We are living through unusually challenging times at the cusp of the year 5777. The manner in which secular society is evolving poses numerous challenges for us as Torah-observant Jews. In addition, the general political and social state of the world is one that engenders deep pessimism.
The decay of American society as we have known it for so long is deeply troubling. The institutions we have come to rely on to maintain an open, democratic society are crumbling before our very eyes. Government is less trusted now than ever before. The rule of law and the ability of law enforcement to do its job has been undermined by the elites of society, the press, and many elected officials. This has led to rioting and anarchy in several American inner cities. Rabble-rousers are waiting for the opportunity to inflame passions and light the powder keg of race riots with all that this entails.
It is not just America that has been affected. The world order as we know it is changing before our eyes. American power is not what it used to be. As America pulls back somewhat from the international stage, new actors fill the void. Regimes that have histories of repression and violence such as Russia and Iran are making pacts with each other.
A world from which America retreats is a dangerous world indeed.
To add to all of this, it appears the candidates running for the coveted office of president of the United States are the least popular to ever face the American voter. The qualifications, policies, temperaments, and ethics of the candidates leave much be desired – to the extent that many astute observers are truly afraid about the future of America and by extension the world.
These are the sobering thoughts that engulf us as we prepare for another Rosh Hashanah when Hashem will judge the world and seal the decree for the upcoming year.
So how can we strengthen ourselves? Is there a silver lining in the ominous clouds darkening the horizon? Most important, what can we do to invoke Divine Mercy on behalf of ourselves, our families, and all of the Jewish nation as we seek His favor and beg Him to inscribe us for a year of blessing and success?
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Let us seek inspiration and insight from a fascinating pasuk in this week’s parshah. In the preceding parshah, the Torah enumerates the profound blessing we will receive for following Hashem’s commandments and conversely the terrible tochachah, punishment, we will undergo if we do not listen to His commandments. The pasuk in this week’s parshah continues by stating, “It will be when all these things come upon you – the blessings and the curse that I have presented before you – then you will return in your heart among all the nations where Hashem your God has dispersed you. And you will return to Hashem your God and listen to His voice… you and your children with all your heart and all your soul” (Devarim 30:1-2).
There are a number of words in this pasuk that require analysis. The pasuk states, “Vehasheivosa el levavech b’chol hagoyim – You will return in your heart among all the nations…” The simple understanding of this concept is that in the parshiyos of Ki Savo and Bechukosai Hashem enumerates the terrible curses and punishments that will befall the Jewish people if they stray from the proper path. The Torah is telling us that in order to stop the pain and suffering caused by the retribution or even to avoid it in the first place, Bnei Yisrael should engage in teshuvah and return to Hashem.
Certainly that is true, but we must still understand why the pasuk adds two seemingly extra words. The pasuk says, “Vehasheivosa el levavecha b’chol hagoyim – You will return in your heart among all the nations…” Where do the two words “bchol hagoyim” come into the picture? What is the connection between the nations of the world and the teshuvah that Klal Yisrael does after receiving the tochachah?
Perhaps we can suggest that there is an additional component that spurs bnei Yisrael to return to Hashem. When we engage in teshuvah, it is not solely because we wish to receive the infinite blessings of Hashem and avoid the terrible retribution heaped upon those who rebel against Him. There is another vitally important catalyst for returning to Hashem, and wanting to be part of the am Hashem, the nation of Hashem. This occurs when we come to the irrefutable realization that the nations surrounding us and in whose midst we live have nothing to offer us.
When looking at the host culture, we observe its modes of “recreation,” what people do for “fun,” and we realize they have little of lasting benefit to offer us. When we think about where society is headed, we realize that with all of the advancements and the tremendous strides – industrial, technological, medical – that humanity has made, the host culture is characterized by moral decadence combined with unbridled hedonism. Not only is it the diametric opposite of the way the Torah desires that we conduct our lives, but it also fails to bring the happiness and joy that is its purported purpose.
Engaging in the unrestrained pleasure seeking that has become the norm in the host culture does not satisfy our soul. Rather, it is akin to a thirsty person drinking saltwater and wondering why he is even thirstier than he was before, after the passing of the momentary feeling of satisfaction he feels as the wet liquid touches his mouth.
The pasuk is thus teaching us that another motivation for “vehasheivosa el levavecha” – for returning to Hashem, refraining from aveiros, and performing His mitzvos – is “b’chol hagoyim,” by looking around and seeing how the moral conduct of a society such as the one that surrounds us cannot guide us. This is a culture to which we do not really belong.
Rav Dovid Hofstedter