Monday, March 10, 2008

The Rebbe Who Saved a Village

This uplifting message of hope, faith and courage seems to epitomize the response we, as individuals, should have to the butchery at Merkaz Harav. It is a translation (found on Chabad's website) of an article in Yediot Acharonot on May 5, 1957, after a terrorist broke into the study hall of Kfar Chabad, killing five students and one teacher.

Translator's note: The following is a free translation of a story that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot on Iyar 4, 5717 - May 5, 1957. We have left the article basically as it was written, wishing to convey the perspective of the Israeli reporter and his impression of the people and the events he describes.

On the eve of Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) last year, as the bonfires were being raised on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, the lights were burning also in Tzafrir (Kfar Chabad), the Chabad-Lubavitcher village in the Lod Valley.

For four days the village had been in deep mourning and grievous anguish, the likes of which the Lubavitcher chassidim had not known in many years. On that black and bitter night, a band of fedayeen entered the village. They made their way to the synagogue of the local agricultural school, where the school's young students were in the midst of the evening maariv prayers, and raked the room with fire from their Karl-Gustav rifles. They reaped a cruel blood-harvest: five children and one teacher were killed and another ten children wounded; their pure, holy blood soaking the siddurim that fell from their hands and splattering the synagogue's white-washed walls.

Pictures of blood-soaked holy books in the wake of Thursday night’s slaughter of eight students at Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva brought back memories of a similar attack 52 years ago in the central Israeli village of Kfar Chabad, when five schoolchildren were murdered during their morning prayers.

The village chassidim, brawny, broad-shouldered Russian Jews with thick black beards and bushy brows, stood dumbfounded before the terrible scene that met their eyes. A pogrom in Israel! A pogrom in Chabad! they whispered, and bit their lips in rage. The women stood there too, hefty, handsome Russian matrons, wringing their hands and murmuring to themselves in Russian and Hebrew, their eyes emitting an endless stream of tears.

This was not a common scene for the Lubavitchers. These Chassidim, who had survived the pogroms in Czar Nikolai's Russia and whom the Red Army could not intimidate, who had been banished to the frozen plains of Siberia, whose backs decades in Stalin's prisons and camps could not bow, now stood stooped and despairing. Now, that the blow had hit home in the heart of the Jewish state.

In the center of the village stood Rabbi Avraham Maayor who had been a high-ranking officer in the Russian Army. Avraham Maayor, of whom legend told that he calmly stood and sang chassidic melodies as a band of soldiers beat him with the butts of their rifles, now stood crying out at the heavens: "Master of the Universe, Why?! How have the children sinned?!"

Despair and dejection pervaded the village, and began to eat away at its foundations. There were some who saw what happened as a sign that their dream of a peaceful life in the Holy Land was premature. Perhaps we should disband, seek refuge in safer havens? The village was slowly dying.

But it was clear to all that before any decisive move would be made, the Rebbe had to be consulted. Nothing would be done without his knowledge and consent. All awaited the telegram from "there," from New York, but the telegram was inexplicably not forthcoming. Four days had passed since the terror had struck. A lengthy telegram had immediately been dispatched informing the Rebbe of all the details of the tragedy, and an answer was expected that very night. But the Rebbe was silent. What happened, many wondered, why doesn't he respond? Has he not a word of comfort for his stricken followers?

A telegram from the Rebbe, it should be clarified, is an integral part of Chabad-Chassidic life across the globe. Every problem, every decision pertaining to the communal or private life of the Lubavitcher chassid is referred to the Rebbe's headquarters in Brooklyn, and whatever the reply, that is what is done. And the answer is always forthcoming, whether by regular post, express mail, or emergency telegram-depending upon the urgency of the matter-and always short, succinct, and to the point.

Why, then, is the Rebbe's answer on such a fateful matter tarrying? The village elders had no explanation, and, as the hours and days went by, the question continued to plague their tormented souls, and their anguish and despair weighed increasingly heavier on their hearts.

And then, four days after the tragedy, the telegram arrived. The news spread throughout the village: A telegram from the Rebbe! The telegram has arrived! The entire village, men, women and children, assembled in the village square to hear the Rebbe's reply.

And the Rebbe was characteristically succinct. The telegram contained a single sentence-three Hebrew words-but these three words sufficed to save the village from disintegration and its inhabitants from despair. “Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu”, wrote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. "By your continued building will you be comforted."

The Chassidim of Kfar Chabad now had a firm grasp on their future: they knew what they had to do. They must build! The Rebbe said to build! And that by their continued building they will be comforted! That very night the village elders held a meeting to discuss how the Rebbe's directive might be implemented. After a short discussion, a decision was reached: a vocational school will be built where children from disadvantaged backgrounds will be taught the printing trade. On the very spot where the blood was spilled, the building will be raised.

The next morning, all residents of the village gathered at the empty lot adjoining the agricultural school and began clearing and leveling the land in preparation for the building. The joy was back in their eyes.

In the weeks that followed, letters arriving from relatives and friends in New York described what had transpired there in those four endless days in which the village had awaited the Rebbe's reply.

For the entire month of Nissan, the month of the redemption, it is the Rebbe's custom to devote himself entirely to the service of the Creator, reducing his contact with his Chassidim to a minimum. Rare is the individual who is granted an audience with the Rebbe in this period, and all but the most urgent correspondence is postponed until the close of the auspicious month.

When the month of Nissan ends, a festive farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) is held at the Rebbe's headquarters on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, marking the Rebbe's resumption of his involvement with his thousands of followers across the globe. The Rebbe speaks for hours, his talks interspersed with bouts of song and l'chaims, often until the wee hours of the morning.

That year, the farbrengen marking the close of Nissan was also held. The tragic news from the Holy Land had arrived in New York moments before the farbrengen was scheduled to begin, but the Rebbe's secretaries decided to withhold the news from him until after the gathering. But what his assistants did not tell him, his heart seems to have told him. That night, the Rebbe spoke of Jewish self-sacrifice and martyrdom al kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of G-d's name), about the rebuilding of the Holy Land, and the redemption of Israel. Tears flowed from his eyes as he spoke. All night he spoke and wept, sang and wept, and wept still more.

Why is the Rebbe weeping? Only a few of those present could guess - those who knew about the telegram from Kfar Chabad.

The farbrengen ended. The chassidim dispersed to their homes, and the Rebbe retired to his room. With great trepidation, two of the Rebbe's closest chassidim knocked on the Rebbe's door and handed him the telegram from Israel. The Rebbe sank into his chair. He locked his door and did not open it for three days. After three days of utter seclusion, he called his secretary and dictated his reply: “Behemshech habinyan tinacheimu”. By your continued building you will be comforted.

The chassidim of Kfar Chabad have fulfilled their Rebbe's request. Without the aid of philanthropists or foundations, they have raised 50,000 Israeli pounds, and today, one year after the tragedy, the new building of the vocational school is completed.

Tomorrow, as the citizens of Israel celebrate their eighth Independence Day, the chassidim of Kfar Chabad will hold a farbrengen and relate, again and again, the story of the three-word telegram that saved the village.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Avi Dichter and Transfer

Last week, there was a lively debate at Dovbear's blog about Rabbi Kahane and the concept of transferring hostile Arabs living in Israel out of the country, for the safety and integrity of the state. Many points were made, but one of the central ones was that Rabbi Kahane's ideas were defeated by the very fact that no-one supports them anymore. It was pointed out that there are sizeable percentages of Israelis who support this transfer idea, but that was brushed aside by others. I would like to point out that Minister of Israel's Interior Security, Avi Dichter, supports transfer as well.

There was a religious-halachik aspect to Rabbi Kahane's position, certainly. However, he also supported this transfer of hostile Arabs for demographic and security concerns, as well. It is these reasons that resonated with people like Yitzchak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, and led them to the realization that co-existence is not realistic, and that a two-state solution is necessary. Instead of annexing Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian state would be created there, and that would allow most hostile Arabs to live without the state of Israel. A transfer by excision, but transfer nonetheless. In fact, there was forced transfer, but it was the movement of Jews instead of the movement of Arabs. (The idea that they were moved "in", and so it is not as bad as moving others "out" is disingenuous. The Israeli government encouraged people to settle Gaza and the West bank for thirty years, economically and philosophically. In fact, Sharon himself stated years back that any order to uproot settlements was immoral and should be refused. I find the eminent domain argument weak as well, since eminent domain is to be used for government purposes, to better the lives of the majority of citizens, and not to chip away at the homeland and provide terrorists with bases ever closer to our borders.)

However, no matter how close these leaders came to admitting that transfer was the only option, they always could claim that no Arab living in Israel, no Israeli Arab, would be forced from his home, and made to live in any theoretical "Palestine". It was deeply implied by all concerned, and believed by a nation desperate that there be a group of Arabs they could call "friend", that these Israeli Arabs did not hate us, except for a few bad apples; that the Israeli Arabs would not hurt us, except for a few extremists; that the Israeli Arabs would live in peace with us, and any that would not could be treated as any other Israeli criminal -- jailed and eventually released, rehabilitated to the love of his Jewish neighbors. However, that has now changed.

Yesterday's brutal terror attack, in which seven Jewish teens and a 26 year old were murdered in cold blood in their study hall, brought the problem even closer to the surface. The attack of two city employees in East Jerusalem, the attempted lynch, the vicious attempted murder, also helped. Israelis are beginning to realize that nothing will change the fact that even among Israeli Arabs, the majority is not supportive or loyal to the state, and they would, in a heartbeat, join the throngs of enemies when it seems possible to kill Jews. The minority is not those who wish to destroy us, but those who do not.

And so, Israel begins to realize that transfer of hostile Arabs is the only solution left. Here is what Avi Dichter said, today in Merkaz Harav (as quoted by Arutz 7): "He [Avi Dichter] added: "If an intifadah breaks out, we know how to put it down," and expressed hope that a way will be found to send terrorists from east Jerusalem to Ramallah."

Avi Dichter sees Ramallah as outside Israel. He hopes to be able to banish terrorists who are Israeli citizens (after all, he speaks of terrorists from east Jerusalem) from east Jerusalem to Ramallah. Obviously, he speaks of terrorists who have not yet committed their terror, for if they already have, they would have to be put on trial. Clearly, Dichter does not advocate a situation in which a terrorist like last night's would be caught alive and not tried, but sent to live in peace in Ramallah. He is talking about potential terrorists -- people who support terror against our country -- he is talking about hostile Arabs of Israel.

And now we have come full circle. Israel rejected Rabbi Kahane as a rascist and an extremist for putting forth a platform that highlighted, among many other issues, the issue of Israeli-Arab hate of Israel and the need to rid the country of a fifth column. He was denounced; he was punished; he was imprisoned; his party was outlawed. And yet, it seems, the result of 30 years' policy that took the opposite track has ended up with a virtually identical statement by Avi Dichter to those of Rabbi Kahane. The only difference, in the end, is where "outside Israel" is. In Rabbi Kahane's book, it was Jordan, or Lebanon or Sinai. In the Dichter/Olmert/Rabin/Sharon book, it is Ramallah -- a virtual stone-throw from Jerusalem. Rabbi Kahane's plan would have put Israel's enemies far from our population centers, and across natural, defensible borders. The Dichter plan places the hostile Arabs to be transferred masochistically close to our population centers, a spitting's distance across Abba Eban's "Auschwitz borders".

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Depression and Action

Often, when confronted by defeat or failure, it is human nature to feel that our activity is futile. All that we work for can be destroyed in a moment, and everything that we care about is for nothing. Sometimes, people can feel this way when empathizing with others who are going through troubles. The feeling of helplessness can transfer to the empathizer, and create depression.

Of course, depression is the greatest enemy of useful activity. The feeling of futility can stop people from accomplishing and succeeding at important activities. After the Holocaust, for example, there were survivors who felt that it was pointless to rebuild their families, after witnessing how they were wiped out in a flash. How can a person save himself from drowning in the emotional turmoil of defeat and failure?

When Betzalel and his workers finished building the mishkan, they did not turn it over to the Jewish nation standing. The boards were there, the curtains, as well, and yet, nothing was put up. That was left to Moshe. Each of the seven days of inauguration, Moshe assembled and broke down the mishkan. No one was to help him, and Rashi quotes a midrash stating that, since the work was far too much for one man, Moshe received divine assistance to complete this task each day.

Why did God command Moshe to do this, when the task was impossible without divine assistance? Perhaps this episode is given to the world as an example of the correct way to approach the feeling of futility and depression that come from failure. When confronted, as Moshe was, with a situation that seems impossible, the correct response is not to retreat into rationalizations for why it is not worth trying. Rather, a person should enthusiastically embrace the task, and do the best that he physically can, "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." To dutifully step bravely forward, against all odds, with faith in God -- that is our charge in life. If God sees fit to assist, as He did for Moshe and countless times in history, that is good. And if He chooses not to, so be it, for this has nothing to do with Man's duty to act on what he has ascertained to be right and just and good.

It is not our job to finish any task. However, it is neither our right to shirk correct action. We are to move forward, doing good, with the serene knowledge that this is all God asks of us. The ultimate result of anything is up to Him.