Sunday morning at the Agudah convention: After a weekend packed with inspiration, introspection and enhanced perspective on the world around us, the convention is about to wrap up. However, the final session offered lots of additional food for thought on pressing issues before the cars began to file out of the Hilton Woodcliff Lake hotel’s parking lot.
Animosity – From Inside and Out
Mr. Yitz Fuchs, the session’s chairman and emcee, related his personal experience coming face to face with anti-Semitism in the elite Wall Street firm he works for. He explained that anti-Semitism is our Nation’s timeless challenge, wherever we are.
For a unique perspective on this challenge, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine, shared some of his personal experience. Rabbi Bleich related a story where the Chofetz Chaim zt”l advised a yid to strengthen shemiras Shabbos in his community in order to counter a government decree that would force him to keep his business open on Shabbos. “We need to look internally as to why Hashem is sending us these messages,” Rabbi Bleich implored.
He then related several amusing anecdotes about the reverence that the Ukrainian population, and its top political leadership, have for Jews, despite their inborn animosity. They genuinely believe that Jews control the world economy and politics, and this can be leveraged wisely. The government has been willing to accommodate the Jewish community in order to gain favor with the U.S. and other powers.
Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Leizerson, Yoshev Rosh of Chinuch Atzmai, then delivered heartfelt words describing the precarious physical and spiritual challenges facing charedi Jewry in Eretz Yisroel today. This was the 40th Agudah convention that Rabbi Leizerson attended, but he stated unequivocally that the situation is the worst he has ever seen it. Rabbi Leizerson explained that it is the collective responsibility of all of klal Yisroel to support Torah and its institutions in Eretz Yisroel, and thus help its inhabitants earn Hashem’s protection from physical harm as well. “The Midrash says that the sword and the Torah were brought down to this world together,” Rabbi Leizerson related. “Hashem said, ‘If you will keep what is written in this sefer, you will be spared the sword.'”
Sleepwalking – or Awake?
The need for strong passion and emotion in our yiddishkeit is a topic that has been heavily discussed in recent years, including at various forums at this Agudah convention. However, at the special “Sleepwalking Along the Derech” session, three premier mechanchim offered a strong sense of hope and optimism. Despite the alarm and awareness, we may be a lot better off than we think.
Rav Shmuel Dishon, shlit”a, Menahel of Yad Yisroel/Mosdos Karlin Stolin, exclaimed, “We may be a bit sleepy at times, but look at what we’ve still accomplished…so much Torah…so many new day schools and kollelim across the United States…”
Citing several anecdotes where he encountered young men and women in recent years with enormous piety and selflessness, Rav Dishon implored our community to focus on the positive and gain the impetus to build even further upon our successes. “There are problems, but we are walking,” he concluded. “One action to help will get us a lot further than 1,000 krechtzes about the problems.”
A beloved veteran R”M from Yeshivas Mir-Yerushalayim, Rabbi Yosef Elefant, shlit”a, attributed much of the “sleepwalking” phenomenon to the contemporary technology culture where fantasy and glitz dominates over intellectual material.
He explained that some level of slumber is inevitable and the power of
his”chadshus,renewal, is ingrained within every yid.
However, Rabbi Elefant stressed that the power of renewal requires the yid’s intellectual powers, filled with Torah, to be harnessed. He advised parents to help boost their children’s minds and Torah learning, while protecting them from being drawn into the modern day world of fantasy. He concluded with the words of the Seforno, who explained that even a minor undertaking, a minor self-improvement, such as nezirus, offers a yid the opportunity to become a “new person” and extricate himself from his previous spiritual quandaries. “It is the yetzer hora who tells us ‘all or nothing,’ that only a big change will do,” said Rabbi Elefant.
The final speaker of the session – and the 92nd annual convention – was noted mechanech, author and lecturer Rabbi Yechiel Spero. Rabbi Spero explained that it is more difficult to remain in growth and inspiration mode once you’ve reached great heights than it is to make the climb in the first place. Some spiritual dissipation after the peak years of yeshiva, kollel and seminary is natural.
Rabbi Spero stressed that the most effective way to continue growing is to engage in action. He related a poignant anecdote he witnessed in Chicago when attending the Siyum at a bustling morning kollel. He discovered that the kollel was formed as a result of two chavrusas who decided one morning at 3:30 am to learn at 7:00 am that morning, and kept it up each day. Their diligent chavrusashaft inspired others, and the rest is history.
Concrete accomplishment is within the hands of all, said Rabbi Spero: “You don’t need to be a yungerman to learn in a kollel; you don’t need to be a shadchan to suggest a shidduch; and you don’t need to be a mechanech to love a child.”