“A ‘Sabbath Jew’ he was—not because he showed his Jewishness once a week, but because his entire life was one of Sabbath: serenity, sanctity, and joy.” So said Rabbi Chanan Porat’s daughter at her father’s funeral, held in Kfar Etzion during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah this past year and attended by thousands of mourners.
A profound Torah scholar and man of action driven by a poetic soul and sparkling spirituality, Rabbi Porat succumbed to a malignant growth in his brain—the only thing that could stop his vigorous and vibrant love for God and the “holy triangle”—the Torah of Israel for the people of Israel in the Land of Israel.
As Judea-and-Samaria leader Yisrael Harel noted, Rabbi Porat, co-founder of the Gush Emunim settlement movement who passed away at age sixty-seven, was “one of the very few who was able, by virtue of his personality alone, without holding any public office or position of authority, to inspire thousands of people” to leave their homes, change their lives, and become part of the settlement enterprise in Yesha. This was due, no doubt, not only to his winning smile and remarkable charisma, but also to his sincere enthusiasm, integrity, and leadership abilities. Or in short, as Rabbi Yaakov Shapira, the rosh yeshivah of Mercaz HaRav, wrote, Rabbi Porat was the “shofar of the Land of Israel, without fear.” He broadcast loud and clear throughout the Jewish world the message that the Land of Israel is the home of the Jewish nation and the Torah.
The Early Years
At the age of twenty-four, as an IDF paratrooper, Rabbi Porat helped liberate Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. Shortly after, he led the group that pressured then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to rebuild his childhood kibbutz, Kfar Etzion. Rabbi Porat had lived there, just south of Yerushalayim, until the age of four, when he and the other children, as well as the women, were evacuated out of fear that the Jordanians would capture the region. The Jordanians succeeded in capturing the kibbutz and destroying the community, as well as nearly all of the other defenders (many of whom had already surrendered), in the process. The Porat family never forgot their home, and when a shadow of an opportunity to return and rebuild presented itself, Rabbi Porat latched on to it and did not let go.
Rabbi Porat was not only one of the leaders of the surviving children of Kfar Etzion, leading them back nineteen years later in 1967 to re-establish the Jewish presence in Gush Etzion after Israel re-conquered the area. As mentioned, he also helped found Gush Emunim, the movement to resettle Yehuda, Shomron and Aza, in 1974, when Israeli society as a whole was feeling down in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. Ironically, despite the amazing victory, a general national malaise pervaded the country after the war and the revelation of Israel’s vulnerability. Rabbi Porat’s goal was to “raise the national spirit” and to this end, he—fresh off severe war wounds—together with others, set about settling the Shomron.
A Lifetime of Accomplishment
Rabbi Porat’s activities were not limited to building Eretz Yisrael. He founded the Orot Chessed charity organization, worked for Ethiopian and Russian aliyah, and was wholly involved in a “meetings of the hearts” between the religious and secular.
He taught in several yeshivot and was a Knesset member for over ten years. Rabbi Porat later said that his proudest parliamentary achievement was having sponsored and ensured the passage of a law entitled “Do Not Stand by Your Neighbor’s Blood”—rendering it a legal duty to offer assistance to someone in mortal danger. Based on a verse in Vayikra, Rabbi Porat’s law ensures that sanctity of life is a national value not only in word, but in deed.
When Rabbi Porat spoke at the Mercaz HaRav thanksgiving ceremony shortly after the Six-Day War, a secular high school girl who heard him was moved to write some of her questions about Torah and Judaism to him. Rabbi Porat’s responses to her (and later, after she became observant, to her and her husband) over the next several years became a book entitled Et Achai Anochi Mevakesh, My Brothers I Seek. More than just an encapsulation of his love for the entire Jewish people, it deals with issues of life and death, faith and disbelief, religious coercion, rabbinical authority, marriage, and more—sprinkled with quotes from Chazal, from modern Hebrew poets, and from his own profound musings.
The last chapter, for example, describes in picturesque and lyrical detail a visit he made to the secular Kibbutz Ein Harod to pay a shivah call to a family who shared his attachment to the Land of Israel, where he was greeted like an old beloved friend. They talked deep into the night about issues such as the sanctity and lusciousness of the shemittah-year fruits he had brought them, the story of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz who was wracked by guilt for not having refused quickly enough to convert to Christianity, the solemn High Holiday Unetaneh Tokef prayer, and the need for the government to take a confident and independent stand against Israel’s enemies. Rabbi Porat left after midnight, and then, before dawn, nearly crashed into a group of stranded anti-Zionist Chassidim near Jericho whose car had two flat tires. While exchanging some Torah thoughts with them—with their glaring differences constantly in the background—Rabbi Porat lent them his spare tire and accompanied them back to Meah She’arim. He finally arrived home to Kfar Etzion just in time for the morning prayers.
Rabbi Porat concludes his story with an optimistic prayer that symbolizes his life: “Have mercy on the People of Israel,” I thought, biting my lips tightly. “How torn and ripped asunder they are, from one extreme to the other. How tired and wounded they are from their long nightmare of Exile and Holocaust; how confused and bewildered . . . How can we ever connect these ends that are so far apart? How do we build a bridge between the people of Ein Harod who have forgotten the holy Unetaneh Tokef prayer and the Neturei Karta people who turn their backs on and kick aside the State of Israel? Can we yet build something together, or is it too late?”
His answer was inspired by the vision of the Biblical Yosef walking northward along the same route he was then traversing to bring Yaakov Avinu’s regards to his hostile brothers: Yes! Despite all, Yaakov’s and Yosef’s home was not totally destroyed! The brotherly covenant was never broken! Yosef still lives! . . . And as he cried “My brothers I seek,” . . . an echo arose from the mountains: “My brothers . . . my brothers . . . my brothers . . . ”
“As one who grew up in the sheltered greenhouse of the [anti-religious] HaShomer HaTza’ir,” wrote a family friend in a consolation note to Rabbi Porat’s wife and eleven children, “I knew that the name Chanan Porat was a ‘red flag’—an image that the media arduously built up. But I am happy that I had the privilege of knowing your father from up close, seeing his sensitive heart [and] his all-around love for people . . . I am quite sure that my decisions leading me to [become religious] were nourished by the special Sabbaths and the Rosh Hashanah I spent with your family.”
No summation of Rabbi Porat’s life would be complete without noting the fortitude with which he accepted his fatal illness. With his body ravaged by cancer, his speech already slurred, Rabbi Porat remarked at one point, “Thank God! We thank God for every drop of life, for every breath.”
Asked how he was able to continue learning and teaching despite his pain and suffering, Rabbi Porat explained simply: “Rav Kook writes that the verse ‘Those who hope for Hashem will renew [lit., switch] strength’ means that they will replace their physical power with spiritual strength.”
Later, just a month before his death when his condition had deteriorated even more, a friend was visiting with him. Rabbi Porat began to recite Eishet Chayil to him, singing with a breaking voice, “Strength and beauty are her garb, she laughed at [her] last day.” Overcome with emotion at the mention of the symbolic words “the last day,” the friend said, “I have to go.” “And Chanan,” the friend later recounted, “who always knew how to say what had to be said, without fear and without missing a beat, looked at me and repeated my words, slowly and clearly: ‘I have to go.’”
“I cried at the collapse of his body,” wrote the friend, “and stood amazed at the tremendous powers in his soul.”
Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union (Vol. 72, no. 3).
Hillel Fendel and Chaim Silberstein / KeepJerusalem.org