This two-part letter in our series on Zion is dedicated to the memory of my beloved first rebbe, Rabbi Gavriel Beer (Gavriel Yitzchak Mordechai ben Tzvi Aryeh), who recently passed away. He served as the rabbi of our local synagogue in Rockaway Beach, New York, and as the principal of the synagogue’s afternoon Hebrew school where I studied. He was also an activist in Agudath Israel of America. He was an activist who loved shalom and loved people – two special traits which we shall discuss in this letter about Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the Rav of Old Jerusalem.
When I studied with Rabbi Beer in the synagogue’s Hebrew school, I began to develop a love for Torah, and through this spiritual love, I developed a deeper bond with our people and our sacred land. Rabbi Beer then persuaded my parents to take me out of public school and enroll me, at age 10, at a Torah-committed day school in Far Rockaway, New York.
Rabbi Beer and his family moved to Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem after the Six Day War in June, 1967. When I moved to Bayit Vegan in 1989, I reconnected with Rabbi Beer and his family, and I was often a guest in their home for Shabbos and the Festivals. He and his wife, Rebbitzen Chaya Beer, may she live and be well, later moved to Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem.
Rabbi Beer brought me to Torah, and King Solomon refers to Torah as, “a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). There are therefore no words which can adequately express the gratitude I owe him for giving life to my soul.
The Prophet Micah conveyed to us the following Divine reminder about the early period of our history: “For I brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage; and I sent Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam before you” (Micah 6:4). After we left Egypt, Hashem appointed Aharon as our first “Kohen Gadol” – High Priest. The following is a famous teaching from the Mishnah which refers to the unifying role of Aharon:
“Hillel says: Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving shalom and pursuing shalom, loving people, and bringing them closer to the Torah.” (Mishnah Nezikin, Pirkei Avos 1:12)
The first teaching of Hillel is: “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving shalom and pursuing shalom.” When Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld passed away in 1932, a prominent government official respectfully referred to this teaching of Hillel in his letter about Rav Yosef Chaim. The official was Norman Bentwich, a Jew who served as Attorney General for the British administration in Zion, and who identified with the modern Zionist movement. In a letter of condolence to the chareidi organization, Agudath Israel, Bentwich wrote:
“Together with all who knew him, I was deeply pained to learn of the passing of the great Rav Sonnenfeld. In all our dealings, I recognized that he was the tzaddik of his generation, a lover and pursuer of shalom. Even though we did not always agree, I realized that his intent was for the sake of Heaven.”
It is a great compliment to Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld that Norman Bentwich, who was often in conflict with this sage, referred to him as, “a lover and pursuer of shalom.” As we shall discuss in upcoming letters, Rav Yosef Chaim was a strong defender of our spiritual heritage, and he therefore opposed ideologies and organizations that sought to secularize our people and thereby cause us to forget our spiritual raison d’etre as the People of the Torah. He was also, however, a seeker of shalom. He sought shalom in his own community, with other Jewish communities, and with the Arabs, without “compromising” on any of the sacred principles of the Torah; moreover, it was the sacred principles of the Torah that guided his efforts to achieve shalom.
“Pursuing Shalom” – All good people want shalom in the world, but the wise ones recognize that the striving for shalom begins in one’s own community. In this spirit, Rav Yosef Chaim strived to achieve shalom in the community that he led. For example, whenever he heard of an altercation between two friends or between a man and his wife, he would not rest until he had resolved the matter, and he began by going to the homes of those who were quarreling.
With regard to an altercation between friends, Rav Yosef Chaim would visit each of them separately at night. Rapidly cutting through to the heart of the problem, he would convince one party to compromise and make concessions. Leaving the first party humbled by the Rav’s selfless concern for others, Rav Yosef Chaim would then hurry to the home of the second party. After opening the door for Rav Yosef Chaim, the second party would feel guilty that he caused the elderly Rav to visit him late at night, and he would make profuse apologies for causing so much trouble to the Rav. Shamed and contrite, he would then readily accept Rav Yosef Chaim’s terms for reconciliation.
Rav Yosef Chaim was asked by his family why he doesn’t invite the feuding parties to his home. They also asked if it was fitting for the Rav of Jerusalem to go knocking on people’s doors. Rav Yosef Chaim offered the following response:
First of all, he did not consider himself greater than Aharon HaKohen who went from tent to tent in order to reconcile marital disputes. Secondly, he knows his flock very well. If he were to summon them to come to him, they would find excuses to postpone the meeting. This postponement would be critical, as the Talmud likens strife to an inroad made by a stream of water; once made, it widens further and further. And he added the following point:
One cannot compare the effect of his going to their door to a meeting in his room. There is a great psychological impact to their opening the door to find that he considers this problem serious enough to come to their home. They would therefore be more willing to listen to his counsel and make greater efforts to achieve shalom.
The Hebrew term “shalom” is usually translated as “peace” – a word which refers to the absence of conflict, as well as the state of calmness which results from the absence of conflict. This translation, however, does not convey the full meaning of the term “shalom” which is related to the Hebrew term “shalem” – whole. Shalom is not just the absence of conflict among diverse forces; shalom is also the harmonious unity of these diverse forces which leads to a state of wholeness. This insight can give us a deeper understanding of the following teaching from the Talmud (Megilla 18a):
“The blessing of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is shalom, as it is said, ‘Hashem will bless His people with shalom” (Psalm 29:11).
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Teaching and Comment:
The above information about Rav Yosef Chaim is found in the book, “The Guardian of Jerusalem” – the Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The author is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld, a noted Torah scholar and writer who is a great-grandson of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. The original Hebrew edition is titled, HaIsh Al Hachomah.
“The Guardian of Jerusalem” is a very moving and inspiring biography. In addition, it is an informative history book which enables us to understand the roots of the current conflicts in the Land of Israel. This book also gives us a deeper understanding of the spiritual and universal role of the People of Israel in the Land of Israel. For further information, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH