I have heard Rabbi Yissochor Frand שליט"א say on several occasions that when he was growing up in Seattle, they considered the Jewish community in Portland, Oregon to be a virtual עיר הנדחת. The community seemed so irredeemably lost to Torah-true Judaism that there was no hope that anything positive would come from it. Surely that was meant hyperbolically; it has been proven quite wrong, as a wonderful community has developed since the days when we had the privilege of planting some seeds. But living now as the only Shomer Shabbos family in Lavon, I contemplated whether the עיר הנדחת concept is indeed possible.
Case in point —After barely getting a minyan together last Shabbos morning (which happened only with the help of my three guests; in the summer it is more difficult as people are going on tiyulim), we sat down to a Shabbos Seudah followed by zemiros. We began singing Koh Echsof with much harmony and feeling and were thoroughly enjoying the warm kedusha of that beautiful melody, when a knock came at the door. Hassidic stories flashed through my memory of the power of Neginah to melt the hearts of those far away from observance, and we answered the door, hoping that someone had been moved to join us in enjoying the Shabbos spirit. My neighbor stood in the doorway, and we heartily wished him “Shabbat Shalom!”, ready to invite him to join us. “Shabbat is supposed to be a day of rest,” he informed us. “You’re making too much noise here – I am trying to get some sleep before my outing later today!” We apologized for disturbing his Shabbat . . . and wondered what hope there was of making a dent in this secular Yishuv.
Our greatest success is when we present ourselves as praying with and for the community, and not making our case based on our individual merits, great as they might be.
But a fascinating Rambam made me think again. He writes in regard to an עיר הנדחת, that after establishing that the city is guilty:
They send two Torah sages to warn them and to motivate them to repentance. If they repent, it is good. If they continue their wicked ways, the court commands the entire Jewish people to take up arms against them.
Hilchos Avoda Zara 4:6
Apparently, if they do Teshuva, the Court will not exercise judgment against them. The Ra’avad protests that this cannot be true:
It is certainly good if they repent, but I have not found anywhere that repentance mitigates after due warning and action
The Ra’avad argues that Teshuva can only change a judgment of the Heavenly Court. If, before sentencing, a convicted murderer says to the Court “I sincerely repent and will never again do this”, it has no effect on the sentence. The law is clear; “A human court cannot change a decree because of repentance”. (Makkos 13b). What can the Rambam possibly mean here?
Many have grappled with this Rambam, but the recent Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l explains it in a way that is important for us to absorb as we begin Elul and the season of Teshuvah. He notes (vol 9, Re’eh, essay 2) that the essential law of עיר הנדחת pertains to an entire Tzibbur (community – in this case a city) that succumbs to idolatry. This is a terrible and frightful phenomenon that must be eradicated. However, if the sin was committed only by individuals, the public effect is much lower and the pursuant consequences are far less grave. What the Rambam is saying, explains the Rebbe, is not that Teshuva takes away the guilty status – that can indeed not be undone by a human court. But Teshuvah is transformational; no longer will it be seen as a communal sin, but rather as an act committed by some (or even many) individuals. The community, Knesses Yisroel, remains intact. Although it has always been true that there are individual sinners, an עיר הנדחת “never was and never will be”, for the teshuva that surely took place by some individuals removed them from that ignoble status.
Rav Mordechai Elon drew a comparison between this and a wonderful insight by Rav Shlomo Kluger on a well-known question raised in the Yerushalmi regarding Rosh Hashana. If any of us faced a court appearance in which our lives and those of our loved ones were in jeopardy, we would be in an anxious and somber mood, not wearing festive clothing and eating celebratory meals – but that is just what we do on Rosh HaShanah. How do we hold this dichotomy in hand?
The answer brought in the Tur exclaims (text below):
We know the nature of Hashem — that he will forgive us. What does this mean, however? Is Rosh HaShana a charade? Do we not say that on Rosh Hashana it is decided who will live and who will die; who will prosper and who will suffer...? Do we not see all too often that a negative decree has descended on so many? What can Chazal possibly mean?
What a people this is
that knows the nature of her G-d!
Rav Kluger says that we should know that there are two types of judgment on Rosh Hashana; that concerning the community, and that concerning the individual (or many individuals).
Regarding individuals, there are no guarantees. We may be acquitted, or chas veshalom not. We may be in for a year of joy and happiness, or G-d forbid the reverse. Concerning that judgment, we really ought to be concerned – and it does seem to be absurd to celebrate on Rosh Hashanah.
However, there is another judgment that also comes on Rosh Hashana -- that of the fate of the community as a whole. And even though there may be many who prosecute against the Jewiswh people, both on Heaven and earth, and say that we are not deserving of His Grace, we are confident that the “Eternal One of Israel shall not be changed nor falsified”(I Samuel 15: ), and that the community and the Jewish people will be given the strength to go on to accomplish our Eternal mission. And it is thus that we take solace and comfort and confidence that whatever may happen with us as individuals, we will be found worthy as a community in G-d’s judgment. (see text of Midrash below)
Of course, in order to accomplish this, one must strive to be within the community and for the community – the whole community of Israel. We must seek to emulate the Shunamite woman, who – when asked by Elisha whether she has any personal requests – said, “I sit amongst my people”. The Holy Zohar (below) says that Elisha was specifically asking her before Rosh Hashana whether she wished that he intercede for her before the Great King. She taught us all that this is not the way – our greatest success is when we present ourselves as praying with and for the community, and not making our case based on our individual merits, great as they might be.
Here in Lavon – and in other similar communities that Ayelet HaShachar is reaching out to – it is easy to feel that the odds of reaching out to those far away are insurmountable. But as I told my almost minyan this past Shabbat, the fact that a few of us are coming together to daven and to try to form a minyan surely makes an impression in Heaven. No, we are not a “עיר הנדחת”- a totally secular community. We are the holy community of Lavon, where there are Jews observing Shabbat at some level, striving to come together to daven, who all love and respect each other as fellow Jews. And yes, there are many who do not join us, and perhaps never will. But they are respectful toward us, and we are all part of Klal Yisrael.
And in all other communities in the Jewish world as well, to the extent that we see ourselves as part of a greater whole — who love and care about each other, and who know that we all are precious brothers and sisters — we have confidence as we approach the Yom Hadin that we will be signed and sealed – as a community – for a good and hopefully sweet New Year.
Text of Tur
א"ר סימון כתיב כי מי גוי גדול וגומר ר' חנינא ור' יהושע אומרין איזו אומה כאומה זו שיודעת אופיה של אלהיה פי' מנהגיו ודיניו שמנהגו של עולם אדם שיש לו דין לובש שחורים ומתעטף שחורים ומגדל זקנו ואין חותך צפרניו לפי שאינו יודע איך יצא דינו אבל ישראל אינן כן לובשים לבנים ומתעטפים לבנים ומגלחין זקנם ומחתכין צפרניהם ואוכלין ושותין ושמחים בר"ה לפי שיודעין שהקב"ה יעשה להם נס לפיכך נוהגין לספר ולכבס בער"ה ולהרבות מנות בר"ה ומכאן תשובה למתענין בר"ה ונוהגין באשכנז שאין נפילת אפים בער"ה כמו בשאר עי"ט אף על פי שנופלין על פניהם בבקר באשמורת:טור אורח חיים הלכות ראש השנה סימן תקפא
Text of Midrash
כך בר"ה כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, אף ישראל עומדין לפניו בדין, ואומות העולם אומרים אנו זכינו ונצחנו בדין, ואין אדם יודע מי נצח, אם ישראל אם עו"א, עבר ר"ה, וכל ישראל באים ביו"כ ומתענין, ומתעטפין לבנים, עבר יו"כ ואין אדם יודע למי נמחלו עונותיו, אם לישראל אם לעובדי אלילים, כיון שהגיע יום טוב ראשון של חג, כל ישראל וצאין, הקטנים והגדולים ולולביהן בידיהם, מיד הכל יודעין שנצחו ישראל בדין,
ונמחלו עונותיהם, שנאמר נצח ישראל וגו'.
ילקוט שמעוני תהלים רמז תרע
Text of Zohar
ותא חזי שונמית כד אמר לה אלישע (מלכים ב' ד') היש לדבר לך אל המלך או אל שר הצבא, היש לדבר לך אל המלך ההוא יומא יום טוב דראש השנה הוה וההוא יומא דמלכותא דרקיעא שלטא למידן עלמא וקודשא בריך הוא אקרי מלך המשפט בההוא זמנא, ובגין כך אמר לה היש לדבר לך אל המלך, מה כתיב ותאמר בתוך עמי אנכי יושבת, מאי קאמרה לא בעינא למהוי רשימאה לעילא אלא לאעלאה רישאי בין סגיאין ולא לאפקא מכללא דלהון וכך בעי ליה לבר נש לאתכללא בכללא דסגיאין ולא לאתייחדא בלחודוי בגין דלא ישגחון עליה לאדכרא חובוי כדקאמרן,