the mountain – G-d suspended the mountain over their heads like a barrel, and said: ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, there you will be buried” (Shemos 19:17; TB Shabbos 88a). For us, the Torah is not simply an inspired choice; it is a compelling imperative. That is why it was insufficient for the Jewish people to volunteer their participation; they needed the additional power of the “mountain held over their heads”. Torah must be seen not as an exciting option but as an absolute value, and as equal to life itself (See Maharal Tiferes Yisrael 32). And that implies that each of us see Torah as an imperative for all of our brothers and sisters. “Naaseh v’Nishma – WE will do and WE will hear” (Shemos 24:7). We are not satisfied with our own observance, but consider it our fundamental concern and obligation to bring all Jews to observance (See Bais Halevi there). These perspectives – of absolute values and mutual moral responsibility – are fundamentally foreign to American society, with its shifting morality and overwhelming emphasis on personal choice, “live and let live”. This conflict has in fact placed the traditional religious community on the defensive, portrayed consistently as archaic and intolerant. We must construct a compelling case for absolute values and the eternal relevance of our faith teachings.
- The Twin Mandates of Religious and Social Responsibility: “He gave Moshe the two tablets of testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d” (Shemos 31:18). The message of the two, inseparable tablets and their differing content, is that Torah is both religious and human, and there is no way to divide those two dimensions. There is no Jewish life without constant G-dly awareness, faith, love and fear. Our religious obligations are real and specific and require care and conscientiousness in their implementation. And there is no Jewish life without kindness and truth, care and integrity. This is the message of the twin tablets of the covenant. Yet, in practice, that division is real and present. In many quarters, religiosity is not synonymous with integrity, while in others the emphasis on an overall goodness seems to overshadow a commitment to consistent and conscientious Halachic observance. We must develop whole Jews, who recognize, value and implement both critical dimensions of Torah.
- Face Time, not Facetime: “Moshe brought back the response of the people to G-d: ‘They want to hear directly from You! One cannot compare hearing from the emissary to hearing from the King himself. We desire to see our King!’” (Rashi to Shemos 19:9). Moshe was prepared to deliver G-d’s word to the Jewish people, but we insisted on seeing G-d ourselves and hearing from Him directly. Even when Moshe eventually became the intermediary to deliver G-d’s word, a fundamental part of the experience was seeing Moshe’s face (see Sforno to Shemos 34:33). The experience of direct, face-to-face contact, is fundamental to relationship. Today, technology has downplayed the difference between real, direct contact and the virtual variety. The appreciation of body language and personal warmth is becoming a lost art, with profound effects on human relationships. And if there is one issue that tops the list of contemporary concerns, in both the Jewish community and the world-at-large, it is the weakening of basic human relationships. The restoration of real and direct human relationships, through real and direct human contact, is fundamental to the future strength of family and community.
- Earning Our Keep: “For twenty-six generation, from creation until the giving of the Torah, G-d sustained the world with his kindness” (TB Pesachim 118a). The gift of Torah marked the end of G-d’s indulgent kindness, the period of history where we were sustained by G-d’s grace, without an ability to earn our place in His world. The gift of Torah gave us the opportunity to “do for G-d”, to earn our keep (see Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuos 8:4). This is the highest level of human existence, far-transcending dependence. This fundamental value – where we appreciate most that which we have truly earned – appears at risk in our society, where familial, educational and economic cultures seem to encourage indulgence with minimal accountability. We must restore the value of hard work, and the appreciation that there is no greater pleasure than enjoying the toil of one’s own hands.
This is certainly only a partial list of the fundamental values upon which Klal Yisrael was built. As such, it is also a partial list of the core issues that we must face as a nation.
There is much we can do to continue to develop our worthiness as G-d’s people, as a holy people and people of destiny, and to ensure that the State of Our Union with G-d grows ever-stronger.