May 19, 2024
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An Incomparable Day! A Tanach Tiyul With Rav Ari Waxman

A few weeks ago, I took my younger son Hillel for a post-bar mitzvah trip to Israel. The visit was very short, so we had to make every moment in Israel worthwhile. We devoted one precious day to taking a Tanach tour from Shaalvim to Beit Shemesh with Rav Ari Waxman, the overseas program director at Israel’s Yeshivat Shaalvim. Rav Waxman, to say the least, did not disappoint.

 

The Start of the Day—Topography, Gezer and Emek Ayalon

We began the tour with an overview of the topography of Eretz Yisrael, both by looking at a special topographical map and out of the window of Yeshivat Shaalvim’s Beit Midrash! Sefer Devarim’s (1:7) description of the har, shefelah and hof hayam (mountain, lowlands, and coast) came alive before our eyes! We did not just learn the Torah; we saw the Torah!

We also could see the remains of the ancient Gezer, which Shlomo HaMelech built into a military stronghold (Melachim I 9:15). The topographical perspective made it easy to grasp the strategic wisdom of Shlomo’s choice.

The perspective was further enriched by visiting the incomparable tatzpit (lookout point) of Shaalvim’s neighboring Nof Ayalon. This scenic view offers a singular view of the Emek Ayalon, the Ayalon Valley. At this point, Rav Waxman shared perspectives on Yehoshua famously asking Hashem, “Shemesh b’Givon dom, v’yare’ach b’Emek Ayalon,” that the sun should stay still in the city of Givon and the moon in the Ayalon Valley (Yehoshua 10:12).

Modern Israeli history was not ignored. Rav Waxman used the Nof Ayalon tatzpit to show us the location of the struggles when Kibbutz Shaalvim was squarely on the pre-Six Day War border with Jordan. The tension came to a head in 1965 when “tractor wars” ensued regarding who controlled the “no man’s land” outside the kibbutz. Shaalvim’s rav even permitted farming activity one Shabbat (!!) based on Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 329:6.

 

Next Stop—A View of Shemitah Observance at Kibbutz Shaalvim

The next stop was even more unbelievable. Hillel and I were treated to a “shemitah tour” of the fields of Kibbutz Shaalvim, led by its community rabbi, Rav Aharon Mertzbach. Kibbutz Shaalvim is legendary for being a pioneer in high-level shemitah observance since its founding in August 1951, a month and a half before the beginning of the shemitah of 5712. Rav Mertzbach related that the kibbutz’s founders boldly decided that their kibbutz would not abide by the leniency of the heter mechira, the sale of Israeli farmland to a non-Jew to side-step shemitah requirements. Instead, the members decided to be amongst the first kibbutzim to observe shemitah by the higher standards of the Chazon Ish. Rav Mertzbach showed in detail how Kibbutz Shaalvim accomplishes this ambitious goal in practice.

We spent the next 45 minutes going from field to field, hearing Rav Mertzbach describing the kibbutz’s practical strategies for high-level shemitah observance. One particularly memorable point was how the kibbutz decided to focus on cotton farming this year due to shemitah considerations. The cotton planting occurred before shemitah at no small risk to the viability of the crop. Nevertheless, Rav Mertzbach told us that not only did the cotton weather the early planting, but it also produced a bumper crop. Moreover, the post-Covid demand for clothing dramatically drove up the price of cotton. The result was a great economic boon for the kibbutz. Rav Mertzbach rightfully saw this fortuitous event as fulfilling Hashem’s promise to support shemitah observing farmers (Vayikra 25:21-22).

Rav Mertzbach’s most striking insight was his raising the possibility that the existence of a thriving religious kibbutz that observes shemitah at a high level in 2022 was even a greater miracle than Yehoshua’s miracle of the moon standing still in Emek Ayalon. I responded that Kibbutz Shaalvim is undoubtedly a greater miracle. I supported my assertion by quoting Rav Yaakov Emden, who famously says in his introduction to his Siddur that the physical and spiritual survival of Am Yisrael is a miracle greater than the splitting of the Yam Suf!

 

Park Canada

As we continued our way south, we next visited Park Canada, the location of Emmaus/Dyomset, where the great Tanna Rabi Elazar ben Arach settled. No less a personage than Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai described Rabi Elazar ben Arach as his greatest talmid (Avot 2:8-9). However, at the behest of his wife, Rabi Elazar ben Arach moved to the resort area of Emmaus/Dyomset, a place bereft of Torah. The couple expected talmidim to flock to this most beautiful area. Unfortunately, the talmidim did not follow, and in the absence of the company of Torah scholars, Rabi Elazar ben Arach shockingly forgot his Torah (Shabbat 147b).

Rav Waxman took Hillel and me to the remains of the ancient Roman bathhouse that adorned this resort area (as seen in the picture). We were so excited to see this bathhouse since the Talmud is replete with references to Roman bathhouses (see, for example, Shabbat 33b and Avoda Zara 44b). My wife Malca suggested that Rabban Gamliel and other great Tannaim patronized these bathhouses since they functioned as many high-end golf courses do today—a place to network and make connections. Rabban Gamliel, my wife explained, would connect with the Roman leadership to help advance the cause of the Jewish people living in Roman-occupied Eretz Yisrael.

 

Sha’ar Hagai

The next stop as we headed south was particularly emotional, the museum at Sha’ar Hagai. This museum tells the story of the courageous Jewish fighters who bravely drove convoys of trucks to supply Jewish Jerusalem, which Arabs cruelly placed under siege. This museum magnificently tells how these brave young men and women put their lives at enormous risk to save Jerusalem’s one hundred thousand Jews from starving to death. This visit was particularly emotional since my father’s first cousin Binyamin Toibe of Hadera, was one of these heroic drivers! I broke down in tears as we entered one of the trucks and envisioned my cousin in his heroic mission. I am proud that my family is part of this heroism, without which we would not have a State of Israel today!

 

Tel Tzora

Our next step south was the tatzpit at Kibbutz Tzora. If you pay attention to the haftarot, you will know that Tzora is near where Shimshon began his courageous encounters with the Pelishtim (Shofteim 13:25; Shimshon is buried nearby as well; Shofteim 16:31). Rav Waxman took us to this magnificent lookout from where we could visualize Shimshon and Am Yisrael’s struggles with the Pelishtim. The latter lived on Israel’s southwest coast (today’s Ashkelon and Ashdod), and our people inhabited the mountains and the lowlands. The lookout point is an unparalleled opportunity to grasp and appreciate Shimshon’s efforts to free us from our Pelishti enemies.

Tel Tzora is also a magnificent spot to envision the miraculous return of the Aron from the Pelishtim to nearby Beit Shemesh. From this superb lookout, we could easily imagine the Aron making its way on the road from the Pelishtim to Beit Shemesh, as described in Shmuel I 6:9-13

 

Tel Azeika

Our unforgettable tiyul ended at Tel Azeika, a site in the battle between David HaMelech and Golyat (Shmuel I 17:1). We looked out at Emek Elah below and easily envisioned the confrontation between David from Beit Lechem in the mountains to the east and Golyat from the coast to the west. Unforgettable!

 

Conclusion

I recalled from my days of learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion how “Tanach tours” were peak experiences that made the Torah real. I was incredibly eager to share this experience with Hillel. No wonder Hillel, after spending only a few precious days in Eretz Yisrael, told me that he feels like Israel is his true home. We extend a big thank you to Rav Waxman for bringing such a premium experience to Hillel and me. I highly recommend to our readers that you take advantage of such a tiyul that incomparably builds a deeper connection to Hashem, Torah and Eretz Yisrael.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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