Last Shabbos, I had an “out of the box” experience, as they say in modern parlance. Something that I’d always known subconsciously exploded into the light of full awareness. I was sitting with a group of guests who had come to our Har Nof neighborhood for Shabbos -- students from the Rabin pre-military academy. Upon graduation, these young cadets will serve as officers in combat units of the IDF.
Generally, they are considered the cream of Israeli youth. True, they are secular and sadly ignorant of Judaism, but they are far from the negative stereotype of alcohol-guzzling, drug-drenched, pleasure-seeking secular youth on the fringe of society that we tend to hear about. These youngsters are different: quiet, well-mannered young people with a strong sense of responsibility regarding their future duties in defense of their country. Above all, they were ready to listen with an open mind and without hatred to my explanation of the chareidi stance on military service and Torah study. They really wanted to know what is so important about Torah study that the army is willing to exempt 1800 yeshivah bochurim every year to allow them to sit and learn.
I met them at a joyful, song-filled Kabbalas Shabbos which captured the interest of these bona-fide tinokos shenishbu who, strange as it may seem for those of us who live in a Jewish country, had never seen such a thing before. It was a completely new world for them, and so it was for us, too, the chareidim who shared their experience.
For me, it was a moment of illumination that came at just the right time. Life on a magazine can get rather complex, especially when focusing on political issues. Often I seem to be so busy warring against those who attack our community that I only see the goal ahead and lose track of what’s happening around me. At present, we are grappling with the threat of Yair Lapid and his party, whose avowed aim is to change the face of the chareidi community inIsrael. Like soldiers in battle, we see nothing but the enemy before us as we engage in verbal clashes that often escalate to shrill and hostile tones. Since we’re facing off against political leaders and media personalities who purport to represent the public with their venomous slings and arrows, we may forget to consider whether their views do, in fact, represent the will of the Israeli people. We’re so caught up in the heat of battle that we may be unaware of what’s happening in the civilian world those warriors supposedly represent.
So last Shabbos, when this group of high-quality youngsters came to visit Har Nof, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet these “other” Israelis in person. I’ve been a speaker for secular groups for many years, and here in a flash, I was reminded once again of the truth that I rediscover each time I actually meet with members of the real secular community: the monstrous picture of hatred painted by the media is an extremely fuzzy rendition of the true face of the Israeli people. Yes, Lapid has been sowing seeds of antagonism on all sides, and they’ve already begun bearing fruit. Yeshivah students have been assaulted; some have had to be hospitalized. But nonetheless, every new encounter with the people themselves and not their crusading leaders affords another chance to counter the media bias with a more balanced view of both the secular and chareidi sides, and to undo some of the damage.
That is what these youths did for me with their refreshingly hate-free attitude. On the contrary, they actually feel increased respect for the alien figure of the religious Jew in the wake of all these attacks on us from Lapid’s camp, which has piqued their curiosity to learn more about us. These boys and girls were not only willing to listen, they were in fact stirred by their visit to our neighborhood and opportunity they were given to experience Shabbos and to witness the kedushah and modesty of our family life. One wonders whether Yair Lapid would have taken things to such an extreme had he known that his anti-chareidi rhetoric would stir up so much desire to come and get to know us. Talking to them, it seems that the positive sentiments of these fine young future soldiers is sweeping over the country, specifically now that the government is so foolishly trying to destroy the Torah world.
Rav Zamir Cohen of Hidabroot writes that despite all the incitement, Arachim’s kiruv seminars are overbooked. While the organizers feared that no one would come because of the recent hatemongering, that negative, contentious attitute has only served to make people more inquisitive about these strangely obstinate chareidim and their oddly abstract principles. And furthermore, once these Israelis come to a seminar, the anger that’s been etched in their hearts by a hostile media often melts away.
For me, whose ear is always attuned to the harsh voices of politicians who think they can determine our fate, and of news media that gleefully grab every chance to score another point at our expense, my brief encounter with these high-caliber youths helped to restore a proper sense of proportion. It was a refreshing reminder that the most strident voices don’t necessarily represent the consensus of public opinion.
As the Ramchal writes, the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is done no matter what the circumstances. The government’s tough new approach toward the chareidim could very well bring about results that are the opposite of their intentions. Public interest in this mysterious group actually becomes stimulated by the anti-religious rhetoric; and amid the cries of “sharing the burden,” Lapid’s insistence on jailing yeshivah students who won’t submit to the draft have already increased public sympathy for those bochurim who will face the hardest test of their lives.
But modern history just repeats itself. I remember what happened years ago, when an Israeli television network decided to produce a documentary film about life in an Israeli yeshivah for baalei teshuvah. Despite all their promises of maintaining objectivity, their yetzer hara wouldn’t let them. At the end of the film they presented the story of a young woman who was “rescued from the chareidim” by her friends, who succeeded in reprogramming her brainwashed mind and restoring her to the doctrines of secularism. The yeshivah, who had allowed the filmmakers into their premises in good faith, was furious with the TV producers for breaking their promise and tarnishing the image of the baal teshuvah world.
But to the surprise of the yeshivah administrators, a few weeks after the program aired, a pair of young men from a secular kibbutz showed up at their doors, asking if they could come in and get acquainted with the place. The rosh yeshivah, still bristling from the spectacle that the filmmakers had made of his institution, asked them, “You came to me, despite that film they put out about us?”
“No,” they answered. “It was the film that made us want to come.”
The rosh yeshivah looked at them uncomprehendingly, and they explained: “For a long time we wanted to come here and test the waters, but we were afraid. We thought once we came in, we’d be drawn into something we could never get out of. But then we saw the film, and it showed that girl who managed to leave and go back to her old life… so now we’re not afraid to try it out.”
What the rosh yeshivah saw as a major blow to the yeshivah turned out to be a pathway to a life of Torah for those two young men. Our vision is so limited to the here and now that we really can’t even see two feet ahead of us. Only the Eyes of Divine Providence see the path ahead, and in all circumstances, and despite our hand-wringing, the will of Hashem will be fulfilled.
I’m grateful to that fine young group of future soldiers for reminding me of this truth once more.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
It’s true that a person is a small world. If he thinks he’s the world, then he’s small; if he thinks he’s small, he’s the whole world.
(Rav Yisrael Salanter)