Friday, January 16, 2009

The Torah of Israel, a post trip reflection by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

Photo of myself and my chavrutah, one of the students at Yeshivat Hesder Neve Dikalim where we stopped on the first day to study, eat dinner and begin our ongoing dialogue with the rabbis of Tzohar. The yeshivah is now situated in Ashdod after its beautiful building in Gush Katif was destroyed following the pullout.

Our 40 hour mission was to visit those wounded in the recent rocket attacks, comfort mourners, sleep with the people in their bomb shelters and study torah with them in schools only 10 seconds by missile from the border. I expected a country war torn, angry and depressed, but instead I saw one of nobility and spiritual vision. One that is continually being built, infused with moral and spiritual vision.

I saw that only in a Jewish land can the living of torah in the every day facilitate the emergence of Judaism’s values and meaning into the real world. The torah of Israel is not like the torah of the Diaspora, which is often simply a proscription for doing all things ritual and interpersonal. The torah of Israel is much more and only it has the potential to be, as God explicitly commanded each of our forefathers, a blessing, “to all the peoples of the world.”

One small example of which I experienced many: The city of Lod has become over the past 30 years an inner city blighted by Arab drug trade, some violence, the influx of many poor Jewish immigrants and much “white flight” to newer suburbs; over the past 10 years though 200 religious Jewish families have moved to Lod. In conversation with the rabbi of the community, in his comfortable but modest home, I asked why religious Jews would move to a city with little observant infrastructure and much difficulty. Was it for lower housing prices? Was it to establish an observant presence and thereby bring their non-observant brethren back to torah? Is the government paying them to move here? His answer was no on all counts. He said observant Jews were moving to Lod for something much more basic, to help stabilize the city.

I was in awe. In the United States, Jews for whom torah and observance are central do not move to the inner city “to help stabilize the city.” But this Orthodox rabbi and 200 Orthodox families had moved on their own to live here with noble and outward looking values in their hearts. Not to make their own community separate from others taking advantage of cheep housing prices, but to help stabilize a town that needed them. I was witnessing the torah’s values brought to bear on the real world in a way they could never be in the Diaspora. I realized that only in Israel, because all of life there is by definition an expression of the Jewish People, can we live a Jewish life that is not separate from our life in society and the greater world. Only there can we cultivate a world vision colored by torah and focused through Jewish lenses that truly has the potential to be a blessing to other peoples.

My farewell to the land as I looked out the airplane window was seeing the baggage handler putting my bags on the plane. He was dressed in a jumpsuit, orange safety vest and kippah. A Jewish ritual head covering indicating the awe and humility we have before God. A strange sight for an American such as me, but not for a Jewish land. Only in Israel, only in a Jewish land can a Jewish society informed by Jewish values possess the potential, perhaps not yet fully realized, to be truly of the world and thereby a blessing to it.


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  2. Rabbi Shafner,

    I admire your compassion, and your courage to be a part of this world. You said you saw a country "continually being built, infused with moral and spiritual vision." I am glad you got to witness the Torah of Israel, thereby being a blessing to all of us at home.

    Juliane Dharna