Yerushalayim Footsteps


birchas-kohanim-at-koselBy Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

What is it that is so special about spending a Yom Tov in Yerushalayim? How can that special feeling and atmosphere be described to someone who has never merited to experience it firsthand? With great difficulty, of course.

It is palpable, almost tangible, yet when one tries to put it into words, one is at a loss.

I wish I had the ability to convey the feeling of walking together with thousands of people through the streets of Yerushalayim, heading for the Kosel Hama’arovi, in the predawn hours of leil Shavuos. I wish I knew how to describe the sounds, the smells, the sights and the feelings. I wish I could properly describe the sound of thousands of feet pounding the ancient pavement as they progress toward the holiest place on earth.

People of all ages and from all backgrounds join in a human stream. You hear the anticipation in their voices as they speak to each other. You hear the musical tunes banged out by all those footsteps. There is an overt feeling of simcha in the air. Some actually sing traditional Yom Tov niggunim as they walk. Others quietly hum along, offering quiet prayers that they will have the strength to make it there.

As the moon still shines over the Holy City and the roosters have not yet begun to crow, the hordes of people from all corners of Yerushalayim join together as they enter through Shaar Shechem, a unique experience in itself. The traffic slows as the multitudes squeeze through the narrow streets of the shuk, finally emptying into the Kosel plaza.

It’s a trek like no other. A walk that is essentially uneventful, yet so exhilarating. It seems like a taste of what being oleh regel must have felt like during the times of the Bais Hamikdosh.

At the Kosel, night is waning. Jews of all types begin preparing to put on their taleisim and start assembling at the locations of their respective annual minyanim. Before you know it, hundreds are immersed in prayer, with numerous minyanim taking place simultaneously and thousands of Yidden davening in a variety of dialects. The tefillos rise to the slowly brightening heavens, and suddenly, all is silent as the moment of sunrise arrives. The large crowds are quiet, as every Jew begins his or her private prayer to the One Above with the timeless words of Shemoneh Esrei.

The silence is penetrating. The view is breathtaking, as thousands of men of all ages, clothed in taleisim, sway to and fro, beseeching their Father in Heaven that next year they be joined on the other side of the wall together with the Jews of the Diaspora.

Just as quickly as all became still, the sound of a chassidishe baal tefillah is heard. “Boorich atoo,” he enunciates, beginning chazoras hashatz. Then the voice of a Sefardic chazzan is heard. “Baruch Atah…,” he says. Then a Yerushalayimer chazzan begins, “Boruch Atoh…” And so it goes until the entire plaza is once again enveloped in sounds of tefillah.

What a feeling! What a moment!

Some daven slowly, others a bit faster. With such energy in the air, who would ever know that the majority of those present had spent the previous night hunched over Gemaros and other sifrei kodesh?

Davening concludes on an uplifting note and the mispallelim make Kiddush and begin heading back home to spend the rest of Yom Tov with their families.

It is not exactly aliyah leregel, but it is the closest thing to it in golus.

During my recent visit to Eretz Hakodesh, I also took great pleasure in visiting the legendary Zichron Moshe shul in Geulah. If I had the time and chutzpah, I would simply camp out there for days. I would take photos of the people there and speak to them to get their life stories.

Zichron Moshe is famed for its shtiblach and minyanim as much as for the people who frequent the shul. You look at their faces and the way they are dressed and you know that each one has a tale to tell. No two are dressed the same. Each has a different look in his eyes. Oh, how I wish I could paint portraits of those faces and expressions. Each picture would tell a different story, every face would portray a unique and intriguing character. I wish I could just sit there for weeks talking to each one of them, getting them to open their hearts and regale me with their narratives, their tales of woe, their insights and anecdotes, and what keeps them going each day.

How does one describe this most distinctive shul to someone who has never been there? Davening at Zichron Moshe is so different than anywhere around here. Talmidei chachomim of note and people who are proficient in the entire Torah share well-worn benches with simple laborers and speak to each other as if they are on the same level. Indeed, they are all bnei Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, serving Hashem, subservient to their Maker without any airs or ego. Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Chassidim and Yerushalmim with their distinct long-striped coats mix with assorted beggars and colorful characters, and they all get along remarkably well.

If you are looking for a change, if you have had enough of the rat race, take some time off, sit in Zichron Moshe and talk to the Yerushalmi Yidelach. Your entire perception of life will change. Your priorities, your simchas hachaim, the way you view life, and your appreciation of everything you’ve been blessed with will change. With simplicity and reason, the Yidden there will debunk so many of the myths you assume to be true. They’ll infuse you with a view of what is really important in life. With a mix of charm, wit, common sense and emunah temimah, they will delight you and expand your vistas. Engaging in small talk with these humble, good people in that simple shul can make a life-altering impact on you. No exaggeration.

The beauty of simplicity is evident in that shul. Everything is so real. There’s no need for posturing and there’s a total absence of formalities. The people who daven there lead what we Americans would call simple lives, but they really are elevated. Their lives are more meaningful than those lived by the people in the West who are blessed with material wealth but lack in spiritual riches and elevation of purpose.

They are unencumbered by the complexities brought on by the unnecessary wants and needs we so actively pursue. They maintain a singular clarity of purpose, which fills their lives with tremendous, yet subtle, power and simcha.

Another fascinating experience and highlight of the trip was davening at the minyan of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. Even more compelling than that was attending Rav Elyashiv’s daily shiur, which he delivers every evening in the shul built for him near his one-room apartment. The one-hundred-year-old gadol hador delivers a blatt shiur with youthful abandon. With a lively voice, he clearly and lucidly explains the Gemara. Every few minutes, one of the attendees jumps up with a question. “Uber der rebbe hut gezukt… ich vill fregen oif dem…,” says a man, who launches into a question on the sugya that Rav Elyashiv is discussing. A lively discussion ensues. The attendees prod the gadol with probing questions, and he responds with equal gusto to people one-third his age.

The words on the aron kodesh in the bais medrash right next to his seat read, “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nufesh.” Anyone who wants to see a live demonstration of what those words mean should trek to the end of Meah Shearim and watch this shiur take place. It is an enlightening and invigorating experience and is guaranteed to strengthen your faith.

Wherever you walk in Yerushalayim, you are reminded of the churban. You are prompted to think about what once was and what is now. It is easy to be captivated by the charm of Yerushalayim – its buildings, its streets, and, most of all, its residents of all ages. It is easy to be awed by the simple greatness of its talmidei chachomim and anshei maalah. It is easy to be moved by the way the people there daven and serve Hashem, with simple emunah and bitachon, and a feeling of closeness. The kedushah is evident there in so many places and one is easily influenced to raise his level of belief and conduct.

At the same time, however, signs of what could be, and once was, are all over. There are so many people whose families came to the country clinging to ancient beliefs and traditions and have lost all connection with them. There is poverty and depravity all over. When you see a car traveling down a road on Shabbos, you know that it is your brothers and sisters driving by. The sight stabs you right in the heart as you ponder what could be and what is. When you observe and read about the vilification of the religious community in the Holy Land, and experience the hatred and awful cynicism to things holy, you feel profaned and hurt. You pine for the day of veheishiv lev avos al bonim.

When you stand at the Kosel and hear the symphonious melodic prayers, you recognize that while it sounds beautiful to you, those disparate sounds are actually signs of exile and destruction. When the Bais Hamikdosh stood, we all prayed with the same voice, inflection, dialect and accent. When you walk to the Kosel on Shavuos and think that it resembles aliyah leregel, you realize how far removed we are from the real thing.

We don’t have kohanim performing the avodah, or leviim singing shirah, or Yisroelim walking up to the Holy City with their shepselach in tow. There are no bikkurim-laden baskets, no terumah for the kohanim and maaser for the leviim. We stand at the Kosel, the lone remnant of what was once the most imposing building ever constructed, laid to waste by the Romans 2,000 years ago.

The closest we can get to the site of the Bais Hamikdosh is to climb to the roof of a home in the Rova HaYehudi and peer out as shualim strut about on the Har Habyis.

There is no nevuah and the Urim Vetumim is dark and in hiding along with the klei haMikdosh. Reviled, we live under the rule of agnostics and are spread across the world far from the nexus of kedushah.

We drive up Har Hazeisim to visit kevorim and realize how many leaders and loved ones we have lost. We peer down towards the makom haMikdosh and hope for the time when the Shechinah will return to this very mountain at the End of Days and herald techiyas hameisim and the ultimate redemption.

May we merit its occurrence speedily, in our day.

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  1. Move your family to Israel and then you can write about shvuos at the kosel. Your piece is akin to a nonobservant Jew writing about the experience of eating a kosher meal. Naturally, you would tell him to eat only kosher.What’s your excuse for staying in America?