What a wasted opportunity.
Sunday’s prayer rally, which brought hundreds of thousands of haredim into the streets of Jerusalem, had all the makings of an historic event.
To begin with, it was one of the largest Jewish prayer services to take place since the Second Temple once stood nearly two millennia ago. The entrance to the capital was transformed into a large open-air synagogue, as men swayed back and forth, their heartfelt entreaties and supplications silently rising up heavenward.
And in a rare show of unity, observant Jews ranging from Chabad to Sephardim to the Lithuanian yeshiva world put aside their differences to come together seamlessly and without the usual communal friction.
Indeed, Ynet, the leading Israeli news site in Hebrew, covered the event extensively and even streamed the afternoon Mincha service live on its website, perhaps marking the first time that some of its viewers had ever heard this prayer.
And yet, precisely because of all this, the rally can best be summed up as a letdown, a botched chance to heal the rifts in Israeli society.
Consider the following. For a few brief hours, the haredi community had the rapt attention of the entire country, which was watching to see what message they would send. This was a golden opportunity for the haredi public to communicate directly with the rest of the people of Israel, to allay their fears, mitigate their preconceptions and overcome the growing disunity that threatens to tear the country apart.
But instead of doing so, they simply reinforced the animosity.
There were no speeches at the rally, just prayers and the recitation of Psalms, along with the reading of a declaration based on decisions made by the Councils of Torah Sages of Shas, Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael. But the message was clearly one of defiance.
The statement read out to the crowd called on yeshiva and kollel students “not to be drafted into the army under any circumstances, not to give in to temptations and punishments of any kind and not to cooperate with the plans of the army in any way whatsoever.”
This idea was reinforced by signs held up among the crowd, which included slogans such as, “We will not cooperate with the army,” and “we will neither bend nor bow.”
To your average Israeli who served in the military and has had to send his children and loved ones into battle, it was not the kind of display that was either endearing or persuasive.
If anything, it will only lead to both sides digging their heels in still further and refusing to yield an inch.
But it didn’t have to be that way, and that is what is truly distressing.
Just imagine if, at the end of the Mincha service, a lone speaker had ascended the podium and said the following: “Our Israeli brothers and sisters, we disagree about many things. As haredim, military service is not conducive to our way of life. It runs counter to our value system and worldview and therefore we do not wish to serve. But we appreciate those of you who do. And to show you that we care about Jewish unity, we will now recite a prayer for the well-being of those who don uniforms to protect us.”
That is all it would have taken – a simple gesture of kindness and understanding, a humble act of Jewish compassion.
Exactly the kind of thing one would expect from Torah Jews, “for its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths lead to peace and harmony” (Proverbs 3:17).
But that is not what was on display.
At the rally on Sunday, the haredim showed their love for God and His Torah. But what they failed to show was any affection or concern for their fellow Jews.
The gathering could have been – and should have been! – a glorious “teachable moment” for the entire nation, one that might have begun to heal the wounds of a divided society. Sadly, however, politics prevailed over piety.
Had the Messiah entered Jerusalem on Sunday, looking for a reason to redeem the Jewish people, here is what he would have found: Religious-Zionists arguing among themselves over whether to attend the rally, secular Israelis voicing anger at the “parasites” and “draft-dodgers,” and haredim refusing to compromise for the sake of Jewish unity.
No wonder he still tarries.