The Medrash Bereishis Rabbah tells us that once R’ Akiva was delivering a shiur and his disciples were nodding off. So, he asked, “In what merit did Queen Esther rule over 127 provinces and succeed, together with Mordechai, in saving the generation from assimilation?” He answered, “Let Esther, the granddaughter of Sarah – who lived 127 years and brought many closer to Hashem – come and follow in her footsteps.”
R’ Meir Abovits of Novardok, cites Rav Kamalhar in his Sefer Pnei Meir, that the biggest threat to Yiddishkeit is despair, i.e., when one feels abandoned and loses hope.
The prophet Yeshaya calls out (51:1-2), “Listen to me all those who pursue righteousness and seek Hashem … look to Avraham Avinu and to Sarah, who stood alone against the world,” yet they devoted their lives to teaching the world about Hashem, with Avraham converting the men and Sarah converting the women. When we study Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora we likewise learn of individual powerful personalities who effectively imbued new life into the entire Jewish nation.
On the last daf of Sotah, the Talmud speaks of the generation preceding the arrival of Moshiach, and describes dismal conditions, concluding with the words, “And upon what is there for us to rely? Only our Father in Heaven.” This is understood to mean that those who fear Heaven will throw up their hands in despair and renounce participation in Hashem’s war, rather leaving it all to Hashem Himself.
The Nefesh HaChaim expounds that this is an erroneous interpretation. In fact, if understood this way it is characterizes the epitome of our ominous situation, when people completely despair and say they can do nothing but to rely on Hashem. Rather, says the Nefesh Chaim, it is specifically at such a period in time that one must grow stronger, and not lose faith or hope.
The medrash speaks of two righteous women who had a major spiritual impact on their generation, an effect that is equally possible for both men and women. In later generations we are also able to make note of a renowned woman who was able to bring about a far-reaching revolution in the Jewish world impacting future generations.
HaGaon R’ Yechezkel Sarno was once visiting with the Gerer Rebbe, the Bais Yisrael. In the midst of their conversation, R’ Yechezkel asked the Gerer Rebbe, “Which individual played the most significant role in Klal Yisrael in the previous generation?”
After a few moments of silence, R’ Yechezkel continued, “If you will ask your chassidim they will certainly say the most influential personality was your father, the Baal Imrei Emes. My disciples will claim that it was the Alter of Slobodka. But in my opinion,” said R’ Yechezkel, “neither would be correct. It was Frau Sarah Schenirer who was most prominent, because if not for her we would have neither your chassidim nor my disciples.”
R’ Yisroel of Rizhin says that there are three aspects in one’s obligation to do teshuva. One needs to repent for an aveirah, a wrongdoing, he has committed. He must repent if he could have performed any mitzvah with more enthusiasm, or more thoroughly and didn’t. Thirdly, he must ask forgiveness if he did not undertake to implement a specific endeavor which he had the power to achieve. In truth, he may have lost heart, become disillusioned, or not had the confidence to proceed. The Talmud (Pesachim 117a) teaches that the Divine Spirit does not dwell where there is sadness or laziness; it only dwells in the midst of joy for a mitzvah. The Evil Inclination exerts great effort to overpower a person by bringing him to despair and disillusionment.
After the Chashmona’im were victorious in their war against the Greeks, they entered the Bais HaMikdash in order to light the Menorah. They found everything destroyed, and all the flasks of oil had been defiled. The Torah exempts an individual from performing a mitzvah when he is under duress. They could have despaired, and foregone lighting the Menorah. But the Chashmona’im persevered, searching tirelessly to find even the smallest amount of pure oil.
The Sefer Be’er Chaim cites the Talmud (Avodah Zarah) that the Greeks cut the stones of the Altar and made thirteen breaches in the Bais HaMikdash. Considering all this destruction, why were the Chashmona’im so jubilant about lighting the Menorah? This teaches us the obligation of never becoming discouraged or disheartened.
The Sfas Emes comments on the words (Devarim 31:17), “I will conceal my face from them,” and says that Hashem may be justified in hiding His face from the Jewish Nation, yet we have the benefit of being able to change, to become a new creation. This is as the Rambam says (Hilchos Teshuva 7:6) that teshuva brings close those who have strayed. Formerly he was despised by Hashem, disgusting and abominable. Now he is beloved, precious, close and dear to Hashem.
I believe this is what the Rizhiner was saying. If one does not despair, and revitalizes himself to become a “new person,” he will be successful in fulfilling his mission in life.