I always think it’s ironic when a security guard in the airport asks me the purpose of my visit to Israel. It would be a valid question if I was visiting London or Paris. But does a Jew need a reason to visit Eretz Yisrael?
I had the great zechus to spend a week in Eretz Yisrael last week. The main impetus for my visit was to spend time with our son Shalom who is learning there. But while there I try to take advantage of every moment I have to see and take in as much as possible.
One morning during my trip, I went to the yeshiva in Mevaseret Zion to visit friends and students from both Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah and Camp Dora Golding. When I left the yeshiva and was walking to the bus stop to return to Yerushalayim, I passed an elementary school where young children were running around during recess. Upon the wall of the school building was etched the pasuk (Yeshaya 40:9) “Upon a high mountain go up for yourself, mevaseres Zion (who heralds the news for Zion). Lift your voice with strength, lift it up, don’t be afraid. Declare to the cities of Yehuda: ‘Behold, your G-d.’”
When I stopped to take a picture, the security guard asked me why I was doing so. I replied that on the buildings in New York there are no pesukim containing the timeless words of the prophets regarding redemption etched upon its walls. The guard smiled and replied “emet – true.”
Before I left to Eretz Yisrael I spoke to Henoch Messner, the father of my former student, Dovid. Henoch is very involved in a unique and wonderful organization called Ateret Kohanim, dedicated to buying back Jewish homes from Arabs in the Muslim Quarter and what’s known today as East Jerusalem. (I had the great fortune to go on two tours of the Old City of Yerushalayim, beyond the Jewish quarter. But that is a discussion of its own.)
Henoch himself owns an apartment in the Muslim Quarter, that he purchased through the efforts of Ateret Kohanim.
One evening during my stay in Yerushalayim, Dovid Messner, who is learning in yeshiva there, brought my son and myself to see the “basement” of his parent’s apartment. I must admit that Shalom and I were a bit uneasy walking through part of the Muslim Quarter at night. But then we saw two young frum girls nonchalantly walking and talking as they headed in the opposite direction.
The basement was fascinating.
When the Messners originally purchased the home, they were accosted by Arabs who claimed the building belonged to them. At that point when they began digging it had to be in secret. Eventually the matter was settled in court and the excavation was able to continue unhindered. An archeologist was hired to direct the digging, and every bit of dirt was sifted through.
If you would dig beneath the basement of my house, I’m not sure you’d find anything too intriguing. But in the dirt beneath the Messner home they found artifacts from generations ago, including a pitcher from the Ottoman period (1516-1917) and a lamp from the Mamluk period (1250-1516). Henoch noted that they assume when the excavations recommences and they dig deeper, they will discover artifacts that date back to earlier periods, perhaps even from the period of Bayis Sheni.
I also visited the newly excavated Kishleh building, next to the area known as Migdal Dovid (which has nothing at all to do with Dovid HaMelech. The area mostly contains the remains of three towers built by King Herod during the final century of Bayis Sheni), near Sha’ar Yaffo – the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Yerushalayim. There too, as one descends deeper, it’s like a descent through history and past generations. In more recent times, before Israel became a state in 1948, the British used the Kishleh as a holding cell for prisoners. Beneath that are remains from the time of King Herod, towards the end of the second Bais HaMikdash. Further down one encounters the remains of a Hasmonean fortress from the years after the miracle of Chanukah. Beyond that there are even remains from the time of the first Bais HaMikdash.
The same experience occurs in Ir Dovid just south of the Har HaBayis (Temple Mount). There are layers of relics and discoveries from many generations. Remnants from the time of Chizkiyahu HaMelech (Bayis Rishon) and even those that are dated to the days of the ancient Canaanites, before the land was conquered by our ancestors, are visible.
Another memorable and special part of my trip was being able to participate in the Heichal HaTorah alumni Shabbaton in Yerushalayim. All the yeshiva’s alumni who are currently learning in yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael were invited to join a yeshiva-sponsored Shabbaton in Bayit Vegan. In fact, I moved my trip up a few days so that I could be in Yerushalayim for the event.
Aside from the beautiful ruach and rekindled feelings of connection that the special Shabbos generated; I was personally inspired.
As I looked at the aspiring b’nei Torah and budding Torah scholars in front of me, images popped into my head of these same boys as ninth graders, not too long ago. Suffice it to say that back then they weren’t quite the motivated and spiritually energized young men that they are today.
During my aforementioned visit to the yeshiva in Mevaseret Zion after Shabbos, one of those formerly-not-too-spiritually-enthused young men asked me to learn with him for a few minutes “for old time’s sake.” I was limited on time so I told him we could learn for ten minutes. During those ten minutes he referenced three gemaras connected to the sugya (talmudic discussion) he was learning, explained a machlokes between Rashi and Tosafos, and noted how the Rambam fits with the explanation of Rashi.
This was not learning for old time’s sake because during old times – ninth grade – I could hardly get him to keep his head up, never mind get him to actually listen during shiur. Hearing him explain the sugya with such clarity was a beautiful experience. And he wasn’t the only former student who inspired me in that vein.
Seeing our wonderful alumni reminded me that an educator must never limit his vision of a student to the teenager sitting before him. Every child (and adult) has a “basement” in which are hidden treasures, waiting to be sifted and found. Not every treasure looks the same. We do ourselves and our children a terrible disservice by limiting our definition of what is considered inner treasure. But if we can recognize those treasures and have confidence that they are there, we can overcome the initial resistance and challenges to dig them out.
Yerushalayim is not only a location, but also an inner reality within the heart of every Jew. The deeper you dig, the greater the discovery.
So why did I go to Eretz Yisrael last week? Of course, to visit our son and enjoy that nachas. But beyond that, I went to see the priceless treasures that have been excavated. I went to see the revelation of what has been hidden until now being brought to light, physically and metaphorically.