The Old City is the most beautiful place in the world, at least in my opinion. The dazzling array of people range from the hidden tzadikim who go to the 4:30 Kabbalah minyanim and then disappear into anonymity to the clueless Nigerian tourists, the scene is spectacular. They are all seekers, trying to find their yetzer tov (higher selves). There is subtle layer of joy that covers everything in the midst of unspeakable destruction that you see wherever you see the ancient stones that once were far more alive than anything you can imagine.
Bnos Avigail was there for Shabbos. We stayed in a hotel on Har Tzion. It felt timeless. Friday night we davened at the Churva. The literal meaning of the name of the largest and most beautiful synagogue in the Old City is ‘the wreck”. It got its name from the many years that it remained half built after the Jordanians left it looking like an amputee whose existence proves human resilience and survival, but nonetheless isn’t whole. Its restoration took years, and the way it looks now is exactly as it did once. You can almost see the image of Yerushalaim’s famous sages of a centuries back. When we got there, we settled into the women’s section, but the flow of the tefillah as we said Kabbalas Shabbos was interrupted by a horde of little boys on the stairway interacting with each other in archetypical little boy fashion. Suddenly the yelling, laughing and running back and forth stopped. They walked up the stairs to the indoor parapet (fancy word for balcony). They went through an absolutely amazing transformation. They began reciting Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs, a poem narrating the love between Hashem and His people using two lovers who long for each other as a metaphor). They suddenly morphed into something otherworldly and almost angelic. They recited it perfectly using the traditional Trop (cantillation). The moment they finished they reverted to their little boy-ness;pushing each other down the stairs with the older ones heading towards the interior of the synagogue for maariv, and the younger ones headed outside to play, some in the tourist filled Old City Square and some between the Roman pillars in the Cardo just below ground level. What an enchanted childhood!
Instead of heading back to Har Tzion for Shabbos dinner, we went down the hill past the Kararite synagogue. The Kararites were members of a heretical sect that based their system on adhering only to the literal meaning of the Written Torah. They once were a credible presence. The Rambam and Rav Saadia Gaon, the greatest luminaries of their eras spent endless hours writing learned treaties and pushing them to the wall with their logic. Today the Kararites have disappeared from the scene. Their synagogue no longer attracts even a minyan; and for all intents and purposes is just another artifact in a city full of artifacts. We were on the way to Rav Neventzal’s home. You probably have never heard of him- he is about as far from the limelight as you can get. One of the closest disciples of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, he is renowned halachic decisor in his own right, as well as being the Rav of the Old City and has over a thousand students in his chain of kollel. He is also approachable, humble, and what you have in mind when you think of the word sage. I had arranged for us to go down to his house, and expected at most a few moments of his time, and best wishes to me and the girls for the coming year. It turned out different.
When we got there, his daughter-in-law took us in to his large living room. The tables were set for about thirty guests. She took out enough stackable chairs to give each of the 60 plus people a seat. She told us that the Rav was not expected just yet, closed the doors and suggested that we can spend the time singing. This as many of you know is not my strong point (and you may consider yourself blessed that I also know it……). The girls spontaneously found themselves singing soulful songs of Shabbos. It felt like just a few minutes, but when I looked at my watch, I saw that it was fifteen minutes. He smiled a greeting, and began to speak to us (In English!). I want to share some of the main points that he made.
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the first human being. When Hashem created the world, the first thing that Adam did was to name the animals. When you give something or someone a name, you are actually describing the way you see it, and the way that you choose to relate to it. After Adam finished, G-d asked him, “And who are you?” and he answered, “I am Adam, because I was taken from the adama (earth in Hebrew, a reference to the way Adam was created, his body was taken from the dust of the earth, and his spiritual soul was breathed into him by G-d). G-d then asked, “And who am I?” and Adam answered, “You are the master”. This answers a question that you may have had about Rosh Hashanah. If you observe Jewish law, you use the phrase “King of the universe” many times a day. Every time you eat, use the bathroom, and of course as part of the formal prayers. What is new on Rosh Hashanah? What makes the relationship to Hashem new is your renewed ability to take yourself back to your ancestor Adam, and to say you have no other master.
You may think, erroneously that your decision to do this is both private and somewhat irrelevant to anything real. Who knows or cares what’s going on deep in your heart? The prayer book focuses on Noah’s story. He was only one person, but everyone you will ever see is his descendent. One person. One set of choices. An entire world was saved. Hashem remembers not only what you did, when He determines your fate for the coming year, but He also sees into your heart, knows your deepest thoughts and secret longing for letting go of all of the other “Kings” who you may have allowed to replace Him. The first and last sound that you hear the shofar make is a long sound, called “tekia” in Hebrew. This is the sound of Hashem’s coronation, His commitment to His world, to the final redemption,. The first sound is loud, clear and unbroken. So is the last sound. In between there are various other sounds, that are called, “terua” and “shvarim”. They are shorter, and broken up. This is to tell you that the beginning is good, and the end will be good. In the middle we have times of challenge, but they are taking us to where we want to be.
This version of what he said is much shorter, and less complete than what he actually said. When he conclude, smiled and blessed us, I think we all felt not only the magic of Yerushalaim, but the magic of some of its people. I wanted to give you all a present for the new year, so this is my gift, a bit of Shabbos in the Old City.
Love, and ketiva vechatima tovah – be written and sealed for a good year!