The other day I met a friend, an American businessman who made aliyah some years ago. In the course of our conversation, the subject of the campaign to induct yeshivah bochurim into the army came up. “You know,” he said to me, “people in America don’t really understand what all the fuss is about over here. Talmidei chachamim who have never been known for zealotry have been taking an extreme stance on the issue, talking about ‘gezeiros shmad, like in the days of Antiochus,’ calling for bochurim to leave Israel… This sort of talk hasn’t been heard in a long time. But when I go toNew York on business, the chareidi Jews I meet there don’t get what it’s all about.
“They all keep saying, ‘Must everyone sit and learn? Let them go to the army -- what’s the big deal? Why are you making such a fuss about it?’ Maybe you could write something to explain it to them, Reb Moishe — I’m sure you have something to say.”
And so, my friend, here is my explanation:
In my humble opinion -- and, I believe, in the opinion of gedolei Yisrael -- what we have here is no less than an existential threat to the chareidi community in particular and the State of Israel in general. This is predicated on the deeply-held belief, rooted in the Torah, the Gemara, and the assurances of great Torah leaders of all generations, that Torah study literally shields the Jewish People from harm.
Of course, the secularists don’t believe that. The idea of a spiritual world concealed behind a veil of physical matter holds no appeal for them. Not only do they not believe it, they claim that we don’t really believe it, either. They say we’re making it up in order to further our own interests.
I heard this idea myself just two weeks ago, while participating in a wide-ranging Jewish forum made up of Jews of all stripes on the religious spectrum, from secular to Neturei Karta. A secular professor of some renown from Hebrew University was invited to speak to the group, which eventually turned into a debate on the subject of army service for yeshivah bochurim; and in a moment of anger the professor spluttered, “Your arguments are nothing but deceit.”
Bottom line: they refuse to face our sincere belief that the world exists in the merit of Torah study. But we know the truth of this, that if, chalilah, the sound of Torah should be silenced in Eretz Yisrael, this Land would be greatly endangered. To bring this belief into better focus, let us explore just a few out of a wealth of sources from Chazal and gedolei Yisrael throughout the ages.
A pasuk in Tehillim says, “Our feet were standing in your gates, Jerusalem.,” and the Midrash explains, “Who caused our feet to remain standing in battle? The gates of Jerusalem, where we studied Torah” (Midrash Tehillim, 122).
Another source shows us just how serious this matter is. In Chullin 85b, it is told that Rabi Chiya had a crop of flax that was infested with worms. He asked Rebbi for advice, and Rebbi told him to soak the flax in water, and then shecht a bird and let its blood flow into the water. The worms will be repelled by the smell of the bird’s blood and go elsewhere. The Gemara recalls this story because it is relevant to a discussion of the requirement to cover the blood of the slaughtered bird. But a side question arises: how could it happen that Rabi Chiya’s flax became infested? There was a known tradition that from the day Rabi Chiya and his sons arrived from Bavel, thunder and lightning, storms, and earthquakes ceased, wine did not go sour, and flax was not infested. The Sages concluded that the merit of Rabi Chiya and his sons protected everyone but themselves, and the interested reader will find a discussion in the Gemara of the reasons why their Torah learning, which served as a protection for others, was not able to protect them.
But the Gemara’s basic premise is the uncontested belief that Torah learning protects the world, and particularly the Jewish People. Chazal add that a person who claims, “What good is the learning of these talmidei chachamim? They only do it for themselves,” is an apikoros. And for a more detailed explanation, a perusal of Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s Nefesh HaChaim, shaar 4, will show what a deep and direct link there is between the wellbeing of the world, the Jewish People, and the level of our Torah study.
There is a fundamental Jewish belief that the entire world exists in the merit of those who engage in Torah learning. Just one year ago, one of America’s biggest philanthropists came to Rav Aharon Leib Steinman shlita and said he was willing to contribute millions of dollars if the yeshivos would change their approach to learning. Rav Steinman answered him resolutely, “You are forgetting that you are a millionaire due to those who learn Torah without deviating from the path. They are the ones who support you, not the other way around.” Was this just an offhand remark? No, it was an expression of this deeply held belief in the centrality of Torah in the life of the Jewish People. And this is the very issue being debated today.
After World War II, the Chazon Ish said that there were three gedolei Yisrael who were able to shield their cities from the Nazis as long as they were alive. In Vilna, the protector was Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky. Hitler’s forces conquered Vilna, but were pushed back by the Russian army. Yet when Rav Chaim Ozer passed away, the Nazis succeeded in re-conquering the city. The same happened inGrodno. As long as the great Rav Shimon Schkop was living, the Nazis couldn’t conquer Grodno, and similarly the town of Baranovitch fell into Nazi hands only after the passing of Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz.
As I write, I recall a story I heard from talmidim of the Chazon Ish some forty-five years ago, when I was collecting material for the biography Pe’er HaDor: the Chazon Ish was irate over the fact that, in order to spare him pain, his talmidim and family hid the facts from him about what was happening to the Jews of Europe under the Nazi reign of terror. When he learned the true extent of the disaster he blamed them for not informing him. His brother-in-law, Rav Shmuel Greineman, quotes him in his book on the Chafetz Chaim as saying that had he known, “Men nit gelozt” (We wouldn’t have let it happen).
What exactly the Chazon Ish meant by this remark, I cannot presume to say. But at the least, it indicates the strength of the Jewish belief in what Torah study can effect in this world.
Here is a story that I have told over before, but it’s worth mentioning again in our present context. I heard it from a chassidishe Jew, a prominent businessman who was a frequent visitor to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s house. Once while he was there, someone came in and reported that just outside the building, a Jewish boy riding a bicycle had fallen, hurt himself, and been taken to the hospital.
“It couldn’t be,” was Rav Moshe’s response. “Check the facts, and you’ll find that the boy isn’t Jewish.”
The storyteller protested, “But he was wearing a yarmulke!”
“No,” Rav Moshe insisted. “The boy is a non-Jew. He must have grabbed the yarmulke off the head of a Jewish boy.”
The facts were checked, and Rav Moshe was proved right. Naturally, people came crowding around to ask, “How did the Rav know?”
His answer was, “When I came to live here, I davened to HaKadosh Baruch Hu that even though my learning wasn’t enough to save all the Jews of America, it should at least save any Jew from coming to harm on my street. And that’s how I knew.”
Such is the power of Torah, and such is the strength of our belief in that power.
This is the struggle today in Eretz Yisrael. Our enemies never rest for a moment, and we cannot compromise on our belief in the power of Torah to afford protection, or on our insistence that decreasing the scope of Torah learning in Eretz Yisrael would be disastrous. Lessening Torah means magnifying that threat. We might not change the minds of the secularists, but those in our own camp can strengthen their belief in this principle, and support the struggle that is so crucial to our future. Eretz Yisrael without Torah is like a body without a soul.
Food for thought
Why is food expensive?
Because everyone is running after food.
If everybody would run after Torah learning
Torah would be expensive and food would be cheap
(Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)