Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin

Warrior Ya'akov - Defender of our People

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, hy'd.(1875-1941) studied under Rabbi Shimon Shkopp zt"l, and later under Rabbi Chaim Brisker, zt"l. At age 32 he joined the Kodshim kollel of the Chafetz Chaim who subsequently became his lifetime role model. In 1921 he became head of the yeshiva in Baronovitch where he remained for the rest of his life. When the Chafetz Chaim planned to make aliyah, a delegation of rabbis came to plead with him to stay. As the spiritual leader of eastern European Jewry, they protested how he could leave them. The Chafetz Chaim answered "you don't need to worry; I will leave behind Rabbi Wasserman."

There is a heart breaking eye-witness report of the execution of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and his students on the 11th of Tammuz, 1941. Rabbi Elchonon was taken with his students from amidst their studying Torah to their place of execution. Rabbi Wasserman said, "it seems that in Heaven they consider us righteous people as we had been chosen to atone with our bodies for the Jewish people. We must therefore repent immediately, the time is short. We must keep in mind that with our repentance our sacrifice will be more pure, and with that we will save the lives of our brothers and sisters in America. The fire that will consume our bodies, that very same fire will rebuild the Jewish people."

The Torah in Parshas Vayishlach (32:25) teaches "Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn." The medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3) identifies the attacker as the attacker as guardian angel of Esau. The Tanchuma (Vayishlach 8) adds that his name is Samoel. Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, in his Kobeitz Maamarim, asks why is it that this angel, whose mission is to protect Esau and his culture, attacked specifically Yaakov? Why not wrestle with the founding fathers of the Jewish nation, Avraham or Yitzchak?

His answer is most fascinating and profound. He cites the Yerushalmi (Chagigah 1:7) that Hashem is patient and can even overlook the three gravest sins of idolatry, adultery and murder, but does not forgive the sin of bittul Torah, neglect of Torah study. He explained the above challenging question with the following metaphor. When two adversaries fight one another, even if one side is victorious today, the other side can regroup and there is always a chance for a further and stronger battle tomorrow. However, if one side seizes the weapons and the ammunition of the other, leaving them totally defenseless, the war is over as they have nothing to fight with. Similarly, the Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches that Hashem declares "I created the yetzer harah [evil inclination] and simultaneously I provided the antidote to control and defeat it, namely the study of Torah". The Angel Samoel, representing the yetzer harah according the Rabbi Wasserman, knows that there is no other force that can over power him. Therefore, when the Jewish people, G-d forbid, are deficient and derelict in their study of Torah, they have, for all practical purposes, surrendered their armaments and weaponry.

It is for this reason, Rabbi Wasserman argues, that the angel Samoel attacks Yaakov, who resides in the tents of Torah, and not Avraham, the pillar of chessed, or Yitzchak, the pillar of service. Specifically Yaakov, who represents Torah learning, is the target and victim of the yetzer harah. Rabbi Wasserman quotes his rebbi, the Chafetz Chaim, "the yetzer harah does not mind if the Jew does kindness, fasts, and prays all day; as long as he does not study Torah!"

[Note: historically, we don't find that they closed the Jewish Hospital in Volozhin, only the Yeshiva]

Why is Torah the antidote to the yetzer harah? Firstly, "an educated consumer is the best customer." The more one studies, the more one's level of observance is enhanced. Moreover, the study of Torah alone has the ability to transform one character and personality. In Tehillim (19:11) King David extols Torah as "sweeter than honey and drippings of the combs." Regarding honey we find a fascinating halacha: if one finds a piece of the bee in the honey, the Rosh (Berachos 6:35) cites Rabbeinu Yonah that one may eat that piece of bee because halachically it has transformed into honey. However, an entire bee may not be consumed. Honey can not or does not change the entire bee. Torah is sweeter and stronger than honey as it transforms the entire being. "Kudsha Brich Hu v'Oraisa chad hu - Hashem and his Torah are inseparable", therefore one who studies Torah literally imbibes G-dliness.

In the introduction to Mesilas Yesharim, Rabbi Chaim Luzato quotes the kabbalist Rabbi Hershel Ostropoler zt"l that prior to the Chelministky Massacres, the Satan came to him in a dream and told him he was prepared to rescind the decree against the Jewish communities of central Europe if they would stop learning Torah. Rabbi Ostropoler refused the Satan's offer.

Bereishis (32:26) states "va-teikah kaf yerech Ya'akov - Yaakov's hip socket was dislocated". The commentaries understand the symbolism of this encounter in the following way. When the Angel sees that he can not topple Yaakov, he strikes a serious blow to his descendants, his children. They are deflected from talmud Torah by either persecution or assimilation. Additionally, the Zohar understands the "yerech Ya'akov" to tomchin d'Oraisa - the supporters of Torah. Rabbi Wasserman writes in his Ikvisa D'Mashicha that in the difficult period preceding the coming of the mashiach people will not realize the importance of talmud Torah and will support other Jewish causes, but Jewish education will not be a priority.

We live in very challenging times. We have so many things competing for our down time that Torah learning is too often not a priority. Unlike Rabbi Teitz zt"l who said that "killing time should be considered a capital offense," too many don't realize the excitement, freshness, and spiritual exhilaration that one can derive from talmud Torah. In addition, in our challenging economic times, we must ask halachic questions as to how to prioritize our giving of tzedakah. "Talmud Torah k'neged kulam" (Mishna Peah 1:1), including local yeshiva scholarships funds, must not loose its supremacy.

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