Yochanan Gordon

Based on a Sichah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

As we stand on the threshold of a new year, we are in need of consolation over the loss of life, encouragement over the loss of education and businesses, and assurance that the year ahead will be better. So while I would normally utilize this space at this time to reflect on the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, I sought to find a story to lift the morale of our readers as we usher in this new year.

Tzaddikim are termed in Chazal as einei ha’eidah, which means the eyes of the congregation. History delivers us into situations that often require clear vision to discern accurately the nature of the period we are living through and what lies ahead. Rosh Hashanah is not only the beginning of the year — it is the head of the year. Our rabbis tell us that the eyes of the wise man are in his head; it behooves us then to look towards the visionary of our generation to gain clarity and perspective over these extraordinary times and what lies ahead.

Despite being learned countless times over the past 30 years, what follows are ideas from a sichah of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, which he delivered on Shabbos Parashas Vayigash in December 1990. Fascinatingly, in a long footnote towards the end of this talk, the Rebbe makes a clear allusion to the coming year and the type of year it will be.

Before we get to the actual sichah, it’s important to stress that the Chasam Sofer in a derashah contrasts the letters tav, shin, peh and tav, shin peh, aleph, writing that the former symbolizes hardship and difficulty and the latter a messianic energy that he says is alluded to in a verse in Tehillim,“mei’ashpos yarim evyon” — meaning “from the garbage heaps He will elevate the indigent.” The word ashpos, writes the Chasam Sofer, is the roshei teivos of the coming year, Tav Shin Peh Aleph.

Parashas Vayigash, the second-to-final Torah portion in the book of Bereishis, opens with an encounter between Yosef and a family of Hebrews. Yosef appears to be a maniacal Egyptian viceroy intent on oppressing this family. He seems to want to break them apart and abduct one of its members, into which encounter Yehuda, the leader of his family, is thrust in order to mitigate what was shaping up to be a horrible set of circumstances. The parashah opens with the spotlight on Yehuda, as he draws close to Yosef in order to make his case.

The Rebbe opens this sichah by enumerating three ways we can perceive the unfolding scene: firstly, from Yehuda’s perspective, encountering what seemed to be a ruthless tyrant, a miserable individual with untold power who wants to harm him and his family. Understanding that his father’s life is at stake, Yehuda pleads for mercy, making his case in the strongest terms possible. In this first illustration, Yehuda, the leader of his brothers, is standing before the powers that be in a world that persecutes, before a world that harms and threatens the survival of the Jewish people. He makes his case with a sense of pride and quiet dignity. But at the same time he is in need of ingratiation, unaware that the person he is encountering is none other than his long-lost brother. The truth is that Yosef is a tzaddik, a holy, righteous individual who was responsible for orchestrating these events in order to facilitate the reunification of his family to allow the unfolding of their national destiny.

Clearly, our forefather Abraham was foretold in the Torah about his children being enslaved in a land not their own. That is the definition of exile — the inability for us to be who we are because we aren’t in a comfortable setting.

Yosef, however, is a tzaddik who will be guiding the hand of the host superpower of the day. Through his efforts and ingenuity, Mitzrayim had achieved such bountiful splendor, and it will ultimately be due to Yosef’s efforts that Egypt will embrace this nascent nation and will provide for them in every way possible. A very different illustration than Yehuda realizes at this opening moment.

Yehuda and Yosef are actual biblical figures who endured the struggle as it has been played out in the pages of the Torah and they represent two ideals that collide in this encounter. In the current situation, Yosef, who was the viceroy in Egypt, had the upper hand on Yehuda. However, in the future redemptive era, it will be Yehuda and the ideal represented by his persona who will rise to the fore. This is written out more explicitly in the sefer Yeshayahu when he writes: “All those called by my name and for my honor I have created him, formed him, and even made him.” Metzudas Dovid and Radak both point out that the Jewish people collectively comprise the nation of G-d and that this verse is a testament to the fact that no Jew will be excluded from the future and final redemption regardless of how distant they have grown and no matter to where they have been dispersed.

The Mishnah in Avos, which seems to be mirroring this prophecy, states: “Everything which G-d created in His world was created for His honor,” and cites this verse in Isaiah as a prooftext to this teaching. The Rebbe cites a ma’amar of the Alter Rebbe, who correlates these three terms of “berasiv,” “yatzartiv,” and “asisiv,” meaning created, formed, and made as corresponding to the faculties of thought, speech, and deed. The world of creation, or briyah, is closest to its origin in the world of atzilus and therefore is characterized as thought that remains within the intellective faculties of man, which leads to speech in our ability to communicate the idea and ultimately express it in deed as an action. The difference between these three terms and their representations is in their respective closeness to its origin or lack thereof.

The Hebrew letter that embodies the three faculties of thought, speech, and deed is the letter hei. If we look at the letter hei, it is a dalet with a detached leg. So there is a horizontal and vertical line that connect and a partial leg detached from its roof. This, the Alter Rebbe explains, corresponds to thought, speech, and deed. He says there are many who have great ideas and give captivating speeches; however, when it comes to expressing those in action they are few and far in between. The actual performance of Torah and mitzvos brings a sense of completion and perpetuity to the thought and speech that precede it.

However, the Rebbe goes on to note that it seems like the word “af” represents a realm beyond what would be characterized as our comfort zone. It is the implementation of the thought and speech into a realm that it is meant to impact and transform, which prior to that seems contrary to the ideas and ideals in which it is rooted. The Rebbe writes that the word af indicates multiplicity, an inclusion of the ethereal worlds of thought and speech into the seemingly antithetical realm of action. Asisiv is emblematic of a reality that seems to be divorced from divine closeness and spiritual pursuit which in retrospect emerges as the purpose of everything which preceded it.

The Rebbe, in his inimitable fashion, brings expression to this idea set out in the Alter Rebbe’s maamar. He says that the aforementioned ideas are specifically applicable in exile. He says there was a time when prophecy was negated and the clarity that we once enjoyed in our service of G-d and world events was no longer and then the Temple was destroyed, our nation dispersed, and the horizon grew increasingly darker. Although it seems that we are traveling in the wrong direction, the Rebbe writes that it gives rise to greater opportunity.

Where we initially thought that the realm of action lived beyond the realm of thought and speech and even placed it in peril, the Rebbe notes that it symbolized a leap even in regard to thought and speech, not into oblivion but into a world in which the proliferation of those G-dly ideas and ideals could become manifestly more impactful. So it emerges then that af possesses both a negative and positive connotation.

The Rebbe cites a midrash that states that we were smitten with af as in the verse in the chastisement, “I too will come against you with fiery fury.” Ironically, however, the same midrash points out that we were consoled with af as the verse states: “And even this while you are in the land of your foes I will not forsake you…” Along these lines, the Rebbe makes note of Torah study, which is studied in duress. In the words of our sages: “Torah she’lamadeti b’af,” which the Alter Rebbe connects with another verse that states: “Even my wisdom stood in my stead,” referring specifically to Torah, which is studied in a difficult environment.

The circumstances the Yidden are met with at the end of Parashas Vayigash, with Yaakov coming down to Mitzrayim, the establishment of yeshivos, and a level of comfort and affluence not previously known was the preparation for the redemption which, the Rebbe is careful to point out, will burst forth not through terror and dread but through a period of calm. In words recently used by Yonatan Razel in a song, “The Yidden will not be redeemed from within pain, oppression, spoilage, madness, and not through circumstances of hunger and poverty,” the march of history from exile into redemption will be a progressive one in the direction of liberty, affluence, and comfort and not the opposite.

Here, the Rebbe talks about his father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak, who endured the hellish oppression of the NKVD and the communists in the 1920s in Russia by whom he was constantly beaten and tormented. As he was rehabilitating and convalescing during the 1930s, he once again needed to flee from Russia, narrowly escaping the advances of the Nazis through nothing short of a miracle, before coming to the shores of this country in his last phase of life in this world and merited to experience the plenitude and bounty of this blessed country. The Rebbe suggests that the move from exile into redemption will follow a similar narrative.

The Rebbe makes a brilliant observation in the verbiage of Chazal depicting the posthumous life of a tzaddik when the Gemara says regarding Yaakov Avinu: “Mah zaroi ba’chaim af hu ba’chaim.” Here too Chazal employ the term af, which we mentioned earlier represents the expansion of the line of divine scrimmage, which symbolizes that although we lack the succor of the Rebbe at our side, in a physical sense, his presence among us especially during these challenging times, as the Zohar says outright, is in greater measure than it was during his lifetime. The undercurrent throughout this sichah is the two connotations of the word af and our ability throughout a period of seeming darkness and challenge to carry the world to a place that it could not achieve without it.

Here the Rebbe transposes into current events that were unfolding in his time when this sichah was said in December 1990. The Hebrew year was Tav Shin Nun Aleph, which the Rebbe established as the year Tehei Shnas Niflaos Ar’enu, meaning this is the year that I will show you wonders. Just two weeks after the recitation of this sichah, the Gulf War broke out and the world was thrown into a frenzy. Saddam Hussein had vowed to annihilate the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael and there was an ever-present sense of panic and pandemonium in the air at that time. There was one person who repeatedly brought calm to his petitioners, assuring the Jewish people in both private and public forms of correspondence that Eretz Yisrael was the safest place to be on earth and that we were living in a year of wonders.

On Wednesday January 16, 1991, Operation Desert Storm began at 7 p.m. Iraqis scud missles were fired at Israel. The war caused a tremendous amount of trauma, and also  brought a tremendous measure of deliverance and clear and open wonders, as the Rebbe had repeatedly assured. The Israeli government advised its citizens against using the bomb shelters, instead advising refuge in tightly sealed rooms stocked with food, drink, and, most importantly, operative gas masks.

If you Google a timeline of events that transpired during the six-week war you will find a list of no less than 35 miraculous events, beginning with the first day when 27 Scud missiles that were fired at once were intercepted by the Patriot missile defense system — allowing only two missiles to make landfall with no casualties. A missile landed in a garbage dump but did not explode. Another missile landed a few feet from a gas station, but did not explode. As the missiles continued to rain down on Israel, 39 in total, one landed in between two buildings, leaving it in rubble but not killing a single person.

Several of the missiles fired at Israel landed in the sea and one was blown off course by a strong wind. Two missiles aimed at an IDF base in the Negev landed without injuring or killing anyone at all. One missile fell and was discovered to have concrete in the place of an explosive warhead and two others disappeared from the radar and have until today gone unaccounted for. One man was in his house when a missile landed in his garden; he walked out with just minor injuries. An 84-year-old woman was home when her house was directly hit; her only question thereafter was who was going to help her clean all of it up. A man entered the washroom as a missile attack was underway and he exited to find his entire house destroyed but he remained unaffected. There was one woman who ran with her two children to the bomb shelter in defiance of the government instructions only to realize later that the door to the sealed room had been directly hit and destroyed. Miracle, after miracle, after miracle.

That year rains poured from the sky beginning January 17. The rains continued almost unabated for six weeks, accompanied by high winds, which convinced the Iraqis not to use chemical warheads because they feared wind would blow the poisons back in their direction.

In a public letter written after the war, the Rebbe noted that there was a gas line in Tel Aviv that sustained a direct hit. Nobody was aware of this and it only became public knowledge several months later. Incredibly that portion of the gas line had been shut while undergoing repairs when it was hit.

Thirty-nine Scuds were launched, leading to one direct fatality. The only one who maintained his composure throughout the duration of the war was the Rebbe as he continuously assured everyone who sought his advice that we were in a year of wonders. In the aftermath of these great miracles and the falling of 39 Scud missiles with just one fatality, Israelis began to sing songs about the ineffective missile attacks and Iraqi incompetence when on Monday February 25 an Iraqi Scud missile landed in a barracks in Saudi Arabia where 27 Marines were killed and 98 injured from just two missiles in what was by far the deadliest attack of the war. Tav Shin Nun Aleph was a year of incredible miracles.

Here we come to where the Rebbe discusses this upcoming year Tav Shin Peh Aleph. An article by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the war relates: “Months before Iraqi Scud missiles began to rain on Israel, long before the ground war began, the Brooklyn-based Lubavitcher Rebbe predicted that the war would be over by Purim.

“A young member of the Hasidic movement, a chaplain serving in the U.S. armed forces, went to the Rebbe one Sunday in November to get a dollar for tzedakah and a blessing from the spiritual leader.

“It was then that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson told him the war would be more than likely over by Purim, according to Rabbi Krinsky, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s spokesman.”

The Rebbe notes in the sichah that these events were brought about by Hashem in order to carry us from a situation of narrowness and constriction into that of a broad and spacious comfort zone. It has to be that in the last moment of galus before the dawn of the messianic era we have to experience “Vayechi Yaakov b’eretz Mitzrayim” — and Jacob, all of the Jewish people, live prosperously and safely in the land of Egypt, which is an allusion to all of exile.

This is alluded to by Dovid HaMelech in Tehillim, who says in Psalm 89: “I have established a covenant for my chosen ones, and I have sworn to Dovid my servant, I have found my servant Dovid and I anointed him. May his name be blessed for ever and ever and this the sages say is a reference to the coming of Moshiach.

In a footnote to this source on Psalms the Rebbe writes: “It should be noted that the book of Psalms has 150 chapters, which is 15 multiples tenfold. So if we are discussing 15 iterations of ten psalms, then the 89th psalm begins in the group starting with 81 and concluding with Psalm 90, therefore that which is written in Psalm 89 is connected to what is written in Psalm 81.”

The Rebbe further elucidates that the letters in Hebrew for 81, which are peh aleph, are the same letters that spell af. The only difference is that in peh aleph the letters are reversed, which symbolizes the transformation of the negative connotation of af to the hopeful and positive one that the Rebbe says stands for plaos ar’enu, which is similar to the roshei teivos to the year of the Gulf War Tehei Shnas Niflaos Arenu, the emphasis being on the revelation of these wonders which should be met by the eyes of mankind.

It is clear that the Rebbe, in this footnote, is drawing a correlation between the years Nun-Aleph and Peh-Aleph or 1991/2021 in there being a year of readily discernible wonders.

We have undergone a level of challenges this year in many ways unlike anything we have ever before experienced. We were not embroiled in a physical war, but a war with an invisible enemy that had shuttered the economy, killing mammoth businesses and corporations, closing yeshivos, restaurants, and gyms, and arousing a level of fear and uncertainty that we haven’t felt for quite some time. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue to proliferate with four of our boys being sent home when their yeshiva was forced to close without a definitive return date.

I’d like to conclude with a blessing that the new year bring a level of wonders commensurate and more so to the level of sadness, loss, and destruction that the previous year brought us. G-d should leave the curses behind in the old year and usher in a new year with abundant light and wonders with the coming of Moshiach immediately.

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