THIS SONG WILL TESTIFY
There will always remain a steadfast, loyal segment of the Jewish People who refuse to betray the Torah given to them at Sinai.
G-d promised the Jewish People that even when a segment of the people would be led to abandon the heritage from Sinai, the Torah would never be forgotten by the entire nation. The verse tells us:
“And it shall be, that when the myriad tragedies and catastrophes befall them, this song will testify before them like a witness, since it will never be forgotten from the mouth of their descendants” (Deuteronomy 31: 21).
In keeping with this promise, all those spiritual enemies of traditional Judaism who strive to eliminate “old-fashioned” traditional Torah Judaism and replace it with “modern” adaptations of Torah will never succeed completely. No matter how powerful and influential these dissenters might be, there will always remain a steadfast, loyal segment of the Jewish People who refuse to betray the Torah given to them at Sinai. G-d will not allow anyone to completely eradicate authentic Torah observance from the People of Israel.
This divine pledge has been miraculously fulfilled, against all odds and all rational predictions; thus it deserves our special attention. If we review the entire span of Jewish history, we find one theme which occurs again and again. As we read in the Passover Haggodah: “In every generation and generation, they rise up against us...”
Our enemies have not only tried to annihilate us physically; they have contrived one malicious plot after another in their attempts to eliminate our loyalty to Torah. Repeatedly, they strive to win the Jewish People over to their religion and/or culture, whether the paganism of the Greek, the Christianity of the Inquisition and the Crusades, the Islam of the Mohammedans, the secular culture of the Enlightenment, or the atheism of communism.
Again and again, we have been told to convert or to go into exile, or to sacrifice our lives for our religion. There were times when the only alternative to forced conversion was martyrdom; entire communities preferred to submit to end their lives in this world as martyrs rather suffering spiritual death by cutting themselves off from their Creator.
In recent centuries, the enemy within has often been no less of a threat than that without. Assimilation and secularism have taken a devastating toll on our numbers. As an immediate example, consider the fact that over sixty years have gone by since the Holocaust came to an end. One third of our people were lost. In the two generations that have risen in the post-Holocaust era, we would expect a definite growth in the Jewish population of the world.
The sobering fact of the matter is that assimilation has taken so great a toll on our numbers that today's population of Jews is nearly the same as it was in the year 1945, with the close of World War Two. This stagnation in growth can be attributed only to assimilation, intermarriage, and a lower birth rate.
In 2000, over one million American Jews – of a total of just over five million – were not affiliated with any Jewish organization or synagogue. These secular Jews had an intermarriage rate of 72%.
Nonetheless, Orthodox Jewry – those who remained devoted to the Torah as given to us at Sinai – have experienced a heartening surge in numbers. In addition, tens of thousands of Jews have renewed their bond with Torah and chosen to incorporate its values in their daily lives. Together with natural increase, this phenomenon has resulted far more encouraging statistics within the Orthodox community, as the numbers continue to swell.
According to the National Jewish Population Survey ("NJPS") of the year 2000, the average Jewish Orthodox couple will be the proud grandparents of 26 grandchildren who are loyal, practicing Jews. In the Chassidic and Yeshivah circles, the rate is far higher: 105 Jewish grandchildren. These descendants of today's firmly committed Jews will hopefully continue to bear the torch and pass it on to those who follow after them.
Thus we are witness to a two-fold miracle. Each time a bastion of Torah scholarship was destroyed, a new center arose, elsewhere, in its stead. The voice of Torah continues to reverberate with renewed vigor and intensity.
This, too, goes against all logical predictions. It is only thanks to Heaven's promise and protection that our enemies have failed again and again to relegate the devotion to Torah to the memories of the past. All this was predicted in the Torah in advance:
And G-d said to Moses: "Behold, you will lie with your fathers, and this nation will arise and go astray after pagan gods of the land to whose midst it is going. They will abandon Me and betray the covenant which I have established with them...” (Deuteronomy 31:16).
Just as predicted, many Jews were led astray, but each time there remained an elite core of Jews loyal to G-d's Torah. Whether many or few, they continued to study its holy words and to cling to its teachings. With the passage of time, it became evident that these loyal stalwarts were the ones who would survive the crisis and pass the Torah tradition on to their descendants.
In the days of the First Temple, the threat took the form of rampant idol worship which reigned among the world powers of the time. Even kings and aristocrats fell victim to the passion to bow down to graven images. So powerful was the drive that there were times when the prophets sent by Heaven to rebuke the nation were murdered in order to silence their stern warnings.
In the time of Elijah the Prophet, the situation was so critical that there remained only five thousand people who had not bent their knee to the contemporary idol, Baal (I Kings 19).
Even so, the false prophets were not successful in perverting the faith of the Jewish People altogether. Today, there remains no relic of those who served the Baal. In contrast, the world is witness to thriving Jewish communities in North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia which continue to look to Torah for guidance in building their lives and their future.
The era of the Second Temple was plagued by the Hellenist movement, which sought to replace Torah with Greek culture. These enemies used every manner of coercion they could find, whether tyrannical persecution, torture, slaughter, or political, social and economic pressure, to achieve their goal.
The Sadducees took up where the Hellenists left off, and continued to entice Jews away from Torah observance. During the reign of King Yanai, who followed their lead, nearly every Torah scholar in the land was executed. Yanai was followed by Herod, a cruel, former Edomite slave who maneuvered his way to the throne. He, too, exerted great effort in attempting to bring the people to assimilate to the ways of the Hellenists, and murdered many of the Torah leaders of his generation.
Matityahu (Mathias) the Maccabee and his sons arose to stem the tide of Hellenization, against overwhelming odds. With the help of Heaven, they succeeded. When another challenge to the Sinaitic tradition arose from within the ranks of Israel, namely, the Sadducee faction, the Sages of Israel, lead by Simeon ben Shetach and his colleagues, waged a fierce battle against them. Again, divine assistance brought a victory those who stood up to defend the purity of the tradition handed down over the generations, from Moses onward.
Two thousand years ago, the Hellenists and the Sadducees had the upper hand; where are they today? Their names appear only on the pages of ancient history; the People of Israel remain a small but vital component of modern society, whose influence on the world scene extends far beyond what their numeric strength would lead us to expect.
Later, in the period of the Gaonim, traditional Jewish communities flourished in Babylon under the brilliant leadership of their scholars and leaders. It was there that a new spiritual threat arose in the form of the Kara'ite movement. Like its predecessors, this splinter group also attempted to introduce “improvements” to traditional, Sinaitic Judaism. Their particular innovation was the rejection of the oral component of Jewish tradition, the Talmud, and acceptance of the Written Law alone.
At the time, Rabbinic Judaism in Babylon found a champion in the genius of Rabi Saadia Gaon, whose teachings and writings set forth the doctrines of traditional Judaism brilliantly, and with much success. Through his influence, the popular swing to Karaite doctrines was stemmed, although not completely eliminated. Today, the Karaites remain but a curiosity and a relic of the past.
The episode of the Four Captives presents another striking example of Heavenly intervention to fulfill its promise to preserve the vitality of the Torah community.
Four distinguished scholars, Rabbi Moses ben Chanoch and his son, together with Rabbeinu Chushiel and his son Rabbi Chananel, and another scholar whose name has not come down to us, set sail from the port of Bari in southern Italy sometimes near the year 1000 C.E. Their ship was waylaid by pirates, and the four scholars taken captive. Together with the other passengers, the four scholars were then put up for sale as slaves. Knowing that Jews would make extreme efforts to redeem their own, the pirates offered their “merchandise” to the Jews of Cordovo, Spain, who redeemed Rabbi Moses and his son.
The Jewish community of Karouan in North Africa was privileged to rescue Rabbi Chushiel and his son, who established a yeshiva academy in their new home. The new Torah center attracted students from far and wide and grew with time to become a new center of advanced Torah study. Heaven knew that the days of the long-established academies in Babylon were numbered, and therefore manipulated history to ensure that new centers in other locations be established well before the Babylonian centers faded into the past.
Thus, when doors of Sura and Pumbedita in Babylon were forced to close on a full millennium of erudition and fame which had started with the destruction of the First Temple, new centers were already flourishing elsewhere, ready to take their place and carry the tradition onward to the coming generations.
The very fact that these four scholars were to be found in Italy at the time was a miracle in its own right. Several years previously, in the year 870 C.E., the head of Byzantium declared that all Jews within his empire must convert, on pain of death. The Jews of Southern Italy, together with another thousand Jewish communities scattered throughout the vast empire, faced the threat of extinction.
After extensive political manipulations, Rabbi Sheftaya managed to annul the decree for five Jewish communities in Italy. In the rest of the empire, the Jews were forced to emigrate to avoid forced conversion. Thus it came about that the four eminent scholars later set sail from Southern Italy and eventually established new Torah academies in North Africa and Spain.
Once again, Providence directed historical events in such a way that the promise made to Israel thousands of years previously would be fulfilled:
“... it will never be forgotten from the mouth of their descendants” (Deuteronomy 31 21).
In later years, the conquest of Spain by Moslem extremists and then, by the Catholics, brought mounting persecution and suffering. Yeshiva academies were closed and entire communities persecuted without reason. Again, the Jew took to the road in search of a safer environment in which to pursue his faith undisturbed. Despite it all, the Jew's devotion to the study of its beloved Torah did not wane. On the contrary; the light of Torah shone forth even more brightly in the face of the gentile attempts to extinguish it forever, Heaven forbid.
The Holy Land was conquered by the Turks, who welcomed the exiles from Spain with open arms. With the Spanish Expulsion of all Jews in 1492, a new era of Torah scholarship and enlightenment dawned in Israel's Galilee.
Outstanding scholars from Spain's Jewish communities flocked to the Holy Land, including some of the most outstanding Torah luminaries of the time. With the rise of a new center of outstanding prominence in the northern city of Safed, students and scholars began to arrive from other countries as well. The concentration of Torah erudition to be found in the Galilee in the 1500's has few parallels in Jewish history.
Among the distinguished personalities who graced this small city five hundred years ago was Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch.During the same period, the saintly Ari Hakadosh, Rabbi Yitzchak, master of the secrets of Kaballah, taught a small, select group the insights only the most erudite and refined souls can grasp. The influence of the Torah studied and taught in this golden period of Safed shone forth far beyond the borders of the Holy Land, and far beyond that same generation, down to our own days.
Advancing to more modern times, we find new adversaries attacking the Tradition from Sinai. In Western Europe, the French Revolution and ensuing Enlightenment broke down ghetto walls. Under the slogan of “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for All” the reformers beckoned to the Orthodox Jew to cast off his traditional dress, his Jewish name and custom, and to enter fully into contemporary gentile culture.
It began with a seemingly innocuous slogan: “Be a Jew in your home, and a man in the street.”It was not long until the first half of the slogan sank into oblivion. Within a generation or so it was followed by a wholesale stampede to the cultural arena of the high society of eighteenth century Germany. Not only was the traditional garb cast off; so, too, were the Jewish law, customs, and ritual, together with the sterling moral integrity which had distinguished the Jewish People for thousands of years.
In the decades that followed, a spate of -isms arose to woo the Jewish youth to foreign pastures: socialism, nationalism, Zionism, communism, and more. For the first time, the Orthodox Jew found himself in the minority. Those whose faith in the eternal promise that Torah never be forgotten was less than iron-clad began to shake their heads in despair. They could see the handwriting on the wall; it was only a matter of time, they declared, until the last bearded Jew would fade into oblivion.
Indeed, anyone who drew his conclusions on the basis of current events alone could not avoid the conclusion that the outlook for Orthodoxy was dire, at best. Nonetheless, those imbued with staunch faith in Heaven's promise knew that, come what may, there would always remain a core of Jews faithful to the Torah. G-d had given His word, and they were assured that He would not break His promise.
While secularized Jews recited Goethe in the salons of Berlin, further to the east, in the Ukraine and Poland, new winds were also blowing but of a different nature. The renowned Rabbi Israel Baal Shemtov founded the Hassidic movement. With its emphasis the joy of Torah life, enhanced with song and dance, the new Orthodox movement attracted thousands of adherents throughout Eastern Europe, thus stemming the spread of the Reform and secular movements which was so rampant in Germany.
At the same juncture in history, there arose a new light in the city of Vilna, the brilliant Rabbi Eliyahu (Elijah), popularly known as the Vilna Gaon (genius). The study of Torah was heightened as a result, and one of the Gaon's disciples, Rabbi Chayim Volozhiner, opened a yeshiva that catered to the elite of the generation's Torah scholars.
Rabbi Chayim's academy, the yeshivah of Volozhin, became a model for a series of similar institutions in several other cities of Eastern Europe. This network of centers of Torah study protected the Jewish communities of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia from the influence of the Reform and secularist movements then popular in Western Europe. During the same period, Rabbi Moses Sofer (Schreiber) shepherded the famous community of Pressburg with a strong, loving hand, successfully buttressing it against the assault of secularism and Reform. As G-d had promised, there would always remain a segment of the Jewish People faithful to Torah Judaism.
In Western Europe itself, Orthodoxy found a champion in the person of the renowned Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, a prolific author, powerful speaker, and for 37 years, head of the Orthodox Jewish community of Frankfort-on-Main. Step by step, he battled to renew the glory of the city's venerated Torah community which had played so influential a role in the history of Germany's Jewry. He is particularly remembered for his perceptive writings on the synthesis of Torah, faith, and science.
In our own times we have seen a rebirth of Torah scholarship and allegiance as well. Although the voice of Torah study in Europe was tragically silenced by the Holocaust, it now reverberates elsewhere. During the years of destruction in Europe, Providence sent the staff and students of the venerable Yeshivah of Mir, Lithuania, to find refuge in Shanghai, China, then held by Japan. Hundreds of refugees from other institutions found a haven there together with the staff and the student body of the Mir Yeshivah. All in all some 20,000 Jews found refuge in Shanghai during the holocaust.
Europe was consumed by flames, but at the very same hour, a miracle was playing itself out in distant Shanghai. The voice of Torah rang out, loud and clear, as the refugees devoted themselves with renewed intensity to their studies. On several occasions, their lives were in danger; they were living under the rule of the Nazi's ally, Japan. Time and again, they were witness to miracles which kept them alive in the midst of enemy territory. When the war drew to a close, they were able to leave China for Israel and the United States.
Post-war Europe was a massive graveyard, but in the New World, Torah sprang to life and began to flourish on American shores as never before. With all its materialism and permissiveness, America also became home to Torah centers of distinction.
“For it will not be forgotten from the mouth of it descendant…" (Deuteronomy 31: 21)
When we look back on the history of Europe over the previous millennium, another miracle becomes evident. For thousands of years, Torah was studied and transmitted in writing on vellum manuscripts painstakingly copied by hand. A copy of the entire Bible was a precious possession, treasured and handed down from generation to generation. Only the magnate could afford such a luxury, and even he could suddenly lose it all.
From time to time, the church banned possession of the Mishnah and the Talmud. In a house to house search, precious handwritten volumes of precious Jewish sacred literation were confiscated and condemned to the flames at large public burnings.
The dwindling number of copies of sacred Jewish texts hampered the teaching of Talmud and its commentaries severely. In a matter of minutes, the efforts of thousands of scribes became a heap of ashes. Repeated expulsions and the frequent need to flee wild crowds bent on driving the Jewish “infidels” out of Europe also made it difficult to maintain a full library of texts even in well-established institutions of Torah learning.
Once again, Heaven intervened to preserve the study of Torah. Shortly before Spain declared its intention to expel its entire Jewish population, on pain of death, Johann Gutenberg produced the first printing press. Accustomed as we are to the printed word nowadays, it is difficult for us to picture the extent of the blessing this invention brought to the Jewish world. Hitherto, a modestly well-to-do family might posses one, treasured prayerbook and perhaps one copy of the Five Books of Moses, which was passed on from father to son as a precious heirloom.
With the spread of the printing press, the sacred texts gradually became a basic possession which graces the shelves of every Orthodox Jewish home. Once again, we are witness to the Hand of Heaven intervening to preserve the study of Torah, that very same Torah given to the Jewish People at Sinai over three thousand years ago.
And that is not all; far from it. In each century, Jewish scholars added commentaries and explanations to both the Oral and Written law, which today constitute an enormous body of literature which reaches the four corners of the globe.
In more recent years, the invention of the offset method of printing also contributed significantly to the spread of Torah. Of the vast works of Torah which were extant before the Holocaust, there sometimes remained only one or two copies. The offset process made it possible to reproduce these works in quantity with relative ease, even when only one copy was available. After World War II, the rabbi of Munich, Germany, had all twenty volumes of the Talmud printed again, with the support of the Joint Distribution Committee, for the use of the survivors living in displaced persons camps. This memorable edition was distributed wherever Jewish survivors had gathered in Europe and Israel. Once again, the Voice of Torah was heard despite unprecedented efforts to silence it for all time.
Who could have guaranteed that the Torah would endure the trials and tribulations of so many years of exile? What man of flesh and blood could guarantee that the diabolic machinations of the church to eradicate Torah from the midst of those who labored to master it, would, in the end, come to naught?
Only He who originally gave the Torah to the Jewish People had the power to make such a pledge. It is He who guards the Torah and guarantees that it will always be available to His chosen nation. The miracle of the survival of the Torah is intertwined with the survival of the Jewish People themselves. Both miracles testify to the unique historical role of Israel. Because Israel, and Israel alone, has been assigned an essential task to complete in this world, it cannot and will not disappear from the stage of world history. So, too, will the Torah always survive together with those who devote themselves to its study.
This promise notwithstanding, there have been repeated episodes of a segment of Jewry who chose to break their ties with their people. On the whole, these were misguided individuals or relatively small factions.
In the past three centuries, the numbers of dissenters mushroomed, so much so, that Orthodoxy was no longer in the majority. Masses of Jews, first in Germany, and then elsewhere, abandoned Torah observance. For the first time, the bulk of the nation failed to observe the laws set out for them in the Torah. By all reason and logic, it appeared to be only a matter of time until the last Jew who faithful to the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and all the other commandments incumbent upon the observant Jews would disappear from the face of the earth. How much more so did the demise of Torah study appear to be!
Sad to say, intermarriage and even outright conversions were rampant. The gentiles no longer needed to contrive diabolic schemes to destroy the Jewish People; it appeared that, Heaven forbid, the Jews were doing the job for them.
And yet, it did not come to be. Who but the Creator Himself could have known thousands of years in advance that the tide would be stemmed, that the stampede to the baptismal founts and the literary salons of Berlin would be arrested, before it was too late? Certainly the human intellect, with its scientific method of gathering data, analyzing it, coming to conclusions, and then extrapolating guarded predictions of future trends and events would not have foreseen the survival and revival of Torah which we are witnessing today.
Despite all the predictions, Torah was not doomed. The reins of history remain not in the hands of statesmen, general, philosophers, or orators, nor of the greatest thinkers of the century. In the final estimation, it is Heaven that molds our fate, and so it was with the Jewish People from the first day the nation came into being. The same Supreme Being who first chose to bond His Name with the Jewish nation, who bestowed His divine wisdom upon them in the form of the Torah, also determined that the bond between His people and His Torah would be eternal and inviolable.
It was He who declared that it be thus, and He who ensured throughout history that His will be fulfilled. As He told us through His prophet Isaiah: “And as for me, this is My covenant with them, declared G-d: My spirit, which is upon you, and My words which I have placed in your mouth, will not be removed from your mouth and from the mouth of your seed and from the mouth of the seed of your seed from now and evermore” (Isaiah 59:21).
This pact, which is recorded in the Torah itself, encapsulates a commitment to all future generations. The chronicles of our people, as cited above, and in countless other instances, demonstrate beyond a doubt that it is the Guardian of Israel who is also the Guardian of the Torah of Israel.
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