The American Jewish Orthodox community has probably been overwhelmed by the events of the past few weeks in Israel regarding the extremely hostile attacks that have been aimed at the haredi community by the secular press and politicians from across the political spectrum. This time the hostility that repeats itself in waves began over the issue of separation of men and women in public areas, continued with the issue of the extension of the Tal Law (that allows Torah scholars to be exempt from military service) and was followed by the allotments for Torah institutions and Torah scholars. It is clear that the animosity toward the Torah world emanates from political motives among politicians vying for headlines and popularity as primaries by several parties take place over the next few months.
This month, the month of Shevat, symbolizes renewal. It is on the fifteenth day of the month (Tu B’Shevat) that the Knesset celebrates its birthday (symbolic of the renewal of the Jewish state). Tu B’Shevat is also known as the New Year for the Trees. The Torah tells us that “mankind is like the tree in the forest” – and like the tree, our roots are the source for our continued existence. When mankind separates itself from its roots, there are clear ramifications. The Torah and the mitzvot are the root of our continued existence as a people. If the Jewish people uproot themselves from the Torah, their identity and purpose are lost. According to the Midrash, on Tu B’Shevat the resin of plants and trees begins to rise. This is a day of renewal and hope.
The first day of Shevat is when Moshe Rabbeinu began teaching the Torah to the Jewish people in the desert upon their freedom from bondage in Egypt. For thirty-seven days – from the first of Shevat until the seventh of Adar – Moshe taught all of Israel. He prepared them for their entry to, conquest of and possession of the land of Israel that, thank God, has reoccurred in our time. Moshe concluded by blessing the Jewish people.
As inscribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the State of Israel was established as a “Jewish and Democratic State.” Those in Israel and outside the country who vilify orthodox Jewry for its total dedication to Torah values diminish the essence of its identity as a Jewish state. As we have seen in history and in our own times, democracy without moral and ethical values leads to decay and oppression. Without Torah roots, the State of Israel is not viable and has no future.
When I established the Shas Party as the Worldwide Sephardic Association of Torah Guardians in 1983, it emerged as a political force in the Jerusalem municipal election in 1983. Today Shas is the fourth largest party in the Knesset, representing the Sephardic sector of Israeli society. Its main role is to safeguard the country’s Jewish identity through education, and to assure the democratic and socio-economic rights of all Israeli citizens. In December Friends of Shas International was launched in New York, with the goal of welcoming U.S. supporters of the Shas mission into the fold and working together on mutual goals. We will work to bring the month of Shevat’s message – renewal and dedication to the moral and ethical values of the Torah – to all people, in Israel and throughout the world.
Rabbi Nissim Zeev, member of Knesset, is the founder of Shas, and founder and chairman of Friends of Shas International. You can e-mail your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.