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Rabbi Sternbuch on the war and strengthening ourselves this year with Shabbat

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Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch on the war

“G-d does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants” (Amos 3:7) 

Rabbi Sternbuch has been expressing his concern for months now about the possibility of terrible events occurring, and that we have no idea how serious our situation is. He would talk about this even at family celebrations. On one occasion he said that if we knew what we might have to go through, we would go meshugeh. He also articulated his dismay at people’s apathy. 

When someone told Rabbi Sternbuch that he was scaring people with all his statements, he responded, “Very good, people should be repenting”. 

On Yom Kippur Rabbi Sternbuch was in his Yeshiva. Before Neila (final prayer of the day) he burst out crying and shouted that difficult and terrible decrees are in store for us, and we still have a few minutes to attempt to annul them.  

Rabbi Sternbuch said the following just after Yom Kippur: We do not know what the coming year potentially has in store for us, and if we are not worried, that means that our belief is deficient. Every Jew must realize that any calamities in Israel G-d forbid will spread to the whole world eventually, and we have to increase our emuna so that we will have the strength to face any eventuality. Those statements by Rabbi Sternbuch provided us with the opportunity to prepare for this week’s events emotionally, and they are especially poignant currently for Jews around the world. 

Rabbi Sternbuch also spoke in English (and partly in Yiddish) on the dat before Shabbat-Sukkot (there is a video recording of it). At what was supposed to be a happy celebration for a Bar Mitzvah boy, most of Rav Sternbuch’s talk consisted - seemingly without reason - of words of admonition and warning, including the following: This year is a special year. The early sages were all afraid of this year, of this month. They were afraid to live in this month, they were afraid that they might have to suffer a lot... It seems the main point we must be mechazek this year is Shabbat, Shabbat is a sign of our covenant 1... People start laughing at Yom Kippur, making demonstrations against people keeping Yom Kippur. One would have thought that we would make demonstrations for G-d's honor which has been desecrated, they are completely blaspheming, we are obligated by Jewish law to tear our clothes, but we keep quiet... We would have expected that there would be a big response from Jews all over the world. 

The law is that even if you did not see or hear a blasphemy, but only heard from someone that there was a blasphemy, you have to tear your clothes. It is an obligation from the Torah to tear your clothes if you hear that there was such a desecration of G-d's name. 

People are very cold today. It’s very dangerous. Especially this year, it’s such an important year, when we don’t know what’s going to happen. There could be all sorts of surprises. We can be sure that many decisions are being made for us now... it’s impossible to speak about the situation which we’re in today. 

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, I remember I heard from him himself: “If I see people breaking Shabbat, I won’t live, I can’t see it”. I remember people tried to convince him to come to Israel, but he said that he was not capable of doing it. People didn’t know what was going on in Israel. I remember that a Jew came from Israel and Rabbi Schneider asked him what Judaism was like there, and he said that Jews were walking around bear-headed. Rabbi Schneider became extremely upset that people were walking around Jerusalem, the holy city, without a kippah. And now [coming back to the present] they’re making fun of Torah, fear of heaven, of everything. 

Even the non-Jews would not allow such behavior... but we should not accuse others, we ourselves are not doing anything, and that is the biggest sorrow, the Almighty looks to see what we’re doing. The cheek which they have try to prevent people from praying, it’s only because they see that we are weak”. 

On Wednesday Chol Hamoed Sukkot Rabbi Sternbuch told the people in his house that there is a difficult decree looming against the Jews after Sukkot, and we have to do what we can to annul it. On Hoshana Rabba when R. Yecheskel Berkovitch asked Rabbi Sternbuch for a blessing for success, Rabbi Sternbuch told him: “A blessing for success? You need a blessing for protection! May Hashem protect you!” 

During a Simchat Beit Hashoeva on Chol Hamoed Sukkot whilst watching the yeshiva students dancing in his Yeshiva, Rabbi Sternbuch, again seemingly without any reason, recalled the Simchat Torah during Wold War Two in Rabbi Moshe Schneider’s yeshiva. As we mentioned in our Sukkot article, most of the boys’ parents and family members had remained behind in continental Europe, and were under constant threat of death. 

Rabbi Sternbuch recalls how these boys came to the Rosh Yeshiva on Sukkot and told them that it was impossible for them to feel joy on Yom Tov when they did not know whether their parents were alive, and even if they were, they were surely suffering greatly from hunger or other forms of torture, so how could they possibly feel any joy. 

Rabbi Schneider was greatly moved and said, “Hitler, may his name be erased, may perhaps take this world from us, but he cannot take away our afterlife. We will fulfil G-d's mitzvot, even a custom such as dancing, with splendor. Even if we should walk in the valley of death, even in our last moment inside a fiery furnace, we will still be happy to be Jews, and under no circumstances will we let the Nazi oppressor take away our joy in the holiday”. Rabbi Schneider insisted that the yeshiva students feel special joy at being part of G-d’s treasured nation. He did not let them stand on the side, but rather brought them into the circle of dancers. 

Just several days later, Rabbi Sternbuch was back in his yeshiva for Shabbat Simchat Torah. The first siren went off in the middle of Hallel. By recollecting that incident exactly 80 years ago just a few days earlier, Rabbi Sternbuch had prepared the boys for dancing with joy even whilst Jewish blood was being spilt (as had to be suspected in light of the numerous sirens), and no one knew when and where the next bomb would land, possibly near them or where their loved ones lived. 

When he was told about what was taking place in the country, Rabbi Sternbuch responded: “I have been warning about this for a while, but it seems that my words fell on deaf ears” (in Hebrew: “I was speaking to the walls”), and he asked for several chapters of Tehilim (Psalms) to be recited. 

Rabbi Sternbuch instructed yeshivas and various Chasidic groups to tone down their second hakafot and make them conspicuously less joyful, and preferably without music. At his own yeshiva there was no music, and the second hakofot were curtailed. 

Rabbi Sternbuch said a few brief words: “Everyone should go and learn, because every little bit of learning has the power to save us. The danger is very great not only for those on the front, but also for us. The danger is getting closer, and we do not know what the future has in store for us. We need faith that G-d will help, but in order for G-d to help, we have to show that we agree to do something difficult with self-dedication and sacrifice for His sake, and so everyone should resolve now to learn also during difficult times, and we will witness wonders with the help of G-d”. 

On Sunday morning this week Rabbi Sternbuch was asked what we can do to mitigate the current attribute of justice. He replied: “Torah, fear of heaven, and fear of sin”, and added that prayer without tears is not enough. 

Rabbi Sternbuch added that what happened on Shabbos illustrates Rabbi Chaim Brisker’s statement: “the non-Jew wants to kill me, and he has the ability to kill me, so why doesn’t he kill me? Only because G-d does not let him”. G-d is demonstrating our enemies’ “natural” behavior which we would be constantly exposed to, were it not for His constant protection, and how grateful we should be for the miracle of our survival in this country, surrounded as we are by bloodthirsty enemies. 

Also on Sunday, someone asked Rabbi Sternbuch for a blessing because he was getting married in two or three months’ time, Rabbi Sternbuch responded that there could be a revolution by then. When asked (on Tuesday) what he meant by a “revolution”, Rabbi Sternbuch explained that a revolution can be a good thing or a not good thing, or first one and then the other. It is important at this time to judge members of G-d's nation favorably. However, just a few weeks ago, the Israeli Prime Minister publicly questioned the Almighty’s Omnipotence and Providence (G-d forbid), and G-d has now responded to those heretical statements which caused a terrible desecration of the divine name, by demonstrating who is the really in charge). Not the Prime Minister, not any security force, not any foreign nation, nor any mortal being. This should strengthen our belief, and cause us to place our trust entirely in the Creator, and make a sanctification of the divine name. 

Upon being told that some people were cancelling weddings because of the prohibition of large public gatherings, Rabbi Sternbuch said that there was no need to cancel weddings. Talmudei Torah (elementary schools) should definitely be kept open. If they were to be closed, that would be a victory for our enemies. People learning here who live overseas do not need to leave the country at present. However, they should make sure that their passports are valid and any paperwork is in order, in case they have to return home. 

Rabbi Sternbuch was asked whether those who live in Israel who have the easy possibility of moving overseas temporarily should do so should the situation deteriorate G-d forbid. He responded that they should not, but should rather have faith, since Israel has protective power. Of course, Rabbi Sternbuch has noted in the past that those who live in Israel are expected to act in a manner in consonance with the sanctity of this country. Someone living in Jerusalem is living in the most protected location in the world, since it is the location of the Temple. The holy Arizal did not want to live in Jerusalem because of the high degree of sanctity that would be expected for his divine service were he to live here. We do not have such issues, since such levels are not expected of us. On the other hand, again, someone who lives in Jerusalem is naturally expected to behave in consonance with the sanctity of the location of the Temple. 

When asked if people should move temporarily to Yerushalayim in the current situation, Rabbi Sternbuch responded that there was no point, since one cannot attain the status of a Jerusalem dweller just through temporary residence. An American girl learning in a Seminar who wants to stay here but whose parents want her to come home asked whether she has to listen to her parents. Rabbi Sternbuch said that she can stay here since the merit of Israel protects us. 

Rabbi Sternbuch is telling visitors from overseas returning home that they should not forget those who dwell in Israel, and continue to pray for them, and that they should know that any calamities happening here will spread overseas “like an infectious disease”. 

The Muslims are religious, have faith, and have some power to harm us. Our ability to counter them lies in prayer, faith, including the realization that Hashem is all-powerful, the Source of all life, and that only He is in charge of our destiny. 

Ladies and girls should be told to focus and refraining from speaking badly about others, and not to wear long wigs or put on conspicuous make-up or perfume. In a letter to the public issued this week, Rabbi Sternbuch writes that the Sages tell us that the Jewish nation will only be redeemed through affliction, repentance, mercy, and prayer. In order to avert evil decrees, one must adopt the practice of our forefathers and focus on repentance, prayer and charity. As for repentance, everyone must introspect to decide which areas he or she specifically should focus on. As far as prayer is concerned, in times of trouble we have always turned to Tehilim (Psalms). Quality is more important than quantity, and one should endeavor to pour one’s heart out through the realization that one’s entire life is dependent only on Hashem. Happy is the person who sheds tears during his prayers, thereby arousing divine mercy. Several chapters of Tehilim (Psalms) should be recited by the public in synagogue after every prayer to avert evil decrees and for the benefit of our brethren who have suffered injuries, or are in danger or captivity. 

As for charity, one should have mercy on the needy and increase charitable deeds. As a special action for protection, heads of households who are in a position to do so, should do the pidyon nefesh revealed by the Ramban to donate an amount to the needy equivalent to the gematria (numerical value) of his Hebrew name. This is effective for that person’s whole family. Somebody who does not have the financial means to give this amount to charity should instead comfort and encourage the downtrodden and anyone in need of words of encouragement. In the merit of their mercy on their fellow creatures they will merit divine mercy. 

Hashem has taught us about the futility of mortal power, He has deflated the pride of those who trust in the power of mortal beings, in order to arouse us to place our reliance exclusively in Him and internalize the fact that He is the only source of our salvation. The holy books say that when the Jewish nation will come to the complete realization that we have no possibility at all of obtaining salvation from natural sources and that we have no one to rely on except our Father in Heaven, we will merit salvation. 

Obviously, one should not under any circumstances go on vacations or trips, G-d forbid, and a yeshiva student's place now is only in the yeshiva hall. One should be very careful not to waste time on nonsense during the current period. It is very common in a time of war for people to fritter away precious time discussing current events, future scenarios and so on. We have to remember that Torah protects us, and every additional increase in Torah learning reinforces that protection. As the Sages have told us (Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 88b), in order to be saved from the birth pangs of moshiach, one must engage in Torah and lovingkindness. The real “front” in any war is in heaven. We are not a nation subject to any natural causes, and it is only our prayers, Torah, repentance and deeds that cause the Divine Presence to dwell in our midst and save us from misfortunes. Since we can only merit redemption when we come to the simple and absolute realization that “we have no one to rely on except our Father in Heaven”, and since it is next to impossible to achieve this level if we expose our minds to what is happening with the army, with politics and so on, because they create the impression that our fate depends on these matters, we would be very foolish to fill our minds with all the latest news. Other than the need for information about the current security situation in order to know when and where it is save to go to, or do certain things, and so on, one has no need for any “news”, and should rather spend our precious time during these turbulent times on matters beneficial to our spiritual and physical welfare, such as Torah, prayer, charity and lovingkindness. 

G-d wants and expects everybody to pray fervently for the welfare and success of every Jew, both soldier and civilian, but we also beseech Him that our hoped-for physical salvation should be coupled with our spiritual salvation, in which everyone without exception recognizes our physical salvation as being an outcome of G-d's power, providence and kindness, rather than the success and power of any mortal beings, which is what the media would have us believe. 

Those who teach in yeshivas have to instill a sense of responsibility into the hearts of every yeshiva student and tell them about the magnitude of their task to protect every Jewish home at this time through the merit of their Torah, and that they should not waste any time on vanities, G-d forbid. 

The Haredi public too has to understand that Bnei Torah, and especially yeshiva students, including married ones, are the real protectors of the residents of Israel. Instead of feeling inferior or guilty for not serving in the army, they should feel proud to be bnei Torah and a sense of responsibility to act in a way befitting a ben Torah, thereby ensuring that the entire population can live as a sheep amongst seventy wolves by virtue of the only merit we have: the merit of Torah. 

Our task is to realize that Hashem’s love for every member of his nation is beyond anything we are capable of imagining, and the only purpose of any affliction is to serve as a wake-up call to repent and come closer to Him, the same way that a loving father afflicts his son only for the son’s benefit. May G-d hear our supplications, and save every Jew from injury, may He send a speedy recovery to all the injured, and liberate every captive, and may G-d give us the power to remain strong during the trials of the birth pangs of the Messiah, and may the Ismaelites suffer a complete downfall. The downfall of Yishmael will herald the coming of the Messiah (see Baal Haturim on Genisis 25:18), and then we will rejoice in the final redemption, may it come speedily in our days.

1 - Before Rosh Hashono Rabbi Sternbuch cited the Oruch Laner that, historically speaking, the years in which Rosh Hashonoh fell on Shabbos either presaged very happy events, or calamitous ones, and Rabbi Sternbuch recommended everyone to adopt a resolution for the honor of Shabbat, so that it will protect us and substitute for the merit of the absent Shofar, for example by learning the laws of Shabbat throughout the year regularly, sanctifying Shabbat with Torah learning, or inducing others to become conversant in the laws of Shabbat.

Image credit: לויוני-YL, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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