I haven’t been to Israel in 25 years and was really looking forward to the trip from an emotional and intellectual prospective. The planning started a year ago and we had all the bases covered: a tour with a group and touring on our own. We did all the regular stops: the Kotel, Yad Vashem, Massada, the Dead Sea, Tsfat, etc. just to name a few. It was really very nice to be with so many Jews in one place: from the bus driver wearing a kippah to many taxi drivers, storeowners, and street cleaners.
Israel was not a backward country as I remember it. The infrastructure that has been built, the highways, tunnels, and apartments are being rebuilt. It was emotionally very satisfying to me, and I’m sure to the rest of my family. In America, if you see a person wearing a kippah at work you are very surprised. I started feeling “Wow!”, these people that live here in Israel…they have it made. I could really see myself living here, maybe not getting on the next flight to move, but maybe sometime in the future!
After many days of touring I started thinking a little bit more about some of the things I have been seeing, hearing and experiencing…from an intellectual basis…the Kotel for one...
By the way, does anyone know the importance of the Kotel (the Western Wall)? I always thought it was the remaining wall of our holy Temple. Well, it’s not. Nechemia and Ezrah built our second Temple and King Herod built the outer walls to make the Temple grander. This Kotel is Herod’s wall which remains standing for more than 2000 years. So why is it so important to all Jews? Because it’s closest to where the Holy of Holies was when we had the holy Temple standing. (If you have sources concerning the distinction of the Kotel, please email them. See end of article for contact)
I am not so sure that Hashem better receives one’s prayer at the Kotel as opposed to davening in another place. Hashem says in Parshat Yitro (Exod. 20:21), “In any place that I permit my name to be mentioned I will come and bless you”. This seems to say that Hashem hears us in any place that He permits, and not just the Kotel. I went there on two occasions. One was for a Bar Mitzvah on a Thursday morning to hear a boy c from the Torah; the other was on a Friday night. This was a chiyuv (an obligation) as so many people have told me: “You must go there on a Friday night to see it, it’s unbelievable. The singing, the dancing. Everybody goes there!”
Do you know what its like to try and have focus (kavana), hear a Bal Tfila and a Bar Mitzvah boy’s reading at the Kotel when you have another minyan every10-20 feet away from yours, and of course other people doing their own customs, singing, dancing, photographers snapping pictures during davening?
I recall a Mishnah in Brachot (chapter five) which says, “A person is not allowed to pray, except with a heavy head”. Rashi says this means humility. Rambam (Hilchot Tfila 4:15) states, “All prayer that does not have focus is not prayer, and if one prays without focus he must repeat the prayer.” Re: The Shliach Tsibur, he is supposed to lead the people in the praying and the people are supposed to follow along with him to respond to his prayers and also to join in with some of his prayers. Rambam (Hilchat Tfila chapter 8) says, “What is the case of a prayer of the many? Each one prays in a loud voice and everybody hears him.” This also gets a little bit difficult when you cannot hear the Bal Tfila.
What about Torah reading? Rambam (Hilchat Tfila 11:1) says, “Moshe our teacher decreed that the Torah should be read with the multitude on Shabbat, and also on the second and fifth day of the week in the morning so that three days should not go by without hearing Torah. I know it must have been very exciting for people to be at the Bar Mitzvah, but I do not think everybody could hear the reading.
From an emotional prospective it was at first, very enjoyable: lots of dancing and singing. However, after so many people kept coming and coming, it just seemed that they would never end. We became packed, like sardines. Then the enjoyment started to dissipate. In terms of the davening, it was very similar to my Thursday experience. Many people, many minyanim, and too much noise. It was also a big social scene: “Do you see who’s here? Who’s there?” Not a very meaningful davening intellectually. Of Course I won’t even mention the practice of putting letters into the Kotel walls, as if Hashem needs my letter for him to hear my prayers! Besides, what’s wrong with prayer as we are commanded to do? Obviously putting paper in the Kotel is more meaningful for the person. In general there seemed to be a lot of mysticism going on at the Kotel as well as other parts in Israel, like this is “Gods home” and I am standing next to Him.
When we were passing by certain places or visiting certain graves, the guide kept saying “Legend has it that this war happened here, that rebellion happened there, or this one was buried there or that one was buried there. This mountain is Har Gilgal that we read in the Torah.” One other thing he mentioned was that Adam and Eve were sleeping at Abraham’s tent. I do not remember the whole story, but thinking that this is a contradiction to our Torah. We know that Adam and Eve already died before Abraham was born. I started thinking. The word “legend” he used doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s true. If you look up the word at dictionary.com it means “a non historical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.” What am I hearing? Why should this legend be different than those purported by other religions? Why should I or anyone else believe this legend? It may be true, or not. I thought that many other people listening might also have this question. It actually renders Judaism similar to other religions. How does one determine if this is fact or legend?
I went over to this gentleman and told him my problem. I asked him what the source was for some of the “legends” he quoted. He mentioned that they were Midrash. What other word should he use? I explained to him that if they are Midrash or expositions or parables, that he should say that. The word legend does not give truth to the story. Besides, Midrashim were written by Rabbis to give over true ideas in a concealed manner. If the Midrash makes sense in a literal fashion then one can take it literal. Keep in mind that 95% of this tour was orthodox, and the tour director was also orthodox. This presentation of “legends” must have caused the others to doubt what they heard. Lets move on to another part of my experience.
I davened in the morning at a small Shul that was close to where we were staying. This Minyan was like the new Verizon Fios speed on the Internet. If you are not into computers, I mean fast. I befriended one of the people living there. He said to me, “I bet your Minyan in New York cannot keep up with us?” I felt that his feeling of praying to Hashem was just as corrupt as that of many other people. It’s a rote action, just to fulfill and obligation. It’s a quantity factor, not a qualitative factor. “When can I finish and get out of here?” Not being used as a means of getting closer to Hashem: reading the words, internalizing the ideas etc.
One of the things I heard was very disturbing. Geula and Maya Sharim are places were extreme Orthodoxy is to be found. A lot of Chassidus is very predominant there. I heard that there were some religious girls walking around on the street, maybe not dressed as modestly as to be expected for a Torah observant Jew. Some of these people went over and spat at them. Another story I heard was the Chassidim spraying some dye on the girls’ clothing. This will get these girls to follow all the laws of the Torah? I don’t think so. What is the difference between these people and extremist Moslems? Why are they any better? How about desecrating Hashem’s name in public? We just read in Parshat Vaeschanan (Deut. 4:6) “And you will keep and do them because this is your wisdom and knowledge before the eyes of the nations, that they will hear these laws and they will say, ‘How wise and understanding is this great nation’.” These Chassidim, behaving like this…is this the “wisdom” that the other nations will see and hear?
I had seen much kindness being demonstrated by so many Jews. From being in a soup kitchen and working with the volunteers, being at the Jerusalem headquarters of Magen David Adom and meeting with a 19-year-old girl from Yeshiva of Flatbush volunteering for the summer in an ambulance. She was required to take a 10-day course there to learn about all the equipment…only because she wanted to do something meaningful before she embarks onto college.
We were at the second bus attack 30 minutes or so after it happened. Seeing all the Hatzolah and Zacha volunteers working there. Of course the regular Israelis as well. My hat’s off to all of you! It was very moving for me. There are more stories but maybe for another time.
Israel is the place, which Hashem gave us to perfect ourselves and have a relationship with Him…but only via knowledge of the Torah and Hashem. This will all eventuate into a love of God, to be drawn to Him…wanting to learn more ideas in the Torah, the Universe and Him. Israel is the means of how we are to attain this relationship. This is why He gave us the Torah. As it says, “The learning of Torah precedes everything”. There are many other verses that confirm these ideas, but for the sake of time I will not mention all of them, only a few. In our Alanu Prayer we say 3 times a day, “And you should know today and ponder in your heart that Hashem is God in the heavens above and the Earth below”. This “And you should know” is a command from the Torah: “In all of your ways, know Him”.
Some people think it’s the land Israel that perfects a person, and our actions and ideas are secondary. As I greeted a former New Yorker who moved to Israel, I said hello to him. He said “Welcome Home”. It’s not the land that magically perfects us. As Hashem tells us, if we do not keep the Torah with its ideas, then the Land will vomit us out. What perfects us? It’s all the ideas that we obtain and internalize from the Torah. And its not just to do the laws with no meaning by rote…but by internalizing the ideas. It doesn’t make a difference where a person lives. If a person feels that Israel will help him to reach this longing for Hashem through knowledge then he should move there. If this longing can be reached in New York, let him live here.
May we all continue our learning in the proper manner: individually and as a people, and I am sure that we will have the merit of seeing our Beit Hamikdash rebuilt quickly.
Comments welcome: Howard@SalamonBrothers.com