Jerusalem Journal #4

My Dear Young Israel Family,

I thought in these Journal missives to divide my reflections into three broad areas: personal happenings, Israel observations and Torah insights. I hope you find them interesting and informative.

Personal Happenings

*You know you've arrived when strangers begin asking you for directions. What a great feeling! (Although I wish I knew where to tell them to go).

*On the first day of Chol Moed, we attended the Bar Mitzvah of Minnette Hermelin's grandson. What made the event unique was its venue: in the Judean desert. Israel is a country of contrasts on many levels, the geography being one of them. One moment you're part of the hustle and bustle of urban Jerusalem, and a short ride to the East, and you're enveloped in a remarkable landscape of barren hills and vistas of breathtaking desolation. Apparently, there are hilltops where one can arrange such events. This place, "Eretz Bereishit," was one of them. We had a regular Chol Moed davening followed by a seudat mitzvah. It was a wonderful simcha.

*On Monday, we were invited to attend the annual luncheon of the World Mizrachi Organization. I saw many people there who still remember the warm hospitality of our Shul when we hosted the Kollel Torah Mitzion Convention back in October of 2003. Rav Boaz and Heftzi were there along with many prominent dignitaries in the Israeli government. I was recognized by the chair and honored with the bentching.

*We saw Rita and Red Bresler who were kind enough to invite us to Hakafot Sheniot on Saturday night. This event is quite a happening. Remember, for Israelis, the Yom Tov had ended, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah conflate into one day. These hakafot feature live music and dancing laced with divrei Torah by prominent rabbanim. The crowd was huge and the celebration was quite in keeping with the post-Simchat Torah mood.

*When we heard the frightening news about the Grunberger family and the serious injuries sustained by many of their dear children, close to fifty St. Louisans (men and women, young and old) gathered at the Kotel that Thursday night (Hoshana Rabah) to recite Tehillim. As you can imagine, the prayers, lead by Moshe Grunberger, were intense and filled with our collective entreaties for a refuah sheleimah for all the children. May HaShem make it so.

*A siman tov: the day after Tefilas Geshem, it rained in Yerushalayim. May this bracha augur well for all of K'lal Yisroel in the coming year.

Israel Observations

*As anyone who has lived in Israel for any length of time knows, Israel is a country that could use a good night's sleep. There is a culture of impatience that manages to insinuate itself into all aspects of Israeli life, from the driving and constant beeping of horns to the rapidity of everyday activities (chik chak, as they say here). Of course, this impatience is quite understandable. People work hard and long hours to make a simple living. Much has to be done in a relatively short period of time. And then, when you mix in the daily tension, perhaps latent, born as a function of the constant and ever-present possibility of terror, you have an atmosphere in which you feel that every day needs to be packed full with as much as possible. Is it any wonder then that impatience appears to be a defining characteristic of Israeli life?

And yet, all this notwithstanding, I continue to witness so many small acts of chesed by average Israelis which, of course, tells me that this manifestation of impatience is only skin deep. (The Sabra phenomenon). To illustrate: on a packed Jerusalem bus, when an elderly person or someone laden with many packages comes aboard, people vie with one another to give up their seats to accommodate these people. (Would you believe some people have actually gotten up to give me their seat? A bit unsettling. I guess "while" it does have its benefits). And if they do not show such elemental courtesy, the typical Israeli bus driver, taciturn to a fault, will loudly rebuke his passengers. Only in Israel. Or, to take another ordinary example. As I said, Israeli drivers drive their cars with a relentlessness that can be downright scary. And yet, let any pedestrian walk into a crosswalk and all traffic comes to a (sometimes) screeching halt.

*I have once again begun giving out candies to bus drivers and receptionists (a custom I started during my Sabbatical year in 1996-97). For the most part, their reaction is a mixture of surprise and gratitude. Anything to brighten up the day of the average harried Israeli.

Torah Insights

Living in Israel during Sukkot makes for a powerful spiritual synergy. The experience of dirat ara'i, the impermanence of our dwelling, can no doubt be felt anywhere. I believe though that this sense of vulnerability takes a peculiar twist when Sukkot is celebrated here. The Torah tells us that HaShem's Providence, His Shechinah, in Israel is unmediated; it is direct. Our dependency on HaShem, and thus our vulnerability, is acutely felt in the physical and spiritual reality that is Israel. Here, nature is experienced in its many extremes in a very small place. In the human arena, Israeli society often hangs together by gossamer threads. So much could break, unravel and go wrong, and sometimes, it does. Enemies are a few miles away, sometimes around the next corner. How will it all play out?

Is it all just fickle happenstance?

And so, the thought occurred to me that if "the Eyes of HaShem are upon it (the Land) from the beginning of the year to the end," and hence the physical sustenance of the country depends upon chasdei HaShem (G-d's kindnesses), so too must it be with every aspect of life in Israel. Here, when we say, "thank G-d," or "baruch HaShem," it is true with a gripping immediacy that mimics Biblical times.

If nothing, then, is accidental and all hinges upon HaShem, then that belief finds its most profound expression in the Sukkah. In a place where the potential for disaster on all levels is high and the frightening sense vulnerability is real and pressing, we enter the most fragile and unprotected of dwellings to acknowledge our utter dependence upon HaShem and to recognize that the events on any single day are governed by His Will.

What follows is an obvious imperative. The extent to which we can merit HaShem's "sukkas shlomecha," His protective Providence, will depend upon our religious and ethical choices, our honesty and integrity, I am absolutely convinced our behavior below can effect matters Above. May we meet this sacred challenge with courage and may our sincere efforts affect HaShem's benevolence and salvation.

Rabbi J. Bienenfeld