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Thinking Large, Acting Even Larger

We are living in extraordinary times. While such a statement often seems like a cliché – doesn’t every generation think it’s special? – it seems to be growing ever more accurate. Secular historians differ concerning how to analyze unusual phenomena. Some, now defined as the old school, take the long view. “They think big, scanning the decades, centuries and even millenniums for grand patterns and enduring lessons amid the rise and fall of states, empires, economic structures, intellectual systems and world religions.” This description was used in a recent New York Times Sunday Book Review (May 16, 2021) to describe a new book entitled Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe by Niall Ferguson. This approach was contrasted with what seems to be the more popular current historical approach, which is to “focus more narrowly and then dive deep.”

What is the Torah approach to this debate? The answer is very clear. Rav Meir Simcha Hakohein of Dvinsk, author of the Ohr Somayach, establishes the correct Torah perspective in his Meshech Chochmah (Vayikra 26:44). In this commentary, one of his longest and most seminal, Rav Meir Simcha scans virtually all of Jewish history for us, drawing hashkafah and practical conclusions. He notes that Klal Yisroel has been in golus in many places, countries and empires. The common denominator is that when we built wonderful Torah institutions and were true to our faith exclusively, Hashem allowed us to remain there for long periods of time. However, when we became bored and looked for foreign cultures and even languages to broaden our horizons, Hashem arranged for us to be driven from that land before we assimilated hopelessly and irrevocably. His final word on the subject is the now-famous warning that there will come a time when we will say that “Berlin is Yerushalayim.” As he prophetically wrote well before Hitler and the Nazi era began, “there will come a violent hurricane that will uproot us from our complacency and drive us into a land where we do not speak the language…” As we now all realize, that became what we now refer to as the Holocaust and Churban Europa.

Ironically, a secular historian, no friend of the Jews, Arnold Toynbee, promulgated a similar theory that also addressed the Jewish aspect of history, but which veered in his multi-volumes into anti-Semitism and sheer nonsense. He wrote again and again that history is replete with civilizations that begin small, achieve tremendous growth, reach a pinnacle and begin to fall, reach a nadir and disappear into the dust bins of history. The problem for Toynbee was that one group didn’t fit into his self-created pattern. Klal Yisroel, as we learned from Rav Meir Simcha, did indeed often begin small in a new exile, rose and then fell, only to be exiled again. But then – unlike Toynbee’s fantasy – it did not disappear at all. This historian with a preconceived agenda could not account for the constant resurgence of the Jews after seeming to hit rock-bottom over and over. He therefore coined a new phrase for his “problem nation,” redefining us as the “fossil nation.” Now, a fossil is a remnant of something that no longer exists, but which has left behind some relic of its once vibrant life or existence. Toynbee was apparently quite upset to hear that Jewish communities throughout the world were thriving and blossoming. It bothered him even more that the land which he thought would no longer be a factor in global development was once again populated by the “fossils” he had long ago written off as extinct and obsolete.

Another Torah approach to the cosmic view of world history was offered by Rav Elchonon Wasserman in his classic Sefer Ikvisa D’Meshicha. He references the posuk (Devorim 32:8) which states, “When the Supreme One gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of man, He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the Children of Israel.” Rashi explains that Hashem formed the seventy primary nations in accordance with the seventy Jewish souls who originally went down to Egypt, presaging the first golus of Mitzrayim. Rav Elchonon explains at great length that since everything in the world revolves around Am Yisroel, the entire future and development of mankind flows from the first Jews to enter into a place of alien influence and spiritual danger.

Other gedolei Yisroel such as my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Purim, last maamar), and Rav Dovid Cohen (Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 1:53) have added layers and contemporary examples of this seminal approach.

In one of the most dramatic twists of fate, Rav Hutner revealed on the Sukkos after his release from a dangerous and harrowing captivity in the hands of Moslem terrorists that the Arab hatred and resentment of Klal Yisroel was rooted in open pesukim in the Torah. He saw in the verse depicting the living arrangements of the children of Yishmoel (Bereishis 25:16) that they would forever resent their so-called homelessness, because they really never received a land-based yerusha (Bereishis 21:10). Unlike Eisav, who received Har Se’ir as an inheritance, Yishmoel was never granted a formal land of his own, and so, despite owning many countries and fabulous wealth, he cannot abide his younger brother living in Eretz Yisroel in tranquility. The Torah’s appellation for Yishmoel, “he shall be a wild-donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Bereishis 16:12), has been more than justified and proven true by their actions on the world scene and especially against Am Yisroel.

An interesting recent development may also be directly attributable to the ancient saga of the avos and their children. Rav Dovid Cohen (Maaseh Avos Siman Labonim 1:56) has suggested that whereas in Chumash only Yishmoel had claims upon Eretz Yisroel (Rashi, Bereishis 21:10), in recent years there have been two groups making such claims. One is the Arabs, children of Yishmoel, and the other is the Pelishtim, as personified today by Hamas. Rav Cohen notes that although the Gemara (Sanhedrin 91a) indicates a softening of Yishmoel’s position, allowing for us to have a part of Eretz Yisroel, we have not yet seen such conciliatory behavior. That line was written in 5755 (1995), when both Hamas and the other Arab countries showed no inclination toward true peace with Israel. However, now that the Abraham Accords have been signed and Hamas is still violently attacking Eretz Yisroel, we should look once again at Rav Cohen’s approach.

Rav Cohen suggests that since Chazal (see Rashi, Bereishis 25:9) teach that Yishmoel did teshuvah at the levayah of Avrohom Avinu, this is an indication that in the eschatology of Acharis Hayomim, Yishmoel may “allow Yitzchok to go first” as he did at that seminal levayah. On the other hand, as we have been seeing once again in recent weeks, Hamas, the descendants of the Pelishtim (see Rav Cohen, page 53), has no intention of yielding, since their ancestor never repented either. Rav Cohen echoes the words of the Meshech Chochmah (Bereishis 25:9) from the Gemara (Chulin 39b) that part of Yishmoel’s repentance was that he rejected avodah zarah, since Islam is not an idolatrous belief for gentiles.

In any case, although Rav Cohen concludes that “we will have to wait for Yishmoel to do teshuvah about Eretz Yisroel until Moshiach arrives,” we may have started to receive part of the “reflexive light” and the echoes of Moshiach already in a portion of Yishmoel’s children who have tacitly admitted that the battle over Eretz Yisroel is over. Obviously, we still must daven and certainly wait for Moshiach for whatever manifestation Yishmoel’s teshuvah will take.

More recently, Rabbi Yisroel Moshe Sorotzkin, in a series of seforim on this subject, has also applied many of these teachings to the recent and current wars against Yisroel. In the most recent of these, entitled Ketz Megulah: Me’afeilah Leorah,” he demonstrates from Torah sources that Covid-19 and its vast effects on the entire world were both foreseen and predicted by the Torah long ago. Additionally, he shows (pages 61-65) that the frightening new eruptions of deadly anti-Semitism are part of the pre-Moshiach world of Ikvisa D’Meshicha, which Rav Elchonon Wasserman predicted in the 1940s.

As always, the proper response to all these phenomena and fears is a wholehearted teshuvah. However, we must first take to heart and realize that as, hopefully, we enter what may be the final phases of this long galus, how it will all end is now up to us. As Chazal tell us, we have been assured that Moshiach will arrive and there will be a geulah. However, the amount of pain, suffering and tests that will this will engender depends upon our attitudes and changes. We don’t require any secular historians to tell us what to think. However, to take the global view of current events, all we need to do is review the living, breathing words of the beloved Torah we have just received once again after 3,333 years.

May this pre-Shmittah year lead to the tranquility and serenity we have sought for millennia with the coming of the geulah sheleimah.