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Behar-Yom Ha’atzmaut 5771-2011

“A State is not Delivered on a Silver Platter”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Behar, contains many themes that pertain specifically to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

Not only do the laws cited in this parasha apply to the land of Israel, but many of them are enforceable only when the people of Israel dwell in the land of Israel.

The range of topics in parashat Behar concerning the land of Israel is broad and encompassing. The parasha includes: the Sabbatical year and the Sabbatical cycle, the Jubilee year, redemption of the land, the Levite cities in the land of Israel, and the servitude of Jews and non-Jews. These topics are extremely timely given that Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, is celebrated this week.

At about the same time that the Torah identifies the first Jew, the land of Israel becomes a central theme of Jewish theology and of the Jewish religion. In Genesis 12, Abram is told by G-d to leave Ur of the Chaldees–-his homeland, the land of his birth, his father’s house, and to go to the land that G-d will show him. There, G-d promises to make Abram into a great nation, He will bless Abram, make his name great and he will become a blessing to all.

Although G-d does not identify the land, Abram, together with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot, set out for the land of Canaan. Scripture in Genesis 12:5 informs us: “Vah’yay’tz’ooh, lah’leh’chet ahr’tzah Canaan, vah’yah’voh’ooh ahr’tzah Canaan,” and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they arrived in the land of Canaan.

Later, in Genesis 15, we learn of the “Covenant Between the Pieces.” In that revelation, G-d promises Abram, Genesis 15:18: “L’zahr’ah’chah, nah’tah’tee eht hah’ah’retz hah’zot, mee’n’har Mitzrayim ahd ha’na’har hah’gadol, n’har P’raht,” I have given this land to your descendants, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River.

As the founding President of Israel, Dr. Chaim Weitzmann (1874-1952), once noted: “A nation does not receive a state on a silver platter.” That is certainly true of the land of Israel. Even the great Joshua had to battle thirty-one ferocious Canaanite kings for seven years before the people of Israel began to settle the land. Later, after the destruction of the first Temple, the people were expelled from the land by the Babylonians. They returned to rebuild the second Temple, only to be exiled again by the Romans. The second exile was to last almost two thousand years, but the people never gave up hope of returning. In one of the greatest tests of human faith, the Jewish people realized their 2000 year old dream, and, on the 5th of Iyar 5708–May 5th, 1948, a Jewish state was once again established in Eretz Yisrael.

Upon the ashes of the greatest destruction of the Jewish people, the Shoah, the State of Israel was established. Six Arab nations attacked, but the fledgling State of Israel successfully defeated its attackers. But that, too, unfortunately, came at the cost of great personal sacrifices.

I recently came across one of the most moving stories to be told regarding the contemporary State of Israel. Written by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, in 2009, the essay is entitled, “The Rabbi and the Professor.” Rabbi Kahn writes with great reverence of one of the leading rabbis of the twentieth century, Rabbi Yisroel Zeev Gustman, with whom he had studied. Extraordinarily modest, Rabbi Gustman was, in Rabbi Kahn’s words, “the greatest unknown rabbi.”

Rabbi Gustman was recognized as a child prodigy by some of the greatest rabbis in Europe, and was selected at the tender age of 21 to serve as a religious judge in the premier rabbinical court of his time, headed by the great Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky. However, Rabbi Gustman dismissed his own prodigious talents, claiming that he was simply “at the right place at the right time.”

As with many of his contemporaries, Rabbi Gustman endured the horrors of the Holocaust. Miraculously, he survived, and after living in the United States for a number of years, eventually made his way to Israel where he headed a small yeshiva in the Rechaviah section of Jerusalem. Despite his modesty, his giant intellect could not be hidden for long. Soon, a small general lecture that he delivered in the Yeshiva’s study hall on Thursdays at noon, was filled to capacity, by crowds that included rabbis, intellectuals, religious court judges, and professors, from all over Jerusalem and Israel.

One of the regular participants in Rabbi Gustman’s public shiur (lecture) was a young economics professor at Hebrew University, Robert J. Aumann.

In 1982, Israel was at war again, this time in Lebanon. Soldiers were mobilized and reserve units were activated. Shlomo Aumann, Professor Aumann’s young son, who was a high school teacher, was called to serve. On the 19th of Sivan, Shlomo fell in battle.

When Rabbi Gustman heard of Professor Aumann’s loss, he quickly mobilized the entire yeshiva to perform the mitzvah of burying the dead. When Rav Gustman saw in the cemetery the many graves of the young Jewish soldiers who died defending Eretz Yisrael, he turned to a passenger in the car in which he was riding and said, “They are all holy.” When he was questioned by another passenger about the non-religious soldiers, Rabbi Gustman refused to make a distinction, insisting that every single soldier was holy. He then asked the driver to take him to Professor Aumann’s home, where the Professor was sitting shiva together with his wife and other children, his late son’s wife, Shlomit, and Shlomo’s young daughter. (A second daughter was born shortly after Shlomo was killed.)

When Professor Aumann saw Rav Gustman enter, he expressed his appreciation to the rabbi for the assistance rendered by the students and for coming to the cemetery. He then suggested that, after spending such a large part of the day at the funeral, it was now time for Rav Gustman to return to the yeshiva.

Rabbi Ari Kahn continues the story:

Rav Gustman spoke, first in Yiddish and then in English, so that all those assembled would understand: “I am sure that you don’t know this, but I had a son [in Europe] named Meir. He was a beautiful child. He was taken from my arms and executed. I escaped. I later bartered my child’s shoes so that we would have food, but I was never able to eat the food–I gave it away to others. My Meir is a kadosh–he is holy–he and all the six million who perished are holy.”

Rav Gustman then added: “I will tell you what is transpiring now in the World of Truth, in Gan Eden–in Heaven. My Meir is welcoming your Shlomo into the minyan and is now saying to him, “I died because I am a Jew–but I wasn’t able to save anyone else. But you–Shlomo, you died defending the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.” My Meir is a kadosh, he is holy–but your Shlomo is a shaliach tzibur [congregational representative, leading the congregants in prayer)–in that holy, heavenly minyan.”

Rav Gustman continued: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my Meir. Let me sit here with you just a little longer.”

Professor Aumann replied, “I thought I could never be comforted, but Rebbe, you have comforted me.”

Despite being part of the “Yeshiva world” whose members mostly avoid Zionist celebrations, Rav Gustman would regularly attend the annual Yom Yerushalayim parade, where children would march in Jerusalem in song and dance. Rav Gustman explained, “We who saw a generation of children die, will take pleasure in a generation of children who sing and dance in these streets.” Rav Gustman was once asked to share his memories of the war and of his son. He replied, “I can’t, but I think about those shoes every day of my life. I see them every night before I go to sleep.”

On the 28th of Sivan 5751 (1991) Rav Gustman passed away at age 82. Thousands of mourners participated in his final journey.

On December 10, 2005, Professor Robert J. Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Rav Gustman was a rare personality. Unfortunately, the losses that Rav Gustman and Professor Aumann suffered have become only too common in Israel. These are the sacrifices that we recall on Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day that precedes Yom Ha’atzmaut. Those sacrifices, which continue to this day, make it possible for Jews, the world over, to celebrate the great gift that G-d has given us, restoring to us Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, and establishing Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.

May you be blessed.

The original article “The Rabbi and the Professor,” by Rabbi Ari Kahn may be accessed at http://rabbiarikahn.com/

Yom Ha’Zikaron, Israel Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, is observed this year on Sunday night, May 8th, and all day Monday, May 9th, 2011.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Monday night, May 9th, and all day Tuesday, May 10th, 2011.

Yom Ha’atzmaut Sameach!