Several weeks ago I published a letter from an elderly Holocaust survivor who expressed her fear regarding the world situation, specifically the hatred of Israel and escalation of anti-Semitism that is reminiscent of pre-Holocaust Europe. Her letter provoked a torrent of e-mails from young and old readers, several of which I published, but I had not responded to her directly. B’ezrat Hashem, I will do so now.
My Dear Friend:
First, allow me to apologize for the delay in responding to your specific questions, but since you are familiar with my columns you are aware I always allow my readers to respond to the challenges under discussion.
I wish I could tell you that your fears are unfounded, that your imagination is running away with you, that reality proves you wrong. Sadly, however, you are right on target and those who make light of your worries are sleeping, even as our people slept in pre-Holocaust Europe.
What we are witnessing today was predicted by our prophets and sages but, alas, we are no longer familiar with their teachings. Ours is a generation of which the prophet Amos said: “And days shall come saith the L-rd, and I shall send a hunger into the land – not a hunger for bread, nor a thirst for water, but a hunger for the Word of G-d.”
This is the spiritual famine we are witnessing today. We simply do not comprehend and we continue on our merry way with business as usual.
Maimonides taught that when suffering is visited upon us, we are commanded to cry out and awaken our people with the sound of the shofar. Everyone must be alerted to examine his or her life and commit to greater adherence to Torah and mitzvos.
Maimonides warned that if we regard the tragedies that befall us simply as “the way of the world” – natural happenings – we will be guilty of achzarius, cruelty.
At first glance, it is difficult to understand why Maimonides would choose the term “cruelty” to describe those who view trials and tribulations as natural happenings. Such people may be unthinking, apathetic, foolish, blind or obtuse, but why accuse them of cruelty?
The answer is simple. If we regard our pain and suffering as mere coincidence, we will feel no motivation to examine our lives, abandon our old ways, and change. So, yes, such an attitude is cruel, for it invites additional misfortune upon ourselves and others.
It would be the height of cruelty to dismiss what is occurring in the world today as mere happenstance. Great Torah luminaries of past generations, such as the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, told us we are entering the final stages of history – a period called “Ikvesa D’Meshicha” – Footsteps of the Messiah.
Our Torah foretells four exiles through which our people would suffer: that of Egypt, of Babylonia, of the Persian-Mede empires and of the Greek and Roman empires – the exile in which we presently find ourselves, for it was the Romans who exiled us when they destroyed the Second Temple.
In Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, an early midrashic work, it is written that before the coming of Messiah we will have to contend with a fifth source of tribulation that will come from Yishmael – the Arabs – who will cause terrible suffering to the world and to our people. This teaching is reaffirmed by Rabbi Chaim Vital, the illustrious disciple of the Arizal, who wrote that before the final curtain falls on the stage of history, Yishmael will inflict torture on our people in ways the world had never before seen.
One need not have great powers of discernment to recognize the painful veracity of these predictions. Just consider the constant, senseless, brutal acts of terror – the suicide bombers, decapitations, hijackings, missiles, etc.
We are the generation that has been destined to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Hagar (Genesis 16:11-13): “Behold, you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael…. and he shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him .”
The long arm of Ishmael’s terror has indeed reached every part of the world.
There is yet another amazing prophecy in the Yalkut Shimoni – a medieval/midrashic compilation that eerily foretells the events of today and should give us all pause. Rabbi Yitzchok said, “The year in which Melech HaMashiach will be revealed, all the nations of the world will be provoking each other. The king of Persia [Iran] will provoke the king of Arabia. The king of Arabia will go to Edom [the leader of the Christian nations] to take counsel and the King of Persia [Ahmadinejad] will threaten to destroy the entire world.
“The nations of the world will be outraged and panic. They will fall on their faces and will experience pains like birth pangs. Israel too, will be outraged, and in a state of panic ask, ‘Where do we go?’
“But say unto them, ‘My children, do not fear. The time of your redemption has come. And this last redemption shall be different from the first that was followed by further bondage and pain. After this last redemption, you shall not experience any further pain or subjugation’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah 59).
Referring to this teaching, the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt”l, said, “Remember these words. They are perhaps not understood now, but in time they will be, and will be a source of strength to our people.”
Had you heard these prophecies centuries ago, when they were written, you might have laughed and scoffed. Even if you read them as recently as 1970, you would have been hard put to believe it, for of all Muslim countries, the Shah’s Iran was probably the friendliest. But today, the impossible has become possible and events are unfolding so rapidly we have difficulty absorbing their impact. So how are we to understand it all?
The Yalkut compares our suffering to birth pangs. But birth pangs are deceptive – when the contractions begin, it’s easy to ignore them since they are mild and occur between long intervals. As birth becomes imminent, however, the contractions intensify and the pain becomes more intense. And just when it appears the woman can no longer endure the pain, the baby is born and new life enters the world. It is these labor pains to which we are witness today.
How long will the labor last? It’s anyone’s guess, but one thing is certain. Please G-d, the birth is sure to take place. In the interim however, we may very well ask, “Is it possible to ease the suffering? Is it possible to protect ourselves from these painful contractions?”
The answer to that is a most emphatic “Yes!”
(To be continued)