But he made another point as well. Imagine, he told the bochurim, the feelings of a mother of a combat soldier passing by the shuk for the Dalet Minim and witnessing a group of yeshiva students examining lulavim and esrogim with a magnifying glass, as if there were nothing else going on in the world besides finding a mehudar lulav and esrog.
Rav Chaim’s empathy for the feelings of others is a quality that could use strengthening in our world.
But the failure implicit in Friedman’s account goes beyond a simple lack of empathy or ability to perceive a situation from the point of view of others. It was also a failure to identify with the suffering of one’s fellow Jews.
From the time that he learned of the Holocaust in Europe, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l never again ate meat. During World War II, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l followed a schedule that required him to spend almost every night on a train. Only on leil Shabbos did he sleep in a bed. “How can I sleep in a bed when my brothers are sleeping on the ground?” he asked.
I’m not suggesting that the responses of Rav Shraga Feivel or of Rav Dessler are halachic requirements or normative for most Jews. But their sensitivities should be.
I remember listening to a hesped given by Rav Moshe Eisenmann for Rav Yehudah Naftali Mandelbaum, a remarkable mechanech in Baltimore. The Mandelbaum family went on an annual camping trip, to which every member of the family looked forward all year. The first Lebanon War broke out just before the family was scheduled to leave on vacation.
Though the Mandelbaums were over 6,000 miles away from the scene of combat, and in no position to render any tangible contribution to the war effort, Rabbi Mandelbaum approached Rabbi Eisenmann, who had been his high school rebbi in Philadelphia Yeshiva, and told him that he could not reconcile himself to going on vacation while Jewish boys were dying. And he didn’t.
What bothered Friedman about the yeshiva bochurim he picked up was that they had apparently experienced no such feelings. And that lack of identification hurt him.
The third lesson from the interview is that we are sending messages all the time, and we never know what the impact of those messages will be. Whatever the actual impact of the above story on Friedman’s opinions today, the fact that it still rankles tells us something significant.
A heightened awareness of the impact of the messages we are conveying and how they are being received would, at the very least, prevent us from continually playing into the hands of our enemies. Many secular Israelis are of the impression that chareidim believe that Israel does not need an army at all, and that our Torah learning is a magic force field protecting Israel from all harm.
Most chareidim recognize that the interplay between the role of the army and that of Torah learning is a complex one, largely beyond our understanding absent ruach hakodesh. They learn Tanach and realize that the Torah includes laws of warfare and that the conquest of Eretz Yisroel was achieved by an army.
There were periods in Jewish history rife with idol worship – e.g., the generation of Achav – and Jewish armies enjoyed great success because of one positive trait. There were other periods of repeated military setbacks, despite a much higher general spiritual level.
We know from the Torah itself that an army is also a necessary component of national defense. At the beginning of Parshas Mattos, we read three times “a thousand from each tribe.” The Medrash explains the threefold repetition as referring to three different groups of one thousand from each tribe – one thousand to fight in the battles, one thousand to form the rearguard and guard the supplies, and one thousand to pray. Each group was an indispensable part of a successful Jewish army.
At present, we are doing a poor job of conveying our hakoras hatov for the sacrifices of Jewish soldiers.
In his parsha shiur last week, the Tolna Rebbe speculated about the causes of the gezeirah hanging over the heads of the entire yeshiva world. He called upon the chareidi public to openly express our appreciation for those Jews in uniform whose blood is being spilled for us as well, and suggested that our failure to adequately do so might lie behind the current gezeirah.
I’m not much given to speculation about Hashem’s calculations. But if the Tolna Rebbe detects a failure in regard to our expression ofhakoras hatov, I’m prepared to take that quite seriously.