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THE LIVING TORAH

by Lee Pearlman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"...and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth" (Shabbat afternoon services).

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"...and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth" (Shabbat afternoon services).

we recite the above verse every Shabbat during the silent prayer in the afternoon service. A close friend brought this phrase to my attention not too long ago, and since then I have struggled to define what these words mean to me. In an attempt to help me find some answers, this same friend and I set out for the Meah Sha'arim neighborhood one Friday morning when we were in Israel. This small religious enclave was bustling with energy, as is always the case before Shabbat. My friend grabbed my arm and led me to a couple of crates stacked on top of each other, and he told me to stand on them. Reluctantly, I did as he asked. I stood there, watched, and listened. Then he grabbed a hold of me again and he headed off to the middle of Zion Square in the Ben Yehuda mall area. Again, I was led to higher ground in the form of a planter this time, and again I stood above the throngs of people and just watched and listened. Finally, without saying anything, we climbed aboard a bus and rode it until it finished its route back in Har Nof. The entire time we just sat, watched, and listened.

When we got off the bus my friend turned to me and asked if this experience had helped me find an answer. I thought he was crazy, but instead, I responded with a weak shrug and a confused look. He looked at me with a furrowed brow and said, "Think about it!" Well, as far as I was concerned I was right back where I started.

That Shabbat, I was unable to take my regular Shabbat nap. This phrase and how it related to our little adventure was gnawing at me. I thought about what I saw and what I heard; in Meah Sha'arim, in Zion Square, and on the bus. And then it came to me I saw so many different people. They wore different clothes and spoke different languages. They were different sizes, shapes, and colors. Some were more obviously observant than others. Some were poor, and others were rich. Some were working, some were shopping, and most were eating. But what was the same about them is what is most important. They were all Jews! They are one nation, one people, all connected by an ancient common bond that is as alive today as it was thousands of years ago. And they know it; just ask them.

At afternoon services that Shabbat I read the phrase again, as I had done many times before. But from that moment forward I read the phrase with awe. "Who is like Your people Israel?" We are one nation unlike any other on earth such a beautiful, diverse, and courageous people. That was a nice answer, but, of course, it raised other questions: What has kept our people this way? How have we been able to maintain our distinctiveness even as we have been dispersed all over the world? I knew that I would not be able to find out the answer to these questions experientially. I knew that I would find the answer in the ultimate source, the Torah itself. Not so surprisingly, I believe that I have found an answer in this week's Torah portion.

In this week's Torah portion, we are reminded over and over again of exactly what G-d expects from the Jewish people. The Torah goes so far as to repeat the Ten Commandments and the first paragraph of the fundamental Shema prayer. We are commanded on at least 13 separate occasions to guard and care for the laws given to us by G-d, and most importantly we are commanded time and again to perform them. It is clear that this is what has kept our people distinct among all the nations of the world. We have been scattered about like so many shards of a broken window, but it is in the performance of the law that we find the glue that holds us together. It is through the care, guarding, and performance of these laws that we connect to G-d, and G-d connects to us. G-d showed his love for us by giving us these laws. As the Torah states, "For you are a holy people to Hashem, your G-d; Hashem, your G-d, has chosen you to be for Him a treasured people above all peoples that are on the face of the earth. Not because of your numerousness over all the peoples did Hashem desire you, for you are the least of all the peoples. Rather out of Hashem's love for you" (Deuteronomy 7:6-8).

There is no clearer statement in the Torah that the Torah is alive and relevant to us in our time, than in this week's Torah portion, when Moses states: "Not with our forefathers did Hashem seal this covenant, but with us we who are here today, all of us alive" (ibid. 5:3). The Torah was not only given to the Jews who stood at Mt. Sinai, but to every subsequent generation as well.

Ultimately, there are three verses in this week's Torah portion that answer the question, "Who is like Your nation?" There are multitudinous examples of how the Jewish people have impacted the world in values, societal mores, the arts, charity, business, philosophy, science, and so much more. There are countless books and articles available that remind the world of the contribution the Jews have made that makes life more peaceful, enjoyable, comfortable, and just. The reason for all this is plainly stated in the Torah as follows: "...for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes and say, 'Surely a wise and understanding people is this great nation!' For which is a great nation that has a G-d who is close to it, as is Hashem, our G-d, whenever we call to Him? And which is a great nation that has righteous statutes and ordinances, such as the entire Torah that I place before you this day?" (ibid. 4:6-8). Finally, I have found my answer. What keeps us, the Jewish people, distinct from all other nations is the fact that we refuse to let go of G-d's hand the hand that wrote the Torah. And it is through constant and devoted performance of the commandments given to us in the Torah that the Jewish people endeavor to persevere. To forget what sets us apart, to forget what makes us special is to forget what it is to be a Jew, and would inevitably, G-d forbid, doom the Jewish people.

Rabbi Asher Yaakov Koppel Rosenberg, my dear teacher of blessed memory, issued a challenge to all Jews. Every time we finish reading from the Torah in synagogue and raise it open for all to see, we recite, "This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel, upon the command of Hashem through Moses' hand." Rabbi Rosenberg challenged us to see that the very Torah we are looking at is the same one that was handed down to the Children of Israel through Moses. To be able to sense this brings the Torah alive and connects us as a Jewish nation today to all generations of Jews. Take pride in our Jewishness; glow in our diversity and strength; be humbled by the wondrous gifts we have been given by Hashem; and love your fellow Jew. Most importantly, temember, "...and who is like Your people Israel. One nation on earth."

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Lee Pearlman writes from Atlanta.

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