Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, R’ Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, lost his wife and eleven children in the Holocaust. After the war, he gathered a small community of followers who had also survived, and from that small group eventually rebuilt a beautiful community. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin describes a visit to the Beis Medrash of the Klausenberger Rebbe in the summer of 1952 when he was just 12 years old:
Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word “hecher – louder,” came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the synagogue.
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Chumash in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear; we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!” The rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat.
I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!” After the Additional Service ended, the rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and sisters,” he said, “Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move – hopefully the last one. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.” And so Kiryat Sanz – Klausenberg was established in Netanya where the rebbe built a Torah Center as well as the Laniado Medical Center.
The tochecha in our parsha describes the devastating result of siluk ha’Shechina, when God removes and withdraws His countenance and providence from us. While its graphic description is, thank God, unimaginable to us, the Klausenberger Rebbe felt the tochecha was an apt description of what he and so many others had actually endured. But it isn’t just the Holocaust that appears to be the fulfillment of the terrible consequences foretold in the tochecha. In many ways, the Jewish condition during much of the last 2,000 years, punctuated by pogroms, crusades, the inquisition and countless expulsions, provides examples of the embodiment of the harsh and cruel description the tochecha.
In the middle of the tochecha that we read this morning, the Torah says:
וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִ֥י אֲנִ֖י אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָֽׁמְמ֤וּ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֔ם הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בָּֽהּ׃
“I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who dwell in it will be desolate upon it.”
Chazal see a silver lining, a ray of hope and optimism, even within this harsh promise. The Sifra writes that when we are exiled from our land, it will remain desolate. Despite being occupied by others, it will remain in ruins, and they will not succeed in making it bloom. It is striking how accurate this promise of our parsha has been. Over the last two millennia, despite countless efforts to make it blossom by crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, the Turks, the Arabs and the British, Eretz Yisroel was in a virtual state of ruin.
In the mid-1800’s, Mark Twain traveled the world and wrote a book recording his impressions and experiences called “The Innocents Abroad.” Listen to what he writes about his experience in then Palestine and compare it to what you think of when you picture traveling around Israel today. He writes:
Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are un-picturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation…It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land…Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its grandeur, and is become a pauper village.
Six hundred years before Twain, in his commentary on our parsha, the Ramban writes:
And your enemies will be desolate upon it is a good tiding. It proclaims in every generation that our land does not accept or enemies. This is a great proof and promise for us, for you will not find in the entire world another land that is so good and spacious and was always inhabited but is now in such a state of ruin. Ever since we left it, it has not accepted any other nation; and they all try to settle it, but are unsuccessful.
Indeed, the gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) quotes Rebbe Abba who teaches –
ואמר רבי אבא אין לך קץ מגולה מזה
And Rabbi Abba says: You have no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than when produce will grow in abundance in Eretz Yisrael; it is an indication that the Messiah will be coming soon. (See more in R’ Moshe Lichtman’s “Eretz Yisroel in the Parsha”)
R’ Yoel Bin Nun, the great Tanach teacher in Israel today, was a member of the now famous 55thbrigade of paratroopers who liberated Yerushalayim. When his commander, a Shomer Ha’tzair kibbutznik, asked him how he felt after taking Har Ha’Bayis, he responded “alpayim shenot galut nigmeru, two thousand years of exile are now over.”
If for the Klausenberger Rebbe, the Holocaust represents the fulfillment of the tochecha, the consequences of siluk ha’Shechina, Divine withdrawal and hiddenness, then 1967, the miracle of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Yerushalayim, represent nothing short of giluy ha’Shechina, the intense presence and the powerful revelation of the hand of the Almighty. If the Holocaust engenders all kinds of compelling questions, then the Six Day War provides all kinds of undeniable answers.
Those of us with no memory of May 1967 and earlier don’t know what it means to feel truly fragile and vulnerable as a people. Those of you who do remember will confirm that just over 20 years after losing 6 million of our people there was a collective panic and sense of urgency that there was going to be another Holocaust. Rav Yehuda Amital recounted that before the Six Day War there were American Jewish leaders who pleaded with the Israeli government to evacuate the children from Israel, since the annihilation of Israel was expected. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel had designated public parks as burial sites and almost 100,000 graves had been dug in anticipation of the mass casualties.
But instead of a massacre, a miracle occurred. On June 5, Israel launched a preemptive strike. In a single day, it destroyed almost the entire Egyptian air force. Jordan and Syria both declared war. In six days, Israel defeated all three armies, each larger than the size of its own. The Israelis retook Sinai, captured the old city of Jerusalem, Yehuda and the Shomron and the Golan Heights.
This sweeping military victory against all odds continues to defy explanation and leaves experts confounded. R’ Berel Wein tells the story of a cadet at West Point who asked why the Six-Day War was not part of the curriculum. The high-ranking teacher silenced the questioner and demanded he speak to him following the class. The soldier approached the general and again wondered why Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War wasn’t studied. The teacher explained that the Six-Day War is not studied because at West Point they study strategy and tactics, not miracles.
Yossi Klein Ha’Levi tells the powerful story of his father who was from a very religious chassidishe family and gave up on God and on religion after surviving the Holocaust. Even after the founding of the State of Israel, he was still so traumatized from his devastating loss that he couldn’t find God. In June of 1967, however, after witnessing with the world the miracle of Israel not only surviving, but thriving, he took his family to Israel and went directly to the Kotel. After seeing the hand of God, he was ready to forgive Him and to have a relationship once again. They moved to Israel and his father came back to religion.
Yossi Klein Ha’Levi explains that 1967 turned Israel from a secular to a sacred landscape. Yes, in 1948 we gained sovereignty over our own country, but we still had no holy sites. After the miracle of ’67, overnight, we returned not only to the Kotel and Har Ha’bayis, but to our Mama Rochel imeinu, to Chevron and Ma’aras Ha’Machpeila.
In our parsha, God promises us:
וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר׃
“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.”
God has indeed made good on that promise to remember our land, and with it, we have access again to our forefathers. The first Jew to enter the Ma’arat Ha’Machpeila, the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in some 800 or 900 years, was General Moshe Dayan. When he entered, he did not know exactly what to do. But instinctively he straightened up, offered a snappy salute, and said “Shalom” to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.
Following the Six-Day War, Jews around the world felt as if they were 7 feet tall, confident, proud, almost invincible. Jews walked the streets of New York, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Melbourne, with their heads held high, the envy of their neighbors. Everyone wanted a piece of this special nation, a connection to the Jewish people. And the Jewish people felt a giluy ha’shechina, revelation of God Himself, and wanted a greater connection with Him.
In a sermon delivered one week after the Six-Day War, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm said:
Now this places a great burden upon us, greater than we realize. Even observant religious people usually possess an element of doubt within their faith. We use this doubt to excuse many of our transgressions, and we excuse the existence of this doubt by saying that had we lived in the age of the prophets or the age of miracles or the age of revelation, we would be sufficiently persuaded and convinced to be able to live according to the highest precepts of our faith, but that the absence of any such evidence justifies this seed of doubt. Were we exposed to the same wonders as was Israel of old, “and Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the shore of the sea,” then we too would react as they did: “and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses (Ex.14:31).
Such was the justification we offered ourselves for our doubt and our laxity heretofore. Now, we can no longer avail ourselves of that luxury. For we have seen, as did Jews in very special moments of history, ha-yad ha-gedolah, the “great Hand of the Almighty!
Through electronic eyes and ears, each of us has been a personal witness to the great miracle, the great revelation of 1967. How our parents and grandparents and theirs before them, through all the ages, would have thrilled to this singular experience — not only because of the victory that would have given them relief from the humiliation of exile, but because this liberation of Jerusalem in our times is a vindication of their faith throughout all times. For indeed the giluy shekhinah of the past two weeks is a vindication of ancient promises, the fulfillment of hoary prophecies.
A few summers ago, I attended a Rabbinic conference in Israel where Rabbi Chaim Druckman, Rosh Yeshva of Ohr Etzion and the Rabbinic head of all Bnei Akiva. He talked about the paragraph we say before benching, chapter 126 of Tehillim, Shir Ha’Maalos b’shuv Hashem es shivas tziyon hayinu k’cholmim. When Hashem will return the us to tziyon, we will be like dreamers. What does it mean to be like a dreamer, he asked? He quoted a number of interpretations of the classic commentators but then he gave his own and it touched me very deeply.
He said, picture a teacher at the front of the classroom who is teaching when he or she suddenly calls on a child in the classroom and asks a question. The child is startled and is caught off guard because they weren’t paying attention to the teacher. They were, what we would call “day dreaming.” Day dreaming is when you are eyes are open, you are looking at the person talking, you see, hear and feel everything going on, but you are so checked out and distracted that you don’t really register what was said or what just happened.
Hayinu k’cholim, said Rav Druckman, means that after 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, Hashem will perform miracles and bring us back to our land. After being the scorn of the world, we will be the envy. It will be so surreal, that we may be like day dreamers who see and hear what is happening but are so distracted that it doesn’t truly register; it doesn’t move us the way it should.
Every time I visit Israel, I find a way to spend a few minutes sitting in the square in the Old City of Yerushalayim. I don’t sit in the big square with all the pay phones that tourists all walk through. There is another square where the residents hang out. This square is no ordinary gathering place. Etched in the stones on the side of the square are the ancient words of our prophet Zecharia. Our ancestors read these words as depicting a fantasy, a fictional description. We, the most blessed generation in 2,000 years, can read those words and witness their very fulfillment before our very eyes. I love watching the older people walk by with their walkers and canes and listening to the sounds of the children running and playing and then reading:
כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת עֹ֤ד יֵֽשְׁבוּ֙ זְקֵנִ֣ים וּזְקֵנ֔וֹת בִּרְחֹב֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְאִ֧ישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּ֛וֹ בְּיָד֖וֹ מֵרֹ֥ב יָמִֽים׃
וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת מְשַׂחֲקִ֖ים בִּרְחֹֽבֹתֶֽיהָ׃
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.”