In previous columns I indicated that Hashem, in His infinite mercy, endowed us with a three-fold formula through which we can protect ourselves in this most trying period of Chevlei Moshiach. As promised I will now outline what exactly that formula entails.
The first part is “La’asok B’Torah.” Most people would translate this teaching as, “The study of Torah,” but the word “La’asok” does not mean, “to study.” In Hebrew esek means “business – occupation.” What this formula demands of us is that we not only study and be “kovea itim” – scrupulous in setting time aside for ongoing Torah study, but more, that we assume a whole new attitude toward life and become a Torah people. Torah must become our full-time occupation, our very essence that defines us.
Prior to his death, our father Jacob blessed his sons and charged them with their unique individual missions. Jacob compared the tribe of Issachar, who was the embodiment of Torah, to a “strong-boned donkey.” Why a donkey, you may wonder?
A donkey is the only one that can rest, eat, and even sleep while carrying its load, in contrast to other animals that must first be unloaded so that they may rest. Like the donkey, the Jew, to whom the Torah is his essence, never feels a need to unload. Never for a moment, does he forget his mission. He is aware of his calling, 24/7. He doesn’t have any downtime, and even when he rests, he continues to carry his burden. The Jew, who fulfills the charge of La’asok b’Torah, is ever mindful of his mission. Whether in the work place, in his home, on vacation, ill or healthy; in the throes of poverty or blessed with prosperity, in turmoil or tranquility, like the donkey, he continues to carry his load. Torah remains his full-time occupation.
In our generation, which is prone to compartmentalize everything, this is not an easy concept to absorb. At best, we can see going to ashiur (Torah study), but to be in harness 24/7 is a different matter. We each have our Achilles heel, our own yetzer ha’ra’s that allow us to rationalize our weaknesses and justify our indulgences – La’asok B’Torah sets the bar high. It demands that we become total, full -time Jews…Jews in all our thoughts, Jews in all our deeds, Jews in all our interactions – Yes, that we become full-time Torah people.
Every week, as we usher in the Sabbath, we do so by singing the beautiful hymn, “Lechah Dodi, Likras Kallah – Come, my beloved and let us welcome the Sabbath Queen.” One of the stanzas of this heartfelt, stirring song is “Hisorriri me’afar kumi,” rejuvenate yourself… shake off your dust and put on the splendid, majestic garment of your people.” That is the challenge of La’asok B’Torah – that we shake off the dust of our old habits, put on our splendid Torah garments, rejuvenate ourselves through Torah and mitzvos and once again become Mamlechet Kohanim- the Priestly Kingdom that G-d destined us to be.
To best appreciate this challenge, allow me to share with you a story from my book, “Life Is A Test.” The story is about an eminent rabbi from Bnei Brak.
During the Communist regime in Russia, he was imprisoned in Siberia. Every morning he and the others in his unit would be marched off to backbreaking slave labor. When they returned at nightfall, they would collapse from sheer exhaustion. Days and nights merged and there was no relief from their dismal existence. Among the prisoners in the rabbi’s unit was a distinguished looking gentleman, who, even in that Gehennom, somehow managed to retain his dignity.
One night, while all were asleep, some movement awakened the rabbi. He saw this prisoner arise, and from under the mattress, remove a packet with what appeared to be medals. He then took out a mirror, studied himself, whispered a few words, saluted, removed the medals and returned them to the package, and went back to sleep.
The rabbi did not understand what this man was doing and decided that he would wait to see if he repeated this ritual the following night. And sure enough, he did.
At a loss to comprehend this strange behavior, he decided to ask him what it was all about. The man turned ashen; he was terribly agitated at having been detected.
“Please don’t be frightened,” the rabbi assured him, “I would never betray you – I just want to understand what you were doing.”
The man confided that, prior to his arrest, he had been a general in the Polish army. “But,” here in Siberia, in this dehumanizing pit, it’s easy to lose sight of who you really are,” he explained, “so I made myself a promise. Every night, I would put on my medals, look in the mirror, and remind myself of who I really am.”
The rabbi wept and said, “Surely, this is a message to me. If this man goes to such lengths to remember that he was a general in the Polish army, what must I do to remind myself that I stood at Sinai, that I heard the voice of G-d, and that I belong to the nation that sealed His covenant, that I am part of Mamlechet Kohanim, a priestly kingdom; Goy Kadosh, a holy nation. I dare not forget my calling no matter where I am or what befalls me.”
This story speaks to all of us. The time has come for us to put on our medals, to remember our mission, our calling. This then is the challenge confronting us in these tumultuous times as we see everything around us crumble, as uncertainty and fear envelop us. We must take out our priestly garments, shake off the dust and stand tall and majestic in our G-d given raiment, for that is the only answer, the only viable solution to the dilemma that is confronting us.
Make no mistake about it; it’s not only our brethren in Israel who are under fire. Yes, of course, the fire there is a terrible reality from which they cannot escape, even for a moment…but that fire threatens all of us no matter where we may reside. The time has come for us to go to battle, to rediscover our medals – our faith that has enabled us to survive the centuries, our invincible shield – our Torah. If we make Torah our “esek,” our very essence, then we will be protected from the ordeal of the birth pangs of Messiah, and no power on earth will ever vanquish us.
(To be continued)