Menachem Begin addressing the Knesset in 1974. (Photo: Government Press Office)
Raised in Brisk, Born in Jerusalem
BY RABBI DR. MEIR SOLOVEICHIK
Indisputably one of the greatest and most consequential leaders of modern Israel, Menachem Begin’s life was intertwined with some of the most momentous events of modern Jewish history. Head of Jabotinsky’s Betar youth movement in Poland, Begin was arrested by the Soviet Union’s NKVD in 1940. Freed in 1941, he made his way to British-occupied Palestine, where he quickly became the leader of the Irgun Tzeva’i Le’umi, leading the underground organization into armed revolt against Great Britain. After Israel’s founding in 1948, Begin became the head of the Herut party, leading the opposition to the left-wing Labor party for thirty years. In 1977, Begin’s Likud party finally came to power, whereupon he served as Prime Minister for six and a half years, until the fall of 1983.
During his time in office, Begin signed a peace treaty with Egypt and ordered the Israeli Air Force to destroy the nuclear reactor in Osirak near Baghdad, Iraq, shortly before it was to become operative. He also directed the 1982 “Operation Peace for Galilee,” aimed at dislodging the PLO from southern Lebanon, an operation that became a protracted conflict with many casualties. The passing of his wife Aliza and the strains of office led Begin to resign from office in September of 1983.
March 7, 2022 (4th of Adar II 5782) marks Menachem Begin’s 30th yahrzeit. We share these words of tribute from Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik to honor his memory.
Yom Kippur, 68 CE. All of Israel, it seems, has assembled on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and all eyes are on one man, the high priest, as he pleads Heaven’s forgiveness for his people. The cries of the crowd reach a crescendo as, in a moment commemorated to this day in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “the priests and the people standing in the upper court, hearing the Divine Name pronounced aloud by the high priest, bend and bow and prostrate themselves and declare: ‘Blessed be the Name of G-d now and forever!’”
Yom Kippur, 1943. Jerusalem’s ancient glory is gone. The narrow space in front of the Western Wall is filled with Jews immersed in worship, praying for themselves and for their European brethren, whose doom appears certain. Never has the long-ago destruction of the Temple seemed more immediate. As the sun is about to set, marking the close of the holy day, there is a sudden interruption:
And then, from both sides of the courtyard, in streamed British police armed with rifles and batons, threatening [the worshippers] with their very presence. They had come, “in the king’s name,” to prevent an “illegal act”: the blowing of the shofar at the close of the Sabbath of Sabbaths. As the end of the prayer approached, they squeezed further into the mass of worshippers, some even elbowing their way up to the wall. And when in spite of them the shofar was heard, their fury was unrestrained. They set upon the worshippers while prayer was still in progress. They hit out at heads; batons whistled through the air. Here and there was heard the cry of somebody injured. A song, too, burst forth: “Hatikvah.” Then the police struck out in all directions and chaos reigned.
The eyewitness who wrote that account, Menachem Begin, is the man who, seeing what he had seen in the plaza at the Western Wall, committed himself to prevent any such thing from happening again. For, he wrote, “These stones are not silent”:
They whisper. They speak softly of the Sanctuary that once stood here, of kings who knelt here once in prayer, of prophets and seers who here declaimed their message, of heroes who fell here, dying; and of how the great flame… was here kindled. This was the sanctuary, and this the country, which with its seers and kings and fighters was ours before the British were a nation. The testimony of these stones, sending out their light across the generations.
Who, it may be asked, taught Begin to hear the voice of the stones, to gaze at ruin and rubble and perceive the glory that once was? What gave this follower of the secular Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky such a profoundly religious connection to the Jewish past, and so ardent a determination to ensure the Jewish future?
The answer lies in the city of his birth: Brest-Litovsk, known to Jews everywhere as Brisk de-Lita, Brisk of Lithuania. The same city was home to my own forefathers, the Soloveichiks, and to the unique orientation to rabbinic Judaism that they pioneered and that would henceforth be known as the “Brisker way.”
As biographers have noted, Menachem Begin’s father, Ze’ev Wolf, was a passionate Zionist in a city whose rabbinic leadership leaned decidedly in the opposite direction. When Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, died in 1904, Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik ordered that the door of Brisk’s Great Synagogue be locked lest anyone attempt to eulogize him there. One might therefore have expected the young Begin to reject the religiosity of those who had themselves rejected the Zionism of his own father.
But that was far from being the case. In 1972, thirty years after the destruction of their city by the Nazis, descendants of Brisk gathered in Israel to mourn their lost home. Addressing them, Begin spoke of the pride they shared in Brisk de-Lita, in its history of rabbinic scholarship and its “powerful titans of Torah, veritable cedars of Lebanon.” Who among us, Begin asked his fellow townsmen, “didn’t see himself as a kind of partner of Rabbi Yoshe Ber [Soloveitchik], or Rabbi Hayyim, as if we were at one with them all the days of our lives?”
What did it mean to be a partner to the rabbis of Brisk? To follow the “Brisker way” involved – and still involves – melding one’s mind with the great rabbis of the past by delving deeply into their understanding of halachah, Jewish law. The method, which proceeds through the close study of texts, is not only intellectual, it is emotional; at its core is the assumption that the distance of centuries can be traversed in an instant, and that the genius of the past can remain ever present.
In a striking image, the late “Rav,” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), would recall the experience of being taught as a child by his father in the method of his father, Rabbi Hayyim. Their lessons would focus largely on the fierce debates in the Middle Ages over the writings of Maimonides (the Rambam, 1138–1204). “The Rambam,” writes the Rav, “was a constant guest in our house.”
In my young and impressionable mind there developed a dual impression: first, that the Rambam was being attacked by enemies who wanted to hurt him, and second, that the Rambam’s only defender was my father. I felt strongly that without my father, who knows what would happen to the Rambam… When the lesson was over, and the Rambam was comforted and smiled, I too was delighted. I would… run to my mother and cry out the good news: “Mother, mother, the Rambam won!… Father helped him!”
But once in a great while my father did not succeed, and despite all his efforts the enemies of the Rambam defeated him… My father would raise his head and sadly state, “There is no answer. No one is capable of resolving these questions”… With a broken heart I would walk slowly to my mother and cry out to her: “Mother, Father cannot answer the Rambam. What will we do?” And my mother would tell me: “Don’t worry. Father will find an answer to the Rambam. If he does not succeed, then when you grow up, perhaps you will find an answer.”
Menachem Begin, son of Brisk, who studied in its cheder and who prayed in its synagogue, was a true and faithful partner to this vision: never scrupulously observant in his religious practice, but always united with the Jews of the past and sustained by them in the face of uncertainty, turmoil, and terror. “True,” he commented in his 1972 address, “Brisk is where we came from. But we were born in Jerusalem.” To put it slightly differently: it was because he was raised in Brisk that he could honestly say he was born in Jerusalem.
If the British soldiers who set upon the praying Jews at the Wall, together with their leaders in London, underestimated the unbending firmness of Menachem Begin’s passion and commitment, it was because, to them, so powerful a connection was unimaginable.
This same connection to the immortal and ever-present past is what made Begin so different from many of his contemporaries at the founding of the state. Thus, David Ben-Gurion, for all of his love of the Hebrew Bible, harbored no particular warmth for the Jewish world that had been lost, the world that had unfolded in the two millennia between the Bible and the Israel Defense Forces – between, as it were, the Tanach and the Palmach.
Begin could not have been more different. He rejected Jewish impotence no less forcefully than did Ben-Gurion. But, like the Sephardim and the Religious Zionists who would one day form the backbone of his political party, he could not imagine and would never accept a narrative that slighted or elided all that Jewish Europe and the Sephardi Diaspora had accomplished. He was no less committed to the Jewish future than the most secular Zionist. But, for him, it was a future animated by the past.
Indeed, and once again in that same 1972 address, Begin would wryly recall the words of Ahad Ha’am in the late 19th century to the effect that the Western, emancipated Jew, having been granted the freedom he had so long sought to discard his Jewish identity, had become, in that very act, a slave to an identity imposed from without (an identity, we might add in the light of history, susceptible of being withdrawn at any moment). “With us in Brisk,” Begin said, “it was the opposite; in circumstances of persecution and subjugation, we remained, deep inside, free. If Jews persevered and even flourished in exile, all the while remaining linked to the Land of Israel, it was because, Zionist and non-Zionist alike, they gathered in places like the Great Synagogue of Brisk on Yom Kippur, a day for re-enacting in their minds and souls the spectacle of the people and the priests standing in the upper court as if it were the day before yesterday.”
In 1941, arrested by the Soviet NKVD for his Zionist activities and sentenced to eight years in the gulag, Begin was in prison in Vilna. “I wondered where I would be on the next Day of Atonement,” he writes in his great memoir White Nights:
Where would my old father and mother be, and my brother and sister? And as the brain had no answer, the fearful heart replied with prayer. As I recited the words sanctified from generation to generation, as I prayed silently, I felt the impenetrable barriers that separated me and those I loved fall away… The cell vanished, the walls disappeared, and there appeared in all its splendor the great illuminated synagogue [of Brisk] and my father’s humble dwelling, lit up by love, purity, faith, and the eyes of a loving mother. Kol Nidrei night in an NKVD prison… even such a night can be a night of solace, even such a day can be a day of identification with all that is good in man’s life.
Begin was right to worry about his parents; he could not then know that in the summer of that same year, the Nazis had conquered Brisk and murdered them and his brother. By 1942, Brisk de-Lita, a source of pride to Lithuanian Jewry for centuries and a spiritual jewel of the Diaspora, was gone. But not truly. For what Begin discovered in prison, at moments when hope seemed lost, was the power of prayer sanctified by generations to bring back his murdered parents, along with the Jews who had stood on the Temple Mount so many centuries earlier.
On Yom Kippur today, the Western Wall plaza is again packed with people. And now, as the shofars sound, no one harms or hinders the praying Jews as they exultantly exclaim, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The British soldiers are long departed, thanks in no small part to the man who had heard the whisper of those stones in 1943, over seventy years ago.
So much has been achieved – so much, that it is easy to forget what once was. If you visit Brisk itself on Yom Kippur today, you will see that the Great Synagogue still stands and that it, too, is packed with people. True, there is no Kol Nidrei, no re-enactment of the Temple service, no confession of sin – for the edifice in which so many once poured out their hearts in prayer is today a movie theater. Still, behind the glass façade that has been added to lend a modern sheen to the structure, the walls of the Great Synagogue of Brisk still bear witness.
Those walls, too, like the stones of the Wall in Jerusalem, whisper of another age and of the multitudes of Jews – fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, Yoshe Ber and Hayyim and all the rest – who stood in prayer with their feet in Brisk and their souls in Jerusalem. Among them, next to his own father, was the little boy who would one day lead the people of Israel, while never forgetting where he, too, once stood, and who again and again would remind his countrymen that honoring Zionism and its magnificent achievements entails honoring those whom he and they had loved and lost:
This lies within our spirit – thanks to our parents and their love of the land of Israel, thanks to their prayers, thanks to their certain faith in the advent of the messiah, however long in the coming, however long the wait. They did not live to see the beginning of the redemption of our people, but their children did. And so with love of Israel, of the Land of Israel and of Jerusalem, we sanctify their scattered ashes and raise up their souls in sanctity and purity and will carry their love in our hearts from generation to generation.
● This essay was originally published in Menachem Begin’s Zionist Legacy, Toby Press (2015).
Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.