Monday, June 30, 2014

Listening to the Voice of Mama Rachel

Guest Post by Rabbi Dovid Landesman

Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel, and Gilad Shaar
A unique event took place last night in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Rabin. Some eighty thousand people, religious and secular, mesorati and chiloni, gathered to listen – not to protest or to demonstrate – but to stand together as a unified nation sharing a common prayer – bring the boys back home. That prayer expressed itself differently than it might have had the rally taken place in Kikar Shabbat or Rechov Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. There was no formal recital of Tehillim nor were there any rabbanim asked to address the assembly. 

For many of the crowd gathered in front of Tel Aviv’s city hall, Tehillim and rabbanim would have colored the event as a representation of something with which they find difficulty identifying. Instead, they listened as many of Israel’s leading musicians and performers expressed their solidarity with the families and, believe it or not, raised their voices in supplication to the Ribbono shel Olam in a form with which everyone could identify.

At the end of the rally, the master of ceremonies revealed that the costs of the rally had been met by the donation of a single philanthropist, Shlomo Rechnitz of Los Angeles, who requested that a song that he had composed to the words of Shomer Yisrael from tachanun be performed. Rechnitz is most likely  the single most generous ba’al tzedakah in the chareidi world; few are aware of the help he extends to other causes. How inspiring to learn that he was anxious to publicly support an evening where Klal Yisrael in all of its myriad colors had gathered to share its common burden. 

The only speaker addressing the crowd was the president elect, Rubi Rivlin,  a direct descendent of the talmidei ha-Gra who came to settle Eretz Yisrael in the early part of the nineteenth century. Rivlin is not an observant Jew – at least not in his public appearance – but from his eloquent but simple words one can discern the depth of his connection to his people and his land.  אל תשלח ידך אל הנער– do not set your hand against the young man – he said, quoting the malach that interceded to save Yitzchak at the akeida. 

Rivlin took the verse out of context, interpreting it as a challenge to Hashem even though it was an instruction to Avraham. But from the tone of his words one could clearly understand that he was beseeching God to demonstrate His mercy, a message that he repeated when he concluded with a tefillah that this be a time of mercy and Divine grace.

Completely missing from the rally were any bombastic threats of retaliation, any gestures of we are strong and mighty. Rather, there was a message of hope that we are one people, united in a shared destiny despite our trivial – and sometimes serious – differences. Netziv, in his commentary to Shir ha-Shirim  8:1, interprets the verse that states: מי יתנך כאח לי - wouldst that You were like a brother to me. Why does Israel ask God to act like her brother? Because brothers may fight, brothers may disagree but the connection between them can never be broken. We in Israel fight, we disagree, we mistreat each other – but when there is trouble and misfortune, we are united as brothers.

Yesterday, the families of the three boys went to the area where thousands of soldiers have spent countless hours searching under every rock and in every cave for the young men. They stopped to express their gratitude to the clearly exhausted soldiers for their efforts and were told repeatedly, why do you thank us, we are searching for our siblings. The gevurat ha-nefesh – spiritual strength – that these families have demonstrated in the days since the kidnapping is incredible and, to my mind, demonstrates the epitome of emunah and bitachon.

Rachel Frenkel - mother of kidnapped teen Naftali Frenkel
Most eloquent has been the mother of Naftali Frankel. Did you hear her words at a rally at the kotel where she told thousands of women that even if God forbid the end of this case is not to our liking, we will believe no less for the Ribbono shel Olam is not in our pocket? Last night she expressed her thanks not only to the government and to Tzahal, but also to Abu Mazen – the head of the Palestinian authority – and to the mayor of Chevron for their courage in condemning the kidnappings. 

In an interview she quoted Natan Sharansky telling her that in the years that he sat in confinement in the gulag, completely cut off from the outside world, he was able to remain sane and be strong because he knew that the entire nation of Israel was praying for him.

I once heard R. Itiel Goldvicht relate the following story. A group of soldiers – officer candidates at the IDF’s military academy – had come to Yerushalayim for Shabbat. After davening at the Kotel, they ate the seudat Shabbat at Aish ha-Torah. At the end of the seudah, Rav Goldvicht asked the group if anyone would like to comment about their experiences; for many of them it was the first time that they had ever experienced a kabbalat Shabbat. 

A number spoke, expressing their thanks and even commenting that it had been an uplifting experience. Then a soldier got up and asked for permission to add a few words. He introduced himself as a Druze from a village in Northern Israel. “I’ve often wondered,” he began, “how it is possible that Israel can survive and flourish in such a rough and antagonistic neighborhood. When I watched you all dancing and singing tonight, without embarrassment and sharing a link to your traditions, I realized what the answer is. When you are together, united, there is no force in the world that can defeat you.”

Many of us are familiar with the midrash that recounts Mama Rachel successfully beseeching the Ribbono shel Olam on behalf of her children. Rachel’s life was a demonstration that she accepted that all that transpired was to be accepted as the will of God. This is the reason, as it were, that God listens specifically to her; she did not complain about her fate or misfortune. 

In our generation we have been allowed to hear another Mama Rachel, Racheli Frankel, teach us what emunah and bitachon are all about. לא נביא אני ולא בן נביא– I am not a prophet nor the son of a prophet – but I have an instinctive feeling that we are being given a clear message from God;  despite all that divides us, we are still one people. 

Whether we say tehillim in Kikar Shabbat, or listen to performers in Kikar Rabin, the tears of Mama Rachel have the power to nurture us back to our manifest destiny. The Ribbono shel Olam has promised the Rachels of our people –  ושבו מארץ אויב – they will return from the land of the enemy.

Thank you Racheli Frankel for sharing your strength with us.