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An Exile Like No Other

The final chapter in an epic battle thousands of years old

TO describe the times that we are living in now as “devastatingly painful and overwhelmingly frightening” would not fully capture their true essence. However, we who are maaminim bnei maaminim understand in the very core of our neshamos that this is not just about defeating a group of barbaric monsters in human form, but the final chapter in an epic battle thousands of years old.

Midrash Rabbah explains why Noach’s name is mentioned three times in the first pasuk in parshas Noach, when one reference would be sufficient: It is because Noach actually lived in three distinct worlds. There was Noach before the Mabul, Noach during the Mabul, and Noach after the Mabul. Each was a different existence.

When Rav Simcha Wasserman ztz”l spoke to American audiences after the Holocaust, he referenced this midrash, saying, “I feel like Noach, too. I was one Simcha before the war, another Simcha during the war, and now I am Simcha after the war.”

All of us can relate to that experience. We lived in the world before October 7, we’re now living in the world of the subsequent war that is raging on, and hopefully we will soon live in a more secure and consistent world after all this ends.


Most Difficult of All

Our current battle against these barbaric sub-humans is a fight for our very survival after the worst slaughter since the Holocaust — but it is also something much more.

It is the very battle that has been prophesied and discussed in great detail over the past 3,000 years. The Zohar, the Midrash in Pesikta Rabbah, and Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, the Ramban, the Maharal, Rav Chaim Vital, and the Chofetz Chaim are just some of the references who outline the final battle between the descendants of Yishmael and the descendants of Yitzchak that will be played out in all its gory and painful detail during Acharis Hayamim.

The words of the Midrash hold a seeming contradiction. One source predicts that Bnei Yisrael will undergo four different exiles over the course of our history: Galus Bavel, Galus Madai, Galus Yavan, and finally the longest galus of all, Galus Edom. Yet Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer (Chapter 32) and the Zohar (end of parshas Lech Lecha) both state that Galus Yishmael will be the most difficult of all.

How are we to understand this? Yishmael is not even listed among the Four Exiles, yet we learn that it will be the most difficult exile of all. If there are in fact five exiles, why are we told that there will be four?

The Rishonim and Achronim have offered a variety of explanations to this fundamental question, but first we must understand what makes Yishmael the “the most difficult of all.”

In his classic commentary on Sefer Tehillim, Sefer Eitz Hadaas Hatov, Rav Chaim Vital, the prime disciple of the Arizal, shares an incredible interpretation of kapitel 124 from his great rebbi. Dovid Hamelech writes that Yishmael will attempt to rule over the entire world and to wipe out the name Yisrael. They will cause Bnei Yisrael tremendous tzaros, the likes of which have never before been seen.

Dovid Hamelech says, “Lulei Hashem shehayah lanu b’kum aleinu adam, azai chayim bela’unu, Had Hashem not been with us when Adam rose against us, we would have been swallowed up alive.” This pasuk, Rav Chaim Vital explains, refers to the end of days, and the word “adam” refers to the enemy that the Torah termed “pere adam” — none other than Yishmael. Thousands of years before our present calamity, Dovid Hamelech taught us that we will have no hope nor any recourse other than our trust in HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s salvation.

Quoting his rebbi the Arizal, Rav Chaim Vital teaches that that the final galus of Yishmael will be worse than any other previous galus and will cause us unprecedented grief. If not for Hashem’s intervention, Yishmael might wipe out Klal Yisrael.

Midrash Tanchuma (Shoftim 14) teaches that Hashem wanted Bnei Yisrael to daven wholeheartedly for their redemption from Galus Mitzrayim, and that is why He worsened their already grueling workload with new decrees that were impossible to withstand. After hundreds of years of suffering, it is only at the end of parshas Shemos, when the Jews were no longer given straw to make their allotted quota of bricks, that they finally “cried out,” as the pasuk says, “Vaniz’ak el Hashem.” And when they reached that level of vaniz’ak, when they turned to Hashem with a desperate plea, the process of redemption began to play out in an obvious way. So, too, in the Final Days, our incomprehensible suffering at the hands of Yishmael will elicit authentic tefillah, and only then will the Geulah finally come.

And not for a moment should anyone question whether these are in fact the Final Days foretold by Chazal, because many of us have heard directly from the Sar HaTorah Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztz”l that we are undoubtedly experiencing Acharis Hayamim.

It is known that Rav Chaim never veered from the teachings of his revered rebbi and uncle, the Chazon Ish ztz”l. After the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Chazon Ish was often asked whether this time period heralded the reishis tzemichas geulaseinu, the initial flowering of the Geulah. And he would always answer (see Pe’er Hador and Koveitz Igros Chazon Ish) that while he could not authoritatively state that this period is the beginning of the Geulah, he could say with confidence that it is the sof galusa, the end of galus.

Yet during his final year, Rav Chaim often repeated — and I heard it in person several times — that Mashiach is “al harechov, right up the street,” and that the Geulah is imminent. He would advise people not to leave Eretz Yisrael, as they might miss their opportunity to greet Mashiach.

“Isn’t that a different response from the one given by Rav Chaim’s great rebbi, the Chazon Ish?” I asked him several years ago.

Rav Chaim’s response to me was simple: “The words of the Neviim and Chazal are an open book for anyone who just wants to see. Just look at the words, and you won’t need further clarification.”


Yishmael’s Spiritual Advantage

Why, though, isn’t Galus Yishmael listed as one of the four established exiles, and how is it so fundamentally different from them?

The Maharal (in Ner Mitzvah) provides a deeper understanding of Yishmael’s unique power. He explains that all the other nations who exiled and dominated us did not do so because of their own merits; rather, due to our own failings, we were subjugated to the superpower of the era. Once we did teshuvah, our exile ended overnight, because these sovereign nations did not possess any inherent merit or right to dominate us. Our fate was entirely contingent on our level of Torah and mitzvah observance.

Galus Yishmael is fundamentally different. When Yishmael dominates and persecutes us, it is not due solely to our own sins, but also to his own innate merit. That’s why this galus is not listed with the others, and that’s what makes it the most difficult galus of all.

What zechus could possibly be possessed by this nation described as “pere adam” — which the Chofetz Chaim explains is a savage nature that will never change, no matter how educated, civilized, or modernized Yishmael becomes?

Many opinions are offered. Rashi and Ramban focus on a tefillah that Avraham Avinu offered on behalf of Yishmael, the request, “Lu Yishmael yichyeh lefanecha — Would that Yishmael will live before You.Rashi explains that Avraham wanted his son Yishmael to be an eved Hashem. The Ramban explains that Avraham wanted Yishmael to live until the end of time. Rav Chaim Vital related that his rebbi, the Arizal, fasted 50 taaneisim to try to annul this request — to no avail.

Another explanation of Yishmael’s merit comes from Ohr HaChaim. He explains that Avraham davened to Hashem that Yishmael would do teshuvah during the Final Days. Meshech Chochmah (parshas Lech Lecha) understands this teshuvah to be manifest in the fact that while Yishmael committed all three major aveiros while living in the house of Avraham, he eventually repented for one of those sins, avodah zarah, and committed to belief in one G-d. In fact, the Rambam writes that unlike Christianity, belief in Islam is not considered avodah zarah.

The Ramban posits that Sarah Imeinu sinned by forcing Hagar and Yishmael to leave her house for the desert, where they would have died had not the malach Hashem saved them. The power of Yishmael until today, he says, is the punishment for Sarah’s banishment, and that power will exist until the sin is rectified.

The Zohar (parshas Vayeira, no. 188) offers a different explanation: Yishmael’s power stems from his willingly undergoing a bris milah at the age of 13, unlike Yitzchak, who had his bris milah at eight days old and was not yet old enough to do so by choice.

Another merit is offered by the Nesivos in his sefer on Aggadah, Nachlas Yaakov. When Hagar abandoned Yishmael, as she couldn’t bear to watch him die, he cried and did teshuvah. In the merit of that teshuvah, the malach came and blessed him that he would become a goy gadol, a great nation. This cry of teshuvah earned Yishmael a claim to Eretz Yisrael that would last until Redemption.

An even deeper dimension of the development of Yishmael’s innate koach is offered by the Netziv (Haamek Davar, Bereishis 18:15). I am indebted to my dear chaver and mentor Rav Yaakov Feitman, who directed me to Rav Dovid Cohen’s sefer Maasei Avos Siman Labanim (page 56-57), which sheds light on the Netziv’s explanation.

He writes that Yishmael’s claims against Yitzchak all stem from a mistake that Sarah Imeinu made when she heard the promise that her elderly husband would have a child and responded skeptically, “My master is old.” As a result of that indiscretion, middah k’neged middah, after Sarah in fact gave birth to Yitzchak, cynics mockingly claimed that Yitzchak’s father was Avimelech and not Avraham Avinu.

The Midrash indicates that the person who did the “mocking” was Yishmael himself (obviously to punish Sarah for her mistreatment of Hagar and later on, for banishing him from his father’s home). In claiming that Yitzchak was the son of Avimelech, he was in fact staking his own position as the sole heir of Avraham — and therefore the sole heir to Eretz Yisrael.

Yishmael understood that if he remained the sole heir of Avraham, as he has claimed since the very birth of Yitzchak, then Yitzchak’s children would have no destiny to fulfill and no Divine guarantee of continued existence.

This is the dangerous enemy that we currently face. Today’s battle is not only for land or for an ancient inheritance. It is a battle for the very lifeblood of Klal Yisrael.

And it is a battle where our enemy has some sort of spiritual armor as well. For while Yishmael is defined as “pere adam,” he possesses innate zechusim that allowed him to exist and (in a sense) to thrive all these years in Eretz Yisrael, even when Bnei Yisrael were exiled. The nation of Yishmael remains a formidable enemy unlike our other historic persecutors, because it possesses real spiritual merit.


It Will Never Be Theirs

But there is another factor to this complex reality. While Yishmael possesses spiritual merit, Hashem explicitly promised Avraham that “lo yirash ha’am hazeh, this nation (of Yishmael) will not inherit the Land” — not then, not now, and not ever.

This painful realization on the part of Yishmael has led to them spilling rivers of Yiddishe blood and perpetrating indescribable horrors, but none of that will change the facts on the ground. This Land will never belong to them.

Many years ago, there was a time when Arab terrorists were hijacking planes going to and from Eretz Yisrael and holding Jewish passengers hostage. One such hijacking, in Elul 5730/1970, targeted the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, along with his family and some students. The hostages were held for several weeks, and the entire Torah world was galvanized to do everything possible to ensure the safe return of Rav Hutner.

At the time, the father of one of my childhood friends and neighbors was not only a very prominent pulpit rabbi in the Bronx, he was also a well-connected person in Washington. In addition, Rabbi Shalom Rubin had been one of the first students of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin. Rabbi Moshe Sherer z”l, the legendary askan and head of Agudath Israel, led the efforts to save Rav Hutner, who was not in good health at the time. Rabbi Sherer called Rabbi Rubin and authorized him to travel to Washington and reach out to all his contacts, to bring international pressure on the countries responsible for this tragedy and to work for the release of the Rosh Yeshivah.

After several weeks of nonstop shtadlanus at the highest levels, word came that the Rosh Yeshivah and his family and several students had been released and were en route to the United States. Due to his integral role in this effort, Rabbi Rubin was given permission to go onto the tarmac to be one of the first to meet the Rosh Yeshivah. Rabbi Rubin called his son Moshe, who was in my home at the time, and told him to get ready as he would be picking him up to come with him to greet the Rosh Yeshivah — and he invited me to come along.

As we were waiting for the plane to come to a stop at the gate, we saw the door to the terminal open and watched as the gadol hador, Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l, took his place as the first to greet Rav Hutner upon his arrival. From my vantage point, I watched the Rosh Yeshivah emerge from the plane in very weakened condition, and I saw Rav Moshe literally run to him. They hugged each other while crying with much emotion and relief. I saw Rav Hutner whisper something to Rav Moshe, who nodded his head in agreement, and then Rav Hutner was escorted to the waiting ambulance.

On the way back home, I asked Rabbi Rubin what Rav Hutner had told Rav Moshe. He answered that Rav Hutner said, “I looked into the eyes of the captors and saw in them the burning anger at the fact that ‘lo yirash ha’am hazeh,’ they will never inherit the Land.”

It has been many years since I heard those words, and every time during those years that I heard of another atrocity committed by these animals in the guise of human beings, I ascribed it to that burning anger.

The Rosh Yeshivah revealed to us the root source of Yishmael’s hatred for Klal Yisrael: the fact that never — despite thousands of years of unceasing efforts and the spilling of oceans of Yiddishe blood — will they inherit the Land bequeathed by Hashem to Avraham Avinu, who in turn bequeathed it to his sole heir, Yitzchak and his descendants. This is the way it has always been, and this is the way it will always be.


Battle of the Spirit

Knowing of both Yishmael’s spiritual merit and his murderous anger at the fact that he will never inherit the Land, what is our role in this current battle?

As concerned Jews who follow the developing events closely, we tend to worry about missiles and tunnels and foreign aid. All one hears in conversations in the coffee rooms is the concern that the US government and the other countries will decrease their support for Israel’s military operations.

These are foolish concerns, because we all know and believe that “lev melech b’Yad Hashem,” and world leaders will continue to support Eretz Yisrael as long as Hashem wills it — whether the war lasts days, weeks, or months.

What should frighten us, however, is the apathy and indifference in our own Torah camp to the situation in Eretz Yisrael. Watch how many people exit the shul after davening even before the Tehillim begins and how many others leave before it is completed. That apathy is more disconcerting than the potential apathy of the world leaders. It affects our ability to properly focus our full attention on our responsibility to storm the Heavens with tefillah.

In fact, after the Holocaust, the Chazon Ish commented to his brother-in-law Rav Shmuel Greineman that Hashem had surely kept the full scope of the Churban concealed from him, because had he been aware, he would have stormed the Heavens until Hashem would have had no choice, as it were, but to annul the decree.

Unlike the Holocaust, during this war the horrific massacres were not concealed. And we continue to hear and see the terrible news as it happens. The horrors and tremendous losses are not hidden from us, and hence we bear the responsibility to cry out in pain and in tefillah.

We are forever indebted to the men and women of the IDF who, with great courage and conviction, put their very lives on the line on behalf of all Am Yisrael. We must daven for their success and well-being, and we can’t ignore the real danger they face for even a moment. At the same time, we must understand that this is primarily a spiritual battle dating back thousands of years. We will triumph only if we activate the spiritual weapon at our disposal: the koach of our tefillah, both individual and communal, with every fiber of our being.

Another area we can focus on is achdus. One doesn’t have to be a navi to understand that HaKadosh Baruch Hu unleashed His anger on His children after the entire world had a front-row seat over the past year to the spectacle of Eretz Yisrael being torn apart brick by brick. Who can forget the leader of Iran’s evil regime mockingly predicting that Israel would fall without her enemies having to fire even a single shot? What great pain that must have brought to Hashem, Who — like any father — only wants to see His children get along.


Final Concession

We are left with a question: If Yishmael has existed all these years due to his innate merit — be it due to Avraham’s special tefillah for his survival, or his own teshuvah — how can it all end in our favor?

The Midrash in several places, and as developed by Rav Dovid Cohen, assures us that ultimately, Yishmael recognized Yitzchak’s role as the true son of Avraham and the one who Hashem promised will be called the “zera Avraham,” the rightful heir of all the promises for the future of Klal Yisrael.

This occurred when it came time to bury Avraham Avinu: Yishmael stepped aside and let Yitzchak, as the rightful heir, escort his father to his final resting place.

So, too, during Acharis Hayamim, Yishmael will finally step aside and allow Yitzchak and his descendants to take their place as the sole heirs of all the birchos Avraham. One day — may it arrive very soon — the children of Yishmael will accept their destiny and role in the world and step aside so that Klal Yisrael can fulfill theirs. And as Dovid Hamelech clearly outlines for us, the only way this will come to fruition is through tefillah — but not a standard tefillah. It must reach the level of “Vaniz’ak,” the desperate screams we sounded in Mitzrayim.

The famous midrash in Yalkut Shemoni (Yeshayah no. 484) describes how Hashem will finally bring us the Geulah that we so desperately need. It will occur amid incredibly painful and paralyzing fear, when we feel that all hope is lost. And then Hashem will call out to us, “Why are you afraid? All that I have done is for you, to bring you the final Redemption; you should know that the time has finally arrived. The time for Redemption has come, come out to greet the Mashiach.”

May Hashem bring us those wonderful tidings today. May He terminate Yishmael’s power over us and restore Klal Yisrael to its promised standing in the world as the sole heir to the promises made to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov so many years ago.


This article was written l’zecher nishmas Sarah Chaya z”l bas Rav Chaim Aryeh Zev


Rabbi Chaim Aryeh Z. Ginzberg is the rav of the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center of Cedarhurst and the founding rav of Ohr Moshe Institute in Hillcrest, Queens. He is a published author of several sifrei halachah, sought-after lecturer and writer on Torah hashkafah, and author of the best-selling chizuk resource Rays of Hope (ArtScroll).


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 985)

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