I was asked recently what I would speak about if I knew that it was my last speech. I hope that was a merely theoretical question for the one asking, and I pray that it will remain so for many years to come.
Other than being a bit unnerved by the question, my first reaction was that by the time one gets to the last speech, it will be pretty much useless. The likely audience for such a speech, if it gets made at all, is one's children and the generations after them, if one is blessed. And for them, speeches are likely to be of little avail. Either one's conduct over the course of his or her lifetime has served to transmit one's guiding principles and lessons to one's progeny or it has not. But no words at that point can ever overcome the impact of one's example – either for the good or the bad.
But then I realized that the Torah takes a different view of final addresses. Ve'yechi constitutes Yaacov Avinu's valedictory to his sons, and the entirety of sefer Devarim consists of Moshe Rabbeinu's farewell address to the bnei Yisrael.
The United States would be a happier and better place were George Washington's Farewell Address still read and studied. His last will and testament, presumably written closer to his demise, and Washington's discussion of the manumission of his slaves therein, still bears scrutiny.
In our own time, more than three million people watched, Carnegie-Mellon University Professor Randy Pausch's 2008 "Last Lecture," delivered when he was still vital but knew that death was close at hand. The ability to focus clearly on the meaning and purpose of life brought by the approach of death or serious illness can indeed offer valuable insights that can be of use to others, most particularly one's own offspring. That, however, requires the real thing, not just an imaginary exercise as was proposed to me.
STILL THE QUESTION DID SET ME THINKING. And what I came to was the central message that I have absorbed over the years from Rav Moshe Schapira, may he be well: We were not brought into the world to rearrange the furniture. Every Jew is meant to be Hashem's partner in bringing Creation to its ultimate fulfillment.
(Needless to say, I speak only of what I derived from Rav Moshe. I am totally unqualified to describe the central themes of his thought, or even to call myself a talmid.)
And it is the Torah that provides each Jew with his greatest power to transform the world. As our Sages say: There is no mitzvah in the Torah that does not contain within it the power of techiyas hameisim – the revivication of the dead. Techiyas hameisim represents the end of the natural order, in which Hashem is hidden, that came into existence with the Sin of Adam, and the final revelation of Hashem. "Machazti" – I obscured Myself from the Creation through death; "V'ani erapei" – And one day I will cause that barrier to be removed and bring an end to death (Devarim 32:39).
From the time of Mattan Torah the inherent power of the Jewish people to determine the fate of Creation was established. Had the Jewish people not accepted Torah at Sinai the entire Creation would have returned to the original tohu va'vohu (formlessness).
The Torah is at once the study of a world coming into being, as Creation moves towards its final destination, and the most powerful means of bringing about that end goal. In his introduction to Milchemes Hashem, the Ramban writes that there is no such thing as a perfect proof in Torah, as there is, for instance, in geometry. There cannot be, Rav Yitzchak Hutner explains (Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 9), because the Torah deals with a new existence emerging. Perfect proofs are only possible in a static state.
In that same ma'amar, Rav Hutner points out the stark difference between Hashem's covenant with the nations of the world, and the covenant with the Jewish people. The former is imposed from without. The Noachide covenant requires no assent to come into being. True, the gentiles can decide whether to obey the seven Noachide commandments. But they are bound by those commandments regardless of their assent.
By contrast, the bris of Torah only comes into being because the Jewish people accepted the Torah and agreed to become obligated. We created the obligation. True, the consequences of non-acceptance of the Torah would have been dire. But nevertheless the obligation only exists by virtue of the active daas of the Jewish people.
The difference between the two covenants is evident from the symbols of those covenants. The symbol of the Noachide covenant, the rainbow, already existed in nature. Hashem merely pointed to it, as symbol of His promise to never again destroy the entire world, i.e., to leave the world in a static state.
The bris of Avraham differs in three crucial respects. First, it involves taking the human body in its natural state, and deliberately altering it. Unlike the rainbow, bris milah is "unnatural." Second, as active participants in the creation of the covenant, we cut our own flesh. The symbol does not remain external to us – something to which our attention is directed. Only after bris milah, is Avraham called "tam," complete or perfect. Through his action he changed himself and reached the true state for which Hashem intended him.
And finally, the promise of the bris of Avraham, the covenant of the Torah, is not that the existing world "shall not cease" and that the status quo will be preserved for all subsequent generations. Rather it is the promise of a new world coming into being, one in which Hashem's presence is no longer hidden.
RAV HUTNER VIEWS the diametrically different nature of the two covenants as emblematic of the confrontation between Greek science and the science of the Torah. The Greeks and their successors are quite capable of investigating the natural world in its static aspect, as governed by immutable laws of nature. And through observation of that world, they can even come to an awareness of the Creator: "Raise your eyes on high and see Who created these."
Greek science reveals Hashem indirectly, just as one can become aware of the existence of a light source indirectly by the ability to perceive objects in a previously dark room. The scientist who explores the laws of nature does not enter into a direct an ongoing relationship with Hashem. His wisdom is "given" to him, in the language of the blessing made on a great scientist. Once given, there is no further relationship.
The knowledge of Hashem achieved by a great talmid chacham, through the study of Torah, is direct and ongoing. It is wisdom that Hashem "shares" with him. And that wisdom is the clearest, direct apprehension of the Divine mind and of Hashem's purposes in Creation.
The Chanukah lights, and the blessing that we make on them, points to our ability to apprehend Hashem directly and not just through His actions and creations. We look directly at the lights. Our awareness of them is not based on our ability to investigate anything outside them by their light. Such use is halachically forbidden: "We have no permission to use [these lights]." By looking directly at the lights, we are reminded that our task and our privilege is to apprehend Hashem directly – "With You is the source of life; by your light may we see light" (Tehillim 36:10).
And when we do that we have the greatest possible power to bring the world ever closer to its final purpose and the victory of the "weak over the strong, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, and the righteous over the wicked."
A lichtige Chanukah