Nitzavim-Vayeilech

August 29, 2013

Nitzavim: Bridging the Generation Gap

The time will come, the Torah assures us, when God will bring the Jewish people back to the land of their ancestors. In the Land of Israel, they will learn to fully love God and keep His commandments:

“God will remove the barriers from your hearts and from your descendants’ hearts, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul… .” (Deut. 30:6)
Why does the verse mention both ‘your hearts’ and ‘your descendants’ hearts’? Do the parents and children have different hearts?

In fact, their hearts are different. Each generation has its own intellectual, emotional, and spiritual yearnings. Each generation has its own hurdles and barriers to be overcome. While the fundamental content of the Torah does not change — it is still the same divine Torah from Sinai — its style and exposition must meet the needs of the day.

The prophet Elijah, harbinger of the redemption, will know how to reach out to each generation in its own language. He will succeed in bringing them together, and thus fulfill his mission to “restore the heart of fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24).

Torah for Our Time

Rav Kook was profoundly disturbed by the widespread abandonment of religious observance by the young people of his time. He frequently pleaded for the creation of a renascent literature to reach out to the younger generation. In a letter from 1913, for example, he wrote:

“We must translate our entire sacred treasury according to the contemporary style of writing. Almost the entire body of Jewish knowledge and sentiments must be made accessible to the people of our time.”
In the days of the return from Babylonian exile, Ezra switched the script of the Torah from the paleo-Hebrew characters to the letters that we use today, the more aesthetically pleasing Assyrian script (Sanhedrin 21b). One reason for doing so was in order to help his generation appreciate and connect to the Torah. We live in a similar age, when the exiled Jews returning to their homeland are often detached from their spiritual heritage. Ezra’s initiative is an apt metaphor for the current need to present the Torah in a language and style suitable for our time, while preserving its inner content.

( Adapted from Otzarot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 369; Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. II, p. 226)

VaYeilech: The Song of Torah

On the last day of his life, Moses commanded the people:

“Now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the Israelites” (Deut. 31:19).
This verse is the source-text for the obligation of each Jew to write a Torah scroll (Sanhedrin 21b). [However, the Shulchan Aruch quotes the opinion of Rabbeinu Asher (the Rosh) that ‘Nowadays it is a mitzvah to write books of the Pentateuch, Mishnah, Talmud, and their commentaries,’ since we no longer study directly from Torah scrolls.]

But why did Moses refer to the Torah as a ‘song’? In what way should we relate to the Torah as song?

Studying Mussar

A young scholar once wrote Rav Kook a letter probing certain philosophical issues, raising difficult questions that troubled him. Rav Kook was delighted to see the young scholar immerse his talents analyzing the philosophical aspects of Torah, unlike most Torah scholars who dedicate themselves solely to the study of Talmud and practical Halachah. Exploring abstract philosophical issues, Rav Kook stressed, is especially important in our times.

Nonetheless, Rav Kook urged the scholar to approach this field only after a prerequisite study of mussar texts.

“You should first acquire expertise in all moralistic tracts that you come across, starting with the easier texts. Great scholars, wise-hearted and exceptionally pious, wrote this literature from the heart. Many subjects of inquiry cannot be fully grasped until one’s emotions have been properly prepared.”
In other words, it is important to precede the analysis of Torah philosophy with the study of simpler texts that clarify the unique holiness of Torah. What is the function of this preparatory study? By studying mussar, we gain a proper appreciation and reverence for the subject at hand. Only after this emotional preparation are we ready to delve into an intellectual analysis of Torah thought.

Engaging the Emotions

It is for this reason, Rav Kook explained, the Torah is called a ‘song.’ Just as the beauty of song stirs the heart, so too, the special power of mussar literature lies in its ability to awaken our inner sensitivity to the divine nature of Torah. This emotive preparation is essential, as only the pure of heart are successful in penetrating the philosophical foundations of the Torah.

While ethical works do not engage the intellect to a high degree, they nonetheless enable the soul to recognize the Torah’s inner foundations. Of course, one should not be content with reading moralistic literature, but should continue with in-depth, analytical study of the Torah and its worldview.

( Adapted from Igrot HaRe’iyah vol. I, p.94

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