I returned on Sunday from a ten-day visit to Eretz Yisroel, where I saw many things that gave me hope for the future. I was inspired so many times that I lost count. I was touched by things people said and actions I witnessed. I returned recharged and ready to take on new challenges, with Hashem’s help.
At the home of Rav Zvi Schvartz in Rechovot, I met Yehuda Barkan, an Israeli actor-turned-baal teshuvah. We had an enlightening conversation about his life. He said that he grew up in Netanya, where his parents ran a coffee shop.
“I didn’t know about anything,” he told me. “I didn’t know about Kiddush. Nothing. Efes. In school, I was a poor student, but my parents never figured that out. They couldn’t read Hebrew, so when my report cards would arrive, they would ask their friend, Yoske, to read it and tell them how I was doing. He covered for me and told them that I was doing good enough. My father would say, ‘Genug iz genug,’ and that was the end of it.”
The Gulf War changed him. “Scuds were flying everywhere in Israel and no one was getting killed. I happened to meet some religious people and we were discussing it. They said that it is Hashgochah Elyonah. I said that if that is so, then I want to get to know the Mashgiach. The One who watches over us. Since then, I’ve been talking to Hashem and learning Torah with Rav Schvartz.”
As I nodded approvingly, he said, “You know, Shlomo Hamelech says, ‘Hevel havolim,’ that everything in the outside world is silliness. You don’t appreciate what it means, because you were never there. You don’t know what it means.
“Let me explain,” he continued. “Way back in the ‘70s, I made a film that was very popular. It was sold to an American distributor and we were flown to New York. They dressed us in tuxedos and ties and brought us in a limousine to the film’s premiere. When we exited the car, flashbulbs went off. They couldn’t take enough pictures of us. Everyone swarmed around us and we were brought to the stage as the crowd clapped.
“Then, when the show was over, we looked around and everyone was gone. It was just me and my friend. We were left there backstage in our tuxedos and ties and not a dime in our pockets. We didn’t know where to go or how to get anywhere.
“Hevel havolim. It’s all just flash. They use you for what they need and then, when they are done with you, it’s over. You’re all alone.
“You can’t possibly appreciate that, because you weren’t ever in that world. It’s flash, flash, flash, and then it’s over. Like a steak on the grill. The outside may look fully cooked, but the inside is raw.
“It’s raw there. Believe me.”
On Shavuos, we celebrate the penimiyus of Torah. We celebrate the blessings of content. We celebrate that we are not impressed by the flashbulbs. We are a nation of penimiyus and tochen.
Rashi, at the beginning of this week’s parsha, famously provides insight into the most elusive goal: man’s often-unrealized aspirations. After Aharon Hakohein expressed his disappointment over being left out of the inauguration of the Mishkon and not participating in the daily korban offered by each of the nesi’im, Hashem responded, “Chayecha, shelecha gedolah mishelohem, your mitzvah is greater than theirs, she’atah madlik umeitiv ess haneiros, because you will ignite and clean out the lights of the menorah.”
The mitzvah of hadlokas haneiros was meant to assuage Aharon’s distress at having missed out on the chanukas hanesi’im.
Meforshim offer various explanations of the opportunity that hadlokas haneiros afforded that the nesi’im had not merited. An idea expressed by many is that the chanukas hanesi’im, the korbanos brought each day by the twelve nesi’im during the inauguration of the Mishkon, were a means of creating something new. The excitement and enthusiasm that the nation felt due to the presence of the mishkon, Hashem’s dwelling place, in their midst was conveyed through their daily offerings.
People are always able to muster up eagerness for something new: Dalet Minim on the first day of Sukkos, hadlokas neiros on the first night of Chanukah, a bar mitzvah boy with his new tefillin, and so on. Novelty inspires passion. That is no secret.
The secret has always been in maintaining that excitement and fervor. How does one hold on to a sense of eagerness as time passes? Since time immemorial, man has been seeking ways to maintain that feeling of sippuk, meaning and passion.
In the best-seller section of any bookstore, you’ll find titles that promise a sense of freshness in marriage, at work, and in life in general. People think that in order to be happy and generate excitement in their lives, they need to constantly update their possessions and acquire new stuff. What they really need is to appreciate what they have and be happy with their blessings, maintaining the original vitality and joy.
The formula for this was hadlokas haneiros, day after day, without change, without modification, at the same time, in the same fashion. There was no flash and there were no crowds watching. It was just Aharon and Hashem. He stood there behind the curtains of the Mishkon, preparing and lighting the menorah. With that, he was placated.
About this mitzvah, we are told that Aharon is praised shelo shina, that he didn’t change. The original sense of chiddush never waned. How?
I just merited spending a week in Yerushalayim. It was not just any week, but the week of the Yom Tov of Shavuos. I was privileged to bask in the light and happiness of the anniversary of Kabbolas HaTorah amidst people who have never stopped thanking Hashem for this gift.
Somehow, spending time in Eretz Yisroel provides you with an answer to this question. If you live your life on a deeper level, and you live your life connected to your base and roots, then it always feels fresh.
I don’t want to sound patronizing, but it seems that too often the superficiality which dominates this country, affects us, depriving us of the chiyus and energy that lie in each mitzvah. If someone spends too many hours and too much money buying a Yom Tov wardrobe, but too little time on learning the holiday’s halachos and penimiyus, he won’t feel very much of the Yom Tov. Its effect will last as long as the crease of his new pants.
Among the Jews of Yerushalayim I encountered, there seemed to be more of a push and drive to understand things on a deeper level, to live life in a way that is free of pretense and showiness. A brochah from a simple collector is laden with faith and hopefulness. The Shemoneh Esrei of a weekday Minchah in Zichron Moshe sees cheeks wet with tears and hands outstretched. Everything seems so much more real. Their bekeshes may be worn and their shtreimels are narrow, flat and old-fashioned, but they, as people, are real. There is depth and there is charm in all that they do.
In the shtieblach, you see shleppers davening alongside world-class talmidei chachomim. You are sure that in the group there are at least a few lamid-vovniks. The only difficulty you have is trying to figure out which ones they are, because they can’t all be lamid-vovniks…or can they?
Like Aharon Hakohein and his menorah, being among those Yerushalmis reminds one that the daily avodah can be performed in a way that never feels repetitive. Humility, simplicity, and an innate intelligence about what is important combine to put those people on a separate plane that we wish we were on.
Mr. Julius Klugman zt”l was one of the most respected baalei batim in Washington Heights, NY, embodying the emes and ehrlichkeit of Rav Breuer’s kehillah. Marked by a fervent respect and love for talmidei chachomim, he was among the first baalei batim to appreciate the authenticity of Brisk. He merited meeting the Brisker Rov, who noted the unique ma’alos of the American visitor. When Rav Berel Soloveitchik tried to stabilize the finances of Yeshivas Brisk, he reached out to Mr. Klugman and his brother for help.
Mr. Klugman threw himself into the task of helping Yeshivas Brisk at a time when there were very few who understood its uniqueness. For decades, he raised money and gave money. Eventually, Rav Berel had the opportunity to purchase the current building of Yeshivas Brisk on the site of the Brisker Rov’s apartment. There were generous donors ready to help. Rav Berel didn’t say a word to Mr. Klugman, who heard about the campaign from others.
Surprised, he asked Rav Berel why he – the most active lay leader the yeshiva had – hadn’t been contacted for help. The rosh yeshiva thanked him for volunteering to donate to the building but turned him down. “Your role is to help with the day-to-day expenses of the yeshiva,” he said.
Two years ago, when Mr. Klugman passed away, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Soloveitchik, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Brisk, dedicated a Chumash shiur to his memory. Rav Soloveitchik retold the above exchange and said, “In this story, one has a hargashah that this is what Chazal meant when they said, ‘Shelecha gedolah mishelohem.’ This is the maalah of hadlokas haneiros over the chanukas haMishkon. Good Jews appreciate the opportunity and zechus to help create something new. It takes a special vision to perceive the glory in the day-to-day. Someone who possesses that vision feels fortunate to help in the more ‘mundane’ ways as well.”
Each of us, wherever we live, has this ability and responsibility to keep things fresh. With a little attention and heart, we can invest new meaning into our avodah.
In Eretz Yisroel, you see this reality. People are so grateful and joyous with their role as avdei Hashem that their excitement never wanes. There is a newness in the Land, a sparkle and bloom that you see everywhere.
Even simple people sense it and long to connect.
What would an article about Eretz Yisroel be without a taxi driver story?
I got into a cab and directed the driver to take me to Rechov Press. I asked the nahag if he knows where Rechov Press is. Many drivers are not familiar with it. Although it houses Yeshivas Brisk, built on the home of the Brisker Rov, it is small and narrow and a car is a rare sight there.
“Mah atah shoel? Of course I know that street. That’s where I grew up. And do you know what? The rov of Brisk lived on that street. Did you know that?”
I asked what the rov was like. “Do you remember him?”
“Of course I remember him,” the driver said. “I was eight years old when he was niftar. We would play on the street and he would sit there studying Torah.”
“Did he seem special to you in any way?”
“Mah atah shoel? He was like a malach! He was an adam kadosh. He gave me a brachah. Do you know why I have a nice taxi and parnassah? It’s all because he blessed me when I was a little boy.”
In Yerushalayim, there are no simple people.
Scratch the surface and there’s a good story there.
We can be the same.
Shortly after I arrived there for Yom Tov, I headed for the Kosel to witness a ceremony held for 350 Shuvu students celebrating their bar mitzvah. Unfortunately, the event was over by the time I got there. It seemed as if every child from around the country who was having a bar mitzvah was at the Kosel.
Children who were obviously not religious were there to be photographed putting on tefillin and reading from a Sefer Torah as their families watched with beaming smiles. Distant as they might appear, they aren’t gone. The connection is frayed, but it is still there, waiting to be tapped.
Who knows when they will next put on tefillin? At least they will look at those pictures with fondness. And when the opportunity presents itself and a hand is extended to them, they will be able to accept it.
While davening at the Kosel on Shabbos, I saw a sight that made me a little happy and a little sad. It was bittersweet and moving, and it offered reason for hope.
A young boy and his father, who were obviously not religious, were leaving the Kosel. They were returning to their car, the keys audibly jangling in the father’s hand. The boy insisted on walking backwards, as some do. He didn’t want to lose sight of the holy wall. His father berated him. “Maspik! It’s enough,” he said. “You can turn around and walk straight now.”
But the boy insisted on walking backwards. “Lo, abba. Zeh lo maspik.”
He was walking with a backpack, heading to a car on Shabbos, r”l, but he wanted more.
Zeh lo maspik. He’s hungry for more kedushah. He’s looking for meaning. He’s looking for us to bring it to him and show him the way. Im yirtzeh Hashem, he will find it.
Zeh lo maspik is a rallying cry for us looking to live with chiddush, remaining fresh, engaged and fulfilled. Complacency is the greatest deterrent. It is the feeling that we are good enough and that there is no reason to improve. We need to rise beyond that which surrounds us, and when we do, we can soar to the heavens.
I traveled to Naharia to visit Rav David Abuchatzeira. As soon as we met, he turned to me and said that I probably wonder what types of issues he deals with. “What do people ask for? Let me tell you,” he said. “Let me show you.
“The koach hatumah has been strengthened, and it is taking a toll on our people. You have to fight the tumah, bringing light to people and inspiring them to do teshuvah.
“It takes on various guises, but at the root, it is the fact that tumah is in the air.
“Tumah is fought with kedushah and with teshuvah. Get that message across. Help and inspire people to seek out kedushah and teshuvah.”
For the first time, I went to meet Rav Yaakov Meir Schechter, the aged tzaddik who lives in the Bais Yisroel neighborhood of Yerushalayim, near Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim. He told me, “You have to go back and write and tell people that they should not give up when they feel the tug of the yeitzer hora.”
This is a topic that Rav Schechter has written and spoken about a lot.
He seemed to be suffering from a sore throat. The gabbai suggested that he can tell me the message and the rov didn’t have to strain himself.
“Nein, nein. Ich vill em zogen. Ich vill ehr zol dos heren richtig fun mir. I want to make sure that he gets the message. I have to tell him myself,” he said.
“The yeitzer hora is ever-present. That’s his job. That is what Hashem created him for. Tell people that when they feel him, they shouldn’t think that they are failures. He does his job, but they have to do theirs. The yeitzer hora was created by Hashem, but he was created with the purpose that he shouldn’t be listened to. Fight back and beat him. When you refuse his entreaties you are being mamlich Hakadosh Boruch Hu. If you remember that you are here to serve Hashem you will triumph. Just because you feel his presence doesn’t mean you are a failure.”
Rav Schechter sits in his corner of Yerushalayim and worries about people in America who become depressed and lose the self-respect and strength they need to battle on.
Be strong. You can do it. If you fail, pick yourself up and start over again. Never give up. Don’t look for the superficial, don’t be impressed by it. Go for the depth, recognize what is important and don’t be deterred by disappointment.
People of spirit find ways to forge on. They are able to pick up the proverbial pieces and conquer. We are urged to be besimcha, because upbeat people have the ability to persevere. The joy in the streets of Yerushalayim is the joy of people fulfilled, people who toil to accomplish, people for whom “zeh lo maspik” is a way of life.
Tens of thousands streamed to the Kosel on the night of Shavuos. All streets lead to the Kosel that night. There are no cars, busses, trains or taxis on the streets, just masses of people, a rush hour of Jews of all types, trekking to the place from where the Shechinah never departed.
What a sight it was.
For some people, the walk is easy. For others, it is harder. But I am sure that the one who had the hardest time of all was Rabbi Yossi Sorotzkin. Born with spina bifida, Reb Yossi lives with his wife in Bayit Vegan. His legs have no strength. He gets around on crutches, which, for all practical purposes, replace his legs. He has nothing to lean on, no place to balance his weight, except his hands.
He walked on Shavuos night to the Kosel, all 4 miles, all by himself. He felt at times that he couldn’t go on, but he pushed himself. He stopped along the way, because his hands became blistered. He knocked on the door of an apartment on Rechov Azza. He asked the nice person who answered for something to wrap his hands in so that he could continue on. And continue he did. He made it there. He davened and then pulled himself back the 4 miles.
His ruach carried him. His desire to connect to Hashem pushed him onward. For Yossi Sorotzkin, “zeh lo maspik” is a way of life. He doesn’t sit home, wallowing in sadness and mourning the tragedy of the way he was born. He pushes onward and forward. With a smile, he succeeds in knocking down one hurdle after another.
We must do the same.
Aharon Hakohein felt bad. He wanted to participate in the chanukas haMishkon. He had many zechuyos. Hashem spoke to him. He was the kohein gadol, a leader of the nation. But he felt “zeh lo maspik.” He wanted more. Hashem gave him a chance to teach the world how one can live in a constant state of “chanukah,” of constant freshness and vitality.
We all have that ability, every day, in every deed. Deep inside the heart of a Jew, there is a single, often unexpressed, sentiment: zeh lo maspik.
Let us resolve to reach that feeling and express it, in ourselves and in others. Let’s spread the simcha, increase the kedushah, and make the world a better place so that we can all be in Yerushalayim bemeheirah.