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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vayishlach 5775 "A Relentless Battle"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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12/4/14

STAM TORAH

PARSHAS VAYISHLACH 5775

“A RELENTLESS BATTLE”

A number of years ago, Aish.com, the wonderful website of Aish HaTorah, hosted a powerful one minute video about Dr. Rachamim Melamed-Cohen. I was very inspired by his story and wanted to know more about him. I came across an article written by the noted author, Sara Yocheved Rigler[1], in which she describes a meeting that she was privileged to have with him. In the article she offers many more details about his unbelievable story.

She also writes, “An example of Dr. Melamed-Cohen's eagerness to forge relationships is his request that his email address be included in this article: mrahamim@netvision.net.il. He invites any interested reader to correspond with him.”

After reading Mrs. Rigler’s article, I took advantage of his offer and contacted Dr. Melamed-Cohen to inform him of how moved I was by his story. He replied warmly by asking me for my home address so that he could airmail me one of his books (a wonderful sefer which provides educational ideas and insights gleaned from the weekly parsha). When I contacted him again this week to ask his permission to write about him, he replied, “YOU CAN WRITE ABOUT ME IF YOU THINK IT WILL HELP PEOPLE.”

The following is merely a glimpse into his story, paraphrased from the aforementioned article. I encourage anyone who would like to be inspired to read the article in its full context.

As a fifty-seven year old man Dr. Melamed-Cohen was quite successful. He had a beautiful family and, with a Ph.D. in Special Education, held a leading position in Israel's Ministry of Education. He also served as Head of the Education Department in a Jerusalem college, and pioneered Special Education programs throughout Israel. But his life came to a screeching halt when he was diagnosed with ALS, better known as the dreaded ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. Doctors informed him that his body would begin to progressively atrophy and eventually he would become completely paralyzed with no control over any of his faculties. They told him he had five years to live. That was well over a decade ago.

Although he is completely paralyzed, Dr. Melamed-Cohen is still going strong. “Since the onset of his illness, he has written seven books[2], the latest by means of a computer that types by his eye movements. Until a year ago, when he could still speak clearly, he gave lectures on educational methodology to students in his living room. He maintains a voluminous email correspondence with readers who look to him for encouragement and wisdom. He prays thrice daily and attends synagogue every Shabbat. And he and his wife go out regularly ….

“At 68, Rahamim's daily schedule would daunt many healthy people his age. He starts out his day by praying Shacharit, the morning service. His friend Yitzchak comes daily to put tefillin on him. Then he and Yitzchak learn Torah for an hour.

“Then he works: writing his books, which sometimes entail considerable research, either on the internet or in the comprehensive Judaic library he has on disc; answering his email correspondence (he receives on average ten letters a day); and doing artwork on computer.

“In addition, he administers a small yeshivah founded by his late father. This entails determining the curriculum, examining the applicants, paying the staff, and keeping daily track of the attendance and progress of each student. He also reads books and newspapers. Twice a week he has physiotherapy. At 4 PM, visitors start arriving -- his four siblings, six children, 26 grandchildren, friends, or former colleagues…

“Dr. Melamed-Cohen, who lacks the most rudimentary functions that the rest of us take for granted, advises everyone: "DON'T DESPAIR, BE OPTIMISTIC, AND WORK ON SIMCHAH [JOY] IN YOUR HEART. NO MATTER WHAT YOU'RE LACKING, THINK OF WHAT'S POSSIBLE TO DO IN YOUR PRESENT SITUATION."

“Dr. Melamed-Cohen's life is animated by his desire to disseminate this message to the world. When asked what his plans for the future are, he responds: "I want to stay alive for many more years and not miss out on even one moment of my life. I want the opportunity to actualize the true me, to enjoy others and to be enjoyed by others, and to convey the message of optimism and that life is holy…”[3]

After twenty years in the home of his duplicitous father-in-law Lavan, and after surviving the encounter with his wrathful brother Eisav, Yaakov Avinu reached a heretofore unsurpassed level of greatness. “Yaakov arrived unimpaired (complete) at the city of Shechem.”[4] But Yaakov’s travails were far from over.

While living in the city of Shechem, his daughter Dinah was abducted and violated by a young man named Shechem, the prince of the city. Shimon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, avenged the honor of their sister by killing all the males in the city. When Yaakov heard what Shimon and Levi did he chastised them, “You have discomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land… I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated – I and my household.”[5]

Rashi[6] quotes an opinion that Yaakov was indeed compelled to go to war against the surrounding nations who sought to avenge the carnage of Shechem. At the end of Yaakov’s life he moved down to Egypt where he lived under the tutelage of his son Yosef, the viceroy of the country. Yosef came to visit his ailing father, accompanied by his two sons, in order to solicit Yaakov’s blessing. After blessing them, Yaakov turned to Yosef and said, “And as for me, I have given you Shechem – one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”

Why did Yaakov feel it was necessary to tell Yosef that he had procured the city of Shechem by means of battle? If Yaakov meant to give Yosef the city as a gift, what was the difference how he had taken possession of the city?

Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel zt’l[7], the legendary Mashgiach of Lakewood, explained that Yaakov wanted to convey to Yosef the reason why he had been successful throughout his life. It was because Yaakov never stopped struggling!

One must always be prepared to face both the internal and external challenges that constantly arise. One who is not poised for battle at any given time has little hope for spiritual survival.

In the words of the Ba’al Hatanya: “The body is likened to a small city: like two kings who wage war over a city, each desiring to capture it and rule over it, that is, to govern its inhabitants according to his will so that they obey him in all that he decrees for them. So do the two souls, the G-dly [soul] and the animal [soul], wage war against each other over control of the body and its organs and limbs. The desire and will of the G-dly soul is that it alone should rule over the person and direct him, and that all his limbs should obey it and surrender themselves completely to it and become a vehicle for it, and serve as a vehicle for its ten faculties [of intellect and emotion] and three "garments" [thought, speech and action]... and the entire body should be permeated with them alone, to the exclusion of any alien influence, G-d forbid... While the animal soul desires the very opposite...”

Yaakov’s message to Yosef was that he had merited the city of Shechem because he was ready for battle, not only in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense as well. In his translation, Onkelos explains that the sword and bow which Yaakov referred to when he mentioned his conquest of Shechem, is actually a reference to prayer, the true weapon of a Jew. Thus, the battle over Shechem represented a metaphor for Yaakov’s entire life, a never ending struggle.

The gemara[8] offers an astounding explanation of a verse in parshas Vayishlach. "He [Yaakov] set up an altar there and proclaimed, `Kel, the Kel of Israel'."[9] The literal translation of this verse suggests that Yaakov called G-d (Kel), "the G-d (Kel) of Israel." However the Gemarah reads the verse completely differently: "He called him `El.' The G-d of Israel." In other words, "He called Yaakov, ‘El’. Who called Yaakov ‘El’? The G-d of Israel." How can the Gemara even insinuate that G-d Himself called Yaakov a title of G-d? What does that mean?

Tosafos[10] explains that when we refer to G-d as ‘Kel’ we are referring to His great strength with which He provides sustenance and infuses life into all of creation. Perhaps it is in that sense that Yaakov merited being called “Kel” by G-d. Through Yaakov’s unwavering spiritual strength and commitment, despite the challenges that confronted him, he achieved such an extreme level of greatness that, in that sense, his resolve and strength bordered on the Divine. G-d is called Kel in reference to His unmitigated and unfaltering strength. Yaakov had achieved a level of imitatio dei, so much so that G-d Himself testified about Yaakov’s strength that it was on the level of ‘Kel’.

In truth, Yosef too had prevailed and transcended overwhelming challenges throughout his years in Egypt. It is uncanny that a young teenage boy abandoned by his family in a licentious country could remain resolute and firm in his ideals and beliefs. More than all his brothers, Yosef personified the notion that life entails relentless struggles.

In addition, throughout history - and even in our time - the city of Shechem has remained a city of turmoil and instability[11]. From its inception onward it remains a symbol of life’s instability and our need to constantly be wary of, and be ready for, its challenges and struggles.

The holiday of Chanukah is inextricably connected to this idea. Shem MiShmuel[12] explains that the time-period prior to the Chanukah miracles was extremely precarious. The few Jews who remained loyal to Torah and mitzvos were disgraced, forced to hide in dank caves, and constantly flee the Syrian-Greek soldiers. Myriads of Jews were tortured and killed daily, and those who taught Torah put themselves and their families in great peril. The masses conceded to the enemy’s pressure and Hellenized themselves, choosing to live a completely secular lifestyle devoid of Torah and its traditions. The Jewish world was in a state of despondency and despair. It was in that bleakness that the righteous Chashmonaim (i.e. the Maccabees) began their religious revolt for the right to practice Torah and mitzvos.

The prophet states, “ועוררתי בניך ציון על בניך יון ושמתיך כחרב גבור -And I will awaken your sons Zion against your sons Greece; and I will make you like a warrior’s sword.”[13] The prophet utilized an expression of “awakening” because the Maccabean revolt was not a battle of wits and superior acumen of war. More notably, it required a resurgence of hope and faith in the veracity of their cause. They had to rally the faithful and reawaken with them the belief that the salvation of G-d could come at any moment. They also had to realize that until salvation came, they had an obligation to fight to the death for their right to serve G-d. It was much more than a physical battle. It also required a mental and psychological battle to rekindle the spark of pride and passion which the Syrian-Greeks had all but extinguished.

This is the essence of the holiday of Chanukah. We may not need to battle the evil Syrian-Greeks each year, and we may no longer have a Temple-Menorah to light, but the deeper symbolism of those events are as prevalent as ever. The diminutive lights of Chanukah represent the omnipresent struggles of life. It symbolizes the victories they achieved at a time of terrible darkness and despair. The holiday of Chanukah is the holiday which celebrates our struggles and obdurate refusal to give up.

Chanukah is not a grandiose holiday as Succos and Pesach are. It is a “weekday holiday”; a holiday that seeks to infuse the mundane with sanctity. Inherent in the holiday of Chanukah is the key to our resilience throughout exile. Its message is that even one who has fallen into the doldrums of despair can rise again if he is willing to persist in fighting the battle.

Rabbi Wachtfogel adds that “the foundation of man is battle”, i.e. it is part of his genetic makeup. He explains that that is why people become so attached and involved in sports. Competition and rivalry are an inherent aspect of humankind, and therefore we have an internal disposition toward it. However, sports are a diversion from the true battle which rages within every individual constantly.[14]

Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz zt’l once mused that a person who is not committed to battle – even if he is the wisest of men and the most righteous individual – can stumble even regarding simple matters.

Until the moment when we have taken our last breath, we are soldiers in combat fighting the battle of life. Chanukah celebrates our acknowledgement of that constant battle and our willingness to never cease fighting.

“I have given you Shechem which I took with my sword and with my bow.”

“I will awaken your sons Zion against your sons Greece”

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[1] Her article is also on the Aish website. It is entitled “The Hero within”

[2] He has written another three books since Mrs. Rigler wrote her article, ten books in total!

[3] I found that Dr. Melamed-Cohen now has a website: http://www.melamed.org.il/#!home-en/c24b1

[4] Bereishis 33:18

[5] Bereishis 34:30

[6] parshas Vayechi 48:22

[7] Leket Reshimos, Chanukah

[8] Megilla 18a

[9] Bereishis 33:20

[10] Rosh Hashana 17b

[11] See Rashi (Bereishis 37:14)

[12] ליל ב' תרע''ח

[13] Zechariah 9:13

[14] It is worth noting that sports were an essential component of Greek culture. In every land they conquered they constructed a gymnasium to glorify and deify the human body and sports, which were played while the athletes were unclothed.



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