As mentioned in Part 1 of this letter, the Chazon Ish opposed ideologies that were against Torah ideals; however, he was careful to distinguish between the ideologies themselves and the individual Jews who had fallen prey to them. The latter he drew close with “cords of love.”
This approach of the Chazon Ish was also the approach of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a leading sage in the Land of Zion who passed away in 1932, about a year before the Chazon Ish arrived in the Land. In this letter, we will review some inspiring information and stories about the loving outreach of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.
As we discussed in this series, the World Zionist Organization adopted a secular ideology which sought to have nationalism replace the Torah as the guiding spirit of our people; in fact, its founder, Theodor Herzl, envisioned a secular Jewish state in the Land of Zion. There were, however, Torah-committed communities that existed in the Land of Zion before the establishment of the World Zionist Organization, and they became known as the “Old Yishuv” – Old Settlement. The devout men and women of these communities strongly opposed the attempts by the W.Z.O. to secularize our people, and in the spirit of Torah – the Divine Teaching – they strived to renew Jewish life in the Land. They therefore became known as “chareidim” – a biblical term for those who are fervently loyal to the Divine Word (Isaiah 66:5). Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld became a major leader of the chareidim.
The book, Guardian of Jerusalem, describes the “boundless love” of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld for each member of Am Yisrael – the People of Israel. This strong love caused him to strongly oppose the secular ideology of the World Zionist Organization which was causing many members of Am Yisrael to lose the awareness of their spiritual potential as members of a people who were given the following Divine mission: to develop a model society in the Land of Zion which can serve as a source of spiritual inspiration for all the peoples of the earth. Rav Yosef Chaim’s opposition to the ideology of the W.Z.O. also caused him to oppose the efforts of the W.Z.O. to influence and eventually control the Torah-observant communities in the Land.
One of the leaders of the W.Z.O. was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and he would often visit Rav Yosef Chaim at his home, in order to debate the issues. Dr. Weizmann realized, however, that Rav Yosef Chaim’s strong opposition to the ideology of the W.Z.O. was rooted in love, and he once admitted that the Rav’s opposition “flows from a warm Jewish heart completely permeated with the love of the Land and the People of Israel” (Guardian of Jerusalem).
As mentioned above, Rav Yosef Chaim’s opposition was directed at the secular ideology of the World Zionist organization, and not at the individuals who followed this ideology. Regarding those individuals who were not Torah-observant, he said:
“Most Jews today who have abandoned mitzvos are prisoners of alien cultures and improper education. Were it not for the effects of the long and bitter exile, they would certainly find their way back to their faith and origins.” (Ibid)
As Rav Yosef Chaim explained, his comments also applied to the non-observant Jews who came from Eastern Europe, despite the fact that this region had strong Torah centers. This was because a large percentage of young Jews in Eastern Europe did not get a proper Torah education during the early 20th century due to the social turmoil and dislocation caused by pogroms and the battles of World War I. They therefore fell under the influence of the various new secular movements.
Rav Yosef Chaim tried, whenever possible, to lovingly reach out to those of our brethren who had abandoned the spiritual path of our people. The following stories from “Guardian of Jerusalem” can serve as examples:
The Haganah became the main defense force of the World Zionist Organization. In Rav Yosef Chaim’s later years, the young Haganah members in charge of defending Jerusalem’s Jewish population against Arab marauders maintained their headquarters in the clinic where Rav Yosef Chaim often frequented. The Haganah was particularly active during the celebrations of the local Arab festival honoring Nebi Musa (the Prophet Moses), when, ironically, there would often be attacks on Jews, the people of Moses. One particular year, this Moslem festival coincided with Passover. Although most of the Haganah members considered themselves to be irreligious, Rav Yosef Chaim made it a point to invite them to his Seder. He said to them: “If because of you, Jews can enjoy a secure Seder, then you certainly deserve to celebrate the Seder with us in an atmosphere of holiness and family warmth.”
Rav Yosef Chaim befriended these young people, and in response to a few individuals from his own community who wondered why he associated with these “irreligious” Jews, he said: “These young people risk their lives to defend other Jews and they deserve an effort on our part to bring them closer to Torah and mitzvos.”
There were settlers who viewed themselves as “secular” who felt drawn to Rav Yosef Chaim, and they would visit him at his home in Batei Machseh, Jerusalem, where they would receive a warm and loving welcome. He would utilize these opportunities to speak to them about Torah wisdom and the observance of mitzvos. Some of his associates, however, remarked that he was apparently wasting his time, as his visitors seemed “none the better” for all his warm, paternal talks.
Rav Yosef Chaim replied that although it was true that most of the time these people were unreceptive to the sublime truths he discussed with them, they, too, would sooner or later encounter those reflective moments when every person takes stock of his life. At those moments, he said, they might recall the fatherly old Rav in Battei Machseh and the sincere words he had spoken to them; thus, at that moment, the talk might cause some of these wandering sheep of Israel to return to the fold of their people and to the Eternal Shepherd.
One day, one of these settlers came to Rav Yosef Chaim and tearfully recounted what had happened in the long interval since their last meeting. The man had been walking on the scaffolding of a building under construction when he lost his footing. In the ensuing fall, he had broken several ribs and sustained serious internal injuries. For six months he had lain wracked with pain and this had caused him to start thinking about the words of the venerable Rav in Battei Machseh.
He had then resolved that should Hashem grant him a recovery, he would return to the religious life he had known as a boy in his father’s house in Russia. Now that he had recovered, he was about to marry, and his bride-to-be was also willing to conduct a religious life. They had but one wish and that was that Rav Yosef Chaim himself would officiate at their wedding and confer on the new couple his blessings that they merit to build a “loyal family in Israel.” Rav Yosef Chaim willingly accepted the invitation and greatly rejoiced with the couple at their wedding. Indeed, his blessings were fulfilled and the couple raised a God-revering and observant family true to the traditions of their ancestors.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
A Related Story and Comment:
1. Rav Moshe Blau, a leading community activist who was a disciple of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnefeld, related the following incident: When Rav Yosef Chaim and Rav Moshe were leaving the grounds of Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, a parade of boys and girls from the secular Zionist schools was approaching. Knowing that the ideology of these anti-religious schools caused his beloved rebbe great pain, Rav Blau gently suggested to Rav Yosef Chaim that they return to the hospital building until the parade passes by.
“No,” was his reply, “they are Jewish children, aren’t they?” As the children marched by, singing their songs, Rav Moshe noticed that Rabbi Yosef Chaim’s lips were moving steadily, as he murmured something softly to himself. Rav Blau moved closer and he heard his teacher saying the following verses:
“May Hashem add upon you, upon you and your children! Blessed are you to Hashem, Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 115:14,15).
He repeated these verses of blessing over and over again, until the last child in that long procession had passed.
2. The above information and stories about Rav Yosef Chaim are found in the book, “Guardian of Jerusalem” by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld. For information on this book, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/YCPH . This book may also be available in your local Jewish book store.