During World War II, many yeshivos in Europe closed and the boys were sent home, as everyone scrambled to find a safe place to hide from the Nazis or leave Europe altogether. There was one yeshiva whose students and rebbeim miraculously escaped and remained together throughout the war—the Mir Yeshiva. In 1939, a week after Sukkos, the Mir Yeshiva with all its students and families fled in the middle of the night to Lithuania as a temporary refuge. In 1940, the Dutch ambassador to Lithuania agreed to give them visas to Curacao, a Caribbean island. Such a long trip needed a transit stop. That’s where the brave Japanese consul in Lithuania, Mr. Chiune Sugihara, stepped in.
Sugihara risked his life to issue visas to the students (and thousands of other Jews) to travel through Japan to Curacao. The Mir students had to travel across all of Russia to take a boat to Japan. Trains were mostly used by soldiers, but miraculously, whenever the yeshiva arrived at a station, a train pulled up empty and they were allowed to board. In Russia, they were transported in special first-class cabins with carpets and couches! Hashem’s Hand was guiding them all along the way. They finally arrived in Kobe, Japan (Curacao never happened), but a short while later were expelled with all the Jews from mainland Japan to Shanghai. Although there was no Jewish community in Shanghai, there was the Beth Aharon synagogue, a beautiful shul with 400 (empty) seats built in 1927 by Silas Aaron Hardoon, a wealthy Jewish businessman, at the direction of a rabbi he trusted. The shul had been dormant since then. When the yeshiva arrived they were directed to the building—it had exactly the number of seats needed for the yeshiva’s population!
The Midrash Tanchuma at the beginning of Parshas Noach relates that Hashem promised klal Yisrael at Har Sinai that at least two yeshivos would remain intact throughout the millennia, no matter what. Further, the Midrash highlights how 11 years prior to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, there was a group of great talmidei chachamim who were exiled to Bavel and established yeshivos there. This move to Bavel plus the establishment of yeshivos saved them from death later on, and provided a base of yeshivos for the Jews who arrived in Bavel 11 years later.
The Gemara tells us that from the beginning of time, there has always been at least one yeshiva and notes that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov learned in a yeshiva. The commentary by Anaf Yosef on the Midrash explains that Noach also learned Torah. The teiva (ark) contained a yeshiva in which Noach and his sons learned Torah when they were not feeding the animals. The entire world was being destroyed, but Hashem saved Noach and his family in the teiva, enabling them to learn Torah. After the flood, Noach’s son Shem and great-great-grandson Eiver created a yeshiva in which Yaakov studied.
Why is the Midrash telling us about yeshivos in Parshas Noach specifically? The Torah tells us in Parshas Ha’azinu: “Zachor yemos olam binu shenos dor vador... b’hencheil elyon goyim b’hefrido—Remember the early days, understand the years of generations after generations.” Rashi says this is specifically referring to the generation of the mabul (flood) and the dor haflaga (the generation that attempted to build the tower of Bavel). The Seforno explains that the Torah is telling us to reflect upon the past and recognize that Hashem has always guided the course of history for the Jewish nation, ensuring our survival even when there is world upheaval. The Midrash indicates that Hashem ensures the continuity of klal Yisrael through the establishment of yeshivos for learning Torah. Indeed, these yeshivos are what kept and still keep klal Yisrael in existence throughout the millennia.
The miraculous escape and protection of the Mir Yeshiva is another example of a type of teivas Noach (ark of Noach) whereby Hashem cocooned and protected an entire yeshiva population from destruction.
Last year at this time, many yeshivos in New York were forced to shut down due to coronavirus regulations. Many relocated outside the forbidden “red zones.” The 12th-grade class of Mesivta Yesodei Yeshurun relocated to our own beis hamedrash in Passaic, New Jersey. We were excited to help ensure that the boys’ learning could continue unabated.
As we continue to use and support our yeshivos, may they continue to act as spiritual cocoons that safeguard our Torah values and keep us close to Hashem.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara-learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged but any contributions are always welcome. Beyond PTI, Rabbi Bodenheim conducts a weekly beis midrash program with chavrusa learning in Livingston plus a monthly group in West Caldwell. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected] For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.