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Several years ago we spent Sukkos with our children in Beit El, a large community in the “West Bank” of Israel, actually the territory of the Tribe of Binyamin.
One night, a man was shot as he tried to break into the settlement from a nearby Arab city. His family did not say, “We are so sorry that our son tried to break into your community and commit violence.” Quite the opposite. There was a prolonged, noisy demonstration in his city against the Israel Defense Forces.
My wife and I witnessed this demonstration, watching as a crowd of Arabs yelled into bullhorns and burned tires. Black smoke drifted into our nostrils. It was an ugly, threatening scene. Only fear of the IDF prevented this mob from rushing into the settlement. As we stood watching, I decided this was not how I wanted to spend Sukkos. But how do you get away from it?
A thought occurred to me. “One thing I asked of Hashem, that I shall seek: That I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life” (Psalm 27).
So I entered the sukkah, where I sat in the presence of Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and Dovid. There I was protected by Magen Avraham – The Shield of Abraham. And there the raucous sounds from outside faded away as I immersed myself in words of Torah.
Obviously, if I had needed to defend my family I would have done so, but there was nothing I could do. So the sukkah seemed a logical place to go. In fact, when we enter it we are in a different world.
What is it about the sukkah? What about the arba minim, the Four Species? In fact, what is the Magen Avraham, the Shield of Abraham?
What protection do they offer?
Let’s face it, the sukkah offers no physical protection whatsoever. It is the flimsiest of dwellings. The arba minim are floppy plants. You can get a nasty cut if you run your hand along a lulav the wrong way, but it is not a real sword.
How does the Magen Avraham protect me?
What is it about these flimsy or intangible objects that gives us such a feeling of security?
ur father Abraham faced the entire world. He was the only one in his time who understood that God exists, and he relied on God to protect him. He and our mother Sarah gathered souls around them and produced children and children’s children who inherited their Covenant with the Creator, until this very day.
If the Shield of Abraham were not real, we would not be here!
In the current world, we stand in great need of protection, and it is vital for us to understand where that protection comes from. The very flimsiness of the sukkah and the Four Species and the very invisibility of the Shield of Abraham prove that ruchnius, spirituality, rules the world. God’s existence is proved by the fact that these objects provide no physical protection.
Think about it: how are there Jews in the world today? How did Avraham Avinu survive a hostile world in which he was initially a minority of one? King David says, “Though my father and mother have forsaken me, Hashem will gather me in” (Psalm 27) and that is exactly what happened, for Avraham Avinu’s own father tried to destroy him.
We have survived almost two thousand years of Exile since the destruction of the Second Temple. Only one thing remained for us, our Torah which is the basis for our national and personal existence. “One thing I asked of Hashem ” (Psalm 27). But that one thing is all we needed!
The Torah Itself is intangible. Yes, it has been written down, but it is words, a covenant, and as such it has no intrinsic physical existence. How can an “intangible” covenant protect a scattered, despised and powerless nation?
After two thousand years scattered all around the globe, vastly outnumbered among usually violent host cultures often maniacally focused on exterminating us, we are still here.
Is this logical?
Is it even possible?
Possible or impossible, it’s true!
And we are still identified as Children of Israel. We still cling to our Covenant with “all our heart and all our soul and all our resources.”
If the Shield of Abraham isnot real, then what is protecting us?
I recently heard a great rabbi say that one of the biggest lies in the world is “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”
Think about that platitude: “Words can never hurt you.”
Are you kidding? Words can kill you.
Why are we in Exile today?
The Gemara tells us that lashon hara, words of unwarranted hatred, were literally responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple and the seemingly endless Exile that began at that time. Words – yes, words – sent millions of Jews into exile. An infamous dictator – may his name be ground to dust – spoke words of hatred which almost resulted in the complete annihilation of our people.
“Words can never hurt you”?
Words can cause endless pain, like a venomous stinger stuck under the skin. I know I am supposed to forgive, and I am trying, but I recall words that cause me intense pain years later.
My wife and I once spoke at a Shabbaton out of town. I was davening at a shul where they didn’t know me. I sneezed during davening, found some tissues and put them under the white cloth on the table in front of me. I was afraid to put them in my pocket, because there was no eruv and I worried I might walk outside with them after services, so I made a mental note to put them in the waste basket on my way out of shul. But before I had a chance to collect them, the gabbai stormed over to me.
“How dare you leave your mess, which I will have to clean up?”
I stared at him. What was I supposed to say? I was trying to act responsibly, and I got such a verbal smack from a person I never saw before in a shul where the rabbi had just finished a sermon about treating the many guests who were there that day as if they were family members.
That was long ago, and I am still shaking from those words.
Words are much more powerful than sticks and stones.
And so is the Shield of Abraham.
I remember the night of January 10, 1966, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here is how I describe it in my book, From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul:
When I awoke at 2 a.m., I was desperate. I saw a chasm opening in front of me, a pit from which there was no escape. I looked back on my life. I was twenty-three years old and we had been married just over two and a half years. Linda and I loved each other, but tensions were at the snapping point.
I felt as if my life were a long corridor, with many doors on each side. I had opened each door, hundreds of doors. There was a door for “hiking in the wilderness,” a door for “folk music,” doors for “toughness” and “coolness.” There was a door for “political activism,” a door to the psychiatrist’s office, a door for “writing poetry,” a door for “comparative religion” and “The Ethical Culture Society.” Each door had led nowhere, into a blank wall. Was there no door that led to truth, to freedom, no door to sunshine and happiness?
I began to cry. I was through. There was no future. I was dying. There was no place I hadn’t tried, no door I hadn’t opened. I was drowning. My life was ending. Can you imagine this feeling? There was nothing to live for. No hope.
I was sliding: down, down, down falling through space. And then, as I fell, a thought brushed by me. A little thought, a little voice, like a feather floating by in the midst of the void, a crazy little idea.
No, it couldn’t be true.
What else was there besides death?
All my life I had been raised as a good American boy. I went to the finest schools and met the most sophisticated people. Nobody normal believed in God. I mean, where is God? Maybe thirteenth-century monks believed in God, but that was the Dark Ages. What else did they have in life? But we live in reality. This is the twentieth century, the enlightened blossoming of world culture, the age of science and technology. We are liberated. I mean, just where is God? I don’t see Him. I can’t touch Him.
I’m supposed to believe in something I can’t see?
There was one big problem.
If all that stuff were true, how come I – the sophisticated product of the culmination of all civilization – was a total failure who couldn’t succeed at even the simplest things in life? I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t prevent myself from getting angry and alienating those I cared about. I was a slave.
I “knew” that God didn’t exist.
The problem was that I felt I also didn’t exist.
Something was terribly wrong.
Suddenly, I began to turn the whole question around. My eyes opened and I saw something I had never seen before. There was one unopened door in that long corridor. Why had I never noticed that door before? It was the door to God.
I had been sure that God did not exist. But now that my own life seemed to be falling apart, I began to wonder.
Maybe I had to turn the whole thing upside down. When I examined it, it was very logical. When I was honest about my life, I saw that I did not exist – my life was empty – and at that time I was sure that God did not exist.
But what if God did exist? Maybe then I could also exist. Maybe my existence depends on God.
Maybe there was a life I hadn’t even dreamed about. Maybe if God were really alive I could be alive. Maybe I had been looking at things “upside down” or “backwards” or “inside out.”
Why did my intelligence have to be the measuring rod of reality? Maybe I did not understand and God did understand. Did I have to comprehend something for it to be real? Was I the center of the universe?
Maybe there was a reality beyond my understanding.
I began to have this crazy thought. Could God exist? No, it’s crazy. CRAZY! All my life I had been raised on “reality.” No normal person believed in God.
And then I began to wonder if I had ever met any normal people.
They say there are no atheists in the foxhole. I was in a spiritual foxhole. I was fighting for my life in a “war to end all wars.” My entire civilization was falling apart. I felt the coldness of death and black nothingness where chaos reigns.
When you are drowning, you grab the life preserver. You don’t ask questions. I was drowning, and all of a sudden out of the sky came this life preserver. I grabbed it.
What choice did I have? I wanted to live!
God, do You exist? Could You exist?
Dawn was beginning to break as a new light began to glow inside me. All of a sudden, I started to have this incredible feeling of hope, a new idea that would enable me to live.
Do you think we survive on “bread”? No, we survive on ideas. Our life emanates from our soul and our soul emanates from God. “Some [trust] in chariots, some in horses but we [trust] in the name of God” (Psalm 20). This “crutch” that I had always rejected, the “opiate of the masses,” maybe this was the missing link.
As the sun rose, I picked up a pen and began to write. A volcano of thought and emotion exploded onto my paper. I began to reassess my entire life. All of a sudden I let God enter my soul and the sun came up.
Just thoughts – “intangible” thoughts – yet “man does not live by bread alone, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
Words can also bring life. Here is another excerpt from the book, describing our first meeting with Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis:
This lady started to talk. She spoke so quietly, it was almost a whisper. All of a sudden, my insides were quivering. My soul – or whatever was in there – started shaking. My eyes were wet. Why was I crying? What’s going on here? What is she talking about?
“You are a Jew [she said]. You have created civilizations. You have given birth to every ideal that has shaped mankind: Justice, peace, love, the dignity of man, have all had their genesis in Your Torah. But, above all, you have been given the unique mission of proclaiming the Oneness of God.”
.The words kept marching on, like battalions of little soldiers, each one entering my ears, my heart, my mind. In all my life, some thirty years of listening to teachers, clergymen, professors, wise men, doctors, lawyers, artists, and friends, I had never heard such words before . These quiet words entered my heart and made me cry.
I was sobbing. I was ashamed, but I couldn’t help it. Why did these words affect me so much?
Words, just words.
The sukkah, the Four Species, the Shield of Abraham.
Flimsy? Intangible? Not really. The Reality is God.
We who cling to God and His Torah are alive today and will soon merit to enter the Sukkah made from the skin of the Leviathan and dwell in the days of Mashiach ben Dovid.
Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew and Spanish, with French and Russian editions in preparation. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian) and “Worldstorm.”
Roy and his wife 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.
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