The battle of Yaakov and Eisov that began in the parshiyos of these weeks continues on until this day. The eternal battle takes on different guises, and each generation is faced with a new unprecedented threat. Sometimes the battle is physical, such as in the time of Yaakov, Chanukah and Purim, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the era of pogroms and blood libels, the Holocaust, and the wars and terror attacks of the Arabs against Israel and Jews. Other times, it is a covert war, conducted under the guise of friendship. The goal is always the same: to subvert adherence to Torah and mitzvos and cause the offspring of Yaakov to divert from the correct path.
Yaakov referred to both when he called out, “Hatzileini na miyd achi miyad Eisov – Save me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisov.” He was asking that Hashem protect him and his family from whichever mode of attack Eisov would present, whether he would arrive with guns blazing or attempt to win them over with a brotherly embrace.
Today, as Israel makes peace with some of its former enemies and those who battle its existence have largely been kept at bay, and as the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran rises once again, Eisov largely has changed his battle strategy for now to smother us through the friendly embrace. We have become enamored by his technological advances and allowed ourselves to get sucked up in pursuits that cause us not only to temper our inbred, hereditary, spiritual impulses, but also to become superficial.
Rav Yechezkel Levenstein recounted in a mussar shmuess that following the first World War, the Chofetz Chaim remarked that it was “child’s play compared to the war that would follow.” Rav Yechezkel told his talmidim that the Second World War would be considered child’s play compared to the coming third world war.
He explained that the wars are essentially the forces of tumah battling kedusha. During the First World War, the tumah began to take a bite out of the kedusha. During the Second World War, the tumah dug in deeper, and now, he said, we are in the third world war and the kochos hatumah seek to spiritually knock off sections of Klal Yisroel.
Rav Yechezkel’s warning was delivered many decades before we were facing what we face now. We have to become more sensitive, not less, to Eisov’s enticements and temptations, and work to ensure that we remain true to our core creed. We have to recognize that anything that takes us away from Torah, from properly performing mitzvos, from kedusha, and from proper zehirus from tumah is not for us and is something we should stay away from.
We are living through a terrible period of din, with so many people sick and so many dying. Just this past week, we lost Rav Eliyohu Meir Sorotzkin, a young rosh yeshiva whose entire life revolved around Torah, learning Torah, teaching Torah, and living Torah. An heir to Torah royalty, he carried within him the nobility of Torah and the grace it bestowed upon those who dedicate their lives to Torah to the exclusion of all else.
The koach hatumah is taking bites out of us. We have to fight back by increasing our devotion to Torah and strengthening our commitment to kedusha. We must act as in a physical battle, when people seek to fortify their forces and do whatever they can to overcome the enemy.
Rav Aryeh Schechter, whose first yahrtzeit is this week, told of an incident that happened with his parents and the Chazon Ish in 1948. After Israel declared independence, its Arab neighbors went to war, seeking to destroy the nascent nation in their midst.
Rav Schechter’s parents made an appointment to see the Chazon Ish to solicit his advice about a certain matter. When they arrived from their home in Tel Aviv at the appointed time, they were told that the Chazon Ish left a message for them that he wasn’t able to see them, but that they should not return home and wait until he would be ready for them. They went outside and were waiting in the yard of the house.
The Chazon Ish’s apartment was close to ground level. They looked up and saw him pacing back and forth in his room. His face looked like it was on fire and his lips were moving with great devotion. This went on for a while and then there was a great explosion.
Right after the explosion was heard, the Chazon Ish opened the door to his room and sent for the Schechters, who were quite shaken up. He discussed their issue with them and bid them farewell.
They left to the bus station, where they found out the rest of the story. The Egyptian Air Force set out that day to bomb the large Rottenberg electrical plant complex in Tel Aviv. They missed their target and the bombs fell instead on the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. This took place during afternoon rush hour, when, on a normal day, thousands of people would be at the bus station looking to return home after a day of work.
The bus station was comprised of two stories. People would enter on the street level and then climb steps to the upper unroofed level, where the buses were located. The bomb hit on the upper level, in the spot where the bus to Bnei Brak would wait to fill up and depart from. Despite the fact that on that day there were much fewer people in the bus station than usual, forty people were killed. A terrible tragedy, but not on the scale of what could have been expected.
The Schechters witnessed the Chazon Ish engaged in a battle with Eisov. Kedusha battled tumah.
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 78:15), quoted and explained by the Ramban (33:15), relates that when Rabi Yannai would have dealings with the Roman overlords, he would learn Parshas Vayishlach before setting out. Chazal had a mesorah that this week’s parsha is the parsha of golus, from which Jews can learn for all time how to conduct themselves in golus. From the subtleties of the exchange between Yaakov and Eisov, the chachomim would formulate the proper angle, hashkafah and negotiating positions to survive under Roman domination.
The Ramban writes that Parshas Vayishlach was written so that we may learn from it, because everything that happened to Yaakov and his encounters with Eisov will happen to his descendants. The way Yaakov dealt with Eisov demonstrates for us how to deal with the Eisovs in our day as well, in whichever guise he attacks us. We fight with hishtadlus and tefillah.
Eternal battles fought and refought throughout the ages are all foretold in the Torah to those who properly study it. The way we deal with national and personal enemies is by studying what our parents, grandparents and forefathers did in similar situations, recognizing that an age-old battle is being played out and can only be won by following the strategies laid out by our grandfather, Yaakov.
One of the more spectacular moments in the extraordinary life of Eliyohu Hanovi was the showdown on Har Hacarmel. Under the influence of the wicked King Achav, the Bnei Yisroel had fallen to a very low level. While still maintaining a belief in Hashem, they worshiped the gods of Canaan. Eliyohu challenged the ovdei avodah zorah to a contest between himself and the 450 prophets of the Baal. Achav accepted the challenge (Melochim I, 18:19).
Eliyohu proposed that each side – he and the nevi’ei haBaal – slaughter a bull as a sacrifice. Each would place their offering atop their mizbei’ach, leaving the firewood on the altar unlit. The group to whose mizbei’ach a fire would descend from heaven to consume the korban would be acknowledged as the correct religion for all to follow.
Word quickly spread and multitudes converged on Har Hacarmel to witness the showdown of kedusha vs. tumah.
Eliyohu offered the nevi’ei haBa’al to go first, since the overwhelming majority of the people supported them and not Eliyohu. They took one of the bulls, slaughtered it, prepared it for their mizbei’ach, and then proceeded to call upon the Baal all through the morning. They jumped, chanted and danced, cutting themselves until they bled, in the manner of their worship. “Yet there was neither a sound nor any response from heaven” (Melochim I, 18:25-26). Their altar remained unlit.
At noon, Eliyohu mocked the priests of the Baal, asking if their god was asleep. They continued their efforts until the time of Mincha, to no avail. There was no response.
Then Eliyohu Hanovi invited the people to draw close and he made his preparations. At the moment of Mincha, he slaughtered his korban, placed it upon the mizbei’ach, and recited a prayer “that this people may know that You… are G-d.”
Hashem sent a streak of heavenly fire to consume the korban, the wood, the stones, the dust and the water. The posuk recounts that the people saw this and fell on their faces, calling out, “Hashem Hu Ho’Elokim.”
Imagine the scene. It was Eliyohu Hanovi’s finest hour, as he stood firmly and courageously facing hundreds of prophets and a powerful king, undaunted. He performed a miracle in full view of the people. No doubt, the prestige enjoyed by Eliyohu was great. The people were in awe of him and his abilities. They were overcome with emotion and lunging for repentance.
Yet, their reaction wasn’t to extol the virtues of Eliyohu and exclaim that Eliyohu is a tremendous tzaddik, baal mofeis, and miracle worker for the ages. They didn’t shout out Eliyohu’s praises as you would imagine they would have. Instead, all who had gathered for the showdown reached the same conclusion and proclaimed as one what would become an eternal declaration of faith: “Hashem Hu Ho’Elokim!”
Rav Yitzchok Yedidya Frankel, the rov of Tel Aviv and father-in-law of Rav Yisroel Meir Lau, would say that this was the greatest tribute to Eliyohu Hanovi. He knew that the role of a Torah Jew is to act as a conduit to cause people to focus on the Source of miracles and might.
This coming week, we will be celebrating the victory of the righteous Chashmonaim over the Eisov of their day. The Chashmonaim were the conduits for the miracles that led to freeing the Jews from the domination of the Yevonim. But they took care to ensure that the celebration was about Hashem, not about them. Their mesirus nefesh in battle was for the cause of bringing about a proclamation that “Hashem Hu Ho’Elokim,” not that the Chashmonaim are effective warriors and baalei mofeis. Their task was to lead to a condition of lehodos ulehallel leShimcha hagadol.
The story of Chanukah wasn’t about the Chashmonaim and their military accomplishments. It was about making the name of Hashem great. The reverberations of that victory echo through the generations.
As we light the neiros Chanukah, we recite the brocha, “She’osah nissim la’avoseinu bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh.” The holy seforim explain the reference of the brocha to “bayomim haheim bazeman hazeh” as alluding to the idea that the same force that enabled miracles back then, bayomim haheim, returns every year at this time, allowing for nissim of our own in our time, bazeman hazeh.
We can all tap into that power. We can become people of kedusha, focusing on bringing glory to the One Who made us, not keeping it for ourselves. If we do that, we will succeed in our missions and merit miracles.
In our generation, people of true commitment are few and the winds seem to be blowing in the wrong direction. Yet ehrliche Yidden remain undaunted.
Our mission in this world is to serve Hashem with temimus, each person in his own way. Our job is not to win every battle, but to remain focused on our task, doing what we can to bring about kiddush Shemo Yisborach. We allow the others to ride high, convinced of their own invincibility, while we judge success not by headlines and public accolades, but by a barometer that has nothing to do with the here and now.
We are not the focus of life’s missions. It is not about temporal praise and honor to us. It is not about acting in a pragmatic, so-called realistic manner, but rather about bringing permanent honor to Hashem by being mekadeish Shemo Hagadol.
The Telzer rosh yeshiva, Rav Elya Meir Bloch, lost his family and yeshiva in the inferno of Europe, but he forged on, determined to plant Telz d’Lita in America. He reestablished the Telzer Yeshiva in Cleveland, then a stronghold of secular Judaism, with not more than a few talmidim.
During the early period of the yeshiva, as he was struggling mightily, Rav Elya Meir made a local appeal for funds. Very few people participated and the response was dismal. Someone advised him to soften his message and speak more kindly about those whom he perceived to be enemies of traditional Torah values. If he would do so, the man told him, he would gain more support from the local community and might even be able to convince some families to send their boys to learn in Telz.
Rav Elya Meir wouldn’t hear of it. “Nowhere does it say that the Ribbono Shel Olam needs me to be a rosh yeshiva, and whether or not I have financial support or talmidim is His decision,” he said. “However, I do know that Hashem needs me to be ehrlich, even without talmidim. That part is not up for negotiation or compromise.”
It wasn’t about him. He didn’t need to build a yeshiva. He needed to build himself. It was about Hashem and his Torah. If he was the right shliach, he would succeed, and if he didn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be. But no matter what happened, his principles, honesty, forthrightness and fidelity to a hallowed creed were non-negotiable.
We have to remain focused, dedicated shlichim to the One Who sent us here and not become impressed by the modern-day pragmatists and Misyavnim. We don’t need to be victorious to win. We need to keep our heads held upright, moving forward and ignoring those who mock us for being old-fashioned, misguided and stubborn. Their inducements do not lure us. Their lies do not impress us. There is but one truth and it cannot be compromised. The Chashmonaim had the courage to identify the danger for what it was. They weren’t impressed by the advanced Greek culture or their barometers of success and popularity. They didn’t follow the glitz and glamour, doing what other people did because everyone did it.
They had a core of time-worn values that they stuck to, and that was what enabled them to beat back Eisov.
In our day, as well, we must, as our grandfather Yaakov, the Chashmonaim, Rabi Yannai, the Ramban, the Chazon Ish, and Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch each did in their time, fight Eisov through remembering our mission, our task in life and the powers Hashem has bequeathed to each of us to increase kedusha and decrease tumah in our lives and the lives of those we care about, the community and the world in general.
Let us be energized as we learn this week’s parsha to be better and do better so that we can bring about the final defeat of Eisov with the coming of Moshiach.