By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The airplane I am on taxis along the Newark Liberty Airport runway. Rain washes the windows and I think to myself, “That’s the last rain I’ll be seeing for a while. Where I am headed, the sun shines strongly all day.”
I lift a newspaper, scan the headlines, and a line pops out at me: “…Hamas, which the US and Israel consider a terrorist group.”
I wonder: What does the rest of the world consider animals who kill men, women and children with no compunction? What do Germany and England consider them? Do they not read? Do they have no knowledge at all?
Yet, the nations and media of the West are upset that Israel defended itself against thousands of people determined to crash its border and kill Jews.
Have they no shame? Is their anti-Semitism so strong that it overweighs simple common sense?
Is everything permissible when the target is a Jew, or President Trump, with bonus points when with one statement you can condemn both?
Having seen enough, I put away the paper and settled in for the flight to Eretz Yisroel for the Yom Tov of Kabbolas HaTorah.
We finally arrive in Yerushalayim, put our stuff down, and immediately feel at home.
Erev Yom Tov, we walk through Meah Shearim and Geulah, watching multitudes of people of all ages prepare for Yom Tov. They dart from store to store, making sure that they will have all they need for the “two-day” Yom Tov of Shabbos and Sunday.
People select flowers from sidewalk vendors as though they are choosing an esrog, making sure that they are getting the nicest bunch of flowers available to adorn the Yom Tov. There is a happiness and seriousness involved in ensuring that Yom Tov will be observed as best as possible.
Every day in Yerushalayim is special, Shabbos even more so, with Yom Tov taking on its own special glow. Despite the intense heat, thousands made their way to the Kosel on Shavuos morning, rivers of people converging on the holy site from all over the city, the sounds of the tefillos rising on high at the place from where the Shechinah has never departed.
During the day of Yom Tov, you see families walking across town, just as you are, to spend time with family and friends, ignoring the heat and oppressive sun. I’d rather be in Yerushalayim drenched from sweat than back in New York soaked from incessant rain. Adorable children without a care in the world take over the streets, playing a variety of games and taking their riding toys for spins up and down the hills of the holy city.
Following Yom Tov, we try something different and head south towards the Gaza border with my friend, Meir Eiseman, to see for ourselves what is going on there. We visited small border towns as well, including the one-makolet-town of Yated. Not much was going on there. Maybe it was the 100-degree heat. More likely, nothing much happens there at any time. We found the border basically deserted, with a few hidden tanks here and there and some bored soldiers seemingly just hanging around. Nobody stopped us or asked any questions as we drove around.
Truck traffic is quite brisk at the Kerem Shalom crossing point into Gaza, with massive tractor trailer trucks bringing in all sorts of supplies, despite reports to the contrary. Cement trucks are busily emptying their loads at a reinforced underground wall under construction, designed to deter Hamas tunnels. We see the barbed wire fences and fields burnt and destroyed by Hamas Molotov kites and thank Hashem that the damage isn’t more severe.
We enter Sderot. The last time I was there was a few years ago, when it was under rocket bombardment. Then the citizens were fearful, waiting for the barrages to end. Today, the rockets seem to be a distant memory. We visit religious sites and then look for some food.
We find a “Mehadrin” bakery and ask them about local kosher eateries. They tell us about a chumus/techinah store around the corner. We had passed it and it didn’t seem too kosher, so we ask them about its kosher status. The proprietor responds, “Maybe they got a rabbi to give them a petek [certifying that the store is kosher], maybe they didn’t, but you should go there, the chumus is really excellent.”
A sad commentary on the way so many people view religion.
We drive some more and come across a food store with a big “Mehadrin” sign. We park and enter, but it’s already 4:00 and the owner wants to go home. “Ani holeich habayta,” he says with no feeling. We say shalom, buy some water, and are back on the road again.
We continue on to Yerushalayim via Kfar Etzion, stopping to take selfies at the new American embassy and to the nearby Tayelet, for gorgeous views of the city. Then it’s time for Mincha.
Wednesday, we stayed in Yerushalayim. We started our “tourist” day at the Kosel, davening for family and friends and simply basking in the experience of being there, watching all types of Jews interact with the Creator.
For many years, remembering the fierce protests that took place over archeological practices at the site, I couldn’t bring myself to visit Ihr Dovid. Some thirty years have passed since then and it was time to see what is there.
We learn Nach and are familiar with some of the places referred to there, but aino domeh shmiah l’re’iyah. When you see remains of buildings dating back to the periods before and after the Bais Hamikdosh, your heart beats differently.
The trek makes history come alive. Walking on the same stone road that was trod upon by the Tanno’im and hundreds of thousands of people going to be oleh regel tingles your essence.
You look at the stones and feel them, as if some kedusha can transfer from them. You see the existing walls of small stores that lined the way, selling supplies for the olei regel and perhaps small animals to use for korbanos. And it all becomes real. You imagine it all taking place and are overcome by the scene playing in your head.
You look around and see giant rocks that the Romans knocked off from the top of the Kosel as they were laying waste to everything holy. The rocks sit there, frozen in time.
We walk some more. As we come to the steps which lead to Shaar Chulda, through which most people would enter the Har Habayis, we see an area full of mikvaos, dating back to the time when people would purify themselves before climbing the steps to enter the Bais Hamikdosh. Some of those very steps are still there, allowing us to climb and imagine what was and what will be.
All this right in the shadow of the Kosel. So many of us have passed by much of this and not known what we are missing out on, as we just walk by and look down at the excavations. We see words inscribed on one of the stones of the Kosel down at its southern end. With some help, we make out a prophecy of the novi Yeshayahu scratched into the ancient stone by a pilgrim like us, no doubt, who couldn’t contain his exuberance at witnessing the hallowed remainder of the Bais Hamikosh.
The anonymous person wrote, “Ure’isem v’sos libchem, v’atzmoseichem kadeshe tifrachnah – You will see it and your heart will be overcome with joy and your bones will grow as grass,” apparently based on the posuk in Yeshayahu (66:14).
Interestingly, the Malbim explains the posuk to mean that until now, you believed that the hopes for the future would be realized, but now, as you see it for yourself, your hearts will be so full of joy that it will spread to your weary, withered bones, which will be restored to live like luscious grass.
We have not yet merited the geulah which we await, but being able to feel our history come alive and stand at the makom haMikdosh brings us all a measure of joy and vitality as we await the final and complete redemption, when that place will once again be filled with life and be a center of kedusha.
We return to the Kosel plaza to daven Mincha, infused with much kavonah, fueled by recharged emunah and bitachon in our past, future and present.
In the taxi on the way back, we hear an interview with one of the American astronauts, as he reflects on his experiences in outer space. He said that as he looked at the perfect order of the universe from on high, he realized that “all this could not have come about from two pieces of dust bumping into each other. Anyone who sees what I saw must conclude that there is a Creator.”
Not that we need his testimony, but it was yet another reminder on a day that served to reinforce so much of what we know.
I visit Rav Dovid Cohen, the rosh yeshiva of Chevron, with whom I have become close. We speak of messages necessary for today’s generation. He reinforces the need to learn source seforim on emunah and bitachon, as well as the Slabodka dictum of gadlus ha’odom, reminding people that everyone, not only the brilliant and gifted, can reach spiritual heights. Too many give up on themselves needlessly and enter a downward spiral. He was happy to hear that these are topics we regularly address in the paper.
Thursday, I visited some others and traveled to Rechovot to see the Torah and kiruv empire built and maintained by an unassuming tzaddik, Rav Tzvi Shvartz, under the flag of Lev L’Achim. Most tourists don’t venture there, though it is not far from Yerushalayim, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak and other religious centers, but spending time with Rav Shvartz is always invigorating and refreshing. His energy, optimism and the many hundreds of baalei teshuvah families he has brought to Torah and mitzvos inspire all who visit. He is a fountain of dynamism, wisdom and stories, which he never tires of sharing.
I sit with my dear friend, Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin of Lev L’Achim and Chinuch Atzmai and his father-in-law, former Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, the greatest living symbol of the Holocaust. With great pain, he speaks of the masses of Jews being lost to the spiritual holocaust of assimilation. He cites a study conducted by two Hebrew University professors, who proved that the Jewish population in the United States today would have been 35 million based on normal birth rates. Instead, only 3-1/2 million people in this country self-identify as Jews.
While the numbers of Jews remaining loyal to their faith are markedly better in Israel, once a secular Israeli leaves Israel for the golah, the chances of his children marrying within the faith are almost zero.
I listen to him and wonder why it is that we aren’t more active here in introducing lost brothers and sisters to their heritage, instead of watching millions of them slip away from Yiddishkeit forever. I’ve asked many people and have never received a satisfactory answer.
On Friday, I go the Machaneh Yehuda shuk, where I am enthralled by the sights, sounds and smells. Masses of people, religious and not, fill the outdoor market, buying fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, fresh spices, olives, pickles, baklava, challah, cake and everything in-between for Shabbos. There is an energy and a verve as people go about their shopping, making sure to buy the best for Shabbos. Jews from around the world come to watch the organized chaos and be touched by all of it.
No matter how they look and dress, they are Jews thinking about and preparing for Shabbos. There is hope for the future. There is sanctity in the way they choose peaches, tomatoes and a watermelon for Shabbos. Witnessing it restores faith that all is not lost and there is a real chance to bring them back.
I am lost in my thoughts when a few boys brought to Israel by Birthright interrupt to ask a few questions and to take a selfie. They felt a connection. It may even last.
I spend Shabbos with my children in Kiryat Sanz, Yerushalayim, along with hundreds of others whose dedication to Torah and mitzvos knows no bounds, davening in shuls with standing room only and walking on streets packed with gleeful children. There is no better feeling in the world.
It all comes to an end when the taxi arrives and beeps its horn, beckoning us to load up the vehicle for our ride to the airport and flight home. The driver regales us with his tips on life and tells us how he brings his children to Rechov Sorotzkin on Chol Hamoed. He shows them how the children there behave and care for each other, and he hopes they absorb the message.
Before we know it, we are back in Newark, after a week of inspiration and invigoration, ready to adapt once again to life in the golus of America.
I go through the mail that has piled up in our absence. A small envelope attracts my attention. I open it. It holds a small pamphlet of Rav Moshe Shapiro’s philosophy on outreach. He speaks of how Jews always cared for one another and sought to help suffering brethren around the world, spiritually and physically.
He speaks of Israelis who have gone to live in America and says, “Every day a train leaves Los Angeles and heads for Auschwitz.”
It’s not only Israelis and not only from Los Angeles. It is painful to add that trains leave from every American city, carrying many thousands of Jews. In the days of a physical holocaust, people rose to do what they could to save as many as possible. Today, the drive to help lost Jews survive has lost its steam. Is it that we don’t care? Maybe we feel that they are so far gone that efforts to save them are futile. Who knows? The result is tragic.
Rav Shapiro promised that anyone who gets involved and seeks to reverse the trend “will be so high in Gan Eden that nobody will even be able to see him.”
Shavuos reminds us of the arvus that exists between Jews. That we are responsible for one another. It is one of the basics of the Torah, which was accepted k’ish echod b’lev echod, in binding unity.
As we move on from the Yom Tov, let us work on restoring that brotherhood, on doing things that will have a permanent effect, bringing people together, making the world a better place, and bringing the geulah closer, so that very soon, we will all be walking along the road of our forefathers and up the steps to the Har Habayis, bimeheirah beyomeinu. Amein.