Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Tazria-Metzora 5770/ April 17, 2010

Israel Independence Day

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

The Vilna Gaon and his Vision of Redemption

 

Rabbi Samuel Yaniv 

 

Givat Shmuel

 

In order to illuminate the beginning of the blossoming of our Redemption, G-d bestowed upon the world a wonderful soul, beloved of the people, who was accorded the unusual title of Gaon (= genius) – the Vilna Gaon (Elijah ben Solomon Zalman Kramer, 1720-1797).  He was a man of genius – a talented researcher and scientist, a genius in Talmud and the world of Halakhah, knowledgeable in mysticism, and outstanding in piety.  But above all, he was outstanding in his yearning for Redemption and in the practical measures which he took to set the process of Redemption in motion.   He encouraged his disciples to take responsibility for returning to Zion and revealed to them the occult processes of Redemption, as well as the dates of Redemption – “Indeed, my Lord G-d does nothing without having revealed His purpose to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7) -- so that they know that the Lord caused it and take it as a sign, strengthening us on our road to Redemption despite the enormous obstacles along the way.  Had it not been for the Vilna Gaon, it would have been inconceivable for the third return to Zion to succeed, [1] for the most basic principle concerning the right to the land of Israel is that the land is acquired only through great travail; and only the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, drawing strength from their rabbi, could raise this awesome expedition, especially in the first thirty years, from 1810 to 1840, which were years of great hardship.

In the remarks that follow, written in honor of Israel Independence Day, we shall focus on the Vilna Gaon’s vision about dating the Redemption and attempt to understand some of its hidden significance; for the Sages said, “the day is the determining factor.”   For example, the Jewish New Year was set as the Day of Judgment on the assumption that Adam was created on that day.   Thus one should proceed and investigate how this principle is fulfilled for all the Jewish holidays.   We illustrate this rule below, using the date of Israel Independence Day, for “words are an omen” (Horayot 12a).

Several sources, written many years before the establishment of the State of Israel, reveal that the Vilna Gaon’s disciples were instructed by their rabbi to perform the actions that were important in laying the corner-stone for Redemption precisely on the 20th day of the omer, since on that day the “outer shells” have no dominion. [2]   Therefore the Vilna Gaon’s disciples established Beit Midrash Eliyahu, named after their rabbi, on the 20th day of the omer, 1812.   This was an act of supreme importance to them, in view of which we shall cite several primary sources.

Kol ha-Tor, a book attributed to the Vilna Gaon’s disciple, R. Hillel of Shklov, who graced Jerusalem for some thirty years, writes (chapter 5, p. 114):

When we established our residence in the holy city of Jerusalem in 1812, enlightenment came to us one day in the same year that the cornerstone was laid for Beit Midrash Eliyahu, named after our rabbi, the Vilna Gaon; for at that moment the first aperture opened in the iron partition, allowing access to the merit of our ancestors’ covenant (combining the sephirot of Foundation and Glory [Mercy] through Kingdom) which had been blocked since the destruction of the Temple.  That day was the 20th of the omer, which as mystics know, is the day of Foundation in Glory [Mercy].

Midrash Shlomo (sermon 6, p. 53), an anthology of sermons by R. Solomon Zalman Rivlin, says:

Thus the days during which we count the omer are the best suited for rising to higher levels of sanctity, but on the other had they are more susceptible to infection by the “shells,” for it is a well-known principle that whatever is more sacred in time or place, in all manner of sanctity, is more likely to be harmed by the sitra ahra (the “other side,” forces of evil), which derives its vitality solely from holiness.  For this reason one must take extra precaution during the omer not to come into contact with bad company and to avoid danger, save for two specific days during the omer on which the “shells” have no dominion, and these days are the 20th of the omer and the 42nd day of the omer, as those who are expert in mysticism know.  (These two days lie along the line of Mercy – the 20th of the omer, being Beauty and Foundation, and the 42nd of the omer, being Kingship and Foundation; the 42nd of the omer deserves greater attention, for this is Jerusalem Reunification Day and is remarkable in other ways, too, but this is not the place to go into further detail).

According to Mosad ha- Yesod (a book ascribed to the Rivlin family, Jerusalem 1999, p. 184), it turns out that the cornerstone of Nahalat Shiv`ah, the first neighborhood established in Jerusalem beyond the walls of the Old City, was laid on the 20th day of the omer, in the year 1869 (whose acronym means “the undertaking will succeed”).

Rabbi Samuel Rivlin, grandson of the author of Midrash Shlomo, elucidated the significance of the 20th day of the omer in the light of Kol ha-Tor, chapter 3.  There the Vilna Gaon reveals 156 steps to Redemption, saying of the 17th step:  “The House of Jacob shall be fire and the House of Joseph flame” (Obad. 1:18).  As we know, Jacob succeeded in overcoming Esau and his emissary only when Joseph was with him, protecting his mother.   Jacob’s place is in the sephirah of Beauty, which includes Abraham’s Kindness and Isaac’s Severity; Joseph’s place is in the sephirah of Foundation, which includes Victory, Splendor and Kingship.  It has the advantage of having no light of its own and deriving its strength by drawing on all six.  It turns out that on the 20th day of the omer inclusiveness acts on all the sephirot, bringing them together to the highest level.   Chapter 5 of Kol ha-Tor lists 7 basic repairs necessary to qualify for Redemption, the third one being inclusiveness, meaning purification from selfish inclinations and connecting to the community of Israel, for “the individual has only what the community has; all of Israel is responsible for one another, as a single soul.”

Indeed, that is how the disciples of the Vilna Gaon behaved, joyfully uprooting themselves from their homes in Exile, giving up their status, their livelihood, their secure existence, and even their study of Torah – for the numerous hardships of life in the land of Israel hardly left them time to study.   Despite the dangers and hardships, which took many lives, not a single one of the 511 souls who immigrated to the land of Israel abandoned the path to Redemption outlined by their rabbi, for their rabbi had taught them that the land of Israel is obtained through suffering.  Therefore they succeeded in bringing more and more Jews to the land of Israel, in establishing settlements, and performing other good deeds too numerous to recount here.  It was not until after the First World War that grandchildren of the Vilna Gaon’s disciples abandoned the holy path of inclusiveness and of giving all for generality of Israel, as charted by their rabbi, and began to care for themselves; and therefore "the right of the first-born" was taken from them and given to those who had given up their own interests for the redemption of the land.

Another general principle of the Vilna Gaon, set fourth in Ma`aseh Roke’ah (p. 138), by Rabbi Eleazar Rokach (head of the Rabbinical Court in Amsterdam, year unknown), teaches that numbers have significance in the order of verses in the Torah.  For example, the world shalom is first mentioned in verse 376, counting from the beginning of the Torah:   “You shall go to your fathers in peace [shalom]” (Gen. 15:15), and the numerical value of this word is actually 376.

As for the third return to Zion, verse 5,700 reads, “So the Lord was incensed at that land and brought upon it all the curses recorded in this book” (Deut. 29:26).  Indeed, the Hebrew year 5,700 (1940) marked the beginning of the Holocaust.   The Vilna Gaon, divinely inspired, said that before Redemption comes there will be dreadful destruction in the Diaspora, and noted the verse, “But on Zion’s mount a remnant shall survive, and it shall be holy” (Obad. 1:17).   This verse was cited by Rabbi Kahaneman, head of the Ponivezh Yeshivah, in the name of the Hafetz Hayyim (who, in turn, quoted the Vilna Gaon), and was used to explain the miracle of Rommel’s advance towards the land of Israel being halted at El Alamein.  This verse appears on the façade of the Ponivezh Yeshivah.

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us, “Even though your ancestors were redeemed, they became enslaved again; but once you shall be redeemed, you shall never again be enslaved” (Shevi`it 6.1), citing as proof the verse from Deuteronomy (30:5):   “And the Lord your G-d will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed and you shall possess it.”   This is the 5,708th verse of the Torah, and in the year 5,708 (1948) the state of Israel was established and the Law of Return enacted, of which law the Sages’ saying can be applied: “The day of ingathering of exiles is as great as the day heaven and earth were created.”         



[1] The Vilna Gaon sought to immigrate to the land of Israel to hasten the process of Redemption, but was stalled along the way.  He devoted the last eighteen years of his life entirely to Redemption.  The Inquiring mystically whether his way would succeed, and how, the following two verses were revealed to him: “It is a time of trouble for Jacob, but he shall be delivered from it” (Jer. 30:7), and “But you, have no fear, My servant Jacob” (Jer. 30:10).   Therefore, he instructed his disciples and encouraged them to immigrate to the land of Israel and redeem the land.

[2] For further intimations regarding the way to Redemption, see Rav Kook, “Hesped bi-Yerushalayim,” June 1904, and Samuel Yaniv, Divrei Hakhamim u-Tzefunoteihem, Part II, , Givat Shmuel, 2000, pp. 383-389.