How in(secure) are we?

November 9, 2017 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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Queueing at passport-control at Ben-Gurion Airport (one of the few places in Israel where queues really do exist!), two young women just ahead of me turned around (I suppose they gleaned from my appearance and demeanour that I was not a first-timer like them!) and nervously asked me what sort of questions they were likely to have to answer…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

It transpired that they were two sisters from Warsaw –my paternal grandfather’s birthplace, another talking-point during the fifteen-or-so minutes that we were queueing.  They told me they had Jewish ancestry (dating back, they believed, to the anusim of fifteenth-century Spain) and actually had distant Jewish relatives whom they were visiting in Israel but they had done enough research to realise that this in no way qualified them as Jewish.  I told them they were visiting at a very beautiful time of the Jewish year – that an important festival called Succot was starting the following evening when people left the security of their homes and dwelt in open, unguarded huts for seven days. They digested this new information with interest.

Some moments later having progressed along the line, the girls had another question.  Still nervous, they wanted to know if it was safe to travel on the public transport as, after all, they were about to enter one of the world’s “danger zones” (their words of course.)  I told them that I felt safer walking along the streets in Israel at night than I would in many parts of Sydney.  I also suggested to them that if Tel Aviv or even Jerusalem was a danger zone then perhaps more so was Paris, Manchester, Stockholm or Berlin. (If I were talking to them today, I would add New York.)

As my son-in-law was driving us from the airport along the spanking new highway to Ramat Bet Shemesh, I reflected upon the uncanny connection between Succot and the conversation I had just had with these girls. I also ruminated on how unsuccessful I had evidently been in conveying to them the essential message of Succot!

The word bitachon in Scriptural Hebrew means “trust”. It is usually used in the context of trusting in G-D. However in contemporary Hebrew, bitachon means “security”.

In classical Hebrew literature, a shomer bitachon would be one who maintains his trust in Heaven. In modern Hebrew, shomrei bitachon are “security guards”.

Can there be a more ironic or paradoxical language shift imaginable?  In the contemporary world, the more security we have the more insecure we feel! The more shomrei bitachon there are around, the more anxious we are and the less likely we are to proclaim “in G-D we trust!”

For seven days every year, Jews around the world take these lessons of what is true bitachon to heart.  They leave their safe and solid brick or stone dwellings and enter their flimsy, penetrable succas with makeshift walls and a leaky roof of detached vegetation. For one blissful week, shomer bitachon once again assumes its original meaning. We rediscover our reliance and our trust in the One Above.

Barely two years after Central Synagogue brought me across the world, on my second Hoshana Raba in Sydney almost a quarter-century ago, the shul burnt down. Seventeen Sifrei Torah were destroyed. Countless pairs of tefilin (including mine), machzorim (including my wife’s) siddurim, chumashim and volumes of Torah literature were incinerated. But incredibly the choir-gallery where the lulavim (palm-fronds waved as part of the mitsva of arba’a minim) were housed remained intact..  And the shul’s succa off the rear of the building was untouched. In other words, all parts of the building housing the means to perform the mitsvot of Succot were unharmed, a miraculous testament to the very lesson of Succot – that true security and protection does not ultimately lie in the “permanence” of bricks and mortar, of man-made edifices, of bolts, chains and padlocks, but rather in the “impermanence” of flimsy open huts and ephemeral plants that were somehow guarded from Above and manifested as permanent and invincible!

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This year, Hoshana Raba morning, I had a 9am b’rit mila (circumcision) to attend in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem – of the son of an ex-Sydney boy at whose Bar Mitsva I had officiated and whose wedding in Israel I had had the merit to attend seventeen months ago. For those who are unaware, although Hoshana Raba is not actually Yom Tov the morning service is utterly Yomtovesque in length!  Based as I was in Ramat Bet Shemesh, there was no way I could possibly make the b’rit unless I davened at the earliest possible time, i.e. hashkama (“with the sunrise”) in Jerusalem, and even then it would be touch and go!

Happily, Dovid (my son-in-law) decided he would drive to Jerusalem to daven  hashkama  at the Kotel (Western Wall) – a unique experience.

We set off very early and made good time.  However the first challenge was finding a parking-space. Dovid decided to cut his losses and grab a spot although it was a twenty-minute walk away from the Kotel., We weaved our way through the shuk, jostling with the hundreds upon hundreds of fellow-Jews who had come for the experience. As one would expect, rifle-bearing soldiers were very much in evidence.  Dovid’s brother, Elimelech, had his heart in his mouth. It was evident from the crowds that the queue to enter security at the entrance to the Kotel plaza would be huge. Elimelech calculated that they would never make it in time for hashkama – and nor would thousands of others!

Which is where seichel (common-sense) happily kicked in!  The heavy security presence in and around the Kotel plaza was palpable. But at the entrance to the plaza, the shomrei bitachon waved us all in. On the climactic last morning of Succot, the security guards remembered the original meaning of bitachon. We made it to the beginning of the service – and miraculously thanks to amazing bus and light rail connections, I made it to the b’rit just in time!

A mixture of seichel and bitachon in its original sense actually ensures that, as I tried to convey to those girls, life in Israel remains ‘normal’ the whole year round.

Judith and I were blessed this year to be able to rent a converted, grandchild-friendly machsan (storeroom) just downstairs from Ashira and Dovid’s apartment.  Within a hundred metres there are three shuls, one of which has minyanim virtually around the clock.  The shul I normally go to, has all the times of all the services posted up for every day.  I decided I would go in to photograph the times.

On my way out, I reflected: into how many shuls in Sydney would I be able to gain access at any time of the day or night to daven or to learn?  At how many shuls would I be able to photograph anything on any weekday without being detained by security?

In Israel, the showpiece-shuls apart, there are no security guards at shul entrances. In a country where the perceived terrorist threat to Jewish lives is perhaps greater than any other, there is a refusal to surrender to terror or to fear.  Blessedly, in Israel, bitachon still retains its original meaning.

I am not  for one moment advocating an abandonment of all security or of the taking of sensible precautions.  However I am concerned that our over-the-top approach outside our synagogues in Australia is breeding a meraglim-like fear mentality out of proportion to the reality.  When I enter certain synagogues in Sydney and see entrances and exits permanently bolted, security doors erected, barriers constructed, high walls built and the ubiquitous security codes emplaced – and Heaven alone knows how many genuine potential worshippers and Jewish visitors to Sydney and Melbourne are deterred by all this from coming to shul – I wonder how long it will before Alsatian dogs a la Johannesburg will be introduced.

Why does no-one figure that by our excessive “trembling-Israelite” security policies designed to shut out rather than embrace, we are not only deterring Jews from attending shul, we are also showcasing our near-paranoic insecurity for our enemies to see –  and it is when they perceive us as insecure that the trouble starts, G-D forbid!

The message of Succot must continue to resound loud and clear.  True security is not what surrounds us from without but what permeates us from within. “Bitachon means “security” but it also means “trust”. The most sacred of all the world’s tongues says so!

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