Parshat Bereshit תשפ”ד
Last Shabbat– (Shemini Atzeret morning), the world woke up to the news that Israel was under a deadly attack. Hamas staged a major uprising. Entering Israel from Gaza, they murdered, in cold blood, nearly 1,000 soldiers, policemen, and civilians, and kidnapped many hostages, which they forced back to Gaza to a likely horrible fate. Our hearts go out to the victims, their families, and especially to the kidnapped, who face a terrifying future, and many of whom will die there.
This coming Shabbat, we will begin reading the Torah from its beginning, “Bereshit …” Rashi begins his Torah commentary on this word with Rabbi Yitzchak’s famous question: Why did Hashem begin the Torah with a description of Creation? Isn’t the Torah’s purpose to convey to man his obligations in the form of the commandments that he must fulfill? So why didn’t Hashem begin the Torah with the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people – the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon – which does not appear until the Book of Exodus?
Rabbi Yitzchak answers with Psalms 111, Verse 6.
(ו) כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם:
He (Hashem) declared the strength of His deeds to His people, to give them to inherit the nations.
For if the world’s nations should tell the Jewish people, “You are thieves for having conquered the seven nations dwelling in the land of Israel and taken the land from them,” we can respond, “The whole earth belongs to Hashem since He created it. Until now, He let you have it; but now He has chosen to give it to us.”
How relevant this point is today, when the Jewish people’s existence in the G-d given land of Israel is being threatened. They don’t have a leg to stand on.
Most of us here in America do not know a single victim. Yet we feel a hole in our hearts and deep, deep feelings of pain and anguish for our fellow Jews in Israel. And that is a most remarkable quality of the Jewish people. Though we lack a personal connection with the victims, they are our brothers and sisters, and, as such, we naturally feel their pain and horrific suffering. We feel burning rage at the bloody cruelty and barbaric treatment that their subhuman attackers have imposed upon them. Yet what can we meaningfully do when we are so far away?
The reality is, there is much we can do to help our brothers and sisters is distress. This is because the Jewish people have a secret weapon that we can deploy from anywhere in the world that will have a profound affect on the fate of our Jewish brothers and sisters. That secret weapon is our mouth with which we can pray to Hashem for the welfare of the people in distress and with which we can learn Torah. These are our most potent weapons against the onslaught of any enemy.
Our forefather Yitzchak (Isaac) succinctly expressed this notion to his son Yaakov when Yaakov came to his father, with hairy arms and a gentle voice, to receive a blessing. Yitzchak expressed regarding his son (Genesis 27:22),
“הַקֹּל קוֹל יַעֲקֹב וְהַיָּדַיִם יְדֵי עֵשָׂו”
22) The voice is Yaakov’s voice, but the hands are Esav’s hands. Our rabbis understood this to mean that
שכך הבטיחם אביהם הקול קול יעקב, בזמן שיעקב מצוי בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות אין הידים ידי עשו
Their father (Yitzchak) promised the generations that when Yaakov’s voice is heard in the Shuls and the Torah study halls, Esav’s hands are powerless.
As to the mechanism for how that works,
the Talmud reveals (Avoda Zara 2a),
דרש רבי חנינא בר פפא ואיתימא רב שמלאי: לעתיד לבא מביא הקדוש ברוך הוא ספר תורה [ומניחו] בחיקו ואומר, “למי שעסק בה יבא ויטול שכרו.” מיד מתקבצין ובאין עובדי כוכבים.
Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa, and some say Rabbi Simlai, taught, In the future (after Mashiach comes) Hashem is going to put a Sefer Torah in His bosom and say, “Whoever has embraced the Torah should come and claim his reward.” Immediately, the nations of the world gather to Hashem.
The Roman Empire was the first to stake its claim, asserting that they implemented many financial services and programs so that Torah scholars would have the financial support that they needed to study Torah, and, hence, they should receive their reward! Hashem rejected their claim, saying, “Yes, it is true that your programs and services indeed supported Torah scholars and enabled them to learn Torah, but who are you fooling? What you did was purely for your own selfish reasons and although the Jewish people benefitted from it, you are not entitled to reward for it.”
The next nation to enter was Persia.
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא, “במאי עסקתם?” אומרים לפניו, “רבונו של עולם הרבה גשרים גשרנו הרבה כרכים כבשנו הרבה מלחמות עשינו וכולם לא עשינו אלא בשביל ישראל כדי שיתעסקו בתורה!”
Hashem said to them. “How were you involved with the Torah? They answered. “We built many bridges, we conquered many villages, and we made many wars, and we did it all just so the Jewish people should learn Torah!”
אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא כל מה שעשיתם לצורך עצמכם עשיתם תקנתם גשרים ליטול מהם מכס כרכים לעשות בהם אנגריא מלחמות אני עשיתי שנאמר ה’ איש מלחמה
Everything you did was for your own selfish reasons, … and that which you say “You made many wars” is simply not true. I am the One who makes wars, as it says in the verse (Exodus 15:3), “Hashem is Master of war.”
This Talmudic passage reveals an unintuitive truth. Contrary to what we perceive to be the source of war (nations squabbling with one another), Hashem is behind the scenes directing the players causing the war. To sculpt the suitable landscape in the world to receive the Mashiach, Hashem pits one nation against the other and has them settle in just the right configuration for His purposes.
It goes without saying that Israel, the place about which Hashem says (Deuteronomy 11:12),
(יב) אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ דֹּרֵשׁ אֹתָהּ תָּמִיד עֵינֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֶיךָ בָּהּ מֵרֵשִׁית הַשָּׁנָה וְעַד אַחֲרִית שָׁנָה
12) “A land that Hashem, your G-d, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end,” could not experience a war without Hashem making it happen.
Understanding Who is behind the scenes empowers us to plan our strategy for ending the conflict and putting the enemy where he belongs. We know very well what influences Hashem. He has told us!
Hashem set the precedent in His instructions to Moshe when the Jewish people went to war with the nation of Midyan. Moshe was commanded to retaliate against the Midianites for the catastrophe that they caused by sending its women to entice the Jewish men to sin with them. Twenty four thousand men from the tribe of Shimon fell prey to them and were killed for their sin.
Midyan was a very numerous and strong nation whose cities were fortified and protected. Nevertheless, the Jewish army that would defeat it comprised only 12,000 men.
This was Moshe’s command to the people (Numbers 31:3,4).
ג) וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה אֶל הָעָם לֵאמֹר הֵחָלְצוּ מֵאִתְּכֶם אֲנָשִׁים לַצָּבָא וְיִהְיוּ עַל מִדְיָן לָתֵת נִקְמַת יְדֹוָד בְּמִדְיָן
ד) אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה לְכֹל מַטּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּשְׁלְחוּ לַצָּבָא
3) Moshe spoke to the people saying. “Arm men from among yourselves for the army, that they may be against Midian to inflict Hashem’s vengeance against Midian. 4) A Thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the army.”
Why the repetition of a thousand for a tribe? Rabbi Yishmael in the Midrash explains that 1,000 men from tribe went to actually fight, while a second thousand went along to assist with their weapons. The Midrash as well deduces from the next verse that a third thousand also went to war, but in a different way. How so? They went to the shuls to pray for the soldiers. Each tribe designated one person per soldier to pray for his welfare and success at the battlefront.
מדרש תנחומא מטות – פרק ג
וי”ב אלף לתפלה ומנין שכך כתיב אלף למטה אלף למטה הרי שני אלפים וימסרו מאלפי ישראל מהו וימסרו שהם נמסרין זוגות זה לזה
And 12,000 for prayer. What is the source of this? For it says, 1,000 for each tribe, 1,000 for each tribe, that’s 2,000 per tribe, and then it says (in the next verse) and another thousand were given to the army. What were these for? These were the other half of the pair, who prayed, with the ones who went to war.
This seems odd. We know that the only soldiers who ever went to war for the Jewish people were completely righteous people without even the smallest sin on their record. Deuteronomy (20:1-10) describes how there was a special Cohen who spoke to the soldiers just before they went to battle. Among the matters that the Cohen would tell them is, “Who is the man who is fearful and fainthearted, let him go and return to his house, let him not melt the heart of his fellows like his heart.”
Our Sages explain that this “fellow” is not afraid of the battle per se; rather, he is afraid that he may die in battle because he has a sin on his hands that will do him in. Because of his sin, he is vulnerable, and should therefore go home. What type of sin are we talking about? Murder? Armed robbery? Not at all. We are talking about something seemingly very minor, viz speaking between putting the tefillin on his hand and his head when he dons them in the morning.
The Vilna Gaon lists four criteria for a soldier to be accepted into the army:
1) He had to have pure lineage, so that the merit of his forefathers would support him.
2) He had to be completely clean of sin. If he had a sin on his record he could not go to battle.
3) He had to be physically unblemished.
4) He had to be able to resist the temptation to sin during the war, even to the degree of refraining from saying something inappropriate.
Even soldiers on this spiritual level needed a designated person to pray for them while they were at the front. There are two reasons for this. First, the soldier must be always aware that neither his might nor his prowess are the sources of his success; rather, it is Hashem’s mercy brought forth by the prayers being said for him. Second, when a person is in danger, he needs extra merit. War is the most dangerous situation a person could be in.
The Torah tells us that every soldier returned safely from this battle. (Numbers 31:49)
מט) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל משֶׁה עֲבָדֶיךָ נָּשְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ אַנְשֵׁי הַמִּלְחָמָה אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדֵנוּ וְלֹא נִפְקַד מִמֶּנּוּ אִיש
49) They said to Moshe, “Your servants took a census of the men of war under our command, and not a man of us is missing.”
This is precisely why there needed to be one person praying per soldier at the front. In a Jewish war, the goal is not t to win the war at the expense of the lives of some of the soldiers. It is unacceptable that even one life be lost at war; every soul must return safely, which is how it was in all of the battles that the Jewish people fought in the wilderness (such as the war with Amalek and Sichon), and in all the battles that they fought when conquering the land of Israel from its inhabitants. They never lost a soldier, except once.
That was in the battle for the city of העי (Ha-ay), where they lost 36 soldiers. When that happened, they stopped the fighting immediately. Something was wrong; no one was supposed to die in battle. A prompt investigation revealed that someone had sinned by taking of the forbidden spoils. When the offender was dealt with, things returned to “normal,” and they captured the city with no further casualties.
When the Jewish nation goes to war, the factors that determine the war’s success are different than with any other nation. Success does not depend on the warriors’ might, or the generals’ strategy. The men who went to war for the Jewish nation were not trained warriors; they not train in boot camps. They were known as the most righteous members of the community. The merit of their deeds and the prayers of their counterparts allowed each of them to return safely from the front.
The merit of Torah study is also a very powerful weapon against the Jewish people’s enemies.
Kings II chapter 19 tells the story of סנחריב (Sancherev)who laid siege to Jerusalem with 185,000 men during the reign of King Chizkiyahu (חזקיהו)-, king of Israel. The night before Sancherev was going to attack, his entire army died in a plague.
The verse tells us (Kings II 19:35):
וַיְהִי בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֵּצֵא מַלְאַךְ יְדֹוָד וַיַּךְ בְּמַחֲנֵה אַשּׁוּר מֵאָה שְׁמוֹנִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה אָלֶף וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר וְהִנֵּה כֻלָּם פְּגָרִים מֵתִים
35) And it was that night that an angel of Hashem went out and smote in the camp of Ashur 185,000 and behold when they awoke early in the morning, they were all dead corpses.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 94b informs us of how Chizkiyahu was able to accomplish this amazing feat, to kill his enemy without even fighting with him. He used a very unusual strategy.
מה עשה? נעץ חרב על פתח בית המדרש ואמר “כל מי שאינו עוסק בתורה ידקר בחרב זו” בדקו מדן ועד באר שבע ולא מצאו עם הארץ, מגבת ועד אנטיפרס ולא מצאו תינוק ותינוקת איש ואשה שלא היו בקיאין בהלכות טומאה וטהרה
What did he do? He stuck a sword in the Beit Hamidrash and said, “Whoever does not learn Torah, will be stabbed with this sword!” They tested people from Dan until Beer Sheva and they did not find one person who was not learned, from Givat until Antifras, and they did not find a child or adult who was not completely erudite in all the laws of טומאה וטהרה – what is ritually clean and unclean. (The most complicated laws in the Torah)
The verse in Isaiah (10:27) connects the Torah learning to the military victory:
וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יָסוּר סֻבֳּלוֹ מֵעַל שִׁכְמֶךָ וְעֻלּוֹ מֵעַל צַוָּארֶךָ וְחֻבַּל עֹל מִפְּנֵי שָׁמֶן
27) And it shall come to pass on that day, that his burden shall be taken off your shoulder, and his yoke from your neck and the yoke shall be destroyed because of the oil.
Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha explains the meaning of “because of the oil”.
אמר רבי יצחק נפחא: חובל עול של סנחריב מפני שמנו של חזקיהו שהיה דולק בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות
The yoke of Sancherev was destroyed by the oil of Chizkiyahu that was burning in the Shuls and Torah study halls.
The Talmud also explains the verse (Isaiah 8:23),
כִּי לֹא מוּעָף לַאֲשֶׁר מוּצָק לָהּ
אמר רבי אלעזר בר ברכיה אין נמסר עם עייף בתורה ביד מי המציק לו
Rabbi Elazar the son of Brachia explained, “The nation that is weary from Torah learning will not be given into the hands of its oppressor.”
This is what caused the miraculous death of Sancherev’s entire army in one night. The learning of Torah protected them.
Sancherev the king, however, did not perish in the plague. He ran home where his two sons ultimately killed him. He had nevertheless written his conquests on a prism, and this is what he says about his conquest of Jerusalem.
From Wikipedia – Sennacherib’s Annals
As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns that I captured I gave to the kings of Ashod, Ekron, and Gaza.”
Notice that he says nothing of having captured the city of Jerusalem, only sieging it.
Before his death, Yaakov told his son Yosef: (Genesis 48:22)
כב) וַאֲנִי נָתַתִּי לְךָ שְׁכֶם אַחַד עַל אַחֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר לָקַחְתִּי מִיַּד הָאֱמֹרִי בְּחַרְבִּי וּבְקַשְׁתִּי
22) Moreover, I have given you one portion more than your brothers that I took out of the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 123a) questions,
וכי בחרבו ובקשתו לקח והלא כבר נאמר כי לא בקשתי אבטח וחרבי לא תושיעני אלא חרבי זו תפלה קשתי זו בקשה
Was it with his sword and bow that he took it? How could that be? King David said (Psalms 44:7), “I do not depend on my bow, and my sword won’t save me.” Rather, “my sword” means prayer, and “my bow” means supplication.
Why these two weapons, a bow and a sword? A sword is used in close combat whereas a bow can kill an enemy far away. Prayer, however, can achieve both: we can use prayer for someone close, but we can also use prayer for someone far away; we can use our power of prayer to save the soldiers in Israel from their enemies by keeping them in mind in our prayers. When it comes to war, prayer is our secret weapon.
On the verse in Psalms (122:2) the Talmud in Tractate Makkot 10a says:
עֹמְדוֹת הָיוּ רַגְלֵינוּ בִּשְׁעָרַיִךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם
2) Our feet stood firm in the Gates of Jerusalem
מי גרם לרגלינו שיעמדו במלחמה? שערי ירושלם שהיו עוסקים בתורה
What caused our feet to stand firm in war? Jerusalem’s gates where they were learning the Torah.
Once again, the correlation between military success and Torah learning is emphasized.
The Tchebiner Rov, Harav Dov Berish Weidenfeld זצ”ל (d. 1965) who lived in Jerusalem, was once visited by a delegation from the Israeli Government’s Security department . After describing to him the dangerous situation in the State, and the need to increase the number of troops in the defense forces, they asked him if the young men from his yeshiva could join the effort.
The Rebbe responded with the following parable. A horse-drawn wagon pulling a heavy load up a mountain side could proceed no further. Even after the wagon driver emptied the wagon of its load, the horses still could not pull the wagon. He had one more option, though. The steel wheels were very heavy, and he could remove them to lighten the wagon’s load. This, said Rav Weidenfeld, would be the effect of sending the yeshiva students to the front. The success of the war is dependent on the Torah of the students. Without them you would not be able succeed at all.
The following happened after the Second Lebanon War in Israel and is one of many stories that occurred when the Israeli soldiers placed their trust in Hashem.
A colonel in the Israeli army entered a suit store in Yerushalayim wearing a kippa. The owner of the store, shocked to see the kippa, asked the colonel. “What happened to you? Did you fall on your head or something? Since when do you wear a kippa?”
“I have become religious!” responded the colonel
“Really? But you were so anti-religious! What could have made you change your mind?”
“Here’s the story.
“A few months ago, I was sent to lead a fleet of fifteen tanks in the Sinai into Egyptian territory. My men were seasoned soldiers and fully trained. Our mission was proceeding exactly as planned when out of nowhere I spotted 60 Egyptian tanks that were faster and more powerful than any of ours.
“I could see no way out for us, so I called my men together and told them; ‘I am afraid this is the end for us. Everyone is on his own.’
“’Are you giving up?’ a voice called out. I turned to see who was talking and it was a chassid with peyot and tzitzit. ‘Listen, if you’re giving up, then permit me to take charge.’
“I put it to the others, and they all said, ’Why not? What do we have to lose?’”
“He then said. ’Here are your instructions. We will go full force ahead, and when I give the signal, everyone scream with all his might and concentration, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad!” Then shoot your first round of ammunition. With Hashem’s help, we will survive.’
“Everyone got into position, and the tanks started moving. The Chassid gave the signal and everyone screamed “Shema Yisrael” following it with a round of fire.
“When the smoke cleared, we saw an amazing sight. All sixty tanks had stopped where they were, and the commander had raised the white flag.
“I couldn’t figure out what happened, but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity so I quickly took back command and announced in Arabic that they should leave their tanks with their hands up.
“They all came out of their tanks and started walking towards us, with the leader still holding the white flag.
“’You see!’ I said triumphantly to the commander. ‘We are more powerful than you!’
“’Don’t be ridiculous’ he said. ‘We have sixty tanks and you have only fifteen. We were just coming over to finish you off!’
“’So why didn’t you?’ I asked.
“The Egyptian commander looked up to the sky and said, ’We saw those twenty airplanes flying above us. There was no way we could have withstood them, so we gave up.’
“The colonel looked steadily at the store owner. ’I looked up at the sky, and there were no airplanes. Later, I checked with the army, and they also told me that there were no airplanes in the area at the time. Hashem had made a miracle and showed the Egyptians the airplanes to save our lives. I saw Hashem with my own eyes, how could I not believe in Him and follow His ways?”
Here is another story about the power of prayer for a soldier.
On a recent trip to Israel, Betsy and Simon Glick from Beverly Hills, California, visited one of the beautiful coastal cities situated on the Mediterranean Sea, the city of Herztliya. One evening, for dinner, they went to a steakhouse overlooking the water called Meat and Wine Co. Shortly after taking their seats at a table, they were greeted warmly by a polite and charismatic young waiter. After taking their order, he said, “If you need anything else, my name is Ayal.”
Hearing the name Ayal hit Betsy like a lightning bolt, and she said to him, “Tell me, by any chance, is your mother’s name Orna? “
Upon receiving an affirmative answer, Betsy had one more question, “and were you a soldier in the war last summer protecting the land of Israel from missile attacks?”
“Yes, I was, but how did you know?”
“Because, the name “Ayal ben Orna” is written on a piece of paper stuck to a cupboard in my kitchen, and I have been praying for your safety since last summer.” Exclaimed Betsy.
“But you don’t even know me! How did you get my name?” asked Ayal!
Betsy explained that she had called a special number when the war broke out, to get the name of a soldier to pray for. The name she was given was Ayal the son of Orna.
“You know what is even more amazing?” continued Betsy, “As I was praying for you, just two weeks ago, I turned my eyes to heaven and said to G-d, “you know G-d, I don’t even know the fate of this young man! It sure would be nice to meet him and see how he is doing. And here I am talking to you! I am so excited to see that you are in fact safe and sound and that G-d had also answered my prayers for your safety!”
Prayer and Torah are the Jewish people’s secret weapons. When the voice of Yaakov is strong in the Shuls and Torah study halls, the hands of Esav are powerless against us. This is what Hashem has told us in His Torah.
This powerful force operates in favor of our soldiers in Israel as well. There is no greater help and support that we can give to our brothers on the front lines in Israel, than to study the Torah and to submit prayers on their behalf. We need to increase our prayers for them, and perhaps learn Torah for five minutes a day on their behalf. Carry a book of Psalms with you and whenever you have a spare moment say a chapter of Psalms for them. Review a piece of Torah that you learned. We should always have their welfare on our minds and offer prayers for them whenever possible. This helps them in real-time.