Monday, Jun 10, 2024

Shivyon Banetel- An Emunah-Based Response

The movement to draft bnei Torah in Eretz Yisroel, under the banner of shivyon banetel, “sharing the burden,” has sent tremors throughout our world. And rightfully so: Any threat to the independent character of yeshivos, and the authority of their leaders to dictate the terms of Torah chinuch, is indeed a mortal blow. What is our response? Is there a counter-attack that we, as a community of ma'aminim bnei ma'aminim, can mount?

The instinct to condemn the “memsheles zadon,” the “government of iniquity,” which brought about this crisis is instinctive. It also fits right in with the political landscape through which the insidious legislative process is unfolding.


However, there is another dimension to this struggle, which may have transformative power. Drawing upon it will also enable us to speak in our own voice, rather than the acrimony that is bred in the context of political confrontation. Rather than just reacting to our detractors, we can set the terms of the discussion and speak with the strength that flows from the deepest sources of our identity. We can speak about emunah.


Let us step back for a moment and attempt to look at the broader panorama.  


Two dramas are unfolding in Eretz Yisroel at the same time, one internal and one primarily external. Each one generates deep concern, but they tend to be treated separately. It is time to integrate these two narratives.


The turmoil within the Israeli system occurs as the threats from the surrounding areas have never been more intense. (One doesn’t have to be a novi to wonder if indeed these two phenomena are connected…) Iran, by all indications, is closing in on a nuclear capability. The chaos in Syria threatens to veer out of control, with the Lebanese Hezbollah mobilized and gaining battlefield experience by their intervention, while Hamas continues to deny any acceptance of a Jewish entity in “Palestine.”


Granted, it is an enormous chessed min haShomayim that at least for the meantime, these forces are entangled in their own conflicts, and are directing their hatred and weaponry toward each other. (May they all be matzliach!)


But we dare not forget that the one theme that has the potential to unite Sunni and Shiite, secularists and jihadists, is the destruction of what they term the “Zionist Entity.” How long can we hope that they will remain mired in their own battles?


What is the Hashgochah Elyonah, which we know is orchestrating this frightening situation, demanding of us?


This writer remembers vividly the weeks leading up to the Six Day War in 1967. The fear of total destruction was palpable. Chevra kadishas throughout Eretz Yisroel were preparing areas for the creation of many new graveyards, r”l. And when chasdei Shomayim granted a yeshuah, tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of baalei teshuvah emerged from that chessed.


As the velt says, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.”


Now, once again, incredible tensions are contributing to a situation where all of Eretz Yisroel is taking on the character of a foxhole. What does this mean to us?


The mashgiach of Be’er Yaakov, Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l, often said that without a doubt, Klal Yisroel is being forced by the Hashgochah Elyonah to recognize that the Jewish nation does not live by natural forces. The mechanisms that govern the fate of other nations do not dictate our fate. History, and especially the events in and around Eretz Yisroel, demand that we, as a nation, come to terms with our spiritual essence in order to survive and flourish.


What is the way forward?


Chazal teach us in the beginning of Eichah Rabbah (Pesichtah 2): “Rebbi (Rav Yehuda Hanosi) used to send Rav Ami and Rav Asi to make improvements in the cities of Eretz Yisroel. They would enter a city and say to them, ‘Bring us the neturei karta’ (the guardians of the city). The townspeople would then bring the policemen and the watchmen. Then Rav Ami and Rav Asi said to them, ‘These are the guardians of the city?! These are the destroyers of the city!’


“The people would then ask, ‘Who, then, are the guardians of the city?’


“The rabbis responded, ‘The teachers of the Written and Oral Torah, who are involved in the study and review of Torah both day and night.’”


The questions are obvious. First of all, granted, the rabbis wanted to emphasize the importance of the teachers of Torah to the community. But why did they accuse the police and watchmen of being destructive? Isn’t there also a place for normal hishtadlus by maintaining natural protection?


And further, why didn’t Rav Ami and Rav Asi just get to the point? They could have asked right away to see the teachers of Torah, without engaging in the subterfuge of requesting to see the “guardians.”


The message is clear. What protects Eretz Yisroel is not only the actual learning and teaching of Torah Hakedoshah. It is the emunah in the power of Torah, the awareness that Torah is ultimately the only source of protection. It is this emunah that enables all other efforts to succeed.


So if the townsfolk and the guards considered themselves to be the guardians, they are in fact destroying the city by their lack of emunah.


This, then, is the call of the hour: Declaring that the existence of yeshivos, Talmudei Torah, indeed the entire system of chinuch, is not a sectarian issue.


We are not only fighting for our own rights, to protect our children and maintain our “lifestyle.” We are struggling to protect the entire tzibbur of Yidden, Hashem yishmireim, from the threats that loom on the horizon.


One immediate advantage of this approach is to change the framework of the entire discussion. The prevailing situation, in which the chareidi world demands its rights from the system, tends to reinforce the perception that we are a selfish and self-centered community, oblivious to the sacrifices that others are making for us. Declaring the power of Torah to be a zechus for Eretz Yisroel, and protecting the entire yishuv, creates an entirely different focus.


We can reframe the discussion in our terms, revolving around the basic identity of Klal Yisroel, rather than being pulled into debate on their terms, within the political system and its patterns of debate. Let us not hesitate to speak truth to power, as our great leaders have always done.


And the times are ripe for this message.


In the aftermath of the earth-shattering events of September 11th, an interesting theme recurred in Israeli reactions. “Now the people in America have a sense of how we feel,” they said.


At that time, Israel was reeling from the horrors of the intifada. Knowing that the United States had also been victimized by terror, it could truly be expected that more understanding and empathy would emerge for what the yishuv was enduring. And that new insight will give strength to the embattled people of Israel.


But wait a minute: Wasn’t it supposed to work the other way? Wasn’t Zionism predicated on the conviction that a strong Jewish guardian state would serve as a shelter for endangered Jews around the world? It was the persecuted Jews of the exile, the quaking golus-Jew, who would draw succor from the strength and security of the New Jew of Israel!  


In truth, this quest for empathy was an unintended admission to the failure of the Zionist dream. Tragically, with each passing week, it has become clearer and clearer that rather than resolving the issue of Jewish security, new and extremely perilous challenges have emerged. The political leaders of Israel can only attempt to react as best as possible to the rapidly-shifting terrain of terror and war that threatens, r”l, to engulf them.


– – – – –


One might immediately react that this approach is hopelessly naïve. The Israeli public is secular, steeped in kefirah in the basics of emunah. So what difference will it make to tell them what we believe? 


I respectfully submit that this is not an accurate assessment. An indication that the scene is both more complex and more hopeful is eloquently expressed by something I heard many years ago from mori verabi, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Be’er Yaakov.


It was during one of the earlier times of turbulence, when there was agitation to change the status of the bnei hayeshivos and make them more accountable to the Israeli army. The rosh yeshiva was involved in the discussions between the Vaad Hayeshivos and the Israeli government. He once commented to the talmidim: “The biggest meilitz yosher (advocate) right now (within the government) on behalf of yeshivos is Moshe Dayan.”


This was a striking statement. Dayan, as historians have documented, lived a totally secularized life. His personal conduct was not reflective of the values of Jewish tradition in any sense. Yet, at the same time, he felt that the government had no right to shatter a faith that had been part of the Jewish heart and soul for thousands of years. The reverence toward talmidei chachomim is a venerable tradition and should not be discarded lightly.


We dare not forget that we are engaged not only in a political struggle, but first and foremost an ideological one. And those who are fighting against what is most precious to us are Yidden, bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok, v’Yaakov. Granted, there has always been a hard-core minority who are deeply entrenched in the doctrines of kefirah. But in the broader swaths of the population, there are many, many Jews who may not be Torah observant, but harbor at least some ambivalence toward issues of emunah.


Let us not be afraid to pose the question: Are you so totally committed to your lack of emunah that you can ignore this axiom of our Tradition? Are you, who demand “equal treatment” for bnei hayeshivos, prepared to accept responsibility for the possible consequences, chas veshalom?


Consider the following vignette:


A young man – we’ll call him Eitan – whose family lived in Bnei Brak became conflicted with his family and disenchanted with what he saw as inconsistencies in his parents’ world. One thing led to another, until he drifted completely away from his roots. He went to live on a kibbutz of Shomer Hatza’ir, and, being very bright and articulate, became a spokesman for the youth movement of Ratz, the radically anti-religious political party.


A few years later, after much soul-searching and a nearly fatal military mission in Lebanon, he ended up in Ohr Somayach of Monsey and was learning with enthusiasm. I used to speak to Eitan about his life’s journey, and he shared with me a fascinating story.


While on the kibbutz, a baby boy was born to a couple who were among the leadership elite of the kibbutz. Eitan approached them and asked them, “Are you going to give your son a brit?”


As he related to me years later, his question was really a challenge, He wanted to see if the Shomer Hatza’ir leaders were true to their anti-religious principles, and would not perform a bris. Or do they lack the courage of their convictions? The couple hemmed and hawed and said, “We’re not sure, we’ll see. You know how it is: the grandparents are pressuring, etc., etc.”


When Eitan heard that, he said to them emphatically, “I want you to know: If I ever become a chozer beteshuvah, it’s going to be your fault!”


He realized that the ideological purity that he thought he would find in the secular, anti-clerical camp was not there. There were roots that struck deep inside the Yiddishe neshamah which refused to be denied.


It took a few years, but eventually Eitan re-connected with his own roots. From Ohr Somayach he entered Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, where he was learning with hasmadah until his life was tragically cut short in a car accident.


It is within our power to shake the lack of faith of our brethren, and arouse the spark of emunah that lurks beneath the surface in so many Jewish hearts. And ultimately, this can unlock the real yeshuah for which we yearn.


– – – – –


But here is a deeper dimension to our situation.


Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l once shared a startling formula in a shmuess.


“The hatred that other nations have toward Klal Yisroel only reflects (in the inner workings of the Hashgochah) the attitude of non-believing Jews toward the community of shomrei Torah. And that attitude, in turn, is but a reflection of our own attitude to the Torah itself.”


(It is interesting to note that Rav Elya Weintraub zt”l of Bnei Brak writes the same thought in his remarkable work, Hatekufah B’sa’aras Eliyahu, section 1, based on the words of Chazal.)


Ultimately, the responsibility lies with us, those who do recognize the eternal truths of Torah and profess to live by them. Our approach to Torah and mitzvos, the sincerity and depth of our yiras Shomayim, lie at the core of the Hashgochah Elyonah. If we are whole and genuine, this will have an impact on those Jews who are not connected to emunah. And if we are lacking, this will have an impact in the other direction.


The Brisker Rov zt”l commented on the words of Yonah Hanovi, when a mighty storm threatened to sink the ship upon which he was traveling. The novi said, “I know that this calamity has befallen us because of me.” Said the Brisker Rov, this is how we must respond to similar situations. It would have been easier to point fingers at others. In Yonah’s case, the other seafarers were idol-worshipers. He could have justifiably claimed that the storm was a Heavenly warning that they must abandon their heathen beliefs. Yet he didn’t, because the Hashgochah speaks to each of us, and this is the language of emunah: Hashem is speaking to me!


Granted, we have witnessed a blossoming in the Torah world, both in Eretz Yisroel and globally, that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But so often, the success is expressed in terms of quantity: The proliferation of mosdos haTorah, the numbers of talmidim and talmidos, the size of an audience at mass events, etc. This is all true and indeed an incredible accomplishment.


Yet, there is another facet to this picture. Anyone who is “in the trenches,” whether rabbonim, mechanchim and mechanchos, or community askonim, can testify to the less visible issues that challenge our tzibbur. Kids at risk, addiction issues and crises of shalom bayis cry out for our attention and our resources. And in the chinuch process itself: Are we producing the sensitivity and idealism that are really the goal of Torah chinuch? Is the mesirus nefesh for a life of yiras Shomayim and facing nisyonos being successfully imbued in our young men and women? And are they being adequately prepared for marriage and building healthy homes? Through the mesirus nefesh of our gedolim, the community has begun to deal with the complex issues that technology has created in our generation, but it is certainly premature to declare victory.


It is not the wish or intent of this writer to chalilah be mekatreig on our community or to minimize its successes. But we must be honest with ourselves and recognize the work that still lies before us.


A pamphlet that was published several years ago in Eretz Yisroel named “Al Techet’u Bayeled” deals in depth with the issues of children at risk. The author, Rabbi Ze’ev Yaakobson of Yerushalayim, describes an incident that took place a number of years ago in Bnei Brak. An individual was speaking with the Steipler Gaon zt”l, extolling the wonderful achievements of the Torah world. He mentioned as proof of this “triumph” the number of yeshivos that cater to baalei teshuvah. “We are winning back the non-religious!” the individual said.


The Steipler responded with a note of agitation, “But we are losing more than we are gaining!”


In other words, the number of talmidim and talmidos who are dropping out of the system outweighs those who are entering…


Clearly, the Steipler was expressing that we cannot rest on our laurels and celebrate our successes without acknowledging the immense challenges that lie ahead. Instilling emunah and yiras Shomayim, producing healthy families, and inspiring our sons and daughters to genuine aliyah in Torah are daunting challenges, perhaps all the more so because of the quantitative surge in the system. It is becoming harder and harder to really reach the yochid (individual) when the sheer size of our mosdos forces stressed mechanchim to focus on the rabim.


The relevance of this reality to our current discussion is this: Chazal tell us that Eretz Yisroel is only acquired through “yissurim” (Brachos 5a). As the Maharal explains, “yissurim” in this context refers to “mussar,” lessons that are internalized to the degree that they can actually change patterns of behavior. Sometimes these lessons are painful, but the main point is not the pain, but rather the lesson that is extracted from that pain.


There is no question that the overarching challenge confronting our generation is kinyan Eretz Yisroel, the complete earning of Eretz Yisroel. The refusal of our enemies to grant legitimacy and bring security to the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel is but a reflection of a deeper process.


What is fascinating is the source that the Gemara quotes to prove that kinyan Eretz Yisroel requires yissurim. The proof is taken from the pesukim at the beginning of Parshas Eikev, where it says, “And you should know in your heart that just as a father chastises (meyaser) his son, Hashem is chastising you… Because Hashem is bringing you to a goodly land.” That means that the yissurim through which Klal Yisroel acquired Eretz Yisroel took place in the midbar, in chutz la’aretz!


Our generation has been afforded the opportunity and the challenge to find our way through what we pray are the final stages in the historical process of tzemichas hageulah. How we as a community respond, both in Eretz Yisroel and in chutz la’aretz, will be critical contributions to the rebuilding of Klal Yisroel on the foundations of emunah. As the Medrash Tanchumah says (Parshas Beshalach, 10), “The exiles will only be brought back in the s’char of emunah.” May we be worthy of playing a role in the ultimate goal of “Uva L’Tzion Goel.”


– – – – – 

Rav Kokis is the rov of Khal Zichron Mordechai in Monsey and mashgiach ruchani in several yeshivos.



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