October 2, 2003
The Sword and the Scroll
As this Jewish year begins, we are once again assailed by the din of seemingly monumental events: the war in Iraq, the decision about our state leadership, the peril in Israel, the crises of human rights, environment, scientific progress and ethics.
What is the most important event of our time?
We usually focus on the actions of empires. In 1400, the Tartan emperor Tamerlane, swept across Asia in campaigns of conquest. He was the medieval equivalent of front-page news. But recently when asked to name the most influential figure of modern times, historians left Tamerlane way down the list and pointed instead to a boy born in Mainz, Germany, who in the time of Tamerlane began experimenting with moveable type. Johann Gutenberg promoted the word, and everything from paperbacks to e-mail are his indirect legacy.
In the second century C.E., the sage Hananiah Ben Teradyon, guilty of the crime of teaching Torah, was wrapped in a Torah scroll and set on fire by the Romans. As he died he told his disciples that the parchment was burning, but the letters were ascending to heaven. The Roman empire is long since gone. Its emperors are the stuff of classroom quizzes. But the words of Hananiah Ben Teradyon are studied all over the world, and his story retold each Yom Kippur. The parchment burned, but the word survived.
The most important event in the world today is probably unknown to us. But we can hazard a guess: in decades or centuries our descendants will see again that the mind outlasts empires, that the word endures and that God gently nurtures miracles out of small seeds of creativity and of faith. That is the Jewish certainty.
What does that knowledge call upon us to do?
Not only to cultivate our souls, but to understand that seemingly small decisions and actions can have a profound effect on history.
Our Sages often discuss Yom Kippur in relation to Purim, so let us again recall the story of Purim. Esther is frightened to approach Ahashuerus. She lives in the palace, and has a wonderful life. But Mordecai tells her perhaps it was for just such a crisis that she were granted a royal position. Thus fortified, Esther approaches the king and saves her people.
We are not only fortunate, we have tremendous influence in the most powerful nation in the world. If we do not use that influence to help our sisters and brothers in Israel, to plead their case and present the truth, then we are as guilty as Esther might have been. Perhaps it was for just such a mission that we were granted this tremendous gift.
When Reuven, Gad and half of Menasseh tell Moses they do not wish to cross the Jordan, Moses does not argue with them. You may live where you will, he says, but before you are comfortable elsewhere, you must fight with your people. We who live outside the land of Israel can settle where we will, but it does not absolve us of the responsibility to do what we can to sustain our people in our land. We may not fight, but we can learn, contribute, visit. There is a common thread in the legacies of Hananiah Ben Teradyon, Esther and Moses; it is the spiritual value of courage. This year, as part of your process of teshuva, visit Israel and affirm your solidarity with the earth-shattering personalities who have forged the spirit of our people.
Jewish solidarity could prove to be, once again, a history-making event.
David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood.