Ki Sisa - Netzach Yisrael – The Eternal Jewish People

There is a story that I regularly repeat at our family Pesach Seder. It is hard to repeat it without crying. I share it with you in memory of my father z”l, Rav Binyamin Hauer, whose yahrzeit is this Erev Shabbos, 21 Adar, and who survived the Holocaust and exemplified the eternity of Klal Yisrael, living a life of learning and teaching Torah, first in Canada and ultimately in Israel.

The Ponevezher Rav’s family and community were slaughtered in the Holocaust. He was both devastated by the past and committed to the future. Once, when speaking at an event in Israel during the war, he stopped himself in the middle of his speech and recalled that it was the day of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. His son back in Lithuania; his son whose fate he did not know at the time; his son who had in fact already been slaughtered by the Nazis. But he ploughed on, dreamed with his eyes open, and committed himself to do his part to rebuild the Jewish world.

He was once traveling in Europe after the war and arrived in Rome. It was a rainy, cold night, but the Ponevezher Rav called his host, insisting that he had to go out on that very night of his arrival in Rome. His host agreed, and the Rav asked him to take him to the Arch of Titus, the two-thousand-year-old monument to the Roman conquest of Yerushalayim. The Rav arrived there, got out of the car, in the rain, straightened his hat and coat, drew himself to his full height, and declared: “Titus! Titus! We, Am Yisrael, we are here! We are alive! We are continuing, building! Where are you?”

Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker. The eternity of Am Yisrael will not fail.

Yom Kippur is the anniversary of the conclusion of the forty days Moshe spent on Har Sinai achieving forgiveness on behalf of the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. It was not his first time there for forty days; it was his third. He first ascended on Shavuos, with the revelation of the Ten Commandments, and forty days later received the first set of Luchos. But then we created and worshipped the Golden Calf and those tablets were smashed to pieces, as was our relationship with the G-d Who gave them to us. That happened on the day we still commemorate in mourning as the 17th of Tammuz. The next day Moshe went back up for another forty days on the mountain, forty days of pleading to G-d to restore the Jewish people to His good graces, to restore our relationship with Him. After forty days, G-d agreed and told Moshe to go down and to bring back up to the mountain two new tablets. Moshe returned to the mountain on Rosh Chodesh Elul and stayed with G-d again for forty days, rebuilding the relationship, until Yom Kippur when we were restored to our earlier relationship and given the newly engraved second Luchos.

It is striking that the forty days of Elul and Aseres Yemei Teshuva, the days that comprise the entire High Holiday season, do not correspond to the forty days when Moshe was praying for our very existence, our very relationship with G-d. Those days of desperation are the dog days of summer, the days that include the Three Weeks of mourning. Our time of teshuva corresponds to a different period, to the last period of forty days, when we already knew that there would be a happy ending. Our season comes after a few weeks of consolation and comfort, when we were already assured that G-d would keep us, but just needed forty days with Moshe to make the relationship get back up to speed.

It is also noteworthy that our season of teshuva originated in communal - rather than individual – failure and correction. The Talmud (Avoda Zara 5a) notes this distinction, presenting the story of David and Batsheva as the paradigm for the individual penitent, while the community’s vision of teshuva is derived from the sin of the Golden Calf, the event for which we achieved national forgiveness on the original Yom Kippur, when Hashem assured us that we are His people and that will never change. The Jewish people endure unspeakably difficult times, but we live with the faith in G-d that produces a humble confidence in our future.

We are still here.

In August of 1929 riots spread through Eretz Yisrael, with Chevron the hardest hit. On one Friday night, over sixty Jews were slaughtered by Arab mobs, including many students of the Chevron yeshiva. The shattered remnants of the yeshiva transferred to Yerushalayim, where they hoped to start again. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, less than six weeks after the massacre, the young men were studying in their small Bais HaMedrash, and the hour for Maariv was approaching. One of the heads of the faculty, Rav Leib Chasman, arose and approached a young man, a bachur, Betzalel Shikovitsky - who would later serve as a Rav and author Mishkan Betzalel on the Rambam - and asked him to lead the Maariv prayer. The young man was shocked, as someone of his age and stage would not normally be asked to lead the service on the Yamim Noraim. Rav Leib insisted, and Betzalel proceeded to the Amud.

The prayers began, carefully and painfully, the wounds of the past year still open and fresh. When they reached the second paragraph of the davening, Betzalel started, v’ahavascha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, “Your love shall never leave us”, and he paused and then repeated it again with the same mournful tune, v’ahavascha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, ”Your love shall never leave us”. Over and over he and the yeshiva repeated this refrain, many times. They were lost in the tears and found in the security, the joy, that despite the tragedy they had endured they were still loved. A participant said that it was clear to him that it was at that moment that Chevron was reborn, when hope replaced despair, as love was recognized; eternal love, ahavat olam.

That refrain bears repetition during these difficult days. V’ahavascha al tasir mimenu l’olamim, “Your love shall never leave us.” Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker.