By Daniel Keren
Rav Yisroel Reisman, Rav of the Agudath Israel of Madison spoke at a special Labor Day Yarchei Kallah held in his shul this past Monday. The event was orchestrated by Hakhel in conjunction with the Torah Projects Commission of the Agudath Israel of America. Besides the hundreds of men and women who attended the Yarchei Kallah in Brooklyn, the lectures were also broadcast live to more than a score of cities across North America. Hakhel is a Flatbush-based organization dedicated to promoting a greater awareness of Torah true values.
One of the Greatest Moments in Jewish History
The title of Rabbi Reisman’s lecture was “The Great Asifa” and it was a continuation of his recent series of shiurim on Sefer Nechemia. The most recent lecture dealt with chapters 8, 9 and 10 of this most neglected book in Chumash.
Referring to Rav Shimon Schwab’s classic lecture series on Sefer Ezra and Sefer Nechemia that was especially edited into book format [by his son Rabbi Moshe Schwab] and published by ArtScroll, Rabbi Reisman noted that Rav Schwab calls what occurs in perakim ches, tes and yud to be one of the greatest moments in Jewish history, even if it is [unfortunately] generally not known by most Jews today.
Nechemia [the official butler or wine taster of the Persian monarch] comes to join the original group of Jewish returnees to Yerushalayim from Bavel and with resources of his master help guide these idealistic Jews whom he finds because of the harsh conditions in Eretz Yisroel following the destruction of the first Bais Hamikdash to be greatly dispirited. In addition, this small band of Yidden are also terrorized by the non-Jews around them. The first thing that Nechemia does to try and rectify this sad state of affairs is to secretly construct a defensive wall around the yishuv.
A Gathering to Arouse an Intense Spirit of Teshuvah
In response the major laxity of religious observance amongst many of those who returned from Bavel with hopes of rebuilding the Bais Hamikdash and restoring Jewish life to the Holy Land, Nechemia decides to organize a major Asifa or gathering of all the Jews in order to arouse an intense spirit of teshuvah. He arranges for the elder Ezra HaSofer to read to all of the people gathered from the original Sefer Torah that had been especially written for the Jewish nation by Moshe Rabbeinu.
Before reading from the holy parchment, Ezra raises the Sefer Torah up high for everyone at the Asifa to see. That Rabbi Reisman noted is the source for the minhag of the Sephardim today who raise up their Sefer Torah before reading from it. Likewise from that act of Ezra, the Ashkenazim have the custom of raising it high after the reading from the Sefer Torah.
When Ezra reads from the Sefer, the people break down emotionally and start crying mightily as they realize just how far they have strayed from the proper observance of the mitzvahs in the Torah.
Right after this episode, Nechemia stands up and tells the demoralized assembly that that day [which happened to be Rosh Hashanah] was a Yom Tov. He urges them not to continue being sad. Rather they should go to their homes, eat and rejoice with a festive meal and make sure that others have with what to eat. They should especially prepare sweet things to enjoy on this holiday. Rabbi Reisman said that from that pasuk comes the custom today of eating special sweet foods on the Yomim Tovim.
A Commitment and Rededication to Fulfill the Commandments of the Torah
After Sukkos, the day following Isru Chag, Nechemia again gathers the Jews who had left Babylonia and arranges for the Kohanim to tell over the history of Klal Yisroel In a final great push for his teshuvah movement to inspire these idealistic but far from observant Jews, Ezra draws up a shtar, document signed by 84 leaders of the community that calls upon all of the Yidden to commit and rededicate themselves to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.
A number of commentators including the Pachad Yitzchak [Rav Yitzchak Hutner] make note of the fact that after Nechemia goes to all the effort of having Ezra HaSofer read from the Torah and inspire the masses of Jews attending the Asifa to cry, and then he goes immediately to the opposite emotion of reminding them that the day [Rosh Hashanah] is a Yom Tov and they must not cry, but rather rejoice and celebrate with a festive meal.
Rav Hutner notes that this appears to be a contradiction. That is the difference between a malach and a Jew. Rav Schwab explained that an angel could only handle one assignment at a time, whereas a Yid is expected to deal with multiple sensations simultaneously.
Every Yom Tov requires a Jew to come to terms with seemingly opposite feelings. For example on Pesach on the Seder night, we eat matzos that celebrate our redemption from Egyptian bondage and we rejoice by drinking four cups of wine and feasting on meat. Yet we on that same night also eat the bitter herbs that remind us of the pain of our former enslavement.
Choosing a Mule for the New King to Ride Upon
When Dovid Hamelech arranged for his son Shlomo to be coroneted while he [Dovid] was still alive, he also instructed that Shlomo be put atop a preida, a mule in order to ride away after the coronation. A mule is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. Whereas a horse is a majestic animal fit for an aristocratic rider [and royal], a donkey that travels much slower was the animal for a poor man.
The mule is a combination of both aspects and Rashi explains that Dovid wanted that his son not get carried away with his new important royal position of national leadership. Rather the mule should remind him to not become too arrogant.
Rabbi Reisman emphasized that the ideals and goals of a Jew have to remain. Even after one leaves the world of the yeshiva in order to enter the work place so as to better support one’s family, one should still look for opportunities to develop oneself further spiritually. One should not push aside such opportunities by declaring that such lofty enterprises are for others and not for him.
The learning of Torah constitutes a contradiction. We accept the words [teachings] of the Rishonim and the Acharonim and don’t argue with them. Yet, at the same time we strive to be a mechadesh, to create a chiddush, a new and deeper understanding of the sugya.
The Struggle between Striving for Excellence or Pursuing Convenience
The real challenge is life’s balance – the struggle between striving for excellence as opposed to our more common pursuit for convenience. We must, Rabbi Reisman declared continually strive for excellence in spirituality.
The reality that we are in America (and not living the lifestyle of the Steipler Gaon or the Vilna Gaon} does not excuse us from striving for spiritual excellence when those few opportunities do arise.
People who are mired in aveiros have a hard time doing teshuvah. Rav [Avroham] Pam would say that the idea of reciting viduy is to get back that sense of just how lofty a person can become spiritually.
The Kohanim at the instigation of Nechemia told the Yidden at that Asifa more than 2,000 years ago in Eretz Yisroel that Klal Yisroel fell before, but nevertheless, they picked themselves up. No matter how mundane we have allowed our lives to become, Rabbi Reisman said, we can still pick ourselves up and go strive for excellence in ruchnius.
Yes we learn from Nechemia that after the Yidden cried and understood what they should be doing, they were told to go and rejoice and celebrate the Yom Tov by eating delicious and fatty foods. If we do what is proper today by striving for spiritual excellence, we too can then enjoy our ice cream or Barbeque steaks.
Readers interested in purchasing CDs from the Brooklyn Hakhel Labor Day Yarchei Kallah series of the shiurim given by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, Rabbi Pinchas Jung and Rabbi Avraham Feuer can call Mr. Zalman Umlas at (718) 252-5274.