A Call to Freedom

A few years ago, I received this anonymous email outlining the fate of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence:

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured. Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags.

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton. At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution.

Two centuries later, few of us ever contemplate making sacrifices for what we believe in. Perhaps we are too preoccupied profiting from our freedom to bother thinking about what we owe to the system that enables us to prosper. It is a deplorable failing for an American.

It is even more deplorable for a Jew.

Our patriarchs Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov suffered alienation and persecution for the sin of rejecting paganism and moral anarchy. The generations in Egypt endured 210 years of escalating oppression, slavery, and infanticide. The generation of Moshe wandered for 40 years in the desert to merit entering their land. The generations of the judges and kings fought against internal and external enemies to build and preserve the spiritual integrity of their nation.

And generations of exiles have struggled against religious persecution, genocide, and assimilation at the hands of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, against pogroms at the hands of Crusaders and Cossacks, against holocausts at the hands of Hitlers and Stalins. They sacrificed their lives, their fortunes, and their children — sometimes willingly, sometimes forcibly — for no other reason than because they were Jews.

What have we sacrificed?

It’s easy to credit ourselves with having sacrificed cheeseburgers, shrimp scampi, mixed swimming, Friday night movies, Saturday golf games, and sleeping in late on Sunday mornings. But do we dedicate enough of our time and energy to learning, to chesed, to showing respect to our parents and teachers, to being patient with our children, to conducting ourselves respectfully in shul, and to guarding our tongues from gossip and slander?

It’s a good time of year to reflect upon the responsibilities of freedom. It’s a better time show our appreciation for the freedoms that we have by recommitting ourselves to using those freedoms the way HaShem wants us to.

Choked to Life

”Thank Hashem for His kindness, and His wonders you should tell over to people” (Tehillim 107, 21). The Shelah notes that this passuk starts in the singular (kindness) and concludes in the plural (wonders). Furthermore while we thank Hashem for kindness, when we speak to other people we are told to mention His wonders. What is the significance of these differences? We may suggest that David Hamelech is revealing to us the secret of strengthening our relationship with Hashem and of helping others to do the same.

When it comes to our relationship with Hashem we must thank him for the smallest acts of kindness, as Chazal say “On every breath a person takes he is obligated to thank Hashem” ( Midrash Rabba , Devarim 2). However, when speaking to others about Hashem’s greatness we have to wake them up from the deep sleep that causes us to forget all the acts of kindness He does for us constantly. When someone experiences special hashgachah from Hashem he is obligated to tell this to others. When Moshe Rabbeinu met Yisro after all the miracles of Mitzrayim, he told him immediately about the miracles (Brisker Rav, Shemos 18:8). Eliezer too, returned from his mission to find a wife for Yitzchak and before anything else told Yitzchak how he had experienced kefitzas haderech and how the water had flowed upwards to Rifka at the well (Mizmor L’esoda page 291).

The following experience brings these thoughts to life.

Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is known for some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. During the daytime, for obvious reasons, it is impossible for a religious Jew to visit them. Early in the morning they are less crowded.

During Elul 5752, a few weeks after our marriage, we were visiting my wife’s family in Rio . Because it was Elul, I decided one morning that I would tovel in the sea before anyone got there. This way I would be able to see the beauty of these famous beaches while performing a mitzvah . My wife warned me that there were muggers around, but my desire to tovel and see the beaches overrode her admonition. I wore my bathing suit underneath my clothes and headed for the beach.

As I watched the sunrise, I reflected on the month of Elul and its predominant mitzvah to do teshuvah and return to Hashem. My heart was filled with awe over the sheer splendor of the experience.

As I prepared to go into the sea, suddenly two enormous hulks loomed up beside me. I contemplated running, but realized that I had no chance of escaping them. What could I do? One of the thugs grabbed my neck and started to choke me while forcing my face into the sand. The other one searched through my few possessions, repeatedly muttering, “No money, amigo.” This was an abrupt lesson about what Chazal mean that one must thank Hashem for every breath. The air supply to my lungs was getting less and less, and I was sure that my end had arrived.

Suddenly a thought popped into my mind, a shiur that I had heard about the Brisker Rav. His life was endangered and he thought, ein od milvado “there is nothing in the world except for Hashem”). Chazal promise that anyone who concentrates on this phrase will be spared from all danger, and this thought had saved the lives of the Brisker Rav and many others.

As these words came into my mind the mugger released his grip on my throat and both muggers ran away. As they departed with my few possessions they shouted, “The Mafia of Brazil!” Still determined to complete my mitzvah , I toveled in the sea and ran quickly back to my mother-in-law’s apartment.

During the same year as the mugging in Brazil, on 18 ( chai ) of Sivan, Erev Shabbos Shelach, I was in a serious car accident where I was miraculously saved. These two revelations of Hashem’s niflaos woke me up and pushed me to think that maybe Hashem wanted more from me. As a result I started to write sefarim, and five years ago opened up Kollel Toras Chaim.

May Hashem help us to recognize Him constantly by merely hearing about His wonders, amen.

Rabbi Travis will be making a seudas hodayah on Shabbos the eighteenth (Chai) Sivan at the Gra shul in Har Nof. Please be in touch with him if you would like to attend. The following article will appear in this week’s Hamodia.