Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sukkos in Yerushalayim: Glimpses of a Trip

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This year, I had the very special zechus to travel with my family to Eretz Yisroel for Sukkos and to spend the wonderful Yom Tov in the land of our forefathers.

Every day in Eretz Yisroel is an experience. You wake up, daven, eat breakfast and wonder where your day will take you. Every day has the potential to teach you lessons for a lifetime. Each day has the potential to introduce you to people, places and things that create a lasting impact.

Some of the places we have heard about and revered since childhood, such as the Kosel Hamaarovi and the Meoras Hamachpeila, only come to life for us when we merit to be there in person, touching their stones, breathing in their sanctity.

I still remember the first time I arrived in Yerushalayim as a bochur coming to learn in Yeshivas Brisk. Walking down the streets of Geulah and Meah Shearim, I felt as if I had been transported to a different planet. The buildings were different, the people were unique, the food was special. The smells, the cars, the streets, stores and homes fascinated me.

In addition to the physical differences, there were the intangible spiritual ones…the heartfelt way people davened, keenly aware that they were conversing with Hashem. The level of authenticity and devotion in their tefillah made a lasting impression on me.

The learning was different. Shabbos and Yom Tov were different. In the streets and neighborhoods of Yerushalayim, you felt Shabbos and chagim more potently than ever before.

Indeed, the soul is stirred so often during the sacred days of Yom Tov in Eretz Yisorel that they trigger a spiritual reawakening that you never expected and could never describe to anyone. It was a timely opportunity to introduce my children to holy people, places and concepts and watch them absorb it all.

We visited the bais medrash of Belz in Yerushalayim, surely one of the most beautiful in the world. It is breathtakingly massive and pristine. The Belzer sukkah is also quite impressive. Thousands attend the tishen held there every night of Chol Hamoed. It was very moving to be at a tish and a special honor to meet the Rebbe afterwards.

In fact, Chol Hamoed Sukkos evenings are a very special time in Eretz Yisroel. From every corner, you hear music and spirited singing at Simchas Bais Hashoeivah gatherings held in every shul and yeshiva. The dancing is very spiritual and very moving; you get swept up in the fervor just by watching.

We dedicated one day to meeting gedolim. I was heartened by how much my children begged and looked forward to the appointment with Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. It was a name that they had heard so often in their home, and they couldn’t wait to associate the name with a living, breathing gadol who would be giving them a brocha.

Though they will have to wait until they are older to know and appreciate the great zechus they had in receiving brachos from so many other gedolei hador, the awe they felt in the presence of the gedolim will remain with them throughout their lives.

A relatively insignificant encounter on the flight to Eretz Yisroel actually enhanced my overall experience there. The echo of a rather mundane conversation with my seatmate took on a spiritual dimension and helped me perceive some hidden truths.

My seatmate was a Sephardic Israeli. After getting comfortable, I said hello to him and we exchanged a few pleasantries. In his heavily accented English, he told me that he’d been living in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places, for the past 20 years. He lives there, he said, “because there aren’t too many Israelis there,” plus he has a successful commercial renovation business there.

As I took out a small gemorah, I wondered if he was another victim of disillusionment with secular Zionism and the American melting pot, lost to the Jewish people.

To my surprise, after eyeing me for a short while, he asked, “What is that book you are reading?” Before I could answer, he smiled and said, “I know what it is; look what I have with me.” With great pride, he reached into his carry-on bag and pulled out an old book covered in plastic. “Open it. Open it,” he urged me. “Look what I have with me.”

It was a Sefer Tikkun Leil Shavuos printed 163 years ago in Baghdad. He told me that it was his treasure, handed down to him by his father. He has more holy books in his house, he said, where he prominently displays them in a case he himself built for them.

He seldom opens those books, but they are very precious to him. Whenever he travels, he takes the Tikkun Leil Shavuos with him in his bag. “I read it very little, but it’s my life, you know. It’s what I am; it’s what I am about.”

“I gave two books to my shul, where they are on display. I go to the Orthodox shul. I like the rabbi. He’s a very fine fellow.”

You never know. You never know who the person sitting next to you is. You never know what he is all about, and you never know what he may be carrying in his bag that will reveal something crucial about him. It was this man’s words that reverberated in my head days later.

Our True Passport
On the day of our departure from the United States, prior to leaving our house to head for the airport, my friend called and reminded me to make sure we all had our passports. “You know they won’t let you on the plane without a passport,” he said.

Such a commonplace reminder. Which traveler hasn’t heard it dozens of times? But my friend’s comment got me thinking that perhaps this is the p’shat in the Gemara, “Ashrei mi sheboh lekan vetalmudo beyado” (Bava Basra 10b). Our Talmud, our Torah, is our passport to a good life in this world and in the World to Come.

The fellow from Nashville had taught me something profound. His words triggered a new understanding of the Gemara. Praised is he who carries his sefer with him. Praised is he who, though quite far gone, cherishes his heritage enough to carry a crumbling old sefer printed in Baghdad 163 years ago along with him on his travels. It speaks to his essence and gives him a fighting chance to keep that heritage alive and pass it on to his children, even as they grow up in the golus of Nashville, Tennessee.

Life is, in certain ways, like a long airplane flight. You begin the flight with much hesitation, praying that there be no unnecessary discomforts on board and that everything will go as scheduled and planned. We take aboard seforim and books to keep us occupied and help us use the time productively. Often, however, sleep sets in and other intrusions ruin our plans. We end up wasting much of our time aloft.

Ashrei mi sheboh lekan vetalmudo beyado. Praised is the one who does not lose sight of what is important, who refuses to let life’s distractions take his mind off of limud haTorah and being productive.

It is not allegory, it is real. Though I went with my children to visit gedolim only during the official times of kabbalat kahal - the designated times when they meet with people, the gedolim always had a Gemara nearby and seemed ready to delve back into the Yam Hatalmud at the first opportunity.

We were zoche to be at the home of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman at 1 p.m., two days before Yom Tov. He had awakened that morning to daven k’vasikin at 4:30 a.m., as is his custom every day. He then attended a bris in Bnei Brak before traveling to Yerushalayim to be menachem aveil the family of Rav Zvi Shapiro z”l. He then came home for his regular morning shiur there. We were told to be there at 1 p.m. sharp, when the shiur ends and he would have time for us. What they didn’t tell us was that at 1:10 he begins another shiur which lasts until Mincha at 1:30.

Vetalmudo beyado. Ninety-four years old, he wakes before dawn to perform the Creator’s commandments, and spends his day with a Gemara always at the ready.

At Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s abode, the line snakes out of his humble second floor home, as dozens of people wait on line to see him. A gabbai keeps the traffic flowing, making sure that everyone gets his five seconds in the presence of greatness before moving on to make room for the next person in line.

Two of my older sons had shailos to pose to Rav Chaim. They had both previously written and mailed him their questions and he responded to them, “When you will be here, come to me.” The gabbai was upset, because we were slowing down the line. One of the boys asked a kasha on something Rav Chaim wrote in one of his many seforim. Everything stopped, as Rav Chaim asked for the sefer to be brought so he could look it up. Rav Chaim appeared as if he had all the time in the world, making sure he understood their questions and discussing the issues with them. Torah hi velilmod ani tzorich.

Ashrei mi sheboh lekan vetalmudo beyado.

The visit with Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz was like a trip back in time. His kindness and graciousness touched us to the core. His brachos were effusive, his words so warm and moving. We all walked out of there on a high.

We then visited Rav Meir Zvi Bergman in Yeshivas Rashbi, and when we left, he too was back to his Gemorah almost as soon as we were out the door. He was very cordial and spent much time with the children, an experience they thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from.

At the home of Rav Elyashiv, there were so many people waiting on line that we were afraid we would never make it in before he had to leave for his shiur. Boruch Hashem, we did. We merited receiving words of encouragement and brocha from him. And then, before we even left the room, he quickly opened the Maseches Shviis sitting on the table in front of him and began learning. A few minutes later, he left for his 7:30 p.m. shiur.

Even at the age of 97, bli ayin hara, he delivers a shiur, crisp and sharp. In the middle, as he is speaking, people ask questions. Before they can even finish their questions, he quickly responds, quoting from all over Shas in explanation. What an amazing sight.

Of course, not everything in that country is rosy. For so many, the terrible economic catastrophe facing yungeleit in Eretz Yisroel has taken a terrible toll, forcing thousands of families to live below the poverty line.

Emergency measures to raise funds for financial assistance, unprecedented in recent history, have been undertaken by Torah leaders. Successful, caring people were called upon and a Keren was established to help the needy talmidei chacomim until things improve.

On Chol Hamoed Sukkos, the sukkah of the noted askan Reb Rubin Schron in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Yerushalayim was a magnet for gedolei Torah and gedolei tomchei Torah. On leil Hoshanah Rabbah, they gathered to offer support for the Keren.

It was an amazing sight to see so many great people dedicating themselves to the cause of supporting the kiyum haTorah.

The emotional highlight of the evening was when Rav Shmuel Berenbaum arrived. Despite his severe illness and weakened condition, he traveled from Bnei Brak to speak of the importance of the Keren and the work it does distributing much-needed funds to thousands of yungeleit for Yomim Tovim.

With a strong voice matching his fiery determination to help the cause of the Keren which he himself founded, he held the audience spellbound as he rallied support for the cause of spreading Torah and supporting Torah.

Every day we received a new dose of inspiration wherever we turned. Davening k’vasikin at the Kosel with what felt like tens of thousands of Jews was spine-tingling. Standing there Hoshanah Rabbah morning, one got a feeling of what Chazal meant when they said, “Omdim tzefufim umishtachavim birivacha.”

There were so many people there, one could barely move. The voices of all the various minyanim joined together and you could just hear them rise to the Heavens beseeching the Almighty to have mercy on His people.

Watching Jews of all stripes streaming to the Kosel, parading down the ancient streets of the Old City of Yerushalayim with their lulavim held aloft, I couldn’t help think that this is what the kibbutz goliyos will look like.

There were Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Chassidim and Misnagdim, and everyone in between, every imaginable mode of dress and expression, happy people, serious people, men, women, children, people of all ages and stripes all marching along with a common purpose. A sight to treasure.

Spending a Yom Tov in Eretz Yisroel is like living a dream, impossible to compare with any other experience. Yes, Yom Tov is nice everywhere, but in the days of the Bais Hamikdosh, everyone was oleh to Yerushalayim. We have no Bais Hamikdosh now and everything holy is in a state of destruction, but the special feeling of the olei regolim is still in existence in some form in the land of our forefathers.

Before I knew it, the time to depart Eretz Yisroel arrived and I was left with memories and inspiration which I hope will last longer than my aravos.

The dream came to a crashing end as I packed up my little carry-on bag and walked out to the waiting taxi. The airport strike I was praying for didn’t materialize and before I knew it, I found myself sitting in seat 34C waiting for the flight to take off for the ride home. The flight was delayed 2 1/2 hours and I wasn’t even upset. I looked at it as an extra 2 1/2 hours in the Holy Land. And then the plane took off, and I was on the way back to our version of the golus.

I hope that wherever the Yom Tov found you, you had an experience that leaves you exhilarated and energized for the coming months ahead.


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