The Strength of Arguing
The Anshei Knesset HaGedolah conclude the first Mishna in Avot by teaching, “Strengthen your Torah through constant discussion.” (Chassid Ya’avetz, who does not believe that the Mishna teaches us to “Make a fence around the Torah!”)
Who were these people? The Talmud teaches: “Why were they called Men of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the divine attributes to its completeness. Moshe had said, “God, great, powerful and awesome.”
Then Yirmeyahu came and said “Nations are destroying His Temple. Where are his “awesome deeds? So he omitted the attribute “Awesome.”
Daniel came and said, “Nations are enslaving His children. Where are His mighty deeds? So he omitted the attribute “Mighty.”
But the Men of the Great Assembly came and said, “On the contrary! Therein lie His Mighty deeds that he suppresses His wrath, that He extends long patience to the wicked. Therein lies His awesomeness: For but for the fear of Him, how could one single nation persist among the many nations!” When the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah added this phrase to our Tefillah they were restoring the glory of Hashem.
There is more. When they acknowledged God’s awesomeness and might even in the most desperate of situations they were restoring that level of His Divine Providence to the world. The court of the lower world joined with God to restore a higher level of Hashgacha Pratit.
This speaks of the power of human beings to bring a higher level of Hashgacha to the world. Humans did it. Again, this is a praise of God. He granted us extraordinary power in our relationship with Him. He gave us the ability to work in partnership with Him.
Any other leader would have been devastated. The Second Temple was complete. Most of the Babylonian exiles chose to remain where they were. Jerusalem was vulnerable and under populated. Many, if not most, of the Jews who had returned from Babylon were intermarried. The Jews had chosen to remain dispersed. Judaism could not remain centered around the Temple. People were unfamiliar with prayer and blessings.
The Anshei Knesset HaGedolah chose to approach all these impossible issues with the greatest surge of creativity in Jewish History. They compiled the siddur. They formulated the blessings. They instituted the structure of Judaism as we know it.
Even Jeremiah and Daniel were forlorn, but these people saw this moment in history as an opportunity to grow. They understood the absolute demand to be deliberate. They appreciated the need to nurture new generations of students. They were clear that they were challenging all future generations of Jews to see God’s awesomeness and Power even where Jeremiah and Daniel did not.
Their concluding, most important message was to strengthen Torah through explanations. Explain why we do what we do. Discuss our reasons. Challenge people to ask, and give them answers.
They knew that this new expression of creativity would give rise to argument and debate, as we soon see in Pirkei Avot, that there were divisions of authority and opinion. They knew all this. They wanted this. What else could possibly result from nurturing independence in our students? And they saw these discussions, questions and arguments as a source of strength. These discussions would create a fortress for Torah, one that would protect its integrity and sanctity through all the generations to come.
These discussions were their strength, and they should be ours as well.
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