Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Mirage

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

With hundreds of rockets falling on Eretz Yisroel, we are witness to daily miracles as there have been very few Israeli casualties. While others credit the Iron Dome with protecting the Israeli population, we note that the very formulation of the system was a miracle. Experts and politicians were stubbornly opposed to funding its creation. The singular dedication of a few diehards forced its completion, and that in itself is a miracle. It is miraculous that those people were given the intelligence and perseverance to produce this lifesaving device.

We know that even the Iron Dome cannot guarantee success. Rockets land in gas stations and in between houses, yet they don’t kill anyone. We know that it is because we have the Divine Dome, which shields us. May we prove ourselves worthy of Hashem’s continued protection.

That being said, the world’s current equation of casualty is maddening. Terrorists shoot rockets indiscriminately at a neighboring country, aiming to kill innocent civilians. Yet, when that country fights back defensively to protect itself and the millions of people - in eighty percent of its territory - who are within range of the rockets, the world equates the country’s bombs with those of the terrorists.

If you search through photo albums of wire services that supply pictures for the world media, you could be forgiven for thinking that all foreign photographers have been expelled from Israel and sent to Gaza.

For every few dozen photographs of poor suffering Gazan babies and adults killed by Israeli bombs, and for every few dozen photos of buildings bombed by Israel, there is one picture of an Israeli tank or soldier. Viewing the pictures, you realize that the intention of those who supply the media with their material is to convey the impression that Israel, the aggressor, is targeting and killing innocent civilians in order to firm up their conquest of stolen lands.

Rarely in the reporting that accompanies those pictures does it say that Israel drops leaflets warning civilians to leave and first drops a warning bomb onto the roof of a house to notify its residents to quickly leave. The few news outlets that bother to inform their readers of this tidbit quickly note that it is insufficient to warn civilians to leave and may even constitute a war crime.

Then they go on to speak of how many Palestinians were killed versus how many Israeli casualties there have been, as if that is the proper method of calculating who is in the right.

Hamas established a terror state on the ruins of a Jewish enterprise sacrificed for the sake of peace. If only they would have a land of their own, the world said, they would cease terrorizing the Jews. If they were granted the independence they covet and deserve, they would prove their intelligence and value to society as they realize their right to self-determination. 

Instead of building factories to employ and nourish their citizens they built rockets and rocket launchers to rain down on their neighbors and cause misery for their own people. Their drive to destroy the Jewish state consumed them and precluded them from being welcomed into the league of civilized nations. Instead of teaching their children to excel in school and meaningful trades, they inculcated within them a culture worshiping death.

Hamas has been engaging in firing rockets into Israeli population centers for years, yet the only time we hear about it is when Israel decides to fight back. The world neither cares, nor is concerned by the growing terror threat posed by the Islamic militants, until Israel begrudgingly temporarily stops the barrage, never really finishing the job. 

Headlines and newscasts have spoken of Israel’s bombing of a mosque, a center for the disabled, and the house of a police commander. People interested in figuring out what is going on are treated to quotes such as these, from nice, ordinary Gaza Arabs:

Mahmoud al-Batsh said, “The Jews don’t differentiate between the police commander and ordinary citizens.”

Munzer al-Batsh, the police commander’s brother, said, “The Jews eliminated an entire family: grandfather, father, mother, even the children, who were sleeping in the homes. They were civilians.” 

The Jews are awful people, targeting and killing generations of peaceful people.

The same goes for Israel’s bombing of the center for the disabled. Jamila Elaiwa, founder of the center, said that she had no idea why Israel bombed it. “No one lived there except us,” she said.

She didn’t say, nor did the reporting on the incident point out, that Hamas stores its weapons in hospitals and other civilian centers, cynically using civilians as human shields.

Israel drops leaflets warning Gazans to leave “for their own safety” in advance of a “short and temporary” operation and Hamas terms these notices “Israeli propaganda” and “psychological warfare,” which, of course, should be ignored.

Israel’s spokesman says, “We phone up our enemies and tell them that we are going to blow up the building. We throw non-explosive munitions, and that is a sign that they are supposed to vacate the building. Only once we have seen them vacate the building - and we are talking about hitting command and control places and not the terrorists themselves - then we hit.”

Did Israel warn Jamila Elaiwa that an attack was imminent? Well, um, yes, she says, admitting that, in fact, there was “a knock on the roof” before the place was hit. She was quick to add incredulously, “But no one understood what it meant. No one could imagine the center would be a target for anyone.”

All this is said and reported with a straight face.

The same goes for the mosque targeted and bombed that same day. There was ample warning - the “knock on the roof” – and everyone in Gaza knows what that means. While the imam of the place of prayer described it as a holy place, Israel said that it was also the home of “a Hamas rocket cache and a gathering point for terrorists.” 

But just know, said the imam, that he fears not Israel, for in the rubble of the building, he found a Koran open to the words, “Victory is imminent for those who remain steadfast.” 

And so, they continue lobbing rockets into virtually the entire country of Israel, reaching unprecedented distances, thus scaring millions, disrupting lives, and causing mental and financial damage to a small country that seeks peace.

A cease fire is declared and then Hamas unleashes volleys of rockets across the country that had backed down from destroying an enemy sworn to its destruction.

My children and grandchildren in Yerushalayim, and over one million other people in Israel, are awakened three times a night to go to a shelter in their night clothes, their sleep and lives disrupted. What do you tell your children? What do you tell yourself? What is going on? Why do we suffer like this? What do they want from us? What did we do to deserve this?

My four-year-old granddaughter says Shema at bedtime and asks her mommy if she thinks she will be able to sleep through the night. She wonders about her cousins: “Mommy, does this also happen in Lakewood?”

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l remarked that if a child is sent to their room for some infraction and happily goes off to read a book there, the parents must increase the punishment in order to discipline their child. 

Similarly, said Rav Yaakov, we have been sent into exile, but if we fail to recognize that we are in golus and that we are here as a punishment, there is serious danger that the burden and suffering will be increased, chas veshalom.

As we wonder about what is currently transpiring in the skies and on the ground of Eretz Yisroel, we feel the strain of golus wherever we are.

As we daven for our Israeli brethren, we should also contemplate our own sorry state and recognize that we are in golus.

Our very first redeemer, Moshe Rabbeinu, arrived in the depths of our first golus. The posuk in Shemos recounts, “Vayeitzei el echov vayar besivlosam.” Moshe left Paroh’s palace. He went to take account of his brothers and observe what they were enduring.

The Kotzker Rebbe wondered what inspired Moshe to leave the palace to view what his brethren were being subjected to. The Rebbe explained that the answer lies in the word “besivlosam.” While the simple translation is suffering, the word has another meaning. Soveil means to tolerate.

Moshe perceived that the Bnei Yisroel were no longer repulsed by the Mitzri culture and behavior. They had developed a tolerance for their surroundings. Hence, “Vayar besivlosam.” He went to see what he could do to help bring about the geulah.

Golus succeeds when it claims the hearts and souls of its captives. 

A friend of mine recently visited Reb Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin. During the course of conversation, Sholom Mordechai said something powerful that sheds light on our condition.

He related that as the weather warmed, he took the opportunity availed to him of stepping outside of the building to enjoy the fresh air. Though inmates may only walk around a track enclosed on all sides by gleaming electric wire, high fences and lookout points, they enjoy the opportunity to feel the sunshine or a gentle breeze.

Sholom Mordechai recounted that in previous years, when he would go outside for a walk, he was confronted by a flood of memories. As he strolled outside, he was reminded of walking to shul with his children, of spending time in his Iowa backyard, of Chol Hamoed trips with his wife and family, and of all the normal things we take for granted as we walk outside.

“This year,” Sholom Mordechai matter-of-factly told my friend, “when I went out, I no longer felt those memories. As I walked, the only thing I remembered was walking outside last year in prison and the year before that.

“It bothered me for a while,” he recounted, “until I realized that this must be another effect of my years in prison. Being locked away so long causes a person to be unable to relate to the reality of an outside world that seems to have been lost over time.”

He said that “the repetitive, monotonous routine of prison time, together with the separation from family and friends and not being able to do what a human being is created to do as a productive member of society, lulls a person into feeling that prison is the only place in the world. It is like a mirage, but meanwhile, the reality of the outside world fades and blurs, becoming more and more vague with the passage of time.”

Sholom Mordechai concluded his thought: “And then I realized that this must be the way it feels for the neshomah, which comes down to this dark world and is imprisoned in a guf. At first, it recalls the splendor and glory of the Heavenly realm and it is warmed by the memories, but in time, this world becomes its home and it forgets where it comes from. The thought led me to appreciate the need for a surge of energy for my neshomah, and to do mitzvos, learn Torah and daven to sustain my neshomah.”

The insight from our imprisoned friend sheds light on the despair of golus. We are in exile so long that we run the risk of forgetting where we belong and that we are refugee figures in transit, far from home. We tend to forget that what we see is a mirage. Our senses become dulled as we suppress our longing for home.

With the onset of the Bein Hametzorim period this week, we should be in despair for what we are lacking. The sadness we are meant to experience is not for the lack of music and abstaining from eating meat and swimming during the nine days. During these weeks, we are supposed to be suffering from a heightened awareness of our exile status.

The pain during this period should be that of our soul, knowing that we are seriously lacking and can be doing much better. At our core, we should know that we are destined to be in a holier place, living a more sublime existence. These days remind us that we don’t realize what we lack. They cry out in anguish for our callousness to our own plight.

The Three Weeks urge us to remember that we don’t lack music, but life itself. Without the Bais Hamikdosh, we are weak, vulnerable and incomplete. These weeks remind us that we are in danger of becoming so deeply entrenched in golus that we don’t perceive the reality called geulah anymore.

Rav Yisroel Meir Lau frequently relates the story of his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp. An American chaplain, Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who accompanied the liberating American soldiers, was gazing at a pile of dead bodies in the death camp when he thought he saw something move. Gingerly, he approached the pile and detected a young boy, barely alive, among the dead.

Like a malach shel rachamim, he tearfully stuck out his hand to the emaciated child. He told him that he is an American and that the Nazis were gone. Speaking to the boy in Yiddish, he tried to gauge if his mental abilities were intact after having suffered so many harrowing experiences and being near death.

“What is your name?” asked the kind rabbi dressed in an American army uniform, as tears streamed down his face at the pitiful sight.

“Lulek,” was the reply.

Vi alt bist du mein kind? How old are you?” he asked little Lulek.

Elter far dir. Older than you,” responded the child.

Fearing that the boy had lost his senses, the rabbi began weeping. Again he asked the skin and bones that resembled a young boy how old he was, and again he answered that he was older than the weeping rabbi.

The rabbi looked at the boy with great pity and tried one last time to get a sane response from the child who had been so badly affected by the horrific suffering he endured.

“Tell me, mein kind, why do you say that you are older than me? Isn’t it obvious that you are a young child and I am a grown man? Why do you insist on thinking that you are older than me?”

Lulek explained quite simply: “Git a kook. Du veinst. Ich ken shoin nit veinen. Nu, zogt mir, ver is elter? You are crying. I have already lost my ability to cry. Am I not older than you?”Despite his youth and having experienced four tortuous years in a dark place where death and hunger were his constant companions, the youth spoke with wisdom beyond his physical age.

Hailing from 32 generations of rabbonim imbued him with Jewish resoluteness in the face of the worst cruelty and anguish known to man.

A baby cries when he is hungry. A child cries when he is hurt. A mature person suppresses hurt, anger, hunger and much else. A child cries because his entire world is shattered when his toy breaks. A baby cries when he is hungry so that he will be fed. A person who thinks that what transpires is happenstance cries when he believes that something tragic in his life has occurred.

A person of belief remains stoic and strong. He doesn’t cry in the face of adversity. He doesn’t weep when he is hurt, for he knows that what has transpired is for the good and has been Divinely ordained by a Father who created the world in which he lives to benefit Him.

He grows from his scrapes and bruises, resisting the temptation to strike back when hurt by friends. Though he may be weak in body, he is strong in spirit.

Lulek understood that lesson. He had been through so much and survived. He had triumphed over his tormentors and would go on to lead a long and productive life. Why cry? Why wallow in the past? Why engage in self-pity? Ich ken shoin nit veinin because I know what is important and what isn’t. I know what is transitory and what is permanent.

Yet, that same Lulek, who wouldn’t cry over the evils of man, sits on the floor every Tisha B’Av and cries. He weeps during the Three Weeks as he marks our centuries of exile.

We have been through so much in golus that many of us have lost the ability to cry over it. We must use this period to remember what is important and what is secondary, what is worth crying over and what isn’t. We recognize that we have been punished and evicted from our homes. Like vagabonds, we have roamed from place to place. We understand that we are essentially homeless, wandering about with our possessions in a shopping cart, seeking a comfortable bench on which to spend the dark night.

We dare not grow comfortable on that bench. We dare not become comforted with the possessions we have gathered. It is folly, we are folly, and we should want to get home.

The Gemara in Maseches Taanis (30a-b) relates that Rabi Yehuda Berebi Ilai would sit in an uncomfortable position on the floor during the afternoon of Erev Tisha B’Av and eat dry bread, salt and water. The Gemara says that viewing him, it appeared as if his dead relative was lying in front of him.

The Gemara states this to demonstrate to us that it is not enough to engage in the mournful traditions of Tisha B’Av. We must be somber over the loss of the Bais Hamikdosh as if it transpired now, not centuries ago. We must feel the pain and the hurt as if it is fresh and current.

In fact, the Rambam (Taanis 5:9) says that this is the proper way for chachomim to behave. We should all be chachomim and follow the Rambam. It is definitely the wise way to act, not only because that is the way a wise person should mourn the Bais Hamikdosh, but also because Chazal say that one who properly mourns the churban of Yerushalayim will merit seeing its rebuilding. A component of meriting redemption from golus is recognizing it for what it is and not being pacified.

On Purim, a golus holiday, as we joyously lain Megillas Esther, the tone turns mournful when we read about an Ish Yehudi, a lone Jew from Shushan Habirah, whose name, the megillah says, was “Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish ish Yemini.” The posuk tells us that this man was in Shushan because he was exiled: “asher hoglah miYerushalayim.”

The Tiferes Shlomo of Radomsk explains that the words “asher hoglah,” meaning “who went into exile,” are more than a description. They were part of his name. The posuk called Mordechai by his name: “son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, the fellow who is in golus.” Everyone in Shushan identified Mordechai as the golus Jew, a refugee who was driven from his homeland into exile.

Perhaps it was Mordechai’s cognizance that he was away from home, mourning his past and longing for the return of the Bais Hamikdosh, which caused him to be upset when the Jews took part in Achashveirosh’s dinner, served on utensils from the place he so missed. It was because he never forgot his home and roots that he was able to guide the Jews who had evoked Hashem’s wrath by forgetting.

The identity of the Jew in golus is bound up with the knowledge that he is a person without a proper home, lacking spirit and deficient in his very essence. We are a people haunted by sad memories and invigorated by hopeful visions of a bright future.

Walk into any Jewish home and stare at the blank space opposite the front door. We are empty, we are lacking, and whatever we have will never replace the home we loved, the holiness we embodied, and the spirit that resided within us.

At every chupah, at the apex of the great joy, poignancy, optimism and elation, the baalei simchah stand surrounded by family and friends, the chosson and kallah enveloped by a cloud of euphoria and good wishes, and then there is a pause. It is quiet and the sound of the chosson breaking a glass is heard. For no matter how good things seem, no matter how happy and safe we appear to be, we must never forget that we are not home. We must remember that what we have is but a faux existence in a fictitious world, far from the real world of our destiny.

These months of Tammuz and Av traditionally remind us of our status as exiles. We are like millions of our brothers and sisters who huddle daily in shelters. We can compare ourselves to the sweet innocent children who are currently cowering amidst the din of alarms and sirens. We aren’t home. We want to know if when we say Shema, we can find light in the darkness. We await the geulah and the bright light to shine on us and Eretz Yisroel.

Let us not sink so deeply into the shelter that is golus that we forget that we once had a home where we belonged. We want to be there again so that we can climb out of the darkness, away from the mirage in which we exist and the death and evil that surround us, so that, once again, we can feel alive, rejuvenated, complete and happy.

May that day come soon.


Blogger LondonMale said...

Very well written article, thank you.

5:40 PM  

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