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4 Teves 5762 - December 19, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
"And Let Israel -- Who Recite `Shema Yisroel' -- Not Perish"

by L. Jungerman

"And he presented himself to him and he fell upon his neck and he wept on his neck a good while." This refers to Yosef. Rashi notes that Yaakov did not fall upon Yosef's neck nor did he kiss him. Chazal say that this was because he was reciting Shema at that time.

Yaakov Ovinu does not descend to Egypt as a private person who has come to be reunited with his long-lost beloved son in a historic meeting. In his descent to Egypt, Yaakov is taking the first step for the Children of Israel in their long journey of exile. And at this momentous event, all of his thoughts focus upon the need to implant the stamina into his sons to persevere and survive along that terrible future journey and to emerge from it with the least scathing possible.

The actions and happenings of the Fathers are signposts for their descendants, and all of the vigor and fortitude of those descendants are derived from their forefathers. Thus, this crossroads is a crucial point of transition from a life heavily anchored in the spiritual climate of Eretz Yisroel and its holy atmosphere, to the polluted depravity of Egypt and its rampant licentiousness. This is the commencement of that painful prophetic vision of exile experienced by Avrohom Ovinu in which he was informed, "Your seed will be strangers in an alien land. And they will be enslaved and tortured for four hundred years."

Yaakov marches on with his tribes, fully conscious of the critical impact of his ushering in a new era which will change things forever after. Who knows what that bitter future has in store?

Yaakov lays the cornerstone for Jewish survival. He implants the fortitude for hanging on by the skin of their teeth. How? By reciting the Shema! "Hear O Israel! Hashem is our G- d! Hashem is One!"

With this trust and belief, no exile -- be it the most difficult, the most threatening -- can overcome his descendants. The nations can enslave us and torture us -- but they cannot annihilate us for we will eventually emerge alive.

Years later, Yaakov is about to die and his twelve sons surround his deathbed, moments before he leaves them to struggle on their own in the cruel exile. Moments before "the eyes and hearts of Israel were obscured from the travails of the exile," Yaakov wishes to know in what state he is leaving his flock. Will they withstand the test of exile?

"He commenced by saying: `My sons I beg of you, honor and cherish Hashem as did I and my ancestors.' And they replied: `We know what [fear] lies in your heart. Hear, then, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d. Hashem is One.' And when Yaakov heard this [declaration], he immediately bowed down" (Yalkut Vayechi 49).

Yaakov wishes to ascertain that what he established at the threshold of golus was still intact, in which case, he need not fear the future and can die with an easy mind. And his sons reply affirmatively and reassuringly, "Yes, Father, have no fear. Shema Yisroel . . . " Yaakov hears their declaration, acknowledges that it is true, and bows. He is certain that with this faith firmly implanted in his sons, they will emerge from this crucible, this lion's den, forged and fortified.

"Shema Yisroel." A verse borne upon the lips of tens of thousands of our people through rivers of blood and billowing pillars of furnace smoke. These holy words were framed upon the lips of those bound upon the altars, burned in the ovens. Shema Yisroel is the secret of those who did not succumb, who did not surrender.

"For they are My servants which I took out of the land of Egypt. They shall not be sold as slaves are sold" (Vayikra 25:42). Even in exile, even when the prophetic retribution of the tochacha "You will be sold there for servants" is being fulfilled, it is not a transaction that characterizes slavery, such as we find by the Canaanite slaves, "And you shall enslave them forever," which is an absolute bondage of no escape.

Jews, however, are more like indentured servants, not slaves. Their exile is never final and absolute but temporary; their status is always reversible. Why? Because they are "My servants." Because "Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One."

Our allegiance is to Hashem. We have accepted His yoke and His rule upon us and as His servants, we cannot be sold or done away with as a nation.

Yaakov Ovinu, himself, does not rely upon his own testament to his sons. In toiling to implant the foundation of faith within his sons so that no exile, no nation and no doctrine can overcome them, he draws upon the strength of the very founder of this nation, that pillar of faith who disseminated truth to the entire world: Avrohom Ovinu.

"And Yisroel said: `Suffice it! Yosef my son is yet alive. I shall go and see him ere I die.' And Yisroel and all that he possessed traveled and he came to Beer Sheva."

Where did he go? asks the Midrash. Why did the descent to Egypt necessitate his having to go via Beer Sheva where he built an altar? It replies: "Said R' Nachman: He went to chop down the cedars which Avrohom his grandfather had planted in Beer Sheva, as it is written, `And he planted an eishel (tamarisk tree) in Beer Sheva."

Yaakov took along with him to Egypt that seed of faith which Avrohom had implanted, the cedars with which he established a hostel of hospitality in Beer Sheva from which he disseminated the monotheistic belief to one and all that the world must have a Creator; it could not have come into being all by itself. The faith that Hashem is our G-d; Hashem is One. With this credo, this reassurance, this firm preparation, Yaakov can proceed into the crucible with full confidence that his descendants will survive the long bitter exile and emerge intact.

(Adapted from the Imrei Emes)

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