An Israeli Icon
In a well-deserved honor, Menachem Begin has emerged as an Israeli icon in the past two decades. Especially among observant and traditional Jews, he is regarded as a favorite if not the most beloved and respected of all Israeli leaders past and present. Examining a few of his activities as prime minister in light of Sefer Melachim adds to our perspective on this now revered personality.
Begin Visits the Rav,
Rav Moshe and the Rebbe
Sefer Melachim’s two greatest kings, Chizkiyahu HaMelech and Yoshiyahu HaMelech, send messengers to a navi to inquire on their behalf (Melachim II 19:2 and 23:14) but do not visit the navi themselves. Brachot 10a presents this as a principled policy of even the most righteous of kings who felt that the navi should be subservient to the king.
In a stark contrast, when Menachem Begin came to the United States in 1977 after his first election as prime minister, he met with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Most notably, Mr. Begin did not ask these great rabbis to come to his hotel room. Instead, Prime Minister Begin traveled to each of them at their respective home bases in Washington Heights, the Lower East Side and Crown Heights.
It is even recounted that when Begin visited the Rebbe, each wanted to extend to the other the respect to be the first to enter the room. Once again, this stands in stark contrast to the struggle between Yishayahu HaNavi and Chizkiyahu HaMelech as to who should come to whose residence.
Begin’s visits to these great rabbis made a major impact on the observant Jewish population. Orthodox Judaism in those times was not at all as strong as it is today, and the Israeli leader traveling to the great rabbis served as a great boost to the Orthodox community.
Begin Averts Civil War
Like Rechavam, Begin heroically avoided a civil war when he ordered that the Irgun soldiers aboard the Altalena refrain from returning fire on the Haganah troops.
Much later in life, during his trip to New York, profoundly foolish and misguided Neturei Karta demonstrators outside of Mr. Begin’s hotel yelled on megaphones that Begin is a Nazi. Mr. Begin was deeply hurt, but gritted his teeth and remarked that a Jew does not fight back against another Jew. Begin’s silence and restraint in the face of vicious vitriol is reminiscent somewhat of Chizkiyahu’s silence in the wake of Ravshakeh’s terrible verbal attack on Hashem and Am Yisrael (Melachim II 18:19-25).
The First Lebanon War
One criticism, though, that is pointed in the direction of Mr. Begin was that he was overly ambitious during the First Lebanon War. Had he simply secured the Galil from rocket attacks, he would have enjoyed the backing of a consensus of the community. However, a large segment of Jews disagreed with Tzahal at that time pushing all the way to Beirut. In retrospect, it might be fair to say that Mr. Begin repeated some of Chizkiyahu HaMelech and Yoshiyahu HaMelech’s overly ambitious military campaigns.
Mr. Begin has achieved status as a 20th-century Jewish icon. While he may not have been perfect, he was and is widely perceived as a fully sincere individual whose pure concern was for the welfare and benefit of Am Yisrael. His visits to Rabbi Soloveitchik, Rabbi Feinstein and the Rebbe rank him in Jewish history as surpassing even the greatest of the Sefer Melachim kings in terms of the respect he accorded to the Torah leadership.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.