The two roshei yeshiva looked tired and worn out. The year was 1940 and the Russians had invaded Telz in Lita, forcing the yeshiva out of its quarters, first the big bais medrash and then even from the smaller mechinah bais medrash. Eventually, because of the communist takeover, the yeshiva was forced to split up into five different towns, with roshei yeshiva commuting from one to the other to deliver shiurim and mussar shmuessen. Even before the Germans followed, the hanhalas hayeshiva realized that the yeshiva was not sustainable under these circumstances.
They decided to send two of the roshei yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz, to America to try to transfer the yeshiva there. They left with heavy hearts, Rav Elya Meir leaving behind a wife and 4 children and Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz a wife and 10 children. They faced great resistance from the government before they received authorization to leave the country. Then began the arduous trip to America via Siberia, Japan, and then the Atlantic Ocean.
When they finally reached these shores, a strange land that spoke a language that they did not understand, they called a meeting of former talmidim and supporters of the yeshiva in the old Broadway Central Hotel. At that meeting, Rav Elya Meir got up to the podium and said the following inspiring words.
“When Dovid Hamelech wanted to flee for his life because he was being pursued by Shaul Hamelech, Yehonoson ben Shaul devised a signal to communicate to Dovid if it was safe for him to return to the king’s palace or not. Dovid would be hiding in a field and Yehonoson would shoot arrows in his direction. “But if I say to the boy, ‘Behold, the arrows are beyond you, then go, for this is a signal that Hashem has sent you away” (Shmuel I 20:22).
“The word that Yehonoson used is a bit curious, for if Dovid’s life were in danger, then he should have said to him, ‘Run away.’ Why did he merely use the word ‘go’?
“Because the truth is,” said the rosh yeshiva, “that whoever comprehends the Hashgocha of the Creator recognizes that anything that transpires in his life is not by happenstance, but is planned by Hashem with a specific purpose. He sees the various chapters of his life as one great mission to carry out the master plan of Hakadosh Boruch Hu. If so, the term to ‘run away,’ which is used to describe distancing one from danger, is not really fleeing at all, but going on a mission to fulfill the will of Hashem. Even though our coming here is seen as an escape from the inferno of Europe, it is not merely fleeing, but rather a mission, for as providers, Hashem has sent us here to plant the tree of life of the Torah on the shores of America.”
These passionate words descended upon the listeners like the dew of life. Now they did not look at the roshei yeshiva as exhausted refugees, but as giants of spirit. These were men with a vision and a holy mission pulsating in their hearts (adapted from Sefer Hayovel by Rav Avrohom Shoshana).
We learn in this week’s sedrah: “And Yaakov departed from Be’er Sheva and went toward Choron” (Bereishis 28:10). Why did the Torah have to say that Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, when we already know that that’s where he lived? It would have sufficed to just say that Yaakov went to Choron (see Rashi).
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that when Yaakov left Be’er Sheva, he was energized by the Torah he had learned. For his entire life until then, he was influenced by his parents, Yitzchok and Rivkah. He spent his days immersed in Torah in the tents of Sheim and Eiver. He took with him a spiritual vitality, with aspirations of implanting holiness into the strange land to which he was going. He knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. He understood that the land where Lavan, his uncle, lived was not filled with people of virtue. He knew that his efforts would be met with resistance by people who served idols and lived their lives solely to fulfill their physical desires. Yet, with the power of his vayeitzei, leaving a holy place laden with Torah, he was capable of the vayeilech, to depart for a land void of holy values, hoping to spread his influence there.
Rav Moshe said these words in a hesped on the Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz (whose yahrtzeit is 12 Kislev). Together with his brother-in-law, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, he left Telz, a place saturated with Torah and kedusha, for the foreign shores of America, where limud haTorah and its values were alien to most of its populace. Yet, they were not discouraged by the hardships and the challenges at all. They left their homes with the fire of Torah burning within them, and with this flame they kindled the souls of their many talmidim on these shores who have carried it on for generations.
Life is full of surprises. We plan ahead, paving the way for what we envision will be our future, and then something unexpected happens, causing our plans to evaporate. What we thought would be a straight path turns into a road full of twists and turns, segueing onto a highway going in a totally different direction than we had anticipated.
This is what happened with Yaakov Avinu. He was living a life in a virtual Gan Eden in the home of his parents, Yitzchok and Rivkah, where he absorbed their sterling middos and kedusha. At the same time, he drank from the fountains of Torah of Sheim And Eiver, constantly growing in the ways of Hashem. And then, suddenly, he was cast into a situation that he did not ask for. Rivkah, his mother, requested that he seek the brachos that Yitzchok intended to bestow upon Eisav. With great hesitation, he obeyed Rivkah, thus arousing the wrath of Eisav, who wanted to kill him.
Now he was told by his parents to leave the holy and peaceful environment of his home and flee to Choron, where he should also find a shidduch. How would he survive? How would he manage being all alone, cast into a situation of darkness? Looking ahead, he would have to live with a fiendish, conniving Lavan.
Yaakov’s first step was to take refuge in Yeshivas Sheim V’Eiver to prepare himself. For 14 years, he immersed himself in Torah to fill himself with clarity and spiritual energy. He would draw from this vast reserve of kedusha within him to survive in a strange land and to build a family, the Shivtei Koh.
In this world, it is inevitable that at some point in life one will face hardships and dark moments. A chosson once asked the Steipler Gaon for a brocha that he have an easy life. The tzaddik answered, “You want a klalah? That is like saying that you shouldn’t live. Life is meant to have nisyonos to help a person grow.” When facing a time of trouble, one can feel so alone. That is when he must remember that he is being sent on a mission from heaven to withstand the nisayon. It is not a random hardship that he has been sent. Rather, it is tailor-made, crafted to fit exactly what his neshomah needs.
At times like these, we must remember the Torah and hashkafos we have learned when we were younger. That is when we must draw from our spiritual reserves to maintain our faith in Hashem and realize that He is with us every moment and wants more than anything for us to succeed. And when we can go the trek alone, we must seek da’as Torah for guidance on how to navigate the choppy waters.
“Vayachalom, and he dreamt, and behold a ladder was set earthward and its top reached heavenward” (Bereishis 28:12). What does this dream symbolize?
The Imrei Yosef, Rav Yosef Meir of Spinka, explained that at that moment, Yaakov Avinu felt very small, alone, and away from his beloved home. Vayachalom can also mean that he was strengthened, as we find in the novi (Yeshayah 38:16) “vatachlimeini, and you will heal and strengthen me” (Rashi). How did he gain strength? Because the vision of the latter symbolized the situation he found himself in at that moment.
He felt abandoned, far removed from the menucha and spiritual high he was able to feel back in yeshiva. But he saw that the ladder that was grounded was able to reach the heavens. This was a message that his feelings were not indicative of reality. At the very moment a person faces hardship, if he tries his best to walk in the ways of Hashem, he reaches the greatest heights in ruchniyus and his actions have great ramifications for bringing tikkun to the upper worlds. On top of the ladder, Hashem is watching it all and guarding him.
As the Toldos Yaakov Yosef said in the name of the Baal Shem Tov, excessive humility can lead to a person’s weakening of avodah, for such a person doesn’t believe that his tefillos and Torah can shake up the heavens and bring immense blessing to the entire world and that even the malachim are nurtured by his avodah.
“So Yaakov lifted his feet and went toward the land of the easterners” (Bereishis 29:1). Because of this message, Yaakov felt very light and was able to walk briskly and confidently to fulfill his mission in a foreign land.
We, too, must realize that when times are tough and we feel like we are in strange, uncharted territory, we are really on a mission, a personal directive from heaven to rectify matters that are sometimes beyond our understanding. We might think that the potency of our avodah is compromised because we are weak and can’t think straight, but it is precisely during these moments that we wield tremendous power in the upper worlds. Through it all, Hashem is watching and guiding us along the way.