Protest!

In Parshas Vayigash, we read of the emotional climax of Yosef’s revelation to his brothers. Yehudah’s desperate plea prompted Yosef to drop his disguise and reveal his identity. Before their shocked eyes, the powerful viceroy of Egypt was revealed as their long-lost brother.

Yosef tearfully told them not to fear retribution for selling him into slavery. The Divine plan in his odyssey was now plain for all to see. He asked that they hurriedly return to Yaakov Avinu and inform him that his beloved son Yosef was alive and reigned as a leader in Egypt. He gave them aggalos, wagons, with which to make the trip and loaded them up with all types of goodies.

Yosef admonished them, “Al tirgezu baderech, do not tarry along the way.” A little further on, the posuk relates that when Yaakov saw that Yosef had sent aggalos with which to transport him to Mitzrayim, his spirit was revived.

Why was he revived? The wagons were sent to take him away from Eretz Yisroel into golus. Yaakov should have been upset that he was leaving the Promised Land. Indeed, he was. It was only the assurance of Hakadosh Boruch Hu, who appeared to Yaakov and told him not to fear going down to Mitzrayim, “for I will be going down with you and will bring you back,” that allayed his distress.

The Medrash cited by Rashi explains that the aggalos bore a hidden message from Yosef to his beloved father that he still remembered the sugya of eglah arufah that they had studied together. But why send that message via wagons? Why not send it straightforwardly through one of his brothers?

Perhaps his action also contains an eternal hidden message. Yosef knew that the prospect of going into exile would be difficult for Yaakov and the shevotim. When he said, “Al tirgezu baderech,” don’t become angry on the journey back home, he was referring also to the future golus. He was saying that although the path through golus will be long and painful, do not get angry. Remember that Hashem sent you there as part of a Divine plan. Despite the hardships and sorrows, cling to the path of Torah until your redemption.

The aggalos communicated an important guarantee – that the trip through the exile would be bearable if the Jewish people bear aloft the Torah’s message. If we carry the sugyos of Shas with us, if we do not lose sight of our ultimate goal and destination, we will succeed. The Torah must remain uppermost in our memories and in everything that we do.

Yaakov was upset that he was forced once again to leave the home of his fathers. He knew that he was going down the path of exile, which would only end with the arrival of Moshiach. Yet, when he saw that despite all Yosef had endured in his own private golus, he had kept alive in his heart the sugyos they had studied together, “Vatechi ruach Yaakov avihem,” Yaakov’s spirit regenerated. From this he drew comfort and reassurance that the Jews would persevere in the long and bitter exile. He sent Yehudah ahead of him to Mitzrayim to open a yeshiva to sustain the Jews during their exile there.

Chanukah has ended, but its memory and message must linger long in our hearts. Even after the menorahs are returned to their respective shelves, their flames ought to flicker on in our hearts. The battle that Chanukah commemorates resurges in every age, including our own.

The words we said every day of Chanukah, “ufortzu chomos migdolai,” mirror a new breach, one that many regard apathetically, but one against which those familiar with history and its ramifications will take a vigilant, united stand.

We live in America, a country that has afforded our people unprecedented freedom and opportunity in the exile. Religious Jews have attained high positions in government and industry. There are billionaires and titans of industry who are openly and unapologetically religious.

Religious Jews in New York are well-represented in the halls of academia, in government, and in business, where yarmulkas worn by real estate executives are as prominent as the landmark properties they own.

We have come a long way. We forget that we are in golus. We forget that we are guests of a foreign land.

Every few years, we are served with a reminder.

One such reminder is the current threat facing yeshivos in New York State. The state is asserting authority over all religious schools within its borders. It has conditioned their continued right to exist on a vote of the local school board. It imposed a curriculum that all yeshivos must teach, with a list of required courses for each grade level. It specified how long each class must last. And it directed local school districts to evaluate the faculty teaching at yeshivos.

If that’s not bad enough, these regulations require that yeshiva students in grades 5-8 receive seven hours of secular education every school day.

The educational system that yeshivos in the United States have always used, in which students study religious subjects in the morning and secular subjects in the afternoons, has now effectively been deemed unacceptable.

In announcing the new rules, the state threatened that it will cut off all funding to yeshivos if they do not adopt the new rules. Yeshivos will lose millions of dollars of funding and will be forced to turn to already overtaxed parents to make up the shortfall. Education will suffer, schools will suffer, rabbeim and teachers will suffer, and children will suffer. Most importantly, chinuch as we know it will suffer.

Not only that, but the State Education Commissioner has announced that parents whose children attend non-compliant yeshivos will be given four to six weeks to move their children to another yeshiva. After that, the State threatens to charge yeshiva parents with truancy.

Although this will affect every yeshiva in New York State, so far our community’s response has been apathetic. We seem to think that we are immune from the harms that can emanate from the halls of power in Albany and elsewhere. We think that our politicians actually like us, as opposed to treating us as just another ethnic group that is coddled before elections and otherwise ignored.

We think that the people in charge will recognize the value of the education our yeshivos provide and how well yeshiva students rate on national tests and Regents exams. We think that they will notice and appreciate the value Jewish people have placed on education for millennia. We think that they will notice the successes of yeshiva students in professions or pursuits they seek.

But thinking such thoughts is folly. The State Education Department knew what it was doing when it enacted these new rules. They ignored numerous pleas to work with our community to accommodate our chinuch system.

Leading rabbonim traveled to Albany to meet with the state education commissioner. Instead of understanding, she gave them the cold shoulder. They were spoken to instead of listened to, and their arguments were unceremoniously ignored.

The lights of the neiros are gone, but their flame must continue to illuminate the darkness. We pride ourselves on the amazing accomplishments of Jews throughout political and socio-economic spheres. Many often point to the fact that yeshiva students go on to become doctors, lawyers, accountants, successful business owners, real estate moguls, CEOs, CFOs, and leaders in every form of endeavor. And we think that we are safe here.

To be sure, this country has been the most welcoming host in our long golus history. The United States is a bedrock of democracy, decency, kindness and freedom of all types, especially freedom of religion.

Regrettably, there are instances even here when we receive the golus treatment. Most recently, we have been forced to battle government leaders over bris milah, despite the falsity of the government’s claims.

This week marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald J. Trump’s commutation of the sentence of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, who prominently suffered from injustice. We came together as a people and prayed hard as we worked diligently to advance the cause of truth. Hashem heard our prayers, felt our pain, and allowed our efforts to succeed.

We need to feel the same urgency now.

Throughout the ages, governments have attempted to curtail our study of Torah and portray us as backward and non-functioning citizens when we did not accept their mandates. All throughout history, those attempts have failed, as will this attempt by New York State. But those victories required the sweat and tears of many, and the endless advocacy of our cause, with leading rabbis of the day working together with laymen to fight Maskilim and governments.

Nobody wants a return to that. Nobody wants to be forced to go down the road of engaging in desperate struggles. But Torah is our lifeblood. Torah is what we are all about. We must be able to educate our children in Torah, the bedrock of our faith. Nothing anybody does will deter us from teaching our children as we have been taught, as Jews have been taught ever since Sinai, and before.

We cannot sit by quietly as this battle unfolds. We cannot rely on other people to work this out. They will not be able to accomplish much if we do not respectfully and responsibly, collectively and individually, voice our protest.

When the dictates of bureaucracy begin to govern our spirituality, our religious integrity has been compromised and the walls of our tower have been breached. “Ufortzu chomos migdolai.”

We get so comfortable that we forget the message of the aggalos. We lose sight of our mission and our goal. We forget that we are on a treacherous path in golus that requires constant vigilance, and at times we need to fight for the truth so that we can preserve our way of life.

We need reminders so that our spirits can be lifted and we can return home. Let the image of the flames of the Chanukah menorah burn brightly in our memory, so that we remember that at the end of the day, victory belongs not to those who boast of numbers, status or militarily might, but those who battle for what is right and true.

Just as the Yevonim were defeated despite their determination to separate us from the Torah, so too, in our times, modern-day warriors who engage in this fight for the transmission of Torah and education of our growing community of school-aged children should be rewarded with much nachas and the consecration of the Bais Hamikdosh, speedily and in our day.

 

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