Masses of Israelis attended Arik Einstein’s funeral two weeks ago, a tribute that would have, l’havdil, befitted a gadol. Arik was a nonreligious singer who lived in a world far removed from mine, and although he was no cultural hero for me, his death resonated deeply with the general public, and the emotional response it evoked shone a light on certain beautiful characteristics of the Israeli people that we tend to ignore in our quest for insulation.
Many of us tend to view the chiloni sector in a negative light — we see their ignoring of Torah and mitzvos as a betrayal of the fundamental essence of our People. Of course we can find reasons not to judge them harshly, but a role model for us they can never be. What’s more, we often picture them as antireligious. We assume they hate religious people and would like nothing better than to wipe us and our ways off the map of Israel. Certainly that is the picture that is reflected from the secular media, which misses no opportunity to attack, degrade, and spew venom at us, whether their reports are factually accurate or not. And since the media acts as the window between us and the secular majority, it tends to show us an image that is shallow, hedonistic, and devoid of permanent values. If that’s how it’s appeared until now, Arik’s massive levayah showed another picture altogether.
What made the masses come out like that, traveling across the country to attend the funeral of a man they’d never met? What caused them to feel such grief at his passing, unlike any other funeral for someone from the world of arts and entertainment?
Of course, for the chareidi community it’s quite natural for hundreds of thousands to walk alongside the bier of great Torah personalities such as Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, or Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv. But the cholinim who look on in astonishment at such events have a hard time understanding us when we try to explain to them that we’re actually accompanying ourselves to the grave, because when these personalities pass from This World, something of their influence is uprooted from the heart of each one of us. To one degree or another, directly or indirectly, we had a share in their spiritual world. While they were with us, they raised us at least a tefach above the material world. And when they are gone, we actually feel a personal loss. A hollow is left within us. How can you explain this to someone who’s never felt it?
Yet, the secular public seemed to experience something comparable with the passing of Arik Einstein. Did the huge crowd that gathered in Rabin Square to pay their last respects feel that something of their own essence, their own identity, had been uprooted from their hearts? Did those people, young and old, who lit candles and gave eulogies, feel a sudden, personal loss?
Through his songs, Arik Einstein symbolized for the broad Israeli public a kind of longing for another world, a purer world far removed from the trashy “culture” in which the State of Israel is currently living. A world that perhaps once existed, or perhaps was never more than a yearning for something hidden. His songs reminded them of a longing for good middos, for moral purity, for a different period in this country’s life, a land saturated with ideals — if not Torah ideals, at least on a level higher than what’s on the market today. All the eulogies spoke of his simple way of life, his avoidance of publicity, and his natural diffidence that caused him to refuse the prizes awarded by the State to its heroes.
It turns out that the huge crowd that came out to mourn Arik Einstein’s death shared in his longing for these values — this is the “cleanness” that Rav Uri Zohar spoke of in his emotional eulogy for the niftar, who was both his friend and double mechutan. “You didn’t know the meaning of badness,” he said. And so with his death, it was all about their sense of sharing in his longing, and they came out by the thousands to mourn him.
Is it really true? Could it be that the masses who felt this loss so acutely are not just pursuers of worldly pleasures? Is the reality of the average nonreligious Israeli different from the picture presented by the secular media, a picture of shallow living in a garbage heap of hedonism for its own sake? Judging by the people’s response to this one man’s death, it would seem so. Apparently the average Israeli, deep in his heart, aspires to something better than what the current scene is offering him, and secretly he cherishes the past, the days of a beautiful Eretz Yisrael that at least had some ideals. These ideals may have been far from our Torah truth, but for secularists, they gave some meaning to life, filling a gap that would otherwise have been empty. Those times are gone, though, and those ideals buried. Only the dream and the longing remained. And now, the man who kept that longing alive is gone, and masses of people are bereft.
And this brings us, as the Torah-observant community, to a point of introspection.
Arik’s funeral showed that Israel’s secular population is far more sensitive than how it’s generally portrayed. It yearns for something of greater value than what the cheap surrounding “culture” is dishing out so generously.
Indeed, we already knew that this desire was awakening and gaining strength among the young people who’ve started doing teshuvah. But the public reaction to Einstein’s passing shows that massive numbers of people long for something beyond the pleasure-seeking and the materialism that seem to be their only goal in life.
Here is where we, the chareidi community, are at fault. We have not succeeded in presenting them with the recipe for something infinitely better than mere nostalgia for the past, the recipe that would fulfill all their longing for something purer and satisfy their craving for something beyond the shallowness of secular life. Their desire could be fulfilled through Torah study and genuine tefillah.
True, it’s easy to blame the media for reinforcing the walls between us in our times. Certainly that same media has made a mockery of us and fostered a sense of alienation toward us. But at the same time, we cannot wash our hands of all guilt and claim that we never supplied our enemies with ammunition and did nothing to contribute to the negative image that they created and implanted in the consciousness of the non-chareidi public. Boy, have we given them ammunition! And that is why it doesn’t even occur to our nonreligious brothers that the solution they seek to their existential problem might lie with us.
Some 30 years ago I met a baal teshuvah who told me that as an antireligious student, he had lived in close proximity to our shul. On Rosh Hashanah he would turn on his stereo full blast just to disturb us during our tefillah. But he was in for a shock when he came upon the Mesillas Yesharim and discovered that Judaism has a whole system of character development and isn’t just a religion of wearing black and performing a lot of strange rituals that have no relevance to our times.
Just recently a group of kollel scholars met with students for a debate at Tel Aviv University for what was to be a fascinating and fruitful discussion. But the real story happened outside the framework of the debate, when one of the students noticed the chareidi moderator answering a call on his cell phone. “The chareidim have cell phones?” the student burst out in surprise.
“Don’t tell anybody,” said the moderator, “but we have electricity in our houses, too.”
They might be told that we’re primitive, but the outburst of emotion at Arik Einstein’s funeral gave us a flash of insight into what really lies hidden in the hearts of many Israelis. Their subconscious sent them a message that they are seeking the light — simplicity, modesty, and life on a level above materialism and physical pleasures.
Years ago, I took part in a teachers’ convention in Kfar Blum, in northern Israel. Teachers came up to me after the lectures and said, “We are waiting for you. But we won’t come to you people; you must come to us.”
And it’s true; we must. It’s our responsibility to Klal Yisrael that our private and public lives should be a window that is absolutely clean, so clean that the power we’ve been blessed with will shine through in all its brilliance. That is our mission to the Jewish People. The masses of people at Arik Einstein’s funeral showed us that it’s true: “You must come to us.” —