This week’s parsha of Yisro recounts the deliverance of the Torah to our forefathers. Since receiving the Torah, it has been our guide through the centuries, providing life and light for those who follow its laws and precepts. The Torah is what makes us a nation and sets us apart from all other people in the world.
We studied the parshiyos leading up to this defining moment. We studied the Jews’ servitude in Mitzrayim, Divine makkos, deliverance from slavery, traversing the Yam Suf, war with Amaleik, and, finally, arriving at Sinai.
The experience of the makkos, the hasty escape, the panic at the Yam Suf and the intense prayer were all meant to force the Bnei Yisroel into a situation of awareness. They needed to believe the reality of Hashem’s Presence in order to receive the Torah and become the Am Hashem.
The second to last makkah was that of choshech, darkness. All of Mitzrayim was frozen in a thick, blinding darkness. The Jews were unaffected by the makkah, and wherever they went, they had light.
Chazal taught that only one-fifth of the Jewish people merited leaving Mitzrayim. The others were not deemed worthy of redemption and died while the shroud of black engulfed Mitzrayim. Those who lacked the strength of faith to maintain their belief in Hashem and remain loyal to their customs and traditions perished and never made it out.
Rishonim and Acharonim remind us that what transpired to our forefathers is a precursor of what will happen to us. “Maaseh avos siman labonim.” The trajectory of the Jews in Mitzrayim foretells what will happen to us as we approach our redemption. The Jewish people will be faced with all types of nisyonos and will be exiled to foreign countries, dispersed far and wide. We will suffer greatly until the appointed time arrives. When it does, the nations who persecuted us will be dealt with. They will be punished with various makkos and then we will be set free and redeemed.
Today, we live in the period of ikvisa deMeshicha, leading up to Moshiach’s arrival. Just as during the period leading up to the redemption from Mitzrayim, today there is also darkness all around us. One doesn’t have to be too bright or perceptive to look around at the nations of the world and see to what levels of darkness they have sunk. It is like during the time of makkas choshech. They are locked into darkness and cannot see their way around.
The problem is that during this period, we are losing a tremendous number of Jews. Those who don’t have proper faith seek to blend in with the others and have forsaken the mitzvos and customs that keep us connected to the light-emitting Torah. Sadly, they are leaving our nation, rapidly blending into the surrounding darkness, and if we don’t reach out and bring them light and life, they will be lost forever to the Jewish people.
The Ruzhiner Rebbe would say that before Moshiach comes, the Jews will be holding on tightly to a large rope. The rope will shake several times back and forth. With each swing, more people will lose their grip and fall off.
Only those who have maintained their strength, tenaciousness and steadfastness will be able to clench the rope with enough strength to hold on. It is they who will be there at the time of the redemption.
Here we are, the rope is shaking, and we are holding on for dear life.
The challenges are tough. The tests to our emunah and bitachon are great. Tzaros abound. The good suffer, the weak squabble, and that rope swings like a pendulum.
Our European brothers debate wearing yarmulkas in public, just as they did in the early 1930s. Worldwide anti-Semitism spikes to pre-World War II levels and the Jewish situation around the world is precarious. Iran is enabled to threaten the world, Europe is overrun, and Israel is surrounded by vicious enemies dedicated to its destruction. But that’s not it.
Alongside the physical threats, there are many of a spiritual nature, and not all of our brethren are up to the test.
Last week, I received a press release joyfully announcing a merger in the world of Jewish day school education. I care deeply about the cause, so I read the release with great interest. By the time I was done, I was heartbroken.
This is how it began: “We are delighted to announce that Day Schools of Reform Judaism (PARDES), The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), RAVSAK (The Jewish Community Day School Network), the Schechter Day School Network (Schechter), and the Yeshiva University School Partnership (YUSP) have all agreed to move forward towards the formation of a new, integrated North American Jewish day school organization.”
All the usual buzzwords appear: “The decision by our respective leadership to move in this direction is an affirmation of the centrality of day schools in Jewish life and reflects our dedication to seeing Jewish learning, literacy, culture and commitment flourish in a rapidly changing world. At the same time, it reflects the conviction of many in the day school community that we can all benefit from the knowledge, expertise and ideas of others, even if we express our Jewishness differently. As one organization, we can unify to strengthen day schools, the core of the Jewish educational enterprise.”
And they continue: “This new organization, which we are calling NewOrg until we finalize its name, is committed to supporting and enabling financial vitality and educational excellence in Jewish day schools, and to building and strengthening a vibrant, visible and connected Jewish day school field. By pooling the talent, expertise and resources that have been dispersed among our organizations, NewOrg will be able to offer an expanded set of programs, services and networking opportunities to benefit the more than 375 schools and close to 100,000 students one or more of us already serve, and any other schools interested in participating. In short, we are confident that NewOrg will be greater than the sum of its parts. We hope you share our enthusiasm.”
Let us review what is happening. Everyone agrees that a Jewish day school education is vital to Jewish continuity. So what is Yeshiva University, the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, doing about strengthening Jewish continuity and day school education? Is it teaming up with Torah Umesorah, the organization that literally invented day schools, founded them, staffed them and serviced them all across this country as it committed generations to Torah? Or is it teaming up with groups who have been proven a terrible failure, leading Jews away from Judaism, causing millions to disappear from our people?
The makkas choshech surrounds and engulfs us. Torah provides life and light for those who study it and cleave to it. They are Orthodox. Don’t they know that? Do they not believe it? Does anyone who cares a whit about Jews remaining Jews think that by teaming up with Reform and Conservative schools they will accomplish anything?
What has this world come to? Is there no shame anymore?
Study any poll that measures Jewish continuity and you will see how miserably the non-Orthodox are failing at keeping their children Jewish and preventing them from marrying outside the faith.
Speaking of polls, the Conservative movement itself is conducting polls. The movement’s leaders decided that they need a makeover. After all, they admit to losing a third of their members over the past twenty-five years and have doubtlessly lost many more. So as their members continue to drop out and marry out of the faith, they are looking to “rebrand.” It is the same emptiness, but with a new veneer and cuter slogans.
Take a look at what is happening to Conservative and Reform schools. They are losing kids, their schools are withering. Team up with them? Why? For what purpose?
And who is going to pay for this? The ones who will pay the ultimate price will be the children and families who are enticed into this farce, thinking that they will be getting a Jewish education that will enable them to have some light amidst the darkness and hold on to the swinging rope. They plead for a chance to bulk up and are thwarted. They ask for light and are given darkness. They seek a chance at eternity and are condemned to weakness and timidity.
The release says, “We are grateful for Avi Chai’s pledge of support to our new organization and look forward to partnering with other generous philanthropists – institutions and individuals – who are dedicated to building strength, excellence and vitality in Jewish day schools.”
Avi Chai is a private foundation financed by the late frum billionaire Zalman Chaim Bernstein, dedicated “to the perpetuation of the Jewish people and Judaism.” I wonder how much this organization has contributed to Torah Umesorah, the real day school umbrella organization, and how much it contributes to schools under the Torah Umesorah umbrella, which work towards perpetuating the Jewish people and Judaism. If this organization were loyal to its goals, why wouldn’t it study its own survey of day schools to determine who is succeeding in perpetuating Jewry and Torah and who is failing miserably? Why are they supporting this new bureaucratic group, which will likely fail to commit generations to Torah?
Why are they pouring their money into those institutions instead of the schools bursting at the seams with thousands of children, forced to study in inadequate facilities and without being able to afford the educational tools available to others?
If they care about Jewish continuity and education, why do they not support the Orthodox Day Schools across the country so they can engage in broader recruitment and kiruv?
The Forward recently wrote of an Open Orthodox rabbi who went to serve as a principal in a Conservative school. Aron Frank is referred to as a “charismatic, yet down-to-earth rabbi,” who says, “I love yiddishkeyt to death,” and is “tremendously excited about this opportunity” to be the new principal of a school that “combines academic excellence with a warm, nurturing Jewish environment.”
He spoke of his experience as a principal in a similar school in Baltimore, saying, “I enjoy this engagement because it allows me to see Judaism through different lenses.”
“Honestly,” he adds, “I don’t believe in this concept of ‘Oh no, he stopped observing shabbos, what a failure! He stopped wearing a kippah, what a failure! Married a non-Jew, what a failure!’ Of course, we’re all naturally wired to feel validation when other people do what we do, but part of our challenge is to get over that inclination.”
This is the face of Open Orthodox chinuch and Conservative chinuch imparted to Jewish children and families across the country. It is a chinuch of darkness.
There are so many proud, committed, faithful, excellent schools around the country to invest in. Why pour money into this entity, which uses the popular banner of day school education to promote a losing agenda?
The rope is shaking. Hold on tight. Don’t be impressed by claims of pluralism and open-mindedness. Know who you are and be proud of your identity. Don’t do things just because they will look good in a press release and will be funded by a do-gooder foundation.
The rope shakes. Darkness continues to fall and claims more and more of our brethren. What are we doing about it?
We can only imagine what transpired during the awful period of slavery, as tens of thousands of grandchildren of Yaakov Avinu gave up hope. They simply could not hold on to the rope any longer. Mitzrayim, with its dark and corrupt values and attitudes, had become attractive to them. They viewed Judaism as backward and constricting. And then the plague of darkness descended on the country and those poor souls slipped away into oblivion.
They died during the makkah because Hashem wanted to spare them the additional ignominy of humiliation should their tormentors witness their deaths, funerals and burials. Perhaps there was some symbolism at work here as well. During makkas choshech, those who were unable to see the light and perceive a brilliant tomorrow because they were taken in – and fooled by – the darkness were punished as well.
Reb Peretz Chein was hosting an illegal gathering of chassidim in a dark basement somewhere in Russia. They needed to be invisible to the ever-present KGB and a dark cellar was their best bet. A new member of the group arrived late. He gingerly opened the door and began climbing the long dark staircase to the basement. There was absolutely no light and the new arrival stumbled on the steps.
He called down to the others, “I’m sorry. I can’t continue. It’s too dark.” He was going to turn around and climb back to safety, when one of the chassidim called up to him softly, “Don’t worry. In a moment, you’ll get used to the darkness and you’ll be fine.”
Reb Peretz sighed. “Oy,” he said. “That is the problem of golus. Our eyes get used to the darkness and we feel as if we can see.”
That’s the makkas choshech we are living through.
The challenge isn’t just to hold on, but to realize that what appears to be light, what seems to be an illuminated approach or idea, might well be exposed as darkness when Moshiach comes and the world is flooded with true light.
We – the few, the faithful – have another task. We cannot stand idly by while our brothers stumble in the darkness. We have to somehow find a way to maintain our grasp while still pulling others close. With condemnations, we won’t win them over. We need to keep every door open, loving each and every Jew like family.
Like most other Israelis, a young secular Israeli woman had been raised to be wary and distrustful of chareidim, but to respect rabbis. Somewhat confused, the girl was unsure what to think. She decided that she had to go see the chareidim for herself. She would go to Bnei Brak and pray with the largest congregation of chareidim she could find. She traveled from Tel Aviv and the towering building of the Ponevezher Yeshiva throwing off light in the darkness, beckoned.
She was quite impressed and decided she would return. She asked the women in the ezras noshim when it would be an appropriate time to come back. They told her about the upcoming Simchas Bais Hashoeivah on Chol Hamoed Sukkos. They said that she would love it, and they were right. She made her way through the jubilant crowds and found a spot in the ezras noshim, from where she could watch the singing and dancing below in the bais medrash. She was exultantly soaking in the scene when a woman approached and spoke a single sentence.
“Here, we don’t come without socks,” the woman said before stomping off.
The girl was devastated. She felt like something precious had been torn away from her and concluded that her place was not in the chareidi world. She sadly left the building, with the singing growing quieter in the distance.
When she returned home, she decided that before she completely turned her back on the chareidim forever, she would speak to the “rabbi” of Ponevezh. After all, she had been raised to respect rabbonim. Following Yom Tov, she made inquiries and soon found herself at the apartment of Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach.
She entered to find a long line of people waiting. The attendant looked at her and, somehow, understood, admitting her ahead of the others.
She entered the room and blurted out the story before the aged gadol, telling him what had transpired in his yeshiva.
He listened to her account of the humiliation she encountered and said very little.
Finally, he spoke. “You can’t take to heart what people say. You should push that woman’s words out of your mind, forgive her, and move on. But,” the rosh yeshiva continued, “let’s talk about you. That’s what is important.”
The young secular Israeli girl and the gadol hador spoke for a while and then she left.
Today, she is a mother and wife of a strong Torah family, holding that rope so proudly.
Rav Shach, the same person who once referred to himself as a “scarecrow,” a remnant from previous generations meant to frighten off those vultures who would tamper with the authenticity of Torah, was the very same person who could successfully welcome a distant sister.
He understood the dual responsibilities imposed by darkness: With one hand, we must hold tightly. With the other, we must save those who might fall away.
We must learn from him. Those who care about Torah and the way Torah is taught and transmitted must also care about those whose grip is loosening. We must throw them a lifeline, strengthen them, and show them a path of light to follow, so that they may live.
In Eretz Yisroel, thousands of volunteers working for Lev L’Achim reach out to our brethren and seek to bring them the light of Torah in makkas choshech so that they may survive and thrive amidst the darkness and live to await the arrival of Moshiach.What about in our country? Why don’t we have that feeling of responsibility here? Why is it only yechidim who reach out to bring Jews tachas kanfei haShechinah? Where is our achrayus? What are we doing to help even strengthen frum fellow Yidden who are struggling to cling to the rope of hope and life?
At the moment of Mattan Torah, the world was still. Birds didn’t chirp and sheep didn’t bleat. It was completely silent. The Chiddushei Horim explains that this is to teach us that to absorb Torah, we must listen to its message with full attention. There are many distractions vying for our attention. We have to concentrate on hearing the sound of the bas kol that comes forth each day.
We have to ignore the chatter, the nice-sounding sound-bites and the cute sayings, and hew to the truth.
As mentioned, the period in which we live is referred to as ikvisa deMeshicha, the time preceding Moshiach’s arrival. Rav Moshe Shapiro explains the term, quoting the Gemara (Shabbos 31a) which states that the word emunah, faith, is a reference to Seder Zeraim, which includes the halachos pertaining to planting, the proper conduct vis-à-vis terumos, ma’aseros and other obligations. The farmer is “ma’amin b’chayei olam v’zoreia,” he has faith in the One who sustains creation and he plants. Why does a farmer need more faith than any other worker? Doesn’t the tailor need faith to mend clothing? Doesn’t a doctor need faith to heal people?
The seed is unique in that it decomposes in order to cause growth. Parenthetically, this sheds light on the Yom Tov of Tu B’Shevat, the day when that rebirth begins, deep beneath the earth. We see nothing, but there are stirrings of new life, the perfect example of true faith.
The farmer needs extra conviction, because there will be no yield for him without the necessary breakdown of the seed. Darkness leads to light. As Chazal say, “Leka nehora delo nofik migoy chashucha – There is no light that doesn’t first come through darkness.”
The emunah of the farmer is the emunah of our nation as we wait for the final salvation to sprout like a seed.
Like a seed that appears to have withered and died, the heel is far from the center of the body, callous and insensitive to feeling. This period, is called “ikvisa,” the heel of time. We will have to exist on faith alone, seeing and feeling nothing.
It’s the moment of utter darkness, the blackest part of night before dawn breaks. The seed appears completely destroyed, because it’s on the verge of taking root and creating new life.
Along with the hope this brings, comes great challenge.
They are much more daunting. They are ideological, threatening not just our bodies, but the very faith we need to get out of golus. Our bond to the Torah is in jeopardy.
One of the 13 ikkarim, the bedrocks of our faith, is that zos haTorah lo sehei muchlefes, our Torah is unchanging and each word is eternally relevant.
Grab hold of it and don’t let go.
A new light will soon shine forth over the world. Those who are holding onto the rope of Torah will see it. Those who didn’t fall for false promises are still clinging to it. Those who weren’t fazed by clever catchwords of the times and remained loyal and committed to the truth will be redeemed. They will survive the makkas choshech.
Let us endeavor to be among that group.