Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

A Stanza in a Poem

Shavuos is a day that celebrates the receipt of the Torah and its centrality in our lives. But it also celebrates the eternity of our people. Despite all the present adversity and everything our people have suffered throughout the millennia, we are still around and will be forever. Despite the current battles with the same old, tired arguments, some clad in modern garb and expressed with current slang, the fact that the people of the Torah are eternal is proven daily.

I had the special zechus of spending the Yom Tov in Yerushalayim, where I attended a family simcha. Being there rejuvenated me. How?


Walk with me down a quiet side-street atop the Geulah neighborhood, through a small courtyard, and, suddenly, as in so many spots around the holiest city on earth, time seems to stand still.


It is this place that is referred to in Kabbalistic literature as “Pischa Dekarta,” literally translated as “the door to the city.” The site is referred to in Gemara Sanhedrin (98), theZohar in Parshas Shelach, and the sefer Yahel Ohr (Parshas Shelach) from the Vilna Gaonas being the spiritual home of Moshiach ben Yosef.


In another era, the elevated grassy knoll was the first location Jews being oleh regel to Yerushalayim would be able to see the makom haMikdosh from.


Talmidim of the Vilna Gaon would conduct tefillos there, particularly on leil Shabbos. The community would rent space from the Arab owner and engage in limud hanistar at the mystical location. In 1812, the group joined with Sefardic mekubolim and erected a large tent, referred to as “Ohel Moshiach ben Yosef.” Then, about 120 years ago, they managed to purchase the area. They erected a more permanent tent, where they would gather and daven for Moshiach ben Yosef to overcome those who stop him from his mission and that he be speedily dispatched to fulfill it.


That structure stood for seventy years and then, mysteriously, fell out of use. Over time, tzaddikim would sometimes stand there in secluded prayer, especially in times of danger, Rachmana litzlan.


When I had the merit of being in Yerushalayim last week, I decided to daven at this hallowed spot. It was an otherworldly feeling to be standing in prayer at a holy site integrally tied to the ultimate geulah, where greattzaddikim prayed for so many years, yet to be there alone, in complete solitude. 


It was, in a sense, a microcosm of the golus itself: holy spots, holy stones, holy pathways waiting for their redemption, a city pining for her people to merit the great awakening. All over, there are yechidim, lone souls, struggling to usher in a better, happier time.


The geulah is so close, so attainable, even though it sometimes seems so far.


On the flight returning to America, while contemplating the greatness of a city and its inhabitants, I recalled the words of the Chiddushei Harim, who explains the posuk we recited in Hallel on Shavuos: “Hashomayim shomayim laHashem veha’aretz nosan livnei odom.” The Ribbono Shel Olam has the entirety of the celestial spheres, which are His holy realm. He gave us the earth, so that we might invest it with holiness. Our job is to take the aretz and make it shomayimdik.


In the city selected by Hashem, one sees how a kehillah, in our day and age, has taken a few miles and invested them with the sanctity of the Divine.


Despite all the adversity, despite the resistance and tension, despite the fact that their choices subject them to ridicule and scorn, the people of Yerushalayim, in their role as the am haTorah, stand tall and proud.


Tova ha’aretz me’od me’od.


To me, Yerushalayimis more than a geographical location, a dot on a map representing a city where people live and work. It’s a dimension beyond time and space, the embodiment of thousands of years of yearning and hope. To me, Yerushalayim is poetry. To walk its streets is to be a stanza in that poem.


Observing its citizens, young and old, as they go about their daily chores, you find yourself wishing for a camera capable of capturing the special aura on their faces. Their emunah and bitachon are plainly evident. People who live in tiny cramped apartments, with bare refrigerators and few physical comforts smile and radiate a contented glow.


The temperature on Shavuos day was an oppressive 97 degrees. One of our relatives who came to visit on Yom Tov Sheini Shel Goluyos, mentioned matter-of-factly that there was no air conditioning in her apartment and not even a fan. She said it with a broad smile and without any air of martyrdom or self-pity. When I mentioned that I would be happy to buy her a few fans, she responded that they don’t have room in the apartment.


She, and her family, exude serenity and contentment, without fans or creature comforts. The source of their joy has little to do with the pleasures of this world.


Rather than an exception, this is the rule in that splendid city.


Reb Bentzion Oiring, whose name might be familiar to you from some of our appeals on his behalf over the years, came by to visit along with his wife and children. These destitute people seem perfectly satisfied. You see their wide smiles, their amiable natures, their easy camaraderie with others and with each other, and you marvel at their normalness. Then you notice that the wife is missing her front teeth because a visit to the dentist is a luxury that simply doesn’t fit into their budget.


A visit to that city and an honest look at the people remind you that the reality facing the Yerushalayimer Yidden is far different than ours. It makes you realize that when a Yerushalmi Yid comes knocking on your door, you shouldn’t view him as just another person in a long line of people who disturb your peace, but as an ambassador from a world where heaven touches earth. It is a city of overwhelmed fathers, carrying the burdens of wives without teeth, good women charged with feeding families after they’ve exhausted the makolet bills and the proprietor’s patience. They live in cramped apartments with no room for electric fans, and yet they smile, offering spirited thanks and praise as they daven in Zichron Moshe and the many other shtiblach and shuls that dot the holy streets.


Thedavening… Oh the davening! Every Shacharis, Minchah and Maariv is different. It isn’t the length of time that makes theirtefillos different. Sometimes they daven quite quickly. It’s the intensity and genuine passion. There is nothing official, stilted and staged. You hear tefillos that emanate from deep within the Jewish soul and the people’s complete faith in the power of the words – and the Master to whom they are directed – is evident. Formality is admirable, but the vitality one feels there is so uplifting.


There are few experiences as spiritually elevating as joining the massive crowd of Jews, joined by nothing other than the commonality of their neshamos, descending on the Kosel in time for vosikin on Shavuos morning. Just as on any other day, they come like hungry children surrounding their mother’s table for breakfast; desperate, focused and entirely certain that their tefillos will be welcomed. You watch the first rays of the rising sun penetrate the sky and paint the ancient stones a soft orange and you feel enwrapped by the presence of the Shechinah, which has never departed. 


To stroll along the streets that have been tread by so many giants, knowing that you are fulfilling a mitzvah with each daled amos you traverse, is to allow your feet to be pulled by your soul and to feel at home. The reward received for the performance of the mitzvah is immediate, as you become uplifted breathing the avira d’ara.


On Shabbos and Yom Tov, children play in the street without a care in the world, and you can’t help but be swept along with their youthful optimism, blissful joy, charm and delight. 


Even the shopkeepers are different. I happened to meet a friend in a small Geulah shop. During the course of conversation, I mentioned that I had been to visit Rav Yaakov Edelstein in Ramat Hasharon.


The shopkeeper interjected. “Hu Yehudi kadosh. Ani agid lachem sippur.”


The young Sefardi man shared his tale. One evening, Rav Edelstein left a wedding and mistakenly entered a car he thought was that of his driver. After sitting down in the passenger seat and turning his head to say hello to his nahag, he realized, to his dismay, that the driver was not the person he expected it to be, but was, rather, a young woman. He quickly said, “Selichah,” and exited the vehicle.


The girl’s friend who witnessed the episode told her that she had thezechus of having a big tzaddik in her car, albeit for a moment and by mistake. “His name is Rav Yaakov Edelstein and you should ask him for a brochah.”


The next day, the girl called the rov and introduced herself as the accidental driver. “I am the girl whose car you mistakenly entered last night. I would like a brochah for a shidduch.” The rov responded with an assurance that she would be engaged within a month.


The shopkeeper concluded his story. “A month later she was engaged. To me.”


The good people of Yerushalayim hearten us and embolden us to face our own challenges. We so often hear tales of woe and prophecies of doom. There is way too much sadness in our community. Too many poor people. Too many sick people. Too many lonely people. People who were abused. Children who aren’t given a chance. Awful winds of dissension, extremism, injustice, negativity and cynicism are blowing, and there are people working to destroy our religion and way of life.


Bnei Tzion yogilu bemalkom. The people of Yerushalayim are a reminder that we must forge on with spirit and verve. We must not become meyuash. We must remain positive and battle that which confronts us, working to remedy that which ails us.


Let us not attach undue import to the spiteful words that appear in the New York Times and secular Jewish organs chastising an individual like the Novominsker Rebbe. We need to be confident and strong, proud that we have leaders courageous enough to speak the truth. It is surprising that people still expect respect and fair treatment from our secular brethren and are upset when our faith in them is proven misplaced. They are the ones with an agenda to undermine and weaken our authentic faith, while the Rebbe has no agenda, other than to share and spread the Torah’s truth.


We cannot hide our heads in the sand and ignore the danger they represent. They have veered far from the course charted at Sinai. Some are affected by their saccharine words and express self-doubt and a lack of confidence in our ability to battle and overcome them.


We, however, are heartened that we are no longer alone in our crusade against the Open Orthodox, their small school, and their growing influence and acceptance as legitimate Orthodox Jews. We welcome the prominent voices being added to our call that they not be recognized as Orthodox, and that their beliefs, teachings, writings and practices have regrettably removed them from the ranks of observant Jewry and placed them in the same category as the Conservative and Reform deviationist groups.


We don’t need anyone to preach to us or the Novominsker Rebbe: a man who lives not for honor, power or wealth, but to learn Torah,serve his Maker and guide his people.


And in this we take heart.


You look at the landmarks of Yerushalayim– the Kosel, site of the ultimatechurban,yet with stirrings of so much binyan just under the surface; and the newly re-erected Churvahshul, with its history of rising and falling – and you realize that setbacks force greater resilience and stamina; but are not permanent. Those who tormented us are gone and forgotten. Torah and the life it provides remain as vibrant as ever.


You visit the great men of that country, giants such as the recently departed Rav Zundel Kroizer zt”l and, ybl”c, Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a, who gives the clarity of the Urim Vetumim to our generation. The New York Times and the Forward can write as they please. Ours is a community producing people capable of transcending human limitations, climbing the heights of spiritual greatness. We have among us living portrayals of mivchar ha’anushi and nothing that anyone says about us can dispute that fact. We all have the ability to be holy and great. 


Perhaps we derive this lesson from the posuk (Tehillim 125:1) which states, “Habotchim baHashem, people of faith, kehar Tzion lo yimot, as the mountains surrounding Yerushalayim stand,” reminding us that those chosen by Him endure. Bitachon, conviction and courage in these trying times, comes from that city and the mountains surrounding it.


I had the opportunity to speak to a son of Rav Zundel Kroizer, who shared with me a letter written by his father. Rav Zundel had lived in Lugano, Switzerland, for a short time, and he wrote a loving note to his granddaughter on the occasion of her bas mitzvah.


He described his surroundings to the young girl, the majestic snow-capped mountains glistening pure white. “May your life,” the lovingzaide wrote, “be pure and clean as the snow.” When a car ventures out in this pristine snow without proper chains on the tires, he continued, the vehicle will spin and spin, but make no progress. “In order for you to successfully traverse the channel that is life, you must remember to remain chained to the traditions of your parents and grandparents,” thetzaddik concluded.


We carry a rich mesorah, and it fuels us to reach higher and battle on.


We are so close to the end, yet still so far. There is a chasm we must bridge.


While in Yerushalayim, I noticed signs advertising organized buses to the kever of Rav Ovadiah M’Bartenurah in honor of his yahrtzeit. The site was described as being four minutes from the Kosel.


As I was leaving the Kosel, I asked a taxi driver to take me there. The Rav, as he is known, is the rebbi of any Yid who ever learned Mishnayos properly, so I wanted to take advantage of the time todaven at his kever, something I had never done before.


Following the paper signs that were posted for the occasion, we made our way down a steep mountain. At the end of the road, down in a deep valley, was the cave said to be the final resting place of the RavM’Bartenurah.


We recited some Tehillim and tefillos together with the few people who were there. Just as we were ready to leave, others came running back, fear in their eyes. “Zorkim avanim. Zorkim!You can’t leave. The Arabs are throwing stones.” A hail of stones of all sizes poured down from high above us. We quickly returned to the safety of the kever area and police were called. After a long wait, they finally arrived once the stones had stopped falling. We left.


It was a bittersweet taste, so close yet so far. We were at the kever of ourrebbi, yet under threat of harm. The Bartenurah’s storied letters to his father tell the tale of his arduous journey to Yerushalayim and of the hardships he endured so that he can live between the mountains of Tzion. He merited writing apeirush that illuminates each and every Mishnah, the result of his travails and efforts.


Let his lesson inspire us as well.


I was traveling in a car with Radio Kol Chai playing in the background when I heard the voice of my dear friend, Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin. It was the evening before Shavuos and the station was reporting that a group of totally secular teenage boys with whom Lev L’Achim volunteers began learning Gemara was brought to Yeshivas Mir Brachfeld to see a yeshiva for the first time in their lives.


Rabbi Sorotzkin was asked how his organization was withstanding the constant propaganda and governmental battles against religion. How, he was asked, are they impacting the work of Lev L’Achim? He answered that the only difference is that there is a sharp increase in the number of questions secular people ask Lev L’Achim volunteers who seek to educate them in Torah. Once the answers are provided and the truth is laid out, the people are as receptive as ever to the eternal message from Sinai.


Yes, there are problems, many problems, some of them unprecedented, but we must know that aloh na’aleh, we are on the ascendancy, and we will emerge victorious in the end if we stand together with strength, pride and unity.


This week, we read the parsha of the meraglim, who sinned by speaking ill of Eretz Yisroel. They, much like many today, saw Am Yisroel’s enemies as being too large and too powerful to overcome. Intimidated, they displayed a lack of faith.


Kalev sought to reassure our forefathers and mothers, telling them, “Aloh na’aleh…ki yachol nuchal lah” (13:30). Do not become dejected, he said. Do not fall for the messages of the naysayers and don’t pay attention to those who mock the word of Hashem. We will triumph. We will beat back our enemies, and those whose belief inHashemis unchallenged will enter the Promised Land.


His words resound through the ages, rallying us today as well. There were those who doubted their own abilities to merit Eretz Yisroel. Today, we look at that country as a source of inspiration, its cobblestone alleyways, dusty paths and glorious buildings encouraging us to stand tall and proud.


Like it, the land bound up with our collective soul since before time, we will triumph. Aloh na’aleh, speedily in our days.




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