Decompressing on the Way Back From Israel
Two years away from Israel is far too long, but it allows you to see the changes that you might miss if they happened under your nose. My daughter provided the excuse (a new baby and a bris, B”H), and remarkable hashgacha (as always seems to be the case in regard to Eretz Yisrael – more on that later) provided the funding, so I was afforded the privilege of spending a week in our Land. This piece is my attempt at decompressing on the plane back to chutz l’aretz. If you will be offended or bored by an individual travelogue, the more serious Torah begins about half way through.
I love the scenic beauty of Israel – all of it. Yet one of the sights on the horizon that gives me most pleasure is man-made, and esthetically ugly. I love seeing massive building cranes that spoil the natural beauty. They speak of the continuing berachah of HKBH, Who not only brought us back to our Land, but presides over its development and prospering. Judging by the ubiquitous cranes, you could never know that the world is in the middle of a recession.
Traffic in many places is worse than before, if that can be imagined. But new roads and interchanges, and very clearly marked lanes, make some kinds of navigating easier. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I seemed to detect, among the daredevil and aggressive Israeli drivers, more of another kind. Instead of the fighting to get into a merging lane that was always the standard, I saw traffic flow logically, with cars yielding, one car at a time and without prompting, to cars needing to merge into the flow. Maybe there is some progress.
I never minded the tracts of barren, bolder-strewn expanse you see so often as roads connect new areas that our return to the Land steadily reclaims. This time, however, I saw more of them now planted with orderly rows of trees, that show our determination to make our Land beautiful as well as practical. (A relative who serves as a dayan told me that R Mendel Sharan, shlit”a, takes a different attitude than other dayanim in regard to the inevitable clashes between neighbors regarding to the impromptu (and technically illegal) modifications that people make to their dirot. Many dayanim will be sympathetic to neighbors who are unhappy about the changes, but will side with the defendant when halacha does not establish a clear cause of action. R. Shafran finds that this sometimes allows for taking advantage of the system. “Are our neighborhoods supposed to look like Arab villages,” nothing more than a tangled web of structures planted helter-skelter, each person doing as he wishes? There were gedolim in previous generations who used to pick up litter in the street, wishing to beautify the Land.)
The most striking addition to the Yerushalayim skyline is jarring.. A huge, slender white curved column juts out at the base of Rechov Herzl. Looking out from Ramat Shlomo where my daughter lives, it competes with Belz as the most prominent feature you see. From the top of the column, scores of cables dangle, like harp strings attached to a single point on one of the two ends. These cables hold up a pedestrian bridge at a busy intersection roughly at what is called Sha’ar Ha-Ir. It completely clashes with so many of the much older Jerusalem stone buildings in the areas to the sides of it, and undoubtedly was meant to. The bridge is a single-tower suspension bridge, that looks like an engineering feat and a futuristic sculpture at the same time. It apparently was meant to convey the idea to the visitor that Yerushalayim is attractive not only for so much that is old and traditional, but has an eye on the future as well. The city fathers probably meant the secular presence and the night life, but that shouldn’t deter us from finding a different symbolic representation. It can be seen as a tefillah for the coming Redemption issuing from this place. It does, after all, look like a finger pointing to Heaven, which in turn holds up the footsteps of those walking below.
One of the purposes of the week was to give my youngest son a memorable time during the briefer-than-usal bein hazmanin that the Riverdale Yeshiva allows. Accompanied by two of his friends, we headed north, first to the Galil Elyon, where lives one of the only relatives on my father’s A”H side. Bentzion is one of the founders of a very secular kibbutz. His wife was prepared for us, with all the Badatz-Eidah food she could find.
Part of my intention was to get my son to at least grapple with the issue of the sacrifices that the non-frum made in our return to our Land. The pictures of the empty expanse of rocky land that greeted them, and of the conditions under which they developed the area under primitive conditions while braving marauding Arabs and later fire from the Syrians literally yards away, the network of underground bunkers that they lived in at night for years before 1967, tell a gripping story. (Two graves sit a few feet from my cousin’s cottage. One belongs to his son, killed at the end of the June War. The fire was so intense, that two defenders who fell could not be taken to the adjoining kibbutz cemetery, and were buried roughly where they fell. They later asked a shaylah – yes! – of the local rabbinate, and were told not to reinter them. The kibbutzniks still have warm regard for some rabbanim, especially R Drori in Kiryat Shemoneh, for his love and concern for all he comes in contact with.) I won’t insist that everyone come up with the same answers that I do, but I want them at least to be bothered by the question.
My son and his friends were looking forward to doing something, rather than just looking, so we proceeded as planned to the Golan. We had absolutely no clue where to go. A good friend had suggested going to Har Bental for the view, but that was not going to do it alone. Shortly after we arrived at Har Bental, a fellow looks at us and says, “You guys come to all the same places as I do.” He remembered us from a trip to Massada a few days before, where we happened to intersect for a few seconds. It turned out that he was a frum tour guide, and he suggested a nearby place for hiking, and had a map that could show us how to get there. In terms of planning our afternoon, it was like going from zero to sixty in two seconds. The two hour hike in Nachal Gilboa was a real workout, and the highpoint of the day.
It was so in ruchniyus as well as gashmiyus. Every time I am in Israel, I experience more of what kofrim consider coincidence, and we know as hashgacha. There is B”H plenty of serendipity in chutz la-Aretz as well, but I am overwhelmed on every trip how much more of it comes my way in Israel. Each time it happens, I think of the Shalah Ha-Kodesh and his approach to the gemara in Kesuvos, מי שדר בחוץ לארץ כמי שאין לו א-קה, whoever lives outside of Israel is as if he had no G-d. The Shalah explains that when Hashem wants Jews to share in some bracha, He cannot, as it were, direct this beracha just to them. This would be too dramatic a showing of His presence, and would take away human bechirah. He has to hide his presence, so the beracha must come through the sarei umos ha-olam, i.e. as a generalized blessing to all around, in which Jews partake along with everyone else. The eyes of the world do not notice, however, when unexpected good things happen in Israel, to the group or to individuals. Here, says the Shalah, Hashem can use hashgacha peratis, individual Providence, without others noticing. Living with enhanced hashgacha peratis is what the gemara calls א-וקה, a personal G-d. In Israel, you don’t leave home without it.
We spent an afternoon on the gedolim tour of Bnei Brak. My dayan relative had all the right connections to avoid the lines. I am uncomfortable with treating gedolim like museum pieces to be gawked at, or to take their time without pressing reason, but I couldn’t turn down my son. So we arranged to meet one of R Chaim Kanievski’s, shlit”a, grandsons at an appointed hour, and we were ushered into a back way, up a few flights of steps, through a locked back door, down more steps, and finally into a back room adjoining where R Chaim receives the public at specific hours. A few of us would be ushered in before the door would open on the other side, allowing in the larger than usual (it was bein ha-zemanim) crowd waiting on the public line, including DL couples apparently waiting for a berachah, and women (some of whom dressed far from Bnei Brak standards) waited for the lively and animated Rebbetzin Kanievski (daughter of R Elyashiv, shlit”a) . When we finished, we were accorded similar treatment with R Nissim Karelitz, shlit”a.
We arrived in Bnei Brak with much time to spare, almost catching mincha gedolah in the Lederman shul where R Chaim davens. The shul was packed to the rafters. Said rafters have never seen an air-conditioner, and the fans (which did no good that I could discern in the sweltering heat of Bnei Brak) are a recent innovation only begrudgingly allowed by the powers that be. Our attempt to get something to eat afterwards met with initial failure. Hashgacha peratis did not direct us to a pizza shop as we cruised Rechov R Akiva. We learned that there are no pizza shops in all of Bnei Brak. They are seen as potential hang-outs, and R Landau will not give a teudas hechsher to pizza shops, and you can’t survive in BB without one.
I could write ten pieces on the top ten reasons why I could not live in Bnei Brak. I won’t. Nor will I even mention them. I was very conscious of the negatives – but they did not get in the way of the positive as an uplifting experience. I can’t see how anyone who has a re’ach of Torah cannot be impressed by time spent where not only Torah is king, but it is everything. The city revolves around learning. All the accoutrements displayed inside homes and out speak of a single value and purpose – limud Torah. (R Chaim, for instance, does not recognize daylight savings time. He has no use for getting his body and his daily schedule out of synch for a few days twice a year. He simply ignores it, because it would disturb his leaning.) There is no fat to cut, and no flirtation (on the surface level) with anything else. We know all about the warts and the flaws. But we have to be awed by single-mindedness and focus in the service of Hashem.
Berachos 17B faults the non-Jews of Masa Mechasya for not converting to Judaism. Twice a year they saw “the splendor of Torah,” as crowds gathered to hear Rav Ashi expound on the laws of Pesach and Succos. I don’t know whether those non-Jews saw thousands of well-adjusted Jews behaving perfectly. My guess is that they might have found some things to complain about. The gemara’s point is that they should also have been overwhelmed by the display of devotion to the Torah, of huge numbers putting aside their comfort and other interests to involve themselves in the Word of G-d, and that should have led to changes in their behavior. For some, it should have been the first step towards conversion. That this did not happen was a sign that they were spiritually dead. I am going to try not to be worse than the non-Jews of Masa Mechasya. Without becoming a Bnei Braker, a visit there left me with plenty to reflect about, in unburdening myself of so many distractions that, relative to the value and joy of learning, are just not worth it.