Dvar Torah Toldos

Riding in an Israeli cab recently, I was making small talk with the driver and inquired as to his family history. He told me that his grandparents had come to Israel from “Persia” in 1950. I shared that I found this intriguing, because while during that period Jews were flocking to Israel from Arab lands that were expelling their long-time Jewish populations to the new Jewish state, the Persians did not drive out their Jewish population. The driver responded simply and concisely. “You are correct. My grandparents were not forced to come here. But they said, ‘We have been praying for two thousand years for the Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael. Now that it has happened and our prayers have been answered, how can we possibly stay where we are because of our house or our business?!’ And so, they left their house and they left their business and came to the land that they had prayed for. And they never looked back.”

This sentiment is reflected in a brief and cryptic phrase found at the opening of Parshas Toldos. When Rivkah finally conceived after twenty years of marriage and many prayers, her pregnancy was quite tumultuous and she declared, “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!” This phrase is difficult to translate, and is rendered by Rashi to mean, “If this is the pain of pregnancy, why did I pray for it?!” Ramban seems to interpret it even more severely, hearing Yaakov declaring, “If this is the pain of pregnancy, why should I even live?!” Maharal is unwilling to accept these interpretations at face value, as they imply a despair uncharacteristic of our ancestors, and unfitting the continuation of the verse, where Rivkah sought Divine guidance for her situation. Instead, it seems that Rivkah is expressing quite the opposite of despair: “If this pregnancy is what I have prayed for, if having a child is what I live for, then there must be a meaning to these pains and a path I must take to address them. I cannot take this lying down. I must find my way to a truer fulfillment of my aspirations and prayers.”

A midrashic interpretation, found in the Midrash Hagadol, notes that Rivkah’s cryptic phrase includes the two terms that were used at the two seminal events of Jewish history. At the conclusion of the Exodus, as we experienced G-d’s revelation of His hand at the splitting of the sea, we declared “Zeh e-li”, “This is our G-d!”. And at Sinai, when G-d revealed His word to us, He began by declaring Anochi Hashem Elokecha”, “I am Hashem your Lord.” Thus, when Rivkah says “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!”, she is looking forward at the ultimate destiny of her descendants, and she is saying that the trouble she was then experiencing could not possibly be final! There was a dream to be fulfilled, a goal to be reached. Her offspring were destined for the ultimate meeting with the Almighty, for Zeh and for Anochi. That must happen! “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!”

Her reaction stands in sharp contrast to that of Eisav, who – when selling the birthright – used a similar phraseology: “Hinei anochi hoileich lamus, v’lamah zeh li bechorah?!” “Behold I am headed towards death, so what use is the birthright to me?!” Rivkah worked to find a place for her struggles within her lifelong aspirations, knowing that her goal must be reached, and that any stumbles along the way would have to be overcome. Eisav, on the other hand, speaks of the inevitable doom of death, thus rendering meaningless and futile all loftier aspirations.

In our own time, we are privileged to see before us the meaningful fulfillment of the dreams of millennia, the long-awaited response to our nation’s prayers. Eretz Yisrael is filled with people who see themselves as living those dreams, and who constantly ask themselves “Lamah zeh anochi?!”, “Is this all that I have prayed for?!” These individuals have thus been moved to explore how they can move forward to a truer fulfillment of the prayers and aspirations of millennia, to realize the true promise of the Jewish people.

I would like to share with you five stories of such people, individuals committed to make our dreams into reality, that I had the privilege to spend time with on a recent group trip to Israel.

  • Moshe Kahana is a farmer in the area of Beit Chilkiya in central Israel. He looks like a farmer, big, burly and friendly, with a large floppy hat. We met him out in his fields, where he had recently harvested cotton, and had prepared the land for the planting of grain. But he is not an ordinary farmer.

He described to us how the land he now cultivated had lain fallow for centuries, but not because it had been ignored. Many of those who had inhabited the land during our exile had tried their hand at farming it, but had failed. Now, he described how the representatives of the large American firms that sell him his farming equipment marvel at the bounty that the Israeli fields deliver, a full forty percent more than similar fields elsewhere in the world! In his words, “The land was waiting for us to come back, to farm it and bring forth its blessings!”

Moshe is very knowledgeable in the agricultural Halachos uniquely applicable in Eretz Yisrael, as his grandfather before him had farmed this land, and had discussed the laws with the great Chazon Ish. And indeed, Moshe himself will be spending the days after he plants his wheat in the Beit Midrash, davening at dawn and immersed in study until 11:00 pm, until the field beckons again for the next stage of the farming season.

Moshe is living the dreams and the prayers of millennia.

  • Ohr Rappaport and Tomer Dror are secular Israelis who were student activists, meaningfully involved in the campus protest movement demanding that Charedim “share the burden” of economic and army service. One day, they observed how the campus protests had intensified to a level of bitterness and negativity that did not bode well for the future unity of the Jewish people in Israel. They said, basically, “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!” Is this what we had hoped for?!

The two of them were moved to initiate a project that they named Beliba Choma, that would work to break down the invisible wall dividing Israel’s Charedi and secular communities, and to meaningfully assist the Charedi community in its efforts to strengthen itself economically. The program pairs secular university students and Charedim entering academic programs. The partners study together for three hours a week, where for two of the hours the secular student tutors the Charedi in English and math, and for the third the Charedi teaches Torah to his partner. They are slowly but surely building bridges of familiarity and of mutual assistance between brothers who have long been estranged from each other, and are doing their part to transform our nation into what we had prayed for.

  • Rabbi Mordechai Machlis is perhaps the most genuinely humble person I have ever had the privilege to meet. Rabbi Machlis is viscerally uncomfortable talking about himself or his family’s legendary activities in the realms of Hachnasat Orchim and Kiruv Rechokim, but it is impossible for him to hide his genuine goodness and kindness.

We had the privilege to visit the Machlis home on Friday morning, as it was busy with the preparation of Shabbos meals, filled with tables already set for the more than one hundred guests per meal that would descend upon the modest apartment.

Rabbi Machlis described how when and his wife Henny z”l married, they had two dreams: They hoped to live in Eretz Yisrael, and they wished to establish a welcoming home in the way of Avraham Avinu. When discussing how they balanced their open house with their responsibilities to their own large family, his daughter Batsheva stopped her work and chimed in, explaining how her parents made each of their fourteen children feel like an only child, granting them individual love and attention. The pride with which she described her family’s value of kindness, and how her siblings relish welcoming guests into their own homes, was a vivid and moving testimony to how Rabbi and Mrs. Machlis successfully imbued their children with their own values.

They have been privileged to live their dream, and to settle for nothing less. “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!”

  • We visited the corporate campus of ELTA in Ashdod. ELTA is part of Israel Aircraft Industries, and has developed the sophisticated radars that are the brains of the Iron Dome and of many other military systems used in Israel and abroad. We were able to visit the campus with the help of a well-connected member of our group, but that connection did not exempt us from a significant security screening, necessary because of the sensitivity of the work done there. All of us had to pre-submit our passports, and when we arrived our cameras and cellphone cameras were secured.

During our trip, after an initial presentation by an Israeli American executive of the farm, we were handed over to a blonde woman in a pants suit, who proceeded to show us the actual radar systems. This woman spoke to us with a heavy Russian accent. With that accent, it is fair to say that she would never have qualified for a security-sensitive position with an American defense contractor. Yet here she was, guiding us through this highly sensitive Israeli defense facility.

The difference is simple. Here in America she would not present as someone living the dreams of millennia, but in Israel she does. Yes, she came to Israel from foreign shores. Almost all of Israel did, in the dramatic return to Zion of the past century. But all those Jews have come home. She, with her heavy Russian accent, is in the land that her grandparents dreamt and prayed to be able to see. In Israel, she is home. She is not a security risk. She is a dreamer.

  • Israel was plagued by fires. Some started naturally, but others were set by terrorists. The community of Neve Tzuf is located in the Shomron, in an area surrounded by trees. They were on the lookout for arsonists, but that was not good enough. On Friday night, November 25, at 10:00 pm, members of the community on guard duty watched as the occupants of a Palestinian car driving down the highway lobbed two Molotov cocktails into the forest adjacent to their community. They immediately called for help, but the fire caught and spread instantly, due to the dry and windy conditions. The community evacuated within the hour, but twenty-one homes burned to the ground.

We adjusted our plans in order to visit this community, and we saw something that we have become accustomed to on our visits at difficult times: tragic loss and inspiring reaction.

Standing outside the charred remnants of their homes, the mayor and several of the senior residents of the community spoke of their immense gratitude that miraculously a change in the wind’s direction had spared the community from almost total carnage. They looked at the piles of ash and were grateful that it was only Eitzim v’Avanim, sticks and stones that were destroyed, while miraculously not a single person was hurt either by the fire, or during the emergent but orderly nighttime evacuation of a thousand people. They were so proud of how Jews all over the land of Israel had come to their side, to help them and support them in their crisis. And most of all, they were committed for the future. To them, the fire would be the impetus to rebuild bigger, stronger and more beautiful homes.

Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!” What they had prayed for, what they had worked for, was a real and tangible Yishuv HaAretz, to play a role in the blossoming of the land of Israel. The fire was only a small hiccup; they would continue on the path to the fulfillment of their prayers.

“A song of ascents; when G-d will return the returnees to Zion, we will be like dreamers.” We are witness in our time to what we have dreamed of for two thousand years. The true dreamers, the people most in touch with what they have been praying for all this time, they have said and continue to say: “Im kein, lamah zeh anochi?!” What we have hoped for and yearned for is something truly magnificent. And we will be a part of it. And if we see it falter, we will seek out G-d, and we will seek out any means at our disposal to work on it, to build it, to improve it, until we can truly see the fulfillment of what we have prayed for. הלואי ויהי חלקינו עמהם.