Parshas Vaeschanan (Nachamu) 5771
Imagine for a second that you are G-d and you want to start a new religion for Your creations to follow here on earth.
You would likely kick off the new faith with a Revelation – something supernatural that proves to those witnessing it beyond a shadow of a doubt that You, in fact, are the One behind it.
That’s the easy part. After all, You are G-d and can do Revelations.
The trick is to somehow guarantee that the new religion will be perpetuated beyond the first generation of believers who actually witnessed this miraculous Revelation. How can You ensure that their children and children’s children until the end of time will come to know and believe in the truth of this new religion, short of revealing Yourself anew every fifty years or so, so that they can see for themselves that You are really there behind the scenes?
The answer can be found in this week’s Torah portion, where Moses exhorts the Jewish people in the name of G-d: “Only beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life, and make them known to your children and your children’s children – the day that you stood before the Lord, your G-d, at Horeb…” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).
The great Bible commentator Nachmanides explains this verse to be an admonition to the Jewish people never to forget the awesome Sinaitic Revelation (Horeb in the above verse is another word for Mount Sinai), and to pass on everything they heard, saw and experienced at Sinai to their children and children’s children for all time.
This way, when future generations hear their parents telling them the foundational story of our faith and how it all began at Mount Sinai with a Revelation of G-d’s Presence and the Receiving of the Torah, they will know that this is the truth as if they saw the event themselves. This is because, as Nachmanides writes, “it is axiomatic that we will not testify falsely to our children, nor will we bequeath to them something that is untrue. They (the children) will have no doubt whatsoever in the truth of our testimony to them, but will believe with certainty that we saw all this with our eyes ….”
In other words, with a proper chain of transmission from parent to child and from rabbi to student, the Revelation story and the truth of G-d and His Torah which was proven at Sinai can be effectively passed down through the generations, without G-d having to appear on a mountaintop in some “supernatural” Sinai-like event ever again.
Rabbi Joseph Albo (c. 1380-1444), author of the classic work on the fundamentals of Judaism Sefer Ha’ikkarim, uses this idea of G-d’s relying on the chain of transmission from one generation to the next to explain some anomalies regarding the Ten Commandments (which are repeated in this week’s Torah portion – see Deuteronomy 5:6-18).
Many commentators ask why these particular commandments made it on to G-d’s “Top Ten” list, when the fact is that there are not ten, but six hundred and thirteen commandments! Why then were these ten singled out? Why is Shabbos on the list, but not Yom Kippur? Why is Honoring Parents included but not eating Kosher?
Rabbi Albo explains (see Sefer Ha’ikkarim 3:26) that these Ten Commandments were chosen because they represent the ten foundational rules that are required to establish Judaism, or any religion, as a functioning, thriving and self-perpetuating faith – sort of like a “Ten-Step Guide to Setting Up a Successful Religion” – five rules for man’s relationship with G-d, the Founder of the religion, and five rules for Man’s relationship with his fellow man, without which a human society cannot exist.
He writes that what G-d did with the Jewish people when He created for them the new religion of Judaism and gave them Ten Commandments, is analogous to a king who develops a piece of land and then frees a group of slaves and places them on that land. He then comes to them to tell them the “ground rules” of the new religion he is establishing for them, and which he wants them to follow.
The first rule he tells them (which corresponds to the first of the Ten Commandments) is that since he is the one who took them out of slavery, it is only right that they should serve him as their king. The second rule is that they should not be disloyal and serve other kings besides him. The third rule is that they should respect him by not using his name in vain. The fourth rule is that in order that they never forget the original story of how they were freed by the king and came to live on this land, they should set aside one day in the week to rest from work and to talk about this story and focus on their relationship with their benefactor, the king. The fifth rule is that since only the first generation witnessed the actual events of the story, and there is great danger that subsequent generations might forget about the king and how he saved them and gave them this land, it must be impressed upon each new generation the importance and seriousness of respecting their parents. This way, the new generation is guaranteed to believe and accept the foundational story that they are told by the elder generation.
The sixth rule (which corresponds to the Sixth Commandment, or the first of the five commandments between man and his fellow man), is that they should be careful not to hurt or murder their fellow man. The seventh rule is that they should not even cause him monetary damage by stealing etc. The eighth rule is to respect their fellow man’s marital bond by not committing adultery. The ninth rule is that not only are they not allowed to hurt their fellow man’s body, money, or wife physically, but they are even forbidden to cause him damage through speech, i.e. by testifying falsely against him in court. The tenth and final rule is that even in thought they are forbidden to hurt their fellow man by coveting his possessions.
The fact is that this “Ten-Step” system that G-d set up over 3300 years ago in which He relies on each generation to faithfully transmit the Revelation story to the next has worked remarkably well.
Believe it or not, we can actually trace the many chains of transmission from Sinai throughout the centuries and millennia of our long and glorious history – 3300 years is not as long as you think!
Take, for example, just one chain of transmission from Sinai till today that was recently compiled by Rabbi Lawrence Keleman and which you can see in its entirety by clicking on: http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/mesora/ We know a great deal about most of the people recorded on this chain – the countries in which they lived, the scholarly works they wrote, informational about their personal lives, etc. So you can see how it’s possible to pass on eyewitness accounts with precision and exactitude over thousands of years, just as G-d commanded us to do.
This particular chain of transmission is especially meaningful to me, as the last person listed there is the Mashgiach (Spiritual Mentor) of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (d. 1936), who was my wife’s great-grandfather. Additionally, one of his many great disciples was my Rosh Yeshiva (Dean of the Rabbinical College), Rabbi Zelig Epstein, whose second Yahrtzeit (anniversary of death) is being observed this Shabbos, the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Av, may his memory be for a blessing.
Tragically, during the last 150 years or so, some of these chains of transmission broke down (or were deliberately cut), to the point that nowadays we find many Jews around the world who are no longer sure that what their ancestors claimed to have witnessed at Mount Sinai over three millennia ago actually took place. Thankfully, though, many chains are still intact, thus preserving the integrity and veracity of the Jewish religion and its foundational story.
The question you have to ask yourself is: Have you checked your transmission lately? Are you making sure that the 3323-year-long tradition about the Revelation at Sinai that your ancestors lived and died to preserve and pass on to you will be passed on to your children? Just remember that the entire future of Judaism depends on it.