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The Courage to Stand Apart: Rabbi Jachter on Sefer Daniel

Reviewing: “Opportunity in Exile: An In-Depth Exploration of Sefer Daniel,” by Rabbi Chaim Jachter, Kol Torah Publications, 2021. ISBN: 9798769230172.

Rabbi Chaim Jachter is a talmid chacham who is inordinately accessible in many areas: as a yeshiva high school rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County, as a community rabbi of Shaarei Orah Congregation in Teaneck, as a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth, and as a well-known posek for the Teaneck/Bergenfield community eruv and others nationwide. As if that weren’t enough, he is also an erudite and prolific author. Those who read The Jewish Link every week know that no issue of our newspaper is complete without Rabbi Jachter’s article, which almost never addresses the same issue twice and certainly never fails to be both insightful and enlightening.

Slightly fewer people may know that Rabbi Jachter also publishes one or two books each year, which reveals a practically unbelievable amount of productivity. But when one notes where Rabbi Jachter gets his inspiration, the prolificness is slightly more reasonable. You see, Rabbi Jachter is inspired by his students’ questions at TABC, and is able to compile many of his sefarim in a unique way, using their expressed questions, thoughts and conclusions, which he attributes to the talmidim while thanking them for their contributions. “Opportunity in Exile: An In-Depth Exploration of Sefer Daniel” is one such example of Rabbi Jachter’s utilization of his students’ insights to inform the direction of a sefer.

Rabbi Jachter explains that the study of Sefer Daniel was embarked upon by his students in March through June of 2020, during the earliest and likely the most intensely isolated period of the COVID lockdown. He compares Daniel’s time in exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzer to our own personal exiles from one another in that moment, as we hoped and prayed for deliverance from a variety of unknowns. In retrospect, Rabbi Jachter noted that his students took comfort and great meaning from the experience of delving deeply into the very difficult sefer.

Sefer Daniel, part of Ketuvim (Writings), opens after the destruction of the First Temple, in the Babylonian exile. Daniel, part of the tribe of Yehuda, was one of several of Israel’s finest youth who were sent to be part of Nebuchadnezzer’s royal court, as wise-men-in-training, so to speak. Through his intense faith, his adherence to the laws of kashrut even when under royal decree to eat of the king’s food, and through his prayer to and unshakable belief in the God of Israel, Daniel sows the seeds of Israel’s rebirth. Even, or perhaps particularly, in the inhospitable atmosphere of Babylonia, Daniel preserved his Jewish identity. By modeling and setting an example for how to act in galut, he influences others, eventually foretelling Israel’s deliverance by Moshiach at the End of Days.

Rabbi Jachter goes through the sefer with his talmidim, perek by perek, bringing in their questions and insights as part of the larger story. The sefer is best read alongside a copy of Sefer Daniel. Rabbi Jachter refers to their insights both as a group, referring to “TABC Talmidim,” and as individuals, by using their names in connection to specific thoughts and observations. Rabbi Jachter and his students spend a significant portion of time discussing Daniel’s adherence to kashrut while living in the king’s palace, noting that he requested beans rather than cooked non-kosher food, and with Daniel even asking his interlocutors to assess and agree that he and his group looked healthy after a steady diet of plain legumes.

Sefer Daniel also houses a number of fascinating language inconsistencies. An interesting question posed by Rabbi Jachter is why the sefer is written in both Hebrew and Aramaic. He credits his talmidim (in this case Jacob Becker, Zachary Becker, Ezra Lebowitz and Yaakov Suldan) with the following insight:

“…beginning the sefer in Hebrew offers the view of a Hebrew-speaking Jewish young man freshly exiled from Yehuda to Bavel. He speaks, thinks and writes in Hebrew. However, as he becomes more acculturated, he becomes comfortable in Aramaic. Of course, Daniel does not assimilate since he resolutely avoids eating Nevuchadznetzar’s food but [13 years later] has become proficient in Aramaic and in the ways of the Babylonian royal court. Daniel handles himself with skill and aplomb in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”

Perhaps the most prominent and well-known portion of Sefer Daniel is the fact that Daniel is, quite literally, “thrown into the lion’s den,” yet is untouched by the wild beasts and not torn limb from limb as were those thrown into the pit before and after. This part of the sefer, perek 6, is focused on in a unique way by Rabbi Jachter and his talmidim. They address first the perceived offense that forced the king to punish him in this grisly way. This offense was praying to Hashem, as was Daniel’s practice, three times a day. A decree had just been written that “whoever will make a request of any god or man for 30 days, other than that of the king, would be thrown into the lion’s pit.” While Daniel was aware of the edict, the decree was made without the king’s explicit understanding that it would catch Daniel as a guilty party in prayer, but it was planned, nefariously, by the king’s advisers and governors. The situation subsequently troubled the king greatly, who rushed to see what had become of him and was greatly relieved when he found Daniel had been untouched by the lions. The king immediately punished those guilty of framing Daniel, and thanked the “God of Daniel” who “performs signs and wonders in heaven and on earth.”

In a nod to current events, Rabbi Jachter and his talmidim compared and contrasted the prohibition on prayer in Babylonia to their experience at the moment in 2020, when the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County had closed the doors of batei knesset and essentially forbade public prayer during the early part of the pandemic. Twelve perspectives of various talmidim addressed what they think Daniel would have thought about this particular edict. Of all the contributions, particularly insightful was the view of talmid Rami Gertler: “There is a difference between defying the laws of non-Jews to show your devotion and defying the laws and orders of the Jewish community to show your faith in Hashem. Defying non-Jews who seek to harm us shows we are unwilling to assimilate. Defying the leaders of the Jewish community is a way of saying you do not agree with them and will not follow their instructions to keep other people safe. Daniel wanted to prove a point. Those who have been davening with a minyan [during the March-June lockdown] this whole time have shown disrespect to the leaders of the Jewish community.”

While there are many insightful portions of Rabbi Jachter’s sefer, what he shares that is likely most important and instructive is that Sefer Daniel is a relevant book that has many lessons that are particularly au courant, and likely should be taught to more students. Rabbi Jachter proves that this sefer can be taught at the yeshiva high school level, though the students he quotes do seem extraordinarily insightful.

But primarily, in addition to providing a directive on how to live as a Jew in galut, Rabbi Jachter’s sefer reminds us that there are extraordinarily important lessons in Sefer Daniel about faith and how to serve Hashem, and even how to be a kiddush Hashem, when living in a strange land. Sefer Daniel’s conclusion, which addresses the promise of Hashem and the deliverance by Moshiach in the End of Days, should also provide students with the kind of useful inspiration to keep up their study, to keep the fires of Torah burning, not only now but even in the most difficult of times.

By Elizabeth Kratz

 

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