Chassidic story & lesson for Parshas Vayeishev
In this week’s Parsha, Parshas Vayeishev, we learn about the sale of Joseph into slavery in Egypt, and his outstanding righteousness that he retained even in this most corrupt society and despite being distanced from his father and family. Nobody would’ve ever discovered if Joseph would have decided to choose a more modern or sinful mode of life in his new environment, and he had nothing to gain materially in remaining righteous. Nonetheless, he withstood the pressure of his corrupt society and remained a righteous Jew throughout his slavery and later reign. This level of dedication and Mesirus Nefesh would later be seen in our history with the Chashmonain in the story of Chanukah. Despite the great odds, and the great unpopularity of their position even amongst the Jewish people, they withstood all pressure and put their lives on the line for the sake of G-d and His Torah. The following is a story that I merited to hear from the “Baal Haamaseh” [i.e. the person with whom the story occurred], on the occasion of a personal challenge that I had, in which I faced public pressure from my secular commanders and colleagues to bend the rules of Judaism, in the Army base where I served my compulsory service in the IDF.
“I am shocked that you would even ask such a question, and would need to send it thousands of miles across the globe”
A dilemma in “Kiruv”; compromise on Jewish law and ideals in order to gain popularity, acceptance, and success, or be steadfast and face limited success:
The following story I personally heard from my Rav whom I did Shimush by, Harav Asher Lemel Hakohen Shlita, the Chabad Rav of Beitar:
In the summer of 1973, the local Chabad Shluchim of Jerusalem were involved in arranging Jewish culture events for visiting Jewish college students from the Diaspora. As part of this endeavor, a guided tour was to be held in the old city of Jerusalem which would conclude with a Chassidic Farbrengen in the local Beis Chabad of the old city which was located in the famous Tzemach Tzedek Shul and Beis Midrash. According to the arrangement, the young college age students would sit separately according to gender but without a Mechitza. Only the male participants were intended to join in the singing, while the female participants would suffice with clapping hands. There was an estimated total of about 7000 college-age students from the Diaspora who would potentially go through this program that summer. An underlying worry of the organizers was that the students would not abide by the instructions and that the girls and boys would end up singing and even dancing together. Rabbi Asher Lemel Hakohen was then charged with asking Rabbanim for direction as to how they should navigate this predicament. Rabbi Kohen turned to the famous Gaon Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin a”h, who was also the head of Kolel Chabad and senior member of the Chabad Beis Din of Eretz Yisrael, with this question. Rabbi Zevin could not come to a conclusive ruling and he asked Rabbi Kohen to turn to the Rebbe with this question saying that such a question can only be answered by a Rebbe. Rabbi Kohen felt very embarrassed to ask this question to the Rebbe in his name and so Rabbi Zevin suggested that he write it in his name, in the name of Rabbi Zevin. The following was the Rebbe’s reply:
To the Rabbi and Chassid, Harav Asher Lemel Hakohen,
Peace and blessings,
It is with great astonishment that I read his question, dated on the 17th of Tamuz which should be turned to days of rejoicing and happiness, regarding the singing of women.
It is a clear ruling in the Shas and Poskim [i.e. Shulchan Aruch] that it is forbidden to do so.
To paraphrase the intent of this answer, Rabbi Kohen told me that in essence the Rebbe answered him, “I am shocked that you would even ask such a question, and would need to send it thousands of miles across the globe.” As a result of this answer, the event was canceled despite it having the ability to influence 7000 college-age Diaspora students in Torah and Mitzvos.
The Divine Lesson:
From this story we see the great importance of abiding by all the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch and how there is no room to compromise even if there is great spiritual benefit in doing so. In Shlichus, and throughout different events in our lives, we are faced with similar challenges in which our Yetzer Hara tries to convince us to bend the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch for the sake of public relations and the proliferation of our spiritual endeavors, or due to either imagined or real public pressure. The Rebbe’s guidance is simple and obvious: there is no room to compromise on a law and prohibition in Halacha!
A sequel to the story:
In the year 2005, as part of my compulsory three-year IDF service, I [i.e. the author] received a position as the head chaplain in the Army base “Mitkan Adam” which houses the elite IDF units of Lotar [i.e. anti-terror], Kalatz [i.e. sniper], and Oketz [i.e. the IDF’s K-9 unit]. The base is a training base for the rest of the soldiers in the IDF so they gain expertise in the above skills. We had about 300 permanent soldiers on base with another 700 soldiers who would come for a period of training which would usually last two weeks.
There were very few permanent religious soldiers on base, and at the time that I received the position, the religious oversight on the base was in the state of ruin, and was for all intensive purposes nonexistent. There was zero rabbinical supervision over the kitchen, and there wasn’t any functioning Shul on base.
Naturally, I had a lot to do when I arrived on base to fill my position the week before Chanukah, and one of the first things I set off to do was to arrange a public menorah lighting for all the permanent soldiers of the base, in the base’s main auditorium. I had barely gotten to know my commanders to whom I was subordinate to, although they agreed to the arrangements saying that it would be merged together with an annual Hanukkah base event that is run by the educational department of the unit. Being a novice in all this, I was naïve as to what to expect.
I began the event on the first night of Hanukkah with a short speech which was then followed by having the head commander of the base light a beautiful and tall menorah in the auditorium, having all the 300 soldiers stand with their military hats on their head and answer Amen to the blessings. This was then to be followed by a short speech by the education department, and the distribution of Sufganiyot.
Taken by surprise while sitting on the central stage, the soldier which headed the education department concluded her speech with saying that a group of female soldiers would now be called up to sing various Hanukkah songs to entertain the soldiers. I was immediately struck with anxiety as to what I should do. To remain there would be a great public desecration of Halacha, although to leave while I’m still on Central stage in front of all the soldiers and my commanders may be viewed as unforgivable, and destroy any potential of influencing people on the base towards Judaism. Not to mention, that this could get me into serious insubordination consequences. I did not have much time to decide, and instinctively walked up to the mic and announced that I as a religious Jew and chaplain of the base cannot participate in the singing and therefore asked them to excuse me. Without waiting for a reply, and to the shocked expressions on the face of those who I saw, I walked out of the auditorium without saying another word. I waited outside from afar until I heard the instruments go quiet and then I walked back in to resume the schedule.
I had no idea how the people would react and didn’t have time to give it much thought. But afterwards, I received plenty of compliments from soldiers mostly who are not religious. My own direct commander who I had only known then for less than a week came over to me with an expression of awe and said “You are a real Gever [brave man]. I am very impressed that you stood up for your religious beliefs.” This event, gained me awe and respect amongst my peers and commanders which was a major influence on them to assist me in everything I needed to do in my Shlichus on the base. The next day, my direct commander, who was also the main commander of the unit, told me that he would exempt me from any and all Army base duties that all soldiers are subject to, as you are a real Rabbi and I respect Rabbanim. So, I actually profited materially from the above event.
If you think the story and my headaches had ended with that, let me inform you that I had also naïvely scheduled for a barbecue and Jewish concert to take place on the base on one of the nights of Chanukah [I believe featuring the Moshav band] and was suddenly struck by the realization that I had created a situation in which there would be mixed dancing with the male and female students. After realizing this, I called up my Rav, Harav Asher Lemel Hakohen, as for direction as to what I should do about this now, and whether I should cancel the event. Rabbi Kohen, who was already equipped with his own personal deliberations and responses of the Rebbe to a very similar event, had a ready answer for me and he related to me in detail the above story. The conclusion of our conversation was to try to cancel the event, and if not possible then to do everything possible to ensure separation of the genders.
The next day I set off to see if cancellation was possible, but was told by my commanders, who did not agree with my reason of cancellation, that it was already beyond my hands to decide, as it was approved by the head commander of the base and sent out in the weekly schedule. Without choice, I did my backup plan which I had thought of, which was to bring
the Shul Mechitza’s to the area where the concert was to take place and arrange for there to be separate sides for girls and boys to dance. For the most part, the soldiers listened to the rules and kept to separate sides. When I saw any coed dancing taking place I respectfully walked over to them and explained to them that this is a religious event which requires separation of the genders and they listened to my authority.
The big early lesson that G-d arrange for me to learn from the above events is that it is specifically the uncompromising and holding dear of religious values and laws which have the long-term effect on the success of one’s mission of spreading Torah and Mitzvos to the masses.
 Underlined by the Rebbe in the original
 Underlined by the Rebbe in the original