Sunday, Jul 21, 2024

A Struggle For The Ages

We read the news and fret. Seeing what is going on in the world, we cannot blame the pessimists who see wide-ranging conspiracies. We cannot laugh at those who feel as if the world is about to blow up. They fear that the euro will become worthless, economic malaise will overwhelm Europe, and it will spread to the rest of the world. America will become awash in a sea of red ink, unemployment will increase, taxes will rise, health insurance will become unaffordable, the Postal Service will close, and, worst of all, Barack Obama will be reelected and get even with Israel and the Jews for Binyomin Netanyahu's arrogant intransigence in refusing to accept his plan for the division of Eretz Yisroel. They are afraid that America will never be the same. It will sink into a quagmire from which no one will be able to rescue it. The bulwark of democracy and capitalism will become a beachhead of socialism as it descends into finality as a failed state. They see radical Islam on a victorious crusade across Northern Africa and worry about what it will mean for Israel in particular and for Jews and freedom-lovers the world over. In actuality, it's nothing new. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man, proclaimed many centuries ago, “Ein kol chodosh tachas hashomesh - There is nothing new under the sun.”

The Ramban writes in his hakdamah to Parshas Vayishlach that the parsha “was written to show that Hashem saved his servant from someone stronger than him… The parsha contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisav will happen to us with Eisav’s children, and it is fitting for us to go in the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”


Vayishlach is in fact a parsha which helps guide our lives in golus. The Gemara discusses how the chachomim who traveled to Rome for negotiations and deliberations with the incumbent political leadership learned this parsha prior to setting out on their precarious journeys. In order to succeed in their missions on behalf of the Jewish people ruled by the Romans, they studied the first encounter between Yaakov as an av and Eisav as a force in his own right. The lessons learned from the exchange between Yaakov and Eisav guided the chachomim in their interactions with Eisav’s offspring.


The Maharal (Derech Chaim 5) teaches that the experiences of each of the three avos parallel different periods in Jewish history. Yaakov, he says, corresponds to our final golus, Edom. In his words, “the golus will be very long and, at the End of Days, the golus will disappear and everything will be good.” Just as Yaakov Avinu traveled a difficult, dark path until he tasted peace, so will his descendants travel a lengthy golus before the eventual simchas olam, eternal peace and joy.


Even a cursory reading of the account of Yaakov Avinu’s struggle with themalach, the sar of Eisav, affects us. We somehow sense that in these pesukim lies the secret to a destiny that would prove to be one long struggle, an enduring battle between the forces of kedushah and tumah, good and evil. It’s the battle that defines our mission, both as individuals and as a nation, always forced to fight for what’s right and pure.


Beyond that, there is also a bigger picture and a bigger plan. Chazal uncover layers of depth and significance to that fight, with nuances that hint at different mitzvos or periods in history.


As the battle winds down, the posuk relates that Eisav’s malach said that he has to leave, as the sun was about to rise. Rashi explains, based upon the Gemara in Maseches Chullin, that Eisav’s malach had to say shirah that day and, with the day about to dawn, he had to return. We were taught as children that he begged Yaakov to release him, since he’d waited from the beginning of time for his turn to sing before his Maker. We understood that it just happened to work out that way, with the epic battle taking place on the night before he was slated to sing.


Rav Chaim Soloveitchik understood the malach’s request on a higher level. He explained that it wasn’t mere happenstance that the malach would be singing shirah that day. The song of a creature is sung when he fulfills and achieves his mission. Shirah takes place when shleimus has been achieved. The destiny for the malach, the sar of Eisav, the yeitzer hara, is to struggle with the forces of good – and lose. His job is to provide the challenge for the good to overcome evil and emerge triumphant.


Until that fateful night, the malach of evil had not fulfilled his shlichus, for each and every time, the power of tov was unable to overcome him. Everything in this world is created for kavod Shomayim. As long as the angel’s actions didn’t bring about kavod Hashem, he had not achieved the purpose he was created for and could not sing shirah.


When Yaakov Avinu was victorious, the malach’s destiny was realized. He had fought hard, but the koach of good had won. He was now worthy of singing the shiras Hashem, because he had lost, and thatwas his tafkid.


Often, we are confronted by obstacles and hindrances. We are ready to give up and permit the forces of evil which torment us to win. Sometimes, people think that they are doomed, with no way out. Survival becomes a daily battle. However, if we summon our inner strengths, we will find resources of stamina, vitality and vigor to keep on going, just as Yaakov did back then.


There is a plan and a mission inherent in the struggle and we must be cognizant of this fact. We proceed, for at the end, as the Maharal says, the darkness will disappear and we’ll see the good.


The parsha recounts (35:21) that following the passing of Rochel Imeinu, Yaakov and his sons traveled on, setting up camp near Migdal Eider, where they enjoyed a rare moment of tranquility and relative quiet. The Targum Yonasan Ben Uziel writes that this place, “meiholah leMigdal Eider,” is the location from where “Moshiach will reveal himself.”


The aspect of maaseh avos siman labonim carries through here as well. Yaakov’s rest symbolizes our respite from the bitterness and pain of golus. After the battles, after the wars, after enduring the chicanery of Lavan and the depravity of Eisav, Yaakov merits some tranquility. And so shall we.


This week, many years ago, an American bochur walked into a shtiebel in Yerushalayim to daven Minchah. An old Yerushalmi Yid with a twinkle in his eye called him over.


Ich hub far eich ah kasha. I have a question for you,” he said. “The posuk says that Yaakov was victorious over the malach of Eisav and was given a new name, Yisroel, in honor of his triumph.


“But,” asked the wizened Yerushalmi, “how can we say Yaakov won? He was left bruised and limping, while the malach ascended to Heaven to sing shirah. Doesn’t it seem like the malach was the victor and Yaakov the loser?”


The Yid thought for a moment and continued.


Amerikaneh bochur’l, listen to the answer and remember it: When there is a dispute about an ideology, the one who hits first is the loser. If one of the debaters raises his hand and smacks the other, it’s a sign that he can no longer match his opponent with intellect and facts, so he has to hit. When the malach struck Yaakov, he was in fact conceding defeat. He was saying that Yaakov had triumphed!”


The Jewish road is strewn with obstacles, and that is the biggest testimony that ours is the path to victory. They keep hitting, they keep striking, but their blows are ones of defeat.


We don’t hit back. We keep marching on, secure that there’s a plan.


Bikeish Yaakov leisheiv beshalvah.” Yaakov Avinu seemed destined for a life of constant travail. He was forced to contend with Eisav and then escaped his murderous wrath. He toiled in learning for fourteen years, depriving himself of sleep throughout. His journey continued with Elifaz robbing him of everything he owned. He went on to face Lavan’s wiliness and greed. It never ended for him, as each day brought a new round of trouble, sad news, and daunting nisyonos.


Instead of growing despondent and asking, “Why me?” Yaakov looked at each new day as a fresh opportunity to learn more Torah, establisha holy family, and toil in the vineyard of Hashem following his father and grandfather. Thus, he was successful in what he did, fulfilling his mission as he prospered and prevailed.


Obstacles, as Rav Chaim taught, have a mission of their own, to be beaten down with bitachon and steady, unwavering avodah.


We look around and see the gloomy news coming from every direction. There are militants and madmen eying tiny Eretz Yisroel through their gun-sights, ready to pull the trigger at the slightest provocation. We see despots and dictators arming themselves with nuclear weapons, laughingly threatening to obliterate us and our people. And we worry.


Right here, in New York and New Jersey, the horrific emblems of seventy-five years ago have resurfaced, with broken, shattered glass serving as a haunting reminder of the darkest time in recent memory.


The avak, the dust, of the struggle is everywhere, making it difficult to see clearly.


Rav Mordechai Shulman, the late rosh yeshiva of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, was a close talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. He would tell stories that demonstrated the ruach hakodesh of the Chofetz Chaim. He said that during the years of World War I, the Chofetz Chaim carried the pain of Klal Yisroel in his heart. With the Jewish people suffering terribly, he was beside himself, as he offered his pure tefillos and brachos to lighten the gezeiros.


Since Rav Mordechai spoke and read the Russian language, he was given the job of reading the daily Russian newspaper to his rebbi and translating it into Yiddish, so that the Chofetz Chaim would be apprised of the day’s developments.


Rav Mordechai recounted that, every day, he was amazed anew, for as he began to read the news to the Chofetz Chaim, his rebbi would complete the account, down to the last detail, as if he’d already heard it. He said that it was impossible for the Chofetz Chaim to have heard the news from anyone else, and there was no way he could have read the newspaper on his own, for he was not able to.


Rav Shulman related that his astonishment was lessened years later when he saw an explanation from the Vilna Gaon on the words we say during Shacharis that the malachim stand each morning “umashmi’im beyirah yachad bekol divrei Elokim Chaim uMelech Olam.” In Heaven, the angels sing out that which they hear from their King.


The Vilna Gaonexplains that this means that the song of the angels is comprised of the events – the encounters, developments and happenings – that have been decreed for the day ahead. Every day, the malachim are mashmia bekol the words of Hashem as they impact the occurrences of the coming day.


Heaven is filled with the sound of what will yet be. “And,” Rav Mordechai remarked, “I am certain that, every day, the Chofetz Chaim heard the sod siach sarfei kodesh of the malachim discussing what Hashem did and was going to do in His world.”


The Chofetz Chaim was privy to that song, said Rav Mordechai, so of course he knew what had happened each day, as he had heard the call of the malachim.


The story is astounding in what it teaches us about the way of the world and what it says about the greatness of the pure and holy tzaddikim. Everything that happens – the good, the bad and the fearsome, the anti-Semitic rants and attacks, and the calls of hate and aggression – is announced each morning in Heaven, passed on from angel to angel. It is all part of a plan. The Divine Plan.


Reb Yosef Friedenson is a most eloquent voice who has made it his mission to teach our generation about what existed before the Holocaust, as well as the heroism and self-sacrifice demonstrated amidst the suffering and devastation during World War II. His memories tell the story of Klal Yisroel in exile. They are recollections that reflect the experiences of Yaakov Avinu in his own golus.


Reb Yosef shares the memory of standing in a crowded square, as the Nazis, yemach shemom, were herding Jews together, barking orders at them. Reb Yosef’s father, a learned man, spontaneously addressed the gathered Yidden. He began by quoting the pesukim in Sefer Yeshaya, perek 14, which contain the words of the novi in response to the arrogance of Nevuchadnetzar:


“For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above G-d’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.’ But instead, you will be brought down to the place of the dead, down to its lowest depths. Everyone there will stare at you and ask, ‘Can this be the one who shook the earth and the kingdoms of the world?’”


The pesukim relate how the mightiest and most arrogant of armies will eventually fall. Even their rise, we are told, is stained with hints of a dark future.


Ultimately, the darkness passed and the feared Nazis fell.


When he relates his recollections and thoughts, Reb Yosef remarks, “On that fortuitous day, when we watched the Nazis march out with their arms raised above their heads, being prodded and pushed by the guns of the liberating armies, we wondered aloud, ‘Are these the soldiers from whom we had such fear? Are these the fearful oppressors of yesterday?’


“Just as my father said, just as the novi said. The darkness, the light, it’s all part of the pattern of Jewish history.”


More recently, people who were the embodiment of evil, such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Osama bin Laden, were like wounded animals at their end, when they were found by those seeking justice. The men whom the entire world feared were humbled and degraded. They were exposed to the whole world as small, scared people, a very different impression than the legendary aura they seemed to possess while they were in power.


It was difficult to believe that these people ever had any strength of their own. In fact, they didn’t. They were players in a Divine plot. They were tools of Hashem to somehow create kavod Shomayim in ways yet to be seen. When their mission was completed, the strength and guile they had been granted in order to complete their jobs were taken from them and they returned to the afar min ha’adamah that they essentially were.


The pattern of Yisroel bein ha’amim is symbolized by the struggle between Yaakov and the sar of Eisav, which ended when the sun rose. The Torah reports, “Vayizrach lo hashemesh, vehu tzoleiah al yereicho – The sun rose and Yaakov was limping.” The limp reminded him of the travails he had experienced and overcome. But the sun was shining.


“Al kein lo yochlu Bnei Yisroel es gid hanosheh.” Therefore, we don’t eat the gid hanosheh, which the sar of Eisav had injured. By not eating it, we remind ourselves until this very day that the torment we endure is a sign of strength and victory. They can’t beat us with the force of argument and veracity, so they hurt us, enslave us, break our windows, and call us demeaning names. We are reminded that it is a sign of strength to be hounded and persecuted, as we have been throughout the ages. We are pained in our lives, as private people and as a tzibbur. We are tested again and again. Our enemies are weak and impotent, and we have the wounds to prove it.


We are reminded that “vayizrach lo hashemesh.”


Near Migdal Eider, Moshiach waits to reveal himself. May he do so bemeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.




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