Sunday, January 11, 2009

Here is a foretaste of the JNF National Rabbinic Solidarity Mission to the Negev.

Irene and I spent this past Shabbat, Parshat VaYechi in Kfar Maimon, just a few kilometers from Gaza. I was invited by the local rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer Igra, who is also an Av Beit Din in Be'er Sheva (for some 18-19 years now). The visit was arranged by a mutual friend, Rabbi Azriel Ariel, rabbi of Ateret and editor of the Tzohar journal. Azriel remembers how lonely it was in Ateret during intifada periods, when people were afraid to visit in Ateret (in the heart of Shomron), and hoped that by arranging for visitors to Kfar Maimon it would encourage the local population. Sixty of the 200 Kfar Maimon families had gone north, for some relief from the war, and two busloads of young people and their madrichim had gone for a few days' respite to Hispin in the Golan.

It has become a cliche in Israel to say "I went to strengthen [the local population], but I came away strengthened [myself]." However, in this case, we went to a population of strong people, who did not feel any need for being strengthened. So we went primarily to demonstrate that they need not feel abandoned; that is, we went just to be with them. ("We came to strengthen you" has a somewhat condescending tone... "Expressing solidarity" is a much better choice of words; it really means "we're with you".) Only one other couple came to visit for Shabbat, daughter of a community member and her husband.

As we drove south along the coast Friday afternoon, it became clear, beginning from about Ashdod, that we were entering a war zone. Tall columns of smoke rose from Gaza. As we proceeded southward, the thick, dark smoke at the base of the columns became clearer, and the civilian traffic on the highway dwindled down to almost nothing (more than the usual thinning to the south, even for a Friday afternoon). As we passed the Sa'ad junction we saw many foreign news vans and camera crews working on the high ground that has a direct view of Gaza below.

From the moment we arrived until we left on Motzaei Shabbat, our visit was accompanied by the undending sounds of war, throughout night and day: helicopters, the buzz of unmanned observation planes in the air, punctuated frequently by explosions from the direction of Gaza, that thoroughly shook the doors and windows of the houses.

I spoke in the Sefardi minyan Friday evening, about one of our defining characteristics as Jews, descendants of Yehudah, being hodayah - giving thanks. Both Leah and Yaakov said this of Yehudah. Rabbi Kook pointed out that what is unique about gratitude is that you express it in the awareness that the one you are thanking did what he did for you of his own free will, that is, he could just as well have chosen to not do it. Until Leah thanked G-d for giving her Yehudah, it was widely thought that G-d does whatever He does because His nature makes it necessary. To this day it is said that G-d made us because He is perfectly good, and the most perfect good must do good to others. Yet R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch points out that two fundamental principles of our Jewish belief are G-d's freedom and human freedom (see his commentary to Humash at the end of Parshat B'reishit). Indeed, Hirsch argues there that the danger of denying G-d's personality is greater than the danger of anthropomorphisis. What characterizes idolatry is the belief that by performing certain rituals or by saying certain magic words one can force the divinity to fulfill the will of the idolater. We believe G-d is truly free - and so we must be grateful to Him for all that He chooses to do for us. Nothing is self-evident; hence we must be grateful for everything. And so I thanked the people of Kfar Maimon, for being there, for living the beautiful authentically Torah lives that they live, and for their gracious hospitality. (I recalled how they had hosted Irene and me, and tens of thousands of others - albeit in sleeping bags spread out on the ground - for several days three and a half years ago, when our police and army laid siege to Kfar Maimon to prevent us protestors from marching to Gush Katif.)

Irene and I ate with Rabbi Igra and his family, Friday night. The Rabbanit, Ruchama, is a school counselor who works in Sderot. It appears that the population of Sderot is not as strong as that of the moshav. There are people without food at home. I hope the contacts that have been made with various organizations in advance of the national solidarity visit are such as will make it possible to bring some relief to those people who are really in need. Ruchama indicated that teachers or rabbis may have a better idea of who those people are, more so than the welfare services or other government institutions. Of course, it should be done as a matan b'seter. Rabbi Fendel of the yeshiva in Sderot will surely know apporpriate recipients, too.

Friday night there was an oneg Shabbat for one of the groups of soldiers stationed in the Kfar (I cannot give details). Rabbi Igra, the navy rabbi (Rabbi Bnayahu) and I each gave them a supportive, encouraging Torah message. I spoke of our young men as being the guarantors of our Jewish future, in the millenia-long chain of Jewish life, as Rabbi Igra had spoken of chazal's noting that Yaakov Avinu lives on through his descendants. I mentioned that G-d wants each of us to develop his personal strengths independently - as did Yaakov Avinu - since it is G-d Who depends on us to make this a better world. We all prayed for their success in their missions and for their successful returns home, safe and sound. Our divrei Torah were interspersed with appropriate songs, led by a member of the Kfar who brought song sheets. Many of the boys were not religious at all, but our words seemed to fall on receptive ears. We were all moved, each in his own way. May Hashem protect them all.

Before davening Shabbat morning, I taught a shiur, using Rabbi Kook's commentary to "Gadol haneheneh mi'ygi'o yoter mi'y'rei shamayim" etc. He speaks of "the holy middah" of wanting to achieve things using one's own strengths. He refers to Rabbeinu Nissim's observation that the Torah does not prohibit saying "Kohi v'otzem yadi asah li et kol ha-chayil ha-zeh", but only forgetting G-d. One should say "Kohi v'otzem yadi" etc. , while remembering that it is G-d Who has given us the "koach la'asot chayil". He also refers to R. Hayim MiVolozhin's idea that olam haba is not a pre-existing state in which we merit a share, but rather that it is an existence that we create in the course of our lives. Thus the desire to do things using our own strengths is praiseworthy both in its material form - working to support one's self and one's family - and even more so in its serving as the driving force that elicits a person's moral and spiritual creativity.

There is usually a single minyan on Shabbat morning in the Ashkenazi shul, but this Shabbat they davened in two shifts, since they had to daven in the bomb shelter, that didn't have room for everyone. I spoke after layening, about the meaning of our state's name, Yisrael, and the fact that Yaakov continued to be called Yaakov, as well. The gemara at the end of the first perek of Berakhot points out that Yisrael became his principal name, while Yaakov was his secondary name. Similarly the gemara says that Kibbutz Galuyot of our final redemption - which we believe we are in the midst of experiencing - will become the principal miracle and link to G-d, while Yetziat Mitzrayim will never be forgotten, but will be of secondary importance. Thus, I suggested, we must stand up tall, as Yisrael, in our "struggle against the mighty" and in our conviction that "we will be able [to prevail]", but we must not forget that we are not almighty, and that there are things we cannot do, in particular where others' free will is critical.

After davening I gave a brief shiur in halakha, introducing the unique, little-known marital agreement I created some twenty-five years ago. It has won the approval of R. Y. Sh. Elyashiv shlit"a, of R. Shaul Yisraeli zt"l, of R. Shlomo Amar yiblcht'va, and others, and has proved helpful in preventing iggun. It is fundamentally different in character from all other marital agreements "on the market", including the RCA's, and has been described in a number of publications.

We had lunch - between shiurim - with another family, and learned more about their own history, that of Kfar Maimon, and of its ongoing growth and development.

After lunch I gave a third shiur. I presented 1 - Rabbi Kook's vision of a perfected world, 2 - a concrete story in the gemara that points to one way it can be approached, and 3 - a teshuva by R. Chaim David Halevy zt"l that demonstrates several of the practical principles necessary to achieve that vision today.

Irene told our children we were going to provide a little relief for the rabbi, and I'm glad to say that he did note he enjoyed the brief respite from having to give the drashot and shiurim I gave in his place.

Between mincha and ma'ariv Shabbat afternoon, the call "Tzeva Adom" - the alarm warning that a rocket had been launched in the direction of the kfar - was heard throughout the kfar (besides the PA system outside, every home has a warning unit.) In the midst of Rabbi Igra's gemara shiur , he paused for only a second and continued, since we were in the shul's bomb shelter. Irene, in Rabbi Igra's home with Ruchama, joined them between two inner walls of the house, and waited a bit after they heard the rocket's fall and explosion, before returning to their chairs and their conversation....An older son went out to see if he could see where it falls!

Best wishes - we look forward to seeing you later this week.

David Mescheloff

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