In the Torah portion of this Shabbos, we find that Moshe gave Pharaoh the following message regarding Israel’s journey to the “festival of Hashem” at Mount Sinai:
“With our young and with our old shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters…for we have a festival of Hashem” (Exodus 10:9).
“A festival of Hashem” – “This is the Festival of Shavuos, the day of the giving of the Torah.” (Commentary of Rebbeinu Bachya)
The above message serves as a reminder of the special emphasis that our tradition places on the spiritual education of our children. As Rav Eli Munk points out in his commentary on the Torah – known as “The Call of the Torah” – Moshe intentionally mentions the children first. Pharaoh, however, did not want the children to go on this spiritual journey. Both Pharaoh and Moshe understood that without the children, there would be no future for the People of Israel; thus, Pharaoh, the oppressor, wanted the children to remain with him, while Moshe, the Divine messenger of redemption, insisted that the children accompany the elders. (This interpretation is cited in “Mai’yenah Shel Torah.”)
Rav Munk points out that there were other oppressive rulers in our history that emulated Pharaoh’s policy regarding our children, and Rav Munk cites the following example from the period of the Church’s Inquisition:
“After their expulsion from Spain, 80,000 Jews sought refuge in Portugal, trusting in the promises of the king. But the Spanish church instigated the Portuguese to sign a decree which surpassed in cruelty and harshness that of Queen Isabella of Spain. He (the King of Portugal) insisted that all adult Jews be banished from Portugal, but that every child below fourteen years of age remain behind to be brought up in the Christian faith.”
Despite the many attempts to persuade us or force us to abandon our spiritual heritage, there were loyal Jews in each generation who transmitted this heritage to their children. In fact, when a young Jewish child – boy or girl – begins to speak, we teach the child to say the following verse:
“The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Community of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)
The stories in this letter reveal that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the Rav of Old Jerusalem, became the beloved rebbe of Jerusalem’s children, and through his loving concern, the children would be reminded that the Torah is “the heritage of the Community of Jacob.”
At the celebration of Simchas Torah (the Joy of the Torah), Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld would emulate King David, “who danced before Hashem with all his strength” (II Samuel 6:14). Rav Yosef Chaim, who had a great love for children, would grab them by their little hands while dancing, and he would swirl them around the Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls), to the accompaniment of the rhythmic clapping and singing of the elders of Jerusalem.
Rav Yosef Chaim had a deep and enduring love of children, and they, in turn, saw him as their spiritual father. Children who excelled in their studies felt a compulsion to show their accomplishments to Rav Yosef Chaim, and the certificates they received from the Rav were worth the world to them.
Rav Yosef Chaim had a special concern for orphans, and he was very involved in the orphanage founded by Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, a leading sage. Rav Yosef Chaim considered himself to be the adoptive parent of these orphans. He personally knew every single child and his warm, paternal manner was a source of comfort and encouragement to these lonely youngsters.
Within Jerusalem, there were Christian missionaries from Austria and other European countries. These well-funded missionaries would try to attract poor Jewish orphans to their missionary school and orphanage. In one rare case, a boy being raised in a Jewish orphanage was taken by his very poor relative to the missionary school in exchange for the financial help that the missionaries offered. One day, as the boy walked with other children from the missionary school, he was recognized by a Jewish passerby, who snatched the boy and brought him to Rav Yosef Chaim. The Rav immediately returned the child to the Jewish orphanage. The missionaries loudly protested to the Austrian consul in Jerusalem, and he, in turn, told Rav Yosef Chaim that he demanded the child’s return. Rav Yosef Chaim adamantly refused, and the consul threatened to expel him from the country. Rav Yosef Chaim rose up and declared sharply:
“You can expel me from the land but I will be vindicated by the central government in Vienna. And I promise you that the ship on which I return will be the one on which you go back to Europe!”
The dispute was brought to the attention of Jewish community officials in Europe who were Torah-committed, and they interceded on Rav Yosef Chaim’s behalf. Shortly thereafter, the Austrian consul was dismissed from his post and left Eretz Yisrael.
On one occasion, a teacher at the Jewish orphanage confiscated from one of the boys a pile of secular books, as their contents were not in accordance with our Torah values. The teacher reported the incident to Rav Yosef Chaim. The Rav went to the orphanage and summoned the youth, but instead of admonishing the boy, Rav Yosef Chaim returned the books to him and gently explained how such literature could be extremely detrimental to the boy’s spiritual well-being. The boy picked up the books, went outside, and disposed of them.
I will conclude this letter with a review of the following story from Rav Yosef Chaim’s later years:
Rav Moshe Blau, a noted 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.
May we soon experience the fulfillment of the following Divine promise to our people:
“All your children will be students of Hashem, and the shalom of your children will be abundant.” (Isaiah 54:13)
May we all be blessed with Shabbat Shalom!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
P.S. 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.