In the previous letter, I described the joyous and unifying procession in honor of a new Sefer Torah – Torah scroll – which I experienced in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Shaul. I later moved further south to Bayit Vegan, a Jerusalem neighborhood which is also located at the edge of the Jerusalem forest. In this letter, I will describe another joyous and unifying procession in honor of a new Sefer Torah which I experienced in Bayit Vegan, for this procession conveyed to me a message which is directly related to the theme of this series:
One morning, as I was sitting in my ground floor Bayit Vegan apartment, I heard the sound of music on the streets. I was no longer a newcomer to Jerusalem, and I realized that this was probably another procession in honor of a new Sefer Torah. I rushed out to join the procession, and I noticed that this Sefer Torah was in a beautifully decorated wooden case, called a “tik” – according to the Sephardic custom. I wondered which Sephardic synagogue in our neighborhood would be receiving this Sefer Torah, and I asked a few people at the end of the procession, but they didn’t know. As the procession continued, more and more people joined us, and it was very moving to see Sephardic, Ashkenazic, and Yemenite Jews all singing and dancing together in honor of the new Sefer Torah.
I finally spoke to someone who knew exactly where we were going, and I was surprised to learn that the Sefer Torah was being brought to the youth hostel at the beginning of Bayit Vegan, near Yad V’Shem on Mount Herzl. I was told that there was now a Sephardic congregation meeting there on Shabbat and that this new Sefer Torah was for them. The youth hostel was formerly sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, a secular, Zionist-oriented organization, and for many years, it was one of the few secular-sponsored institutions in the neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, where the majority of the residents are religious. The youth hostel now had new owners who wanted to also attract religious Jews, and this weekly Shabbat minyan was one of the innovations they made. When I head that the Torah was being brought to the youth hostel which was formerly sponsored by the American Jewish Congress, I had the following flashback:
It was during the year of 1976, when the American Jewish Congress hired me to start the Martin Steinberg Center which would strive to serve the needs of a new generation of Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. The building that would house the Steinberg Center was not yet finished, and in the meanwhile, I was given a small office next to the headquarters of the Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress. On occasion, the women asked me to help with the fundraising work for the youth hostel that they sponsored in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, and they felt good that they were able to provide young people with an attractive hostel in Jerusalem which provided for their physical needs.
About twenty-five years later, I found myself marching in a procession which was bringing a Sefer Torah to this youth hostel – a Sefer Torah which would help meet the spiritual needs of the visitors to the hostel. When I worked for the American Jewish Congress, I was involved in efforts to strengthen the physical building of this institution, and I was now taking part in a procession which would help to infuse this building with the “soul” of our people.
The above realization is related to the current challenges facing us in the Land of Israel. In previous years, the majority of Jews focused their efforts on the physical rebuilding of the Land. There is now, however, a growing awareness among many Jews that the Land needs to be infused with the “soul” of our people – the spiritual raison d’etre which can raise and strengthen our spirit. It is no secret that as we approach Rosh Hashana of 5769, the spirit of our people in the Land of Zion is low, for on the outside, we are faced with enemies who are actively seeking our destruction, while on the inside, our society is threatened by moral decay which is leading to increasing corruption and violence among our own people. In addition, surveys in Israel have shown that the majority of the people have lost faith in the government; moreover, as a result of the previous war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, even the great Israeli army no longer seems invincible.
As we discussed in previous letters, the “body” of our people is the Land of Israel, and the “soul” of our people is the Torah; thus, the Land of Israel without Torah is like a body without a soul (teaching of the Chofetz Chaim). The current crises may therefore be a Divine wake-up call to infuse the Land with Torah – the “soul” that gives the Land its spiritual purpose. In this way, we will merit to once again experience the great, unifying, and joyous procession of all our tribes to the Sanctuary of the Torah in Zion, when each one of us will sing:
I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the House of Hashem.” Our feet stood firm within your gates, O Jerusalem. The built-up Jerusalem is like a city that is united together. For there the tribes ascended – the tribes of God – a testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the Name of Hashem. (Psalm 122:1-4).
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen