To commemorate the 25th yahrzeit of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills featured a scholar-in-residence lecture by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. The lecture took place on Sunday evening, July 29, at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, rav of the Young Israel, greeted the large crowd and introduced the program. Next, Mr. Stuart Verstandig, Chairman of the shul’s Adult Education Program, introduced Rabbi Rakeffet.
The title of his lecture was: “Fate and Destiny from Churban to Binyan: Rabbi Soloveitchik on Personal and National Redemption.” He began with a question posed by the Rav: Why do we need two covenants? We have the covenant of the forefathers and the covenant with Moshe Rabbeinu. The Rav answers that there are two different levels to being a Jew. On the first level, you are an individual with your personal relationship with G-d. This is the covenant of the Avos. The second covenant is that we are a nation, and this is the covenant of Moshe Rabbeinu. “We have a dual responsibility. Live as an individual Jew, but as part of am Yisrael.” Rabbi Rakeffet taught, “If a Jew is bleeding in Siberia, we should be hurting in Kew Gardens Hills.”
He shared a chilling story that illustrates this point, about a soldier in World War I who shot a German soldier, and he heard that soldier scream, “Sh’ma Yisrael.” The soldier who killed this man was so distraught that he had killed a fellow Jew, that he then took his own life.
Rabbi Rakeffet noted that the second covenant begins at the end of the Seder on Pesach night, when each Jew ate a k’zayis of the korban Pesach during the time of the Beis HaMikdash. Hundreds of Jews shared a korban Pesach, and he explained that this act prepares the Jewish people for being there for one another.
He spoke about a group of Jews in Damour, Lebanon, who were trapped during the Lebanon War and the Israeli Army rescued them. Jews are there for one another. “No other group has this,” he said. He added, for example, that Muslims blow themselves up with other Muslims. Not only do they not care about each other, but they murder each other. He stated, “We are not only individuals, we are am Yisrael.” With the Churban HaBayis, this is what we lost. He shared, “The concept of cohesiveness is basic to our existence. When the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we went into galus, we lost cohesiveness. We are just individuals.”
He noted how Napoleon in 1807 asked Jewish leaders, “Are you going to become French or will you maintain Jewish cohesiveness. Will you accept French laws? Who are you? Is Judaism a private matter or will it interfere with your integration into French society?”
Rabbi Rakeffet went on to share wonderful examples of Jewish cohesiveness today. He stated, “Visit Moscow and see the miracle that happened in our time. It’s the greatest miracle since the establishment of the State of Israel.” He said, “Millions of Jews have come back to Judaism.” He pointed out that what is happening in Israel today is magnificent. There are more people learning Torah in Israel than ever in the history of the Jewish people!
He stated, “Today you can be chareidi and be part of building Eretz Yisrael!” He noted that of the 15 justices on the Israeli Supreme Court, five of them are shomrei mitzvos. There are women judges who wear sheitels. In high tech companies there are chareidi Jews. He stated, “The concept of brotherhood has come back.”
He shared a story about the Rav that demonstrates his love for the Jewish people and the importance of being there for one another. There was a man who was anti-Zionist and asked the Rav for tz’dakah. The Rav gave him a large amount of money. People asked the Rav how he could do this, since the man was so virulently anti-Zionist. The Rav said that the man is shomer Shabbos and that is enough reason to give him tz’dakah. In fact, that man’s grandson became the head of ZAKA in Israel.
At the end of the lecture, the audience was shown Rabbi Rakeffet’s impressive list of scholarly books, and they were able to purchase books whose proceeds go to benefit Shvut Ami, an organization that helps Russian immigrants to Israel and helps to stop assimilation.
By Susie Garber