Tuesday, Jun 11, 2024

The Arbiter of Reality

A collective sigh of relief was heard when the cease-fire was announced last week, bringing an end to the most recent Palestinian attack on Eretz Yisroel, without a full-fledged war. The tension for acheinu bais Yisroel in Eretz Yisroel dissipated as life began returning to normal for Israel's citizens. Keeping the peace and stopping the rain of missiles was a definite immediate accomplishment, but on another level, many were wondering what Israel's prime minister was thinking when he set up a major confrontation, massing tens of thousands of soldiers and preparing his country for war, only to back down and hand Hamas a moral, if not a real, victory. Once again, terror paid off.

Israel’s prime minister, the very one blessed with superb communicative skills and with a clear grasp of regional politics, was outmaneuvered. With bravado and pomp, he posed and postured, flexing his muscles this way and that. He unleashed his soldiers and reserves, marching to the front lines of a showdown, only to capitulate, allowing Hamas to claim victory and the newest rosha on the block, Mohamed Morsi, to gain international accolades.

Did we want war? Certainly not. But what happened, or didn’t happen, last week on Israel’s Gaza border serves as yet another reminder that we are in golus, and that we cannot rely on politicians for peace, harmony, serenity and quality of life.


This year, once again, as Parshas Vayishlach arrives, the world around us is spinning out of control and we are in desperate need of clarity in understanding how to deal with brothers who stab us in the back, those who rule over us, as well as neighbors who would love for us to disappear.


The parshiyos of the Torah and their lessons are ever-relevant to us in our daily lives in more ways than we can imagine.


Take for example this week’s parsha of Vayishlach. The famous Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 78:15) quoted and explained by the Ramban (33:15) relates that when Rabi Yannai would have dealings with the Roman government, he would learn this parsha before setting out on his mission. This was because Chazal had a tradition that this parsha is the parsha of golus, from which Jews are to learn for all time how to conduct themselves in exile. From the subtleties of the exchange between Yaakov and Eisov, the chachomim would formulate the proper angle, hashkofah and negotiating positions to survive under Roman domination.


The stories that are recorded in the Torah are there for us to study and relate to our lives. Yaakov conducted himself in this way with Eisov because it was the proper way to deal with him and to teach for eternity how to deal with the various Eisovs that Jews have been confronting ever since.


The Ramban, in fact, writes at the beginning of his peirush on Parshas Vayishlach that this parsha was written so that we may learn from it, because everything that happened to Yaakov vis-à-vis Eisov will continuously transpire to his descendants. Throughout his peirush, the Ramban offers various lessons we can apply.


The Maharshal, quoted in the sefer Tzeidah Laderech, says that we find that as a reward for Yaakov’s mesirus nefesh to return for the pachim ketanim, Hakadosh Boruch Hu repaid him through the small pach found by the Chashmonaim, through which the Chanukah miracle transpired. The seeds of the Chanukah renewal were planted by Yaakov avinu when he was left alone, in this week’s parsha.


The Megaleh Amukos discusses an instance recorded in last week’s parsha. After confronting Yaakov following his attempt to flee, Lavan called upon Yaakov to forge a bris with him (Bereishis 31:44). Yaakov and his sons made a pile of stones and called it Galeid. Lavan called it Yegar Sahadusa.


The Megaleh Amukos says that the names each one gave to the pile foretold something that would take place many years in the future. Lavan called it Yegar Sahadusa because in the 213th year of Bayis Sheini, the forces of evil would gain the upper hand and Antiyochus would slaughter a pig on the mizbeiach, defiling the Bais Hamikdosh. The gematriah of the word Yegar is 213.


Yaakov called it Galeid to signify that at that time, the Chashmonaim would pray to the One Who heard the prayers of Shmuel Hanovi on Har Gilod. Their prayers would be heard and they would be empowered to defeat Antiyochus and the Yevonim.


Yaakov and Eisov. Yaakov and Lavan. Eternal battles being fought and refought throughout the ages, all foretold in the Torah to those who properly study it.


The Alter of Novardok was mekareiv Rav Yechezkel Abramsky when he was a young bochur learning in his yeshiva. One day, the Alter said to him, “Muster’l (an endearing term referring to the bochur’s hometown of Must), do want to know how to be able to discern the will of Hashem for the rest of your life? I’ll teach you how to do that. The secret is to always remember that there is no reality other than what is written in the Torah.”


The famed mussar personality proved this concept to the bochur by quoting him the famous Gemara in Maseches Gittin (56a) which discusses the period when Vespasian besieged Yerushalayim prior to the churban. Chazal recognized that there was no way the Jews would be able to defeat the Romans and therefore sought to make peace with them.


The Baryonim, the tough guys, refused to accept the ruling of the rabbis, insisting that they had the strength to withstand the Roman might. They sought war. They prevented the rabbis from leaving the city to meet the Romans. When the rabbis refused to permit them to wage war on Rome, the Baryonim burned all the food that had been stored to withstand the Roman blockade. They thought that by doing so, they would force the people to fight the Romans, lest they die of starvation. A famine ensued in Yerushalayim.


Abba Sikra, head of the Baryonim in Yerushalayim, was the nephew of Rabbon Yochanon ben Zakai, the gadol hador. Abba Sikra was called to a secret meetingwith his uncle, who succeeded in convincing him that the understanding of the rabbis was the correct one. Although he was won over, Abba Sikra feared his own followers and was frightened to inform them that he had been convinced that the plan of starving the Jews was improper. He agreed to enable Rabbon Yochanon ben Zakai to meet the Roman general, Vespasian, and helped smuggle the elderly tzaddik out of the besieged holy city in a coffin to accomplish the fateful encounter.


Finally, after placing his life in danger, Rabbon Yochanon arrived at the Roman camp. He faced the general and said to him, “Peace to you, O king.” Vespasian responded, “I condemn you to death on two counts. Firstly, I am not a king and you mock me by referring to me in that manner. Secondly, if I am a king, why did you wait until now to come to speak with me?”


Rabbon Yochanon calmly responded, “The truth is that you are destined to be a king, for it can be derived from several pesukim that Yerushalayim will be destroyed by a king.” He quoted four pesukim to back up his contention and, through a gezeirah shavah, proved to him that Yerushalayim will be conquered by a king.


The Gemara recounts the rest of the conversation, including the fact that their meeting was interrupted by the arrival of a messenger from Rome announcing that the Caesar had died and Vespasian had been appointed the new leader. He granted Rabbon Yochanon ben Zakai two wishes, which ultimately preserved the transmission of Torah. 


The Alter turned to Chatzkel Muster and analyzed the story.


“Here we had the gadol hador going to meet a powerful and influential leader. Surely, he was aware that to address him as king when he wasn’t yet appointed to that position was a crime. Couldn’t Rabbon Yochanon ben Zakai have prepared a compelling argument for mercy towards the Jews, or a speech explaining the position of the Jews, and thus seek to negotiate conditions they could live with? After all, wasn’t that the purpose of his trip? Didn’t basic diplomacy call for a better approach than telling the general about a gezeirah shavah he had darshened?


“Muster’l,” said the Alter, “the explanation is that to Rabbon Yochanon ben Zakai there was no metzius, no reality, other than the words of the Torah. To him, the gezeirah shavah wasn’t merely some esotericdrasha, but rather life and truth itself, as real as heaven and earth, and it was the most natural thing to express the ideas gleaned from words of Torah.”


Since Rabbon Yochanan understood from the pesukim that Vespasian would become king, it was as real as could be and there was no danger in referring to him as such. Torah is the arbiter of reality.


And with this we arm ourselves. We have the knowledge that there is only one reality and it isn’t established by the United Nations, self-serving diplomats, generals or tough guys. The reality of the world is shaped and gleaned from Torah. Anything else is false, and while it may possess momentary glitter, it is doomed to be exposed as fiction.


A similar lesson on a different level can be learned from a halachic ruling of the Chazon Ish. A widow living alone sought to rent half of her four-room apartment. She was negotiating with a family of ten children, and though no deal was signed, they had already agreed upon a price. Along came a young couple about to get married and an agreement was reached to rent the apartment.


The head of the large family called the young chosson to a din Torah. He said that the chosson was a rosha, as he had transgressed on the sin referred to as “oni hamehapeich bacharorah, grabbing a cookie away from a poor, hungry person,” and that he must relent and permit the large family to move in to the home. The chosson said that the widow preferred renting to him, because she was afraid of all the noise the ten children would cause and didn’t know if she would be able to handle it.


Rav Yisroel Grossman, in his sefer Halichos Yisroel (45), writes that he was asked this shailoh. He ruled that there is no rule of “oni hamehapeich bacharorah” in this case, for just as there is an obligation to protect the rights of a [potential] renter, we must also observe “ve’osisa hayoshor vehatov, to do what is correct and proper.” Since the widow is definitely better off renting to the young couple, the correct and proper thing to do would be to permit her to do so. 


Rav Grossman writes that a short time after issuing his ruling, he visited the Chazon Ish and discussed the case with him. The Chazon Ish responded that even though in theory it sounded like he had ruled properly, he should research the issue in teshuvah seforim, for if the poskim rule differently than he did, then “the correct and proper” course of action is different than what we would assume it is. What is “correct and proper,” said the Chazon Ish, is to follow the ruling and the understanding of the Torah, for it is always yoshor and always tov.


Often times, we think that we understand better than others and that our comprehension is borne out by the truth, but, in fact, we must begin by analyzing the teachings of the Torah, for that is the only way to properly and correctly arrive at the ultimate truth.


The story is told of a high-ranking Hungarian military leader who came to visit the town of Satmar during the time that Rav Yoel Teitelbaum served as the town’s rov. Of course, the military leader was taken to meet therov, who received him and his delegation with great respect. The table was set beautifully and the local baalei batim filled the room in honor of the visitors.


The general was a man of regal bearing, with a well-tailored uniform and a chest covered with an impressive array of medals and ribbons. At some point during the meeting, the rov detected that the townspeoplewere becoming enamored by the guest, taken in by his regal uniform, his medals and the seeming strength he exuded. The general spoke and everyone gathered close to hear his every word.


The Satmar Rov became annoyed. He leaned over to his people and said softly but strong enough for them to hear, “Voss zogt ehr, der mit di yedei Eisov?” His words were like a pin puncturing the aura surrounding the general.


Someone who was present later related, “In one instant, our enchantment with the visitor disappeared, because the rebbe, without offending the visitor, opened our eyes to the truth, the reality that we are an am hanivchar, and the visitor, decent an individual as he may have been, wasn’t as fortunate as we were. We felt that we were on a higher level, that we were better, even though he seemed to have more power than us.”


In the darkness of the exile we are tested when we see the wicked prosper and the righteous trampled upon, says the Ramchal in Da’as Tevunos. We see fiction gaining and the truth seems beat. It appears as if there is no one in charge keeping score and exacting punishment upon those who employ treachery, debauchery and lies to advance themselves and their causes. Those who are loyal, honest and decent are mocked as being foolish, as they don’t reap the rewards of the pragmatic world, and we wonder why. But such is the pattern of golus, tempting us to forsake our fidelity to the truth of Torah.


The Satmar Rovreminded his people that even when respect and deference are called for, we must never forget that we are marching toward eternal triumph, to a much higher place and towards a glorious destiny. Our steps are foretold and taught in the Torah. They are those of truth, while all the rest, as impressive as they may seem at the moment, are folly, here today and gone tomorrow.


And so here we are once again. Iran has already begun rearming Hamas with advanced weaponry. The celebrants in the Gaza Strip are already preparing for the next war, Rachmona litzlon. The nations of the world, professing to care about us, are commending Israel for showing restraint, patting the hapless Jews on the head, smug that the Jewish people are once again at their mercy.


When Yaakov bid his brother Eisov farewell, he said that since he was traveling with his children, he would have to move slowly. He told Eisov not to wait for him and that he would meet him in Se’ir. The Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah, 78:14), cited by Rashi and the Ramban, says that this meeting will take place at the time of Moshiach, as the posuk states, “Ve’olu moshiim beHar Tzion lishpot es Har Eisov.”


Until then, we are bein ho’amim, just as we have always been. The way we deal with national and personal enemies is by studying what our parents, grandparents and forefathers did in similar situations and recognizing our limitations in ability and intelligence.


And now, as then, we cry out the words of our forefather, Yaakov Avinu.


“Hatzileini na!Hashem, save us!”


So may it be, speedily in our days.



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