Based on a shiur by Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld’s great-grandson, Harav Yacov Meir Sonnenfeld, shlita, Rav of Rechasim
‘Contemplate the Years of Each Generation’
Each generation has its challenges — its tests that are specifically for it. The hardships of each dor are tailor-made exclusively for it. And each generation is given the tools to cope with its situation.
The Torah directs us, “Binu shenos dor v’dor — Contemplate the years of each generation; ask your father and your grandfather and they will tell you.” How does one cope with the ordeals of the time? “Ask your father and your grandfather and they will tell you.” Only the Gedolim and teachers of the generation can direct us in the correct way to overcome the adversity facing us at any period of time.
By contemplating how your “father and your grandfather” (i.e., those great in Torah) acted, you will know how to behave in dealing with your era. There are different reasons for the learning of history. History can be learned purely for the sake of knowledge. However, history should be learned in order to “contemplate the period of each generation,” and thereby know how to act, so as to be able to cope with the generation’s problems.
Yerushalayim of a previous generation, the generation when the Yishuv (settlement) was renewed in
, (mid-19th to early-20th century) was the period in which my holy grandfather, Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, lived. There is so much to say, but we will concentrate mainly on how the Rav guarded Yerushalayim and how he protected and safeguarded the religious Jews and the religious character of the city. Then we will examine how this affects us today. Jerusalem
We here in Eretz Hakodesh are threatened on all sides — not only externally, but also internally. We feel many times that it is hard to hold on. We ask, how can we manage? How can we educate our children, given all the spiritual tests that face us? How will we continue to be mechanech (educate) the boys in yeshivos? The girls in Bais Yaakov? Many parents have already given up. It is so hard, so extremely hard. The street calls out so invitingly to our youth. How will we manage to succeed?
The Period of Harav Sonnenfeld
Let us go back to the period of Rav Yosef Chaim.
At that time, almost no one was a yeshivah man; no one wanted to learn in yeshivah. No one wanted to marry a yeshivah student, either. At that time in Yerushalayim, it was a bushah (degrading) to say that one was engaged to a yeshivah man. People would mockingly say, “What a ‘bench warmer!’”
Today, baruch Hashem, even if the boy is not learning, they say he is. It is a bushah if the boy is not a ben yeshivah. This is the work of Hashem. We find ourselves in the era that the Ponevezher Rav predicted, when he said there would be a great increase in the sheer number of Torah learners. This is the time close to the Geulah. True, there are problems. Nevertheless, looking at the whole picture shows us hundreds of thousands of young men (and not-so-young men) learning Torah diligently. This is not derech hateva (a natural phenomenon).
Once, a grandson accompanied Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld on the way down to the Kosel, when they met Abba Hillel. This Abba Hillel was a most interesting maskil (literally, “educated one,” referring to a Jew who has thrown off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos). He had a long beard all the way down to his waist but went around bareheaded. He had learned in yeshivah at one point and still liked to learn Gemara.
This person turned to Rav Yosef Chaim and said in Yiddish, “You are an intelligent Jew. You must realize that within one generation, all your youngsters will be in our camp. Twenty, maybe 30 years at most, they will all be ours. Tell me, Rav Yosef Chaim, why wait 20 years? You can come over now. What are you fighting for?”
Answered Rav Yosef Chaim: “Hear, and listen well to what I am saying. There will be a great turnover here in Eretz Yisrael, still before the coming of Moshiach. There will be myriads and multitudes of crowds of those learning Torah. There will be many baalei teshuvah. In the end, everything will pass to us.”
Said the maskil, “Happy is the believer.”
The Rav turned to his grandson and said, “I may not merit seeing it — but you will.”
Pressure From Weizmann
Then, in that period, how did Rav Yosef Chaim battle without any compromise? During the First
World War, there was such a famine in Eretz Yisraelm that 25,000 of 50,000 Jews in
died of starvation. The relentless hunger continued after the war. There was no financial backing for the educational institutions; the only source of funding was the Zionist movement. Palestine
In the beginning of 1918, three months after the British takeover of
Palestine, a delegation of Zionists headed by Chaim Weizmann came to . There was a large meeting of educators with Chaim Weizmann, which the Rav attended. Weizmann said, “The money, as you know, is by us. If you agree to come under my authority, I will not interfere with your ways of education. I only ask that you make Hebrew the language of instruction in the schools. If you do not agree, you will not get any money!” Jerusalem
All those at the meeting felt that they had to agree to what Weizmann wanted. After all, the money was in his hands, and did he not promise to not interfere with matters of education?
However, the Rav stood up and objected. “I do not believe you will not interfere. You are giving the money to gain control over us. We will continue to starve, but we will not come under your authority.”
A great uproar ensued. Weizmann left the room. A more liberal Rabbi went after him, to placate him. Weizmann then returned and declared, “Rav Chaim is the only one here who understands my true intentions.”
How did Harav Sonnenfeld have the strength to withstand Weizmann’s offer when they were literally starving for basic bread, with no way of obtaining it? To him it was simple. The educators of the institutions had been given a holy task. Their job was to educate and to take care of their charges’ souls. Hashem’s job was to provide food. Yet here they were, trying to switch tasks by making sure the children had food to eat.
He told the teachers, “The Gemara says ‘All is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven.’ Stick to your task of instilling fear of Heaven into the younger generation. You should not compromise, even a hairsbreadth, on the holy, ancient way of teaching. Hashem will take care of the physical aspect of things.”
Today, we see the result: “They fell, and we came and were invigorated.” However, at the time Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld took his stance, it needed a will of iron to withstand the pressure and take on his shoulders the responsibility for the next generation.
And one more thing: About four months later, Weizmann handed over the money … with no strings attached.
The Meeting of the Zionist Histadrut
After the state was declared, there was a meeting of the Zionist Histadrut. The Prime Minister David Ben Gurion decided, as a generous gesture, to give the elderly people their shuls. He claimed that all the young people would soon come over to the Zionist camp. Someone asked him, “Be chol zot, so what will be with the masoret, the traditions of the Jews of Yemen, of
Morocco, of , and so on?” Lithuania
Responded Ben Gurion, “We will set up a museum for all of it.”
Ben Gurion wanted to put us in a museum. However, what the planner planned for us is what
happened to the planner. Who today is found standing in the wax museum if not Ben Gurion himself?
Today Torah Judaism is growing and flowering in Eretz Yisrael. All this was due to the seed Harav Sonnenfeld planted and guarded with all his might.
The ‘Great Massa’ of the Rabbis (The Rabbi’s Journey)
About 16 years ago, there was a Shemittah keness of farmers from the north, in the town of
. Chatzor Haglilit
However, before I relate what happened at the meeting, we must digress to the great
(journey) of Rabbis that took place in 1913/14. Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, who was then Rav of Yaffo ( massa ), and Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, with some other great men, went up north. They spoke at the different kibbutzim. At one of their stops, Rav Kook addressed the audience, telling them that their return to the Land should be in accordance with Torah. Jaffa
The head of the committee of this kibbutz stood up and stated, “I must inform the Rabbis that we returned to the Land not to return to this outdated Torah of yours. We returned here to build a new nation, with a new culture. So just leave us alone with your Torah.” This was the height of chutzpah.
Rav Kook started crying bitterly. Rav Sonnenfeld stood up and said:
“Yaffo Rav, Yaffo Rav, I want to tell you and to tell everyone else: Hakadosh Baruch Hu gave Eretz Yisrael to Am Yisrael so that they should keep His laws and His Torah. This is the reason that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is now returning us to the Land. This should be clear to everyone here. The end of the matter will be that the Land will be full of Torah learners, Torah observers, and shomrei Shemittah, from one end to the other. Do not cry, Yaffo Rav, vein nisht.”
At the recent Shemittah keness, Rav Sonnenfeld’s great-grandson told the above story. He added that we see today how correct his grandfather had been, as there are hundreds of Shemittah observers today in Eretz Yisrael.
At this point, a very old man, about a hundred years old, at the back of the hall picked up his stick and waved it at the speaker. Rav Sonnenfeld’s greatgrandson was sure this was the son or grandson of that same chutzpedik head of the committee, or maybe even him himself.
“Yes, what does he want?” he asked of the old man.
The man wanted to address the gathering. He came onstage and started speaking. “My friends, I was at that historic address of Rav
Kook and Rav Sonnenfeld. I remember the tears Rav Kook shed. I also remember Rav Sonnenfeld’s words. We all laughed to ourselves. What a naive Rav! What is he saying: the whole Land will be full of Torah! This naive Rav doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Rav Kook is the realistic one. He really has something to cry about.
“Two weeks ago, I saw signs all over the
Galilee: ‘A Shemittah keness for hundreds of Shemittah observers.’ I did not believe it. I could not believe it. What’s this: — Shemittah observers? I must see this for myself. I arrived this evening, to see hundreds of farmers who keep Shemittah. Not only frum ones with beards, but regular farmers.”
He raised his walking stick and shouted, “Rav Chaim was correct. He was right. The future is yours.”
Before the previous Shemittah, Harav Sonnenfeld’s great-grandson was at a keness in
, attended by thousands of avreichim. He told the “ Lakewood ” story, including the part with the old man. They were electrified. He also spoke of the fact that there are so many lomdei Torah in massa America — four thousand just in . Who would, who could, have envisioned this 60 years ago? Lakewood
Five Angels to Guard Our Children
We stand before great tests in our times, says the current Rav Sonnenfeld. We lose hope very quickly when we view our strength vis-a-vis the hardships. However, we should remember that the results are in the Hands of Hashem and He is on our side. Ask yourself, what can I do? Do all you are able, and Hakadosh Baruch will help and do the rest.
When there were the terrible wars with the maskilim, the Chofetz Chaim said, “The Ribbono shel Olam is stronger than they are.”
Rabi Chanina ben Dosa wanted to do something for the Beis Hamikdash. He was very poor, but after contemplating the matter, he decided to carve a stone and bring it up as a donation. As he had no way of carrying it up to Yerushalayim, he sat by the roadside waiting for someone to help him. No one came. By this point, if it were us, we would have given up and gone home … but he still sat there and waited. Hashem then sent five angels disguised as humans. They offered to help if he paid five shekel and put his hand on the stone to help carry it. He agreed and the stone arrived in Yerushalayim.
Let us consider this medrash. We want to do something for the Beis Hamikdash. Being poor, we decide that this is impossible and we forget about the whole thing. Rabi Chanina ben Dosa teaches us, “Do what you can, even if it is just carving a stone.” Then, finding the stone too heavy, we stay at home and leave it at that. No, says the medrash: go sit by the roadside and try to get help. No one comes. By this point, we are ready to give up and go home. But, wait! Hashem sent five angels disguised as humans to Rabi Chanina.
When we have done our maximum, the siyatta diShmaya will come. Today, we need at least five, angels to guard and keep each of our children on the derech. If we display mesirus nefesh for their chinuch and do all in our paltry power to instill yiras Shamayim, then Hashem will send His angels to watch over our children. “Ki malachav yitzaveh lach lishmorcha b’chol derachecha — He will charge His angels over you, to protect you in all your ways.”
May we all merit much Yiddishe nachas from our children. Moreover, may we soon be zocheh to the coming of Moshiach, with utmost haste