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Eyes Wide Open

By: Rabbi Hanoch Teller

“B’cha yivareich Yisrael…”(Bereishis 49:20)

Yaakov’s famous and poignant blessing of Efraim and Menashe has become the classic paradigm by which parents bless their sons. Many have questioned why we have so fastidiously adopted the formula of blessing our sons to emulate Efraim and Menashe when Tana”ch and Jewish history are filled with so many other exceedingly righteous and pious individuals?

There are numerous answers to this query, but the most fundamental seems to be the unique circumstances of Efraim’s and Menashe’s lives. They were raised in a thoroughly non-Jewish environment yet remained steadfast in their observance and commitment. The tenacity to uphold that which is sacred — under all circumstances — is a most worthy blessing to bestow upon our children.

There is yet a different difficulty in the above verse that has not been awarded much attention. The Torah begins by describing Yaakov blessing Yosef, “B’cha yivareich es Yisrael And in you shall Israel bless…” Although Yaakov is talking and assumedly blessing Yosef, nonetheless, the blessing turns out to be directed to Yosef’s sons Efraim and Menashe and not to their father!

The famous Ponevizher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, points out this difficulty and the very question and his astute answer fit wonderfully into the inspiring persona that he was. It was Rabbi Kahaneman who had single-handedly built a relatively unknown Lithuanian city into one of the greatest Torah citadels before World War II. He opened a pre-school, yeshivah ketanah, a religious high school for girls, a kollel, a top-flight hospital and greatly strengthened the existing yeshivah. They used to quip in Ponevizh that it does not pay to pave the roads for the Ponevizher Rav will come and build a new building which will require asphalting the streets all over again.

One person labeled his accomplishments in that town as the creation of a malchus fun kinder — an empire of children. He deeply loved the children that he educated and every one of the 1000 youngsters enrolled in the Ponevizh network of Torah schools was intimately acquainted with their Rabbi.

Tragically, all of his tireless work was erased by the Nazi monsters. Each and every one of the schools and virtually all of the pupils including his own wife and children were murdered by the Germans and their iniquitous cohorts. Destroyed as well was his lengthy essay on shas that was stored in six cartons.

A lesser man — indeed any man — undergoing such colossal devastation could never be expected to bounce back and lead a productive life. The Ponevizher Rav, however, found solace and comfort in rebuilding Torah centers and fostering Jewish education. When he arrived in Israel during World War II he visited Bene Brak which was not much more than a desolate tundra of sand dunes. He looked up at the hill nestled in Zichron Meir and pronounced, “Here will be my yeshivah,” and forthwith went out and purchased the property.

People were reluctant to wish him mazal tov on the acquisition. It was the middle of World War II, Nazi forces were raging across Europe, and appalling reports were filtering in about atrocities and the mass murder of Jews. It did not seem to be the right time to think about, let alone build, new yeshivos. Furthermore, although no one wished to actually articulate the thought, the Nazi juggernaut seemed to be invincible, and Palestine was clearly on Hitler's cross hairs.

The feeling that prevailed in Eretz Yisrael at the time was sinking despair. All were absorbed with the catastrophic losses in Europe and concern about the Rommel’s troops racing across Africa. The Ponevizher Rav was no less consumed than anyone else, but he was even more consumed with the necessity to rebuild.

His plan was to erect a building that could accommodate at least 500 students. Indeed, as he would ascend the hill of the not-yet-built yeshivah he would declare, "I can already hear the sound of Torah that will emanate from this place!"

Nothing could have sounded more preposterous, for the youth in the country at the time were singularly focused upon finding employment. And whereas there may have been a few exceptions, they probably didn't number more than a dozen. Five hundred students sounded no less absurd than 50,000. But the Ponevizher Rav was characteristically unfazed by the critique. "Days will soon come," he predicted presciently, "when there will be millions and millions of Jews who will live in Israel. Then there will not be enough room for the students in the current yeshivos!”

The Ponevizher Rav's outrageously unrealistic pronouncements raised some eyebrows, but none of this daunted him. In a sea of skepticism and despair, the Ponevizher Rav proceeded undeterred with his plans. No one could even dampen his enthusiasm.

When the Rav detailed his ideas to the Chief Rabbi, HaRav Isaac Herzog, the scholar listened patiently, thinking, perhaps ¾ like so many others ¾ that after all this man has lost: wife, children, yeshivah, novellea on the entire Talmud, nebach, the misfortune had affected his ability to reason. Yet the Ponevizher Rav contended with perfect clarity that with the A-mighty's help he would indeed build an enormous yeshivah, and an educational infrastructure that surpassed the network that he had established in Ponevizh, Lithuania.

"You're dreaming," the Chief Rabbi said at last.

The Ponevizh Rav replied, "Yes, I am dreaming, but my eyes are open. This dream shall be fulfilled through days and nights of not sleeping!

Not long after this encounter, Reb Shneur Kotler, son of the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah, Reb Aharon, visited Bene Brak. The Ponevizher Rav took him to the desolate hill upon which the yeshivah would be erected to give him, well, a scenic tour. At the very top of the barren knoll, Rav Yosef Shlomo cupped his hand in a gesture fraught with significance, and then whispered as if he was revealing the secret of the century, "Here, from right here, the Torah will emanate."

Prodding him incessantly was the agonizing memory of the millions of martyrs who perished, including his own wife and children, the only exception being one son, Avraham.  All his life, he kept a photograph of his children in his wallet, and engraved on his heart. These were not the only kindred that he deeply mourned: only a handful of over 1,000 students from the Ponevizh educational network survived the war, and nearly all of his rabbinical colleagues from Lithuania were sacrificed together with their flocks. The most meaningful expression he found for his grief was to build, and he had no doubt that he was spared in order to fulfill the Divine guarantee ki lo tishkach mipee zaro.

He was constantly uplifting the spirits of the downtrodden and saving them from despair in his inimitable way of revealing illumination in the heart of darkness. His message was that G-d was undoubtedly with them, and they must immerse themselves in Torah study so that the nation might heal itself. Together, they would be able to fulfill the prophecy of Ovadiah that not only b'har Zion tehiye pleitah [On Mount Zion there will be refuge] but also v'haya kodesh [and it will be holy!]. This is verse is hewn in large letters on the main yeshivah building. 

This brief background helps us appreciate the cogent insight Rabbi Kahaneman had regarding Yaakov’s blessing of Yosef’s children. To the man committed to building the future, the dreamer whose eyes were always open, it was manifestly clear that the greatest blessing one can offer a father is that his children be worthy and productive. The greatest blessing for Yosef concerned his sons Efraim and Menashe.





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