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On July 25th, a Rabbinical Assembly Solidarity Mission visited the Schechter Institute and met with Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institute, Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and rabbinical students. We are very grateful for their visit, which included visits to Conservative institutions all over the country. The following article presents the three sources taught by Rabbi Golinkin as well as a fourth source taught by Rabbi Ramon.
Our Sages taught us in Pirkey Avot (5:22) ” hafokh bah vahapekh bah d’kholah bah “, “turn it and turn it again for everything is in it”. That is why, in times of trouble, Jews have traditionally gone “back to the sources” in order to find comfort and inspiration. The four sources below attempt to do just that.
I) A Jew Must Share in the Distress of the Community
We have learned in Ta’anit fol. 11a:
Our Rabbis have taught: When Israel is in trouble and one of them separates himself from them, then the two ministering angels who accompany every man come and place their hands upon his head and say, ‘So-and-so who separated himself from the community shall not behold the consolation of the community’. Another Baraita [Tannaitic source from ca. 200 c.e.] taught: When the community is in trouble let not a man say ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.’ For of him who does so Scripture says, “And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine – Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we shall die (Isaiah 22:13).”.But rather a man should share in the distress of the community, for so we find that Moses, our teacher, shared in the distress of the community, as it is said, “But Moses’ hands were heavy, and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon (Exodus 17:12).” Did not then Moses have a bolster or a cushion to sit on? This is then what Moses meant to convey, “As Israel are in distress, I too will share with them. He who shares in the distress of the community will merit to behold its consolation”. Perhaps a man will say, “who is there to testify against me? The very stones of his house and its beams testify against him.In the school of R. Sheila it was taught: The two ministering angels who accompany every man testify against him.R. Hidka says: A man’s own soul testifies against him. And some say: A man’s own limbs testify against him.
The message of this passage is clear: when Jews or the State of Israel are in trouble, other Jews must share in their distress by taking part in solidarity missions and demonstrations and by donating tzedakah in order to help those in distress. Some cynics say that missions and demonstrations are a waste of time; they are not. They give encouragement to the Jews of Israel who are constantly criticized by the United Nations and many countries and they strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants. During the past few weeks, Schechter students, graduates, staff and faculty have donated food and money to communities in the Galilee, hosted families who have been forced to leave their homes, and given free lectures and tours to people from the Galilee . This is at it should be. Jews must share in the distress of the community.
II) The Redemption of Captives
Don Yitzhak Abarbanel (1437-1508) was a rabbi, prolific author of bible commentaries and other works, and Minister of Finance to the Christian monarchs of both Spain and Portugal . The following passage is taken from a letter which he wrote from Lisbon to Rabbi Yehiel of Pisa in Nissan of the year 1472:
In spite of all this, I cannot refrain from telling you about our own troubles and sorrows, which we, the leaders of this community, have to endure. I must ask you to listen to a story of poor people, namely the community of Arzilla, which is under Muslim rule. You will certainly share my sorrows, day and night. They have deprived me of my peace for six months.
Our king, may he live long, rose and conquered many lands. After having gathered ships and crews, he went over to Africa for conquest and besieged the populous city of Arzilla . The army captured it and committed wholesale pillage, though the king and his princes did not touch the booty. The population of 10,000 people was either killed or captured. Afterwards, he occupied the famous city of Tangier . Although the Lord saved the Jews from the massacre at Arzilla.yet 250 Jewish prisoners were captured and brought here, exhausted by hunger and deprived of all means. When we saw the children of Zion sold as slaves, the leaders of our community decided to restore their freedom and ransom them with our money.
I, and other leaders who are more just and better than I, chose twelve delegates according to the number of Israel ‘s tribes to carry out the benevolent work and to give back freedom to the prisoners. I and another leader were sent from one city to another with the purpose of liberating the Jews from their wretched plight. Others, too, asked that we might provide money for their ransom and write the Jews in other countries so that they might give money for this task.
We have made such journeys repeatedly, and have been able with the mercy of the Lord to ransom 150 persons during a short time. In this city there are now 220 people whom we have helped to gain freedom. The amount spent for this purpose was ten thousand doubloons in gold. And as these unhappy people had been robbed of everything, and had neither clothes nor food and were, in addition, unable to make themselves understood in the language of this country, we had to look for people who were able to unite dispersed members of families and to provide them with all necessities. It will still take some time before they have learned the language and the habits of this country.
Now, this night has at last brought the hour of success, when they are settled in their dwellings. They offer thanks to the Lord, saying: “We were slaves for a short time, but the Lord has delivered us from slavery to freedom. Now we are free as all Jews are.” May the Lord now deliver also the remainder of about thirty who are still in captivity. There are not yet ransomed because they have fallen into the hands of hard masters. They have been carried to a distant land, and are not yet here. May the hour of their liberation be near at hand, and may the Lord gather soon the dispersed members of Judah from East and West.
All this was a great burden for me, day and night. God knows how little I have told you about this matter. Nowhere, indeed, have so many Jewish men and women been led into slavery. And, God is my witness, the ears of every Jew who hears this must tingle, and he must “clap his hands and shake his head” (Lamentations 2:15) (This letter was first published in Otzar Nehmad 2 (1857), pp. 65 ff. This English translation is taken, with modification, from Franz Kobler, A Treasury of Jewish Letters , Vol. I, Philadelphia , 1953, pp. 321-323).
Israel initially attacked Hizbollah over three weeks ago in order to redeem the two soldiers who were taken captive on July 12th. I have discussed elsewhere the importance of the mitzvah of Pidyon Shevuyim , the Redemption of Captives (See Insight Israel , Volume 4, Number 2 (October 2003), available at www.schechter.edu and the Bibliography listed there). Abarbanel’s letter teaches us that the attitude of the State of Israel towards the redemption of captives, which has been shown time after time in examples such as Entebbe , has deep roots in our history and tradition. The entire Jewish community of Lisbon pulled up its sleeves in order to collect 10,000 gold doubloons and redeem 250 Jewish prisoners. Furthermore, we have a halakhic principal that in matters of Pikuah Nefesh [saving a life] the rabbis and leaders of the community must show the way ( Tosefta Shabbat 15:15. ed. Lieberman, p. 73). Collecting money for Pidyon Shevuyim was not left to secretaries or minor functionaries of the community. Don Isaac Abarbanel, the Henry Kissinger of his day, personally spent six months collecting money for this mitzvah . Similarly, we know from the Cairo Genizah that Maimonides himself spent a lot of time collecting money for Pidyon Shevuyim (See the references ibid). Thus, when it comes to the redemption of captives, no-one is too important to spend time and money on this mitzvah .
III) Israel and the Nations of the World
The third passage appears in Midrash Esther Rabbah (7:13, to Esther 3:9, ed. Vilna, fols. 12c-d):
“If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed” (Esther 3:9). Resh Lakish said: When the wicked Haman said to Ahashverosh: “Come let us exterminate Israel “, Ahashverosh replied: “You cannot prevail against them, since their God will not entirely forsake them. See what he did to the kings who preceded us and who laid hands upon them and who were much mightier and more powerful than we are. Whoever comes against them to destroy them and whoever schemes against them is wiped out and becomes a byword to all mankind. How much the more so we who are not equal to those others. Let me hear no more of this.” In spite of this, the wicked Haman pressed this upon Ahashverosh on every occasion, and tried to persuade him to oppress Israel . At length, Ahashverosh said to him: “Since you are so insistent, let us consult the wise men and the magicians.” He thereupon convened all the wise men of the nations. When they were all assembled before him, he said to them: “Is it your desire that we destroy this nation? They all replied with one voice: “Who is he who presumes in his heart to do so!” (Esther 7:5). If you destroy Israel , [the world cannot stand]; for it stands only through the merit of the Torah which was given to Israel . Furthermore, all the idolaters are called strangers before [God]. whereas Israel are called near ones. Furthermore, they are called sons, as it is written ” Israel is my son, my firstborn (Exodus 4:22). And if a man seeks to lay hands upon the relatives and children of [God], how shall he escape, since He rules over those above and those below, and the soul of all living is in His hand to raise up or to cast down, to kill or to bring to life? Take a lesson from the previous kings who transgressed by laying hands on Israel ; see what happened to them, as for instance to Pharaoh and Sennacherib.”
Haman thereupon said to them: “The God who drowned Pharaoh in the sea and performed for Israel the wonders and mighty deeds of which you have heard is now old and cannot do anything, since Nebuchadnezzar has already gone up and destroyed His house and burnt His temple and exiled Israel and scattered them among the nations. Where is His strength and might, seeing that He is now old?!
When he spoke to them in this fashion, they came round to his opinion and agreed to destroy Israel , and they wrote letters and signed them… [Their letter details how the Jewish people “took advantage” of the poor Egyptians, Amalekites, Sihon and Og, Midianites, and Sisra.]
The author of Kohelet wrote (1:9) ” ein kol hadash tahat hashemesh “, “there is nothing new under the sun”. This midrash, which was apparently edited in the eleventh century (See Zunz-Albeck, Hadrashot B’yisrael , Jerusalem , 1947, pp. 129-130), could have been written yesterday. All we need to do is substitute Nasrallah or Ahmadinejad for Haman and the United Nations for “all the wise men of the nations”. It should be noted that “the wise men of the nations” do not tell Ahashverosh not to destroy the Jews because it is immoral; only because it is too dangerous. When Haman tells them that the Jewish God is now weak and unable to protect the Jews, they immediately agree to kill all of the Jews. The United Nations as a body does not want to destroy the State of Israel, but there is no question that many of its members want to harm the State of Israel if they think they can get away with it.
IV) ” Af Al Pi Khen ” – Despite it All
Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Palestine in 1909. He was an important proponent of Labor Zionism and made important contributions to modern Hebrew literature. He wrote the following passage in a book review published in 1917:
Our youth throughout the world must now know the truth about the Land of Israel . They should know that the place is not a bed of roses, that the land is poor, hardly magical, settled by others wherever something could be done, hard to settle where it is still unsettled. Wages are low, food is scarce and expensive, the needs are greater than our capacity; lofty spirituality can be found at every corner, and on top of that, malaria eats up body and soul. All our youth in Israel are candidates for posts in agencies and bureaus, gymnasiums and universities, and everyone prophesies about the imminent messianic times, despite what is clearly obvious, and nobody lifts a finger to do the least bit of work.
All of this should be known in the Jewish Diaspora, and should give birth to a sentiment of ” af al pi khen ” – “despite it all” in the hearts of our youth! That same “despite it all” that should come at the end of all the negative calculations. Despite it all! Especially when in Eastern Europe the future is very grim, and the present is very gloomy – for there is nothing to lose , for the yearning calls to start everything from scratch and whatever happens, happens!… And only that halutz [pioneer], whose “despite it all” becomes part of his very being, only that halutz who is ready for everything – and not only in words, only he should be allowed to come. He and no one else (Yosef Hayyim Brenner, Ketavim , Tel Aviv, 1978-1985, p. 1622. My thanks to Rabbi Einat Ramon for sharing this passage and to Rabbi Ramon and Etka Leibowitz for their preliminary translation).
Af al pi khen – despite it all – this has been the motto of the State of Israel since it was founded! Arab armies and terrorists have been trying to destroy the State of Israel since 1948 and yet we have built a vibrant Jewish State which is the only democracy in the Middle East . We shall survive this attempt despite it all because “The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalms 121:4). Am Yisrael Hai!
All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.
Prof. David Golinkin is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate the article, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.