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Fascinating Facts in Our Jewish History

November 15-16, Parsha Vayeira

November 1942

The Second World War began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and ended with the surrender of Japan in August 1945. In fact, the Allied forces defeated the Axis powers in November 1942. In this fateful month, spanning the globe, were fought the greatest battles of WW2 and perhaps of all history.

On November 8th, the United States, in the first engagement of WWII against the Germans, launched Operation Torch. Troops under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower landed in North Africa and captured Morocco and Tunisia from the French Vichy forces. This operation forced Germany to open a new front, and distracted support from the Eastern Front, for which the Soviets had been begging.

On November 11th, across North Africa, General Bernard Montgomery engaged the German troops under Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. The 2nd battle of El Alamein, involving more than 300,00 soldiers and 1,600 tanks, is known as the greatest tank battle in history. The result was that Germany was defeated and had to retreat from North Africa, ending its vision of conquering the Middle East and its oil fields, as well as annihilating the Jews of Palestine.

On November 12th
, the United States Navy engaged the Imperial Navy of Japan in the greatest naval Battle of WWII, the Battle of Guadalcanal. The battle ended on November 15th with the defeat of the Japanese Navy. The United States would go on to retake the Philippines and the Japanese were in constant retreat from that time on.

On November 19th
, the Russians launched the counteroffensive to retake Stalingrad. This Battle, perhaps the bloodiest in history, ended with nearly 2 million casualties and the total destruction of the German 6th Army. Germany, spent after investing all its resources to win Stalingrad, now had to redeploy forces from the west to protect its eastern flank making them much more vulnerable to the invasion from the west.

After the Battle of El Alamein, Winston Churchill said: "This is not the end, this is not the beginning, nor is it even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Churchill didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end.

What was the Divine plan that showered unlimited success upon the forces of evil and then suddenly turned it all around? We pray for the day when we will learn the answer to that and so many other questions.

November 8-9, Parsha Lech Lecha

Our Matriarch Rachel passed away on this day 11 Cheshvan which is her Yahrtzeit. 

When Avram got in trouble with the local authorities for preaching monotheism, Terach took him and his brother Nachor and immigrated to Charan in southeastern Turkey.  Avram moved on to Israel, but Nachor remained in Charan. One of Nachor’s sons was Besuel and one of Besuel’s sons was Lavan. Lavan married Adina. For years they had no sons but they did have twin daughters, the older being Leah and the younger Rachel.

In the meantime Yitchok (Lavan’s first cousin once removed) also had twins. It was assumed that someday the elder of the twins, Eisav, would marry the elder of Lavan’s twins Leah, and the younger Yaacov would marry the younger Rachel. 

Yaacov had to flee the evil intentions of his brother Eisav, so he went to be with his kin in Charan. When Yaacov arrived in Charan, the twins were 15 years old. After working for Lavan for seven years, Yaacov was supposed to marry Rachel, but Lavan substituted the older twin Leah in her stead.  Rachel, sensitive to the gross embarrassment Leah would suffer if she were found out, gave Leah the signals that she and Yaacov had agreed upon. Yaacov was outraged when he found out he had been tricked but the deal was done. He subsequently married Rachel as well. At that time the girls were 22 years old.  Rachel gave birth to Yosef and was pregnant again when the family left Charan to return to Israel. 

While passing through the city of Bethlehem, Rachel went into labor. She struggled and gave birth. The midwives told her she had delivered a boy. She exclaimed: he is “ben oni” - the son of my travail, and she then expired. Yaacov named the boy Binyomin. Binyomin’s birthday is his mother's Yahrtzeit. Interestingly Binyomin died 109 years later, also on 11 Cheshvan.

 It was the end of a long hot summer and the rains had not yet come. Yaacov (as he later explains to Yosef) decided to bury Rachel right there along the road. He feared that waiting until they reached Hebron would be a desecration of her body. Yaacov’s sons each placed a large stone over the grave and Yaacov placed one on top of the others so that the grave was marked by a tower of 12 stones. When Yosef consented to his father’s request that he be buried in the cave of Machpelah when he died, Yosef suggested that his mother be reinterred in the cave of Machpelah also.

Yaacov rejected that suggestion. He explained that Rachel serves as a beacon to the children who will pass her grave on their way into exile, but will also walk along the same road upon their return. The prophet Jeremiah paints the picture of Rachel by the side of the road, longing for her exiled children to return. She cries and cries and cannot be consoled. Hashem reassures her that she serves a purpose. Her tears are not ignored. Just the opposite: in their merit her children will return to their borders. 

Some commentators suggest that prayer at the tomb of Rachel is even more powerful than prayer at the Cave of Machpela. Indeed, Rachel, in addition to her righteousness, also has tremendous merit to her credit for having saved her sister from embarrassment. It is owing to her concern about her sister’s dignity over her own, that God specifically shows Divine mercy to those who pray there. 

In the 19th century, on one of his visits to the Holy Land, the philanthropist Moses Montefiore had a building erected over Rachel’s tomb to protect it from Arab vandals. Today Rachel’s tomb is regularly visited by the brokenhearted, who pour out their hearts at the burial site of the mother, Rachel, who longs for the return of her children.

November 1-2, Parsha Noach

Communists, Capitalists, and Chestnuts
On November 2nd, 1917 British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to one of the world’s most prominent Jews, Lord Lionel Rothschild. In it he stated that “His Majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people...”’ This document, now famously known as the Balfour declaration, was the first recognition by a world power of the right of the Jews to return to Israel. In 1922 it was adopted by the League of Nations, and continued to be a guiding principle in world politics until the establishment of the State of Israel. How did this come about?

By November 1917, WWI had reached a stalemate. British ally Russia had been nullified by the Bolshevik Revolution. The US, which had joined the war in April of 1917, still did not have troops in active combat. Everyone knew that Jews were prominent communists in the new Soviet Union and that the Jews were influential capitalists in the US. On October 31 the British defeated the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Beer Sheba, opening the way for British control of Palestine. The British hoped that by showing support to the cause of Zionism by promising their newly conquered territory to the Jews, prominent Jews in Russia and the US would pressure their governments to aggressively support the war effort. But where did this idea come from?

Chestnuts. Acetone is an essential ingredient in the production of nail polish remover - and gunpowder. Traditionally, acetone was extracted from minerals sourced primarily in Germany. When WWI broke out Britain was in a bind. Fortunately, a scientist named Chaim Weizmann developed a process to extract acetone from chestnuts. Weizmann turned his discovery over to the British Government free of charge. The grateful British gave him a prominent position in the Admiralty. Weizmann developed a close friendship with the Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George, the Minister of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, and others. Chaim Weizmann was an ardent Zionist and shared the age-old dream of Jewish return to Zion with his new friends. In 1916 David Llyod George became the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The history of the Jews is designed to show the world that there is only one G-d. It is He and He alone who controls the Communists, Capitalists - and the Chestnuts.

October 25-26, Parsha Bereishis

When the Jewish people returned to Israel from Babylon, they not only had to rebuild the devasted country, they also had to rebuild a devastated people. It was clear that there would no longer be a Davidic Monarchy and that the Jewish people would no longer reside exclusively in Israel. To adapt Judaism to these new realities, Ezra and Nechemia formed a legislative body of 120 men, including the last of the prophets as well as other prominent sages. The group was known as the Men of the Great Assembly (Knesset). Among their accomplishments:

• They canonized the Bible designating 24 books that were of Divine origin. Everything else was excluded.

• They established a text and schedule for regular daily prayer. Prior to this, prayer was a personal matter, and Divine worship occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem. The minyan and schedule of Torah readings, as well as many of the laws of prayer, date to the Men of the Great Assembly.

• They laid the basis for our unified Jewish calendar. They performed all of the necessary mathematical calculations and decided all of the ritual concerns that enabled the Jewish calendar, good to the Hebrew year 6000.

• They established the Sanhedrin High Court as the absolute authority in Israel.

• They built “fences”. The Great Assembly instituted a number of protective measures in Halacha. These are known as the fences which  safeguard us from transgressing the Torah.

The Great Assembly has no source in the Torah and was never intended to be a perpetuating body. As members died off they were not replaced. The last surviving member was the Kohen Gadol Shimon HaTzaddik. Shimon HaTzadik greeted Alexander the Great as he arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, and convinced him to spare the city. On 29 Tishrei in the year 312 BCE Shimon Hatzadik died and the Great Assembly officially


October 18-19, Parsha Sukkos

The sixth day of Succos is called Hoshanah Rabbah.  Hoshanah Rabbah is considered the final day of Judgement in the High Holidays. On Hoshanah Rabbah, Judgement is traditionally decreed for the nations of the world. On Hoshanah Rabbah 5707, October 1, 1946, this was certainly the case. On that day 10 of the twelve henchmen of Hitler, may his name be erased, were hung after being convicted by the War Crimes tribunal in Nurenberg.

Years later, Rabbi Michoel Weissmandel, himself a Holocaust survivor, noticed an amazing “hidden” prophesy. When discussing the hanging of the twelve sons of Haman, their names are written in large font, yet by tradition three letters are always written in small font. Those three letters have a numerical value of 707. Another letter, the letter vav, is written particularly large.

After the hanging, the King grants Esther a wish. Esther requests that the King do again as he had done today, and hang the sons of Haman. Rabbi Weismandel speculates that Esther was speaking prophetically when she predicted that the ten sons of Haman would be hung again. When would that be? Rabbi Weismandel suggests that that would be in the year 707. Which 707? The sixth 707 or the year 5707. On October 1, 1946, the year 5707 was barely three weeks old, and when the Day of Judgement for the nations came around, the 10 sons of Haman were hung. Not executed by firing squad or electric chair  - but by hanging. Not the 12 who had been convicted, Goering committed suicide the night before and Martin Bormann was never captured, but was tried in absentia. (His remains were discovered and identified in 1973). If the world did not notice the connection, one of the condemned pronounced it loud and clear for the world to hear. The New York Herald reports that as the execution hood was placed over his head, Julius Streicher called out “Purim fest 1946”.

Every day of Succos we circle the bimah with our lulav and esrog one time.  On Hoshanah Rabbah we circle the bimah seven times, offering thanks to Hashem and imploring Him to Hosha Nah  - Save us please!

October 11-12, Parsha Ha'azinu

In 1354, on the eve of Succos, Casimir the Great of Poland renewed the Charter of Boleslav. I bet you didn’t have that day circled on your calendar. However, if you are a Jew of Eastern European ancestry, you should think again. At that time Ashkenazic Jews lived in Western Europe, but the situation for Jews in Western Europe was horrible. Expulsions and persecution were common in Germany, France and England. Talmud burnings, pressure to adopt Christianity and all types of accusations against the Jews made their life untenable. At that same time, Casimir came to power in Poland. He ascended the throne of a nation small in population, but vast in land and resources. His challenge was to develop it. The idea he hit upon was to grant the Jews freedom of residence throughout his empire. The offer of religious freedom and economic opportunity against the backdrop persecution in the West began to lure Jews eastward. Casimir knew that the Jews were industrious and well educated. He began to issue liquor, lumber and all sorts of licenses to the Jews. The Jews also became ‘arrendars’ which is essentially tax collectors. Soon the center of world Jewry shifted to eastern Europe and the Polish empire. The Jews built roads and a network of taverns along those roads. These taverns grew into towns. With the blessing of the Kings, the Jews also developed autonomous communities centered around their shuls and Torah learning. The educational and social service organizations that became standard throughout the Polish empire are well documented. This was the golden era in Poland. 

This Golden Era lasted 300 years until 1656 when Bogdan Chmielnitzky led a Cossack revolt against Poland and particularly their Jewish proxies. Soon Poland was involved in a series of wars, ceding territory each time. As other Kings grabbed territory from the Poles, the Jews in those areas came under new rules, none of whom were as benevolent as Casimir and his successors. Eventually, Poland ceased to exist as an independent kingdom. However, the Golden Era of Poland left us with a wealth of Torah scholarship and created the cultural identity of the Eastern European Jews. And it all began with the Charter of Boleslav on 14 Tishrei 1354

October 4-5, Parsha Veyeilech

10 Tishrei 2048 - 1714 B.C.E.
Bris milah of Avraham Avinu at age 99, and his son Yishmael at age 13, took place.

10 Tishrei 1677- 1556 B.C.E.
Birth of Rivkah / Rebecca (1677-1556 BCE), wife of Isaac, mother of Jacob and Esau, and one of the Four Matriarchs of Israel

10 Tishrei 2450 - 1312 B.C.E.
Moshe Rabbeinu descended from Mount Sinai with the Second Tablets. 82 days after the people of Israel betrayed their newly entered covenant with Hashem by worshipping the Golden Calf and after Moshe twice spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai pleading on their behalf, Hashem restored His goodwill with the Jewish people gladly and wholeheartedly, saying to Moshe 'I have forgiven, as you ask', and gave him the Second Tablets" -- thereby establishing the day as a time for atonement, forgiveness and teshuvah for all generations

10 Tishrei 2913 - 1848 B.C.E.
Hashem forgave King David over the incident with Batsheva.

10 Tishrei 3087 - 674 B.C.E.
King Yoash assumed the throne at age seven. Yoash was raised under the tutelage of the prophet Yehoyada who guided him righteously. After Yehoyada’s death, Yoash fell prey to the idolatrous influences of his time. He even allowed himself to be worshipped. At that time the Kohen Gadol was the prophet Zachariah. Zachariah decided to speak out against the people, admonishing them for abandoning the way of Hashem. Zechariah chose to admonish the people in the Temple on Yom Kippur, which was on Shabbos that year. Yoash incited the crowd to protest Zechariah’s admonition and to stone Zechariah. Zechariah fell dead on the floor of the Bais Hamikdash and his blood spewed forth. Miraculously his spilled blood boiled and bubbled on the grounds of the Beit HaMikdash. They tried to wipe it up and wash it away, but the blood couldn’t be removed, and it continued to boil, serving as an ever present reminder of the heinous crime. This situation continued for 252 years until the 1st Bais Hamikdash was destroyed.

10 Tishrei 3353 - 208 B.C.E.
The prophet Ezekiel saw a vision in the 25th year of the exile describing the appearance of the future (third) Beit HaMikdash (chapters 47- 48) and the future expanded borders of Eretz Yisroel.

As Hashem has forgiven us by giving us the second tablets, and as He forgave King David, so may He forgive us all this year. May we soon see the vision of Ezekiel realized with the building of the 3rd Temple.

September 27-28 Parsha Nitzavim

Tishrei 1 has quite an outstanding Biblical history, aside from being the birthday of mankind.

In the year 1658 after creation, on the first day of Tishrei, Noach removed the cover of the ark and saw that the land was exposed.

In the year 1958 from creation, on the first day of Tishrei, our matriarch Sarah was born.

In the year 2048, on the first day of Tishrei, at age 90, Sarah became pregnant for the first time.

In the year 2086, on the first day of Tishrei, Sarah's son Yitzchok was bound on the Akeida.

On that very same day, Sarah passed away, completing 127 full years of life. It has been explained that just as Isaac and Abraham achieved their completion through the Akeida, so too did Sarah, and she left the world.

On the first day of Tishrei, after many years of barrenness, our matriarch Rachel became pregnant.

Many centuries later, on the first of Tishrei, Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel, also became
pregnant after years of barrenness.

In the year 2172 after creation, on the first day of Tishrei, Isaac blessed Jacob - and Eisav was outraged.

In the year 2230, on the first day of Tishrei, Jacob’s son Joseph was pulled from the dungeon and brought before Pharaoh.

In the year 2448 from creation, on the first day of Tishrei, the Israelites in Egypt were told they no longer needed to report for work.

There is a theme running through all the 1 Tishrei events.  Something great happens, but it is not actualized until later.  Noach first sees the earth - but it is not yet dry. Sarah is born - but must grow up. The matriarchs become pregnant - but they still have to give birth. Jacob receives the blessings - but it is a long time before they are realized. Joseph is pulled out of the dungeon - but will not realize his dreams for many months. The Israelites are released from work - but not from Egypt.

The first day of Tishrei is important because it initiates all of these life-changing events.  On Rosh Hashanah we pray to be inscribed for good things. These good things may not become apparent to us for months or even years, but from the time that we are inscribed, the event is initiated. We leave shul on Rosh Hashanah with the confidence that good things have been initiated, which infuses us with the pleasant anticipation of good things to come.

September 20-21 Parsha Ki Savo

We are all somewhat familiar with the story of David and Bathsheva. David's army is away at war. One of his generals, Uriah, has left behind his wife Bathsheva. One evening David is walking on the roof of his palace when he spies Bathsheva bathing. He is smitten with her. To cover up for his actions, David calls Uriah home from the battlefield and commands him to return to his wife. Uriah refuses saying, I can’t go home to my wife while my troops are sleeping on the ground. To punish Uriah’s insubordination, David contrives to have Uriah killed in battle.

If it happened today this story would dominate the news for months; lust, murder, coverups - it’s got it all. Yet the Talmud says, anyone who says that King David sinned is mistaken. How can the Talmud make this declaration when the entire sordid episode is recorded in the Book of Samuel?

There are many important insights into this story, but the most important one is how King David reacted when the prophet confronted him with his misdeed. He didn’t deny or make excuses. As soon as he grasped the message of the prophet, he admitted what he’d done, and repented intensely, seriously, and wholeheartedly.

As a matter of fact, King David is credited with introducing repentance to the world. Once someone has sincerely repented, it is forbidden for anyone else to call that person a sinner. Sincere repentance can transform sins into mitzvos. The sin distanced the sinner from Hashem. Sincere repentance can bring the person closer to Hashem than ever before. He is no longer a sinner. He is a tzaddik. The Talmud teaches that if one sees a righteous person sinning at night, don’t disparage him in the morning as perhaps he has already repented. This is certainly the case with King David.

There are two takeaways from this story. One lesson is to give others credit that they have repented their misdeeds and are no longer sinners. The other lesson is to give ourselves credit, and to know that if we repent, we can also no longer be sinners but tzadikim.

When the mourning period for Uriah was complete, King David and Bathsheva were wed on the 24th day of Elul. Their union produced a son Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. Anyone who says King David sinned is mistaken. He didn’t sin - he inspired.

September 13-14 Parsha Ki Seitzei

Rav Yehuda (ben Betzalel) Loew was known as the Maharal, which is an acronym for “Our Teacher the Rabbi Loew”. (1525-1609). Born in Posen, Poland, on the night of the Pesach Seder, to a distinguished family of rabbis that traced its ancestry to King David, he was the youngest of
four brothers.

The Maharal married at the age of 32 to Pearl. He had six girls and one boy who was named after the Maharal's father, Betzalel. In 1553 he was elected rabbi of Nikolsburg and the Province of Moravia, where he remained for the next 20 years. In 1573 he moved to Prague, where he opened a yeshiva. In 1592 the Maharal accepted the position of rabbi in Posen, returning to Prague in 1598 to serve as its chief rabbi. The Maharal castigated the educational methods of his day, where boys were taught at a very young age, and insisted that children must be taught in accordance with their intellectual maturity.

He was a prolific writer, and his works include: Tiferes Yisrael on the greatness of Torah and mitzvos; Nesivos Olam, on ethics; Be'er Hagolah, a commentary on rabbinic sayings; Netzach Yisrael, on exile and redemption; Or Chadash, on the book of Esther; Ner Mitzvah, on Chanukah; Gevuros Hashem, on the Exodus; and many others. Rav Kook stated that the "Maharal was the father of the approach of the Gaon of Vilna on the one hand, and of the father of Chassidus, on the other hand."

He has been described as a Kabbalist who wrote in philosophic garb. The philosophy of the Maharal is the underpinning of most contemporary expressions of a Torah worldview. His writings on the Aggados or “story “portions of the Talmud have opened our eyes to see the depth of insight of Chazal, the Sages of the Talmud. During the period of the Maharal's rabbinate, Prague was a center of art and science in Europe.

The Maharal was fully conversant with the scientific knowledge of his time as well as friendly with some of the contemporary eminent scientists. His disciple, Dovid Ganz, worked in the observatory of Tycho Brahe, the distinguished astronomer and he maintained a relationship with Johannes Kepler.

The Maharal was also deeply involved in the welfare of his community and was beloved by Jews and non-Jews alike. He maintained a strong relationship with the Hapsburg kings. In 1609, Rudolf II (a devout Catholic), issued an "Imperial Charter of the Emperor" in which he legalized
extensive religious freedoms unparalleled in the Europe of that period. The Yahrtzeit of the Maharal is 18 Elul.

September 6-7 Parsha Shoftim

In the run-up to the declaration of the State, the Jews in Palestine opposing the British were divided. Many supported the Jewish Agency led by David Ben Gurion, and its military wing, the Haganah. Others were called Revisionists and their military arm was the Irgun. Menachem Begin was one of their leaders.

The Jewish Agency endeavored to create the State of Israel by political means. The Haganah was primarily a defense organization. The  Revisionists advocated military means to oust the British. A third group, called Lehi, splintered off from the Irgun. Lehi tended towards even more radical acts. The Stern gang, as the British called Lehi, was headed by a triumvirate, one of whom was Yitzchak Shamir who later became Prime minister of Israel.

After Israel's independence, the Haganah became the Israel Defense Forces; however, Irgun and Lehi continued to function independently. In 1948 the UN sent Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte to Israel to broker a peace settlement between the Arabs and the Jews. Bernadotte advocated “the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homes in Jewish-controlled territory...” and placing Jerusalem under Arab control.

Fearing that the Israeli leadership would agree to Bernadotte's peace proposals, which they considered disastrous, Lehi decided to take action. On the 13th of Elul 1948, as Bernadotte’s motorcade was driving through Jerusalem, they were stopped by an Israeli Army Jeep. Soldiers got out, walked over to Bernadotte's car, shot him and his assistant to death and sped off. The assassins did not know that the Israeli leaders had already decided to reject Bernadotte's plans and were prepared to take military action. International outrage and condemnation of Israel
ensued. The Ben Gurion government pledged to punish the assassins, but they were never found. In the end, Bernadotte's proposals were rejected by the UN.

The Government used the episode to invigorate their efforts to stomp out renegade groups and consolidate all military functions in Israel into the IDF. Within months, the Irgun and Lehi ceased to exist. As far as the Count himself he has a mixed reputation. He is noted for his negotiation of the release of about 15,000 prisoners from German concentration camps during World War II. After the war, he led efforts to bring Holocaust survivors to Sweden for rehabilitation. Count Folke Bernadotte is remembered by many Jews as a hero. To others, he was a
wicked enemy of the Jewish people who tried to snuff out the State in its infancy. History is complicated.

Tue, November 19 2019 21 Cheshvan 5780