By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
Every year, efforts are made to find some meaning behind the Hebrew letters that represent it. This past Rosh Hashanah, as the Jewish year 5775 approached, various connections and meanings were suggested for the letters תשעה. One of my relatives, whom I met on the morning after the terrible massacre in Har Nof, shared with me something that he had heard around yom tov time during a shiur from Rav Goldvicht, a popular rosh yeshiva at YU: that the letters spell out the Hebrew number of nine, “tishah.”
In the Haggadah, one of the most famous piyutim states that tishah is yarchei leidah, the nine months of childbearing. We are living in the days of acharis ha’yamim, when the birth and coming of Mashiach is just around the corner. This year may bring with it the tishah yarchei leidah and the birth pangs of Mashiach.
How prophetic were these words that rang true for Yidden throughout the world over the past weeks. Are there any chevlei leidah worse than having four new almanos and 24 new yesomim in Klal Yisrael? The pictures were so horrific and painful to see that they are forever seared into our collective neshamos. In a conversation with one of the roshei yeshiva in the Mirrer Yeshiva, he expressed to me that he came to Eretz Yisrael 22 years ago after graduating from a local yeshiva high school to learn in the Mir, and he never left. He lived through Scud missiles, sealed rooms, both intifadas, multiple wars in Gaza and Lebanon—and yet he had never tasted pachad (intense, overwhelming fear) until now.
My own daughter, who lives with her young family in Ramat Eshkol, where her husband spends his days and nights learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva, tells me that things that she took for granted in everyday life, such as waiting with dozens of other young mothers pushing their baby carriages to the corner for the cheder bus to arrive, have become frightening experiences. The small local butcher shop that has serviced the neighborhood residents for decades is now empty, as longtime customers are afraid to walk in and be serviced by the Arab workers with knives and meat cleavers in their hands, though they have been doing so at that store for more than two decades.
Why is all this happening to us at this time? I choose to ignore the opinions suggested to me. Every morning, after rising early and learning daf yomi together with the chevrah and then davening together, I enjoy a fresh cup of brewed coffee at the local bagel store. The morning that the horrific news broke, I met a relative who commented on the meaning of all this—that maybe now the yeshiva world would recognize the need for army service and the need for a strong army. Within no more than a minute after this conversation ended, a neighbor walked in and said that maybe now the government in Eretz Yisrael would understand better the need to increase Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael.
One comment at the Minchah minyan was that this happened at a shul because not enough people go to shul in the morning. Another said it’s because we don’t have enough reverence for our shuls today. Even another commented that since they were, for the most part, American Jews, it’s a message specifically for the Yidden in America who bring all kinds of communication gadgets into their shuls.
Recognizing my limitations when it comes to prophecy, I choose to align myself with the 103-year-old manhig ha’dor, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, shlita, who said that while we have no understanding of Hashem’s mysterious ways, when a tzarah happens in Klal Yisrael, each person—every man, woman, and child—knows what he or she needs to work on, and that’s the action we should take. If some of the above-mentioned items are lacking in an individual, then that should be rectified. However, to attribute something of this incomprehensible magnitude to a specific collective fault, in the words of the late Ponovezher rosh yeshiva Rav Shach, zt’l, it is “ein ruach chachamim nocheh heimenu.”
Having said that, there is one thing that we need to focus on. We are living by all accounts in the days of acharis ha’yamim, the days preceding the coming of Mashiach. Chazal forewarned us long ago of the great danger of living in these trying days. Even a cursory look at the midrashim or Zohar that describes these days is enough to frighten us as well as to inspire us.
There is a serious contradiction in the Midrash. First, the Midrash tells us that Klal Yisrael will have to undergo four different periods of galus until redemption will happen. The longest galus is galus Edom, which we have been in for close to 2,000 years. Yet the midrash then concludes that the galus of Yishmael will be the worst one of all. (The Zohar in Shemos, 288, says as well that “there is no galus more difficult than galus Yishmael.”) If galus Yishmael is not included as one of the four galuyos, how can it be the worst one of all?
There are many answers in the sefarim to this seemingly difficult contradiction. Some understand that each galus beforehand happened as a result of punishment to Klal Yisrael for their sins; however, galus Yishmael is not only for our sins, but it is also because Yishmael has special z’chuyos to have lived in Eretz Yisrael during all these years. Avraham Avinu davened specifically for his son Yishmael to do teshuvah b’acharis ha’yamim. An enemy that exists on its own z’chuyos is a dangerous enemy to have. Add the fact the Torah describes their way of life as that of a perah adam, a beast of a man, and that makes for a dangerous, frightening, and formidable enemy.
The whole world speaks of making peace with bnei Yishmael—all they want is some land, something to call their own, and they will stop being our enemy. This is something that so many of our own people mistakenly think possible. Dovid HaMelech knew better. When Dovid saw through ruach ha’kodesh the great struggles and tzaros that would befall his people, he began to cry and describe the great evil that is Yishmael, as he writes in Tehillim (120:5), “Oyah li ki garti meshech, shachanti im ahalei Keidar, Woe unto me for my drawn-out sojourn; I have dwelt with the camp of Keidar.” The Rambam in Iggeres Teiman explains that Dovid HaMelech singles out Keidar from all others, because the person responsible for all of this is Muhammad, who is from Keidar.
And Dovid HaMelech continues to explain why this particular enemy, of all of Klal Yisrael’s enemies over our long and bloody history, is so terrible: “Rabbas shachnah lah nafshi, im sonei shalom, I have long dwelt with those who hate peace”; “Ani shalom, v’chi adabeir, hiemah la’milchamah, I am peace but when so I speak, they are for war.”
There we have it. Dovid HaMelech taught us, so many years ago, that we can talk peace—at Oslo, at Camp David, at the U.N.—with this world leader or that one, but it will all be for naught. We talk peace and they talk war. It will be this way until the end of time and the coming of Mashiach.
In shul on the Shabbos after the massacre, I mentioned the famous comment of the Baal HaTurim on the juxtaposition of the last pasuk in Parashas Chayei Sarah and the first pasuk in Parashas Toldos. The parashah of Chayei Sarah ends with the words “Al pnei kol echav nafal, They dwelt near all their brethren.” The next parashah begins with the words “V’eilah toldos Yitzchak, These are the generations of Yitzchak.” The connection between these two pesukim is of great historical significance—when Yishmael will fall (nefel) at the end of days, only then the son of Dovid HaMelech, a descendant of Yitzchak, will sprout forth. Until then nothing will change.
About six years ago, I took my son Dovid to Eretz Yisrael for a few days before his bar mitzvah to get a berachah from Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, as well as from other gedolim, and we were fortunate to have my father, z’l, join us for the trip. It had been many years since my father had visited his favorite place in Eretz Yisrael, the Me’aras HaMachpeilah in Chevron. I reached out to some good friends who live there to meet up with us and give us an in-depth tour of the various communities in and around Chevron.
Our guide took us to the museum that was built to commemorate the terrible pogrom and massacre of 69 Yidden in 1929 (along with many students of the transported Slabodka yeshiva that had moved to the quiet, tranquil, and holy city of Chevron several years earlier). Before we went in, he warned us that the pictures of the dead are horrific and equally so are the pictures of the wounded survivors, many with missing limbs, ears, noses, etc., and that it may be too hard for us to look at. After we finished walking through that truly horrific exhibit, I remember my friend turning to my father, z’l, and saying, “The nechamah that you should take with you is that this happened in 1929. Now that we have our own country and our own powerful army, this will never happen here again.”
My father, z’l, who had been an eyewitness to the handiwork of the Nazis and of the Russian Cossacks in Siberia, didn’t respond at all to that bold “promise” made at that time. When I saw the horrific images of the massacre in Har Nof during what was to be a routine Shacharis davening in shul, I couldn’t help but think what my friend from Chevron would say about this colossal tragedy. I believe that if he is honest with himself and if we are all honest with ourselves, we would have to face the fact that Yishmael, that perah adam, is the same in 1929, 1948, and 2014, and absolutely nothing has changed. We need to protect ourselves in every way possible to try to prevent these things from happening, but, in the end, as the Baal HaTurim taught us, until Yishmael falls, the children of Yitzchak will never have peace.
Now we understand what the Midrash meant by saying the galus of Yishmael is most difficult of all, because in every previous galus there was hope that times would get better, that some form of peaceful coexistence could be found between the nations of the world where the Yidden lived at the time. However, with the current galus Yishmael, there will never be real peace, there will never be real shalom, there will never be compromise. There will always be the need to be on guard at all times against a nation that values not life, but death, that thrives not on building, but on destroying. And, while we are blessed with an army of acheinu Bnei Yisrael who put their lives on the line every single day for Klal Yisrael—may HaKadosh Baruch Hu protect them all—we need to focus all our energies on our tefillos to bring an end to this bitter galus of Yishmael and to bring their end with the coming of Mashiach.
If, after the events of the past few weeks, we are still able to continue with our lives as usual, then, in some tragic way, Yishmael can delight that we have lost our way on the dark roads of galus, darkened by the blood of our kedoshim, both new and old—and, in some sense, he will have already won.
May HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Av HaRachamim, help us that this should never be allowed to happen.