Parashat Nitzavim Vayalech: Tall Towers and Restoring a Synagogue

hero image
06 Sep 2007

Nitzavim Vayalech 5767

Part One: Towers

The Gemara in Sukkah 52b says

“Four things Hashem regrets having brought into the world: Galut, Kasdim (Babylonians or today’s Iraqis), Yishmael (the Arabs) and the Yetzer Hara (our inner compulsion for immediate gratification.)”

The world on 9/11, 2001 had the opportunity to empathize with the Creator in His regret for permitting the dysfunctional Yishmael to come into the world, for on that day war was declared on the world order and the value we place on God-given life. That infamous day radically changed the world, and I believe that it had a very unique message for the Jewish people.

If one would have asked an American before 9/11 “what is the most erect, exalted, lofty, tall object in the USA?” most would reply, “The Twin Towers in New York City”. But very few people knew that the towers were financed by the Reichman brothers, that the engineer who built them was an Israeli and that the towers were owned by a Jew – they were “Jewish” buildings in a gentile land.

The week that the towers went down was the week we read in the Torah this week’s parsha of Nitza’vim. Nitza’vim means erect, exalted, lofty, tall; and just in that week, the erect, exalted, lofty, tall towers came crashing down. There is a message here for us.

The parsha begins with the words of Moshe Rabbeinu to all the congregation of Israel, “atem nitzavim” – you the Jewish nation are erect, exalted, lofty, tall because you now stand before G-d to renew the covenant and enter Eretz Yisrael after 40 years of preparation in the wilderness. You will continue to be erect, exalted, lofty, tall as long as you are faithful to the covenant.

The original “Twin Towers” were far from New York in place and in time. The book of Me’la’chim (Kings) describes the monumental structure of the Temple of Shlomo Hamalech. On both sides of the entrance to the U’lam, the vestibule of the Bet Hamikdash, there stood two erect, exalted, lofty, tall columns each 18 amot high (nine meters) – one was called “Ya’chin” and the other “Boaz”. The lesson to be learned is that we abandoned our “Twin Towers” of kedusha of the Temple in favor of the “Twin Towers” of New York’s financial district. Those towers will crumble together with all societies which place material values over those of the Torah.

We too have a “Wall Street”. It is the Kotel Plaza in Yerushalayim, but here we deal in only one stock, AT & T – “A Talit and Tefilin” which never goes down.

Perhaps the five-walled Pentagon building tragedy is also part of the lesson. How can one abandon emunah in the Five Books of Moshe and put one’s trust in the might of the five-sided Pentagon, which cannot defend even itself?

Towers are built for the protection of those who reside in or around them, for they permit one to see the enemy from far and take precautions.

In the absence of our Yachin and Boaz towers of the Bet Hamikdash, which permitted our forefathers to see afar, there are two substitutes, which when used properly, enable us to see into the future and take the necessary precautions. These two “towers” take the form of two questions that every Jew should ask himself daily and that have the power to direct us in this confused age.

Question #1) What does Hashem think about us? In school, we are graded and know where we stand. Is there a grading system whereby we can learn what Hashem thinks of us?

Question #2) If one hundred years ago every Jew in the world was on my present level of yiddishkeit, would there be any Jews in the world today?

#1) The great Baal HaTosafot, Rabbeinu Tam, in his “Sefer Ha’yashar” relates to the first question and points out that Hashem does have a grading system – if one has the opportunity to perform “rare” mitzvot, which most other people don’t, that is a sign of love from Hashem. There are two neighbors. One says he is inundated with phone calls and knocks on the door for tzedaka, and has no time for himself because of all the yeshiva committees he is on. His neighbor boasts of his serene life – no distracting knocks on the door nor committees. The first neighbor is beloved by Hashem; the second is in trouble.

In our time, the ultimate sign of love from Hashem to an individual Jew is the opportunity presented to him to escape the life of spiritual mediocrity in galut and to come home to Eretz Yisrael where every breath and every four amot one walks is a mitzva.

#2) Every honest Reform or Conservative Jew must admit that if all Jews were like him 100 years ago, there would be no Jew alive today. But we too are not free from asking ourselves this question.

Let us look inside our souls for the answer. What kind of an example do we set for our children and grandchildren in the way we daven, conduct business, spend our free time? What is our level of me’sirat nefesh (sacrifice) for things Jewish? What kinds of books and magazines enter our homes?

I would not be exaggerating, that if we take at random a religious Jew in chutz la’aretz (outside of Israel) and a non-religious Jew in Eretz Yisrael, that four or five generations down the line the grandchild or great grandchild in chutz la’aretz will be a mechalel (desecrater of) shabbat and probably marry out of the faith, whereas the secular Jew’s descendant in Eretz Yisrael will return to Torah.

The above two questions parallel the “twin towers” of the Bet Hamikdash. The one called “Boaz” brings to mind the story of Boaz and Rut alluding to the first question. In return for clinging to the elderly Naomi, Rut was granted the opportunity for a very rare mitzva – the sign of Hashem’s love. She came from afar, from Moav, to become the mother of royalty – she was the great grandmother of King David. And Boaz, at such an advanced stage in his life (eighty years old) was granted the rare opportunity to become David’s great grandfather.

The other “tower” called “Yachin” means to prepare and alludes to our second question. When one begins to ponder where his descendants will be, he will have to better prepare himself and his family and their future attachment to klal Yisrael.

The parsha says (Devarim chap. 30):

“This mitzva (tshuva) which I command you this day is not too difficult for you nor is it too far away…

It is not in the heavens (not in imposing structures of 110 floors)…

Neither is it beyond the sea (in New York)…

“But the word is very close to you in your mouth and in your heart.”

Part Two: Restoring a Synagogue

The Shabbat evening tefilot ended. We left the bet knesset, situated on the main street in the shuk, in the area named by the British Mandate authorities as the “Moslem Quarter”, to make our way southward towards the Kotel and from there to home.

A pleasant evening breeze was blowing and Shabbat could be felt, one hundred meters from where the Bet Mikdash once stood.

But instead of a pleasant walk home, talking Torah and matters of the day (which are also Torah, as is everything which happens in Eretz YIsrael), we were thrust into a sea of humanity. They were making their way towards us, and they numbered in the thousands. The thirty or so of us found ourselves fighting a losing battle against the human tidal wave blocking our way. They were men, woman and children, dressed in various attire each representing a different religious motif. We were frequently forced to find refuge in store fronts and hallways of privates homes to escape the ever growing “avalanche” of people filling every corner of the shuk.

But despite the physical difficulties in trying to reach our destination, my heart was filled with happiness and pride by the thousands of my Jewish brothers and sisters making their way from the Kotel to their homes in the neighborhoods of Meah Shearim, Ge’ula, Kiryat Moshe, Ma’alot Dafna, Ramot Eshkol etc. The entire shuk was filled with hats of all kinds: knitted kipot, wide brimmed black hats of yeshiva students, shtreimels of various shapes identifying the wearer and his Chassidic preference, women hats, kerchiefs, payot, the double braids of young girls and the single braid of an engaged chareidei girl.

Unknown to many of the people walking there, the center of Jewish life in Yerushalayim at the beginning of the 1900s was in what is today called the “Moslem Quarter”. Here was the seat of the great yeshivot and social and health institutions, as well as home to hundreds of Jewish families who made up the majority of the people living in the Old City. In the late nineteen twenties and early thirties, the British encouraged and aided the Arab populous to kill Jews and throw those who survived out from their homes, into which these same Arabs and their families occupy to this day.

As we were treading between the mass of people coming from the Kotel, I began to think what was in their minds when seeing us, a tiny group of Jews walking against the tide. Not one of these thousands could have known that their presence on this street leading to the northern neighborhoods of Yerushalayim was enabled due to us.

The Chazon Yechezkel bet knesset of the Old City was established on the last shabbat of 5741 (1982). I named the bet knesset after my father Yechezkel Shraga Kahana ob”m and also in the spirit of the great vision of the prophet Yechezkel, where the dry bones returned again to life. For the Jewish homes, shops and institutions in this part of the Old City are waiting to be returned to their rightful owners and live again.

From the time of the Old City’s liberation in 1967 until 1982 the quarter called “Moslem” was almost totally “Judenrein” (empty of Jews). No Jew passed there and even police were weary of entering. The Jews of the northern neighborhoods would come to the Kotel via Jaffa Gate, despite the fact that via the Damascus Gate which leads to the “Moslem Quarter” and then to the Kotel the distance is much shorter.

In 1982, the Office of the Custodian General of Israel turned to me and I was made privy to a “deal” which was in the making. In 1936, when the last of the Jews were thrown out from the area, two Arab families squatted in the bet knesset. An agreement was being worked out whereby the Arab squatters would receive a sum of money to leave the building. I was ask if I would be willing to restore the bet knesset. The situation could be compared to being asked to establish a bet knesset in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn or York Town in the 1940s.

After a week of soul-searching, I informed the Custodian General of my answer, “I don’t want to say yes, but I cannot say no!” The CG then said he will get back to me and I have to be prepared to enter the building at a moment’s notice.

He also informed me that I will have to sign an agreement whereby I will pay rent to the CG. This sounded absurd to me, with the logic being that the government should be funding me for providing this “service”. But in the Middle East logic sometimes runs thin. I did sign the agreement and have been paying rent to this day.

Part of my deliberations before deciding to enter this unknown future was the fear that no one would come to daven in a bet knesset situated in this quarter and who would provide a sefer torah, in addition to the security factor.

To make a long story of 25 fascinating years short, the bet knesset is today home to a vibrant community, kollel, and up to date library for the hundreds of Jewish children who live in the area, replete with computers and a professional librarian. In short, the bet knesset is the center of Jewish life in the northern part of the Old City.

I can be reached at:

POB 6761 Jerusalem, Cell phone 052 8471646, fax 02 6277832, e-mail

Please feel free to come to the bet knesset when in Yerushalayim.

Ketiva v’chatima tova, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.