Monday, July 29, New York
I walk the streets of New York in a daze. After
arriving late last night from Israel, the feelings of surreality
reverberate around me. I cannot believe that just yesterday
I was being escorted by armed soldiers, in front and behind
us, as we made our way out of the Arab (occupied) Quarter in
I look around on 5th Avenue – the superficial,
man-made “child” called modern New York – and I close my eyes
and am startled by the fact that just Saturday night I was standing
on a rooftop of the Old City staring at the ancient 5762 year
old Temple Mount.
I see a group of teenagers sauntering down 16th
Street, loud and high, oblivious, apparently on their way to
a movie after watching some TV soap opera. “We are children,”
I thought to myself, “little spoiled children here in America,
reaping off the fat of the land, thinking as though there is
no tomorrow and no yesterday.”
Every American should go visit Jerusalem for a
few days, not as a camera-wielding tourist, not as an observer
but as a participant. Go immerse yourself, soak up the quintessential
realities that lie saturated in the tunnels beneath the Old
City. Walk the streets, each inch laden, filled with layers
upon layers of history upon history. Join your brothers and
sisters as they dodge terrorist bombs…
Want some truth? Close the ‘Reality’ shows on
TV or ‘virtual reality’ on the Internet, pause from the distracting
parties and take a stroll down Jaffe Street in Jerusalem into
the Old City.
More tragic news this week from Jerusalem. War
seems the only inevitable and regrettable solution, G-d forbid.
I never thought that war could be the only answer. Especially
in our lifetime. We thought we had finished the battles with
WW I and II. We were now an enlightened age, empowered by high-tech
and all the comforts, blazing our way from the 20th
to the 21st century at warp speed, with medical breakthroughs
constantly increasing our life expectancies, and conquering
illness and even death.
And here we face a war with the primordial forces
that consume billions of people. A war we must wage if we want
to guarantee our children, if not ourselves, a life of peace
Existence is right back where it began. In the
Middle East, and at war with itself.
Does this not make you think that there is a cosmic
– need I say Divine – hand at work behind the scenes? Why is
it that our material comforts do not provide us with fulfillment
Why do we have to go to war? And what exactly
is this war about? All previous wars were very defined. They
are usually driven by the desire for land, power, money, control.
What is this war about? What do the terrorists want? What did
they want when they crashed into the World Trade Center and
what do they want when they blow themselves up in the streets
of Jerusalem? Yes, they claim that they want the Jews out of
Israel, but is that it? They killed Jews even before 1948… And
Saddam Hussein – what does he want?
The Arab world carries a deep rage. A rage that
goes back, I submit, to their father Ishmael. They themselves
do not know why they are angry. Their rage exposes the major
flaw of existence: We must make our peace with G-d.
This war is a spiritual one. It is not just about
quelling the forces of terror and unconventional weaponry. It
is about establishing a vision of life – a vision that encompasses
all the nations of the world while respecting their diversity,
includes all individuals of the planet while maintaining their
individual integrity. The vision of how the Cosmic Architect
intended us to live and to fulfill the purpose of our being.
When it isn’t working we sometimes need war to
straighten things out.
Perhaps I need to travel to the Holy and Promised
Land to feel the dichotomy between reality and superficiality.
Most people I meet would have problems with my
statements. That’s why I don’t suggest a debate. Rather, take
a trip to the Middle East for a few days, then we’ll talk…
Yet, strangely, at the same time that the Holy
Land reminds us if the deeper truths, it also gives us great
solace and comfort. Believe it or not, I felt stronger and more
centered and focused – and yes, more secure – in Israel than
I do here in New York… Go explain that. You may dismiss me as
weird, but maybe not…
So, allow me and please join me for a stroll down
memory lane – actually not such distant memory, as I return
to my last week in the Holy Land.
Tuesday, July 23, Lod International Airport, 5:15
Land as dawn is breaking in Israel. We get on
line for passport control, foreigners to the right, Israelis
to the left. Though the room is packed with hundreds of arriving
passengers, the foreign line is somber and quiet, punctuated
by hushed conversations. The Israeli line is loud and boisterous,
with occasional shouts of people yelling at each other why they
aren’t moving quicker, and who is first in line.
For some reason, perhaps it’s the wee morning
hours, I am noticing details I usually ignore. We finally come
out of the airport, rent our prerequisite cellular phones, grab
a cab and off we go to Jerusalem, Yerusholayim Ir HaKodesh.
The cab driver, a nice guy, is driving fast, which
is okay, but he insists on driving literally inches off the
tail end of the car in front of us. And he’s not alone, everyone
in Israel drives the same. When I ask him – and later, ask
other drivers – for an explanation, he innocently answers me
“If I leave any space between cars someone else will move in.”
Is this rudeness, bordering on abrasiveness, an
Israel feature? Middle Eastern? Jewish? Is it built on the instinct
for survival the people here are fighting for?
Regular nice people, very nice people. As soon
as they hit the road a battle ensues. It’s hilarious. They make
a wrong turn, and suddenly they are speaking – no, yelling at
themselves – with all types of wild hand gestures. And mind
you, not for a minute, one wrong turn, one cutoff, one glare,
can result in 20 minutes of muttering and hand gestures.
No exaggeration. I spent hours in the car with
our driver who took us up north, to Tiberias and Tzfat, and
perhaps half the way was filled with these aggressive conversations.
I’ll chalk this up, I guess, to the general dichotomy
between the surface and what lies within. The classical ‘sabra’
analogy: Prickly on the outside, sweet and juicy within.
And sweet it is. I had the sweetest and juiciest
time during my brief stay.
Tuesday night I attend a wedding. It can be described
as ‘shotgun’ in more ways than one. No, not for any forced issues,
but because of its refreshing spontaneity and unscripted beauty.
A Southern, Memphis Dixie with a Northern Yankee. A straight
shootin’ tell-it-the-way-it-is proud Jew with one of the softest
and warmest personalities I have met, marrying a beautiful,
refined and ever so kind woman. A grass roots Southern Jew-from-the-gut
betrothing a woman who is known for her extraordinary efforts
on behalf of many Jewish organizations, and a major force in
the Jewish community in the Upper West Side of New York.
Two people who do not have many social superficials
in common. But when you see them together – as I have had the
privilege to witness – you see the melding of fun, challenge,
and profound warmth.
The chupah (wedding ceremony) is on a terrace
overlooking the Wall and Temple Mount. I hear that weddings
are not preformed at the actual Wall because we don’t want to
celebrate in face of the Temple’s destruction. That is beautiful
and sensitive: We don’t want to embarrass the Wall – and desensitize
ourselves – by obliviously celebrating our weddings right in
the shadow of the Wall.
But this wedding is taking place from a distance.
Perhaps the Wall can’t quite see us, even as we peek at it.
Thoroughly enjoy the wedding as the celebration
continues in the Jerusalem Hilton (now known as David’s Citadel,
even thought “Hilton” seems to be the name that sticks). From
the Wall to the Hilton – after all my writing I will leave it
up to your imagination to know what I would say.
Wednesday, July 24
Israel doesn’t get sweeter than the drive up North.
Final destination: The great cemetery in Tzfat, which I wrote
about last week. I will now fill in the dream I referred to
and some other gaps I omitted last week.
Mordechai Shababi tells me that one night, right
after he took over his father’s position (30 years ago) as the
cemetery-keeper (or whatever you call it), he has a dream, in
which Reb Moshe, the Alsheich, comes to him dressed in white
and he complains to him that his grave is falling apart, water
is dripping in and the site is about to collapse. Reb Moshe
tells him that he is not needed for this job if he doesn’t take
care of the site.
Mordechai continues that he skeptically dismissed
the dream. A few nights later he has the same dream, which he
again ignores. Finally after the dream repeats itself a third
time, he decides to go visit Reb Moshe’s grave. To his surprise
the grave is soaked, water leaking in, and it is about to collapse
– just as Reb Moshe told him in the dream.
Of course, he repairs the gravesite, and then
feels that he has earned the right to remain the caretaker of
I’m not really sure why I needed to hear this
story, and why among all the people standing and praying at
the grave of the AriZal, Shababi happens to tell it to me. Perhaps
the message for me – and one that I must share with you – is
that each of us has been entrusted with a sacred trust, the
skills and opportunities we have been blessed with. We must
not take them for granted and neglect them. We must make sure
that we are not allowing that which we have been entrusted with
One of the things that blatantly glares at you
in Israel is complacency. Here we have the holiest place on
Earth. After thousands of years in exile, we as Jews have been
blessed to be able to live in the land. The Land that was promised
to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob countless times. The land that Moses
so desperately wanted to enter. The land that justified all
the pains in Egypt and the 40 subsequent years, all to enter
the Promised Land. And today we have this land, given to us
in miraculous ways, especially after 1967.
And what are we doing with this gift?
Each of us has been blessed with many gifts, not
least of which is the unprecedented freedom that our people
have today, as opposed to the last generation and all generations
past. Spiritually and religiously we are free to do as we please.
This was an absolute fantasy just 12 years ago in the former
Soviet Union, 50 years ago in Europe, and an almost unrealistic
dream for all our grandparents a mere 100 years ago. Let alone
the centuries before that spanning back to the time of the Temple’s
What are we doing with this gift?
Once this question is asked we don’t need Reb
Moshe to come to us in a dream and challenge us whether or not
we are fulfilling our roles as caretakers of our sacred trusts.
Perhaps that’s why Mordechai Shababi had his dream
and shared it with me. Reb Moshe Alsheich’s message has now
reached the masses.
Friday, August 2, Erev Shabbat Re’eh, New York
We are concluding the third week of the seven
weeks of consolation (following the three of affliction). We
are not satisfied with G-d sending messengers to comfort us
over our losses – and the losses we have are many. We demand
that G-d Himself comfort and console us.
This is the story of these seven weeks (more on
this next week), as explained by the Midrash (Pesikta), cited
by the Avudraham.
The reason we have the right to demand more, to
demand that G-d appear to us, is because we are doing our part
and comforting each other. We earn the right to ask for G-d’s
presence and to finally end our tragedies by protecting the
gifts given to us.
We have the right and we must cry over our losses.
But crying is only half the story. Our tears – and our outrage
and disillusionment – can ultimately distract us from what we
must do. We must channel our strong feeling into a revolution.
Into a total and absolute embrace of a higher vision. This is
what our great leaders have always done and have always taught
The biggest question each of us must ask today
What am I doing with my gifts?