In the Middle Ages, when plagues spread throughout Europe, the Jews were always blamed. “The Jews poisoned the wells!” was the refrain that led to the butchery of tens of thousands of our forebears. Whenever there was a problem afflicting the general population, Jews were the scapegoat.
Ever since those dark days, Jews have been attempting to prove that they are normal, productive, loyal citizens. Usually for naught.
“You’re right,” the anti-Semites inevitably respond, “but we hate you anyway.”
Back at the very beginning, the nochosh was victorious with his venomous power of leitzonus, scoffing to Chava about the Ribbono Shel Olam. To persuade her to sin, the snake mocked holiness. Ever since, cynicism and scorn have been realities we must deal with. Kedushah, holiness, has for eternity encountered contemptuous resistance. The face of the opponent may be charming, but the motivations are those of the snake.
The sinas am ha’aretz for a talmid chochom is nothing new. As long as there have been Yidden doing mitzvos, they have been scorned by others. Under the guise of concern over social welfare and with calls to “share the burden,” those who fear Hashem have been accused of being anti-social parasites almost forever.
Rabi Akiva (Pesachim 49b) said regarding himself, that in his earlier years as a shepherd when he was not yet familiar with Torah, his hatred of atalmid chochom was intense: “If I saw a talmid chochom,” he recalled, “I wished to bite him like a donkey (whose bite hurts more than that of a dog).”
In telling the story of how Rochel, daughter of the fabulously wealthy Kalba Savua, chose the shepherd, Akiva, for a husband despite her father’s protestations, the Gemara (Kesubos 62b) depicts him as a kind and humble person.
Tosafos points out that although he was gentle and compassionate, he still wished he could bite another human being with the aim of causing him great pain. Despite the fact that he was a shepherd, engaged in a vocation that requires tenderness, and notwithstanding his nature as a good, kind, sympathetic and loving individual, he was consumed with hatred for talmidei chachomim.
Such is the malice of genial, gentle am haaratzim towards talmidei chochomim. That is the way it has always been ever since the Torah was given on Har Sinai, and that is the way it is today.
So get ready for the onslaught, because here we go again.
The media is licking its collective chops in anticipation. A new government has been formed in Eretz Yisroel and its coalition will exclude everyone’s favorite scapegoat. The chareidim are out. The ones who cause so much trouble have been banished to their insular corners. Enough ink to fill the Kinneret will be spilled with self-congratulatory, exultant editorials about how this new government is so much better, friendlier, and more in touch with the people. The politicians will gloat about how much more they can accomplish to benefit the country with the chareidi stranglehold broken.
With Yahadus Hatorah and Shas out of the way, there won’t be anyone to object to empowering liberal rabbis to water down conversion procedures, welcoming all who wish to be accepted as Jews, even if they don’t halachically qualify. Kashrus will also suffer, as will Shabbos and halachic marriage requirements. A revolution will ensue, with the kind, thoughtful, enlightened ones turning back decades of Neanderthal strangulation.
The government bulldozer will aim for the yeshivos, seeking to stem their remarkable post-Holocaust rebirth and growth. They will undo what Menachem Begin and every successive government since his has done to support Torah study. The long-forgotten Mizrachi party, newly revived and revitalized, will roar back to life, proudly waving its compromising agenda. Their all-inclusive Ahavat Yisroel passes over those most scrupulous in their Torah observance, as their concern for all the country’s citizens frighteningly points them to starve the poor children of the contemptible Torah scholars.
While the outside world will focus on Israel’s existential problems, namely the Iranian threat, the festering Palestinian issues and the general outcry against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, beneath the radar the new coalition partners will be busy at work turning back the clock on matters of religion and state.
Davka at a time when the country requires zechuyos to remain viable in an inhospitable neighborhood, Torahand mitzvos, in whose merit the world and Israel exist, will be under attack.
People who don’t appreciate history and the underlying points of conflict, will be lecturing us on how we should have behaved and what we should have done differently while the going was good. The advice to be more welcoming, open and loving will come from all sides, and many will indeed be convinced that if only the chareidim would be more tolerant of deviant behavior and more charitable to all types of Jews, Shas would still be heading up vital ministries, UTJ Knesset members would still be functioning as ministers and in charge of the Knesset Finance Committee; and chareidim would still be chief rabbis and dayonim.
Of course there is always room for improvement and not everything every member of the community says or does is always proper or beneficial to the way we are perceived by our secular brethren and the general world. By and large, however, we are good people, dedicating our lives to growth in Torah, mitzvos, and good deeds. We follow a Divine guide to life, which, while we take it for granted, is singular in the world. Our lives have meaning, as we realize that we each have a mission to complete. We build schools and clinics, and we support the poor and those in need. We give more charity and spend a greater percentage of our days studying than anyone else. We are moral and kind and don’t need to be lectured by anyone.
Sure, every so often there will be positive articles about us in the press, if for no other reason than for them to be able to portray themselves as being objective when they attack us. Just as we should not be overly enthralled when they condemn, we should not be overwhelmed with their sparing embrace. We are not impressed by their platitudes or by those of the apologists.
There will be trying times ahead and we must be strong and resolute as we wait for the pendulum to swing back in our direction. In the alter heim, no matter what Jews did, it wasn’t enough. No matter how much they paid in taxes, it was never enough. No matter how patriotic they were, they were always accused of having dual loyalties. No matter how friendly they were to their neighbors, come Pesach-time, the local pastor would preach against the bloodthirsty Jews who kill innocent Christian children to use their blood for matzos. Despite all the pogroms, our grandfathers and grandmothers didn’t veer from the path. They never buckled and they never wavered in their beliefs and fidelity to Torah. They possessed the self-confidence and buoyancy to proudly march forward.
The Brisker Rov once spent Shabbos in a hotel for the sheva brachos of one of his sons. The Rov, as is the habit of others, did not benefit from Israeli electricity on Shabbos, because the electric company is operated by Jews. A talmid volunteered to arrange for the hotel to provide a large room in which the electricity was shut off, for them to daven and eat in.
For whatever reason, the job wasn’t done, and when the Rov walked into the room, the lights were shining brightly. He immediately left that room and found a small, dark area where there was no light. He announced that they would be using that room over Shabbos.
In obvious distress, the talmid approached the Rov to apologize. “I am so sorry,” he said, “that the large room is lichtig (illuminated).”
The Rov responded with a surprised look on his face. “Dort iz lichtig?” he asked, indicating the first, well-lit room. “Doh iz lichtig!” he said, pointing to the small, darkened room around him whereYidden sat davening.
We have to reaffirm our belief that as bright as the lights may seem, as wide as the smiles on the coalition members’ faces appear, and as exultant as our enemies seem, doh iz lichtig. We have a rich, vibrant mesorah and the tools to rise above the pettiness and small-mindedness all around us. Our strength and confidence come from horeving in learning, from maasim tovim and chessed, and from tefillah and bitachon. We aren’t the Ribbono Shel Olam’s salesmen, compromising on His Torah, Shabbos or geirus for material gain. Our mission remains to preserve the gaon Yaakov asher oheiv selah. We don’t compromise our ideals in the pursuit of fleeting human accolades.
We have to learn not to get squeamish or bent out of shape when we are attacked over silliness. Nor should we get drunk with excitement when some secular Jew relatesa nice anecdote about frumeh Yidden.
The fundamentals of our emunah must be strong. We must have bitachon that when one does what is right and proper; the correct outcome will eventually result. We don’t have to feel apologetic to the women’s libbers who claim that the Torah is unfair. We don’t owe anything to the goyim who want to be codified as Jews. Torah has always been our lifeblood and always will be. Torah and halacha are eternal truths. They are Divinely given and are not subject to passing fads, political needs, or the prevailing zeitgeist.
Popularity is not proof of truth. Of course we have to treat all people the way we want to be treated – with kindness, civility, humility and gentleness – but not out of a feeling of submission and weakness, but rather because the Torah is a Toras Chessed, and mussar and middos tovos are chalokim and s’nifim of thederech we follow.
And if the penetrating truth in that isn’t enough, it behooves us to study the stories of those who came before us and faced the spiritual fathers of Yair Lapid and Naftoli Bennett. One example is that of the Ponovezher Rov, who builtTorahat a time when Zionism, with its trappings, uniforms and ideals, was the wave of the future. Speaking in 1941, he famously predicted that one day the children of the most left-wing, diehard, anti-religious Kibbutz Ein Charod would be wearing tefillin.
Many mocked the Rov, as they did when he began building his yeshiva on an empty hill in a small, dusty, hot town. They said that he was an unrealistic dreamer. Yet, the Rov told his son how he knew that what he said wasn’t empty hyperbole. To him, it was as real as the pesukim in the Torah. Like so many who sacrificed themselves so that we can live Torah lives, he knew that the truth would triumph.
Their victory is temporary. Torah is eternal.
The recently departed Reb Yossel Friedenson would tell the story of Reb Akiva Goldstoff, who found a way to bake matzos in the concentration camp in which he was thrust. His overjoyed bunkmates were cherishing their crumbs of a mitzvah when a Nazi strode into the barracks.
“Fools!” he mocked them. “Do you really believe that your G-d is here for you? Why don’t you look around and see how He has forsaken, forgotten and abandoned you?”
With a knowing smile, Reb Yossel would recount the timeless reply of Reb Akiva Goldstoff: “Nisht in gantzen, un nisht oif eibek. It may appear that we are forgotten, but it’s not total and not forever.”
Boruch Hashem, today we can bakematzos and eat as much as we want. As the threatening sounds of derision come our way, we should remember that the scoffers only have the upper hand temporarily. Nisht in gantzen and nisht oif eibek.
My friend, Rav Yechiel Spero, recently shared with me the following story. After World War II, one of those who undertook a campaign to rebuild the ruchniyus of Klal Yisroel was Rav Gershon Libman, the founding rosh yeshiva of the Novardok Yeshiva in France. At a time when many people were disoriented from the ravages of the awful war and were bitter toward G-d, wanting nothing to do with Him, Rabbi Libman yearned to ignite the spark of Yiddishkeit once more.
He traveled to meet with members of the Joint Distribution Committee, hoping they would support his cause and provide funding for the yeshiva he dreamed about building. After a long wait for his chance to speak with them, he went through his plan, soliciting their assistance to help him resurrect the lives of yeshiva bochurim, shattered by the war. When he finished his pitch, the head of the committee spoke.
“It is very noble that you are helping these young men rebuild their lives,” the man told Rav Gershon, “but we will not support the worthless bonk-kvetcher practice of sitting on a bench and learning. If you tell us that after learning in the yeshiva they will go to a university to become doctors, lawyers or accountants and become productive citizens, then we can give you money to support them. If not, we can’t waste our money on them.”
Rav Gershon was surprised, but not shocked. He knew that these people were not supportive of his way of life, but he could not tolerate the way they mocked yeshivos and bochurim. He stood up and proclaimed, “In this yeshiva, we will develop mentchen!”
Until that point, the leader had been firm, but polite. Suddenly, however, he turned red, pounded on the table, and raised his voice. “Don’t tell me about mentchen!” he hollered, rolling up his sleeve to show the numbers tattooed on his arm, revealing that he was a survivor of the Nazi atrocities.
“You are not the only one who survived the camps,” he continued. “I also went through them. I saw what life was like there. I witnessed the way people acted. We were nothing more than animals struggling to survive. Now, all humanity, all mentchlichkeit, is gone! I’m sorry, but our answer is no!”
Rav Gershon quietly left the room. He walked back and forth for a few moments and then, suddenly, made a beeline toward the meeting room. He informed the secretary that he had to speak to the committee again. She politely explained that he had his chance and there were others who needed the time. Rav Gershon promised her that he was done asking for money and just wanted to tell the committee members in the room a story. He walked in and this is what he said:
“If you don’t want to give me money, I understand. But you said that there are no more mentchen. That’s not true, however, for I was privileged to be among a group of them in the war.”
This was his story:
We worked fourteen-hour days in the camp. The labor broke us, body and spirit. There were many who did not survive. Even those who did were forced to degrade ourselves to walk down into a ditch to retrieve our “food.” It wasn’t much, a paltry bowl of murky, muddy soup. We were each given a bowl and made our way toward the large container. When we got there, our masters would put a ladleful of soup into our bowls, bark at us, and send us on our way.
Holding our bowls, we had to walk back up the hill, contending with the throngs of people who were rushing to get to their meal. They were also starving and unable to take us into account as we carefully walked with our bowls. By the time we got to the top of the hill, there were only a few spoonsful left in our bowls.
There was an older fellow who had lost his will to live. His whole family had died and he was all alone. He just wanted to die and be with his family again. But we would encourage him every day, and we would help him down into the pit to get his soup.
But one day, it seemed that the man’s spark had been extinguished, and all of his spirit was completely sapped. More than ever, he looked as though he had one foot in the grave. And no matter how hard we tried, we could not convince him to go down to get his food. We knew that if he did not get some nourishment, he would die.
Suddenly, we saw a man emerge from the throngs with two bowls of soup. Since he was walking toward us, for a second we thought he had gone to get some food for this man. But as soon as we saw that he was not coming toward us, we asked him if he would be able to share one of his bowls with the man who was dying. He looked at us defiantly and refused. “Over here, it’s each man for himself.”
It did not take long. Within a couple hours, the old man was dead. That night, we didn’t eat supper. Instead, we took the lonely man’s body and buried it.
Rav Gershon turned once more to the group and said sharply, “Don’t tell me that there are no longer mentchen. That group of bnei Torah gave up everything for a fellow Jew. And he was a stranger.”
The leader of the group started crying as Rav Gershon finished the story. At first, the tears trickled slowly and quietly down his cheeks. And then he began to sob. And through his tears, he blurted out, “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help myself. We were starving and I thought that I would die. I was the fellow with the two bowls. You are right. Among your kind, there are still mentchen.”
The man said that he would give much more than Rav Gershon asked for and added, “Yes, Rabbi Libman, you are correct. Even in the darkest moments and the most difficult times, there are still those who are able to shine.”
That’s our heritage. That’s who we are. That’s the world of Torah.
Let not let the headlines or the grim prognosis get us down. Let us learn to internalize and proclaim, with confidence and joy, the words of the Brisker Rov: “Doh is lichtig!”