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Navigating Our Ship On The Open Sea: Learning – and Teaching – the Lessons of History


There is more than a bit of gallows humor in the following Torah thought, which I’ve heard attributed to several gedolim over the years:

Question: Why is it that our children do not ask “Four Questions” on Sukkos? After all, things are far from ordinary – arguably even more so than on Pesach – when we sit down to our first Yom Tov meal outdoors in the sukkah.

Answer: Throughout our 2,000-year exile, it was not at all unusual for children to see their families leaving the comfort of their homes and sleeping outdoors. However, when they saw them sitting peacefully at a beautifully set table with a royal aura, it was strange enough to cause them to question the adults around them.

I suggest we consider using the opportunity Sukkos presents to share this vort with our children and grandchildren who, baruch Hashem, will need introductory remarks from us to even begin to comprehend it. We should speak to them about our history in galus and share with them what we ought to glean from our collective experiences of living as a minority among the nations of the world – lessons we learned from our parents but seem to have forgotten over time.

Most members of our parents’ generation, ever mindful of history’s painful lessons, were always careful to live under the radar screen, eschewing conspicuous consumption and avoiding anything considered high profile. (I vividly recall the time my father sent me into a Jewish-owned store to “change” a hundred dollar bill into five twenties before embarking on a road trip because he didn’t want to walk into a roadside convenience store later in the day and pay for an inexpensive item with a large-denomination bill.)

It is well known that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, during his years living in Monsey, discouraged his talmidim from wearing their talesim in the street on Shabbos since he felt Orthodox Jews should live modestly and not attract undue attention. Our parents, though they treasured and valued their freedom, never took it for granted or assumed it was something that would last forever.

Rabbi Berel Wein relates that when his shul in Monsey was being built, and the main beam supporting the structure was purchased, the contractor suggested the shul invest in a more expensive model, one with a 150-year guarantee. Rabbi Wein remarked that as a student of history he was painfully aware that throughout our years in exile, Jews never planned to live in one place for that long a period of time.

We would be well served to take a refresher course in the “Galus 101” imparted to us by previous generations. Too many of us are ignoring these sage teachings and needlessly exuding the kind of negative energy in very public venues that threatens to undermine the unprecedented tranquility we have enjoyed over the past seventy years.

During this time period we have evolved from “Please allow us to live in peace” to “I’m glad to be living in peace” to “I have every right to live in peace” to “We will always live in peace no matter what we do.”

In the past few months alone, our community has endured a seemingly endless barrage of negative publicity with the ongoing terrible chillul Hashem caused by the violent protests in Eretz Yisrael, high-profile abuse and financial scandals, and several bitter battles between zoning boards and health departments in the Catskills and members of heimishe kehillos that generated screaming headlines in local newspapers throughout the summer months. I strongly feel that in the aggregate these all represent an existential threat to the menuchas hanefesh we currently enjoy.

The fifth perek of Bava Basra relates a number of stories told by Rabba Bar Bar Chana about extraordinarily large ships and animals. As such, some of our gedolim throughout the ages, among them the M’harsha, the Vilna Gaon and Reb Nachman of Breslov, interpreted these tales as allegorical in nature and offered a variety of lessons to explain their hidden meaning. One of these stories relates the following episode:

“Once, while on a ship, we came to [what we assumed was] a large island, which was covered with sand and vegetation. We disembarked [onto the island], began building a fire, and cooking our meal. However, we soon discovered that the ‘island’ was really a fish and when it felt the heat [of our cooking], it rolled over and we were plunged into the water. Had the ship not been nearby, we would have drowned” (Bava Basra 73b).

A number of years ago, at an Agudath Israel convention, I heard a haunting interpretation of this story from Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, who related that the ship on the seas refers to our travels and travails throughout our period in galus.

From time to time, Rabbi Keller explained, we find “dry land” – a place to rest and establish our roots in a more permanent manner. However, we then become complacent and begin “cooking” (generating the heat of resentment among the non-Jews surrounding us) – and eventually discover that what we thought was terra firma was in fact only a temporary respite from our travels. After a period of time, we are thrown overboard back into the raging sea of galus once more.

Let us collectively and individually use this Yom Tov of Sukkos to reflect upon steps we can take to “lower the flames” and revert to the personal examples of ne’imus and tznius that we had the zechus to observe in the lives of our parents.

About the Author: Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is founder and dean of Yeshiva Darchei Noam and founder and director of Agudath Israel's Project Y.E.S.


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