- Rabbi Yechiel Morris
- Duration: 32 min
Yom Kippur Drasha - 5780-A Year to be Proud of and to Build Upon
"5780: A Year to be Proud of and to Build Upon"
It was one of the most momentous and consequential meetings ever held in the United States.
Famed presidential biographer, Ron Chernow, has called it, “perhaps the most monumental meal in American history.”
The participants of the June 1790 dinner included Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
It resulted in an agreement that the nation's future capital be located near the southern state of Virginia along the Potomac river.
That, however, was not the most significant outcome to emerge from the meeting.
Rather, a consensus emerged to support Hamilton's assumption plan. It called for the Federal Government to take over and fund the debt that states had incurred to pay for the American Revolution. The plan would also lead to the establishment of a national bank which would forever solidify and empower the Federal Government.
The plan's outcome was not at all a foregone conclusion.
Jefferson had significant reservations, and Madison was vehemently opposed to it.
They feared that by the newly formed Federal Government assuming the outstanding debt of several individual states, most of whom were northern States, it would embolden speculators and hurt individual holders of securities.
Secondly, Jefferson and Madison argued that assumption punished fiscally responsible southern states, such as their home state of Virginia, that had already settled their debts.
Lastly, and this was their greatest concern, that by amassing such debt, the Federal Government would now need to levy significant federal taxes. As Jefferson and Madison were forever leery of a return to a form of monarchy, they argued that such broad taxation authority would give the Federal Government too much power and control over the lives of states and individual citizens.
Hamilton, however, argued that the plan was necessary in order to create and solidify a national financial system that would establish the fiscal footing necessary to guarantee the survival of a strong and unified Federal Government.
Three weeks prior to the fateful dinner, Madison, as the House floor leader of Congress, was successful in leading the House of Representatives to reject, by three votes, the assumption proposal.
On Monday, June 19, 1790 a despondent Hamilton bumped into Jefferson just outside the home of President George Washington in New York City. Hamilton, the Secretary of the Treasury, pressed Jefferson, the Secretary of State, to assist him with the assumption issue. Without a solution Hamilton believed the entire Union was at risk of collapse.
Jefferson, with all his concerns, also understood the value and need for assumption. What's more, establishing and preserving the nation was what he had worked so hard for prior and following his drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson therefore invited Hamilton and Madison to a dinner the following night to try to work out a compromise. To pave the way toward gaining support for assumption, Hamilton conceded to forgo his opposition to relocating the national capital from his hometown of New York City. They agreed it would temporarily relocate to Philadelphia and then, in due time, move permanently south to a new location on the Potomac River.
In return, Madison agreed to drop his opposition to assumption.
Less than a month later, on July 10, 1790 the House approved the Residence Act, designating the Potomac site as the future national capital. Two weeks later, on July 26, the House narrowly passed the Assumption bill.
On the surface, it was a wonderful moment for Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison. Although they were deeply divided politically and philosophically, they nonetheless worked together to compromise for the betterment of the country.
Looking back at it, most historians argue that Hamilton got the better of the deal. Jefferson himself, later told Washington, “I was duped into it by the Secretary of the Treasury and made a tool for forwarding his schemes, not then sufficiently understood by me, and of all the errors of my political life this has occasioned me the deepest regret.”
In addition, Jefferson argued that Hamilton's push for assumption, led the country to being divided into two political parties, one the Federalists, or as Jefferson termed them the “Monarchists,” and the other, “the virtuous Republicans.”
What I found fascinating while reading about this episode in Ron Chernow's 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, and Jon Meacham's 2012 biography of Thomas Jefferson, is how each biographer characterized and commented on this deal.
Meachem praises Jefferson for his capacity to compromise. In addition, he argues that Jefferson was not “reflexively opposed to assumption” unlike some of his fellow Virginians, such as Madison. Strikingly, Meachem makes no mention of Jefferson's later admittance to Washington that he was duped by Hamilton. In his concluding remarks on this momentous decision, Meachem simply writes, “Jefferson had struck the deal he could strike, and for the moment, America was the stronger for it.”
Chernow, on the other hand, goes out of his way to demonstrate that Hamilton outwitted and outmaneuvered Jefferson. After presenting Jefferson's subsequent regret and remorse over the episode, Chernow concludes, “While Jefferson understood the plan at the time better than he admitted, he probably did not see as clearly as Hamilton that the scheme created an unshakable foundation for federal power in America. The Federal Government had captured forever the bulk of American taxing power. In comparison, the location of the national capital seemed a secondary matter. It wasn't that Jefferson had been duped by Hamilton; Hamilton had explained his views at dizzying length. It was simply that he had been outsmarted by Hamilton, who had embedded an enduring political system in the details of the funding scheme.”
It was the same episode. The same compromise. The same outcome. Yet, two authors, each one writing to celebrate the wisdom and lasting contributions of their subjects, chose to interpret the event in a manner most favorable to their protagonist.
I had first read the biography of Hamilton and then subsequently read the book on Jefferson. While reading the account of this episode in Meacham's Jefferson and then noticing the discrepancy in presentation from Chernow's Hamilton, I was at first disappointed and disillusioned.
How could Chernow and Meacham portray the same account in such a divergent and dissimilar fashion? How could they interpret it so differently? How could each author positively spin it in favor of the individual that they were portraying? Who was more virtuous and victorious in this episode? Was it Jefferson who was willing to compromise and recognize what was at stake, or was it Hamilton who stealthily outfoxed and got the better of Jefferson?
Reflecting upon it at greater length, however, I realized and concluded, similar to so many other areas of life, that there are often several or even multiple ways to interpret and to understand the same event, interaction and encounter. What may appear questionable or a failure from one angle, may look something quite different when considering it from a very different vantage point.
There is a sweet Chassidic story that is told to illustrate this point.
One Yom Kippur, the holy and saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was walking to Shul. Along the way, he encountered a simple Jew who was outside his opened store and was smoking. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak gently asked the man, Don't you know that today is Yom Kippur? The Jew responded that “yes, I know that today is the holy and solemn day of Yom Kippur.” “Don't you know that we are not allowed to work on Yom Kippur.” “Yes”, came the reply. “Don't you know that we are not allowed to light a fire and smoke on Yom Kippur?” The storekeeper responded, that “yes, I am aware.” Looking and appearing quite perplexed, Reb Levi Yitzchak asked one final question, “You know it is Yom Kippur and you know these activities are forbidden, yet you have still consciously decided to engage in them?” Without hesitation, the smoking Jewish shopkeeper responded, “Yes, I have opted to smoke and keep my store open on Yom Kippur.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak then bid the man a Good Yom Tov and wished him well.
When he turned the corner and was out of sight of the shopkeeper, the saintly Reb Levi Yitzchak lifted his head Heavenward and remarked to G-d, “What a holy Jew! His honesty is remarkable!”
It is readily apparent that a major focus of Yom Kippur is to reflect upon the past year and to highlight our mistakes, failings, and transgressions. Over and over again we Klap Al Chait, we beat our chests as we recite Vidui, and confess our misdeeds. We invoke the Kohen Gadol when he came before G-d in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, when he confessed the nation's sins by declaring, Chatu, Avu, Pashu Lefanecha, “they have erred, been iniquitous and willfully sinned before You. And we cry out and declare without mincing words, Avinu Malkeinu Chatanu Lifanecha, “Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.”
The focus is clearly on the negative, the errors, and the misdeeds.
And yet, the Gemara in Messeches Shabbos (89b) relates a fascinating Aggadic teaching that reminds us that we also need to celebrate, highlight, and remind ourselves and the Ribbono Shel Olam, of our strengths, accomplishments, and successes.
The Gemara tells us that at some point in the future, G-d will awaken Avraham Avinu and share with him the disturbing and painful news that, “Banecha Chatu Lee” “that Avraham, your children have sinned against Me.”
What will be Avraham's response?
Shockingly, Avraham without mincing words, will retort, “Yemachu al Kedushas Shemecha!”
“Destroy them!” 'Obliterate them!” “For the sanctity of Your Name!”
Finding Avraham to be absolutely intolerant and indifferent to His children's plight, the Gemara then tells us that Hashem will next approach Yaakov. Certainly, our forefather Jacob, who himself experienced such pain and suffering in the raising of his children, will offer a defense of his descendants.
And yet, the Gemara relates that Yaakov will be as adamant and obstinate as his grandfather, Avraham.
“Yemachu al Kedushas Shemecha” will also be Yaakov's response.
Finally, in desperation, Hashem will approach our forefather Yitzchak.
(Why Avraham and Yaakov will both be so harsh and why Hashem initially skipped Yitzchak, we can discuss another time.)
In his response, Yitzchak Avinu will offer two points of defense.
The first is that not only are the Jewish people Yitzchak's children but they are also the Ribbono Shel Olam's, as well. After all, Hashem Himself refers to us in the Torah as “B'ni Bechori Yisrael” My son, my firstborn, Israel.” In other words, Yitzchak will challenge Hashem to view our relationship not as a King to his subjects but rather as a parent toward his or her child. A King may be harsh, demanding, and unforgiving, but parents always have it in their heart to forgive, overlook, and once again embrace their child.
In addition, the Gemara tells us that Yitzchak will contend that whatever wrongs the Jewish People may have committed, those transgressions are inevitably overshadowed by all the times the Jews did not misbehave and rebel. To reinforce this message he will invoke the verse in Tehillim (90, 10) which notes that the average person lives seventy years. The first twenty years, Yitzchak will assert, a person cannot be held responsible for most of their sins. After all, we have a tradition that the punishment of Kares, of spiritual excision, does not apply until a person reaches the age of twenty. In addition, half of the fifty years remaining, a person does not sin because they are sleeping. Of the remaining twenty-five years, half the time a person does not transgress because they are either eating, praying or are in the restroom! What emerges is that, at the most, a person can only sin for twelve and a half years of his or her life! To conclude his defense, Yitzchak will argue for the exoneration of another six and half years because on some level, You, G-d are at fault for imbuing humans with an evil inclination. And as for the remaining years, Yitzchak will argue that the Jewish people should be forgiven in his, in Yitzchak's merit, for his willingness to allow his father, Avraham to sacrifice him at the Akeida.
The crux of the argument is that yes, the Jews certainly sinned. At the same time, they are deserving of compassion and mercy based upon the fact that they are after all Hashem's children, they have the merit of Yitzchak's earlier self-sacrifice, and that in the big picture, most of the time they were not egregious and wicked in their actions and behavior.
We may have faults. We may have made mistakes. We may have sinned.
At times we were certainly indifferent, careless and reckless in our actions, words, deeds and behaviors.
We had moments when we were not as meticulous and devout as we should have been.
And from time to time, we neglected our responsibilities and demonstrated a lack of commitment and love toward Hashem and toward one another.
Similarly, even Jefferson and Hamilton who, each in their own way, literally shaped and molded this nation, nonetheless had their significant moments of moral failings and questionable behaviors.
And yet, when looking at the big picture, Jefferson and Hamilton, as well as all of us, have many more meritorious actions and behaviors that we can and should be proud of.
Looking back at this year especially, we each have a long list of achievements and merits that we can and should point to as we stand before G-d on this Yom Kippur.
Did we not each reach out to our neighbours, friends, relatives and members of our community to offer assistance and support during the long lockdown earlier this year? Did we not call one another and stop by to check on each other? What about all the shopping we did to assist those who were unable to leave their homes? What about the food and financial donations we gave to those in need and the appreciation meals that we delivered to our medical professionals?
Although we couldn't gather together for Minyan, did we not still make it a priority to Daven by ourselves, with sincerity and devotion, in our private homes? Didn't we still turn to Hashem and request his compassion, kindness and intervention?
Although making Pesach was so challenging this past year, did we not still rise to the occasion and clean our homes, sell our Chametz, and prepare special dishes (with lots of well sought after but duly acquired eggs!)
When our family and guests had no choice but to cancel their Pesach visits, and we were left with an excess of food and supplies, did we not rush to donate those items to others in need and in short supply?
What about our Sedarim? Some of us had our children home, but no other family members could join us. Some sat at a quiet table only with their spouse, and some literally were all alone. No one else was in the house! Ribbono Shel Olam, they had to ask the questions of Mah Nishtana to themselves! But they did it! They and all of us made the most out of what was presented to us. We still studied the Haggadah, we still performed the Mitzvos, and we still sang the songs of praises!
When our schools were closed, our children transitioned to Zoom and a variety of other technological platforms where they did the best that they could. With great resilience and determination they continued to learn Torah and engage in their studies. It wasn't easy. For many it was extremely difficult and challenging. But they kept at it! They didn't give up!
And what about the precious and devoted parents? They have had to juggle working at home while their children were all around them requiring (and demanding!) assistance, guidance, and attention. What's more, some parents had to give up their jobs so that they could stay home to watch their children and assist them with their studies. Remarkably, parents continued to make significant tuition payments to our Day Schools and Yeshivas even though the teaching and the allotted time was certainly diminished and compromised. The parents understood that their children, no matter what, had to continue to receive a Torah education. Parents recognized that they had to keep the schools going so that the schools would still exist when things finally, G-d willing, would quiet down.
What about all the Tzedakah that has been generously and admirably contributed and was subsequently distributed to assist families where one or both spouses have been laid off, placed on furlough or have had their wages reduced?
What about all the Simchas that were significantly impacted this past year? Remarkably and meritoriously the families and Baalei Simcha still made their best effort to reimagine how to safely celebrate and mark the occasion. The size of the guest lists, the locations, and all the trappings were significantly altered, but so many still figured out a way to be B'Simcha and honor the momentous occasion.
And lastly, Hakados Baruch Hu, we beseech You to recall the commitment and the love we have demonstrated to learning and studying Your Torah. On the heels of a most wondrous celebration this past January 1, marking the completion of the seven and a half year Daf Yomi cycle, so many more Jews signed up to join a Daf Yomi Shiur. And then came the Pandemic! But instead of closing their Gemaras, the Lomdie Hadaf, the learners of the daily page of Gemara, turned to Zoom, called in on conference calls, downloaded on the computer, and opened up and delved into their Gemaras to keep the learning and the momentum going! Torah websites such as YUTorah.org, TorahAnytime and so many others saw an average of a three hundred percent increase in traffic and usage. Technological platforms such as WhatsApp, Youtube, and so many others were used to share, disseminate and participate in a multitude of traditional and creative Torah study engagements.
Mee Ke'amcha Yisrael?
Who is like you, O Israel?
We may have had our failings. We may have occasionally disappointed You, Hashem. We undoubtedly made some mistakes and acted counter to Your expectations and dictates.
But, Ribbobo Shel Olam, from Your Heavenly Abode, please look down and recall how we, to our everlasting credit, rose to the occasion.
How we turned to You instead of away from You.
How we embraced You instead of rejected You.
How we assisted and uplifted Your children rather than ignored and paid no or little attention to them.
If Chernow and Meacham could find ways to celebrate Hamilton and Jefferson and minimize their failings, then certainly You, Hashem, Avinu Sh'Bashamayim, our Father in Heaven, can overlook our transgressions and celebrate, highlight and invoke our glorious and wondrous deeds, devotion, and dedication.
After all, the famed 18th century sage Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, in the fourth chapter of his Mesilas Yesahrim, powerfully suggests that this is ultimately what Teshuva is all about.
Yes, Chatanu, we have sinned and yes, we must confess and correct our mistakes. But most importantly, we are challenged to continue and to strengthen our good deeds. The Ramchal argues that Hashem does not forget and ignore our failings. Rather, Hashem makes the strategic decision to give us more time. Based on our past successes and our sincere desire to improve and continue to grow religiously and spiritually, Hashem offers us another year and another chance to live up to and demonstrate our potential.
After all that we have been through this past year and after all that we have achieved and exhibited, we should look forward to the opportunity to beseech and entreat Hashem this Yom Kippur.
This past year we stepped up when we could have fallen down.
Similar to Hamilton, Jefferson and Madison, we came together even though we had every reason to fall apart.
In the legacy of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, we have the capacity to highlight and bring out our strengths and devotion while minimizing our frailty and fragility.
Mimicking our forefather Yitzchak, we recognized that we are all G-d's children, even though we were unable, as a family, to be physically present for one another.
This is our legacy of this past year.
This is how we hope to be considered and examined before the Heavenly throne on this most solemn and holy Day of Atonement.
Let us recall that it was the late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Z'L, when once asked how she would like to be remembered, she humbly stated, “as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair the tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has…”
This year, I believe, we all used our talents to the best of our ability to help wipe away the tears of so many people in our society. We all demonstrated, each in our own way, our devotion to our fellow human being and to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
We all have much to be proud of.
We all have much to build upon.
When we recite Yizkor, our parents, of blessed memory, will undoubtedly be Shepping nachas and encouraging us to continue marching forward along the same path.
When we stand before Hashem during this most solemn and holy day, the One Above most certainly will be pleased with our deeds and justifiably anticipate our continued positivity, commitment, and devotion.
Adina joins me in wishing that we may all be blessed, through our Teshuva, Tefilla and Tzedakah, with a new year of health, success, wisdom, joy, meaning, spiritual growth, fulfillment, peace and have all of our dreams and prayers answered, L'Tova for good, Lanu, for us, U'l'chol Yisrael, and for all of Israel.
Gmar Chasima Tova!