Holy Stones : Parshas Chukas

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

It was a year and a half since I had been on an airplane or gone on a trip. I didn’t miss it. I got used to staying home and enjoyed it. The last time I took a trip anywhere was to Eretz Yisroel, and that was during January of last year. Staying home was nice, but we all need a change of scenery once in a while.

Much has happened since that January. There were good times and times when everything looked bleak. Life since the onset of corona has been like a roller coaster. There have been many ups and downs. There was much sickness and there were many tragic deaths. Hopefully, we are beginning to rebound from economic losses and many financial pressures. Government leadership has been upended here and in Eretz Yisroel, and people worry about what the next day will bring.

Like many others, I have been trying to get into Israel for the past few months. My batteries needed to be recharged, and for me, at least, that happens at Mincha in Zichron Moshe, walking through Geulah and Meah Shearim, and, of course, davening at the Kosel.

Finally, we were able to get all the paperwork, shots and tests in order. We rented an apartment a stone’s throw from Kikar Shabbos, and after finishing the newspaper last week got on board a plane and took off.

Thursday, we took a trip up north, stopping first at the village of Pekiin. There, we visited a cave where, according to local legend, Rav Shimon bar Yochai and his son hid from the Romans for thirteen years while plumbing the depths of Torah.

It is hard to know whether that cave has any historical significance. Today, the cave’s hollow is tiny, with barely enough room for one man, certainly not two. Legend has it that an earthquake several hundred years ago caused large boulders to collapse into the cave. A very large and ancient carob tree grows at the mouth of the cave, giving some support to the idea that Rav Shimon studied there, for we know that he subsisted on the fruits of a carob tree that grew outside the cave he was in.

We davened there and took some pictures before moving on. Whether it is his cave or not, there is something comforting and very special about standing in a place where it is possible that the two holy Tannoim studied the deepest secrets of the Torah and wrote them down for future generations to study in the Sefer HaZohar.

From there, we went to meet Margalit Zinati, a 96-year-old woman who tells a fascinating story. She claims that she is the heir to three families of kohanim who escaped the Roman clutches after the destruction of the second Bais Hamikdosh and settled in the mountain village known as Pekiin.

She says that she has a tradition passed down to her from her parents, who heard the story from their parents, that for two thousand years, those families remained in Pekiin. Through all the changes that took place in that land, all the different conquerors and conquests, there was a constant: the Zinati family of kohanim.

We speak to her and bid her farewell. “Remember Pekiin,” she says. “Remember the kohanim of Pekiin. Soon Moshiach will come and return the kohanim to the Bais Hamikdosh.

She is the last Jew to live in Pekiin. In the 1920s, there were still some fifty Jewish families remaining in the village, but Arab pogroms in 1938 and 1940 caused everyone to leave and the local school to close. Only the Zinati family returned, hoping to keep alive their 2,000-year legacy. With the school closed, the children were sent to study in Yerushalayim, the son married and did not return, and the daughter Margalit who stayed in Pekiin never married.

She is the end of the line of the two-thousand-year chain of Zinati family members living in Pekiin. When she goes, it’s over. There are other chains and other links, and she has a nephew who will carry on the Zinati name, but not in Pekiin. He lives elsewhere and comes to town to maintain the shul and the small museum there.

We visited the small shul, which is said to be built on the foundation stones of the original shul that was erected following the churban. Who knows how long there has been a shul at that location? It gives added meaning to the posuk, “Netzach Yisroel lo yishaker.”

We took a detour into an Arab village to say a few kappitlach of Tehillim at what is said to be the kever of Rav Yochai and his wife, Sorah, the parents of Rav Shimon bar Yochai. It is located in between two Arab houses and is actually well maintained.

From there, we continued on to Meron to daven at the kever of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.

Being there, you can’t help but think of the awful tragedy that took place there on Lag Ba’omer. The memory is so fresh, the pain so raw. You see the place where the 45 korbanos met their end and the enormity of the sorrow overwhelms.

You stand on that slippery slope, silent in your thoughts, and you can almost hear the muffled voices proclaiming “Shema Yisroel” with their final breaths.

You stand there transfixed, mourning and wondering how so much sadness emanated from the place where you stand. You think about what you can do to help improve the world so that future korbanos will not be necessary to atone for our sins.

You think about the people who lost their lives in that very spot and then you think of their grieving families. You recite some perokim of Tehillim, make silent kabbalos, and slowly move on.

So many emotions in one day, feeling the golus and being reminded that Klal Yisroel is the eternal nation. We have been through so much, yet we persevere and our mission remains the same throughout the ages.

Friday morning, I was up early. The sun hadn’t yet risen, but I looked up at the sky and it was glowing yellow. An amazing light was coming forth from the east, and as I watched, the sun began climbing up from the horizon.

The light was bright, overwhelming and gorgeous. It looked as if the sun was giving it all it had, emitting powerful rays of brightness and beauty in the hope that today would be the day that we all await and daven for, when the great light will shine upon Yerushalayim with the arrival of Moshiach. The sun returns to Yerushalayim every morning, hoping that today will be the day of “ohr chodosh al Tzion to’ir.”

Davening at the Kosel, from where the Shechinah never departed, gives a charge to every Jew. We don’t have the Bais Hamikdosh, and we have lost so much over the centuries, but when we come here, we feel connected again. When we daven here, we can feel our tefillos soaring to Shomayim.

We stand there and are reminded of what stood at the other side of the wall. We think of what we had then and what we have now, and while the void is vast, we take comfort that Hakadosh Boruch Hu left us this place where we can approach the location of the kedusha rishonah. He tells us that wherever we gather to learn and daven, He hears us.

Through limud and shemiras haTorah, we can rise above the muddle and become kedoshim and tehorim, concentrating on the important, while forgoing that which is not and avoiding the pettiness and strife that bring us down.

We are all born with much potential, which can be attained if we live every day with halacha as our guide, not succumbing to the yeitzer hora’s efforts for us to chase after fantasies that only exist in the imagination, for when you chase after the objects of your desire, then, very often, when you obtain them, you are left wanting and as empty as before.

Over Shabbos, I davened in the Meah Shearim shtieblach. Walking through Meah Shearim to get there, you are enveloped by the calm and beauty of Shabbos. A special feeling comes over you as you walk there. There are no concerns, no worries, and nothing besides Shabbos.

Entering the shtieblach, there is an aura of serenity and holiness. Walk into a shtiebel and notice how the rooms are appropriately painted in a variety of colors and with designs that add to the feeling that people care about and respect these rooms of tefillah.

There are no signs hanging there admonishing people not to talk during davening; that would be superfluous. Nobody talks. In fact, in the shtiebel, nobody does anything but davenDavening is a serious undertaking. There is no grandstanding. Every person is in a world by himself, alone with Hashem.

People barely even look at each other, and nobody greets anyone or acknowledges their presence until davening has ended. Then it is but a brief gut Shabbos. The shul is not a place for socializing. It is as if everything has stopped and parked at the entrance to the building.

It sounds strange, but after davening there four times over Shabbos, I felt that this was one of the closest places to Kelm that I had ever seen.

No place is perfect, and I am sure that they have their issues, but I came looking to get recharged and reconnected, and that place certainly accomplished that.

There were visits to my rabbeim and other gutteh Yidden, as well as the opportunity to spend time with family members in Yerushalayim.

There is something I noticed while in Eretz Yisroel. I didn’t hear anybody anywhere talking about the new government and what it means for Yahadus Hachareidis. Now, that doesn’t mean that people weren’t discussing it, and you can’t base the opinions of the entire community on the anecdotal evidence of what I heard or didn’t hear, but emunah and bitachon are part of the way of life in a country where survival depends on miracles.

Too often, we try to make sense of everything, analyzing and seeking explanations for things that happen. In the land where “Einei Hashem Elokecha bah meireishis hashanah v’ad acharis shanah” (Devorim 11:12), people appreciate that everything that happens is because Hashem willed it so, quite often for reasons that are beyond immediate human comprehension.

When things happen that send lesser people into a tizzy, maaminim realize that the Yad Hashem is directing everything. They don’t fret and worry about what will be, because they have faith that Hashem will care for them and what He desires is what will happen.

By razor-thin margins, successful leaders were toppled and replaced with men who are radically different, effecting changes nobody could have predicted. Politicians deliberately lie, distort, plot, scheme and engage in demagoguery, but when we sit around discussing why this one lost, how that one won, how long he can stay in power, what he can accomplish, and whether the one who lost can have a comeback, we are simply wasting our time.

We learn in this week’s parsha (21:5-9) of the mageifah that plagued Am Yisroel in the midbar. The Bnei Yisroel were regularly complaining against Hashem and Moshe. They found fault with their food, the heavenly monn that fell daily. They complained that they didn’t have bread or water. They complained to Hashem and Moshe that they were taken out of Mitzrayim to die in the desert.

Hashem sent poisonous snakes to bite them. Whoever got bitten by a snake died. After many died, the people went crying to Moshe, saying that they realized that they had sinned for speaking against Hashem and Moshe and asked for forgiveness. They begged Moshe to daven to Hashem to remove the poisonous snakes. In response to Moshe’s tefillos, Hashem told him to fashion a snake and place it on a pole. Whoever was bitten by one of the poisonous snakes and had done teshuvah looked up at Moshe Rabbeinu’s copper snake and lived.

Chazal explain the curative power of the copper snake that Moshe made. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 29a) states that it was not the snake image that healed those who had been bitten. “Vechi nochosh meimis oh nochosh mechayeh? Elah b’zeman sheYisroel mistaklim klapei maalah umeshabdim es libom l’Avihem shebashomayim hayu misrapim.”

The simple explanation of the Mishnah is that when the Jews looked towards heaven and placed themselves in the care of Hashem, they were healed. Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh Hachaim 3:12, hagah) expounds further that when the people recognized that Hashem is the healer and had complete faith in His ability to heal them, they became well.

If we want to be protected and healed and cared for, for a positive outcome in all matters, political, communal and personal, it is incumbent upon us to strengthen our emunah and bitachon and ascertain that our priorities are in line with the will of Hashem.

It wouldn’t hurt any of us to make a cheshbon hanefesh every once in a while, discarding anything that could cause machlokes or chillul Hashem. We should seek to do things that make us better people and the world a better place, ignoring all the rest.

We don’t have to understand everything that happens. We don’t have to analyze everything in the now. Our task is to do things to bring us closer to Hashem and find favor in his eyes. What we should concentrate on is doing things that will help bring about the geulah.

May we all merit the trip al kanfei neshorim very speedily and may Tisha B’Av this year be a day of great celebration.

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Holy Stones : Parshas Chukas 1

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