By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Vekol ha’am ro’im es hakolos. When the Torah was given to man on Har Sinai, we are told, the Jewish people gathered around the mountain and not only heard the sounds of nesinas haTorah, but also saw them.
The obvious difficulty is that sight and sound are separate senses. Sound is heard and not seen. Sights are experienced visually, not aurally.
Last week, I was in Eretz Yisroel for the Yom Tov of Shavuos and had the occasion to experience the answer to this question three separate times during my three visits to the Kosel Hama’arovi.
The first was on Friday morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the day after we arrived. Still jet lagged but eager to daven at the s’rid Bais Mikdosheinu, the place from where the Shechinah has never left since the construction and destruction of the Botei Mikdosh, we awoke early and headed there for Shacharis kevosikin.
There were many thousands of people present at the Kosel that morning. Hundreds had come to daven, but many more had arrived to fulfill the wishes of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rav Ovadiah Yosef.
An antagonistic, provocative group of women had just received a long-awaited favorable ruling from a district court. The court ruled that for women to form a minyan and pray with tallis and tefillin at the Kosel is a legitimate expression of their customs and is neither a provocation nor a departure from the “minhag hamakom.” This manifestation of judicial hypocrisy and pure fiction is just the latest in a growing list with which we are regrettably becoming more familiar, and frankly expecting, on a regular basis.
Though the decision flies in the face of the facts, is in direct opposition to several Israeli Supreme Court decisions, and is contrary to current law, the new government will not be appealing the ruling. This is yet another example of fallout from the recent election and the resultant coalition deal which empowered enemies of halacha and tradition.
The aforementioned women hold their prayer meetings at the Kosel every Rosh Chodesh. Until the recent ruling, the meetings were illegal and police arrested participants, leading them away amidst minimal fanfare. Rosh Chodesh Sivan was the first time the provocations went on with the imprimatur of the state. This time, the women would be the ones protected, while the offended traditionalists expressing their consternation over the defilement of Judaism’s holiest site would be the targets of police wrath.
Rav Shteinman and Rav Yosef urged high school and seminary girls to be at the Kosel by 6:30 a.m., the time that the “Women of the Wall,” as they call themselves, were scheduled to hold their mock-service, and to peacefully demonstrate by their dignified presence that the overwhelming majority of people who frequent the Kosel and respect its minhagim are opposed to the attention-seeking feminists. These gender-benders got their start in 1988 with what was billed as “The First International Jewish Feminist Conference: The Empowerment of Women in Israel,” which included such luminaries as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan.
Present that morning at the Kosel were not only teenage girls, but women and men of all ages. As the appointed time arrived, boys at the Kosel began singing to drown out any superfluous sounds sure to be raised. Their gambit didn’t last long, as the media and police began arriving in droves, seemingly anxious to provoke a spectacle they could use to mock the traditionalists. By and large, they failed.
The sights and sounds that morning left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they demonstrated the growth and power of the frum community – the number of people who treasure kedushas haMikdosh enough to arise before dawn to daven at that location and the number of young people prepared to forgo sleep to follow the call of gedolim. It was a beautiful sight to see so many people davening at the Kosel. At the same time, the presence of those poor, misguided souls was a depiction of the kulturkampf in that country.
It is really nothing new, but it is gathering steam with the presence in the governing coalition of so many new MKs determined to turn back the clock on Torah and halacha. They don’t hesitate to use everything at their disposal, including every aspect of government, media and social and economic policy, to further their radical agenda.
The pathetic showing by the Women of the Wall reflected a new wave in Israeli activism. It’s all about talking points, exploitation and a sympathetic media. Sure, they grab the easy-to-sell issue of feminism, which is guaranteed to garner sympathy and respect from liberals the world over. But in an interview with the BBC, Women of the Wall leader Anat Hoffman revealed her true agenda, fuming about the Orthodox monopoly and the rule of halacha.
MK Dov Lipman has also similarly perceptively tapped into the collective desire for an improved chareidi economic structure by claiming that the draconian cuts and arrogant changes that his party wishes to implement are only to help ease the lot of the poor, beleaguered chareidim.
Yair Lapid, ever the TV star, pays homage to the Biblical right to Israel and talks about how his morals are shaped by the Bible, while working overtime to advance lifestyles the Torah terms as abominations.
Like Chazal describe the impure animal, waving its split hooves for all to see, these demagoguing politicians and activists have mastered the art of grabbing the popular issue and waving high a banner of deceit. Those thousands of ehrliche noshim tzidkaniyos filling the Kosel plaza did the opposite. They spoke not for the microphones, but for their Maker, uttering words of tefillah in the sincere hope of change. They desire for the hearts of their sisters to be cleansed and for the holy site to remain as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.
My second visit to the Kosel took place on the night before Shavuos. I went to daven Maariv, expecting to see a smattering of groups engaged in prayer, with a few shouts of “Maariv, Maariv” punctuating the quiet as people sought to form minyonim.
I was in for a surprise. Even before coming close, we were able to feel, hear and see a special energy formed by the collective emotion and excitement of all sorts of Jews who had come, one by one, to daven at the holiest place they know of on the eve of Kabbolas HaTorah.
Then, out of nowhere, a spectacular sight formed. Hundreds of obviously secular Israeli youth who had been davening quietly burst out in song, led by several yeshiva bochurim. Their spirit and sounds spoke of unity, longing and a deep connection between all Jews. The bochurim, representing the Shalom L’Am kiruv organization founded by Rav Yaakov Hillel, and with the sweet sincerity unique to yeshiva bochurim, were clearly exercising a powerful pull on this group of secular youth.
Youngsters obviously far removed from a Torah life, who no doubt have been exposed to the hate and vilification that chareidim endure on a daily basis, were doing their best to daven and to celebrate Yidishkeit in song and dance together with the supposedly parasitic bochurim.
Despite the propaganda sowing distrust of and hate for bochurim, tefillah and Torah, there they were. The sights and sounds of their davening, singing and dancing were like a rushing wave of water meeting the fires of posturing and demagoguery. The neshamos of the Jewish people cannot be held down.
The third and final time I visited the Kosel, I saw the sounds way before I even got there. It was Shavuos morning, when many tens of thousands stream to the Kosel from all over Yerushalayim setting out at 4:00 A.M. to daven with the neitz hachamah. Groups of bochurim lit up the darkness of night, singing and dancing as they walked, in a recreation of a small zeicher of aliyah l’regel. People of all types – some singing, some dancing, some talking, and some just walking quietly – were making their way to the Kosel.
Once we reached our destination, we saw thousands of people continuing to spill into the area in front of the Kosel. It seemed as if there was no room for any more people, yet they kept on coming and pouring in, and somehow there was space for everyone. We saw a reenactment of “omdim tzefufim umishtachavim revochim.” We davened with the minyan of Talmidei Ohr Elchonon, a nice, slow, yeshivishe nusach, with proper baalei tefillah and kriyah, together with all types of Jews who stood as one, superficial differences notwithstanding.
Right next to us was the much larger Yeshivas Mir minyan. As far as the eye could see, there were minyonim of all types and nuschaos. We saw the sounds of Yidden conversing with their Creator, standing at the site of the churban, chanting “Umipnei chatoeinu” and then “shuvah eileinu” and “bnei veischa kevatchilah.”
The various minyonim finished at different times. The sight of some people leaving and others coming mixed with the sounds of laining, kedusha, chazoras hashatz and Birkas Kohanim formed a melodious expression of love and devotion. The chatzi lochem merged with the chatzi laShem. The joy, the longing and the pain of detachment combined with the happiness of this oasis.
As the davening progressed, the darkness gradually dissipated and light began spreading across the sky and the plaza. The chill in the air was gone as the sun peered over the ancient wall, warming not only the temperature of the outside air, but also the hearts and souls of all present.
As their prayers rose on high, they departed for home, basking in the light and the warmth, convinced that the darkness they face will dissipate as well, speedily, smoothly and painlessly.
As the people turned to leave, they caught a final glimpse of those sacred large stones, pocked, marred, and cracked, but still whole, much like the Jews who face them. We are beaten, mocked, and reviled, but still whole, despite everything. They got a final burst of inspiration certain to carry them as they climb the hills of Yerushalayim enthused, reenergized and alive with hope for the very near future when all will dance together leTziyon berinah.
Much of what we saw could lead to fears and worries about what lies ahead, but more of what we saw restored our faith that brighter days lie ahead.
“Rabbos machashavos belev ish, va’atzas Hashem hi sokum. Though the evil ones plot and the actions of the misguided cause consternation, the faithful know that the end will be good.
Their faith is strengthened with every step they take and wherever they go, whatever they see and whatever they hear.
May we all merit salvation from whatever it is that tests us. May our dark days turn light and bright. May everyone who needs a yeshuah know that they will shortly be enjoying happiness and fulfillment.
May all the sights and sounds we experience be sources of joy and comfort, nechomah and geulah bekarov.
Photos by Avi Yishai, Yated staff photographer.