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Holy Criminals

Mishpacha Staff

While stipends and budget cuts have been a steady undertone in the political discourse ever since the new government took power, those terms were conspicuously absent in Sunday’s “million-man” prayer rally. Instead, hundreds of thousands joined together in one powerful chorus. What one motive held it all together?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

In some ways, the contours of the narrative seem the same.

It’s a story retold by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau in his personal memoir, Out of the Depths. The location: Kiryat Motzkin, a religious suburb of the mixed city ofHaifa. The dilemma: The HaShahar bus company (later to merge with Egged) inaugurated a bus route fromHaifa to the Galia beach. The bus would pass through the religious neighborhoods of Kiryat Motzkin and Kiryat Shmuel.

The rabbi of Kiryat Motzkin was Rabbi Lau’s uncle, Rav Mordechai Vogelman. On the first Shabbos of the swimming season, after krias haTorah, Rav Vogelman led the kehillah outside the shul, and instructed them to daven Mussaf there. Surely no bus driver in the Jewish State would disturb the tefillah, he thought.

Yisrael Meir Lau was just 12 years old, but decades later he can still paint the scene in detail: The neighborhood streets filled with people davening, the bus approaching from a distance, and Rav Vogelman’s surprising response: to spread his tallis, with its silver atarah, over the street. The rest of the mispallelim did the same. Soon the entire HaShoftim Avenue was covered with talleisim.

The bus jerked to a stop and the driver jumped out. Shaking with fear and emotion, he appealed to Rav Vogelman: “Am I not a Jew? How can I run over a tallis?”

Rav Vogelman explained that Shabbos could not be trampled any more than a tallis, and begged the driver not to desecrate the Holy Day in a neighborhood where its observance had been sacred tradition. The driver maneuvered his bus into the opposite direction and drove away. And Rabbi Lau attests that as long as he lived in the neighborhood, the serenity of Shabbos in Kiryat Motzkin was never shattered by the roar of a public bus.

The story seems painfully familiar to this week’s atzeres tefillah. The clash between old and new values, the throngs of Jews united to defend tradition, the public plea for the sanctity of Torah. But too many crucial elements in Rabbi Vogelman’s showdown were missing in Sunday’s rally.

The missing element in the lead-up to the atzeres was clarity. Was this a rally about the army? About the workforce? About quotas and stipends? Many outsiders dismissed the preparations as petty politics. And yet the organizers saw this gathering as qualitatively different from all the protests and friction of recent months. They primed the gathering as a response to an existential threat, something far more fateful and sinister than a clause within a Knesset bill. Did the public share that perception?

The other missing element — perhaps not as global, but certainly just as vital — was the trembling bus driver. Rav Vogelman faced an opponent who was secular enough to drive a bus on Shabbos, but reverent enough of tradition to literally shake at the thought of trampling a tallis. That quality seems to have faded in the decades since that fateful Shabbos when talleisim carpetedHaShoftim Avenue. In the spiteful comments filling today’s media and blogosphere, is there any trepidation? In the cynical dismissal of an entire demographic’s value system, is there any fear at the thought that the state is willfully and knowingly trampling something holy? In the effort to plead and cry, is there the assurance of a shared language?

The results to an atzeres tefillah like Sunday’s cannot be easily gauged. Softer hearts and more receptive minds are not things that you can measure. And so the questions will linger, long past the echoes of the last Amen.

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