This past week, on the 23rd of Elul, we marked the 23rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Horowitz, the Potoker Rav. Born in the Ukraine, Rabbi Horowitz miraculously survived the Holocaust, hiding for 18 months in the forest and experiencing many near-death encounters. During his years of flight, he amazingly learned seven pages of Talmud every day!
The Potoker Rav settled in the Lower East Side, where he was renowned for his Talmudic erudition and his skills in homiletics. Interestingly, although he was not affiliated with the religious Zionist movement, the Potoker recited Hallel on Yom HaAtzma’ut. Having survived the inferno of Europe, the Potoker Rav apparently had a particular appreciation for the State of Israel.
Rabbi Horowitz’s Sefer on Parshat HaShavua — “Beit Aharon” — is a beautiful source of short yet profound Torah insights. I share one such insight both as a memorial to him as well as for the lesson it contains:
Parshat Nitzavim tells us that “this Mitzvah is very close to you. The ability for you to perform it is in your mouth and your heart.” Asks the Potoker: “Performance” implies some sort of action. We would expect “performance” to be something one carries out with his hands. Yet, the verse speaks of “performing” with one’s mouth and heart. What is meant by this?
The commentaries point out that, in reality, it is impossible for one to truly carry out all 613 mitzvot. Some mitzvot apply only to Kohanim; others only to Yisraelim. No one person can carry out all 613. There are only two senses in which a single individual can “perform” all the Mitzvot. He can study the laws pertaining to the Mitzvot; he is then considered to have carried them out. Alternatively, he can vicariously carry out the 613 mitzvot by viewing himself as part of the Jewish people as a whole. Collectively, we can perform all the mitzvot, even if we cannot do so individually.
Explains the Potoker: This is the meaning of the verse. Indeed, the ability to perform all the mitzvot is “very close” …. if we choose to properly use our mouths — through study of mitzvot — and our hearts — by loving every Jew and bonding with them so as to become truly part of one great collective. Once we feel that bond with every Jew, their mitzvot become our mitzvot, and we can collectively perform the Torah in its entirety.
One of the distinguishing aspects of Religious Zionism is its emphasis on “performance,” or activism. As Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the new president of Yeshiva University, put it in his investiture speech this past Sunday: Religious Zionism — the “Torat Tziyon” — views us as not merely witnesses to a momentous moment in our history, but as shapers and builders of that history. The Potoker reminds us that activism — “performance” — needs to be linked to our “mouths” — a commitment to the study of Torah in all its depth and profundity — and our “hearts” — a heartfelt love for our fellow Jews and a desire to view ourselves, whatever our differences, as one collective nation.
As we enter into the new year of 5778, may we merit to “perform” great things, animated by our “mouths” and our “hearts.”