At the mikveh they were discussing Egypt.
So many things seem to be unraveling. It’s not just Egypt but the entire Middle East. No, it’s not just the Middle East; it’s the entire world.
A few years ago, I said to someone there would come a day when we would miss Khaddafi.
It seems strange to feel nostalgic for a person like him, but there’s a proverb that goes “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Ruthless leaders like Khaddafi or Saddam Hussein were able, by their very brutality, to control a brutal population. Naïve Westerners try to apply Western standards to Eastern societies. The result is chaos.
Egypt is boiling over; Syria is boiling over. Pots are boiling all around the world, and Jews are surrounded by those boiling pots. What’s going to come flying out of those pots?
Starting this week, we say Psalm 27. We need to pay close attention to these words:
Hashem is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Hashem is the strength of my life. Whom shall I dread? When evildoers would approach me to devour my flesh, my tormentors and my foes…it is they who stumble and fall. Even if an army would encamp against me, my heart would not fear, even if war were would arise against me, in this I trust. One thing I asked of Hashem that I shall seek: that I dwell in the house of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to contemplate in His Sanctuary. Indeed, He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His Tent. He will lift me upon a rock…. Your Presence, Hashem, do I seek. Do not conceal Your Presence from me; do not repel Your servant in anger…. Hope to Hashem; strengthen yourself and He will give you courage, and hope to Hashem.
King David is telling us something here so deep and so crucial to our existence, especially to the upcoming days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. His words are actually revolutionary. He is saying that the events of this world – what we read in newspapers and hear in news broadcasts – are not what impact our lives. We perceive these events as powerful. We perceive the leaders of nations and armies as powerful.
I know the reaction of most readers: Do you mean to tell me men don’t run the world? Come on!
We think we run the world, but we are totally mistaken. “Many designs are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of Hashem, only it will prevail” (Proverbs 19:21).
Do you think that we can perceive the truth with our own eyes and our own brains? That’s what Chava thought in Gan Eden, and how wrong she was! Only through the lens of Torah can we see what is really going on.
Do we have the power to shape events, even the events of our own life? We think so, but as Rabbi Chanina said (Berachos 33b), “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”
Do we control anything at all? Yes, we control “fear of Heaven” – and that’s it. But that’s exactly what we have to work on during Chodesh Elul.
This is no exaggeration. If it were, the Torah would not be telling us these things. Clearly, this is so crucial that if we enter Yamim Noraim without realizing it, our teshuvah and our tefillas will be inevitably compromised, God forbid. We have to know exactly what task we are required to perform in this world and for that we need to live with the correct perspective. The entire surrounding culture is based on the assumption that the actions of mankind control the world. That’s why this culture is so obsessed with news. We have been brought up to believe that the events we read and hear about in the news are in fact the controlling influences in the world and in our lives. Again, no!
“Only” – that’s what it says – “only the counsel of Hashem will prevail.” Since we say this pasuk daily, apparently we are not permitted to begin the day without realizing this incredible, life-altering truth. We control nothing “except the fear of Heaven.”
That, then, has to become our focus.
* * * * *
The surrounding culture lives with such an overpowering misconception not because it really believes that man has power, but for exactly the opposite reason: because it desperately seeks a rationale to rebel against Hashem, and if we claim to control the world, then we can tell ourselves that Hashem is not real. Yes, the world is running from Hashem. Only Am Yisrael calls out to recognize His Existence, and that is why the world hates us. We stand for Truth, and the world is trying to flee from Truth.
When Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen went before Pharaoh and demanded the release of Am Yisrael from slavery, they were able to do so only because they understood with complete clarity that an earthly ruler was nothing. How else would they have had the courage? Just imagine standing before Hitler, yimach shemo, and demanding that he free the Jews. No person would have had the courage to do such a thing, unless he understood with complete clarity that “everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven.”
This is not theory; this is the actual working knowledge we need in order to do our job in the world. Our history would have been drastically different had our ancestors not embodied this understanding in their lives. Nachshon ben Aminadav could not have entered the Yam Suf without that understanding. Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen could not have killed Zimri and Cosbi without that understanding.
And we cannot meet the challenges of this incredibly dangerous world without that understanding. Yes, we are on a vastly lower madreigah than our illustrious ancestors, but Hashem does not present us with a challenge we cannot overcome.
* * * * *
So how should we view the events in Egypt, Syria and other countries surrounding Israel? How do we view the daily events challenging our very existence? How are we supposed to react?
How did Mordechai and Esther react to the dangerous events taking place in Shushan haBira? Was a descendant of Amalek not taking power, one “who sought to destroy, to slay and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women”? Esther said, “Fast for me: do not eat or drink for three days, night or day, and I with my maids will fast also…and if I perish, I perish.” The only answer was teshuvah.
Troubles come upon us because there is a deficiency in our behavior. As we say in the Shema prayer, “Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of Hashem will blaze against you… and you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land which Hashem gives you.”
Do punishments not reflect deficiencies in our behavior? Amalek does not originate destruction; it is we who allow the threat to develop. Amalek’s power is a response to our deviation from Torah. As we say on Tisha B’Av (Kinah 14), “It was because of my guilt that…ruination was inscribed.”
There is a very clear way to determine the exact problem we need to solve. If we examine the behavior of the nations who threaten us, we will see the mirror image of our own deficiencies. In the words of Rabbi A. A. Mandelbaum, “The [behavior of] the nation that is afflicting us at a particular time is rooted in the very trait which we are lacking, and for which we are being punished” (Redemption Unfolding, page 17). Rabbi Mandelbaum goes on to say, quoting Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in Michtav Me’Eliyahu, that “our exile…parallels the type of transgressions to which Yisrael has fallen prey.” In other words, the characteristics of those who hate us are the mirror by which we can see our own faults.
The nations surrounding Israel today are descendants of Yishmael (not literally in the case of Egypt, though that country is certainly a key part of the Arab/Muslim axis). The Ramban describes Yishmael as “a man [like] a wild ass accustomed to the wilderness…searching for prey to tear apart…. His hand against everyone [means] he would first conquer all the nations, but after that…he would be defeated in the end” (Bereishis 16:12).
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines “pere adam” as “a free man…the freest man in the world.” What does that mean? Yishmael is “free from the human yoke and from the constraint of cities [i.e. civilized standards of behavior], hence [the freedom] of wild animals that cannot bear the constraint of cities…a race of men who do not bow their necks to the yoke of other men…. Nobody will be his friend and still nobody will dare to oppose him” (Bereishis 16:12).
The pere adam refuses to abide by the standards that bind other people into cohesive societies. Thus we see his descendants slaughtering their own people without mercy, blowing themselves up in the midst of crowds and flying airplanes into skyscrapers.
Rabbi Mandelbaum continues, “We should not be fooled into thinking the ‘pere’ is a superficial trait; it is at the root of [Yishmael’s] character….” The Chofetz Chaim is quoted as saying, “Even if the cultured nations of the world attempt to make him into a restrained character, they cannot succeed, because he is in essence unrestrained.”
But Rabbi Mandelbaum advises us that “to the extent that we distance ourselves from Yishmael’s ways, we will be spared from his evil clutches.” If we are being oppressed by Yishmael, then we should study his character traits to understand what we are doing wrong.
So let’s try to learn. If the concept of “pere adam” is that Yishmael wants to be free from the constraints that bind people together, isn’t that what sinas chinam is all about? Isn’t that what our Sages taught us is the cause of this torturous Exile?
When we see Yishmael killing his own people, we have to understand that we, the nation of “rachmanim b’nei rachmanim,” are doing the same thing to each other. It may not be so obvious as the headline-grabbing mayhem of the children of Yishmael, but this entire concept of learning from our enemies is a hidden concept. We are supposed to study the world and learn just what inadequacies in our own behavior are causing our suffering.
“There are three identifying marks of this [Jewish] nation: they are merciful, bashful and they do acts of kindness” (Yevamos 79a). We must ask ourselves whether we are living according to our essential nature. Do we not kick and snort and attempt to free ourselves from our Torah obligations? As we read recently in Haftaras Devarim, “An ox knows his owner, and a donkey his master’s trough; Israel does not know; My people does not perceive.”
Several weeks ago we read in the Torah that, in relation to “our brothers the children of Eisav…you shall not provoke them” (Devarim 2:5). One possible explanation as to why we are adjured not to “provoke” him, despite his cruelty to us, is that provocation does not solve our problem.
If in fact all our troubles are due to our own deficiencies that are mirrored by the behavior of our enemies, then there is no point in provoking our enemies. The end of our troubles will only occur when we learn from their behavior to correct our own behavior.
Chodesh Elul is dedicated to preparing for the Great Bechinah, the Great Test, which is coming upon us. It is not just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that loom upon the horizon, but it is the mighty upheaval called the Geulah Shelemah, the Final Redemption. We do not know precisely the moment of its coming, but it is clearly not far off.
We have much to accomplish in the coming days. But God has given us a very clear mirror in which we can see reflected exactly the nature of our challenge. May we draw the right conclusions from what we observe in the world. May we refine ourselves and become the Holy Nation and Priestly Kingdom we were created to be. In the words of Kiddush Levanah, “May the light of the moon be like the light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation…and may there be fulfilled upon us the verse that is written, ‘They shall seek Hashem, their God and David, their king’ – Amen!”
About the Author: Roy Neuberger's latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim) is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, and Georgian. An e-edition is available at www.feldheim.com. Roy is also the author of "From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian, and Georgian) and “Worldstorm.” Roy and Leah Neuberger speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at email@example.com or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.
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