As my wife and I have just returned from a eight-day stay in the Holy Land, and this week’s Torah portion just so happens to be all about the meraglim (spies) that came back from Israel with a negative report about the land, I thought it would be appropriate for me to share with all of you my own ‘report’ and personal reflections on the Land of Israel and its interesting inhabitants, including some amazing lessons that I learned from great Tzaddikim (righteous Jews) both dead and alive. I hope you will enjoy my “spy report”!
While some Israelis might have a rough exterior and may be perceived by outsiders as being somewhat rude – after all, it is not so easy to live in the Land of Israel with the constant barrage of rockets and threats of annihilation from its enemies, and the frictions between the various segments of the population, etc. etc., so who has time for ‘external’ formality? – I found that most Israelis are actually sweet and full of chein (kindness and graciousness). We were able to witness this already on the plane flying to Israel where the El Al flight attendants were pleasant, warm, and genuinely friendly to one and all. So maybe Israelis push a little bit while trying to get on a bus, something you would never see in Toronto or Atlanta, but that doesn’t reflect the true chein and softness that they possess, and which manifests itself more often than not.
On our first day in Israel, I ripped my best Strellson dress shirt in the Old City of Jerusalem on the steps leading down from the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall plaza … purposely. Yes, you read that correctly. Tearing one’s clothing as a sign of mourning upon first seeing the site of our destroyed Temple just behind the Western Wall is a long-standing tradition that Jews have been practicing ever since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70 CE. Just as we rip our clothing over the loss of a relative to express our sadness and mourning, so, too, do we tear our clothing when we first see the Temple Mount. Tearing one’s best shirt is a small price to pay for the reminder that G-d’s House is in shambles and so is the rest of the world, and that only when the Temple will be rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah will there be true peace and harmony in the world.
When we visited the Western Wall, my wife and I split up – I went to pray in the men’s section and she went to the women’s side. When I asked her how long she would need at the Wall, she said she needed at least an hour. When I asked her why so long (after all, the Minchah prayer takes all of 15 minutes max), she replied that there was so much that she needed to talk to G-d about – reminding me once again that prayer, at its essence, is a private, one-on-one conversation with G-d, a golden opportunity to ‘shmooze’ with Him about all that’s going on in our lives.
Visitors to the Holy Land soon come to realize that unlike the U.S. and Canada, there is no real “separation of shul and state” in the State of Israel – which is why much of the country is officially closed on Shabbos, and all matters of marriage and divorce are still run by the Chief Rabbinate, among other things. And there is a good reason for this: On October 20, 1952, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion paid a visit to chareidi (“ultra-Orthodox”) Rabbi Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz ZT”L, known as the “Chazon Ish” (the name of a scholarly work that he published and for which he became famous), to discuss the political hot-button issue of compulsory national service for women. The Chazon Ish adamantly opposed the induction of young Orthodox women into national service while the Prime Minister considered it a crucial matter of national interest. The Chazon Ish offered Ben Gurion a Talmudic parable to explain why the Orthodox viewpoint should receive priority. The Chazon Ish compared the Orthodox and secular communities to two camels (or boats or wagons), one laden with many packages and one with no packages at all, arriving at a narrow pass. One must go first and the Talmud (cf. Sanhedrin 32b) rules that the camel (or boat or wagon) laden with many packages receives precedence. With this Talmudic reference, the Chazon Ish was comparing the laden camel to the ancient Jewish tradition the Orthodox uphold. In comparison, the secular worldview is quite new. The Orthodox camel carries 2,000 years of Jewish tradition and must therefore receive precedence.
Israel is such a holy country that even the secular buses talk Torah! I witnessed this firsthand while travelling on a bus in Jerusalem. There was a sign at the front of the bus indicating that one should get up to give his seat to an elderly person. But instead of just writing “Please get up for an elderly person”, the sign on this bus was a direct quote from the Torah in Leviticus (19:32), which commands us “Mipnei seivah takum – in the presence of an old person shall you rise”!
We had the good fortune of visiting with one of the great Kabbalists of Jerusalem, Rabbi Gamliel Rabinovitch shlit”a and he gave us many blessings. When my wife asked him what special practice our family could take on to be worthy of those blessings, Rav Gamliel responded: “Say berachos (blessings) with kavanah (intent).” Then he added the following sharp insight which really resonated with me. He asked: “Why do we eat our food innerveinig (“looking inside”, i.e. we’re really into what we eat) but we make blessings on the food fun oyserveinig (“looking outside”, i.e. we recite the blessings on the food without any real intent or focus).
As much as Israel is an incredibly safe place to visit or live (I always say that one is far more likely to be killed in a car accident on any major highway in North America than it is to be blown up by a terrorist in most places in Israel), we were reminded a few times during our trip that all is not perfect in our homeland and that the Messiah is not here yet. Twice in one day we heard air-raid sirens go off – in Jerusalem and Tiberias - as part of an ongoing IDF drill to prepare Israelis for the worst, G-d forbid. As well, we had intended to go to the (separate) beach in Ashdod on Sunday in the south of the country, but we had to change our plans after hearing that a few rockets had hit nearby Ashkelon the previous evening. (We went to the lovely Netanya beach in the north of the country instead.). Can you imagine that? Does this happen anywhere else besides Israel? Growing up in Queens, New York, I don’t remember my mother ever having said to us, “We had planned on visiting the Empire State Building in Manhattan today – but we had to change our plans because of rocket fire in the area”. But this is the reality that many Israelis face daily and we should never forget that.
In Israel, even the graffiti is meaningful and has a message. While waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem for bus #163 to take us to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem (it was so good to see “Mama Rochel” once again and to ask her to beseech G-d on our behalf that “V’shavu vanim ligvulam – and your children will return to their border” – see Jeremiah 31:16), I noticed some Hebrew graffiti that had been etched on the side of the bus stop. It was a short poem addressed to Bibi Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, and it read: “Bibi hitorer, dam Yisrael eino hefker – Bibi, beware! For Jewish blood you must care!”
My absolute favorite part of the country is the north, especially the holy city of Tzefas (Safed), which has an inordinate amount of holy people to visit – most of whom have been dead for over 450 years. The holy cemetery on the mountainside in Tzfas contains the graves of some of the most famous Tzaddikim and Kabbalists that ever walked the planet, including the likes of Rabbi Isaac Luria ZT”L, known as the Ariza”l, (he also has two synagogues and a mikveh in Tzefas that you can visit as well), and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz ZT”L, famous composer of the Lecha Dodi prayer that we sing every Friday night as we welcome the Holy Shabbos. One grave that really moved me was that of Rabbi Elazar Azkari ZT”L, who wrote the famous work Sefer Chareidim, and who is buried right next to the Ariza”l. Above Rabbi Azkari’s grave hangs a sign with some words of mussar (ethical character refinement) that this great man wrote and which spoke directly to me: “One who loses a flower, does it make sense that in his anger and frustration he should break a vase worth 1000 flowers?! My friend, you must surely know that your soul, a repository of G-dliness inside you, actually departs from you when you get angry, so how does it make sense for you to get upset over fleeting things and forfeit your eternal soul?” Boy did I need to hear that …
One final reflection from the trip: As my wife and I were walking back from the Western Wall this past Friday night with our newly-married daughter and son-in-law (they are such a cute couple, kein ayin hara, and we are so proud of them!) who live in the Maalot Dafna section of Jerusalem, we witnessed a scene that I had only heard about before but had never actually seen, and it disturbed me greatly. Some non-observant Israelis made the unfortunate mistake of driving their cars on the outskirts of Meah Shearim, an “Ultra-Orthodox” neighborhood, where they were surrounded by a whole group of frum (observant) Jews – kids and adults – who were yelling at them at the top of their lungs “Shabbos!” “Shabbos!” “Shabbos!”. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not an advocate of driving on Shabbos, and I fervently wish that all the Jewish people would observe Shabbos together as it was meant to be. I also understand that protesting and yelling at those who drive their cars past religious neighborhoods on Shabbos is not intended to impress upon the drivers the beauty and importance of Shabbos – it is quite obvious that yelling at those Jews who are driving on Shabbos will not accomplish that goal, and, if anything, will turn them further away from their religion – but rather is to remind those who are witnessing this violation of Shabbos that it is wrong so that it doesn’t impact on them negatively. Still, I believe that there’s got to be a better way. How about launching a billboard campaign across the State of Israel (and even in the US and Canada) with the following softer and more inclusive message geared to our fellow, non-observant Jews: “Shabbat … Zeh gam shelachem!” … “Shabbos … it’s also yours!” Imagine a secular Jew driving past Meah Shearim on Friday night surrounded by hundreds of Shabbos-loving, religious Jews yelling: “Shabbat … Zeh gam shelachem! What a different world it would be! Who knows, the Messiah might even come!