Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Swirling Thoughts #198 - Kever Yosef. Then, Then, and Now.

During Sukkot (2010) Bob and I visited Kever Yosef in Shchem. We did so in the middle of the night with a military transport. 1000 people went in that night, in three shifts of about 350 people each. We met at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem at 10pm. We boarded a bus with people from all over – Israel, England, America – and made our way to Elon Moreh Yeshivah, near Shchem.

We were greeted by the Rosh Yeshivah, HaRav Elkayim Levanon, who offered us a heart-wrenching account of the events of 2000. Up until Rosh Hashanah of 2000, talmidim from the Hesder Yeshivah in Elon Moreh (as well as talmidim from Od Yosef Chai) would come daily to pray at Kever Yosef. That Erev Rosh Hashanah, Palestinian “policemen” turned them away. By Shabbat Tshuva the IDF had given over control of Kever Yosef to the Palestinian Authority.

Upon hearing of the abandonment of Kever Yosef, Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, z”l, walked toward Kever Yosef that Shabbat morning with the intention of saving the holy Torah scrolls and sifrei kodesh. Rabbi Lieberman was gunned down by bloodthirsty Arabs who followed up by attacking his funeral procession. He left behind a wife and seven children. Thousands of holy books were burned as the Kever itself was looted, desecrated and destroyed by local mobs, as the Palestinian Authority did nothing.

We allowed ourselves to be inspired that night by the very recent event of the restoration of the tombstone to the kever, just a few days before. Just as Moshe Rabeinu personally set about collecting the bones of Yosef Ha Tzadik from Mitzrayim in order to bring them to his family’s land in Shchem for proper burial, Jewish workers carefully attended to the restoration of the tombstone.

That night in Kever Yosef was nothing like I anticipated. I fully expected to tiptoe into the kever but was instead greeted by the joyous sounds of song and as I quickly figured out the configuration of the site (one room houses the kever, at first women were allowed in to pray while the men waited in the other, empty room), I understood the men waiting were overcome with joy at the very prospect of returning to this holy site. Many of them were Breslever Hasidim – a group that never severed its connection with this holy site – regularly making their way to the kever to pray, both with and without military protection, always with fervent faith and joy.

The experience was brief but powerful. I shared it with my children as well as my hope that soon they would be able to visit this holy site without relying on the cover of darkness and a military escort.

Fast forward to Pesah of 2011.
While four of my children hiked on a hol hamoed tiyul with their Aba, four other children laid their Aba to rest.

A Breslever Hasid from Elon Moreh, a father of four, part of a group of 15 men who regularly visit Kever Yosef to pray, was shot at close range by Palestinian “policemen” for the unspeakable crime of praying when it wasn’t time to pray.

Even though I spent most of the day reading, thinking and crying about the morning’s events and the ensuing nonsensical explanations offered by everyone from the IDF to the Palestinian Authority to the media (does it really make sense to any of them that the penalty for prayer without permission is death?), it took me by surprise when my Becky came home from her friend’s house and explained to me about the boy that was killed today in Shchem when he went there to pray with the army. I had to correct much of her information – it was a man, not a boy.
What do you mean, a man?
An Aba.
Her eyes got wide.
With four children.
She wanted to hear every detail all over again.
The Aba was part of a group of men that prayed at Kever Yosef every week.
Did they go with the army?
No they did not. They went every week to pray, but not always with the army. And today the Arab police shot at them.
I cringed as I said the word police.
But they’re not really police, you know.
I know
, she said. Instinctively sensing that real police do not shoot at people’s Abas who have come to pray. Even if they have come to pray at “not the right time”.

Ironic how the most touching piece I read about Rabbi Lieberman, z"l, was penned by Noam Livnat, father of Ben Yosef Livnat, z"l. As we mourn the death of this young hasid we mourn all over again the death of Rabbi Lieberman, z"l, and the tragic abandonment of Yosef Ha Tzadik.

Saintly in life and holy in death
In Memory of Hillel Lieberman
by Noam Livnat, friend and companion of the martyred saint Hillel
October, 2000
Hillel, Hillel....Hillel, Hillel....Humble, innocent, with shining countenance...principled, upright and faithful...soul-searching, modest, ever working on his character, A true servant of G-d. Your image is so alive that I am incapable of relating to you as to someone no longer here. We shall relate the same way to the bet midrash "Od Yosef Chai" which was and is no more, and to Joseph's Tomb in Shechem, where -- make no mistake -- it seems we will not be returning for a very long time... All the same, all three live on through us, and they are with us constantly. Their vitality continue forever.Joseph himself was the same way: After all, Jacob, his mourning father, never let the memory of his beloved son fade. "Joseph lives on..." (Genesis 45:28).Yes. Joseph lives on. Not here, but in another place, as when Joseph was found to be "ruling over all of Egypt" (Genesis 45:26). Hillel Eliyahu, son of Rabbi Zevulun and Bracha Lieberman. A young man arrived from New York with a shepherd's staff in hand. He "encountered the place and spent the night there" (Genesis 28:11), and in the morning he was a different person... Hillel "traveled through the land as far as Shechem, coming to Elon Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the Land" (Genesis 12:6). Henceforth, over the course of fifteen years, Hillel held to Shechem with powerful yearning.The Talmud teaches that when Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish passed away, Rabbi Yochanan, his study partner of many years, lost his mind. The Rabbis asked G-d's mercy and Rabbi Yochanan left this world. The question is widely asked: Why didn't the sages pray for G-d to cure him? The answer they give is that no benefit would have derived from this. Had Rabbi Yochanan regained his sanity, he would once more have seen that Resh Lakish was no more and would again have lost his mind... It was the same with our Hillel. He could not bear Joseph's once more being disgraced and abandoned, his brothers' betrayal, the degradation of "Joseph's house going up in flames" (Ovadiah v. 18)... Apparently he had only one means of rectifying his situation -- to be joined with Joseph, and with Shlomo and Harel... Sometimes the departed are eulogized along the lines of "Acharei Mot-Kedoshim-Emor" [After they die, say they are holy], even when in life they were not known for being saintly. Not so with Hillel. Already in life, he was recognized as being unique. His sterling traits were without parallel. I will not talk about Hillel the family man, Hillel who honored his father and mother, Hillel who scrupulously observed the mitzvot, Hillel who loved the Torah, who generously gave to charity, who was active in the community and on behalf of the whole Jewish People -- Hillel, the lover of all Israel. Although he was unique in all of these areas, head and shoulders above everyone else, this would not have been enough to place him in a different class. However... Who else composed poems to the Holy City of Shechem? He wrote: "Let me go and see the city of Shechem, crown of the Torah..." Who else was as careful as he not to let even one day pass without prostrating himself at Joseph's tomb? Who was as happy as Hillel was every time he went to the yeshiva, to the gravesite of the tzaddik, to his beloved Shechem? Who worked harder than Hillel did to see that Scriptural megilot were completed for the Aron Kodesh in Shechem? Moreover, when it was time to acquire festive white coverings for the four Torah scrolls in the Shechem compound, to be used on the High Holy Days, it was Hillel who saw this project through to completion. And it was Hillel, himself, who managed to dress the four Torahs in these scrolls on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Just one week later, on Shabbat Shuvah, these same Torahs were smuggled out of Shechem in the middle of the night -- a terrible desecration of G-d's name. How like shrouds these coverings became! Would anyone among us besides Hillel recite Tikun Chatzot, the prayers recited in the middle of the night? Hillel would do this, sitting on the floor crying bitter tears, weeping over the exile of the divine presence and the destruction of Jerusalem. Whenever we heard of any Jew suffering a martyr's death, who but Hillel would decree upon himself a week's abstinence from meat? When Jews were prevented from entering Joseph's Tomb, would anyone besides Hillel sleep on the floor?...Hillel would always go to hospitals to visit those wounded in terrorist attacks, people whom he did not know. He would remember to be thankful for every small kindness done for him, and he would continue to feel obliged even years later... Due to his love for Eretz Yisrael, he would do his utmost to avoid eating produce from abroad... To be like Yosef who "at seventeen shepherded his father's sheep" (Genesis 37:2), and to emulate G-d, the "Shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock" (Psalm 80:2), Hillel established a sheep pen in his backyard...Hillel, more than anyone else, tied himself to Joseph, to Joseph's traits, to Joseph's Tomb and to the city of Shechem... He knew how to find in every single portion of the Torah the aspect relating to Joseph, and to prove by all sorts of wondrous means that that part was the main one... He delved into every source in the Written and Oral Torah having to do with Joseph and Shechem, and he searched far and wide for midrashim in this regard that had been lost. Moreover, he knew how to explain, even to those far removed, the special significance of these matters to our time... Hillel Eliyahu. Hillel -- and EliyahuHe was as far from anger, and as bright of countenance, as Hillel the Elder. He related gently to all people. He hated controversy and fled from it. No one showed as much appreciation for rabbis as Hillel did. He would attach himself to every saint and to every Torah scholar and gain something from them. He would guard his tongue out of the love of Israel in him. With his every action, he fulfilled Psalm 34:15: "Do good!" Through his humility he would fulfill Hillel's dictum, "If I am only for myself, then what am I?" (Avot 1:14), and through his alacrity to perform every mitzvah he would fulfill, "and if not now, when?" Ultimately, when Shechem was abandoned and Joseph was sold to the Ishmaelites, he fulfilled with his own body, "And if I am not for myself, then who will be for me?"... Yet he was also a man of principles like Eliyahu -- a zealot for his people and for his G-d, and for his land. He would forcefully protest the desecration of G-d's name. When such things happened -- and only then! -- he would refuse to show honor to those more prominent and more powerful than he. He saw himself, as long as he lived, as a student of Rabbi Meir Kahana. Hillel was a person who asked someone to pray for him at our forefathers' grave-site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron, that he should merit "devotion and a true connection to G-d" (!!). Like Eliyahu, he concealed himself in a cave, and like Eliyahu as well, he ascended heavenward in a storm, wrapped in his Tallit. Hillel, dearest of people, beloved by all, whose smile lit up the world -- may your memory be blessed, and may your soul be bound up in the bond of everlasting life! And may you be an advocate on behalf of us, who are weaker than you, and who have remained behind...And may G-d, before our eyes and through our agency, exact our great vengeance, the revenge over your spilt blood.

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