Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • Israel and the Nations
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Robert Chai ben Myriam



Rabbi Berel Wein

4 Kislev 5769

In the Torah parshiyot of these past weeks we read of a winnowing process that eventually formed the Jewish people into a nation called Israel.Our father Avraham, the most compassionate of all humans who even attempted to invoke God's mercy, so to speak, on the cities of Sodom, nevertheless sends away from his house his son Yishmael and the children that he had with his wife Keturah. Against his own private instincts and nature he heeds the call of God and Sarah and sends away Yishmael in order not to endanger the physical and spiritual well-being of Yitzchak, his miraculous and fragile blessed son. The Lord told Avraham "Only through Yitzchak will your generations be assured." Thus Avraham performs a necessary but nevertheless painful form of parental triage. Since Yitzchak represents the eternal future of Avraham and of all Jewish values and life, Avraham invests all that he has in the development,education and well-being of Yitzchak for without Yitzchak and his ideas and values Yishmael and the children of Ketura will also fail to become more civilized ans positive. Yitzchak is the key to not only the success of Avraham but to the advancement of monotheism and Godly values in the world generally.

The same idea pertains in the choice of our mother Rivkah in advancing the cause of Yaakov over that of his twin brother Eisav. Without Yaakov Eisav will be an unredeemable criminal and murderer. And Yaakov requires the blessings of Avraham and Yitzchak in order to survive. So Rivkah makes the hard decision that gives Yaakov the blessings that Eisav also desires but has not earned. The building of the Jewish nation is a product of such painful triage and wrenching decisions.

King Solomon in Shir HaShirim points out the terrible dilemma of the Jewish people throughout the ages. He states: "They (the nations of the world) have made me the guardian of their vineyards. In so doing I have not given sufficient care to my vineyard." A great many Jews worry about the welfare of Yishmael and Eisav. This is an admirable moral trait of Jewish compassion. The problem lies in that so doing many of them lose compassion for their own family, the Jewish people and especially thr State of Israel. In attempting to being engaged in fixing the world their efforts many times lead towards destructing the Jewish people. Basically put, if there are no Jews there is no Judaism and no Jewish values can exist to help fix a badly broken world. The Lord at Sinai gave the Jewish people a special role to play in all human affairs: "You are to be to Me a special treasured people - a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." Our efforts therefore have to be concentrated primarily on achieving the blessings for the descendants of Yitzchak and Yaakov. The State of Israel may has as yet not reached perfection but it is the only state that we have. At a time when we have few friends in the non-Jewish nations of the world for well-meaning but terribly self-injurious Jews to vilify and campaign against Israel while at the same time espousing high minded tikun olam slogans is a misreading of Judaism and all Jewish experience. The great Hillel said: "If I am not for me then who will be for me/" He also said that I cannot be for me alone but there has to be an alive and functioning me for that to happen. We are small in numbers but great in influence. Our main task should be to increase our numbers and be physically and spiritually secure and viable before we allow ourselves to pursue exclusively the lofty, if not even somewhat arrogant goal of fixing the world.

Legend has it that the sainted Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (Chafetz Chayim) remarked at the end of his life: "When I was young I was convinced that I would be able to change the world fr the better. As I grew older I realized that that was too great a task for me. But I was convinced that I could certainly change my town - my community - for the better. Yet as I grew still older I realized that this too was beyond my abilities. So I decided that I would attempt to change my household, my family members for the better. Sadly, I came to realize that this too was not necessarily within my powers and finally I decided I would attempt to change myself for the better. If I did that then my family, my community, the entire world would also be subtly changed for the better." Our primary task of tikun olam lies in tikun atzmi - in self-improvement and the strengthening of tradition and Jewish values in Jewish society. It lies in defending and strengthening the Jewish people and the State of Israel from external and internal foes. It lies in concentrating our efforts and resources in our world - in safeguarding our own vineyard - before engaging in attempting to change the world. In the standard instructions given on commercial airplane flights one is always instructed to place an oxygen mask over one's own face first before attempting to help someone else with their mask. This is a good lesson for Jews to remember.

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