Travels In Israel and the Tochachoh For Moderns
Visiting Israel always yields delights and surprises. Sometimes they come instantly; sometimes they take reflection. Usually, in my experience, they involve taxi drivers. On my recent trip, I found new understanding of the tochachoh that we read last Shabbos. The insight was inspiring, but frightening.
The brief trip combined the bar-mitzvah of a grandson with some professional work, and a bit of time for some judicious sight-seeing. My friend Harvey Tannenbaum of Efrat was eager to show some of the places in the news of the last months. I gladly accepted the invitation, heeding my own recent suggestion that one way of promoting achdus was to cross the invisible boundaries that separate sub-communities from each other. (I would also travel to Mercaz HaRav for a Thursday night mishmar shiur by my mechutan and partner in the bar-mitzvah, R Mordechai Willig, that began at 12:30AM and drew about 70 talmidim, all of whom stayed eager and attentive, but that is not for this essay.)
Harvey is a Mekor Chaim parent. His son, Simcha, is a senior in the exclusive Dati Leumi high school from which two of the three murdered teens Hy”d left the night they were abducted. Makor Chaim, headed by R. Adin Steinsaltz, became both the headquarters for the search during the eighteen days, as well as the focus of international media, which tuned in on the lives of the schoolmates of the kidnapped teens, and which was mesmerized by the words of unshakeable emunah of the Rosh Yeshiva, R Zinger.
Before we arrived, Harvey took me to the now-notorious bus stop from which all three boys were abducted. It has not been decommissioned, but is very much in service. Responding to the pressure, the bus people have scheduled more frequent service, trying to obviate the need for the hitchhiking that was common because it was the only way to get around. The stop is near a busy intersection, in what our BDS enemies would regard as the heart of the “occupation” – the Jewish communities that returned after June 1967 to the area from which they had been ethnically cleansed in 1948, especially Etzion itself where the defenders were slaughtered by the Arabs to whom they had surrendered. According to the BDS narrative, you should find signs of apartheid activity here, like the separate roads for Jews and Arabs we hear about, and the ugly concrete barriers encircling the Arab communities.
You won’t find them, though, in the Gush. From the ill-fated bus stop you can see Jews and Arabs hitchhiking at the same intersection, and both Jewish and Arab cars whizzing by on the same road. Looking out beyond the reclaimed and rebuilt communities, you see Arab towns peeking out just beyond, unobstructed by concrete barriers.
You will find the same mixing almost everywhere. The West has seen images of the separation of worshippers in Hebron, at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It would be good for them to see the Jews, Christians and Muslims simultaneously praying at Kever Shmuel / Nebi Samwil – the tomb of the prophet Samuel. Nor do they see the matter-of-fact mixing of all the above in the activity that is the runner-up to religion in Jerusalem – shopping high-end stores in Mamilla. Some apartheid.
The bus stop itself is encircled by banners – not declaring enmity for the Arabs, but emunah in Hashem. Area residents have erected a temporary stone marker just next to it with a simple inscription and a finger extended that was meant to bring to mind both hitchhiking and emunah, since it points upward to Heaven, rather than the usual lateral orientation.
Having come directly from Kever Rochel, I had mixed feelings about the tragic site becoming a national shrine. As a people, we are, as the phrase goes, melumadim be-yesurin. We are all too familiar with tragedy and suffering. We could not easily catalog all the sites at which we could erect markers. Rochel transcends time, and is different.
Yet, I found the marker effective. It brought back memories not only of the tragedy and of the taharah of the three korbanos, but of the remarkable eighteen days that brought the country together. May there be no need for any future markers.
(Aside: the West “knows” that Bethlehem is a fortress, surrounded on all sides by a huge concrete barrier. Of course, it isn’t. The barrier – one of the only places in the country were security is maintained by a barrier, rather than a fence – does not encircle Bethlehem, which is open on one side. Its purpose is not to create a ghetto, but to prevent Arabs from firing directly into the neighboring Jewish communities, like they did before it was built. They did the same from Beit Jala, a Palestinian Christian community whose homes were forcibly “borrowed” by Muslim terrorists from which to shoot at Jews in Gilo. I came across only one area that is a fortress completely surrounded by huge, ugly concrete walls. It surrounds Jews, not Arabs. Kever Rochel, the symbol of Jewish return to the Holy Land for over three thousand years, is that fortress. Jews in a sovereign Jewish state cannot enjoy a few minutes of quiet prayer there without taking refuge in an armed fortress. This does, however, ramp up the kavanah, as you cannot fail to realize that the return of Rochel’s children has not yet taken place in the manner for which we long.)
From the bus stop we drove to Mekor Chaim. In more ways than one, it heightened the contrast between haredi chinuch in Israel and Dati Leumi – as well as with haredi and Modern Orthodox education here in the US.
Mekor Chaim is perhaps the most picturesque yeshiva campus I have ever seen. It is entirely suburban, miles from the distractions of the city. It has dirt paths and lots of trees and vegetation. The atmosphere is one of simplicity. Unlike most institutions that succeeded long ago in building modern campuses, Mekor Chaim’s beis medrash is still in a few caravans harnessed together. The dormitories are Jordanian army barracks from the bad old days.
The Dati Leumi system favors dorm schools. I was told that some of the better post-high school yeshivos frown upon applicants from commuter schools, preferring talmidim who had benefitted from full-time immersion in a Torah atmosphere. Haredi leadership, on the other hand, prefers keeping children out of dormitories, which create problems of their own. In the US, of course, this is reversed. At the “best” haredi schools, students room full-time; I am not aware of any Modern Orthodox dorm schools in the US, with the possible exception of MTA, if it still accepts dorm students.
One of the advantages of a dormitory school is that students experience the pas be-melech tochal, the need to look away from one’s comfort and convenience in order to make progress in learning. I was only able to interact in the short time I was at Mekor Chaim with a handful of students. Those talmidim didn’t betray the slightest resentment or cynicism about the spartan conditions. Moreover, all the people I met there, student and administration, struck me as warm, nice people, without the edge I often sense from baalei shitah, myself included. Something there is working.
A bit of that something emerged in speaking with R Dovid Rabinovich, the assistant Rosh Yeshiva. (The Rosh Yeshiva R. Zinger, whose bedrock emunah and sensibility riveted the country during the days of the search, was not on campus.)
Within the DL world, Mekor Chaim is seen as one of the top-rated schools. It gets far more applicants than it has room to accept. I asked him what made Mekor Chaim different. He attributed its success to following the educational policies of R. Adin Steinsaltz, which throw in just enough of a Chassidic flavor to make each student feel important. They resist the temptation to place the overachieving superstar on a pedestal, he said, preferring to build up each and every talmid. Didn’t this diminish the likelihood of polishing the real diamond students and allowing their brilliance to shine? I was surprised by his honesty and lack of defensiveness. Perhaps, he said, without flinching. Nevertheless, that is the educational policy to which they are committed.
Part of that policy means focusing on the moment, rather than seeing their high school years as preparatory to something more important later on. He told me that he took strong exception to a comment of a parent who expressed appreciation in the school’s chesed activities, because they would be an asset on future resumes. He told the parent that he was wrong; the chesed had to be cherished as what life is about now. He tells them the same about their learning. Their involvement in it is their life for these years, and they should appreciate it as an end, not a means. Part of this means spending time explaining just why Torah is important to them, and why they should do it with joy.
This does not preclude dealing with practical considerations. The boys have a full secular curriculum, including English and sports, beginning about 3PM. Unlike American MO schools, they have a full night seder. They have a professional counselor on campus, who had his hands full in getting the boys to work through the trauma of losing two of their friends to the Hamas murderers.
There are no uniforms. The boys dress neatly, but casually. The demonstrations of individuality show up as Breslov peyos, not droopy, hip-hop pants. They look like they are neither trying very hard to become uniformly part of something, nor to run away from something else.
The course steered is intermediate between Israeli haredi uniformity and neglecting of all secular study, and the confusing and often contradictory messages American MO students get about the relative values of Torah and other pursuits. While a middle position is often the hardest one to take, there are indications of the success of some of Mekor Chaim’s goals. At least one American MO school, conscious of student motivation often coming up short, sends some sophomores to Mekor Chaim for a limited stay. R Rabinovich claims that the effect is profound, with students in such an environment “getting it” for the first time, i.e. understanding why Torah and mitzvos are crucial, and a joy rather than a burden. Many of the Americans want to stay longer, but Mekor Chaim has not agreed that it is in their best interest.
Is this a better way of running schools than the system in which my own grandchildren are being educated? Will it produce gedolim? Which system will yield fewer dropouts? I didn’t go there to judge, but to expand my horizons by learning from the experience of other frum Jews. Mekor Chaim is clearly the kind of place that many American haredim, faced with the choice of schools that either have horribly deficient general studies or none at all, would welcome for their sons. I didn’t intend to go beyond that.
Not until the taxi drivers got into my head.
Really, it wasn’t just them. It started on ElAl on the way over. Sitting to my right in the center seat was an Israeli teen, who was clearly not a datiyah from the way she was dressed. Came on board with the usual teen paraphernalia, and occupied herself with teen stuff for the entire 14 ½ hour flight.
Except for take-off. After the usual wait at the gate, we slowly headed for the runway. Just before take-off, she pulled out a Tehilim, and kept up her davening for some 40 minutes.
Across the aisle from me was a stereotypically Israeli late middle age couple – he with a large paunch, she in shorts designed for someone decades her junior. They did not recite Tehilim. They conducted themselves throughout the flight in a manner consistent with the popular caricatures of non-Westernized secular Israelis. At least until just before landing. Then, she too pulled out a Tehilim and davened up a storm.
Then came the cab drivers. Not a single one of them wore a kippah. Every one of them would not let me get out of the cab without wishing a ketivah v’chatimah tovah. Most spoke about the superiority of living in Israel over any other place in the world, and asked how I could possibly live in Los Angeles. Most offered berachos that I should be able to make aliyah soon. (Amen!)
After a few doses of this, the incongruity set in. Whom do I regard, consciously or otherwise, as “my” people? Are they the same as those HKBH would regard as such?
One of the subliminal messages I absorbed in my yeshivah years was that some Jews “count” for more. To be sure, Hashem loves them all – but some are so far removed from Torah experience, that G-d surely holds them guiltless and unaccountable for their lack of halachic observance. When Hashem looks to Jews for fealty to His commandments, He looks only to those who know enough to be responsible, namely the relatively small number fortunate enough to have had strong Torah chinuch.
There was some truth to this decades ago in the US. Moreover, the message was designed to motivate us to assume greater responsibility. More was riding upon us, since others were not held responsible. The gemara urges us to think of the world hanging in the balance, perched precisely between merit and the opposite, waiting for our next mitzvah or aveirah to fatefully tip the scales. It is hard for people to imagine this at all times. The we-count-for-more approach spread the guilt and responsibility a bit wider, and in a way we could understand.
It had its advantages, as well. When we got to the tochachoh twice a year, we could look around and tell ourselves that things were not so bad. Because we did not look much further than the beis Medrash walls, we saw only people committed to Shulchan Aruch. We did not see ourselves as endangered by the 98 execrations of Ki Savo.
Many of us grew older, and retained this approach subliminally. But if there was ever any truth to it, it is true no longer. We have merited a country of our own, where a large majority of the people recognize, like the cab drivers, the existence of HKBH and the reality of His Torah, even if their actions are not consistent with many of His demands.
And whose are? A small number of tzadikim? Is the tochachoh addressed to them, or to the entirety of the Jewish people? Is it true that if “we” are all careful about lashon hora, we will bring the geulah? Are the millions of Jews who never heard of the Chofetz Chaim not part – indeed, the major part – of the equation? Isn’t the point of the tochachoh that Hashem looks at the entire Jewish people, and judges them?
Focusing on the “in” group allows us to wring more commitment to halachic detail out of ourselves, and to put more fire into our avodah as individuals. But it distracts from our responsibility to the Nation as a whole, its needs, its future, and its relationship with Hashem and His Torah.
When we look only to ourselves, to the supposed yerei’im u-sheleimim, we don’t care about whether the gestalt of a Torah life appeals to others – or turns them off. We can’t concern ourselves with others. We are the ones to whom Hashem looks! Not only, in the words of Rav Dessler zt”l, are we prepared to sacrifice the other 999 who are not fit for horo’oh in order to produce the gadol, we will sacrifice as well 100,000 others who cannot possibly relate to our conception of Torah.
I am not ready, at the same time, to give up on one of those who should be yotzei le-horo’oh. I don’t claim to have a formula to achieve all of the goals that should be important to us – other than to deny exclusivity, and to see different Jews filling different roles.
Clearly, Mekor Chaim is a place that will make multiple types of contributions to the viability of the world’s largest Jewish community. Yirbu kemosom be-Yisrael.