Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, issues a passionate plea for Jewish unity in his newly published compilation of commentaries on the weekly Torah portions, titled Torah From Zion.
In the preface, he describes “the wonderful quality that characterized Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] as it stood at Mount Sinai – unity.”
“Unity is an important precondition to learning Torah,” Rabinowitz writes. “When Jews would ascend to Jerusalem, hearts were joined in peace, and as one person with one heart, they would ‘request the welfare of Jerusalem.’” Conceding that the ancient Temple served as the ideal place of prayer for all before it was destroyed two millennia ago, and praying that it will be rebuilt speedily, Rabinowitz says the Western Wall has become “the spiritual focal point for all of Am Yisrael for centuries.”
“Standing in front of the stones of the Western Wall, all are equal,” he writes. “The historic unity from Mount Sinai is revealed again in our time at the foot of the one and only Western Wall.”
The rabbi’s comments are interesting and pertinent, given the cabinet’s landmark decision earlier this year to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his bureau chief, David Sharan, to address “problems” in its implementation.
Negotiated by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, the deal was hailed by non-Orthodox movements in Israel and the Diaspora, but denounced by haredi and some conservative national-religious rabbis.
Rabinowitz, a key player in the negotiations, was appointed in 1995 following the death of his predecessor, Rabbi Meir Yehuda Getz. He views his position as rav hakotel, supervising the sacred prayer space in the Jewish tradition, as a divine mission.
“The Creator of the Universe has given me the privilege of serving as the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites,” he writes. “This is a huge privilege that carries with it the great responsibility of maintaining the historic unity that has always resided in the hearts of our nation at this holy site; a unity that even now that our Temple is not standing, is the secret of the Western Wall’s magic.”
In his simply written essays on the weekly portions (which he calls “Divrei Torah”), Rabinowitz says he feels “the ancient echoes of the unifying Divrei Torah that emanated from Jerusalem in its glory.”
He worked on the book for four years, publishing most of the weekly articles on the Torah portions in the Friday edition of The Jerusalem Post. He makes a point of thanking the newspaper and its publisher, Eli Azur.
“May it be that I did not make any errors, and may He who gives spirit to every living thing give us the good will to worship Him truly, with love and reverence,” he adds, with characteristic humility.
FROM HIS OFFICE at the Western Wall Heritage Foundation next to the Kotel, Rabinowitz provides an insider’s perspective on each portion of the Torah every week, and together they represent an interesting book.
While readers will have their own favorites, one of mine is the article on Parashat Shelach called “We are Not Grasshoppers.”
After briefly retelling the story of Moses dispatching a dozen spies to explore the Land of Israel for 40 days and report back on the prospect of settling the land, Rabinowitz recalls that the majority return with a radical determination: No chance! Ten of the scouts give negative reports, saying the people who live there are fierce, the cities are fortified and the land is one that devours its inhabitants. Compared to “the men of great stature” that they encountered, “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight,” they say. Only two others, Joshua and Calev, presented positive reports of “a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Rabinowitz concludes that the spies failed where they should have made more of an effort and clung to their faith. They lost their confidence in God’s promise of the land to the Jewish people, perceiving themselves as helpless grasshoppers – “and at the moment they saw themselves as so weak, they actually did seem that way in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land.”
Then, as is his style, Rabinowitz broadens his lens and determines that this is a human phenomenon existing in each one of us. We have two choices in dealing with hardships on the way to achieving our own missions. One way is to reach the conclusion of the spies: We are small, weak and unable – like grasshoppers.
“In this way, we weaken ourselves, even if it is not true, and bring failure upon ourselves,” he writes.
The other path, he says, is to rise above our fears, overcome apprehension and be secure in our abilities to reach the goals we set for ourselves.
“If we choose this path, we will discover that we are not so weak, and that we actually have abilities we were not aware of,” he states, adding that if we believe in our path and are convinced that we are acting appropriately, it will cause others to value our strength and lead to our success.
My own interpretation as a journalist is that the 10 scouts’ gloomy assessment failed in the mission given to them by Moses: to report back fairly and in good faith. On the other hand, the upbeat accounts by Joshua and Calev are something those of us in the media world could learn from: reporting on the myriad of positive developments and amazing people in the Holy Land.
As the rabbi says, we really aren’t grasshoppers!