A Nation of Builders


agudah conventionBy Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The world is at war. Even if this war has no formal name, it is pulling us in, spreading like an infectious disease across the globe. Radical Islam is at war with Western civilization and Israel, determined to upend and destroy the world as we know it. With barbarism the modern world had thought was relegated to a bygone era, savages have spread a trail of blood from Yerushalayim to Chevron, the World Trade Center, the Hypercacher Jewish Market, the Bataclan concert hall, the Russian Metrojet, Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and parts in between, mercilessly slaughtering innocent people in cold blood.

Government leaders find it hard to confront the awful truth and continue to hew to liberal policies, denying the evil in which man is capable of engaging. The attacks on 9/11 changed the world for all time, yet the West has struggled to defeat the growing terror threats and has failed over the past few years to destroy the ISIS threat. The American president only seeks to contain the threat, and has largely failed at that. Millions of refugees are flooding Europe. The countries in the region had the false idea that they are ending wars through their inaction, instead they caused wars by creating vacuums of leadership in a changing world.

Israelis are blamed for being victims. Palestinians are viewed sympathetically. Just last week, the European Union put in place another law against Israeli imports. There was a time when the world blamed all terror on Israeli settlements and a refusal to return to indefensible 1967 borders. That fiction should be clear to all by now. Yet, radical Islamic terrorism is not even acknowledged by the American administration and the Democrat party, despite their presence among us wherever we are, armed with tens of thousands of soldiers ready to die to destroy modern civilization. To defeat the enemy, there must be an accurate awareness of the threat, along with a proper strategy and a readiness to lead.

Leadership is a rare commodity these days. The American people have made it obvious that they have no confidence in the current leadership class and are prepared to elect political outsiders to lead the country. Europeans are rising up and demanding that their governmental leaders honestly and forthrightly confront the threat. They have had enough of political correctness and realize that as nations at war, they must close their borders to infiltrators and rally around their national traditions and sovereignty.

Our world is no different. Fissures abound, there are cracks in the walls we erect to protect us. Alien philosophies are chipping away at our traditions. Internecine battles threaten us. Irresponsible actions and actors fail to perceive the results of their actions and declarations.

We are a good people. Most of us want to live in peace, dwelling bevais Hashem, properly observing the mitzvos, studying Torah, providing for our family, raising fine children, and preserving our health. We are confounded by those who seek to divide us. We wish everyone would focus on the important and eternal aspects of life, ignoring the trivial and temporal.

Playing defense instead of offense, without a comprehensive strategy designed to actually wipe out the threat, we seem to be using antiquated methods that may have been helpful in previous battles, but don’t work in the fight of today’s wars. We are not being intelligent or forthright in acknowledging our problems and are thus not able to successfully deal with our challenges.

In serious times such as these, we cannot afford to act as amateurs. We are losing too many, ceding too much ground, and allowing breaches to fester. We have to be proactive, not reactive, as we examine the problems of our generation. We have to be honest and practical, practiced and on target.

In times of crisis, we seek safety and safe havens. When threats of all types abound, we seek sensible solutions and positive reinforcement. All of humanity fears when evil organizes. We must band together, offering strength and succor to each other. In desperate times, we must offer coordinated resolutions to common problems and consistent efforts to bolster our people, young and old, single and married, students and teachers, schools, yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs.

As so often happens, the parshas hashovua offers illumination.

In Parshas Vayeitzei (28:11), the Torah describes Yaakov Avinu’s vision as he set out on his long and arduous journey from the home of his parents. As he passed Har Hamoriah (Rashi, ibid.), the sun set early and he went to sleep. As he slept, he saw a ladder, whose feet were planted on the ground – “sulam mutzov artzah,” and whose head reached the heavens – “rosho magia hashomaymah.”

Hashem stood above the ladder and promised Yaakov that He would be with him during his travails and grant him Eretz Yisroel.

Yaakov Avinu left his parents’ home all alone. His parting gift was a threat on his life by his murderous brother. Stripped of everything but the clothes on his back and a walking stick, his response was to grow bolder, more optimistic and positive, turning to Heaven and promising to give maaser from the bounty he would eventually receive.

Yaakov Avinu was a builder. He took twelve stones, which Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer teaches were the stones that Yitzchok had rested upon at the Akeidah, and those stones became one. The stones, a symbol of endurance and permanence, represented the nation he would spawn, a people resolute, firm and courageous.

Eisov was a destroyer, a murderer of men. His philosophy was: “Hinei anochi holeich lomus. What’s the point if we’re all going to die anyway?” His mindset was in diametric contradiction to the outlook of a brother who saw eternity. “Yaakov Avinu lo meis.” Yaakov, his brother, was eternal. As darkness descended, as his world closed in on him, Yaakov Avinu instituted the nightly Maariv prayer.

The many stones that fill this parshah are obstacles strewn in the path of Yaakov, as he walked alone. Yaakov’s secret was embodied by the ladder in his dream, for, essentially, it was an instrument of earth that reached heaven. Yaakov had a heightened view, a vision that transcended that which was before him. When obstacles were placed in his path, he looked beyond them, focused on his goal. He viewed hardships as opportunities for growth.

Perceiving that ladder and remaining true to Yaakov’s vision provide us with the courage and strength to persevere in the face of challenges.

We live in really frightening times. If we think about it too much, we can become depressed, so we continue to go about our daily lives, worrying about inconsequential matters. We don’t read the news; we don’t want to know what is really going on. We rely on snippets of information. Anecdotes and sound-bites replace intelligent knowledge.

Hashem sends us reminders to prod us to repent. Tragedy shakes us up and reminds us how fragile life is. The purpose of tragedy anywhere is to inspire us to do teshuvah.

We have been in several goluyos since sinas chinom destroyed the Bais Hamikdosh, but the golus of Yishmoel is totally different. The Maharal writes in his sefer Ner Mitzvah that Yishmoel is the only one of the subjugating nations whose malchus and strength are his own. Yishmoel derives his koach from Avrohom Avinu and from his bris milah; he doesn’t depend on Am Yisroel to falter in order for him to rise. [Also see the Ramban in Parshas Bolok, 24:21, and the Maharal in Netzach Yisroel, perek 21.]

In last week’s parshah, we read that Yitzchok told Eisov, “Ve’al charbecha tichyeh ve’es achicha taavod vehoyoh kaasher torid uforakta ulo mei’al tzavorecha” (27:40). Eisov is only strong when we are weak.

This idea also appears in Rashi at the beginning of the parshah on the posuk of “ule’om mile’om ye’emutz verav ya’avod tzo’ir” (25:23). When one falls, the other rises.

Thus, when we are oppressed by Eisov’s offspring, we know that the way to overcome them is by engaging in teshuvah and maasim tovim. However, in addition to teshuvah and Torah, which is “magana umatzila,” to overcome Yishmoel we need bitachon and tefillah.

Rav Chaim Vital, the prime talmid of the Ari Hakadosh, writes in his Sefer Eitz Hadaas Tov (Tehillim 124), “There are four exiles, Bovel, Modai, Yovon and Edom, but at the End of Days, Yisroel will be in golus Yishmoel, as stated in Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer (32) and in Medroshim and in the Sefer HaZohar at the end of Parshas Lech Lecha… This exile will be more difficult than the others. This is why his name is Yishmoel, because ‘yishma Keil veya’aneim,’ Yisroel will cry out during that golus and Hashem will listen and respond to them.

“Yishmoel will rule over the world and over Yisroel…and attempt to wipe out the name of Yisroel from under the sky as if it never existed… They will cause Yisroel great tzaros, the likes of which have never before been seen.”

B’Acharis Hayomim, during the period of the End of Days leading up to the arrival of Moshiach, the Jews will realize that they have no way to save themselves and have no choice other than to cry out to Hashem. And He will answer them. Rav Chaim Vital writes, “We will have no hope or recourse other than our trust in Hakadosh Boruch Hu that He will save us from their evil hands.”

His words resonate with the immediacy of today’s news. We have nowhere and no one to turn to other than Avinu Shebashomayim. Yishma Keil.

What is happening now with the offspring of Yishmoel is preordained. In order for us to prevail over Yishmoel, we must raise our voices in tefillah. His name does not hint that if we are strong and battle him with chivalry, we will defeat him. His name does not hint that if we engage him in diplomacy, we will outwit him. His name proclaims that the only way to defeat him is through tefillah.

I spent this past Shabbos at the national convention of Agudas Yisroel of America, sitting with people who are seeking ways to heal and build. They wish to unify and close circles. With heartfelt tefillos, as well niggunim and drashos, good Jews of many backgrounds came together to gather stones of all sizes to renovate and to build, offering comfort and support in a world gone mad, seemingly breaking apart at the seams.

In a drashah at the convention, the Vyelipoler Rebbe, Rav Yosef Frankel, cited a thought from the Alshich. He quoted the question posed by the ship captain to Yonah Hanovi as the storm threatening their ship grew fiercer. “Mah lecha nirdom? Kum kera el Elokecha. Why do you sleep, Yonah? Call out to your Creator.”

The Alshich explains that there are two reactions to trouble. Weaker people feel themselves incapable of facing the challenge and surrender. Unable to fight, they go to sleep and hope that the threat will pass somehow by the time they awaken. Others find the resolve within and confront the danger, confident in their ability to make a difference.

The ship captain admonished Yonah, “Why do you sleep? You do have the power to help right the ship. You can help us ride out the storm. How? With prayer. You can daven! Kum kera el Elokecha!”

Now, more than ever, we can wage war by believing in the power and potency of our own tefillos. Yishma Keil.

During the height of the Second World War, the Nazis set their sights on Yerushalayim. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his dreaded Afrika Corps marched across the desert, almost reaching the Holy Land. There was panic in Eretz Yisroel, as new immigrants who had barely escaped the Nazi inferno warned the residents of the Holy Land of the fate that awaited them should the Nazis make it there.

Rav Eizek Sher, the Slabodka rosh yeshiva, delivered a shmuess at the Chevron Yeshiva, addressing talmidim and local residents. He told of two yeshiva bochurim in a field during a time of war. As they walked, they were accosted by a swarm of tiny mosquitoes.

One of the bochurim waved his hand and the insects dispersed. “Our enemies,” the bochur said, “are even less significant in the eyes of the Borei Olam than those mosquitoes.”

Reb Eizek repeated the message, waving his hand to indicate just how powerless humans are before the Creator’s will. A current of faith ran through the room, giving the listeners new life and new hope. Ein od milvado. Our enemies are nothing before Him.

And so it was. Although it appeared that Rommel and his murderous army were at the doorstep of the Holy Land, they froze and didn’t make it. The Jews of Eretz Yisroel were spared.

As we learn these parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis, we find that the world’s antipathy toward us began back when Avrohom Avinu determined that the world has a Creator. The loathing of Jews has continued throughout the generations ever since.

In this week’s parshah, we learn how Yaakov Avinu was repeatedly lied to and tricked out of what was deservedly his. After working for Lavan for two decades, Yaakov was finally instructed by Hashem to return home. He gathered his wives, his children and his flocks and departed for home.

Lavan caught up to him. He accused Yaakov of stealing his property and running off like a thief. Yaakov responded by confronting Lavan, the paradigm con-artist, with the history of his subterfuge and dishonest dealings. Yaakov listed everything he had done for Lavan during his years of servitude to him. He enumerated all the ways that Lavan had robbed him, reminding him of how he altered the terms of Yaakov’s employment one hundred times in order to shortchange him.

Instead of discussing his claims, Lavan said to him, (31, 43) “The girls are my daughters, the boys are my sons, the sheep are mine, and everything you see here is mine…”

The posuk doesn’t record that Yaakov responded any more to Lavan. When Lavan finished his tirade, the posuk (Ibid 45) recounts, Yaakov responded by taking a stone, “Vayikach Yaakov even vayerimehu matzaeivah,” and standing it up. He then (Ibid, 46) told his sons to gather stones and form a pile, “Vayomer Yaakov… liktu avonim, vayikchu avonim vayasu gal…” they then had a meal there.

Yaakov set out to build. When Lavan chased Yaakov and refused his entreaties, Yaakov told his children to gather stones and construct a gal. He was demonstrating for us that had Avrohom allowed himself to be cowed by the people of his day, he would have relinquished the role of progenitor of Am Yisroel. Had Yitzchok permitted the Pelishtim to deter him by blocking his water supply, he would not have merited being part of the glorious chain begun by his father. Had Yaakov succumbed to Lavan’s abuse, he never would have left his father-in-law’s home and would never have raised the twelve sons who formed the nucleus of our people.

Like an immovable stone, our avos stood firm. Like a foundation of a building, they created a basis for all of us to stand strong.

Our strength is Torah. Our goal is Torah. Our life is Torah. No one can take that from us, as hard as they try. As long as we remember that lesson, we will be strong, safe and victorious, and the path we have forged will lead to the ultimate redemption, may it be soon, in our days.

As Rav Uren Reich said in his convention message, “We have lost so much, things are so dark, but there is one place where the light of Shechinah still shines brightly: in the blatt Gemara.”

Ve’onsa hashirah hazos le’eid. The fact that the song of Torah is still sung attests to our eternity.

Now, more than ever, we must arm ourselves with the weapons of the spirit bequeathed to us by Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov of tefillah, emunah and bitachon.

As the waiters were serving the main course at the convention melava malka, the fire alarms began ringing. It quickly became evident that it was a false alarm, but the alarm wailed incessantly until the fire department arrived and went through their checklists before quieting the nuisance.

There had to be a message there for us. I wondered what it was, until I remembered a story that took place many years ago with Maran Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach. Then I understood.

At the onset of the Gulf War, Rav Nochum Kook was discussing something with his rebbi, Rav Shach. As they spoke, the first air raid sirens went off, their piercing wails slicing through the silence across the country and spreading fear of incoming Iraqi chemical warheads.

Reb Nochum interrupted the conversation. “Rosh yeshiva, voss tut men yetzt? What do we do now?” he asked, wondering if the rosh yeshiva had a prepared sealed room in the apartment for them to seek refuge in or if they were to hurry to the basement miklat.

As the siren’s wail filled the room, Rav Shach pondered. Finally, he looked up and responded, “Reb Nochum, everyone knows himself what he needs to be mesakein! Lomir machen ah cheshbon.”

He wasn’t thinking about the cheder atum, or the miklat. He was thinking about Hashem.

Once again, the world is on fire. The siren’s wail fills our world in a way that it never has. But before we run helter-skelter, we need to make a cheshbon.

Let us look to build, not destroy. Let us gather stones and add one to the next until we have constructed homes of Torah study, places where children and young adults lovingly receive a proper education and chinuch, homes of tefillah, places where chesed is performed, homes where abused people are comforted, homes where our young people receive guidance, comfort and companionship.

Now is a time for us to take the stones strewn throughout this parshah, put on construction caps, and prepare for a building boom. Let us build our spouses, our families, ourselves and our world.

As Bnei Yaakov, let us always seek to build, unify with the good, rid the evil, comfort the mourning, strengthen the weak, fortify the defensive walls, develop and seek out leaders, and rally behind them so that we may live lives of peace and shalom and help prepare the world for the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our day.

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