Unity in Diversity: The Final Address of Rav Shneur Kotler Zt”l, on His 42nd Yahrtzeit

The following is the final address given by Rav Shneur Kotler Zt”l, translated from Yiddish:

Upon seeing a gathering of this size, composed of Jews assembled for the purpose of proclaiming K’vod Shomayim-the Glory of Heaven-and of demonstrating their acceptance of the Divine authority, one should say “Shehechiyanu,” praising G-d for “keeping us alive, sustaining us, and bringing us to this time.”

There are occasions when this beracha expresses a particular awareness of the gifts it celebrates. Sometimes a person might be weary, or fall into a defeatist mood and be overcome with a sense of purposelessness. But if a person raises his sights, or carefully analyzes his circumstances, he can draw hope and encouragement. Such is the prevailing mood at this occasion, which marks sixty years of Agudath Israel of America, giving us reason to find inspiration and hope.

Undoubtedly, the sixty years of Agudath Israel of America, as the seventy years of Agudath Israel on the world scene, have prepared the soil for the growth of the Torah community, and had as well a significant share in its subsequent development. Indeed, it was for this very purpose that Agudath Israel was founded: to make Torah the salient feature of Jewish life.

An auspicious gathering of this sort, which projects a Torah society under the leadership of Gedolei Torah, brings to mind the ultimate purpose of a united Kial Yisroel. The nature of this goal is implicit in a lesson derived from the passage that prohibits eating the gid hanasheh-the sinew that runs through an animal’s hindquarters.

The Torah forbids the gid because the Sar shel Eisav (Eisav’s ministering angel, so to speak) “struck Yaakov’s hip socket on the gid hanasheh” during their fateful nocturnal struggle. Somehow, in some way, it seems that the Sar shel Eisav gained a measure of control over the full stature of Yaakov Avinu during this battle. This is difficult to understand for the national character of Kial Yisroel-its very destiny-was molded by the Avos.

Jewry’s continued existence is virtually based on the conduct and accomplishments of the Avos. In the End of Days, when the world is at its highest level, and Israel will achieve perfection, this too will be part of the grand edifice built on the foundations laid by the Avos. How will this ever come to pass if the Sar shel Eisav’s hand is on Yaakov’s thigh, in effect imposing limitations on Yaakov’s potential for perfection.

In truth, Eisav’s Sar could not in any way diminish Yaakov’s full stature or inflict any harm upon his spiritual makeup. He was unbroken in spirit as he was in body.-Yes, he did limp after their struggle, but all that the Sar had succeeded in achieving was to dislodge a bone from its place (see Chulin 42b), representing a disjointedness of sorts. The task assigned to Yaakov (and his offspring) was to re-align his limbs so that they would function properly-to
reconstruct the frame of Kial Yisroel as one unified, coordinated organism, repairing the damage done by the Sar she/ Eisav.

Later, when Yaakov Avinu “lived in the Land of his fathers’ dwelling,” he aspired to live in tranquility, we are told, but the sale of Yoseif into bondage tore away at the fabric of his life (see Rashi; Bereishis 37:1). Now, Yaakov Avinu surely was not aspiring to a conventional golden-age retirement, for such was not the substance of the dreams of the Avos. Rather, his hopes were based on achievements of a different sort. He had already succeeded in establishing the Twelve Tribes, with each of his sons having developed his respective strength … Their ranks included the regal Yehuda, and Yoseif, of consummate self-control; Yissachar, of the tents of study, and Zevulun, man of commerce. The complete set of pillars of Kial Yisroel was standing tall, giving the basis for a budding nation prepared to accept the Torah and to bring the world to its ultimate perfection. It seemed that no elements were missing. For sure, Yaakov reasoned, it was a time for him to repose in the Ziv HaShechina and delight in the glow of the Divine Presence. When the brothers sold Yoseif, however, they demonstrated that even though they possessed all the ingredients of the great nation they were destined to become, they lacked the essential binding element of brotherly understanding and harmony. All limbs of the wonderful organism repres-
ented by Yaakov Avinu were there, complete and perfect, but unity and coordination were sorely absent. Mutual respect and harmony of purpose were yet to be achieved.

In creating Agudath Israel, Gedolei Yisroel envisioned it as a unifying force that would enhance the strengths of the various factions and sub-communities of Kial Yisroel through unity. Would Torah Jewry work together, there is no limit to what it can accomplish. After all, the dor hahaflaga erected the Tower of Babel in defiance of G-d, yet it experienced unmatched success as long as its factions worked with unity; how much more so should
a community united for Torah achieve success! How vast is the potential for positive achievement within our ranks!

Noteworthy, indeed, are the accomplishments of the past few years-the revolutionary accomplishments of Agudath Israel as well as the geometric growth of the yeshivos and the Torah community at large, which are actually two sides of the same coin. But these are negligible when viewed in terms of what is yet to be done in so many areas of endeavor.

Building on the experience of the past, we must make Agudath Israel stronger so it may better serve in its role as the organized expression of Orthodox Jewry-speaking articulately and taking action decisively, projecting the historic concept of a multi-faceted Kial Yisroel, perpetuating it for all time. Let us take but one example of the issues that crowd our agenda, which have been begging for action by Agudath Israel.

Controversy is currently raging in Eretz Yisroel regarding the grounding of El Al on Shabbos and Yorn Tov. On the surface, it may seem like a common problem: the desire to avoid an inevitable financial loss versus the imperative for a Jewish concern not to desecrate the Shabbos.

But there is a deeper dimension to this dispute: For thousands of years, Jews have kept the Shabbos with mesiras nefesh, willing to give away their very lives for the sake of Shabbos, as for all sacred principles of Judaism. What difference did a financial gain or loss play in the scheme of things when dealing with matters that touch on the very essence of Kial Yisroel? This sense of conviction and unyielding dedication was the cornerstone of Kial Yisroel’s growth, and was its guide for the course of action pursued throughout the ages.

Now, for Jews to actually campaign for Chilul Shabbos, as El Al representatives and various political factions are doing, is tantamount to an attack on Jewry’s very existence. How tragic, indeed, that Sabbath desecration should be the open, official policy of a Jewish company-and a national one, at that!

To attempt to justify such a policy on the basis of financial consideration is to deny the millennia-long Jewish historical experience. Once the question of El Al flights is understood as a confrontation between historic Jewish sanctity and crass expediency, is there any more qualified spokesman on behalf of “the sacred nation” concept than the very movement that is identified with the eternal values of Kial Yisroel?

In retrospect, we can appreciate the foresight of the Torah leaders of earlier generations who founded Agudath Israel. When some ideologues created a dualism of Religion and Land, placing them together, equally, at the core of our people hood, Gedolei Yisroel responded by defining this concept as a type of avoda zara-idolatry-dealing with one specific mitzva area as though it were central to our belief. One cannot but admire the clarity of their prescience. Today, when religious principles collide with apparent national concerns, some actually give the latter priority, for they view the material prosperity of the State on par with religious interests. Decisions of this sort surely reflect a confused set of priorities that can aptly be described as blatant avoda zara.

How vital it is, then-now, more than ever-that the voice of organized Torah Jewry-Agudath Israel and the Torah world, in general-ring out with strength and with fidelity to our timeless convictions.

Agudath Israel has not been without criticism-some of it justified, some of it not, … some exaggerating existing faults, some of it focusing on genuine errors. Throughout its existence, however, Agudath Israel undeniably has served to establish a firm foundation for Kial Yisroel’s continued development.

“Throw a branch into the air, and it will fall, returning to its source” (Bereishis Rabba 53). Agudath Israel has aligned Kial Yisroel with a genuine Torah perspective, highlighting a fuller appreciation of Torah, helping “restore Jewry to its source. Indeed, Agudath Israel has always set its own policies and the conduct of its own affairs in accordance with its historic roots, as directed by Gedolei Yisroel.

We do not sufficiently appreciate the importance of the stabilizing force this has exerted on Kial Yisroel. We must properly assess it in terms of the marvelous achievements in Torah education and in the strengthening of Torah practice-from Dan to Beersheva in the Holy Land, as well as all over the Jewish map-of these past thirty five years, in ways that defy rational explanation.

This, in turn, must be appreciated in view of the Jewish People’s survival and subsequent flourishing in the years since the terrible destruction of World War II, in ways that are beyond the normal. And we must make note that these two are not mere coincidence but are interdependent- the miraculous survival of our people and the phenomenal spread of Torah study and life.

Since, indeed, we are living in an era of unnatural growth and we are experiencing an unnatural degree of success in our undertakings, we per- force are carrying a special burden, requiring us to fulfill a special mission. Of course there are difficulties, and there will continue to be difficulties, but they are of little importance in light of the enormity of our responsibility-that of serving as living testimony to the world as to the nature of Kial Yisroel’s spiritual essence. Rather than ignore the difficulties that plague us, we must identify them and do our utmost to resolve them.

For this purpose, we must strengthen the organizational realm of Agudath Israel-representing as it does the structural make-up of our people. In fact, it is for this reason that this gathering has been convened, bringing together Torah scholars and activists, rabbinical leaders and laymen, who share a common concern and a sense of responsibility for Jewry’s future. We must join forces together to form a unified force rather than an organism of “dislodged, mis-aligned bones.”

We must work together, coordinating our efforts, with each person at his post, performing his assignment, with the vision of a complete Kial Yisroel functioning intact, vivid in our minds. A gathering dedicated to bringing honor to Torah and its Author is a gathering of Kiddush Hashem. A movement dedicated to the purpose of spreading Kiddush Hashem can also be described as promoting Kabbolas Ol Malchus Shomayim-the accepting of Heavenly authority.

One could say, then, that the ideal format for such a movement should be modeled after the format of the recitation of “Shema,” our daily expression of Kabbolas 01 Maleh us Shomayim. This format is delineated in the Midrash on the pasuk: “You who dwell in gardens, companions are attentive to your voice, let Me hear your voice” (Shir Hashirim B: 13): Although Israelites are occupied in their work, they come to the bais hamidrash and recite “Krias Shema, “approach the bima and read the Torah.

G-d says to them, “My children, raise your voices so the ‘companions may hear!'” -“companions” refers only to the malachei hashareis (ministering angels) … “Pay heed that you should not hate one another, nor be envious of one another, nor compete with one another, nor inflict shame upon one another, so the malachim should not say before Me: ‘Ribbono she/ Olam, Israel does not study the Torah You gave them; moreover, they engage in strife, envy, hatred, and rivalry-and yet You sustain them in peace!'” (How then should one recite “Krias Shema,” so as to ward off this complaint? And how should one accept Kabba/as 01 Maleh us Shomayim? ln keeping with G-d’s instructions: “Take heed that you should be totally free of even a grain of hatred and envy, so the malachim will be without complaints against you-for they maintain peace.”)

(The Midrash continues:) When Israel enter the shuls and recite Shema, each man directing his thought in unison with his companions, united in voice and in attitude. (This is the genuine Kabbolas 01 Malchus Shomayim, which is only possible under the conditions of “And Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain” at Sinai-“encamped-vayichan,” in the singular, to say that the entire people were united as one. Had Israel maintained this spirit of unity beyond that moment preparatory to receiving the Torah, they would have been worthy of receiving the Torah in a direct, face-to-face encounter with G-d, as did MosheRabbeinu.-See Meshech Chochma)

When Jews recite the Shema united in voice and in mind, G-d says to them, “You who dwell in gardens, when you recite the Shema (in the manner) of companions, I and My hosts are attentive to your voices, let Me hear your voice.” But when Israel recites the Shema distractedly-one advancing, another trailing behind-(not only are they faulted for lacking unity, but for simply not moving together-similar to a malach that is immediately consumed by holy fire should he happen to anticipate his Shira, his Kabba/as 01 Malchus Shomayim, and sing in advance of his fellows-Chagiga 13b, see Tosafos . … When the Jews do not coordinate their thoughts with one another as they say the “Krias Shema,” then the Divine spirit cries out and says, Abandon this way. Instead:) “Flee My beloved, be like a gazelle, ke’tzvi (which implies being like the heavenly hosts), ke’tzva Hashomayim that emulate Your glory, singing with one voice in one melody.”

In what ways can the heavenly hosts be compared to K’vod Shomayim, the Divine Glory? They express themselves in one voice, with one melody. That is the model for Kial Yisroel to emulate. Gathered as we are to proclaim the acceptance of 01 Malchus Shomayim, let us do so in a manner that will inspire the rest of Kial Yisroel to join us “united in voice and in attitude, and with one melody” -joining our voices with the voices of all generations. May this unity serve to bring near the true redemption, speedily in our days.

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