“Bring us back to You, O Compassionate One, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.” (Lamentations 5:21)
We chant the above verse when we return the Torah to the ark, and the concluding words, Renew our days as of old, express our yearning for Jewish renewal. As we mentioned in a previous letter, the winter is a season for inner renewal – a process which will strengthen our ability to make our unique contribution to the world as individuals, and as Klal Yisrael – the Community of Israel. It is therefore worthwhile to begin to discuss a Torah perspective regarding this process of renewal.
Renew our days as of old. Like all the words in our Sacred Scriptures, these words have various levels of meaning. I once heard the following interpretation of these words from Rabbi Meir Fund, a noted Torah educator in Brooklyn, New York:
In the days of old, when we left Egypt and journeyed to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from the Loving One, our relationship with our Beloved was fresh, new, and intimate. We therefore pray that our relationship will be renewed so that we can once again experience the newness and intimacy that we experienced in days of old.
To understand this on a deeper level, we need to remember that the covenant with our Beloved at Mount Sinai was not just with the generation that left Egypt, but also with all future generations, as it is written:
“Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this oath, but with whoever is here standing with us today before the Compassionate One, our God, and with whoever is not here with us today.” (Deuteronomy 29:13,14)
The Midrash Tanchuma, in its explanation of the words, “with whoever is not here with us today,” states that when the Torah was given to Klal Yisrael, all the future generations were there at that hour. The Midrash then adds: Their souls were there, although their bodies were not yet created. Our souls were present when we entered into the covenant with our Beloved through accepting the Torah, and we therefore have a special ability to renew this relationship.
This renewal can take place on each day of our lives, and our tradition finds a source for this idea in a statement said to our people when we renewed the covenant with our Beloved at the end of our journey in the wilderness, before we entered the Promised Land. Moses and the Kohanim had then proclaimed to us: “This day you have become a people to the Compassionate One, your God” (Deuteronomy 27:9). Why, however, did they say, “this day”? Was it on that day that the Torah was given to Israel and we thereby became our Beloved’s people? We actually received the Torah and become our Beloved’s people forty years earlier! The words “this day” therefore have a deeper meaning. According to our tradition, these words are revealing that each day, through the power of renewal, we can feel as if we just received the Torah at Sinai. As the classical commentator, Rashi, explains:
“Each day, let it be in your eyes as if today you entered into the Covenant with Him.” (Commentary to Deut. 27:9)
Rashi’s explanation of the words “this day” is based on the Talmud’s explanation of these words. The Talmud states that these words come to reveal the following insight: “The Torah is beloved to those who study it each day as on the day that it was given from Mount Sinai” (Brochos 63b).
Renewing our bond with the Torah can help us to rediscover aspects of Torah teachings that were forgotten, neglected, or only partially understood. For example, the Chassidic movement revived certain Torah teachings regarding the service of the heart, and the Mussar movement revived certain Torah teachings regarding ethics and character development. In our generation, there are a growing number of Jews that are rediscovering Torah teachings and mitzvos regarding our relationship with the earth and its creatures.
Jewish renewal also enables us to rediscover the holistic wisdom of Torah. In this spirit, King David proclaimed: “The Torah of the Compassionate One is whole, restoring the soul” (19:8). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains in his commentary on these words, David is reminding us that Torah – the Divine Teaching – encompasses every aspect of our existence. In addition, each mitzvah of the Torah enables us to nurture, elevate, or protect an aspect of the Divine creation. A beautiful expression of this teaching can be found in the commentary of the Tikunei Zohar (55) on the following verse:
“The Compassionate and Just One took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden – l'avdah u'l'shamrah - to serve it and to protect it.” (Genesis 2:15)
According to the Tikunei Zohar, the mission to serve and protect the Garden is a prototype for “all” the mitzvos which were given to the People of Israel through the Torah. The mandate to “serve” the Garden is a prototype of “mitzvos aseh” – the mitzvos which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the mandate to “protect” the Garden is a prototype of “mitzvos lo sa'asay” - the mitzvos which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world - including ourselves.
The above teaching reveals that the ultimate goal of Jewish renewal is to renew the original and universal mission of humankind through the Torah’s path of mitzvos. Each mitzvah is therefore a step on the path which leads to this universal goal. This is not a lonely journey, for the mitzvos enable us to journey as a community; thus, our sages teach, “All Israel is responsible one for the other” (Shavuos 39a). With patience and with love, we are to help each other as we journey to this goal, step by step.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen