In Times of War, the Power of Presence

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by R. Eliezer Simcha Weisz

In Times of War, the Power of Presence:  A Lesson for Today from Hagaon  Rav Chaim Shmulevitz on Parshas Vayechi

During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Israel faced a formidable military threat, endangering its very survival against a coalition of Arab states. On Erev Succos, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz delivered a Mussar Shmuess at Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim, raising a question pertinent to that week’s parsha, Vayechi. He illuminated the difference between conceptual knowledge of tragic war events, versus personally witnessing the impact.

The Torah recounts Yaakov’s explanation to Yosef before his death, expressing regret for not burying Rochel in Me’oras Hamachpeila. Instead, he chose to lay her to rest by the side of the road outside Beis Lechem. Rashi quotes the Pesikta that explains that Yaakov, foreseeing the future destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the ensuing exile of the Jewish people, strategically placed Rochel’s burial site by the road by Divine Word. This location symbolized a point where Jews, on their way to exile, would pass by Rochel Imeinu. Her burial by the side of this road allowed her to witness her children’s suffering and beseech Hashem for their return to Eretz Yisroel

ואני בבאי מפדן מתה עלי רחל בארץ כנען בדרך בעוד כברת ארץ לבא אפרתה ואקברה שם בדרך אפרת הוא בית לחם (בראשית מח ז).

And as for me, when I came from Paddan, Racĥel died by me in the land of Kenaan on the way, when yet there was but a little way to come to Efrat: and I buried her there in the way of Efrat; that is Bet-leĥem.

רש”י: 

ולא תאמר שעכבו עלי גשמים מלהוליכה ולקברה בחברון… ולא הולכתיה אפילו לבית לחם להכניסה לארץ, וידעתי שיש בלבך עלי, אבל דע לך שעל פי הדבור קברתיה שם שתהא לעזרה לבניה כשיגלה אותם נבוזראדן, והיו עוברים דרך שם, יצאת רחל על קברה ובוכה ומבקשת עליהם רחמים, שנאמר “קול ברמה נשמע רחל מבכה על בניה וגו'” (ירמיה לא יד), והקב”ה משיבה “יש שכר לפעולתך נאם ה’ ושבו בנים לגבולם” (ירמיה לא טו).

I buried her there. “And I did not carry her even to Beis Lechem in order to bring her to a [settled] land, and I know that you have resentment toward me. But, know that it was by the word [of Hashem] that I buried her there so that she might help her descendants when Nevuzaradon would send them into exile and when they would pass by way [of her grave] Rochel would emerge from her grave and cry and beseech mercy [from Hashem] for them, as it is said: “A voice is heard in Ramah, Rochel is weeping for her children, etc.” And Hashem answers her: “‘There is reward for your toil,’ says Hashem, ‘for your children will return to their border).’” (Rashi) 

Rav Chaim delved further into the question why Rochel needed to be buried in close proximity to where her descendants would pass on their way to Golus. Wouldn’t she be aware of their suffering regardless of her burial location? The answer lies in the profound difference between merely knowing about an event from a distance and witnessing it firsthand. This principle is that the Neshamos interact with events, mirroring how people react to experiences.

The power of Tefillah required the impact of Rochel’s proximity to her children’s distress.

In the age of instant media, we promptly hear about events like the war in Eretz Yisroel. However, being in close proximity, seeing the images, and meeting those affected intensify our empathy and our ability to relate to the tragedy. Rav Chaim cautioned his talmidim in Yeshivas Mir who wished to return to the USA, stating that they couldn’t pray with the same kavvanah in the USA as in Yerushalayim, where the war occurred. In the same

The effectiveness and emotional intensity of Tefillah depends on directly experiencing the pain that is the reason for those Tefillos. Just as Rochel Imeinu pleaded for her children’s redemption when she witnessed their suffering up close, so too our own prayers for others carry more power when we witness directly their distress through firsthand encounter.

Hearing about a war and seeing images is one thing, but meeting those affected and hearing firsthand from a wife and mother of children who has sleepless nights night after night because her husband and/or sons are risking their lives and because of the husbands absence their source of Parnossoh is collapsing is something entirely different. Visiting a shiva house or hospital and seeing the injured and their families transforms the experience, making it more tangible and stirring deeper emotions.

A fundamental concept emerges from this discussion—the impact of witnessing an event firsthand versus hearing about it from a distance. The emotional depth and connection created by directly observing a situation differ significantly from knowing about it remotely. This principle is demonstrated by the Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick). Witnessing suffering directly influences the depth of our Tefillos for others. Even though it might be uncomfortable, experiencing the difficulty and seeing the tragedy ourselves connects us more profoundly to those in need.

The same principle applies to Torah learning. The Chazal teach us that a crucial aspect of learning comes from direct interaction with one’s Rebbi. Hillel’s incident on the rooftop, enduring the freezing snow to see and hear Shmaya and Avtalyon teach Torah through a skylight, illustrates this point (Yoma 35b). Hillel prioritized the additional dimension of personally witnessing and hearing the words of Torah over more comfortable alternatives.

When something holds importance, we shouldn’t merely rely on hearing or knowing about it; instead, we should strive to deepen our understanding by actively witnessing and participating. This principle applies whether our aim is to genuinely empathize and pray for others or to maximize the benefits of our Torah learning. In both cases, the adage holds true: it’s always better to come and see for yourself.

In conclusion, the wisdom shared by Rav Chaim Shmulevitz during that poignant moment in Yerushalayim resonates deeply. While we can extend help, support, and heartfelt prayers of our fellow Jews around the world, there remains an unparalleled essence in physically being present, studying, and davening in the Eretz Hakodesh. Rochel Imeinu’s burial teaches us that there is irreplaceable power in showing up – in being physically present during our fellow Jews’ times of suffering.

In essence, with all the global efforts, there is an irreplaceable power in the words: “It’s always better to come and see for yourself.” 

Beruchim Haboim

About Eliezer Simcha Weisz

Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz is a member of The Chief Rabbinate Council of Israel

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