Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg
Rabbi Eliakim Koenigsberg

The True Grandeur of Klal Yisrael

The Torah describes how after Shimon and Levi kill all the inhabitants of Shechem, Hashem tells Yaakov to return to Beis El and make a mizbei'ach (Vayishlach 35:1). Yaakov directs his household to remove all of the avodah zara they still possess from the booty of Shechem, to cleanse themselves and prepare to travel to Beis El. The possuk continues that when they set out to Beis El, there fell a G-dly terror (chitas haElokim) on the cities around them, and those living there did not pursue Yaakov's children (35:5). Earlier, Yaakov had criticized Shimon and Levi for their actions precisely because he was afraid that those living in the area would rise up against his family and destroy them (34:30). And yet, the exact opposite occurred; a G-dly fear took hold of the people and they did not chase after Yaakov and his family.

But the possuk does not explain why those living in the surrounding cities were gripped with such terror. The Sforno comments that in fact Yaakov's concern was warranted, so he needed divine protection. It would appear that the Sforno understands that the chitas haElokim was a supernatural feeling that Hashem instilled in the hearts of those living in the area to prevent them from attacking Yaakov's family. This idea is also expressed by the Midrash Tanchuma (Vayishlach 22) that Hashem placed His fear on the surrounding cities, in fulfillment of the Torah's promise, "And all the nations of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will fear you" (Ki Savo 28:10). Hashem placed His aura as it were over Yaakov's family and that made others afraid to pursue them.

But the Malbim explains differently. He suggests that the members of Yaakov's household demonstrated yiras shamayim by removing all of their avodah zara and preparing their hearts to serve Hashem in Beis El. It was that yiras shamayim that spread to those living in the surrounding cities and caused them to have yiras shamayim as well, which is why they did not chase after Yaakov and his family. The chitas haElokim, the fear of Hashem, in the hearts of Yaakov's children had a ripple effect on the people in the surrounding cities and it gave them a newfound respect and awe for Yaakov and his family.

This could be the deeper meaning behind the Torah's promise in Parshas Ki Savo that all the nations will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you and they will fear you. It is not simply an expression of divine mercy that Hashem will cause the nations of the world to fear Klal Yisrael despite the fact that they are undeserving. To the contrary, the Torah is saying that if we study Torah with energy and excitement, and we observe mitzvos scrupulously and joyfully, that will earn us the respect and the awe of all people.

The Torah says earlier, "And you shall safeguard and perform them (the mitzvos), for it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all of these decrees and proclaim...'Which is a great nation that has proper decrees and laws such as the entire Torah?' (Va'eschanan 4:6,8)" When Klal Yisrael is careful to observe both negative and positive commandments - to safeguard and perform (u'shmartem va'asisem) - they earn the respect and admiration of all people because the proper observance of mitzvos purifies and elevates a person, and the special sense of refinement that is exuded by a Torah Jew is impressive and inspiring even to a non-Jew.

Chazal explain that these two pesukim (in Va'eschanan and Ki Savo) are alluded to in the ultimate bracha the Torah offers to Klal Yisrael when it is true to its mission. The Torah declares, "Hashem has distinguished you today to be for Him a treasured people, as He spoke to you, and to observe all His mitzvos, and to make you supreme over all the nations that He made, for praise, for renown, and for splendor" (Ki Savo 26:18-19). Chazal comment in the Midrash (Psikta Zutrasa ibid), "To make you supreme: supreme in Torah, supreme in mitzvos, as it says, 'And which is the nation that has proper decrees and laws?' (Va'eschanan) Supreme, as it says, 'And all the nations of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you and they will fear you.' (Ki Savo)" The Torah warns that Klal Yisrael's prominence is not an automatic gift. Rather, only when Klal Yisrael elevates itself through talmud Torah and shmiras hamitzvos does it connect with the Name of Hashem, and earn the respect and the awe of all people.

On Chanukah, we celebrate the victory of Torah values over Greek culture. The Greeks enacted many harsh decrees to persecute the Jewish people spiritually. They tried to prevent them from studying Torah and observing mitzvos (Al Hanissim). According to one source, they singled out Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh and bris milah (Megillas Antiochus). But how did all this persecution begin? The Bach (Orach Chaim 670) writes that initially Hashem allowed the Greeks to have the upper hand because Klal Yisrael neglected the avodah of the Beis Hamikdash - hisrashlu b'avodah. So middah k'negged middah, the Greeks abolished the korban tamid and the lighting of the menorah in the Beis Hamikdash. And later, they issued decrees against other mitzvos as well. (see Shem M'Shmuel, Chanuka and Parshas Mikeitz, who elaborates on the idea of the Bach).

When Klal Yisrael observes mitzvos with dedication and love - when they connect with the Name of Hashem - they are respected and admired by all. But when they become disinterested and apathetic in their observance of mitzvos - when they experience a hisrashlus b'avodah - then they are ridiculed and persecuted. This Chanukah, let us rededicate ourselves to the avodah of talmud Torah and shmiras hamitzvos. Let us strengthen our relationship with the Ribbono Shel Olam and reap the benefits of that connection.

More divrei Torah from Rabbi Koenigsberg

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