When did the Children of Israel accept the Torah as God’s word and, based on its words, accepted as well His Covenant with them?
Certainly not at Sinai, or in the wilderness. The Torah itself offers testimony to the faithlessness of the Israelites who stood before God and proclaimed, "All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!" (See Exodus ‘4:7.)
Other parts of the Tanakh support this, as well. "We will serve none but the Lord our God, and we will obey none but Him," the Israelites declared before Joshua. (See Joshua ‘4:’4.) Yet from Joshua’s death until the reign of King Josiah of Judah, for example, Passover was never observed according to the Torah’s prescription. (See ‘ Kings ‘3:’1-‘3.) Sukkot went unmarked until the early days of the Second Temple. (See Nehemiah 8:17.) Shavuot, if observed at all in those days, goes unmentioned.
As for the Torah’s moral and ethical code, it too went ignored. Thus, Hosea says (4:1-‘): "Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel! For the Lord has a case against the inhabitants of this land, because there is no honesty and no goodness. And no obedience to God in the land…. Crime follows upon crime!"
Isaiah, too, made the point. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, For the Lord has spoken," he says: "I reared children and brought them up — and they have rebelled against Me…! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, spurned the Holy One of Israel, turned their backs [on Him]." (See Isaiah 1:’-4.)
How ironic this is. Especially in the days of Moses and even in Joshua’s day, this people saw the truth of the words before them — facts, not faith. God parted waters for them before their very eyes, not once but twice. He supplied food for them from the heavens and brought water from the rocks to slake their thirst. He even spoke to them, yet they did not believe enough to obey Him.
It was on Rosh HaShanah 33’0 and the days that followed that we accepted the Torah as God’s word and, based on its words, accepted as well His Covenant with them.
In that extraordinary month of Tishri, we became "the people of the book," literally. For the first time in human history, an entire people committed itself to the service of a god — to the service of the One True God — based on words alone. And this time, we meant what we said.
"On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it … from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Torah….
"[On Sukkot, too, he] read from the scroll of the Torah of God each day, from the first to the last day. They celebrated the festival seven days, and there was a solemn gathering on the eighth, as prescribed….
"’In view of all this, [they said finally,] we make this pledge and put it in writing…, to follow the Torah of God, given through Moses the servant of God, and to observe carefully all the commandments of the Lord, our Lord, His rules and laws." (See Nehemiah, Chapters 8-10.)
From that day to this, we, the Children of Israel, have viewed written words as sacred. Even our pledge to remain faithful was set down in writing.
So strong is our belief in "the word," that we came to revere all writings, all books. We do not revere them in the way we revere our sacred writings — and we should not — but we understand the power of the written word to inform and transform.
We do not burn books; we cherish them. When our bags were packed in anticipation of being uprooted, books were in those bags.
This, however, is the age of television and video games and instant messaging. The written word is slowly becoming pass? — a relic of simpler times.
In ’00’, a survey in Britain found that 40 percent of people never read a book. More people, in fact, had two cars than two novels, according to a BBC report of that survey.
A ‘004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts — "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America" — told a similar story, with adults aged 18 to ‘4 experiencing a 55 percent greater drop-off in reading than the total adult population.
This trend is noticeable even among Jewish youth, but it is obvious that Jewish parents are doing their utmost to guarantee that their children keep faith with the written word.
The facts speak for themselves. Throughout this newspaper’s area of circulation — Bergen and Hudson counties and parts of Passaic County — communities with substantial Jewish populations, especially observant ones, have busy public libraries. ("Observant" is not a synonym for Orthodox, although it is often used that way. There are many observant non-Orthodox Jews, as well.)
Because I live in Teaneck (and because my wife is on the board of the Friends of the Teaneck Public Library, so choosing another exemplar would be hazardous to shalom bayit), let me use it as an example of what "busy" means.
Teaneck is a community with a large Jewish population, a large percentage of which is observant. Its library, based on countywide statistics, is the most used public library in Bergen County. One of its busiest times is Friday afternoons, as Shabbat approaches, when parents, with children in tow, fill the check-out lines with piles of books in their hands.
The pull of the printed word is evident in an unusual way on the opening day each year of the three-day book sale run by the library’s Friends. That first day is always a Saturday, meaning that it is always Shabbat, when Jews should not be buying anything. And yet, when the doors open at 9 a.m. that Saturday, Jews begin to congregate, looking for books to buy. (The Friends will set books aside for Sabbath-observers to purchase on Sunday or Monday.)
I have no doubt this scene will be repeated again next weekend, June 10 to 1′, this year’s date for the annual event.
The Jewish experience is that the spoken word is not as powerful as the written one. Words spoken by God Himself on Sinai had less power than those same words assumed when read from a scroll by Ezra standing on a makeshift platform in Jerusalem.
May we always remain the people of the book.