A Dear Son to Me
On Whom Can We Rely?
Some events are seen as historic turning points when they occur, but in retrospect are revealed to be much less significant. Other events may not seem so conspicuous, but create profound changes. I wish to focus on events of the latter kind.
During the past year, a number of important Jewish leaders have departed. They were leaders, not necessarily in the sense that the entire people followed them. But they were people whom everybody – both those who agreed with them and those who did not – was compelled to relate to in some way. They blazed a path, and even those who did not accept it recognized its significance. It could be said that they set the parameters of reality for all, and their absence emphasizes the tremendous problem of lack of leadership.
Indeed, the most strongly felt problem in the world today, in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world, is the lack of leadership. Who will lead, who will show the way?
At the end of Tractate Sota (49a–b), there is a saying of Rabbi Eliezer the Great:
From the day the Temple was destroyed, the sages began to be like scribes, and the scribes became like public officials, and the public officials like common people, and the common people
are themselves deteriorating.
"The sages began to be like scribes.” What do we expect of the sages, the leaders of the eneration? New patterns, new paradigms. We ask for breakthroughs, for the paving of basic paths, the solutions to key problems.
Instead, the sages become like scribes, the teachers of young children. They repeat what everyone knows. When they speak, they deal in small details, and solve problems that have already been solved. If they write books, they write anthologies and summaries. They are incapable of innovation because they are no more than scribes, teachers.
"And the scribes became like public officials.” They cease to teach and become like policemen. A large part of the teachers’ work in schools throughout the modern world is to impose order and discipline. In certain places, their function is simply to ensure that the students stay in their seats, do not talk, and do not disturb each other. In other places, it is to make sure they do not use weapons or drugs. There is no time left for learning, because the scribes have turned into guards.
"And the public officials [become] like the common people.”
The public officials mentioned in the Talmud are the officers and clerks of the court, whose function is to enforce order. Instead, these officials have become like the common people – simple, sometimes coarse, somewhat violent, somewhat delinquent. Instead of representing and
enforcing law and order, they turn into yet another unruly, violent gang.
"And the common people are themselves deteriorating.” The simple people are deteriorating, not necessarily in the economic sense, but in the spiritual sense – in what can be expected from them, in their gut reactions, in their basic demeanor. In this class – the lowest stratum of society – the general deterioration is indeed felt. Let me give one example. In a book written some 200 years ago, the author innocently writes: "Even the most frivolous, delinquent Jew at least wears a tallit katan and prays three times daily.” Today, such a person is almost considered a man of stature.
This deterioration is an ongoing process of impoverishment to which one gets accustomed, and which one eventually accepts as the normal state of things. When my late father came to Israel as a ĥalutz,
he had a dream that here, in this country, we would grow wings. That we would not only have a new earth here, but also a new heaven. Yet the people now inhabiting this land are gradually becoming amei ha’aretz (which in Hebrew means both "people of the land” and "ignoramuses”), a fact discernible in all aspects of life, from ways of expression to ways of conduct.
When I was a pupil at school, it was still possible to walk in the street and hear "juicy,” vital, heart-warming Hebrew. Today, whoever listens to the language spoken in the street gets a strong sense of deterioration.
And this is also true in matters that are more serious. There were times when no one locked their doors in Tel Aviv. Today, there is a theft in Israel every seven minutes. At the beginning of the century, one
rabbi wrote: "Jews and blood – are there two more extreme opposites than this?” Today, a murder is committed or attempted every thirty-odd hours. This deterioration, then, is not just a matter of style. It affects the very foundations of life.
Rabbi Eliezer the Great adds: "And no one demands, and no one seeks, and no one asks.” This poetic sentence seems to contain three synonyms. But there is a gradation here: He who "demands” does so with vehemence, requiring an answer and a solution. Less assertive is he who "seeks,” who searches for and wants an answer, and least demanding of all is he who only "asks” a simple question. But everybody has become accustomed to the existing situation, "and no one demands, and no one
seeks, and no one asks.”
Rabbi Eliezer the Great concludes with the words: "On our Father in heaven.”
This sentence, "On whom can we rely, on our Father in heaven,” sounds like an expression of helplessness and despair. Imagine a sick person whose doctor tells him: "From now on, you would do well to rely on the Almighty.” Such a person knows his situation is serious indeed.
However, this statement can also be read in a different tone – not as an expression of despair, but as a statement of fact, a piece of practical advice, a positive suggestion. And this has a number of aspects.
First, perhaps our generation would have preferred to find different leaders, but we cannot. We would have liked to find other teachers, other policemen, perhaps another people, but we cannot. There is a
downhill trend, a deterioration. But there is one point that strengthens our heart: in the collapse of ideologies, theories, systems and politics, there is one thing which remains stable and on which we can rely – our Father in heaven.
And beyond that, the sequence of "sages, scribes, public officials, etc.” implies a theoretical, emotional, and social structure in which we expect to lean on other people. Rabbi Eliezer’s statement is a call to
change direction. He says we have been leaning on sages and scribes and officials for too long. We have been leaning on them so much that we have forgotten our direct connection and direct commitment to the Master of the Universe, and this is why we are deteriorating. And he calls upon us once again to lean on the source of all things, our Father in heaven – or, in other words, to rebuild our direct and personal relationship with God.
In the Torah, we find several verses asking: "What does the Lord your God require of you?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). This is directed at each and every individual – not to the leaders, or to the audience, or to someone else, but to you. In the description of the making of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, this point appears in a verse directed to all generations. This special verse is phrased in a seemingly strange way: "The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, these here today, all of us alive” (Deuteronomy 5:3). This combination of words with the same meaning comes to give added stress. This verse says emphatically that the covenant is not of yesterday, and
not with another people, but with us, each one of us, and not in a different time or place but "here, today.”
This demand is very real. It requires the transfer of commitment, together with the burden and the effort, from the society to the individual.
It prevents us from hiding behind any social, public, or historical structure, and it says: If we want a solution to the problem of deterioration, we are required to create a personal relationship with God, not
only emotionally, but operationally – "We, here, today.”
And this demand is difficult because our Father in heaven, unlike a policeman, accepts no excuses, and cannot be deceived. In the period between the destruction of the Temple and the coming of Mashiaĥ (the Messiah), when all systems break down and there is no longer anyone to follow, everyone will be called upon to start walking on his own, with all the multitude of commitments that this entails. Thus everyone ought to start saying: "The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a). At the same time, if something immoral or unjust happens in the world, one must say, "It is my fault.” If there is a child in this country that suffers, an adult who commits a crime, the responsibility rests not only on this or that government office: it rests on me. When one personally feels the pain of the existing problems, this creates a new set of attitudes. I no longer have anyone to lean on, and so I must establish a direct line of communication.
In other words, it is clear to us that there is darkness, and that we need light. Perhaps more than one lighthouse has been extinguished. So there is only one way. Each and everyone must light his own candle. If all these candles are lit, together they will create a great light, perhaps even greater than any other source.
In the saying "On whom can we rely, on our Father in heaven” there is, then, a hope, even a promise to the Jewish people. Not only that we have on whom to lean, but also that we are capable of making the
transition from hiding behind others’ backs and of beginning to assume personal responsibility for what others do, and for what they ought to do. A great advantage enjoyed by the Jewish people is that the
Almighty has not required us to resort to an intermediary. In a certain sense, each of us has a "hotline” to God Himself which we can pick up and say – "You.” Yet we must remember that this phone also rings in
the other direction; He turns to us from time to time and asks – "What are you doing?” This question was first directed to Adam – "Where are you?” (Genesis 2:9) and it goes on being asked to this very day.
This question is asked with added vehemence in a society that is not as united as it should be, and which breeds mistrust. Such a society must once again ask, seek, demand, and rebuild anew from the small contribution of each individual. Let everyone remove the dirt at his front door, and the entire street will be clean. Let everyone light the candle of his soul, and the land will be filled with light. Let everyone take one step forward and upward, and we will shake the entire world.
When God took our forefathers out of Egypt, He performed innumerable miracles for them – the Ten Plagues, the Giving of the Torah, the manna, the quails, the Well. Yet the Tabernacle of the Lord did not come down in fire from the heavens, but was built from the contributions of each and every Israelite. Eliezer the Great speaks of the time prior to the coming of Mashiaĥ when he says: We do not know how the Temple will be built, but it is we, each and every one of us, who must contribute to its foundations. Everyone will give his stone, his small share. Two stones build two houses; three stones build six houses (Sefer Yetzira), and so on, ad infinitum. When these stones come together, The City of our God will be built. And then, only then, will we be able to say that we do indeed have
someone on whom we can rely – Our Father in heaven.
28 September 1994