Friday, Nov 26, 2021

A Face from the Past

One man… One man is all it takes. One individual can inspire others, illuminate the world around him and impact the lives of future generations for eternity. In the Tochacha of Parshas Bechukosai, it is written: “I will not have been revolted by them, nor will I have rejected them to obliterate them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am Hashem, their G-d” (Vayikra 26:44).

Chazal darshen this posuk as referring to various generations of the future. “I will not have been revolted by them” applies to the days of Golus Bovel, when their leaders were Doniel, Chananya, Mishoel, and Azarya. “Nor will I have rejected them” refers to the period of Golus Yovon, when I established for them Shimon Hatzaddik, Chashmonai and his sons, and Matisyahu Kohein Gadol. “To obliterate them” refers to the days of Haman, when I gave them Mordechai and Esther. “To annul My covenant with them” refers to the days of Persia, when I appointed Rebbi and the Chachmei Doros. “For I am Hashem, their G-d” refers to the days of the future when no nation or tongue will rule over them (Megillah 11a).

As we approach Chanukah and focus on the times of the Yevonim, one wonders what Shimon Hatzaddik had to do with the conquest over the Syrian-Greeks. Of course, the Chashmonaim fought a valiant battle against an army that should have overwhelmed them. But Shimon Hatzaddik lived well over a hundred years before that. If so, what was his role in this miraculous victory?

In this week’s sedrah, we learn the story of Yosef and the wife of Potifar. How Yosef adamantly refused to yield to her advances. But one day, his resistance had weakened and he was about to give in to her. Suddenly, he had a vision. His father’s image appeared to him, saying that if he complied with her, he would not be worthy of having his name appear with those of his brothers on the Choshen of the Kohein Gadol. When Yosef heard this, he strengthened his resolve and he escaped from this great nisayon (Sotah 3b).

Chazal stress that he saw the visage of his father’s face. It wasn’t merely the threat of losing his standing as a building block of Klal Yisroel as signified by the removal of his name from the Choshen. It was seeing his father’s image. Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that Yosef remembered what his father represented. He recalled the personal example that he set for his beloved son with every step, with every act, with every nuance of his life. His father was the symbol of perfection. It is Yaakov’s face that is found by the Kisei Hakavod. The memory of his father’s ways gave him tremendous chizuk and he was able to make a comeback from the momentary lapse in his resolve.

The Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, related to Rav Yaakov Galinsky: “Do you want to know how I was inspired to become a masmid, to learn Torah with a bren, and to work hard to build Torah institutions? I owe it all to the rov of my hometown, Kuhl. This story is engraved in my heart forever.

“When I was a child, before my bar mitzvah, someone started a candle factory in our town. This was something of significance. It was before the advent of electricity and there were no gas lamps. The house was lit by an oil lamp with a weak wick that produced a small light. And now the appearance of candles. But who could afford them? Only the wealthy people lit them in the glass chandeliers in their salons.

“Another new innovation caused a stir. In Vilna, the Romm family was working on publishing a new edition of Shas. But again, very few people could afford it. Come Purim and the kehillah, which consisted mainly of poor people, made a great effort to acquire two boxes of candles and the newly published volume of Maseches Bava Basra with the Rif. This was meant as a present to the rov to accompany the mishloach manos sent to him by the community.”

“I was chosen to carry it all to the rov’s house for a few pennies. It was quite a load, but I managed to bring it to his house followed by the heads of the kehillah. We entered the rov’s house with a hearty “Ah freilichen Purim!” I put the goods down on the rov’s table. There was a big basket laden with cakes and fruit that could last the family for weeks. Right next to it was the Gemara and two boxes of candles.”

“The rov didn’t even look at the basket of food, pushing it to the side. He opened the boxes of candles, looked at them, and closed them. Then he picked up the Gemara and he kissed it. He opened it and turned the pages wide-eyed. Tears of joy started flowing from them.”

“He exclaimed, “Now I know what Gan Eden is. A Maseches Bava Basra…and a box of candles. What could be better?”

“Those emotional words that burst forth from his heart penetrated my heart and are engraved there forever… That is Gan Eden! That is life mei’ein Olam Haba!”

That picture of the rov helped create the astounding individual known as the Ponovezher Rov. It helped pave the way for thousands of talmidim to learn in his mosdos and become talmidei chachomim. The picture of just one man…the inspiration of just one individual.

Who was Shimon Hatzaddik and what was his contribution to the development of Klal Yisroel? He lived during the period when Yovon’s star was beginning to rise. Yovon, who once believed in mythical gods and paganism, was morphing into a nation of philosophy and science. They were becoming more progressive and they emphasized physical beauty and strength. They glorified the human body and mind. But in the process, they brought great darkness to the world. They denied the existence of anything that could not be felt by the human senses and anything that cannot be perceived by the human mind. Consequently, they denied the existence of the Borei Olam and they were most arrogant.

This way of thinking spread far and wide very quickly and it threatened to affect the Jews. But amidst this darkness, there was a relatively small pocket of kedusha in the city of Yerushalayim that was illuminated by the presence of Shimon Hatzaddik. What did he do that was so special?

Shimon Hatzaddik was among the survivors of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah. He used to say: “The world depends on three things – on Torah, on avodah, and on gemillus chassodim” (Avos 1:2). No more and no less. The world does not depend on the superpowers of the time, not on the influence of the wealthy and not on politics. Plain and simple, the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah, and gemillus chassodim. But he didn’t just say it verbally. As my rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter, explained: Hu hayah omer, it was he, his essence, the way he conducted himself, that spoke volumes. That conveyed to others that the three fundamentals, and nothing else, keep the world going. All other forces, all other interests, even the laws of nature themselves, are governed by the Torah.

This theme became obvious to all during a famous confrontation. Alexander the Great was angry at the Jews for not helping him in his war against the Persians. The Yidden, of course, were loyal to the Persians since the Purim miracle and because they helped them rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh. The Cuthim who did go up to help Alexander now gained influence with him. They instigated him to go to Yerushalayim and destroy the Bais Hamikdosh.

When Shimon Hatzaddik was notified about this, he donned the garb of the Kohein Gadol and took some of the distinguished Jews with him to greet the monarch. With torches in their hands, they march northward as Alexander and his entourage came towards the Holy City. At sunrise, they met. The moment Alexander saw Shimon Hatzaddik, he got off his chariot and bowed before him.

His men said to him, “A great ruler like his highness bows before this Jew?”

He answered, “His image appears to me in every one of my battles and he brings me victory.”

He asked the Yidden, “Why did you come here?”

They said, “Is it possible that other nations should convince you to ruin the house in which we pray for you and your kingdom never to be destroyed?”

“Who are these people?” asked the king.

“These Cuthim,” they said, “who are standing here before you!”

“They are hereby placed in your hands to do with them as you please,” declared the King.

Immediately, the Yidden pursued them and punished them. When they reached their house of worship at Har Gerizim, they destroyed it totally, plowed the earth it was on, and sowed beans on it just as they wanted to do to the Bais Hamikdosh (Yoma 69a).

What happened here? In short, Shimon Hatzaddik did not have to beg, he did not have to plead, and he did not have to bribe. His very appearance in front of Alexander caused the powerful monarch to get off his chariot and bow down to him. The king over the nation that represented the outer chochmos of nature, beauty, and physicality, the “yaft Elokim l’Yefes,” submitted himself to the essence of good, the person upon whom the Shechinah rested, the “yishkon b’ahalei Sheim.” The appearance of Shimon’s image to Alexander during his battles showed that all world events, as isolated as they may seem from Yidden, are determined by our avodah and the relationship with Hashem.

Many miracles occurred during the period of Shimon Hatzaddik. During the forty years that he was Kohein Gadol, the goral of the korban to Hashem on Yom Kippur always turned up in his right hand, a good omen for Klal Yisroel. The red string hung up on Yom Kippur always turned white, a sign of forgiveness. The western candle in the menorah was never extinguished. The fire on the mizbeiach was powerful and the kohanim never had to bring more wood. There was a blessing in the omer and the shtei halachem, and just a kezayis was very filling. After the demise of Shimon Hatzaddik, these miracles were not constant. This was a sign that during his time, the presence of the holy Shechinah was intense (Yoma 39a; based on Rav Shlomo Brevda).

The impact that this great luminary had on his people went beyond his immediate generation. His influence and his lessons were most certainly alive within the Chashmonaim, and that gave them the strength to fight for the name of Hashem to be sanctified against what at first seemed to be insurmountable odds. But even amongst those Yidden who were influenced by the so-called beauty of Yovon, deep down, beneath the surface, in gashmiyus and heresy, there still remained the residue of Shimon’s effect, a vague impression of his image as they heard from the previous generation. All they needed was a spark to ignite the pintele Yid within them, and they repented and joined the army of Yehuda HaMaccabi to fight the Yevonim.

Most of us have images of the past whose memory are a great inspiration to us – a rebbi, a parent, a zaide and a bubbe. Undoubtedly, the image of the Chofetz Chaim is very much with us today, his influence so great, perhaps even more than when he was alive. We would do well to ask ourselves from time to time how we compare to their standards. Were they to see our way of life, would they be proud? “A person is required to say: When will my deeds reach those of my forebears?” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah 35).

But there is another angle to this. Who will be the images that appear to our progeny? Who will they be able to look back to for inspiration? Are we providing that picture of inspiration to strengthen them in future generations?

One of the mashgichim in a yeshiva gedolah in Eretz Yisroel approached the elder statesman of mashgichim, Rav Meir Chodosh of Yeshivas Chevron, with a heavy heart. “I don’t have the strength to chase after my talmidim,” he complained. “I can’t argue with them constantly to grow and improve their ways. All I am left with in the end are talmidim who dislike me. What is the rebbi’s secret that endears him to his talmidim and enables him to inspire them in ahavas haTorah and in yiras Shomayim?”

Rav Meir answered, “We don’t work on talmidim at all. We work on ourselves. And what becomes part of us rubs off on the talmidim.”

Following the ways of portraits of the past and perfecting our own ways will leave an indelible impression on our children and talmidim for future generations.

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