Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

4 Sivan 5766 - May 31, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

by Lisa Neumann

It's late afternoon on a Friday twenty years ago in Melbourne, Australia. I am a young girl — eight years old. My sister and brother and I arrive with my mother at my grandparents' home. It's almost candle-lighting time. Three generations of Jewish women pause to gaze at the beautiful, polished candlesticks upon which stand the proud and pure tall white candles. Back then, we didn't really know what Shabbos was about. Over the years of abstraction, neglect, and callous dismissal of our spiritual heritage, so much has been lost. But despite time and all else, some few treasured traditions have managed to survive to tell the tale of our people and our past, and some scant memory and remnant of feeling of what was ours alone remains.

Thus the match is struck. The candles are lit. The blessing is recited. The men leave for shul and return some time later. Kiddush is made. Fresh challah is passed around the table. Food is served — fish, hot soup, chicken. My grandfather leads the family in the singing of zemiros - - the same words and melodies that he sang with his father and grandfather when he was a young boy in Poland. The meaning behind the words has been lost to my Zaide, but the melody contains an echo of knowing and understanding that has resounded in our minds for four thousand years.

The year is 1840, the place — a small village in the Ukraine, in an area known as the Pale of Settlement. I am the mother of five children. My oldest boy is twelve. Our lives are hard. Czar Nicholas I yemach shemo has just decreed his latest series of laws aimed at our annihilation. We are no longer allowed to wear traditional "Jewish style" clothing on the streets nor hire non-Jews to work in our homes. The men may work in only the lowliest of jobs and thousands of families have been brutally expelled from their villages and towns. They appoint our Rabbis for us and our chadorim are subject to strict government 'supervision.'

Worst of all, they are now stealing our sons away from us at age twelve for military training, to be enlisted at eighteen and taken to the front to fight in the Russian army. Needless to say, they do not return home. Despite all this, we somehow find the strength to carry on. We kindle the Shabbos lights. We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt every seder night. The men learn Torah together in hiding. And most of all, we pray. We pray for Hashem to redeem us, to return us to Zion.

The night is Rosh Hashonoh. The year — 1267. The place — Yerushalayim, the Holy City. We are one of the few Jewish families brave enough to inhabit the city crushed and devastated by the Christian Crusades. The ruins of our Holy Temple lie only meters from the crumbling stone walls of our own home, yet we cannot close the distance. Every minute of the day we fear for our lives, and for those of our children. But today, a spark of light.

The Torah sage from Spain — Nachmanides — the Ramban - - who arrived in Eretz Yisroel a month ago, gave a sermon in our new synagogue. He spoke to us about holiness, about our responsibility as residents of the Holy Land to conduct ourselves with the utmost righteousness, for we are like servants in a palace who must be constantly aware of the King's presence. Then the great Rav read from the sefer Torah that he had had transferred from Shechem. We feel very much inspired, and would not consider abandoning our own faith for that of our oppressors. We know that Hashem is with us, sharing the burden of our suffering in these difficult days.

The year is 320 before the Common Era, the place — the City of David, just outside the walls of the recently rebuilt Beis Hamikdosh. We returned not long ago from Bovel, with our leader, Ezra. This giant of our generation will surely be recorded in the annals of history as a man of unique strength, scholarship, devotion and loyalty to the Torah and to the recently revived Jewish Nation. So much can be said about this man, and about the one hundred and twenty Men of the Great Assembly. They gave us our siddur, a complete Tanach and an Oral Law in writing. And most importantly, we have the Beis Hamikdosh. We serve Hashem with so much vigor. The community of Israel has come home.

The year is 2048 of the Jewish calendar. I am standing at the edge of the Yam Suf — the Sea of Reeds — in the Sinai Desert. We have just crossed the sea, myself, my husband and children, my friends, my tribe, all the tribes in formation, our leaders Moshe and Aaron, all of Klall Yisroel. The wonders that have taken place these last ten months I can hardly believe, and yet I do believe, for I saw them with my own eyes. We all did.

The ten plagues that destroyed Egypt, measure for measure. Our oppressors — oppressed, our torturers tortured. We saw their fields stripped of crops after the locusts came, smelled the putrid carcasses of their cattle stricken with pestilence. And in the middle of the night we heard the petrified screams of agony and anguish from city and village - - from across the land — as their firstborn were destroyed.

As Moshe led us out of Egypt — our animals laden with treasure — we knew that Hashem had remembered us and redeemed us. This morning, as we made our way through the sea, there were still more wonders. Each tribe was given its own passage, with the frozen divisions between pathways sprouting fruit trees and fountains. A mosaic path formed beneath our feet. And when the last of our people had reached the northern bank, the solid frozen walls collapsed.

We heard the cries of our pursuers. We saw their forms being thrown in and out of the now furious sea, and then we saw their bones being spewed out onto the shore. We camp tonight in the wilderness. Our children's children and their children must know of all that we have witnessed. Soon we will receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and then our nation will be led into the land that was promised to our forefathers — Eretz Yisroel.

The place is Eretz Canaan; the year — 2088 of the Jewish calendar. This is the wedding day of Rivka Imeinu:

I departed today at noon from my father's house in Charan. My maidservant Devorah and I were led along the way to Beer Sheva by Eliezer, the faithful servant of Yitzchok's father, Avrohom. As we approached Mt. Moriah, I saw him — Yitzchok - - standing in a field praying to our Hashem. He was still some distance away, yet I could make out his right hand extended towards the sky. He was surrounded by the glow of the Shechinah and guarded by an angel. I hastened to voice my prayers of gratitude, for I understood that I was destined to marry this great tzaddik, patriarch of the great nation that would one day be as numerous as the stars in the sky — the Chosen People.

Yitzchok looked towards us and began to approach us. I covered myself with my veil, and before a few hours had passed, we were married. My new husband led me into his late mother's tent, and the three beautiful blessings that Soroh had merited throughout her own married life suddenly rematerialized — the Shabbos candles that would burn from week to week, the challah dough that was constantly fresh, and the Cloud of Glory resting above. The legacy of Soroh — who was meticulous in kindling the Shabbos lights, separating her challah, and upholding family purity laws — will always be continued and preserved, by myself and by future generations of our descendants, until the End of Days and the final redemption of our people.

Whoever said that baalei teshuvoh don't have yichus? We are the children and grandchildren of 4,000 years of Torah scholars, righteous people, Jewish mothers and fathers, brave, kind and honorable souls who lived and died with self-sacrifice and great devotion to Hashem.

In Parshas Bamidbor Moshe and Aaron are commanded to count the legions of Klall Yisroel. As it says, "They gathered together the entire assembly on the first of the second month, and they established their genealogy according to their families, according to their fathers' household." Rashi says this means that each individual had to bring with him his documents of lineage, as well as witnesses to his status, so as to be able to trace his ancestry to the particular tribe to which he claimed to belong. Evidence of lineage had not been requested in previous censuses. However, as the Sforno comments, victory in the impending wars relied on the merits of the forefathers. The desert encampment and traveling arrangement under the tribal banners also needed to be established. A direct bloodline was thus needed to be proven at this time.

We also learn something else about lineage here. When Hashem tells Moshe and Aaron to gather together the princes of each tribe to assist them in the tally, he says, "And with you shall be one man from each tribe, each man should be the head of his family." In other words, each man should be the head of his family unit, of respectable standing and a role model for generations to follow. This is the main thing.

In his book, Growth Through Torah, Rav Pliskin provides the following parable (in the name of Rav Moshe Chaifetz) to underscore this point: "A simple and boorish person who came from distinguished lineage was arguing with a wise scholar who came from a very plain family. The coarse ignoramus boasted about his illustrious ancestors. 'I am a scion of great people. Your ancestors are nothing compared to mine', he arrogantly said. The scholar wanted to put him in his place and said to him; 'True, you come from a long line of great people. But unfortunately, the line ends with you. My family tree begins with me.' "

Just as one individual can taint a great and respected family name, another — through Torah study, community work and outstanding character traits, can plant the seeds for a family tree with massive roots. This is a message that we must carry with us throughout our lives. Certainly, our bodies and souls contain both the physical and spiritual genes of our original forebears, as wells as the tens of generations of Torah scholars, Jewish leaders and martyrs. This holds true whether or not we are literally able to trace our lineage back through the generations to Avrohom Ovinu. But despite this, merely by virtue of our commitment to living a life of Torah and mitzvos, Hashem will surely help us to build us own Jewish dynasties.

This is a concept that can be further illustrated by the fact that our Imahos — Soroh, Rivka, Rochel and Leah - - had no spectacular lineage of their own. Yet because of their exemplary conduct they were chosen as the wives of the Ovos and were immortalized in the Torah for all generations to know and to emulate.

Rabbi Akiva is regarded as the greatest Torah scholar and Jewish leader since Moshe Rabbenu. Moshe, having himself witnessed the greatness of Rabbi Akiva by way of a long- range prophetic vision, queried Hashem, "Lord of the Universe, You have such a person as Rabbi Akiva through whom You could grant the Torah to Israel, and You have instead chosen to do so through me?"

Rabbi Akiva did not begin learning Torah until age forty. Not only that, his yichus was far from impressive, his father being a convert. But at middle age, Rabbi Akiva started learning, and learning and learning, and was away from home learning in Yeshiva for a total of twenty-four years. And he reached the highest of heights.

Through personal commitment, he came to represent Torah scholarship unequalled. He became an outstanding leader who was devoted to the poor. He was gentle, kind, compassionate and humble. He had tens of thousands of disciples during his lifetime, and he merited dying al Kiddush Hashem. He is immortalized as one of the ten great martyrs of our history — and all this from a baal teshuvoh, the son of gerim, who had no fine lineage.

Ruth, too, is a case in point. She was born and raised in Moav, a spiritually bankrupt society full of shameless, malicious individuals — the antithesis of the Jewish nation. Of her own free will and without a word of encouragement or support from her contemporaries, she chose to throw in her lot with the Jewish people. Ruth's greatness lay in the fact that she embodied the traits of modesty, courage, kindness and strength of conviction. She strove for truth. As a result of all this, she merited to have her megillah read each year on Shavuos (at the time of Matan Torah) and to give birth to the future grandfather of Dovid HaMelech, from whose family line Moshiach ben Dovid will eventually come.

The world in which I grew up — like that of Ruth's — was a world in which Hashem's light was concealed behind the blanket of darkness with which — since days long past — the nations have striven to smother Klall Yisroel. Certainly, I had some major advantages over my great ancestress in that I was raised with some semblance of Jewish tradition and in a time of relative religious freedom. Thus in my early twenties, I found my way back. My brother too. And it is with immense focus and determination that we continue to strive to redraft the script penned by our more recent forebears until it more closely resembles the masterpiece crafted for eternity by those of earlier times.

May Hashem help us all to tap into the greatness of our original ancestors — Avrahom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, Soroh, Rivka, Rachel and Leah — as well the other great men and women over the past four thousand years of our history who, with great self-sacrifice and commitment to the true Torah way have instilled within us the ability to serve Hashem with such devotion.

More than that, may He answer our prayers to become patriarchs and matriarchs in our own right, of future generations of talmidei chachomim who will lead Klall Yisroel, until that time when we merit greeting Moshiach, may it be speedily, in our days.


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