Honi and Herzl: Slichot for 5775

Following the intensity of this past Spring and Summer, the end of 5774 and the ushering in of 5775 seems particularly intense. Unlike the typical year when the overwhelming focus is on ourselves individually, this year it seems that Am Yisrael itself is very much “in the dock,” struggling with its actions and non-actions, its sins of omission and commission.

There are of course the much discussed issues surrounding Operation Protective Edge. These have been front and center. Less visible but in their way as significant are such questions as the relationship of Am Yisrael with The Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, and the willingness of the American Jewish community to oppose the performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC.

These seemingly unrelated events are in fact variations on the same theme: our willingness to honor ourselves and to stand up to those who would disparage us.

The Jewish People and the People of Israel have a great deal of accounting to do not only to Hashem, but to our ancestors and our future generations, for standing by idly while our enemies would not only deny us the connection with the Mount, but increasingly abuse, squander and destroy our holy relics.

How is it that while our soldiers bravely confronted Hamas as it sought to invade southern communities through attack tunnels, our security people stood by as Hamas employees flew ISIS flags on the Mount, destroyed a police station and verbally assaulted every Jew who had the temerity to ascend the Mount?

Where was the outrage, where was the respect? If we could not muster self-respect, what about the respect for those who had sacrificed dearly for us to have a meaningful Jewish presence on the Mount?

Similarly, in New York, where was the outcry by so-called Jewish leadership to stifle a clearly vile and anti-Semitic piece which, if focused on any other ethnic group, would have been dispatched with all due haste?

How does the ADL, the so-called Guardian of Jewish rights, declare victory and give a hecksher to the live performance of the opera because they were able to convince the Met not to do a worldwide simulcast of it?

Where were the leaders, the protectors of Jewish values, freedoms and security? Were they acting in the interests of Am Yisrael, or were they, as I fear, pulling their punches, softening their rhetoric, muzzling their outrage so as not to endanger their own personal standing in the larger society.

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With such matters much on my mind, my wife and I made a late night nearby trip to the tomb of Talmudic figure Honi HaMoegel in Hatzor HaGallit in order to pray the Slichot service in advance of Yom Kippur.

Honi’s tomb, like the graves of many of our great Rabbis and heroes, is a magnet for visitation and prayer. There are those who come with private prayers, and there are those who descend upon the site for communal prayers like the incredibly powerful Slichot prayers (said by Sephardim during the entire month of Elul and continuing right up to Yom Kippur).

Honi’s gravesite was mobbed, mostly with young Mizrachi Jews, for whom this is a religious, social and cultural experience. As an American oleh steeped in the formal religiosity of Judaism American style, I am still blown away by the completely unselfconscious way that Judaism is observed by my Sephardi brethren here.

For these young people, Jewish traditional ritual is a seamless part of life. The dress code is the same as if they were going to a bar – in fact they might have been heading out to bars after the service.

While a casual visitor might question the kavanah – the intentionality – of these young people, to me it is the lightly worn kavanah of that which comes naturally, easily and, as I said, unselfconsciously.

Prayers are known by heart, and are sung and said with feeling, but not sanctimony.

As I stood among them, I had several feelings. First there was a cultural chasm. While I am half Sephardi and worship at a Sephardi shul, there was a sense that this was a crowd from a different cultural and economic milieu. In some ways I was an oddball among them.

But much more than this was a sense of pride: these were my guys, this was my People. They were not too cool for school as we used to say; not so refined, nor taken with themselves. They were just young Jews showing respect for their tradition, doing what their parents and their grandparents had also done, even though it might not have been in northern Israel, but in northern Africa.

As I looked at them, I felt that we were the poorer for not having more of our Mizrachi brethren among us. This crowd, in Jerusalem, would not be intimidated to go up to the Temple Mount, nor would they stand sheepishly mute, afraid to pray the Shma, blow a shofar or unfurl the Israeli flag. They would certainly not let themselves be abused by haranguing Hamas acolytes.

And were they at Lincoln Center, I am sure they would not be so decorous, and not so sure they wouldn’t seek to have the show not go on. They wouldn’t be worried about what would be said about them at the Club, or on the Board.

These young Mizrachim would be appalled that Jews would let a show like this happen, and they would be staggered by the fact that the progenitors of the whole “balagan” were themselves Jews.

This was the crowd that finally deposed the elitist Labor Party with the prescient election of Menachem Begin, a move from which the Israeli public has never looked back from.

They want respect, they deserve respect, and most importantly, they are not afraid nor embarrassed to convey respect themselves to the core values, principles, traditions and sensibilities of the Jewish People. For them, being Jewish is not an intellectual exercise, but a real time, on going life experience.

Ultimately, I felt that in this small anecdotal way, I was experiencing the realization of Herzl’s great vision for a Jewish State: the breathtaking ingathering of us all. That ingathering has created many problems, but those problems are dwarfed by the reality of our ability to be here together.

I am confident that Honi Ha Moegel would have appreciated Herzl’s vision as well, and that he would be tinkled pink to know that so many of his descendants chose his resting place as the site to ask Hashem to overlook all our sins against Him, and to seal us for another year of life, and health, prosperity, joy, safety, learning and peace.

So may it be for each of us.

About the Author
After a successful money management career in NYC, Doug Altabef made aliyah to Rosh Pina with his wife Linda and their youngest of four kids in 2009. As a money manager, Doug was a frequent guest commentator on Bloomberg TV, CNNfn TV as well as Wall Street Radio, which was syndicated out to dozens of radio stations throughout the US. Today he spends his time serving as Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund, where he has been privileged to get some amazing insights into how people are making a difference here. Doug also has invested in several early stage Israeli companies and is a big believer in the Start Up Nation attractiveness of Israeli technology.