Heritage and Inheritance

I have often said that the Jewish people today is at a critical stage in its history. Many of us believe that – despite the horrifying assimilation rate – the maternity wards can make up for the absence of the study halls. Nevertheless, if we do continue along this path, we are moving towards a non-luminous future, in which we are destined to become like the Samaritans, a small, detached, insignificant sect. If the present trends in the Jewish people persist, then what is liable to happen to the Jewish community of Russia in the coming decade will happen to European Jewry within twenty years; to American Jewry within thirty years; and to Israeli Jews within fifty years. Russian Jewry is, today, the forefront of battle because there the situation is the most severe. If we succeed in stopping the erosion there to a certain extent – nay, if we can change the direction of the flow – it will be a positive sign that such change is indeed possible, and that we are not just standing at the very edge of our past, but are facing a viable future.

Today, however, I wish to touch upon a wider issue: what is the meaning of the term “Jewish heritage,” and what is its place for us, for the Jewish people as it is today. I will begin with a verse at the end of the book of Deuteronomy (3:4): “Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance (morasha) of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).

Our Sages (Tractate Sanhedrin 91b) say: “Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: If one withholds a halakha from his pupil, it is as though he has robbed him of his ancestral heritage, as it is written: ‘Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.'” This is a very powerful statement indeed. It does not deal with the question of whether or not we should teach Torah; rather, it says that the Torah is an inheritance for the entire Jewish people; it is the legacy of all of Israel. We must not detain it from its proprietors, and whoever does so, even partially, commits a grave transgression.

Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 33:4 says: “Do not say ‘morasha‘ (inheritance), but rather, ‘meorasa‘ (betrothed). This comes to teach that the Torah is betrothed to the people of Israel. And whence do we learn this? From the verse (Hosea 2:21-22) ‘And I will betroth you unto me forever… and I will betroth you unto me in faithfulness.'” And Midrash Sifrei (on Deuteronomy, paragraph 345) adds: “Do not say ‘meorasa‘ but ‘morasha‘, which comes to teach that the Torah is an inheritance to the people of Israel.”

Midrash Leviticus Rabbah (Vilna edition, 9:3) brings a story, which shows how much the world has changed, and yet how much it has not. The story speaks for itself:

“Rabbi Yannai was once walking along the road and saw a man who was extremely well-endowed. He must have been an exceedingly impressive man, big, rich and dignified, whose paunch walked way ahead of him, and who made a great impression. Rabbi Yannai did not know this well-endowed Jew; but, given his attire and conduct, he assumed him to be an important, scholarly and influential man. Rabbi Yannai said to him: Would you like to come to our house? The man replied: Yes. Rabbi Yannai brought him into his home and gave him food and drink. And as they were eating and drinking together, he examined him in his knowledge of Bible and found out that he had none; examined his knowledge of Mishna and realized that he had none; his knowledge of Aggada and saw that he had none; his knowledge of Talmud, and lo, he had none. Thus it turned out that this impressive-looking guest of his, who looked like a veritable rabbi, with a grown beard and so on, was a total ignoramus. What, then, could Rabbi Yannai do? He invited the guest to say Grace after Meals. [Rabbi Yannai] then told him: Wash and recite grace. Said [the guest]: Let Yannai recite grace in his own home. So Rabbi Yannai understood that this important guest of his could not even say this blessing. He told him: Can you at least repeat what I say? Said he: Yes. Said Rabbi Yannai: Instead of grace after meals, say: ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.’ This is certainly not a nice, and a very offensive, statement; but this was how Rabbi Yannai felt. That man stood up and grabbed Rabbi Yannai, saying: My inheritance is with you, and you are withholding it from me! Said Rabbi Yannai with puzzlement: What legacy of yours is there with me? He replied: Once I passed by a school, and I heard the voices of the little children saying, ‘Moses gave us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.’ They did not say ‘the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,’ but ‘the congregation of Jacob.'”

And this is how this story ends: Rabbi Yannai felt ashamed of himself because he became aware of that man’s true stature. The total ignorance of the guest was no excuse for Rabbi Yannai to humiliate him. The Torah does not belong to Rabbi Yannai and his friends, but to the entire Jewish people. Therefore, the person who knows no Torah is not a dog; he is an educationally deprived person, a spiritual pauper, who should be pitied, but certainly not abused. Said Rabbi Yannai to that person: What, then, has made you worthy of eating on my table? Not everyone has the privilege of being the guest of a leading Sage, and Rabbi Yannai assumed that if this particular person came to him, he must have done many good deeds. He replied: Never in my life have I heard something negative about someone, and run back to that person to tell him about it; and never in my life have I seen two people fighting with each other without having made peace between them. Said [Rabbi Yannai] to him: So much civility and good manners are in you, and I called you a ‘dog’!” And he applied to him the verse (Psalms 50:23): “‘He appraises his path’: he who assesses his actions, is worth a great deal.” This person, who had no Torah, no Mishna, and no Aggada, turned out, then, to be a giant in good conduct.

This story, which took place a long time ago, some eighteen hundred years ago, reveals a great deal about society, human relations and estrangement, and shows that none of these issues and problems are new, and that they have always existed. But at the focus of this story is the reaction of the guest. This man had no knowledge whatsoever of the Jewish sources; he could not even recite grace after meals. Yet, when told “Get out of here, you are a mere dog, I have nothing in common with you,” he knew one thing: that the Torah is his inheritance, which not even Rabbi Yannai can withhold from him: “The inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”

Midrash Tanhuma (Vayakhel 8) adds: When the Almighty told Moses to make the Tabernacle, he said about each and every item within: ‘And you (in the singular) shall make’ (Exodus 25:13,17, 18, etc.); But when it came to the Ark, He said, (Ibid., 25:10) ‘And they shall make.’ Why? Because the Almighty commanded the entire Jewish people to make the Ark, so that no Jew will ever be able to say to another: I have given a lot for the Ark, and therefore I study more and have a greater share in it than you, while you gave only very little for the Ark, and therefore you have no share in the Torah. This is why the Torah was likened to water, as it says (Isaiah 55:1): ‘Ho, everyone that thirsts, come to the waters.’ Just as no person feels too shy to say to another, ‘Give me water,’ so no one should feel ashamed to tell someone lesser than he, ‘Teach me this or that.’ And just as whoever wants to drink water should drink for free, so whoever wishes to study the Torah should study it without price and without a fee, as it says (Ibid.,): ‘Yea, come buy… without money and without price.’ And why was the Torah given in the desert? To teach that just as the desert is ownerless property, so too the words of the Torah are there for whoever wants to learn.

Finally, Midrash Sifrei on Deuteronomy, paragraph 345, illuminates an additional reason why the Torah is called “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob”: Even an individual Jew who once learned Torah and then strayed to distant places is not ashamed to return, for he says: It is to my ancestors’ property that I am returning. And Midrash Tannaim on Deuteronomy 43:4 likens this to a prince who sailed to far away countries. Even after a hundred years, he is not ashamed to return, for he says: It is to the kingdom of my forefathers that I am returning. “The inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” is the inheritance of all of the Jews throughout the generations, in all their wanderings, however far off they may be.

From this sampling of sayings by our Sages on this issue, we can see that these are not just heart-warming homilies about the relationship between the Jews and the Torah. Rather, a broad world-view is being outlined here, which is summed up in the Zohar as the three-fold bond between “[the people of] Israel, the Torah, and the Holy One be Blessed” (see Zohar, Leviticus 73a).

The three-fold bond is not only an ideological world-view, but also a national and social definition. This view, which underscores that the Torah is “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob,” says, in fact, that the Torah is not the property of a certain group or brotherhood. In the Jewish people, there is no sect of “knowers” to whom, and to whom alone, the Torah was given. Rather, the Torah is for the entire Jewish people. Furthermore, the Torah, which is also called an “inheritance,” is an ongoing legacy. No Jew is free to consider whether he wants it or not, nor is it for us to decide to take it or to leave it. Rather, the Torah is the inheritance (morasha) of the entire Jewish people as a legacy (yerusha), as heredity (torasha).

This view is not only a doctrinal definition: it also has practical implications. First and foremost, it is a matter of attitude. On the one hand, “the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” means that it is a legacy for my forefathers, for myself, and for my descendants, throughout the generations. Even one who left this path a hundred years ago, and presently knows nothing about it, can still return and reconnect himself with the Torah, saying: “It is to my ancestors’ property that I am returning.” On the other hand, no one can hold the Torah in his lap and claim that it is his own private property, or that it belongs only to his specific circle or group. For the Torah is the patrimony of the Jewish people as a whole which includes each and every one of its individual members.

How was this inheritance robbed? It got lost in the wanderings, in the exiles, in the “desert of the nations,” sometimes even in our own land. And it is my duty to return it to its owners, to all those entitled to it. This calls for a great deal of work, on both ends.

On the one end are the recipients, who do not always know that they have such an inheritance. To use an ancient parable: a prince, born far away from his homeland, barely knows that he is of royal descent and is surely unaware that somewhere else, in another country, he has a legacy. What should this child – who owns an eternal bequest of which he knows not – do? He must learn about it, become familiar with his estate; he must discover that there is a hidden treasure awaiting him.

On the other end are the givers, or those capable of giving. The Torah is not something secret, or somebody’s monopoly; on the contrary, we are commanded and obligated to make sure that it will reach the hands of all of its potential inheritors, all those who belong to “the congregation of Jacob.” We must not deprive them of their legacy. And whoever tries to veil the Torah, or hide it, or build partitions and fences around it, divests them of this heirloom, which is, and remains, theirs at all times.

This, then, is a twofold effort: of the child who grew up ignorant of his patrimony, and of he who holds any part of that inheritance and is capable of transmitting it. Both parties together must exert themselves in order to make the ends meet. Our great task is to create a Jewish mission: not to convert gentiles, but to proselytize Jews. This is our task. One who holds in his hand even a tiny portion of this treasure, of this estate of the entire Jewish people, has no right to keep it for himself, for it belongs to all.

This heritage must therefore be transmitted and distributed, even to those who do not know that it exists. This is a direct, personal calling; it is not the responsibility of lawyers or of specially committed institutions or organizations. It is the simple, humane duty incumbent upon me, who sees the princes roaming the streets naked and barefoot, while I am holding their plundered property in my hand.

To put things in the right proportion: the Land of Israel is the Holy Land, the only land that is holy. Jerusalem is more sanctified than all of the Land of Israel and the entire world, and as a Jerusalemite, I have nothing better and more beautiful than Jerusalem. Beyond the sanctity of Jerusalem is the sanctity of the Temple Mount. But above and beyond all of this is the sanctity of the relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish people. This silver cord, this life-line, which links the Jew to his Creator, is the quintessence, the essential sanctity from which all other sanctities derive. When one keeps this life-line intact, when one enables this flow of life to continue – this is where God is. Beyond that, He cannot be revealed.

The task of returning what has been lost to its owner is a very dramatic one. True, it is not always clear or visible. Sometimes one can only do a part, even a small part, of it. Sometimes a person may begin, but not get to see the end result. This is especially true because so many of the recipients are suspicious of the inheritance that they are being offered. Other times, the paupers may have become accustomed to their poverty; they do not want to be entangled with a great legacy. But whenever one has the privilege of returning the lost legacy, it is a powerful experience indeed.

There are still so many who need this, who cry out for this. And all of us, each and every one of us, can do something in order to weave anew this silver cord, to once again extend this thread of life.

This essay was first a speech delivered at the annual Aleph Society dinner in Jerusalem, 1996.