One question that has been discussed by Jews quite often, and especially over the past 150 years or so, and that has special relevance to the fast day of Tishah B'Av that Jews all across the world observed this Sunday, August 14th, is this:
What binds the Jewish people together - are we a nation, a race, or a religion? Or are we none of the above; rather, we just share a common heritage and culture. Who are we really?
Well, we are definitely not a race, especially when you consider the fact that one can convert to Judaism - when was the last time that you heard of a white man "converting" to blackness? In addition, the Torah has always established the identity of a Jew through matrilineal descent, which precludes the idea of Judaism being strictly a race.
Do we all share common customs and traditions? I don't know about that either. I, for one, have never seen a Yemenite Jew eating gefilte fish, or a Jew of Germanic descent wearing a headdress! And besides, merely sharing a common heritage doth not a religion make. Well, what's left? Is religion the only thing that binds us together? What about those of us who don’t practice Judaism?
Maybe we Jews are just a nation. After all, all other nations have their own homelands, and so do we. The whole idea of the fast day of Tishah B'Av is to mourn our having been exiled from the Land of Israel, our national homeland. And the Torah and its laws might just be the means for a national existence, and for establishing national independence and welfare out of a national land.
We can find an answer to this interesting enigma in a single verse in this week's Torah portion, Parshas Va’eschanan, which seems to be repetitive, without adding any new idea that we don't already know.
Moses tells the people, "See, I have taught you decrees and ordinances as the Lord, my G-d, has commanded me, to do so in the midst of the Land to which you come, to possess it." (Deuteronomy 4:5). What exactly was Moses’ point in making that statement? Wasn’t it already obvious by now to the Jewish people that G-d wanted them to follow His laws upon their entry into the Land of Israel?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch ZT”L (1808-1888), in his classic commentary on the Torah, explains the important and vital message that we are being told in this verse. [I have paraphrased his words – dz]:
“The essence of Moses’ statement to the Jewish people is that they were commanded all the Laws of the Torah before they even entered into their national homeland, the Land of Israel. And this one, seemingly insignificant piece of trivia makes all the difference in the world. Moses is teaching us something very important that talks to the very core of who we are as Jews:
“We are the only nation in the world that had laws before it had a country. Every other nation became a nation through its land and then made laws for that land. But we became a nation through the Law (the Torah) and received a land for that law. All other laws have arisen from the characteristic peculiarities of the inhabitants engendered by the land and from the requirements of its changing development. The Torah, on the other hand, is absolute and independent, we and the land are conditional. The Torah does not have to go in accordance with our changing fate and that of the Land, but in accordance with our changing faithfulness our fate and that of our land changes.
“With the Torah in our arms we stood as a nation at the border of the Land of Israel, there to bring the Torah to be completely fulfilled. With that same Torah in our arms we were exiled from that land twice on Tishah B'Av, and we will stand as a nation that has no other calling than to live to fulfill this Torah/Instruction Book for Life and to wait for that moment that we can once again enter that land and live there as G-d fearing Jews.
“We are the People of the Torah and Israel is the Land of the Torah, but we are not the People of Israel and Israel is not the Land of the Jews.”
As the great Torah philosopher and leader of world Jewry Saadia Gaon already wrote more than a millennium ago, “Umaseinu einenah umah ki im b’Toroseha – Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah” (Emunos Ve’Dayos 7:3).
Of course, as Jews, we all have a special attachment to the Land of Israel, and it's the only place in the world that all Jews, regardless of what their nationality or level of religious observance may be, can truly call home.
Ultimately, though, the only thing that really binds us together as a people is that which we had before we had anything else - our Torah and the beautiful way of life it sets up for us. All Jews are connected to G-d and to each other – regardless of their present level of Jewish knowledge, affiliation or observance - by virtue of their having stood together at the foot of Mount Sinai 3328 years ago, when G-d revealed Himself and gave us His Torah.
And it is from that momentous time onwards that we became the Jewish people. Inside each and every one of us lies the potential to reach greatness through the successful application of the many vital and life-giving ideas and commandments of the Torah. All it takes is some time to study the Torah in order to appreciate what makes us so special as a nation, and to gain insights into the deeper meanings of all its stories and laws.