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Har Nof – The Courage of Yitzchak

11/23/2014 03:31:06 PM


What a heartbreaking week. What unforgettable images.

I feel like we have all lived through abundant tragedies, far, far too many to count – wars and terror, kidnappings and massacres. Perhaps our expectations are so high for peace that we are genuinely crushed when we see terror. Or perhaps this indeed was so brutal, so horrific, that it affects us all in a unique way, because this time it really was different.

The sight of Jews in prayer, hacked to death, corpses in tallit and tefillin, the siddurim and the walls of a shul, a beit midrash soaked in the worshippers’ blood – is sickening in its own right. But it also stirs up deeply disturbing thoughts. This shouldn’t be happening. Yes we know there is terror, but Jews murdered while praying in shul? That is what happened in another time, another century, another continent.

As Daniel Gordis wrote, these images look like pogroms, like Kishniev, the kind of thing that Israel was founded precisely to stop from happening. In his words ‘those images tell Israelis that although they fled Europe and have built their national home, they are still assailed by the same venomous loathing they had sought to escape.’

Then there are the details of the murdered/the heroism of Zidan Saif, the Druze policeman who paid with his own life as he heroically protected the worshippers in the shul, a father of a 5 month old baby. The story of the mitpallelim – adirei Torah – is like something from the Yom Kippur machzor. They were sincere Jews, warm Jews, devout Jews, baalei chesed,talmidei chachamim, fathers husbands, grandfathers. There were 24 orphans on one street. – each eulogy, each new fact unbearable – zu Torah vezu sechorah? Is this Torah, is this its reward?

For me, not a talmid of the Rav, but a talmid of talmidim, I am haunted by the thought: how is it possible that in Israel in 2014 Rav Moshe Twersky, the eldest grandson of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik could be hacked to death while davening shemoneh esrei? This gaon, a gadol baTorah, man of humility, beloved to his family and students. There are no answers, none at all.

Rav Kook writes that in times of trouble and distress, only Torah can bring the soul some needed relief. Let us do, what these kedoshim, the martyrs, of Har Nof would do, would want us to do, to learn a little Torah.

This week’s parasha, Toledot, shows us just how far back the roots of hatred and anti-Semitism, and Hashem's promise of protection, go. Chapter 26 of Bereshit is an amazing chapter. Here we meet, not the Yitzchak we thought we knew, not a passive, compliant, manipulated individual. We meet Yitzhak the successful, wealthy, prosperous farmer, living amongst King Abimelech and the Philistines. There is a famine,  but Hashem appears to Isaac and tells him – don’t leave the land of Israel, stay here:

גּוּר בָּאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְאֶהְיֶה עִמְּךָ

He stays, and plants and prospers, and Yiztchak becomes too rich, too successful:

וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ, פְּלִשְׁתִּים.

The Philistines begin filling in the wells that Avraham had dug – an irrational move. Abimelech tells Yitzchak – lech miameinu – go away, you are too powerful for us. The commentators are divided – some say it was the street – the people of Herar who hated Yitzchak, and the king was afraid, and other the king made sure that Yitzchak was blamed for there every problem.

Yitzchak leaves and he settles outside the city. He digs a well and the Philistines claim it. He calls it Esek – fighting – and e leaves it to them. He digs another well, and they claim it and he calls it Sitnah – hatred – and he leaves it again. Finally a third well, and they don’t claim that.

There is a powerful, and this week deeply unsettling, Ramban on this episode. Why do we need to know the names of these wells he asks. He answers – maseh avot siman labanim – all of this will happen in our future.

The first well is the first temple. They will fight for it and they will destroy it, and the second one too – both temples will be snatched away from us and destroyed. But not the third – the third will last forever.

When I heard the terrible news on Tuesday morning, I thought of this Ramban. This shouldn’t be happening. Will it really be the case that going to shul in Israel is not safe? That Jews can be hacked to death like they were during the crusades, in Yerushalayim habnuyah, Jerusalem which is being rebuilt.

The first and second temple yes – but now, aren’t we already in the days of the geulah, the time of redemption? Yes there is war, and terror we have nearly got used to. But what new barbarism is this? This doesn’t fit into our worldview, this is not how we were brought up to understand Zionism, the geulah the redemption. Even before we have the third temple, this should not be.

I found a comment of the great Torah commentator the Ohr Hachaim, where he said that this is exactly how Yitzchak felt. At the beginning of the chapter Hashem said – stay here, don’t leave this land, but now the Philistines said ‘leave this land’. Every place he pitched his tent, they stole his well, and he moved on. Yitzchak asked himself – how can it be – the land Hashem told me is mine, is not safe for me – the land Hashem told me to live in – the only land I have, and it’s not safe for me to live in?

The Ohr Hachaim says – this is a test - ultimately the test of Yitzchak’s life – does he question God, does he turn to Hashem and say – I don’t believe you – you told me this is my home, that you would look after me – but you have not done so? That Yitzchak never does – he never loses hope, never loses faith.

I’ve always had a problem with the understanding that Yitzchak represents gevurah – heroism, inner strength. In other chapters he is portrayed as weak, not strong. But consider the Yitzchak Avinu of this chapter. He tries to build a home for himself. He brings prosperity to a starving people. He digs wells for the public good. He is a blessing. But he is hated, for that very reason. He is chased, attacked, harassed, terrorized. His response? He doesn’t break – he continues digging wells.

That explains a strange the end of the parasha, After all of this Yitzchak is living far away, in Be'er Sheva. Abimelech and companions comes to him and Yitzchak says uncompromisingly, with startling forthrightness – he is not afraid to speak the truth:

מַדּוּעַ בָּאתֶם אֵלָי; וְאַתֶּם שְׂנֵאתֶם אֹתִי, וַתְּשַׁלְּחוּנִי מֵאִתְּכֶם.

Why are you coming to me? You hate me? You sent me away from you!

They answer him:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ, רָאוֹ רָאִינוּ כִּי-הָיָה יְהוָה עִמָּך

We have seen that Hashem is with you. And so let’s make a covenant.

Maaseh avot siman lebanim They tried to break Yitzchak, to steal his land, expel him, frighten him steal from him, besmirch him, give him not a moments peace. If Yitzchak had lost resolve for one day, one moment, it would have been the end of him. But Abimelech is forced to admit – you win! We tried to break you, but we lost. Look how you have prospered, look how Hashem has blessed you, look at what you have built. We know this is your land, we know we will never force you out, because you never lost hope. We tied to hold you back, and you prospered anyway.

Yitzchak agrees – he makes a covenant. He agrees to peace. He’s under no illusions that they love him – but they understand – this man is blessed by God – the more we tried to terrorize him, the more he dug in. That was the test of Yitzchak's life. The test of all Israelis.

What a paradox – the most unbelievable country – where the stock market, high tech, the arts, the economy, gastronomy and most importantly of all Torah and Jewish life blossoms like nowhere else on the planet. And yet a Jew can be murdered in shul. But Israel doesn’t give up, it doesn’t lose faith – we must not, we dare not, we will not.

Because, like Avimelech a long time ago, our enemies, may it soon happen, will see that no matter what they do, we we aren’t leaving, and we aren’t stopping, one day they will say: ‘enough’. When they do, we will be more than ready.

The day after the murders – the very next day , in the same shul, a young couple held a brit for their eight day old son. That is Israel. That is why we will never, ever be defeated, with Hashem's help.

I want to add one more thought. Because I feel that every tragedy, we must respond to on a spiritual level. Rav Moshe Twerski was, as I said the oldest grandson of the Rav. His grandmother – on his father’s side was Rebbetzin Rebecca Twerski, the Talne Rebbetzin.

In 1977 at the shloshim of the Rebbetzin, her mechutan the Rav eulogized her, and concluded with the following words - words that were this week applied to his own grandson, Rav Twersky at the funeral:

שלחו מתם: איזהו בן העולם הבא? ענוותן ושפל ברך, שייף עייל שייף ונפיק, וגריס באורייתא תדירא ולא מחזיק טיבותא לנפשיה.

The Talmud tells us, "They sent a message from Eretz Israel, 'Who is destined for the world to come?’ He who is meek and humble, enters quietly and leaves self-effacingly studies the Torah constantly, and does not claim credit for himself."

Perhaps, in seeking ways to grow from this tragedy, to add strength and courage to our shattered souls, we should resolve to emulate these giborim, these heroes of the spirit, meek and humble, students of the Torah, people who never stopped wanting to be better Jews.

Hashem oz lamo yiten Hasem yivarech et amo bashalom. The Lord will grant strength to His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace.

Please note: An unedited version of this Sermon has been posted to my Facebook page. Please feel free to leave comments and continue the discussion here.

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