COMMENT: Shema Yisrael — The Renewal of the Covenant Between Am Yisrael and Hakadosh Baruch Hu

As one who is very involved in Holocaust-related subjects, I often take groups on tours of Poland. Every time we get to the Majdanek camp, where the original gas chambers are still intact, I enter the hut where our brethren gave up their lives al Kiddush Hashem, with great awe. As many testified, the hapless Jews who were stuffed into the gas chambers sanctified Hashem’s Name in their deaths as they cried Shema Yisrael and were mekabel Ol Malchus Shamayim as their souls left their bodies. Every time we come, we try, after absorbing the horrors that took place here and allowing it to penetrate our consciences, to recite Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim. We see it as coming full circle of sorts. They accepted the Yoke of Heaven in their deaths, and we are doing so as we live our lives; they sanctified Hashem’s Name in their deaths, and we are pledging to sanctify His Name as we live…

Those were some of the feelings I felt as our eyes were closed, along with the eyes of hundreds of thousands of other men, women and children, as the cry of Shema Yisrael thundered to the Heavens. I thought to myself: No one can stop this tune — and no one will succeed in diminishing even the slightest bit of its significance. It seemed as though the souls of those who had sanctified the Name of Hashem throughout the generations were smiling at us from Above.

No one disputes the fact that the draft issue is the most loaded one in the delicate relationship between the various sectors in Israeli society. The issue involves many emotions that do not need to be detailed. We would have expected that the emotions at an event that was ostensibly intended to protest what is called “religious persecution” or “the draft law” would be described as anger, hatred, frustration and fury against the government and its partners, hatred against those sticking a knife in our back and frustration at how little we can do about the situation.

And yet, none of that happened. The emotions were entirely different. First and foremost, there was an atmosphere of awe, a sense of Yom Kippur at Ne’eilah. In the background, there was a suppressed pain, pain over our errant brothers, pain that it had to come to this, and an introspection that asks: Why? Over what? Hard as it is to believe, there was also a tremendous feeling of joy beneath the surface, a sincere joy, at having been privileged to be together, side by side, united around the preservation of Torah and its teachings. But above all, there was a tremendous outpouring of love, one man for another, one community for another, true ahavas Yisrael. You saw people being crowded together, but at the same time, they patted each other on the shoulders, even though no one knew one another. I passed a bareheaded photographer who was wending his way through the crowds, and he, too, was showered with love, sort of a camaraderie that seemed to flow from the depth of the emotions, love for every Jew from every community, wearing every type of hat or yarmulke…(yes, even knitted yarmulkes were included). It was as though this love had been accumulating for years and was looking for an avenue to escape, and now it burst forth — and endless waters could not extinguish the burning ahavas Yisrael that characterized the event.

And there was also pride. Pure pride in who we are. People were proud to belong to this nation, to this event, and to have the privilege to declare anew, “naaseh venishmah.”

Even the mention of the “draft” and other things that had almost been forgotten, as well as the many signs and placards addressing the issue, looked as they were totally disconnected from the internal substance of the atzeres, and could not mar the atmosphere.

How can this wonder be explained? A sector of the public gathers, ostensibly to express their anger, and ultimately, the result is such a spiritual elevation, enveloped in joy and love?

The truth is that anyone who heard what our Rabbanim have been saying the whole time, and listened well, understands this phenomenon. It wasn’t the “draft decree” that brought people out to the streets. As far as the “decree” it was enough for the Gedolei Torah to announce “no” and that would be the end of the subject and no one would enlist. Anyone with common sense understands that that’s what will actually happen, and even those who are drafting the law admit it almost openly.

The reason the masses of Klal Yisrael took to the streets was totally different. In order to placate their political rivals they agreed to declare that lomdei Torah would be defined in certain terms as criminals and could find themselves — completely theoretically — in prison. In actuality, no one intends to carry through on the threat. And that’s what they said to soothe us the whole time — they don’t mean it seriously…

However, we are not afraid of punishments or of prison, just like Jews throughout history were not afraid of more serious things. But when the State of Israel, which is considered to represent the Jewish nation in the world (and that’s how it presents itself before any open microphone) declares that learning Torah under certain terms can be considered a crime, that is a rebellion against Malchus Shamayim, and that cannot be allowed to pass quietly. Moreover, as citizens of the state, it speaks in our name as well, and therefore, it was our obligation to announce to the world that we have no part in these declarations and we declare the exact opposite.

Moreover, in recent times, several influential politicians have mentioned that the state is the ultimate authority, not halachah. And here we issued a clear call that we will follow only the path of Torah and halachah, in accordance with the guidance of our Rabbanim, and we will uphold the laws of the land only as long as they do not contravene halachah.

As such, there was no place for anger here, only pain, pain that in our days, this has happened. But alongside the pain, there was an overwhelming joy and deep emotion — fortunate is our lot, that we have the zechus to be at this event where we renewed the age-old covenant between Am Yisrael and their Father in Heaven.

We are overjoyed that this took place in our generation; fortunate are we to have merited to be among those standing before Hashem.

As an aside: My heart goes out to those religious people who refrained from participating in the atzeres because of the slander that was spread about us. They were told that this was a demonstration of hatred, a demonstration against the state and so forth. They even went so far as to warn the Rabbanim that they were in physical danger if they went…What a shame. This was the biggest demonstration of love in history, ahavas Yisrael, ahavas Torah, ahavas Hashem were the overwhelming feelings.

As for the state, this was a tefillah for the welfare of the state, because the state has no right to exist if lomdei Torah do not find their place in it, and every Torah-observant person had to stand up and make that clear.

Let us conclude in the vein that we began: Harav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, zt”l, lost five children in Auschwitz. After the war, he established a new family with five children. At the bris of his fifth child, he said: “We say nekadesh es Shimchah b’olam kesheim shemakdishim oso bishmei marom,” I daven that these five children who are living in this world, who were born after the war, should sanctify His Name in the world, the way their brothers who died al Kiddush Hashem, are sanctifying His Name On High.” We also daven, that the same way the mekadshei Shem Shamayim throughout the generations sanctified His Name by saying Shema Yisrael in their deaths, we merited to sanctify It by Kabbalas Ol Malchus Shamayim in our lives, as one heart and one soul. We daven from the depths of our souls that we should merit to implement this in our day-to-day lives.