Parashat Be’sha’lach – Wise Men and Swept Up in History

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Talmud Bavli

Part One: There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisrael

This d’var Torah is directed at the thousands of my beloved brothers in the yeshivot of chutz la’aretz (outside the land of Israel), the roshei yeshiva, rabbanim and students. At the top of the list is the yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey, where I had the privilege to learn and hear Shiurim from HaRav HaGaon Aharon Kotler zt”l over fifty years ago; the Mirrer yeshiva, which my father, HaRav HaGaon Yechezkel Shraga Kahana zt”l brought to Brooklyn together with HaRav HaGaon Avraham Kalmanowitz zt”l, and the other great centers of learning from coast to coast of which I am not acquainted because I have been in Eretz Yisrael for 45 years, so far.

I call upon you all to join with us, your brother and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, in upholding our nation’s side of the covenant (the brit) made by Hashem with our fathers: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.

Hashem, on His side, promised them – and us, their descendants – the holy land of Eretz Yisrael as an inheritance. He has fulfilled that promise in our time. And we, on our side of the covenant are required to abide by the holy Torah in Eretz Yisrael.

The obligation of having to uphold our side of the covenant should be sufficient to convince every Ben Torah that to continue to live in the galut is sinful; yet there are additional reasons for coming home.

1- Rashi quotes the Midrash which states that the Jews who left Egypt with Moshe Rabbeinu numbered only twenty percent of the nation, while the other eighty percent died in the three days of darkness. The question arises: What made these twenty percent leave the now comfortable (post slavery) life in Egypt in order to go out into the menacing desert; with the prospect of having to wage war to conquer Eretz Yisrael against enemies who outnumbered them by so much?

The answer lies in a phrase which we recite three times daily in the shemoneh esrei prayer. It is in the tenth blessing of the middle section which begins “Al ha’tzadikim“, and continues with

May Your compassion be aroused, L-rd our G-d, and impart a good reward to those who believe in Your name, in truth.

The two words “good” and “truth” in the phrase ‘impart a good reward to those who believe in Your name, in truth,” are problematic. What would be so wrong if the rabbis would have phrased the sentence “impart a reward to those who believe in Your name?”

It seems that there is a distinct difference between those who “believe in your name” as opposed to “those who believe in your name in truth,” just as there is a difference between “reward” and “good reward.” The 80% who saw the miracles of HaShem in Egypt “BELIEVED” in Hashem’s name and were eager to remain in Egypt as G-d’s chosen people and the new masters of the land, whereas the 20% who left Egypt to go into the desert with only a few matzot for sustenance believed in His Name “IN TRUTH.”

To be Jews in comfort and without fear of enemies in the USA is to believe in His name, but to live and learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael of today and to partake in the renaissance of our nation in Eretz HaKodesh after 2000 years of exile is to “believe in His name IN TRUTH.”

2- It is requisite of us as Bnei Torah to actualize the maximum potential of our neshamot (souls). As fulfilling as it is at the end of a good day’s learning in yeshiva, or saying a chabura or shiur, and feel that you are making progress, it is in fact a squander of time and human talent because you are achieving only a fraction of your potential.

The Gemara in Ketubot 75a says that a talmid chacham in Eretz Yisrael is equal to two in the galut, but a talmid chacham of the galut who comes to Eretz Yisrael becomes equal to two of Eretz Yisrael. This means that when you come here you will be 4 times better equipped to realize your Torah potential than you are today. This is for me not just theory. I have the zechut (merit) to have authored over 40 sefarim since I arrived in Eretz Yisrael, and I know that I could not have authored even one when I was in the galut. As bnei Torah you could reply that you cannot leave your rabbis, just as Ezra HaSofer did not leave Bavel until his rebbe Baruch ben Neria passed away, but that was because Baruch was the rav muvhak of Ezra, but today we do not have that halachic relationship because we learn from many rabbanim.

3- In chapter 3 of the Book of Nechemiah, the Tanach records for all time – in this world and in the next – the names of those families which took part in the rebuilding of the wall around Yerushalayim. Pasuk 5 records for all time that the wealthy families of the town of Tekoa stood aside while the other Jews reconstructed the defenses of the holy city. When you come to learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael your name is inscribed for posterity as one of the builders of the spiritual defenses of the holy land. And conversely, those who do not come, for any reason or excuse, will be recorded as not having fulfilled the will of Hashem to return home.

What will you answer on the great day of judgement when asked, “Why did you not return home to my holy land?” And to answer, “I was learning Torah in 770 Eastern Parkway, or in New Jersey, or Cleveland or South Fallsburg,” will only elicit the reply, “Were there no yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael?!

Part Two: The Shoah

If a fire spreads to weeds (in another’s field) and devours bales of wheat or uncut wheat or the field, the negligent perpetrator must make payment (from parshat Mishpatim 25,5).

This week, the United Nations agreed to dedicate a day each year to commemorate the Shoah. Permit me to express my thoughts on this unspeakable calamity – the Shoah.

The Holocaust is the most profound disaster to befall the Jewish nation, outranking even the destruction of the two Batei HaMikdash, as explained in Midrash Eicha 4 in its analysis of chap. 79 in Tehillim. The chapter begins with, “Mizmor Le’Asaf” – a song of praise (to Hashem) composed by Asaf (the Levi). The midrash points out that this introductory sentence is totally incompatible with the text, which deals with the projected destruction of the Bet HaMikdash. Should it not read “Kina Le’Asaf” – a lamentation composed by Asaf, not “Mizmor le’Asaf” – a song of praise composed by Asaf?

The Midrash explains that the destruction of the two Batei HaMikdash are certainly calamities of the first order. But even within the context of this punishment, Hashem showed His mercy by venting His anger on the wood and stones of the structure rather than destroying the people responsible for the destruction.

From here we see that even when we sin to the degree that Hashem sees fit to severely punish us, He vents His anger on our material possessions and not mass annihilation of His Chosen Nation. So the inescapable question is: How did it come about in Hashem’s world that six million Jews, including one and a half million children and millions of G-d fearing, Torah Jews were sent to olam haba (the World to Come) through the chimneys of Auschwitz- Birkenau and the other death camps?

Now, if one should make a determination that the Shoah was a punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, he would be hard pressed to explain, that since all Jews are mutual guarantors (kol Yisrael areivim ze la’ze), why only the Jews of Europe and parts of North Africa suffered such a fate, whereas the Jews of the U.S. and Eretz Yisrael were not only spared but enjoyed good lives?

The matter of the Shoah is and will remain dominant in Jewish thought and behavior until the Moshiach arrives. In all humility, I wish to state my personal understanding of these events, which consoles me in some small way when facing the unspeakable horror of the Shoah.

The Gemara in Brachot 5b relates an incident in the life of the great amora, Rav Huna, who made his livelihood as a wine merchant. It came to pass that 400 barrels of his wine soured into vinegar. Rav Huna was greatly distraught, because in addition to his financial loss, the fact that only his wine was affected was a sign that he was being punished. He was advised by his fellow rabbis to review his conduct of late, in order to discover the sin which brought about this punishment. Rav Huna replied in anger at the accusation that he sinned. The rabbis countered by saying, “Are you implying then that Hashem brings suffering upon the righteous for no reason?”

He then reviewed his conduct and not finding any wrongdoing, Rav Huna asked the rabbis if anyone was aware of something he might have overlooked. They replied, that it came to their attention that according to the work contract between Rav Huna and his field laborers, the workers were entitled to a percentage of the field’s produce; but Rav Huna had failed to give them a percentage of the dead branches of the vines. Rav Huna answered that this was not a breach of contract because the laborers were stealing much more than they were entitled to. Nevertheless, Rav Huna accepted the criticism and gave the laborers a share in the branches. The episode ends on an uncertain note, with one rabbi saying that the vinegar reverted back to wine, and another saying that it remained vinegar, but the price of vinegar suddenly rose to equal that of wine.

Tosafot points out that the reply of the rabbis to Rav Huna, “Are you implying then that Hashem brings suffering upon the righteous for no reason?”, was merely a means to bring Rav Huna to admit that he had acted improperly; because in fact tzadikim suffer for sins not of their own doing.

What is the source for Tosafot’s statement?

It is found in the Gemara in Bava Kama 60a which places the source for this phenomena on a pasuk in our parshat Mishpatim (25,5)

If a fire spreads to weeds (in another’s field) and devours bales of wheat or uncut wheat or the field, the negligent perpetrator must make payment.

The Gemara explains the underlying meaning of the pasuk. The “weeds” are the evil-doers of the world. When G-d decrees that these “weeds” be destroyed, the free hand of the angel of death begins with the “wheat” – the righteous who happen to be there among the evil doers at that time.

I reject any allegation that my fellow Jewish brothers and sisters sinned to a degree which justified the horrors of the Shoah. Some “experts” at counting other people’s sins place the blame on assimilation. But never has Jewish history encountered the numbers and rate of assimilation and inter marriage found today among the Jews of the United States. Yet they continue to thrive. Other sin counters put the blame on Zionism, while others on the lack of Zionism. Jewish feelings of guilt know no bounds, as defined by “Jewish “Altsheimers” – where one forgets everything but the guilt.

I submit that the Shoah was not a “Jewish thing”. It was a decree made by Hashem, and put into effect with the First World War, that the evil descendants of Esav should put an end to one another. Russians should kill Germans, and Germans Englishmen, and the English should kill Austrians etc. The Second World War was simply a continuation of the first, after an extended cease fire. Our brothers and sisters were turned into soap because the leash on insanity was released and the Jews were caught up in it BECAUSE WE WERE THERE! And we were there because we did not understand that when Esav kills Esav, it is not a place for Yaakov to be.

When the inhibitions of hatred are released then the ever-present hatred of Jews rises to the fore and Esav seeks to put an end to Yaakov.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the above:

  1. If you reject the proposition that the two world wars were death sentences decreed on the other nations, and we were swept into it just because we were there, you are left with two very bad options: 1) To believe that the Jews of Europe sinned to the extent that 1,500,000 little children had to die; 2) The whole matter is beyond our comprehension. So let’s just continue building bigger and more expensive holocaust museums, and just go back to living as usual.
  2. If you live in a Gentile land where the writing on the wall foretells war between Esav and Yishmael, then no matter how frum you are, you could one day find yourself swept up in the catastrophe of that nation.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.