Consumed with worry over the Kishinev Pogrom (1903), the Russo-Japanese War (1904), the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), and World War I, the heads of European yeshivot considered fleeing with their students rather than waiting for the threats to pass. Joe Bobker (To Flee or Stay? Hakirah, 2010) frames their dilemma in the context of biblical sources. Hadn’t Moses fled Egypt? Hadn’t Jacob fled from Esav? Hadn’t David fled from Saul? On the other hand, wasn’t Elimelehk punished by God for fleeing during time of trouble?
In Radin, Poland, religious authorities were paralyzed with indecision. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Levinson was torn between staying and falling under German occupation or fleeing to Russia with his students. He opened a Bible at random and saw the verse that read: “with my staff I passed over the Jordan and now I have become two camps” (Genesis 32:1). Jacob’s statement became his guide. Relocation to Minsk saved them all. On the other hand, Rabbi Meir Simhah of Dvinsk refused to leave, averring that “as long as there are nine Jewish men in Dvinsk, I will complete the minyan.”
Reflecting on the difficult decisions life imposes, the Gere Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, author of Sefat Emet, wrote: “Every individual… must relate to his life as if it is placed in his trust and he is its guardian.”
Jacob, at the direction of his mother and in fear of his life, had once tried to flee from his brother. This time, another strategy was required. Jacob responded differently to each crisis, teaching that the wisest course of action when confronted by life’s challenges is the willingness to adapt.