On Whom Can We Rely?

At the end of Tractate Sota (49a-b), there is a saying of Rabbi Eliezer the Great:

From the day the Temple was destroyed, the sages began to be like scribes, and the scribes became like public officials, and the public officials like common people, and the common people are themselves deteriorating. And no one demands, and no one seeks, and no one asks. On whom can we rely, on our father in Heaven.

This sentence, “On whom can we rely, on our Father in heaven,” sounds like an expression of helplessness and despair. Imagine a person whose doctor tells him: “From now on, you would do well to rely on the Almighty.” Such a person knows his situation is serious indeed.

However, this statement can also be read in a different tone—not as an expression of despair, but as statement of fact, a piece of practical advice, a positive suggestion. And this has a number of aspects.

First, perhaps our generation would have preferred to find different leaders, but we cannot.

We would have liked to find other teachers, other policemen, perhaps other people, but we cannot. There is a downhill trend, a deterioration. But there is one point that strengthens our heart: in the collapse of ideologies, theories, systems and politics, there is one thing which remains stable and on which we can rely—our Father in heaven.

And beyond that, the sequence of “sages, scribes, public officials, etc.” implies a theoretical, emotional and social structure in which we expect to lean on other people. Rabbi Eliezer’s statement is a call to change direction. He says we have been leaning on sages and scribes and officials for too long. We have been leaning on them so much that we have forgotten our direct connection and direct commitment to the Master of the Universe, and this is why we are deteriorating. And he calls upon us once again to lean on the source of all things, our Father in heaven—or, in other words, to rebuild our direct and personal relationship with God.

In the Torah, we find several verses asking: “What does the Lord your God require of you?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). This is directed at each and every individual – not to the leaders, or to the audience, or to someone else, but to you. In the description of the making of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, this point appears in a verse directed to all generations. This special verse is phrased in a seemingly strange way: “The Lord did not make this covenant with our father, but with us, these here today, all of us alive” (Deuteronomy 5:3). This combination of words with the same meaning comes to give added stress. This verse says emphatically that the covenant is not of yesterday, and not with another people, but with us, each one of us, and not in a different time or place but “here, today.”

This demand is very real. It requires the transfer of commitment, together with the burden and the effort, from the society to the individual. It prevents us from hiding behind any social, public, or historical structure, and it says: If we want a solution to the problem of deterioration, we are required to create a personal relationship with God, not only emotionally, but operationally – “We, here, today.” And this demand is difficult because our Father in heaven, unlike a policeman, accepts no excuses, and cannot be deceived.

In the period between the destruction of the Temple and the coming of Mashiaḥ (the Messiah), when all systems break down and there is no longer anyone to follow, everyone will be called upon to start walking on his own, with all the multitude of commitments that this entails. Thus, everyone ought to start saying: “The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37a).
At the same time, if something immoral or unjust happens in the world, one must say, “It is my fault.”

If there is a child in this country that suffers, an adult who commits a crime, the responsibility rests not only on this or that government office: it rests on me. When one personally feels the pain of the existing problems, this creates a new set of attitudes. I no longer have anyone to lean on, and so I must establish a direct line of communication.

In other words, it is clear to us that there is darkness, and that we need light. Perhaps more than one lighthouse has been extinguished. So, there is only one way. Each and everyone must light his own candle. If all these candles are lit, together they will create a great light, perhaps even greater than any other source.

In the saying “On whom can we rely, on our Father in heaven” there is, then, a hope even a promise to the Jewish people. Not only that we have on whom to lean, but also that we are capable of making the transition from hiding behind other’s backs and of beginning to assume personal responsibility for what others do, and for what they ought to do.

A great advantage enjoyed by the Jewish people is that the Almighty has not required us to resort to an intermediary. In a certain sense, each of us has a “hotline” to God Himself which we can pick up and say – “You.” Yet we must remember that this phone also rings in the other direction; He turns to us from time to time to and asks – “What are you doing?” This question was first directed to Adam – “Where are you?” (Genesis 2:9) and it goes on being asked to this very day.

This question is asked with added vehemence in a society that is not as united as it should be, and which breeds mistrust.

Such a society much once again ask, seek, demand, and rebuild anew from the small contribution of each individual. Let everyone remove the dirt at his front door, and the entire street will be clean. Let everyone light the candle of his soul, and the land will be filled with light.

Let everyone take one step forward and upward, and we will shake the entire world.

When God took our forefathers out of Egypt, He performed innumerable miracles for them – the Ten Plagues, the Giving of the Torah, the manna, the quails, the Well. Yet the Tabernacle of the Lord did not come down in fire from the heavens, but was built from the contributions of each and every Israelite. Eliezer the Great speaks of the time prior to the coming of Mashiaḥ when he says: We do not know how the Temple will be built, but it is we, each and every one of us, who must contribute to its foundations. Everyone will give his stone, his small share. Two stones built two houses; three stones built six houses (Sefer Yetzira), and so on, ad infinitum. When these stones come together, The City of our God will be built.

And then, only then, will we be able to say that we do indeed have someone on whom we can rely – Our Father in heaven.

This essay was originally published in A Dear Son to Me by Rabbi Steinsaltz.