Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

A Force As Strong As Stone

Parshas Vayeitzei, Rav Moshe Shapiro once remarked, is a parsha “filled with stones.” It opens with the account of Yaakov Avinu's first rest in fourteen years, as the stones he selected negotiated with each other for the right to serve the tzaddik. The single stone they became was turned into a matzeivah, enduring testimony to the awesomeness of the place. As the parsha continues, Yaakov journeys on, using every bit of strength to lift the weighty stone from atop the well, allowing the shepherds and their sheep to drink. The parsha closes with Yaakov Avinu facing Lavan, with a collection of stones between them. The pile would serve as a monument, an agreement of sorts between two men representing two different worlds. The stone symbolizes strength, firmness and solidity in aparsha where those traits were necessary for our father's survival in the face of much opposition and forces determined to destroy him.

The word even, stone, is explained (Rashi, Vayechi, 49:24) as a fusion of av and ben, the strength of the relationship between father and son hinted at in the stone’s power. It is fitting that a parsha that connects the avos to their bonim – the shevotim – is filled with stones.


Each word and each nuance in this parsha, describing the very beginning of our nation, is significant and deserves close scrutiny. The story of the stones battling for the right to protect and shelter Yaakov Avinu is filled with meaning.


The Ramban, quoting Pirkei D’Rav Eliezer, writes that the twelve stones were gathered from the mizbeiach that Avrohom had constructed for the Akeidah.Rashi quotes the Medrash which states that the stones fought each other for the right to have the tzaddik rest his holy, tired, head upon it. The Medrash Rabbah adds that it was when the stones resolved their quarrel, agreeing to join as one, that Yaakov Avinu rejoiced with the realization that he would be the one to spawn the holy shevotim, twelve sons who would join into one eternal unit, Klal Yisroel.


The greatness of those shevotim, like the stones, is that twelve different paths and ideas, each with its unique gifts, fused into one, committed to unity, while not forfeiting their individuality.


When Yaakov saw the achdus of the stones, he understood that he would merit sons who, despite their differences, would behold the ability and potential to become one.


The greatness of our people is not only that there are twelve shevotim, though it is part of our inherent greatness to acknowledge that there are twelve distinct derochim in avodah. Yaakov knew that he was going to be the father of the shevotim when he saw that they were able to end their dispute and work together, each one compromising and joining with the others as one.


It was then that he had the dream and saw the malochim and received the Divine blessing. For only when there is achdus can we merit such things. It was when he had that realization that he was able to dream of our destiny, the angels hinting at our rise, fall and eventual climb back up.


It is this lesson that we take with us from the parsha, and it is as true today as it was back then. Together, we can achieve and effect change. Separate, we are irrelevant and weak.


It is like that on an individual level, too. Man is comprised of diverse parts, and he is charged with leading them together to bring glory to his Creator – “kol atzmosai tomarna” – as one united entity. The yeitzer hara seeks to introducepeirud,division and discordance, to break down communication within man, so that he has no clear direction.


Nothing is more damaging than peirud, the greatest obstacle to communal effectiveness.


We have been in golus for so long that we are worn down, broken by cheit and suffering. It seems as if we have lost the ability to respect and work along with those who disagree with us, even though they are our brothers.


We know that the geulah depends on the relationship between Yidden, as Moshe Rabbeinu commented when he realized that the incident with him and the Mitzri had become common knowledge. If there is evil speech amongst you, he remarked, I know why you have not yet been redeemed.


Perhaps we can understand the depth of the concept by recognizing that lashon hara is borne of jealousy and pettiness. If we rise above envy and resentment and accept and reach out to others, loving every Jew, then we prove ourselves ready to become one stone, twelve shevotim living b’achdus and worthy of geulah.


Distinct, yet together.


When the winds of war grew stronger in Poland of 1939, the gadol hador, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, brought many European yeshivos to his hometown of Vilna, funding their survival. He found a bais medrash for each, taking responsibility for feeding the bochurim.


At the time, there were people who thought it would be more practical to create one large yeshiva, rather than several small ones. Rav Chaim Ozer, father of the olam hayeshivos, disagreed with the plan. He explained that Klal Yisroel needs a Mir and a Novardok and a Stolin and a Lubavitch and each of the many streams that form the mosaic of our nation. Fusing them into one, he said, would dull their magnificent stripes and colors.


Dovid Hamelech asks, “Pischu li sha’arei tzedek, avo vom odeh Kah. Zeh hasha’ar laHashem… – Open up for me the gates of righteousness… This is the gate of Hashem.” Dovid is asking that the gates of righteousness be opened for him. Shouldn’t he then continue with “Eilu hashe’arim laHashemThese are the gates,” in plural? Why does he refer to many “sha’arei tzedekand then point to one and say, “Zeh, this, is the sha’ar laHashem”?


Commentators explain that Dovid Hamelech is teaching that there are different paths to Hashem, each holy and each precious. Every person has to find the path that is right for his neshamah, and whichever it is, zeh hasha’ar laHashem, that is the correct one for him.Zeh, the seforim point out, has a gematria of 12, hinting to the twelve sons who first taught us this lesson of many paths leading to one goal.


In fact, pertaining to the various customs regarding the recitation of piyutim in tefillah, the Mogein Avrohom (Orach Chaim 68) states as halacha lema’aseh that there are 12 gates in Heaven, corresponding to the 12 shevotim, and each shevet has its own gate and minhagim from which they should not deviate.


Back in the days of the British Mandate, the ruling British officers conducted a survey in Yerushalayim, asking its Jewish residents if their language of choice was Yiddish or Hebrew. It was a loaded question, pitting the Hebrew-speakers in the Zionist camp against the Yerushalayimer Yidden of the old yishuv, who wouldn’t speak the modern language of Ben Yehudah.


A British officer showed up at the home of the Yerushalayimer rov, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, to ask him his language of choice. “Hebrew,” smiled Rav Yosef Chaim to the astonished official.


When he left, Rav Yosef Chaim’s talmidim asked him about his seemingly strange answer. “Voss iz tzuvishen mir un mein brider, what’s between me and my brother, iz nisht der gesheft fun der sheigetz, is none of his business. It’s between us.”


There are so many different paths. There are the paths of Yehudah and Yosef, and the paths of Yissochor and Zevulun.


Yaakov Avinu perceived this, and he asked his sons to gather around his bed before his passing, as Rav Dovid Cohen, the Chevronerrosh yeshiva, explains in a new sefer of his maamarim on Sefer Bereishis and Sefer Shemos.


Hei’asfu – Gather together,” Yaakov requested of them, since that is the prime condition for hashro’as haShechinah and the ultimate geulah. Gather around me and I will tell you what will transpire at the end of days. But the Shechinah left him and he wasn’t able to foretell the day of the redemption.


Rav Cohen explains that when Yaakov felt the Shechinah leaving him, he concluded that there must be peirud, dissonance, among his sons, for strife drives away the Shechinah.


In this light, we can comprehend the response of the shevotim:Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. Kesheim she’ein b’libcha elah echod, kach ein b’leibeinu elah echod. Just as you only have One in your heart, so too, in our hearts there is One.” They were mechadeish that even under different exteriors, with different functions in His Kingdom; they were still one, with a common goal. As the Mahral [Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha’avodah 7] expounds, just as Yaakov was one, with one heart because he was one person, so too the shevotim proclaimed that they would join together until they would become united as one.


Last week, I was privileged to visit Montreal for a rally in support of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. The askonim arranging the event were rushed, hoping that it would take place before the snow began. In Montreal, that’s working against the clock. Sure enough, the season’s first snowfall came the morning of the event, just in time to make it difficult to get around and to provide another reason for people looking for excuses to stay home.


Our friends in Montreal tell me that they never experienced such an event and such an outpouring of compassion, concern and love. It was a collective shout of: “Reb Sholom Mordechai, we are with you!”


Spearheaded by a group of askonim from Satmar, Belz, Lubavitch, Skver, Vizhnitz and the yeshiva community, the event drew multitudes of Yidden, representing the many beautifulkehillos that make up that city.


Chassidim, Litvaks and Sefardim came out en masse for the Lubavitcher chossid from Iowa.


Looking around at the overflowing crowd, we saw what makes us great. I witnessed the beauty of Am Yisroel.


People have a tendency to point out flaws and to find faults with this or that system or approach. Events like the one in Montreal last week demonstrate that we have many struggles, but shechorah ani venava, the enduring, untarnished beauty of a nation shines through on a cold winter night, when they come to shed a tear and give a dollar for another Yid.


The headlines, the haters, the cynics and the scoffers can sometimes make us believe negative things about ourselves. Last week, I heard the resounding answer of the gathered Yidden, with virtually each of the twelveshevotim represented. They said, “We don’t care whatnusach he davens. We don’t care what kind of hat he wears or if he wears a hat at all. Ess achai anochi mevakeish.


One of the great modern-day paragons of ahavas Yisroel was Rabbi Naftali Neuberger, the late menahel of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He recognized the danger that Iranian Jewry was facing before others did, and he traveled to that hostile country to lay the groundwork for the community’s emigration. Then he opened wide the doors to his yeshiva, welcoming the influx of students and meeting their every need.


However, as an Iranian alumnus of Ner Yisroel recalled, Rabbi Neuberger insisted that the newcomers maintain their precious, sacred mesorah, which stretched back many centuries. He established a separate minyan for them, so they could adhere to their minhagim in tefillah. In time, they acclimated to the yeshiva, learned English, were able to follow the shiurim, and adapt socially and academically – but as proud bearers of their distinct tradition.


But that wasn’t the only thing that made Rabbi Neuberger’s method unique


“One Shabbos morning,” recalls the alumnus, “we were davening at our Iranian minyan, and I noticed Rabbi Neuberger himself slip in during davening andstand inconspicuously in a corner.”


The talmid asked Rabbi Neuberger why he was there. Rabbi Neuberger explained that he wanted to take advantage of the fact that at the Iranian minyan, they recited Birkas Kohanim.


“But we understood what he was really saying: ‘I respect your minhagim. I want you to maintain your mesorah, and here I am, a German-born talmid of the Mir, soaking in your brachos,’” said the talmid.


The brachos of an agudah achas.


The posuk we previously quoted from Parshas Vayechi states, “Hei’asfu v’agida lochem,” Yaakov Avinu called together the shevotim and wanted to reveal to them what would transpire at the end of days. The Medrash Rabbah (Bereishis 98:2) says that if the Bnei Yisroel will join together as an agudah achas, they will thereby have prepared themselves for the final redemption, the geulah b’acharis hayomim.


After the Montreal event, a Yid stopped me and grasped my hands. He seemed a relic of a bygone time. On his head, he sported a well-worn fur hat to protect against the cold. His flowing gray beard was streaked with red, his face crisscrossed with lines. He possessed a quiet dignity that hinted at past suffering, and he seemed to be having trouble expressing what was on his mind. I looked at him and took in the picture. I was wondering why he wasn’t speaking. He had approached me and was then quiet. So I looked him in the eye and it was then that I noticed why he wasn’t speaking.


His eyes were filled with tears.


He was so overcome that he couldn’t speak.


He was sad, but happy. He was feeling the pain of golus, but also the light of redemption.


“Thank you for letting us be a part… a part of this,” he mustered.


What he was saying, this old-world Europeiyishe Satmar Yid, was, in essence, what the shevotim told their father.


He wasn’t thanking me, or the askanim, or even Reb Sholom Mordechai, the catalyst for this remarkable show of achdus.


He was echoing the words of the shevotim around Yaakov Avinu’s bed.


“We are all one. Ein belibeinu elah Echad.


He was saying thank you to the Ribbono Shel Olam for letting him be part of a nation joined by a force as strong as stone – those stones, way back at the beginning of Yaakov Avinu’s journey.


He was saying we are b’achdus, we are prepared for the geulah. May it arrive speedily. Amen.




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