April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Reb Yitzchok Meir Gershtenkorn was a man of vision and action, a builder of both the people of Israel and the land of Israel. As the driving force behind the founding of Bnei Brak as well as its first mayor, Reb “Itche Meir” was intimately involved in every facet of the urban planning, funding and creation of the city. A scholar who authored eight volumes of commentary on sefer Tehillim, Reb Itche Meir is remembered for his great mesiras nefesh, personal sacrifice, as he bore the financial burden behind the unique pioneering endeavor and spent years traveling the globe raising capital to fund the project of building a city of Torah in Eretz Yisrael.

For more than a decade leading up to World War II, Reb Itche Meir would schlep around the world — going door-to-door — collecting donations. He would make appeals in shuls all across Europe, the United States and South Africa in order to secure financial support for the purchase of sand dunes and rural land, all the while encouraging Jews to come home to the land of Israel and join the agricultural settlement that would one day become Bnei Brak. He was a man on a mission, on fire with a love of Torah, yiddishkeit and our homeland.

Not everyone was supportive of Reb Itche Meir’s efforts; his views on Zionism were often perceived as being too progressive and anything hinting toward nationalism and state-building remained a trigger for many in the traditional community. Over the years, Reb Itche Meir encountered tension and opposition and would often feel frustrated, coming up empty-handed.

On one of his journeys, Reb Itche Meir arrived in the town of Piacetzna forlorn, drained from the road and the challenges of his mission, on the verge of yiush, giving up hope. Having grown up in a Polish Chasidic home — a chasid of the Vorka dynasty — Reb Itche Meir maintained relationships with many of the great rabbinic figures of the generation. These included his friend and confidant, the saintly Rebbe Klonymous Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna, zt”l, author of Chovas HaTalmidim and ground-breaking pedagogue. The Piacetzner would later become widely known as a martyred leader of the Warsaw Ghetto, the shards of his faith-giving talks salvaged from the ashes and compiled in the sefer “Aish Kodesh — Holy Fire.”

In Piacentzna, Reb Itche Meir poured out his heart to the Rebbe. The Rebbe listened empathetically and placed his warm hand on his cheek, wiping away a tear. He shared soft words of chizuk, encouraging Reb Itche Meir to stick with his worthy and essential project, emphasizing how critical it was for Am Yisrael. But from the depth of exhaustion and bitterness, Reb Itche Meir finally sighed, “If building this city is so chashuv, so important, why doesn’t the Rebbe himself do it?”

The wise Rebbe of Piacetzna then shared a thought from our sedra:

Parshat Shoftim frames various rules related to Am Yisrael going out to war and includes a list of those exempt from battle. The officers inform the nation that one who has just built a home but has not yet inaugurated it and moved in, or who has planted a vineyard that has not yet been redeemed, or who was recently betrothed, should return home. Included in those who do not join the war effort is an “ אִישׁ הַיָּרֵא וְרַךְ הַלֵּבָב — a man who is fearful and faint-hearted.” Someone who feels unable to handle the pressure, danger and responsibility may harm the morale of other soldiers at the front and ought not join his brethren on the battlefield. All of these men are provided with “an out:” “יֵלֵךְ וְיָשֹׁב לְבֵיתוֹ —Let them go and return to their homes; they are absolved from the fight,” (20:5-8).

However, once this group has been separated out, army officers assume command of the remaining troops:

”וְהָיָה כְּכַלֹּת הַשֹּׁטְרִים לְדַבֵּר אֶל־הָעָם וּפָקְדוּ שָׂרֵי צְבָאוֹת בְּרֹאשׁ הָעָם:“

“And it shall be, when the officials have finished addressing the troops, they shall appoint officers of the legions at the edges of the people” (20:9).

Rashi explains that “זַקָּפִין — armed guards,” were stationed in front of them and behind them to prevent desertions. If anyone attempted to retreat or give up their commitment, the guards had the authority to strike his legs. The “זַקָּפִין” played another role as well in “לִזְקֹף — picking up” those soldiers whose spirit has fallen, by being mechazeik b’dvarim, encouraging them with words. They would convey “ שובו אל המלחמה ולא  — תנוסו, שתחלת נפילה ניסה Return to the battle and do not flee, for flight is the beginning of defeat,” (Gemara Sotah, 44a).

The Piacetzna Rebbe then stood zakuf, straight and tall, and looked Reb Itche Meir deeply in the eyes. “When you began this project, you committed yourself to ‘go out to battle’ for the cause. All the frustration, disappointment, ups and downs and challenges along the way are part of that battle. At the very outset, you did have an opportunity to ‘return home’ and do something else meaningful. But now that you are fully engaged in this avodah, amid this holy struggle, you are forbidden to ‘flee’ … ”

“And here lies the difference between you and I — and the reason why you must continue your mission. I personally never began it. It is you who were inspired to build the city and pursue this avodah, and you who have the ability and responsibility to continue to follow through and see the effort to completion!”

Until his final days, out of a keen sense of responsibility and for the wellbeing of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael, Reb Itche Meir “strengthened his heart” to continue raising money to support the infrastructure and institutions of Bnei Brak and cover the deficits which the city had incurred. Today, the thriving metropolis of yeshivot and holy families is the legacy of the faith and determination of a man who remained at the battle-front.

May we strengthen our hearts, and one another’s, to begin — and to follow through and complete — many holy tasks!

Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpiah of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife, Ora, and their family.

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