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Parshas Ki Tisa – The Rock’s Cleft (Guest Post from Rav Yonatan Pachas)

This Dvar Torah from Rav Yonatan Paches is dedicated as a merit l'ilui nishmas Elimelech Dovid ben Dov Berel HaKohein and for the refuah shleimah of Tzvi Avraham ben Gittle, Adina bas Chana, Sara Nechama bas Shalhevet Leora, and Yehudis Chaya bas Shalhevet Leora, b’soch sh’ar cholei Yisrael, as well as in the merit of those defending Israel and the Jewish people.


As a young man, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky became the rabbi of the small village of Tzitevian, in Lithuania. The townsfolk could barely pay his meager salary, and with six children, his debts began to escalate. Years later, he would tell family members that he was embarrassed to walk past the owner of the grocery store because of all the money he owed him. Rav Yaakov had to find a new rabbinical position elsewhere.

Rav Yaakov applied for a position as a rav in three different towns – Anikst, Plungyan, and Wilkomir – and waited for their replies. He and Rebbetzin Ettel were thrilled to hear that Wilkomir, a town of 8,000 Jews, would offer him the position. Rav Yaakov had applied during the summer, and before Rosh Hashanah the leaders of Wilkomir told him that he would receive his official Ksav Harabbanus, letter of rabbinical acceptance, immediately after Sukkos.

A few days after Sukkos, however, his wife read in the Yiddish newspaper that a different rabbi was congratulated on becoming the new rabbi of Wilkomir. She was so devastated that she sat on the floor and cried. To her, it felt like Tishah B’Av. The salary Wilkomir had promised them would have enabled them to pay their debts, and, now, there seemed to be no relief from their plight. Rav Yaakov did not agree. He said that everything happens for a reason. He would not anguish over the lost position. He could not understand why it happened, but he was sure there was a reason.

With his financial situation becoming more precarious each day, he decided to fulfill a commitment that every kollel fellow in the Kollel of Slabodka had to make. If they learned in the kollel for at least five years, they could not go into business; they were required to accept a rabbinical or teaching position. In addition, at some point they were obligated to dedicate time to raise funds for the Kollel, for which they were entitled to receive a stipend. Rav Yaakov decided to travel to America on behalf of Slabodka, and use part of his salary to pay his debts.

He had no intention of settling in America. He would cross the Atlantic for one purpose only: to raise money for the Slabodka Kollel. When he reached the goal he had set, he would return. When the Kovno Rav, Rabbi Avraham Dov Ber Kahana Shapiro (1870-1943), the Dvar Avraham, heard about this, he sent for Rav Yaakov. Rav Yaakov considered the Dvar Avraham his rebbe and mentor from whom he had received semichah, rabbinic ordination. The Dvar Avraham was very stern. “There are three hundred more rabbanim like you here in Lithuania,” he said. “They don’t need you here. Go to America and stay there. There you will be able to accomplish in Torah and chinuch.” Despite his rebbe’s exhortation, Rav Yaakov still asked, “Please give me a berachah, blessing, that I should be able to return to Lithuania,” but the Dvar Avraham reiterated that he felt Rav Yaakov should remain in America.

In 1937, Rav Yaakov arrived in New York and began soliciting funds for the Slabodka Kollel. Eventually he took a temporary job as an interim rabbi in Seattle, but traveled to Toronto to apply in person for a rabbinical position in that city. On March 12, 1938, Adolph Hitler announced an Anschluss with Austria, annexing the smaller nation into a Greater Germany. Rav Yaakov understood that Hitler’s goals were world dominion and the annihilation of the Jewish people. All the Jews in Europe would be in grave danger. Rav Yaakov foresaw another world war, and he resolved to remain in America and bring his family to join him.

In Toronto, Rav Yaakov was at a Purim seudah, sitting with two other people from Europe. He was so adamant that Jews should not return to Europe, that he had the two men, Rabbi Avraham Leib Berkowitz and Rabbi Axelrod, give him a tekias kaf, firm handshake, to affirm their promise that they would take their families out of Europe.

Rav Yaakov went to an interview for the rabbinical position in Congregation Toras Emes in Toronto. Many board members were in favor of his candidacy, but an equal number opposed him because he was not Chassidic. Many of the shul members were Polish-Galician chassidim, and they wanted a rabbi with a similar background. One board member asked Rav Yaakov,” Do you have a Rebbe?” Rav Yaakov replied, “Yes, I do. I have a rebbe whom I served diligently. I ate with him, I slept in his home, and I attended him, but he was a Litvak (a Lithuanian misnagid).” Rav Yaakov was referring to his rebbe, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, who was certainly not Chassidic.

The debate among the board members went on for a few days, and then a traveling Chassidic Rebbe from Poland came to Toronto. After hearing about the opposition of some of the board members to engage Rav Yaakov, he said, “In my travels, I passed through the prestigious Lithuanian city of Wilkomir, where there is also a Chassidic presence, and I can tell you most definitely that they were ready to take Rav Yaakov as their rav, until someone of influence pressured them to hire a different candidate.” He continued, “If Rabbi Kamenetsky was good enough for Wilkomir, he should be good enough for you.”

And he was! Rav Yaakov was given the position, brought his family to America on September 11, 1938, and remained at the shul until 1945. As Rav Yaakov reflected on that experience, he would say, “Surely it was hashgachah pratis, Divine Providence, that I was not given the position in Wilkomir, as nebach, the rav and the whole community were killed during the Holocaust. Our not being there spared our lives; but why was the ordeal of being accepted and then rejected in Wilkomir necessary? It was so that that Rebbe would hear about it and, a year later, would tell the people in Toronto, so I could get the position there.”[1]


After Moshe prayed to God to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, he asked to be witness to the glory of the Almighty. Our Sages understand[2] Moshe’s request to be an appeal to understand one of the world’s most challenging situations: why bad things happen to good people. What was God’s response? He said to Moshe, “‘You will not be able to see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ And Hashemsaid, ‘Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock. And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen.’”[3] What exactly does this mean?

Rabbi Moshe Sofer, the Chasam Sofer, explains that seeing God’s “face,” up front, is an allusion to understanding life’s events as they take place. We’re incapable of fully understanding an event while it’s happening. The idea of the righteous suffering while the wicked prosper is an anomaly beyond our ability to grasp. Only when we “stand with God” and can see the whole picture as He does, will we have the ability to comprehend things in context, and then appreciate everything that God did. Seeing His “back” is a reference to hindsight. We can recognize the Almighty and His kindness when we look back, when we look in retrospect. Looking back at the episodes that occurred, we understand that everything was for the good; however, we’re oftentimes unable to see His “face,” to see the kindness of the trials of life while they’re still ongoing. We don't see why and how they’re for our benefit. Only in retrospect can we have the clarity of vision to see and understand.

Moshe’s precise placement seems to reinforce this idea, as well. On the one hand, God could’ve simply placed His hand over Moshe until He passed; however, He placed him “into the cleft of the rock.” Why? Perhaps because sometimes the protection that we seek comes in the form of discomfort. Sometimes being covered by the Hand of God suffices but, other times, we need to be in “the cleft of the rock,” to experience the trials and tribulations in order to provide our deliverance. Sometimes in life, there are numerous difficulties that need to be undergone in order to provide you with everything you’re looking for.

The next time you find yourself in “the cleft of the rock,” take a deep breath. Realize that you may not see God’s face right now but He’s covering you with His hand and, if you look carefully and you see His back, you’ll understand how it was all for your benefit.


[1] Illuminations of the Maggid (Artscroll/Mesorah), pp. 147-149.

[2] Berachos 7a.

[3] Shemos 33:20-23.

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