May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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A friend recently shared a picture of a group of Jews being led to the concentration camps and then directly underneath was another picture of soldiers standing upright, protecting Israel. The picture so quickly conveyed the sentiment of this time on the modern Jewish calendar of Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut—how the Jewish people went from such a state of dependence to one of independence and Jewish statehood.

But what does the transition from dependence to independence mean to us today in a spiritual sense? In this week’s parsha, Acharei Mot, God tells the Jewish people not to imitate the corrupt ways of the people who lived in Egypt and in Canaan, but instead follow God’s commands: “And you will keep my laws and ordinances, which if a person does, and you shall live by them.” (Vayikra 18:5)

Rashi comments that the words “v’chai bahem, live by them” refer not to our current world but to the next world, namely, if you follow the laws of the Torah, it will give you eternal life—a share in the world to come. The Talmud however interprets “v’chai bahem” as referring to this world, “velo sheyamut baheim, that one should not die keeping the mitzvot.” This is the source for the famous teaching that with the exception of the three cardinal sins, one must violate the Torah in order to preserve life in this world. In his classic work “Halakhic Man” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik elaborates on this: “The teachings of the Torah do not oppose the laws of life and reality, for were they to clash with this world and were they to negate the value of concrete, physiological-biological existence then they would not contain mercy, lovingkindness and peace but vengeance and wrath.” Ultimately, the Torah and its laws were designed to elevate this world, not to negate it. And so, referring to the mitzvot, we must “live by them” and not “die by them.”

The Rav quoted his famed grandfather Rav Chaim Soloveitchik who disagreed with the view that on Yom Kippur a dangerously ill person could eat, but only less than a kezayit, an olive worth of food. He would instruct people in that position to eat a regular meal. And so when his son, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, was about to become a rabbi in a town near Kovno, Rav Chaim commanded him to follow his view on this issue saying that it was “an absolute halachic truth.” “v’chai bahem” means that the Torah was meant for us to live in this world and sanctify our lives in the here and now. This helps explain why the focus of Halacha is not on other-world issues like the afterlife, the Messiah or the resurrection. While other religions may focus on these areas, the corpus of Halacha focuses on how we treat one another, civil and criminal law, how we eat and drink, sexuality, marriage, divorce, praying, observing Shabbat and other this-world matters. Ultimately, the mitzvot are designed to bring holiness into our world—not to give us a way of escaping the physical realm for another. And so ”v’chai bahem”—live by the mitzvot, right here and now.

The creation of the State of Israel brought this idea to a new level. Before the Jewish State, our freedom in Europe or elsewhere in the diaspora was dependent on the whims of governments who ruled over our ancestors who possessed no power to shape their own destiny. With Jewish statehood came independence, and with independence comes dignity because we can now charter our own path. Living in someone else’s country means if the government is favorably disposed to you, then all is good. But the second something goes wrong and a scapegoat is needed, the Jew is there and there is nothing we can do about it.

Israel changed all that.

Israel allowed us to truly live. It enabled us to fulfill the biblical mandate ”v’chai bahem,” to live as a Jew and not to have to die as a Jew. We may still have enemies who seek our destruction, but we can now control of our own fate. We can say “never again,” as long as we have our own state, our own government and our own army. We can lift our heads, wherever we are in the world, because Israel, although disliked by some, is respected by all, for she gives her people life and dignity.

And I would add one more thing in which we can all take great pride: Israel does not only give life and dignity to its own people. It gives life to all in need. Israel is consistently one of the first countries to send disaster relief teams to affected countries all over the world. Whether it’s Mexico, Armenia, Turkey, El Salvador, India, Peru, Indonesia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and more, Israel displays its unceasing commitment to choosing life in this world. One instance I always come back to is 2010, when Israel sent 150 medical personnel to treat hundreds of earthquake victims in Haiti and carried out 85 life-saving surgeries. When the team returned to Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu personally greeted them with the following message: “You helped 1,600 wounded people and brought new life with at least eight births. You have shown the true face of Israel—a country that values life.”?

A country so tiny, beset by terrorism and enemies on all sides brings life and innovation to the rest of the world—way beyond its numbers. And it’s all because of “v’chai bahem,” because our focus and efforts remain on sanctifying this world and making it a place where all humanity can live with dignity.

Happy 75th birthday Israel. May Hashem continue to bless you with the power to bring life to all.


Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.

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