Many Jews react in extremes because they don’t understand the mandated existential aloneness of the Jew. The reaction is usually at two extremes: some become left-leaning, tree-hugging, egalitarian-seeking, über humanitarians whose mantra is “Tikkun Olam”. They believe they can somehow meld into the world and become accepted by showing exemplary humanity and a tamer more palatable hold on their heritage. Others become rabid, angry, and even violent proponents of the “Malchus Shakai” concept. They are impatient. They believe in completely cutting themselves off from the seventy nations and either living on an island, or engaging in an often violent Milchamos Hashem, fighting for Shabbos or an expanded Israel.
None of this is new. It has manifested itself throughout history. The German approach of being a Jew “in the four corners of one’s house”, whilst an “elegant man of the street” when outdoors was also an ill-fated attempt at becoming “accepted” and “acceptable” in the eyes of the seventy nations.
The reality is that עם לבדד ישכון: we are a nation destined to loneliness. We can never look at this loneliness as a problem that we can or must “solve”. That approach is flawed and has proven to be flawed throughout history because it contradicts the very nature of Hashem’s covenant with Bnai Yisrael.
We certainly have a responsibility to be Mentchen, Torah Observant, good citizens, and Holy. These are immutable responsibilities. When they are, however, hijacked by motives to solve the “loneliness” problem, radicalism is born. Over time, only the shades of “reactionism” change through the prism of society’s expectations.
In understanding the nature of our covenant and our loneliness, I adapt a copyrighted (by Dr. Israel Rivkin and Josh Rapps) version of part of a talk from the Rav on Parshas Lech Lecha delivered in 1973.
The Rav noted that Parshas Lech Lecha and the story of Avraham is as current today as it was many years ago. The struggle between Jews and the Egyptian continued throughout the ages.
In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham is commanded to differentiate himself from the nations of the world. Avraham is the progenitor of the process of the separate nation. Avraham, the first Jew, encounters Egyptians soon after he enters Eretz Yisrael. Ironically, Avraham is blamed for the tension because he had claimed that Sara was his sister and did not declare that she was his wife. Had she been his sister, would that have given the Egyptians the right to take her? [Apologists would blame Avraham, of course]
Egypt constantly surfaces throughout Tanach as the antagonist of the Jewish Nation. Avraham was not the only ancestor to have dealings with the Egyptians. Yosef was enslaved in Egypt, after which the Jewish Nation was enslaved there. During the time of the first and second Temples there was constant friction with Egypt. Why?
The prophet Zechariah says that all the nations will gather against Jerusalem and Hashem will come to battle them on behalf of His nation. In the Messianic period Egypt will be singled out for special punishment in that it will not celebrate the festival of Succos.
Parshas Lech Lecha lays down the everlasting principle that the Jew must be separate and alone from other nations of the world. Bilaam [and latter-day Bilaams] recognised this and said that the Jewish Nation dwells alone and does not count itself among the other nations of the world. This separation began with Avraham, culminating with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. [In our time, the holocaust denier, Mahmoud Abbas, is allegedly “comfortable” with a State, but specifically will not accept a State for Jews. This is the behaviour of a latter-day deceitful Bilaam]
The Torah (Breishis 17:1) says that Hashem commands Avraham to “walk before Him and to be complete” so that Hashem will grant The covenant between Avraham and his descendants. Rashi comments that Hashem tells Avraham that He is all-powerful and all-capable to administer each and every creature. Accordingly, “you shall walk before Me and I will be a God and protector for you”. Based on this interpretation, what is the connection between this statement of Hashem and the Bris Milah itself?
The Midrash says that after he was commanded to perform the Bris Milah, Avraham was concerned that this separate act of Milah would cause a fundamental change in his relationship with the rest of the world. Until that point, all people sought out Avraham, and he was able to influence them. [Tikkun Olam was easy. There were no obstacles]. Even though they knew that Avraham ascribed to a different philosophy, there was enough in common with the nations of the world to the extent that they sought Avraham out.
Avraham protested. With the inception of the Bris Milah, they would no longer associate with him and he would be alone. The Torah describes that Avraham sat at the door of his tent, at the height of the heat of the day, searching for guests, yet none passed by. The people did indeed boycott him. Hashem reassured Avraham that he should not worry about his loneliness, Hashem will always be with and protect him.
Milah and Shabbos (and Yom Tov) are both classified as Osos (signs) from Hashem to Bnai Yisrael. The Rav pointed out that although they share the concept of sign, they symbolise different aspects of the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Shabbos symbolises the unique Kedushas Yisrael; the sanctity of the Jew. The Jew has to follow a path of Kedusha and be separate from the other nations of the world.
The essence of Mila, however, is that the Jew is inherently different from the other nations. He has a different, unique destiny. The non-Jew can understand that there is a concept of sanctity. He might grasp that there is a concept of performing Mitzvos. However he has a hard time grasping this unique separation between the destiny of the Jew and the destiny of the rest of the world. He finds it especially difficult to grasp the connection between the Jew and Eretz Yisrael; the embodiment of this destiny.
Avraham understood that with the Mitzvah of Mila, the Jew will now embark on a separate, unique life style and destiny from the rest of the world. After Mila there will no longer be seventy-one nations. Rather there will be seventy nations on one side and one nation on the other. The Jew will always be excluded from the “United Nations”, throughout the ages. Avraham was afraid to be alone and separate from the rest of the nations. [Others still seek the approval and acceptance of the United Nations as the panacea]
Hashem promised Avraham that should he perform the Mila He will protect him and always be with him. Hashem promised that Ani Kel Shakay, He will be the God and protector of Avraham. Hashem’s alliance with Avraham will be far superior to the alliance between Avraham and the other nations of the world. And it is through the merit of the Mila that Avraham and his descendants were also granted Eretz Yisrael, for this is the destiny.
It is these two linked concepts, Mila and Eretz Yisrael, that define the Jew while causing him to remain an enigma to the rest of the world.