I was recently asked, in an e-mail correspondence from someone very close to me, a deep philosophical question that deserves much discussion. I had e-mailed this person regarding some of the laws the kollel had been studying on the topic of ritual immersion for certain food implements, but his response steered us to a different realm of thought:
You know what I do find ever-so-slightly offensive…? or at the very least, PUZZLING? With all the things that are happening in the world — the renewed and accelerated rise of anti-Semitism everywhere; the alleged threat from Iran; the tumult in Syria; the tilt toward Islamic rule in Egypt; the decay of the Jewish Community in the USA; etc. — you guys are sitting around rehashing ancient discussions about dipping vessels in rainwater. How is this going to help anyone? I would be interested in hearing a lively debate about Iran, that might even draw me into a shul. But a talk about immersing containers in a mikveh? I’d keep walking.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98A) relates that R’ Yehoshua ben Levi (circa 3rd century CE, Israel), in one of his encounters with Eliyahu ha-Navi, asks him when Mashiach will come. Eliyahu replies, “Ask him yourself, he sits at the gate of the city with the lepers.” R’ Yehoshua finds the lepers, and while they all sit with their bandages removed, treating their wounds, one of the lepers remains with his bandages on, taking off only one bandage at a time and then replacing it. R’ Yehoshua understands this to be Mashiach, who keeps his bandages on so he is ready to “move out” on G-d’s command. R’ Yehoshua asks him when he will “come” to redeem the Jews. He answers, “Today.” We can imagine R’ Yehoshua, lighting up at this news, and like Paul Revere (l’havdil), bounding through the streets, announcing to the Jews, “Mashiach is coming! Today!” Imagine the excitement in the Jewish community as everyone prepares for the arrival of Mashiach and the coming redemption. However, as the day comes to a close, Mashiach has not come, and a great disappointment and melancholy sets in. R’ Yehoshua returns to Eliyahu and asks him why Mashiach did not come as he had said. Eliyahu replies that R’ Yehoshua had run off before hearing the rest of his words. He had been quoting a verse in Psalms (95:7) that says, “Today, if you will hearken to His voice.”
The lesson here is that we “wait” for Mashiach, or demand, “We want Mashiach NOW!” But Ha-Shem whispers softly, “Today, if you will hearken.” Ha-Shem waits for our sincere return in repentance and Torah observance.
Another Talmudic passage (Megilah 14A) states that more benefit was wrought for the Jewish people by the transfer of the king’s signet ring to Haman’s hand than by all the prophets that preached to the Jews while the Temple stood. The prophets could not convince the Jews to do teshuvah, but Haman could. Haman’s rise to power was a ploy by G-d, a Purim “shtick,” engineered to bring the Jews to repentance. When Mordechai informs Esther of Haman’s decree and instructs her to go to the king, she responds, “Go, gather all the Jews, and [all of you] fast for me for three days. Then I will come to the king.” She understood (correctly) that before any physical machinations will have efficacy, before the redemption of the Jews can come about, the Jews must “hearken.” They must repent and return to Torah observance.
When the Children of Israel destroy Midyan and return with the spoils of war, the Torah commands, “This is the statute of the Torah that Ha-Shem commanded Mosheh: Howbeit the gold and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin and the lead, anything that comes into the fire, you shall pass it through the fire and it shall be pure. However, it will [also] be cleansed in the waters of ‘nidah.’ And anything that does not come into the fire, you shall pass it through water.” (Numbers 31:21-23)
Here is the Torah commandment requiring both “kashering” (purging of forbidden matter), and ritual immersion in a mikveh (waters of “nidah”) for metal implements. In order to observe the Torah, one must be familiar with its details. So those of us who are sincere about serving our nation and bringing about its redemption “sit around” and study the Torah’s laws. Their antiquity does not make them “antiquated,” but eternal, and as such, they are as relevant and applicable today as always. In this way, study of the law will go a long way to help our nation. Especially when the purpose of our kollel is to enable its members to become competent Jewish leaders and teachers of our heritage.
So if you’d rather forego the knowledge that may bring one to a higher level of observance and bring our nation closer the redemption, we can discuss other topics, but just remember that anti-semitism, Iran, radical Islam, the unrest in Eretz Yisrael, etc., like Haman, are only symptomatic of the real problem — our distance from the Almighty. If we return to Ha-Shem, if we will but hearken, the redemption is waiting to come TODAY.
(Also see this post)