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Thursday, December 30, 2010

A trip up North published in Binah

Some Things Never Change
---A Trip to the Galilee
By Debbie Shapiro

When Azamra Seminary in Beit Shemesh invited me to join their girls on a two day trip to the north of Israel, I was excited at the thought of getting away for a couple of days and spending time in parts of Israel that I hadn't seen since my own seminary days, some thirty-nine years ago (gulp). But when they told me that Rebbetzin Heller would be coming with us to provide insights into the kivrei tzaddikim, well, the word "thrilled" would be an understatement. Although I'm no stranger to the mekomos hatzaddikim – after all, they're just a bus ride away -- I never really learned about the tzaddikim's lives and how standing at their graves should impact my tefillos.

Monday morning I joined Yona and Rebbetzin Heller in a taxi that took us to the the Beit Shemesh highway, where we boarded the bus with the rest of the group. By ten thirty, we had arrived at the kever of Rabi Meir Baal Haness and his wife, Bruria.

There's something about the exquisite pristine beauty of Eretz Yisrael that causes the tears to well in my eyes. Yes, the world is full of majesty and splendor, but the beauty of Eretz Yisrael is different, for I know that these Hashem Himself granted these precious mountains and valleys to us as a holy nachala, a yerusha forever, and therefore spiritual connection is deep and all encompassing. The large imposing building housing the tomb of Rabi Meir Baal Haness is located halfway up a mountain overlooking the Kinneret. The combination of shimmering blue water reflecting the towering mountains leaves one breathless.

Sitting on the steps outside the kever, Rebbetzin Heller spoke about the inherent holiness of Eretz Yisrael and why we travel to the kivrei tzaddikim. She explained that Hashem wants us to attach ourselves to the tzaddik's merit since the tzaddikim are yesodei olam, foundations of the world. Just as a building needs a foundation to remain steady, we need the stability of attaching ourselves to the tzaddik's kedusha to keep ourselves from toppling. Although tzaddikim led very real lives – they ate and drank, and faced plenty of challenges -- they were successful in finding Hashem within all these mundane activities.

Since the Maharal explains that the more we identify with the tzaddik, the greater our sense of attachment, Rebbetzin Heller told us a little bit about Rabi Meir's life and the kochos that he exemplified. He was one of the main codifiers of the Mishna; whenever a Mishna is quoted without a name, we assume that Rabi Meir Baal Haness was the speaker.

The Tanaim and Amoraim lived in the time of gzeiros shmad, when the Romans ruled Eretz Yisrael and decreed that it was forbidden to keep Torah and mitzvos, which is the reason so many of them moved to the rugged and mountainous Galil, far from probing Roman eyes. After the Romans executed Rabi Meir's father-in-law Rabi Chananiah ben Teradyon –one of the ten martyrs – and his wife for teaching Torah, they imprisoned their daughter, Rabi Meir's sister-in-law. Rabi Meir tried to bribe the guard to release her, but the guard was afraid that when his supervisor would discover that the girl was missing, he would have him executed. Rabi Meir told him to take half the money for himself, and use the other half to bribe the officials.

"But what will happen when I don't have anymore money to bribe the supervisor?" the guard asked.

Rabi Meir told him to recite the words, "Elokai d'Meir aneini," "G-d of Meir, answer me," and he would be saved.

"But how can I be sure that these words will really save me?" asked the guard.

Rabi Meir walked toward a pack of man-eating dogs that threatened to tear him apart. Then he cried, "Elokai d'Meir, aneini," and the dogs turned around and left him alone.

The guard was convinced that he'd be saved and released Rabi Meir's sister-in-law.

Although at first the guard was able to bribe his supervisor, eventually the money was used up and the guard was arrested and sentenced to death by hanging. But when the rope was tied around his neck, he cried out, "Elokai d'Meir, aneini," and, to everyone's amazement, the rope tore and he was saved.

"This Roman soldier had no merit," explained Rebbetzin Heller. "Yet, because he attached himself to the tzaddik – held on to someone much greater than himself – he evoked Rabi Meir's merit –'Elokai d'Meir aneini,' 'G-d of Meir, answer me,' and experienced a miracle.  Just as he had full trust in Rabi Meir's promise (otherwise he would have never endangered his life like that!) we have to believe that Hashem is all-powerful and can turn around a seemingly hopeless situation. We can daven and evoke Hashem's mercy; we can plead for the seemingly impossible, because it is within Hashem's power to give it to us. There is no such thing as despair."

As I stood in front of Rabi Meir's kever, davening to find a solution for a seemingly irresolvable problem, I, too, was infused with renewed hope. After all, if a Roman soldier could be saved through simple emuna, then there's hope for me as well.

After leaving Rabi Meir Baal Haness, we passed by the gravesites of Moshe Rabbeinu's wife, Tziporah; sister, Miriam; and mother, Yocheved, as well as Rabi Akiva's wife, Rochel. Rebbetzin Heller pointed out that whereas with the other graves in the Galil, we know their location from either a chain of tradition or through the Ari z"l's ruach hakodesh, the sites of these graves were determined according to a dream, and therefore cannot be verified.

Our next stop was banana boating on the Kineret. For the uninitiated, banana boating is somewhat akin to water skiing; a speed boat pulls a long banana-like tube through the water, while the passengers – who sit on the tube horseback-riding style -  hold on for dear life!  Until recently, the bananas were made in such a way that they would almost inevitably turn over, dumping their screaming (life jacket encased) passengers into the cold water. For obvious reasons, the government passed a law that the boats had to be built so that no matter how bumpy the ride, they would remain upright in the water.

Don't get me wrong; I love fun and, for a woman who passed the forty five year old mark over a decade ago, I'm really quite adventurous. But somehow, the idea of banana boating seemed, well, s-c-a-r-y. Rebbetzin Heller, however, thought otherwise. On the bus ride from Beit Shemesh to Tiveria, as she told me about the joy of holding on for dear life as the boat plunged through the waves, falling off into the icy-cold water (before the new law!) and then somehow climbing back on to the slippery tube, my first reaction was NEVER! But after I saw her enthusiasm and anticipation, I changed my mind. After all, if she could do it, then why can't I?

As I gingerly made my way down the stony slope to the shore, I felt my excitement growing. Bubby was really going banana boating – my einikalach will be so proud of me! But – whew!--  it was not meant to be. All the boats were filled to capacity, and I ended up sitting on the "tornado" the term that very aptly describes the speed boat that pulls the banana. So yes, this bubby had no bananas (that really tells my age!) but I did have a tornado, and that was scary enough for me! And yes, Rebbetzin Heller joined the other girls on the banana, and they all had a fabulous time doing it – while I enjoyed every moment sitting at the water's edge, watching the boat twirl through the waves. 

Our next stop was at the kvarim of Rambam and the Shlah Hakodesh in Tiveria. Rebbetzin Heller told us how the Rambam had led a very difficult life. Exiled from Spain, he fled to Egypt where he became the official leader of the Jewish community. In addition to his responsibilities to his brethren, he was forced to become Sultan Saladin's personal physician. In the evening, after returning home exhausted from his duties to both the Jewish community and the Sultan, he would see the many patients who were waiting for him. Only then, in the late hours of the night, would he finally sit down to write his seforim. Yet, despite his heavy schedule, he succeeded in writing the encyclopedic Mishneh Torah and the Guide to the Perplexed, among others. From this we learn that although we cannot control the challenges that Hashem gives us, when it comes to ruchniyus, it is within our ability to reach the greatest heights. "When you daven," Rebbetzin Heller concluded, "let the Rambam be your example of someone who accomplished despite incredible odds, and aim for the heights."

From the Rambam and the Shlah Hakodesh, we drove to the top of Mt. Arbel, which soars to more than 181 meters above sea level. Standing upon its cliffs, we could see the Golan, the Kinneret and even Har Chermon! Under Roman rule, a small settlement of Jews lived on this mountain top, where the remains of an ancient synagogue were discovered. The settlement's most famous resident was Rabi Nitai Ha'arbeli, who said, "Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked, and do not abandon belief in retribution" (Pirkei Avos 1:7) (footnote: Artscroll translation).


While our guide, Yona, led the girls – and Rebbetzin Heller – down the steep path to the bottom of the cliff, a hike which is rated by the nature authorities as "l'miteivei lechet," "for excellent walkers," (one category that I do not fit into!) I took the bus to the meeting point, where I enjoyed communing with a herd of goats and strolling along a meandering stream, a quiet interlude of peace and tranquility on a very busy day! 


[picture: Shortly before we arrived on Mt. Arbel, a car drove off the cliff. This is the medic, who had just returned from rescuing the driver, who sustained several broken bones.]

From Mt. Arbel we continued on to Chatzor, to the tomb of Choni Hamaagal. During a draught in Eretz Yisrael, the chachamim asked Choni Hamaagel to pray for rain. Choni drew a circle, stood inside of it and proclaimed, "Ribono shel Olam! I swear that I will not move from here until you have mercy on your children and send a good and blessed rain." The Chachamim were upset with Choni. What chutzpah! How could he, so to speak, force Hashem to send rain? Choni explained that he is similar to a son in his Father's house, and a son can request whatever he wants. "When we daven," concluded the Rebbetzin, "we are like children coming to our Father and we should ask Him for whatever we need."  

At supper that evening, Rebbetzin Heller spoke about Parshas Noach. "The flood was the worst catastrophe to ever take place. It was absolute destruction; nothing was left. How do you think Noach was able to continue after that?"

The answer, of course, is emuna. But then she pointed out the difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and Noach's emuna. When Hashem told Noach that He is about to destroy the world, Noach accepts that as Hashem's Will. But when Hashem told Moshe Rabbeinu that He was going to destroy the Jewish People, Moshe Rabbeinu extended himself to the point of self sacrifice to annul that decree. "It's up to each of us to do our hishtadlus," she explained, "yet, at the same time, we have to understand that the world will unfold according to Hashem's Will."

The girls asked questions about what is the proper measure of hishtadlus and how to prioritize. "How do we know where to focus our emotional and physical energy?" one girl asked. The Rebbetzin explained that we should focus on the things that will still be important five years from now. "Yes, some things are urgent, and they must to be taken care of, and sometimes they must be taken care of immediately, but don't waste too much mental energy on that. Stick to the important things."

Later on, I joined the girls for a kumsitz. Sitting in a circle in the candle-lit lounge, singing slow songs of dveikus and yearning, I almost felt as though I had gone back in time thirty-nine years to my own sem year at Machon Sara Schneirer -- except that I didn't know any of the songs! But the room was dark, so I just hummed along and enjoyed every moment of the achdus and harmony.

The following day was spent davening in Meiron, touring a winery, hiking down a river and then up a waterfall, and dancing on a boat as it circled the Kinneret. The day also brought home to me just how much I have changed. As young as I may sometimes feel, I'm far from being the agile, surefooted girl that I was at age eighteen. One difficult hike alongside a river was enough to teach me that I should stick to the straight and even asphalt. But although I slipped in the rushing waters, and needed several helping hands to climb down a ravine, I was amazed at the girls' patience when my snail paced hiking kept them from rushing ahead to greater and more exciting adventures. And so, while I have definitely changed over the years, some things—such as good middos – will always remain the same, and that's what is really important.

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