Wednesday, Apr 17, 2024

A Nation of Spirit

Last Friday, our brothers and sisters were trapped in a Paris supermarket. Engaged in the lofty activity of preparing for Shabbos Kodesh, they found themselves under fire by a crazed Islamic terrorist. Hearts across the Jewish world skipped a beat in unison as Yishmoel sharpened his sword once again.

To be sure, the terror war is not only being waged against Jews, France, or cartoonists, but against the entire civilized world. Western governments and societies fail to perceive the obvious. The Jews of France have been emigrating in droves for several years already, but not everyone is able to leave. There are always familial and financial considerations. Jews across Europe are edgy and have one eye on the exit door.

On the same streets where Nazis rounded up Jews for deportation to death camps, today radical Muslims plot to take over France, arrondissement by arrondissement. One neighborhood at a time, striking fear and terror in country after country, jihadists are on the march across Europe. 

The Grand Synagogue of Paris, built in 1874, has been witness to many events, happy and tragic. Alfred Dreyfus, victim of a forgotten century’s anti-Semitism, was married in that shul. Nazi deportations took place in front of it. Last Shabbos, its doors were shut as authorities forced Jewish public institutions to close. On Sunday, it hosted a dramatic gathering of world leaders protesting the attacks and issuing promises that need to be monitored.

Terrorists have now realized that with a small scale attack, they can cause as profound an effect on society as a complex one that is carefully planned. French hospitality has been turned on its head and its weakness exposed. Jihadists cheer their savagery as victory.

With a relatively small attack on two locations by a few people, they grabbed the world’s attention and struck fear in the hearts of men and women everywhere. They no longer need to hijack airplanes, blow up buildings, shoot rockets, or enlist legions to carry out operations.

Terror attacks carried out by one, two or three people are easy to engineer and have been shown to achieve the same bombastic result as larger incidents.

A few individuals brought the world to paralysis and focused its attention. On Thursday, they killed twelve journalists and a police officer. On Friday, dozens of hostages were held in a kosher supermarket. Four Jews died in that attack, having gone to a kosher store for Shabbos preparations.

Jews around the world heard the news as they awoke Friday morning. As people prepared for the day that is mei’ein Olam Haba, they were confronted by the worst of olam hazeh. The dichotomy of good and evil, temporal and eternal, olam hazeh and Olam Haba, was brought clearly into focus.

There is grave anxiety in France and around the world, as people realize that there are those among them, born and raised on their soil, who despise them and their culture and are prepared to kill and die to advance their goals. Gloom and apprehension set in as millions realized the fragility of the freedoms we all take for granted. Millions turned out in the streets to express their sadness over the tragedy and concerns for the future. There is strength in numbers and a measure of comfort in the knowledge that, if nothing else, at last, the French people and the world recognize the precarious situation in which the world finds itself. 

Yet, entire neighborhoods in France are carved out as harbors for sharia compliance. Jews don’t feel safe and the government’s actions to date have not brought confidence to a beleaguered community.

France has the largest Jewish population of any European country and is home to the third largest concentration of Jews in the world. It took until 2014 for the French-government-owned railway to come to a compensation agreement with Holocaust victims in America and Israel.

It was only in 1995 that France acknowledged its role in assisting the Nazis in deporting tens of thousands of Jews. When French President Jacques Chirac declared that his country had contributed to the genocide, he finally gave validation to decades of Jewish complaints and feelings.

The French Jewish community is comprised of children of Holocaust survivors and émigrés who arrived in the country seeking protection from persecution in Arab lands. They are well aware of the precariousness of the Jewish people in golus.

Those thoughts were once again reinforced as French authorities closed Jewish stores on Friday and asked that shuls be closed on Shabbos because they could not guarantee the safety of their Jewish citizens.

It is not necessarily a French problem. It is a global problem. The Jewish experience in Europe has been one of triumph and tragedy. During the good times, people tend to forget the amount of Jewish blood that has been spilled on that continent over the past millennia of golus.

There are always different excuses and guises, and slayers carrying different colored flags and flying different slogans, but the result has always been similar. Jews have been driven from their homes, fleeing death and destruction as they escaped to yet another foreign land. Displacement is never easy and always takes a great toll.

The leaders of the West had hoped that the war against radical Islam could be ended with the use of kind words and gestures. They thought that they would succeed with their liberal ideology in engaging in compromise with jihadists on many different battlefronts. They negotiate with Iran, cut deals with the Taliban, and believe that if radicals are coddled and offered Western blessings, peace would ensue. They have not taken the rise of radical Islamists seriously enough and continue to deal with the issue as a police matter, instead of an existential concern.

They force Israel to compromise with the terrorists who seek its destruction, naively believing that accommodations can be reached with people who kill and die for the sake of hatred. The terrorists take note and are heartened by their growing power.

Jewish blood has been spilled millions of times, each occurrence spelling out the message that we are in golus. Each time, we pick ourselves up and march on. We gather the inner strength to persevere and continue our trek towards the finish line, heads held high and spirits intact.

Three simple words captivated France and the world following the attack on the cartoonist publication Charlie Hebdo: “Je suis Charlie,” “I am Charlie.” Millions of people the world over marched with signs with those simple words emblazoned upon them. At times like these, we must realize that “Je suis Juif,” or “We are all Jews.” We have to feel the pain of Jews everywhere. We must try to imagine their dread and their fear.

When we walk freely to shul on Shabbos, we should think of those who must disguise themselves so as not to attract attention to them and their religion. When we shop, we should think of those who take their lives into their hands when they purchase their Shabbos needs. No Jew is alone. No Jew should feel alone.

Je suis Juif. We are Jews, united around the world. In times of happiness and tragedy, we are together. We should resolve to never let anyone or anything divide us. Feeling solidarity with others should be paramount. We should seek to draw others close and console them. We should embrace them as they seek comfort. No one should feel forsaken, adrift or alone.

Many Jews don’t feel safe. Many are extremely worried and agitated. Many have had their breath knocked out of them. Where do we go for safety? Where do we go to get our breath back?

Let us examine this week’s parsha and hearken back to the first Jewish exile. A family consisting of seventy people came to a foreign country due to a hunger in their native land of Eretz Yisroel. They were led at the time by their grandfather, Yaakov, and his twelve sons. Things took a turn for the worse, and as the family grew, they became the subject of increasing hatred. Eventually, they were subjugated as slaves to the king and his people.

The slaves knew who they were, where they had come from, and how they had arrived in that country. They were well aware of the promises Hashem made to their forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov.

They were certainly encouraged by the fact that Hashem had promised their forebears that their grandchildren would be tormented by a foreign power and they would then be released. They knew who Moshe Rabbeinu was. They knew his yichus. They knew that he grew up in Paroh’s palace.

Incarcerated people are desperate for any glimmer of hope. They trade rumors and stories that bring succor to them and help them think that their freedom is around the corner. So, as we study this week’s parsha, we wonder why it was that when Moshe appeared and told them that the long-awaited redemption was at hand, and he expressed the four leshonos of geulah, the posuk (Shemos 6:9) states, “…velo shomu el Moshe.” They didn’t listen to Moshe.

How could these poor, suppressed people not have taken heed and comfort? 

Not only that, but in last week’s parsha of Shemos, the posuk (5:29-31) relates that Moshe and Aharon gathered the ziknei Bnei Yisroel, told them what Hashem had related to Moshe, and performed miracles to prove the authenticity of his mission. The posuk says that the “people believed and heard that Hashem had remembered them and their situation, and they bowed” in appreciation.

What had happened between then and now?

The posuk in this week’s parsha (6:9) explains that the reason they didn’t listen to Moshe’s prophecy was “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah koshah.” Rashi explains that the posuk is saying that the enslaved people were like a distressed person who suffers from shortness of breath. In other words, they didn’t listen to Moshe because of their terrible situation and hard work.

The Ramban explains that their failure to accept Moshe’s words was not because they didn’t believe in Hashem and his prophet, but rather because they were in terrible pain – kotzer ruach – and feared that Paroh would kill them. Umei’avodah koshah refers to the fact that their supervisors tormented them and didn’t let them pay attention to what was being said. They simply weren’t given the luxury of a moment’s peace to be able to listen.

Clear and direct as these explanations are, we still wonder what the people thought about as they dragged their exhausted bodies to their tents each night. Peace of mind or not, didn’t something sink in? Didn’t they wonder about Moshe and what he foretold? When they lay on their straw mattresses, didn’t they think that perhaps there was something to his prophecy?

Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz compares kotzer ruach and avodah koshah to the components that make up man. There are three madreigos commonly referred to as nefesh, ruach and neshomah. The lowest level is nefesh, which refers to man’s physical attributes and the ability to perform physical labor. Ruach is the ability to speak, which, Targum Onkelos teaches, is what sets man apart from animal. The highest form of ruach is to be engaged in words of Torah and tefillah. Neshomah is the highest level of man, as it refers to things spiritual.

Perhaps we can thus understand the posuk that explains why the Bnei Yisroel were not heartened by Moshe’s prophesy. Their avodah koshah, hard physical labor, caused an inability to listen, as it caused them to be lacking in the attribute of ruach.

Their spirit was dead. With no spirit, there is no room for life.

When the spirit dies, the body becomes numb. With no spirit, there is neither stirring nor hope.

A person who has become enveloped in apathy, depression and despair cannot be reached without having his spirit restored.

In order to hear words of tanchumim, in order to understand what the novi is telling you, and in order to serve as a kli for cheirus, one has to have a ruach.

As Rashi says, one who is short of breath cannot accept words of comfort. That shortness is brought about by a deficiency in Torah and avodah (tefillah).

This is the p’shat in the statement of Chazal, “Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah.” The free man is the one who is engrossed in Torah study. One who spends his time learning Torah becomes receptive to true freedom, growth and happiness. One who studies Torah is blessed in all his bechinos. To the degree that a person subjugates his nefesh to his neshomah, he is able to gain happiness, pleasure and ruach rechovah.

The Mishnah teaches, “Kol halomeid Torah lishmah zocheh ledevorim harbeh – One who learns Torah merits many blessings” (Avos 6). One of the rewards of a lomeid lishmah is “kol ha’olam kulo kedai hu lo.” The literal understanding of the Mishnah is that the entire world was worth being created just for him.

Darshonim expound on the reward. What type of reward is it for him that the whole world was created for him? To answer that question, they explain the Mishnah to mean that the entire world is “kedai,” worthwhile, to such a person. He enjoys every experience. He lives every moment to its fullest and derives maximum satisfaction from each encounter, because Torah uplifts and expands a person to the point where every moment of life is worth celebrating and taking seriously.

Rabbi Nosson Muller, one of the bright lights of the chinuch world, is a beloved menahel at Yeshiva Toras Emes in Brooklyn. As a bochur at Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim, he had a cherished chavrusashaft with his rosh yeshiva, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel zt”l, each Erev Shabbos.

One Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira, he showed his rebbi the explanation of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh on the aforementioned idea. The Ohr Hachaim writes that the Bnei Yisroel lacked the tools to rise above their distress, “ulai letzad shelo hayu bnei Torah, because they had not yet received the Torah.” The Ohr Hachaim continues: “Torah marcheves libo shel adam, Torah expands a person,” allowing him to have room in his heart for something besides the intense suffering and strain.

The rosh yeshiva, who knew what it means for Torah to elevate man above pain, was stirred by the idea and thanked his talmid.

Years passed. Rabbi Muller married and moved to Lakewood, where he became a successful rebbi. Nine years after that Erev Shabbos, Rav Nosson Tzvi was visiting Lakewood and Rabbi Muller was eager to introduce his talmidim to his rebbi. He received an appointment for a Friday afternoon. It was Erev Shabbos Parshas Va’eira. Rav Nosson Tzvi addressed the teenage bochurim and then spent a moment in private conversation with his talmid, Rabbi Muller.

Rabbi Muller was nostalgic as he recalled their learning session of nine years earlier. “Rosh yeshiva, nine years ago, today –”

Rav Nosson Tzvi interrupted him, his eyes shining. “Are you going to remind me of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh? Do you think I forgot it?”

Kotzer ruach is brought about by not learning Torah. Elevating ruach to its highest form by learning Torah doesn’t only add to the power of speech, but enhances every aspect of life. AsDovid Hamelech says, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nofesh.” Torah restores the nefesh of the person, as well as his energy and joy.

Last year, Rav Chaim Kanievsky sat shivah following the passing of a beloved daughter. At the conclusion of the shivah, he joined the family at her kever, as is customary. Prominent Israeli photographer Shuki Lehrer showed resourcefulness and imagination. He stood near the gravesite, determined to capture a picture of Rav Chaim walking away from the kever.

The photographer explained: “I knew that Rav Chaim had been prevented from learning his regular regimen of Torah during the shivah period. I understood that he would be thirsty for his Gemara. I knew that at the moment the shivah would end, he would re-immerse himself in learning. I anticipated that one of his grandchildren would bring a Gemara to the bais hakevaros and hand it to Rav Chaim as he exited. I wanted a picture of that special moment.

“It happened exactly that way. Rav Chaim accepted the open Gemara and his face lit up. He immediately slipped back into the world where he’s happiest.”

This is a story about the inventiveness and skill of a photographer, but what emerges is the most beautiful testimony to Torah’s ability to be meishiv nefesh, to be marchiv da’as, to reignite the ruach and allow man to transcend suffering.

Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l would talk about Dovid Hamelech’s choice of term for his delight in Torah: sha’ashuai. A child engaged in playing with his favorite toy earns smiles and radiates chein and favor, because, at that moment, he is real. He isn’t engaged in a pursuit leading him somewhere else. He isn’t trying to earn money, points or power. He is simply expressing an essential desire. There is nothing cynical or calculating about his action, so passersby smile. The sight of a young boy zooming his fire truck along the floor or a little girl putting her baby doll to sleep touches us. We recognize the purity of their actions.

Torah is our sha’ashua. It is where we turn to find ourselves. It is where we go to get in touch with existence and where we encounter our spirit.

The bullets are always intended for us. The hatred and anger have always been directed at us, as they are now. All through the ages we have been victimized by angry, desperate people. Yet, we have endured. How have we battled back? What is the secret that enables us to remain strong and confident and successful despite having so many enemies and Kalashnikovs aimed at us?  This week’s parsha provides the answer to our endurance. Only through learning Torah do we lift our spirits. As they try to snuff out our ruach, we respond with more chiyus, more energy, and more toil.

We are living in times of insanity in a world where demented extremists roam freely. They have been empowered and emboldened by diplomats and governments afraid and incapable of confronting them. We wonder how leaders of the free world can be so blind and inadequate. People wonder how it can be that the United States was not among the prominent attendees at the anti-terror march in Paris on Monday.

When Hashem asked Moshe to tell Paroh the message of deliverance of the Jewish people, Moshe demurred. “The Jewish people didn’t listen to me. How will Paroh?” he asked, (Shemos 6, 12). Rashi states that this is one of the ten instances in the Torah where a kal vachomer argument is used.

The question is obvious. The posuk explains that the Bnei Yisroel didn’t listen to Moshe because of kotzer ruach and avodah kosheh. However Paroh, who was safely ensconced in his comfortable place, didn’t have those limitations, why was Moshe convinced that he wouldn’t listen to his arguments?

If we understand kotzer ruach as referring to a lack of Torah and madreigah of ruach, then the argument is quite understandable. The Bnei Yisroel, heirs to a golden tradition, were weakened in their study of Torah and were thus unreceptive to messages of freedom and spirit. Paroh, who never benefitted from this tradition and never studied Torah, would surely be unable to be sympathetic to a tender humanitarian message of opportunity.

We cry out in Selichos, “Veruach kodshecha al tikach mimeni – Hashem, please don’t remove Your holy spirit from me.” We can explain that the prayer is also a request that our ruach, spirit, remain holy and blessed, infused with Torah.

We seek to merit the brachos of the novi Yeshayahu (59:21), who prophesied,  “Ruchi asher alecha udvori asher samti beficha lo yomushu mipicha umipi zaracha umipi zera zaracha mei’atah ve’ad olam – May that spirit of Hashem that rests upon the lomeid Torah never fade from our mouths, from those of our children, and their children.”

We are currently in the teshuvah and growth period known as Shovavim, given its name by the acronym of the parshiyos we lain during this period, from Shemos through Mishpotim. As we read these parshiyos about Klal Yisroel’s descent into Mitzrayim and redemption, we are enabled to escape our personal prisons and enslavement.

Repentance is brought about through acts of charity, fasting and affliction. Ameilus baTorah, intense Torah study, also has the power to cleanse and purify. Shovavim is as good a time as any to add fervor and zeal to our learning.

An old Dvinsker once described what it was like when the Rogatchover Gaon walked down the street. Coachmen would stop their horses, waiting for him to pass. Peddlers would stand at attention. Vendors would stop their hollering. He was so engaged in learning and so oblivious to his surroundings, that he moved people of all walks of life into respectful silence. He embodied the ruach of Torah.

We have to breathe in deeply and fight for each breath, because we are living in an era when ruach is in short supply. We exist in a state of mikotzer ruach.

We have tragically held our breaths more often over the past few months. Mikotzer ruach.

We have seen tzaddikim murdered because they are Jews, and young boys kidnapped and killed because they are Jews. Mikotzer ruach.

Last week, we held our collective breaths as our brothers and sisters were held hostage in a Parisian store. Mikotzer ruach.  

Our breath was taken as the news reached us that four innocent hostages were brutally killed. Mikotzer ruach.

And then there is mei’avodah koshah. As the noose of the golus tightens, it becomes more difficult to concentrate on doing what we must to restore our breath and happiness.

We have to endeavor to work harder to lift our nefesh, ruach and neshomah to higher and broader levels so that we can breathe easier, safer and longer, meriting the geulas hanefesh and geulas haguf bekarov through Torah.

Last week, Jews came under attack as they prepared for Shabbos, symbolic of a generation preparing for the ultimate Shabbos, the yom shekulo Shabbos, a frenzy of final tasks amidst the sirens. We are in the final moments before the arrival of Moshiach.

News reports indicated that police crashed through the doors of Hyper Casher on Rue Jean de la Fontaine at sundown, shkiah.

As Shabbos began, the siege ended. The chevlei Moshiach are difficult and painful. We await the day when they give birth to the end of the siege of this exile.



My Take On the News

  Elad Katzir Murdered in Captivity It’s hard to know where to begin. Should I start with the news of another hostage who was found

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated