On Tuesday evening, 7 Tishrei/Sept. 10, the annual Kinus Teshuvah organized by the Just One Life organization took place at the Young Israel of Flatbush. The twenty-fourth annual event was addressed, as in previous years, by Harav Yissocher Frand, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.
Rav Frand noted that in the Torah Bnei Yisrael are termed an am keshei oref — a stiff-necked people — which evokes an image of a bold, aggressive people. Yet, Chazal tell us that Klal Yisrael have these traits of obstinacy and strength since they would need these characteristics to survive. Rav Frand cited Harav Elya Lopian, zt”l, who said that the traits of azus, boldness, and gevurah, strength, which often imply impatience and aggressiveness and are viewed as negative and counterproductive, were utilized in a positive and productive fashion. The Ribbono shel Olam gave His creatures tools to enable them to function in their respective environments. He knew that His people would find themselves in lands where they would live under oppressive governments and therefore such traits are praiseworthy in this context when used to maintain their Yiddishkeit. Similarly, in sefer Daniel we find that Chananya, Mishael and Azarya manifested these characteristics when Nevuchadnetzer, the Babylonia ruler, insisted they bow to an idolatrous image. When they took him to task for this demand he had them cast into a fiery furnace from which they emerged unscathed.
Under the shadow of the Inquisition in Italy, Spain and other countries, numerous Jews were given the painful choice of converting to Christianity or leaving the country. Many who chose the former kept the trappings of non-Jews externally and yet made enormous sacrifices to keep whatever mitzvos they could under the watchful eyes of the authorities. They would avoid eating chametz the entire year in order to refrain from bread on Pesach and go into the mountains to blow shofar secretly on Rosh Hashanah since the slightest suspicion that they were keeping mitzvos would bring a certain death penalty. The Jewish residents of the ghetto of Rome were compelled to listen to sermons from priests about their religion. Rav Frand learned of these facts during his involvement with a group tour of Jewish Italy this past summer for which he served as scholar-in-residence. Jews were thus compelled to utilize these traits to survive spiritually and physically in these settings. These tendencies become problematic when misused in the pursuit of wealth and power and are thus rightfully viewed as negative.
In America, a malchus shel chessed, in the last several decades we have not been challenged as our forebears in earlier times and abroad. Whereas in the early 1900s people were hard-pressed to find jobs which would allow them to take off on Shabbos, Yidden today don’t usually encounter these tests. Therefore, these skills of boldness and strength, so necessary for survival of Yiddishkeit in earlier times, have somewhat atrophied in regard to weathering nisyonos in the spiritual arena.
Unfortunately, this reality can lead to a tendency to compromise when faced with tests regarding our adherence to mitzvos.
At this time of year, we step back and consider if our conduct is correct. Is my Shabbos, my Torah study, my mode of dress proper? Do I expose myself to injurious influences? Human nature is to continue along the path of familiarity. Being honest with oneself and making necessary changes when called for reflects growth. “The challenge of life is not to remain stagnant,” averred Rav Frand.
A longer article on this event is planned for the weekly edition of Hamodia.