Prisoners on An Empty Ship

The lights did not go on in Heichal Hatarbut that evening. The sounds of music and singing weren’t heard and the stars did not perform on stage. What could have been a most enjoyable event that could raise much-needed funds for a most worthy cause was unfortunately canceled. Instead of light, there was darkness in the hall. Instead of a nice crowd, there was emptiness. And in place of music, there was silence.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Ezra Lemarpeh is a chesed organization in Eretz Yisroel that helps people from all walks of life – men, women, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, chareidi and secular – get the best medical treatment available. It is a place where people with health issues turn to for referrals and advice. How comforting it is to know that there are competent people available to help them in their time of need.

It is led by Rabbi Elimelech Firer, a Belzer chossid and an incredible human being, who has dedicated his life to helping others. He is a self-taught human encyclopedia with energy and devotion, often working 20-hour days that start with a learning seder at four in the morning. He has received honorary degrees from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Bar-Ilan University, among other accolades.

So what caused the cancellation of this fundraising concert? The fact that Rabbi Firer insisted that in accordance with halacha, there be no female performers. Unfortunately, there were rabble-rousers who saw this as a great opportunity to protest this crime of inequality for women, and they called upon the performers to boycott the event. It didn’t take long for the media to hop on the bandwagon, and they had a field day fighting the battle against “hadarat nashim,” exclusion of women. Amidst the brouhaha, chareidim were bombarded with vile insults, being called “archaic,” “primitive,” and a multitude of other invectives.

In the end, Rabbi Firer, wanting to avoid controversy, asked that the event be canceled. Of course, this meant a financial loss for the organization, as money had to be refunded to those who purchased tickets and people who were involved in preparing for the concert had to be paid. No, there was no music or action on stage that night, but in its place emerged light and music of another kind. Instead of the sohu vavohu, the emptiness brought about by the agitators, vayehi ohr, the light of kiddush sheim Shomayim created by Reb Elimelech shone bright. He showed everyone that under no circumstances would he compromise halacha and Torah values, even if it meant a monetary loss.

When the dust settled, Rabbi Firer went back to doing what he does best: caring about people and helping them. This unfortunate incident did not slow him down in the slightest. It reminded me of a beautiful vort that I saw recently.

After Avrohom Avinu beseeched Hashem not to destroy Sedom and it became clear that Hashem would not grant his request, we learn in the posuk, “Hashem departed when he had finished speaking to Avrohom and Avrohom returned to his place” (Bereishis 18:33). The Shinover Rebbe, Rav Yechezkel Halberstam, explains that Avrohom Avinu fought a battle on behalf of the Sedomites. He davened and he pleaded. He put his entire neshamah into saving them, but in the end he was unsuccessful.

Avrohom was disappointed, but what was his reaction? He didn’t sulk. He did not become discouraged and he didn’t falter in his avodah in the slightest. “Avrohom returned to his place.” Hashem listened to his pleas and He answered, “No.” So Avrohom returned right back again to doing what he always did. He served the Borei Olam with the same energy and dedication as he did before.

This is a most accurate description of Rabbi Firer’s reaction to the controversy. He remains unflappable and went right back to his holy work.

Our initial reaction to this incident is to loathe those responsible for ruining such a good thing for others and for fanning the flames of discord and hate. But in truth, they are not to be detested, but rather pitied. We should feel sad for them, as they are our brethren, especially since they cannot be totally faulted for their behavior, for they are chained prisoners on a ship and find it impossible to get off. What ship do we speak of?

It was a Monday morning in Chevron of 1953. A shiny black Cadillac pulled up in front of the home of the Chazon Ish and out of it stepped then-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Members of the news media and photographers were stationed all around to report on this major event, a meeting between the leader of chareidi Jewry and that of secular Israelis. This get-together was taking place amidst the great controversy of the time, giyus banos, the drafting of women into military service, a major clash between two societies.

The meeting was held in total privacy and reporters were unsuccessful in getting any information about the discussion. A while later, though, Ben-Gurion did divulge a snippet of their talk, a precious gem from the Chazon Ish.

The prime minister asked the gadol hador, “Now that the medinah has been established and Jews are living together under one government that has to enforce rules and regulations, how do we proceed? There are two categories of Jews, the religious and nonreligious, who must learn to coexist in peace. How can we live in unity?”

The implication was that someone will have to compromise their ideals.

The Chazon Ish answered: “We learn in the Gemara that if two ships are sailing in the river, one laden with merchandise and the other empty, and there isn’t enough room for both of them to pass a narrow area side by side, then the empty ship must give way to the full one and let it pass first (Sanhedrin 32b). Our ship, the ship of Yisroel sabbah, laden with a mesorah of years of kiddush Hashem and mesirus nefesh for upholding the Torah, has encountered the empty ship of secularists in the narrow straits of our era. There is no room for compromise. There is no room for the two to coexist. The clashing of the two ships is unavoidable. If so, who will yield to whom?”

These words emanating from the Urim Vetumim were spoken with total calm and with a smile. The Chazon Ish was frail and hunched over, but his wondrous eyes and his holy demeanor exuded incredible inner strength. The prime minister was stunned by this piercing answer, emerging from the meeting amazed by the greatness and wisdom of the Chazon Ish (Pe’er Hador, Volume 5, Page 57).

We wonder: Why such hatred? Why the vitriol? Why the ugliness displayed against such a beloved man and an organization that is so dedicated to assisting others? Why ruin this event when doing so is self-defeating? Chances are that over the years, they or their relatives would benefit from it, as to date over 1 million people have been helped by Ezra Lemarpeh? Why cut off your nose to spite your face?

Because they are products of the empty ship. “Vehabor reik ein bo mayim – The pit was empty; no water was in it” (Bereishis 37:24). Chazal say, “No water was in it, but it did have snakes and scorpions in it” (Shabbos 22a). The Vilna Gaon explains that the water represents Torah. Where there is a void of Torah, the emptiness does not remain a vacuum. Rather, it becomes filled with snakes and scorpions, foreign ideologies, desires, and bad middos, including hatred for those who are steadfast in keeping the Torah. Even the holy Tanna Rebbi Akiva remarked that when he was an am haaretz, he said, “Who will bring me a talmid chochom so that I can bite him like a donkey” (Pesachim 49b).

If this description of the empty ship was true in the times of the Chazon Ish, then it is most certainly true today. At least in those days the secular camp could fool themselves into thinking that their ship was full with the idea of building a Zionist state, but today, secularists are a far cry from staunch Zionists. In what has been called the “post-Zionist era,” many of them have no particular attachment to the land and they detest their government much as the progressives in America detest theirs.

Every person needs a purpose to live for and a cause to be dedicated to. Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu that we have Hashem and the Torah, and we are devoted to perpetuating sacred values to future generations. But those who unfortunately don’t follow the Torah have to find other gods to worship, other causes for which to sacrifice themselves. These include women’s equality, climate change, and the like. In fact, they will turn ugly, abusive, and even violent against those who don’t sympathize with their cause.

The good news is that while their vessel is emptier than ever, there are people jumping ship. We must be grateful to the kiruv organizations and the networks that spread Torah to those who were never exposed to it before. Great strides are being made and many Israelis are returning to their heritage or at least gaining an appreciation of the Torah way of life.

The Medrash tells us that even when the Yevonim wanted to enter the Bais Hamikdosh to plunder its treasures, they said, “Let one of the Jews enter first.” They spotted a Hellenized Jew by the name of Yosef Meshisa and told him, “Go in and you can take out anything your heart desires.” Yosef audaciously walked straight into the Heichal and walked out carrying the menorah. The Yevonim were taken aback by the brazenness of this Jew and said to him, “That is not for simple people. Go in again and whatever you take is yours.”

Suddenly, Yosef felt ill at ease returning and declined the offer. They insisted that he reenter and he continued to refuse. They threatened him and finally tortured him, but he said, “Is it not enough that I angered my Creator once? Must I anger Him again?” And he died al kiddush Hashem.

The Ponovezher Rov asked: What suddenly happened to Yosef Meshisa? Just a few moments before, he impudently entered the Bais Hamikdosh, willing to defile its holy vessels, yet he instantly became a martyr al kiddush Hashem. What prompted this drastic transformation? The Rov answered that in between, he entered the Bais Hamikdosh and came in direct contact with kedusha. That alone brought about this amazing change.

Contact with kedusha can work wonders and is capable of bringing back even the most vehement secularist. May we merit seeing the day when the spotlights go on again, as Hashem shines a new light on Tzion and we will together sing a shirah chadasha to Hashem.