By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
It’s hard to imagine a more vivid backdrop to this week’s parsha and the tragic account of the meraglimthan a visit to Eretz Yisroel. Having just returned from a week in the Holy Land, suffused by the glow that only being there can ignite, I’ve had twelve hours to reflect on it.
One of the most famed of the Yerushalayimer maggidim was Rav Bentzion Yadler, a man with a message for the masses, a figure who traversed the country on the back of a donkey. He went from Metula to Rosh Pina to Beer Sheva, following dusty paths to wherever Jews resided in order to deliver words of hope and inspiration.
His sefer is titled “Ure’eh Betuv Yerushalayim – See the Good of Jerusalem,” based on the posuk in Tehillim. Those knowledgeable in history appreciate the significance of the title. The maggid was visually impaired. He was unable to see. Rav Bentzion’s eyes didn’t take in the kaleidoscope of color in the city where buildings of brilliant white and roofs of burnt orange seem like carvings against the deep blue sky. He didn’t visualize Yerushalayim with the tourist’s eye. He had a deeper perception.
He had “Eretz Yisroeldike oigen,“ eyes that beheld the glory and majesty of the Holy City, even though they were too dim to see anything else. This vision was expressed in his talks and in his sefer.
The previous Boyaner Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Shlomo, lived in America but had a large nucleus of Chassidim in Yerushalayim, the chaburah at the famed Ruzhiner kloiz (originally in the legendary Nissan Bak shul in the Old City and later in Batei Hornstein). The Rebbe’s trips to Eretz Yisroel were infrequent, and when he came, it was cause for great rejoicing for Chassidim who had no email or weekly faxes to connect them with their Rebbe.
Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, he was greeted at the Haifa port by a group of prominent Chassidim, and the most fortunate among them were given the honor of joining him in the taxi. They entered the vehicle with trepidation, certain that the Rebbe’s conversation would be lofty and replete with meaning, but the Rebbe said nothing. He sat with his face pressed to the window, watching the passing scenery intently, his eyes fixed on the dusty mountains all around him.
One of the Chassidim finally addressed the Rebbe, hoping for a response.
He got more than he bargained for. “The posuk says that Eretz Yisroel is a land ‘asher einei Hashem Elokecha bah,‘ the Eyes of Hashem are upon it,” said the Rebbe. “Oib Ehr kukt, if He is looking, than I should certainly look!”
Eretz Yisroeldike oigen.
My own eyes are far less sublime than those of the maggid or the Rebbe, but every Yid has a koach to see Eretz Yisroel, and this week was a memorable one for me.
Yerushalayim is a mystical city. It feels like Shabbos the entire week, and not only if you are a visiting American on vacation. The kedushah, the cumulative effect of two thousand years of Yiddishe tefillos, is tangible.
The davening there is different, the streets are different, the speech is different, and the people are different. The children there possess a chein unseen elsewhere in the world. People there are more serious about their Yiddishkeit and more trusting in Hashem.
Yerushalayimer Yidden rarely appear to be in a rush. They are at peace, comfortable with their lot. They are patient, accommodating and loving. They are this way because they are conscious at all times that they are Hashem’s children, living in His land, and fulfilling His will. Everything is preordained and will happen only if G-d wills it, so why rush? There is no room in their mindset for tension or distress. Their mundane conversations are laced with tranquility and acceptance, and gentle good humor that reflects their attitude. They are content and serene. I envy the way they consider themselves blessed and fortunate if their apartment boasts three full rooms.
If the entire week is a bechinah of Shabbos, then Shabbos itself is Shabbos the way it was meant to be. As Shabbos approaches, silence and calm descend upon the Holy City like a blanket on a cold night, the serenity hovering over the stones and ancient pathways.
You walk to davening and see the Yerushalayimer Yidden in their golden bekeshes and shtreimlech, their clothing proclaiming Shabbos. They clasp the small hands of their children or einiklach and walk to shul, their voices wafting in the air like the song of a bird.
In a city of Shabbos, the epicenter of peace might just be in the heart of Meah Shearim, at the bais medrash of Toldos Aharon. When the Rebbe’s gabbai invited me to join the davening, I resisted. But then he said, “Come. We daven in taleisim, and besides for that, the davening itself is singular – mamesh like Yom Kippur every Friday night.”
He didn’t say that because he was some doe-eyed American tourist. He said it because as a Yerushalayimer Yid, that is how he feels and views it every single week!
If you think the “Reb Arelach” children are charming a whole week, on Shabbos they practically glow, with their white yarmulkes, shirts and long curled peyos framing their cherubic faces. When you hear them davening together and singing Lecha Dodi, you sense the joy that Rav Shlomo Alkabetz was expressing as his eternal stanzas of poetry come to life.
Shabbos morning I davened at the Brisker yeshiva, a different style of davening from Toldos Aharon; unique in its own way, with a world-famed heightened degree of seriousness and kavanah, and an intense focus on properly reciting the tefillos and Krias HaTorah. There is a sense of rigidity in the air regarding details of halacha. I sat there and pondered the amount of Torah studied in that building by some of the best and brightest young talmidei chachomim in our world. I contemplated the impact that these koslei bais hamedrash have had upon the American Torah world and I felt fortunate to be offering my humble tefillos in such a place.
In America, everything is new. It’s nice that we don’t have a long and bloody history in this country, but we never get to experience the fragrance of a tefillah at Zichron Moshe, standing near windows that have served as portals to tens of thousands of tefillos, rising heavenward, over the past century.
On its worn benches, roshei yeshiva sit alongside laborers, and some of those whose voices join yours as you say, “Amein yehei Shemei rabbah mevorach,” are hidden tzaddikim, the type you read about in books. In a world where we’re drowning in cynicism, it’s easy to believe that such people don’t exist anymore. But then, as you enter the shul in the predawn stillness, you see an old Yerushalmi Yid in a kaftan turned brown from old age. His eyes gleam as they meet yours, and you know you are touching another world.
If weekday is like Shabbos and Shabbos is like Yom Kippur, what is Yom Tov like?
If you ever wondered what aliyah l’regel was like and what it meant that there was room for everyone, walk to the Kosel on Shavuos morning and you get a taste of it. You set out on your own, but as you get closer, more and more people are walking alongside you, in front of you and behind you, all converging on the center of the universe. Its four o’clock in the morning and everyone around you is marching in unison to the same destination, footsteps beating out a song of joy.
They come pouring in through the ancient gates of the Old City, flowing like a river into the Kosel plaza, where they join the mass of people. As more pour in, the space seems to expand. Here, everyone has a place.
I davened with the minyan of the talmidim of Yeshivas Ohr Elchonon. Thanks to my good friend, Rav Gedaliah Sheinen, I had a seat, as did most people at that minyan. A seat makes a big difference. I was davening at the Kosel, serid Bais Mikdosheinu, with thousands of other people davening in a jumble of nuscha’os all around. Being so close to the makom haMikdosh in the company of so many good Yidden forces you to daven better, to be better, to appreciate the gifts we have, and to yearn even stronger for the day when we will be redeemed from exile. The words come alive – “galei kevod malchuscha“ – in a whole new way.
With these thoughts in mind, we can approach a seeming stirah, a contradiction, in Rashi, as he explains the parshas hameraglim. The posuk refers to them as anoshim, an appellation which connotes prominence or distinction. Yet, later on, Rashi tells us that they set off on their mission “be’eitzah ra,” with an evil scheme and rather dishonorable intentions.
One of the meforshim, the Shemen Hatov, offers an original solution. He suggests that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted anoshim, distinguished individuals, because he knew that every single Yid, each individual, has his own perspective on Eretz Yisroel, with colors and shades that only he sees.
Moshe Rabbeinu sent twelve different people, because he wanted twelve different viewpoints on Eretz Yisroel. He wanted them to look through Eretz Yisroeldike oigen and to return with different reflections, this one amazed by Brisker punctiliousness, the next one by the precision and order of a Yekkishe yeshiva, and yet another by the passion of a Minchah in a Sephardic shul in the Bucharim shuk. He wanted each one to see their Land.
So yes, they were anoshim. But they chose to band together, to look through their ordinary, chutz la’aretz eyes to form a committee that would produce a report for the people.
They swallowed their individuality and created a Commission to Study the Viability of Settling the Land. They missed the point. He didn’t want their statistical, footnoted report. He didn’t want a spreadsheet.
Their decision to give a unified response was a bad idea, an eitzah ra.
Eretz Yisroel is personal. There is a deep and abiding connection between its stones and the Jewish heart, and Moshe Rabbeinu hoped that each would return with his own song, his own tale, an image visible only to him.
Sadly, it didn’t happen.
Later, in Parshas Pinchos, the Ribbono Shel Olam tells Moshe that although he would not merit to enter the Land, he could ascend Har Ha’avarim and see the Land – “Ure’eh es Ha’aretz.“ The Seforno says that it was to invest it with an ayin tovah. To look at it the way it ought to be looked at, with Eretz Yisroeldike oigen, and perhaps repair the error of the meraglim, who didn’t really look at all.
On Shavuos morning, after an uplifting davening at the Kosel, the walk back is uphill. By now the sun is up, pouring its golden heat like liquid, but rather than feeling discomfort, you contemplate the power of the metaphor. When you came, it was dark. It was night. But after your tefillos, there is light and day and renewed hope for a better tomorrow.
Are there problems in Eretz Yisroel? There sure are.
Are the nations of the world lined up to marginalize and destroy the tiny country? Of course.
But when you’re there, you’d never know it.
When you’re there, your eyes see differently. They view things purely. They, too, are Eretz Yisroeldik.
V’sechesenah eineinu b’shuvcha letzion berachamim.