“We are certain that the eternity of Yisroel will prevail,” the gedolim proclaimed. “Yeshiva and kollel students will not be drafted to the army, they will not succumb to temptation and penalties, and they will not collaborate with military programs in the army’s chareidi induction centers or cooperate with their other plans, but [they will] stand firm and study the holy Torah day and night. We have seen attempts to destroy what is holy to us.
“The government and its leader are implementing unending attempts to uproot and destroy Torah study and the fundamentals of religion and belief in all matters relating to Judaism, in every way available to them and beyond all, through forced recruitment. We see these things as a governmental declaration to revolt against the kingdom of heaven and provoke a religious war similar to those of corrupt regimes in the annals of history.”
The only way to respond to this was through heartfelt prayer, the gedolim proclaimed.
“In a time like this we issue a great appeal,” theirmessage continued. “’It is a time of distress for Yaakov.’ We want to do everything possible so that ‘from it he shall be saved’ (Yirmiyohu 30:7). Chazal already said that the whole power of ‘the tola’as Yaakov’ [the worm of Yaakov] (Yeshayahu 41:14) is its mouth. This is the craft our forefathers used, this is what we utilized in all our exiles, and this is what we must seize now in order to oppose the harsh, terrible decrees.
“Yisroel has one united heart for their Father in heaven. Therefore, we call upon our brothers, all Beis Yisroel, wherever they live, to seize the craft of their forefathers and to sanctify the Name of Heaven. We must cry out powerfully to Hashem. We must plead and supplicate to our Father in Heaven to have mercy upon us as a father has mercy upon his children. Everyone who is able to must participate. United as one, men, women and children must join in an atzeres of prayer to be mekadesh shem Shomayim. This public protest must be worthy of a tzibbur ofyir’ei Hashem. We must be drawn into no provocations.”
The “million man rally” was the most ambitious chareidi atzeres ever organized. A large atzeres took place in 1999 when 250,000 Torah Jews demonstrated against the Supreme Court’s interference in a number of religious issues. The last one took place three years ago, when 100,000 chareidim protested against the arrest of parents in the town of Emanuel who had refused to compromise their daughters’ education. This week’s atzeres was calculated to impress the Israeli public with the community’s sincerity, to strengthen its resolve, and above all, to implore Hashem to spare the Torah world as he saved the Jews in the days of Mordechai and Esther.
WE’VE BEEN SOLD
Huge efforts were expended into creating a fitting backdrop for the rally. Volunteers toiled throughout the preceding night hanging giant posters in the streets which bore the watchwords of the hour. Some carried the posuk from Megillas Esther warning that spiritual lives are at stake,“Lehikoheil vela’amod al nafshom.” Others emphasized that the assembly was to be ama’amad kiddush Hashem. Largest of all was a banner stretched out over the length of the Chord Bridge at the entrance to Yerushalayim which declared, “Malchus’cho malchus kol olamim, umemshaltecha bechol dor vador.” On the other side of the Chord Bridge, an even longer banner proclaimed what the atzeres was all about: “Assembly of Kiddush Hashem with the participation of myriads of the thousands of Yisroel against the attack against Torah students.” However, officials of the light railway, which runs over the bridge, claimed that a gust of wind might blow the banner onto the train tracks and had it removed.
From every bill board, posters proclaimed, “We have been sold, I and my nation.” All material bore the official logo of the atzeres: a sefer Torah bordered with a strand of barbed wire and the defiant slogan, “The holy Torah will win!”
“We have organized a project that should take two months [to organize] in three days, with Shabbos included,” an organizer said. “Our purpose was to have a great assembly of kiddush Hashem to emend the huge chillul Hashem the Knesset made last week by authorizing criminal sanctions, and we have succeeded.”
In preparation for the giant atzeres, tens of thousands converged on the kever of Rav Ovadiah Yosef in Sanhedriah to daven for the annulment of the law. In Kiryat Sefer, cheder rebbeim organized an atzeres for the children of their Talmud Torah. Dressed as yeshiva bochurim with plastic hats, they bore posters on their backs reading, “prisoners for the sake of Torah,” and banners running diagonally over their chests declaring, “Lekadesh Shem Shomayim.”
PARALLEL TO PURIM
In advance of the atzeres, Rav Boruch Dov Povarski, rosh yeshiva of Ponevez, spoke of the parallel between the Purim miracle and the upcoming atzeres.
“Doubtless, what we are going through is one of the harshest times we have known,” he said. “With a draft edict hanging over us, united, we must strengthen ourselves with prayer and supplication so that by Purim we may see the annulment of all harsh edicts and merit to receive the Torah with love and joy. I feel that we are going through what happened to Klal Yisroel before Matan Torah when they were attacked by Amolek. ‘When Moshe raised his hand, Yisroel prevailed.’ The war against Amolek was won through prayer and spiritual arousal. Then, by leaving Refidim, which represented the weakening [rifyon] of their hands from Torah, they merited to receive the Torah.”
“Nowadays, too,” he continued, “wicked people, the Amolek of our generation, the wicked government, have enacted an edict to uproot the Torah specifically before Purim. This unprecedented decree at Purim time by the hand of those whose names should not even be mentioned… hints that through this trial, we will yet receive the Torah by exerting ourselves in prayer and spiritual arousal, just as Moshe did when he raised his hands high in faith. “
Rav Reuven Elbaz, rosh yeshivas Ohr Hachaim, said that the government’s shivyon banetel argument is nothing but another version of the age old yearning of our enemies to weaken the Torah world. Our power to resist is proof of the Torah’s truth, which overcomes all obstacles.
“Until now, no nation has ever succeeded in downplaying the value of Torah,” he said. “All the empty slogans of shivyon banetel are only an excuse to hurt Hashem’s vineyard. Is the chareidi public not carrying the burden? Many Sefardim work for their living and do military service, but many of them send their children to yeshivos and want them to learn day and night in the belief that they are defenders of the people of Yisroel. All are united in saying that yeshiva students are the crown of Klal Yisroel upon which the Jewish people has relied for 2,000 years since the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh. This Torah will not be replaced!
“At the great atzeres today, we all unite with the mighty cry, ‘Hashem, Hu Ho’elokim.’ This cry will echo from one end of the country to the other. Through this cry, many people who are far from Torah observance, but who love and respect the Torah, will arise and say, ‘We are with you! We will not side with those who say that the Jewish people doesn’t need Torah, cholilah.’”
“The great atzeres holds the potential to save Yisroel,” he added. “For so it was in the days of Mordechai and Esther. After they said, ‘Go and gather all the Jews,’ there was an immediate turnabout, ‘venahafoch hu.’ In the merit of the spiritual arousal, the Beis Hamikdosh was built in the days of Ezra and Nechemiah. So will happen in our time,im yirtzeh Hashem.”
THE GREAT MARCH
Many feared they would never get to the atzeres in time. In Bnei Brak, thousands waited for buses that were already full when they finally arrived.
“I’m waiting for hours,” one person complained. “Buses pass when they’re already filled with people and it’s impossible to get on.”
Thousands traveled to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station and train station to find alternative routes to Yerushalayim. Even there, Egged buses to Yerushalayim seemed in short supply.
The Egged bus company was overwhelmed. To ease the pressure, chareidi askonim hired hundreds of private buses to transport the stranded masses. When these proved insufficient, they hired 250 more buses from a Bedouin family in southern Israel. People started getting through. By 1:00 p.m., the entrance to Yerushalayim was paralyzed. Roads leading to Yerushalayim were congested with buses and private vehicles. Major highways entering the city were closed or gridlocked.
By 2:00 p.m., police began stopping incoming buses miles from the city and bus services in the Yerushalayim were sporadic. From every corner people began trekking to the atzeres by foot.
I left for the atzeres at about 3:00 and was overjoyed when a kind driver picked me up at my local bus stop. The driver was a yungerman from Tzefas who had spent Shabbos in Yerushalayim in order to get to the atzeres on time. Thousands like him had arrived in Yerushalayim on Friday or Motzoei Shabbos and put in a morning’s learning before the atzeres began.
Speeding down the highway, we were abruptly halted by a roadblock and that was as far as we got. Cars and buses were parked by the roadside. We joined the thousands trudging up the steep hill leading up to town. Officially, parents had been instructed to bring children nine years and older. But in Yerushalayim, parents bent the rules. Struggling up the hill, families were pushing babies in strollers with toddlers walking alongside and older siblings trying to help. Bochurim sang as they strode along, others chose to save their breath for the climb, and grandparents moved along by pure strength of will.
I arrived minutes before Minchah began. Roughly 350,000 were already in the main streets. Some of them wore sack cloth as a sign of mourning. The weather was dry and dusty. A cloud of dust from the Sahara Desert dust obscured the skies, preventing police choppers from keeping a watchful eye from above. 3,500 policemen were on duty at the atzeres while 1,000 others kept traffic moving on the roads. Hundreds of Magen David Adom and United Hatzalah personnel were ready. At the end of the atzeres, Ichud Hatzalah reported that 74 people had received treatment for minor issues. Seven were taken to hospital to be treated for dehydration or minor injuries.
Due to the high security issue created by the dense crowds, central Israel was raised to alert level 3, the highest on the security alert scale, and the rest of the country to alert level 2.
RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS CHANGE THEIR MIND
Initially, vast numbers of religious Zionists planned to attend the atzeres. Chief Rabbi of Tzefas Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, Rav Shlomo Aviner, and many roshei yeshiva of Hesder yeshivos urged people to attend. Others, such as the Beit Hillel Association of religious Zionist rabbonim and the rabbis of the Tzohar organization, violently opposed the atzeres, claiming that army service is obligatory in a time of war.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett raged against the atzeres, asserting that military service is not a decree but a big mitzvah, and mysteriously claiming that the draft law did not include criminal sanctions.
“Tomorrow there will be a big demonstration against the law to integratechareidim into employment and army service. The claim is that the Torah world is being hurt, and that ‘criminal sanctions’ against Torah scholars are allegedly stipulated in the law. There is no basis for these claims,” said Bennett.
“You will not find a single mention of criminal sanctions in the law,” he asserted. “Everyone, including those who are shouting because they need to shout, know very well that no Torah student will be sent to jail. Period. The law is balanced, gradual and good for the entire people of Israel, and the chareidim in particular. Only the present government could pass such a law.
“When approximately 30% of first graders are chareidi, Israel will not survive if they are not incorporated into job market and into army service,” he warned. “The Shaked Law, over the next four years, will enable young chareidim to enter into the workforce, and will gradually integrate them in the civil and military service. For the first time, Israel will have a law that recognizes Torah study as a major national value.”
Bennett ordered members of his party not to attend.
Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu also tried to pour oil on the troubled waters, assuring the head of the Likud party’s chareidi department, Yaakov Vieder, that no yeshiva student would be jailed because of Torah study.
“There has been a historic change in Israeli society,” he told Vieder. “…Both chareidim and Arabs will have to integrate in army and national service. The past situation can continue no longer.
“There is no argument regarding the importance of the continued existence of the Torah world. No one will sit in jail because of Torah study. We respect the chareidi public and intend to continue dialogue with them. We promised a law that will not divide the people and we will fulfill this promise.”
Another detractor of the atzeres was the well-known Religious Zionist leader Rav Chaim Druckman, who called it a chillul Hashem.
“The organizers claim that the protest is against a governmental declaration to revolt against the kingdom of heaven similar to those of corrupt regimes,” he said. “Has the government of the State of Israel declared a rebellion against malchus Shomayim and a war against religion? This is an ingratitude to Hashem, Who has merited us to have our independent state free of the control of non-Jews.”
Complaints of the chareidi press against Rav Druckman’s statement led to a huge backlash. Bayit Yehudi called upon the gedolei Yisroel to apologize for the comments said against opponents of the atzeres. Religious Zionists who had supported the atzeres now said they wouldn’t show up.
The Union of Kehillah Rabbonim, whose members include 100 rabbonim, cancelled its planned participation.
“We intended to participate in the atzeres in response to the derogation to Torah, but we cannot accept insults against talmidei chachomim in the name of kovod haTorah,” Rav Amichai Eliyahu, CEO of the union, explained.
The union of Hesder yeshivos said they would not attend due to what they described as “derogation of talmidei chachomim.” Instead, they held tefillos in their yeshivos during the atzeres.
Tzefas Chief Rabbi Rav Shmuel Eliyahu and Rav Yaakov Shapiro rosh yeshivas Merkaz Harav attended the Atzeres and even sent loud speaker vans to certain areas to encourage their talmidim and followers to follow their example.
As for the general public, 66.4% of people polled said they opposed the chareidi protest measures, 27.7% understood why chareidim needed to protest, and 6% did not comment.
CHAREIDI SOLIERS ATTEND WITHOUT UNIFORMS
IDF regulations bar soldiers from participating in political meetings. In line with this, IDF Chief of Staff Binyomin Gantz told chareidi soldiers that soldiers in uniform could not participate in the atzeres, nor would they be released to take part in the atzeres.
Heads of the Dossim Organization for the Preservation of the Rights of the ChareidiPublic addressed an urgent appeal to the High Court, asking it to clarify to what extent the rule applied. In response, the court said that soldiers on leave in civilian clothing were considered regular civilians and could attend the atzeres. Many took advantage of the ruling. Many soldiers of the Nachal Hachareidi battalion took part in the atzeres.
“We, the soldiers and fighters of the Netzach Yehuda – Nachal Chareidi battalion, stand together with the chareidi public in its struggle,” they announced. “…Because, with the media’s support, there is a complete public sector deemed legitimate to hate, to persecute, and to insult from every podium, and they are our brothers.”
Meanwhile, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz chose to make a demonstration of his own. During the atzeres, he visited a Nachal Chareidi base and delivered a pep talk during which he drew a comparison between the IDF draft and the Holocaust.
“In Auschwitz, they made no distinctions among us,” he told the soldiers. “Everyone went to the crematoriums, whether he had a kipah or not. They didn’t differentiate between who had a beard or not. It is possible to serve in the army and remain a believing and chareidi person. All conditions are present for someone who comes in religious to leave religious, whoever comes in chareidi will leave chareidi, and someone who comes as a secular Jew, will leave as a secular Jew.”
LECH KENOS ES KOL HAYEHUDIM
After a 40 minute walk, I arrived at the atzeres in time for Minchah. Youngsters were holding signs proclaiming the rally’s purpose. Some proclaimed, “I and my people have been sold,” others spoke of “War against religion,” or declared, “Quotas equal destruction.” Still others demanded, “Sacrifice for Torah” or vowed, “We will not bow down or prostate ourselves.”
Hundreds of young talmidim of Sefardic schools, dressed like Rav Ovadiah Yosef, carried signs bearing the message, “We all yearn to be Maran,” “I am a member of the army of Torah,” or, “Every child has the right to study Torah.”
The most imposing sign of all was a huge hand crafted orange banner set up next to a middle- aged Jew who was saying Tehillim next to his grandchildren.
“I served six years in a special division of the Air force,” the banner proclaimed. “I thought I was serving an important purpose. Today, I know that my sons and sons-in-law who study in yeshivos and kollelim are the true bearers of the burden and contributors to the security of our nation. Boruch Hashem, they are also educating my grandsons and granddaughters to follow the path of Torah and kedushah.”
One poster was absent from the atzeres. A sign declaring, “Bibi, for us it is important that our grandchildren should be Jews,” had been struck out as not in keeping with the positive atmosphere of kiddush Hashem the atzeres engendered.
The atzeres began a little after 4:00. Each rov and rebbe was surrounded by his kehillah or followers. After Minchah and a specialtefillah for rain, the tzibbur recited a special list of Tehillim and recited Selichos and the thirteen Midos Horachomim.
The highlight of the atzeres was kabbolas ol malchus Shomayim, led by Rav Reuven Elbaz at 5:30. Tearfully, he cried out “Shema Yisroel,” and myriads of voices shook the heavens in response. This was followed by a threefold repetition of “Hashem Hu Ho’elokim.”
The district police commander had previously assured Gafni, “if you need 600,000 for a brochah, it will not be a brochah in vain.” He was speaking of the special brochah recited upon seeing 600,000 Jews in one place. With his powerful voice, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, rosh yeshivas Ateres Yisroel and member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, recited the brochah. Rav Chaim Kanievski pointed out before the atzeres that according to the Zohar, when 600,000 Jews gather together, it is a time when the ge’ulah can begin to take place.
MANIFESTO OF THE GEDOLEI HADOR
Rav Yeshaya Lieberman, Director of the Beis Yaakov network in Eretz Yisroel,read the statement of the atzeres decided upon by the gedolei hador:
1) The Atzeres demands that the authorities enact no legislation that harms Torah students, forcing them to leave Torah study to the extent of throwing them into jail, which contains the uprooting of Toras Yisroel chillul shem Shomayim.
2) The Atzeres calls upon all yeshiva and kollel students not join the army under any circumstances, not to succumb to any temptations and penalties, and not to cooperate with the various military programs in any way.
3) The Atzeres appeals to the government and the Prime Minister to not to drag the tzibbur into an unnecessary battle in matters related to the soul of chareidi Jewry, in all matters of Judaism and religion, matters that do not engender peace between the sectors of the nation.
4) The Atzeres appeals to the government and the Prime Minister not to change the protocols that existed until now and to at least continue the status quo which always existed in Israel in matters of the draft and all matters of religion, and not to renew edicts against the chareidi public and the Torah world, and trouble them at every opportunity.
5) The Atzeres calls out in the name of gedolim and luminaries of the generation, from this holy and awesome assembly, to the large public faithful to Hashem and to His Torah, to draw strength and encouragement from Hashem and to have no fear. We have nothing but the Torah, the study of Torah and the fulfillment of its mitzvos with sanctity and purity. These are the walls that shield the people of Yisroel wherever they dwell from every adversity, and they will also do so in these difficult times that visit the house of Yisroel, as they did to the house of Yisroel in all the exiles. As miracles were done for our forefathers during the days of Purim in those times, so too, we will merit redemption at this time.
“Hashem, in his great mercy, will certainly hear our cries and receive our prayers with mercy and good will, and hasten our redemption and [bring] us from trouble to relief, and from darkness to great light with the coming of moshiach tzidkeinu soon in our days, amen.”
After the atzeres, a hachnosas sefer Torah music truck burst into full volume and thousands of bochurim danced and sang, “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleimah,”and “Ana avda deKudsha Berich Hu.” Rav Shteinman had said that despite the seriousness of the occasion, it was important for bochurim to demonstrate their joy and pride at being bnei Torah. Dozens of other bochurim went to the IDF induction center at 103 Rashi Street and danced spiritedly there as well.
“We have come here to tell everyone, ‘You want us over the road in the induction center, we want you secular Jews with us in the yeshivos near here,’” said one bochur.
LAPID LEFT UNMOVED
The atzeres only provided Lapid with more fodder for his hatred.
“This rally has proved that it is inconceivable that such a large sector of society will be exempt from military service or from participating in the workforce, in favor of living at the expense of the Israeli public,” he told Channel 2. “This [bill] doesn’t target the chareidim and no one hates the Torah, but in a civilized society, you have your privileges and you have your obligations.”
Once again, he insisted the chareidim have nothing to fear.
“The pain we saw today among the chareidi public is real, but it mostly stems from the fact that the majority either doesn’t understand the law, or has yet to internalize that the current situation can’t go on,” he said. “Enacting burden equality is a social revolution and it will save the State of Israel.”
But Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi had the last word. He said that the atzeres was only a beginning. Citing the Gemora, which says, “The removal of [Achashverosh’s] ring was greater than all the 48 prophets and seven prophetesses of Yisroel, for all of them did not bring them to improvement,” he said that the litmus test of the atzeres’ success will be the extent to which it leads to more inspired learning.
“What is [needed] from us now is to upgrade our learning and to arouse yiras Shomayim deep in our hearts,” he said. “The existence of this historic atzeres obliges us to make a new beginning in Torah toil, greater hasmodah with analysis and depth, as well as mussar and yiras Shomayim, in order to cleave to Hashem and His Torah.”