Tuesday, January 13, 2009

From Rabbi Asher Lopatin- Day One

Hello from Ashkelon! Yes, it's 4:00 AM, but I couldn't let our first night go without saying a word. First, Israel and the Israelis have been great. From customs and passport control at Ben Gurion that took literally 5 minutes total till pizza in our hotel at 2:00 AM that the front desk people made for us; everyone has been wonderful.
From Rabbanei Tzohar who came in force to Ashdod to meet with us and talk to us, to the Yeshiva Neve Dekalim that had us learn in the bomb shelter of the shul with their students to the six Ethiopian young professionals who came with us to Yerushalayim - a day before one of them was going back into the army - everyone has made us feel that we are one people.Second, the energy that we have felt is fantastic. The fact that we were able to fly in, go to Lod (some of us), then Ashdod, then Yerushalayim, then back to Ashkelon, and still stay up - about a third of our group - to take on the great Halachik and communal issues of today's synagogues means that Israel has an incredible energy - and that this is an incredible group that we are with.
No one is in the hotel besides us, and they are going to throw together a breakfast just for the group of 25 of us or so. But that adds to the familiarity that I think we all feel with ... being home! The hotel has been nice enough to give us north facing rooms so that we don't end up with any missiles facing us from the south, but besides this it feels comfortable and just like the Israel all of us have been to in the last months or years.I just want to share my take on the experience at the Yeshiva in Ashdod.
First of all, the Rosh HaYeshiva, Rav Gavrieli, was terrific: a man of modesty and warmth for the students in his Yeshiva, and a man of real greatness. The students in the Yeshiva of course are incredibly young - it feels almost like high school; yet these students are real men: they are going to go into the army in two months. Yes, in March they will be risking their lives to fight for the destiny and future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
Bud Levin and I were fortunate enough to learn with Ori, a second year Hesder student who will be going into the elite paratrooper (tzanchanim) unit in two months. The material we learnt was from the great Netziv. I mention the Netziv frequently in shul: he is a 19th century rabbi, head of the Volozyn Yeshiva, who believed in the power of Torah, and especially Torah innovation. The three of us, well really Bud, Ori, the Netziv and I, all sat around learning what is usually seen as an esoteric introductin of the Netziv to his work on the obscure Gaonic work the She'iltot. I immediately looked to the top of the page where it talked about halachik innovation becoming an integral part of the Jewish legal tradition.But Ori taught us a few lines down, where the the Netziv talks about Torah as a weapon of war: that to face the Assyrian king Sancherev, the Judean king Hizikaya drafted everyone to learn Torah. And the Netziv - all the way from 19th century eastern Europe - writes that the Jewish army needs people who can pray and learn Torah to be right there at the front lines. Now, I have learned this before, but back in New York at Yeshiva University; I have never learnt it before with a young man who was about to fulfill the words of the Netziv. Ori was going to be this man of Torah who goes to the tents of the fighters to give victory to the Jewish people not in the times of Sancherev, or the 19th century, but right now, today. Wow! Here was the dream of the Netziv, a Jewish fighting force steeped in the spirituality, ethics and strength of Torah, coming true. I told Ori and all the students how inspired we were in meeting and learning them, and how proud the Netziv would be from what they were doing - learning Torah and then going to fight for the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
We have heard about the war effort, and tomorrow we expect to see it up close, including the injured Jewish soldiers and a grieving family of a Jewish soldier.But tonight we could see the power of the Jewish people: How Jews of today were fighting in the tradition of King Hizikaya and with the blessings of the Netziv. And we gained confidence, that just as God gave King Hizikaya victory over his enemies because of his efforts, so God will give our soldiers victory over their enemies, and keep Israel safe and along a path for peace.I go to bed, for 2 and a half hours knowing that even if there is a missile siren, that our State is being protected by the noblest soldiers coming out of our great tradition, and that "God will give strength to God's people and God will bless them with peace."
Layla tov from the land of Torah and peace,
Asher Lopatin

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