June 17, 2024
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June 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

There is a wonderful idiom that “the walls have ears.” It is interpreted to mean that a speaker should be careful, as someone may be listening. President Trump would appreciate this phrase as he is fond of walls and has been dealing with a cacophony of leakers. However, “pashut pshat” should never be fully ignored. Sometimes the actual walls are listening.

The Upper West Side of Manhattan has a historic institution known as the Vorhand Shteeble. It is a vibrant place with multiple daily minyanim at convenient (later) times; an excellent well-attended Daf Yomi and much more. The stairs down to the basement of this brownstone building on 91st Street lead the walker to a little room that contains a men’s mikvah.

Many years ago, at a shiur, Rav Moshe Weinberger, shlita, of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, New York, encouraged men to go to the mikvah on Erev Shabbos. He explained that the letters of the word tevila, dip, have at their root the word batel, to nullify. The dipping is a unique opportunity to leave behind the worry of the previous week and transition into the kedusha of Shabbos. One arises from the mikvah as a fresh new entity, having left the negativity and impurity behind.

For this and other reasons, many stream down these stairs on Friday afternoons and enter a mini sanctum in preparation for the holiest day of the week. Powerful bonds and relationships have been created in this mikvah. The walls of this little room of the mikvah have observed people of all stripes and ages. Often, a trip to the mikvah can take much longer than planned due to the schmoozing that transpires before and after the dip. Those walls have watched people evolve, heard people’s inner cries and seen people graduate to new vistas.

The mikvah is a great equalizer. As all are equally exposed, it lends toward an emotional openness that isn’t all that common in regular life. People of different social classes, ages and different outlooks tend to connect more easily than usual.

There was the older generation, z”l. Men in their 80s and 90s were regulars and have recently passed from this world. One of them had a daily seder in Talmud Yerushalmi that began before daybreak, and another merited to have the Chazon Ish as his sandek. These men could regale attendees with stories of a world that is no longer, and when pushed would acknowledge their many great-grandchildren. They had their “mikomos kevuim,” permanent seats, for 50 or more years in this little room, and the walls were witness to a generation that is no longer.

Then there is the middle-aged chevra. There is one man in his mid-40s who struggled mightily for years to find a shidduch. Week after week there were deep conversations about his unique trials and tribulations as a baal teshuva. The walls of the mikvah observed and heard his pain and disappointment: Relationships with some promise ending again in disappointment. Multiple trips to Uman on Rosh Hashanah and prayers seemingly unanswered.

Then, keheref ayin, in the blink of an eye, after many years of dipping in the mikvah, there was a miraculous change. This middle-aged man married and soon after had a baby. Just recently, the walls heard transformative news: this man who never truly found his spiritual home in Manhattan was heading to the Holy Land on aliyah with wife and child in tow.

Another frequent group of visitors to the mikvah are the relatives of patients in some of Manhattan’s finest hospitals. The new faces are often inquired of as to what brings them to town. Sometimes the answer is a great joy, the birth of a baby. Often, the responses are not as enthusiastic, as the visit and spending Shabbos is connected to a serious illness.

In these instances, the mikvah connects Jews from around the world. The walls of the mikvah listen to introductions being made and games of Jewish geography being played. Sometimes the walls hear comfort being provided by strangers who are brethren who empathize with the unfortunate need to spend Shabbos in the city.

Finally, there are the acquaintances from the community who travel in separate circles. While standing within the walls of the mikvah, barriers that all too often exist between Jews are eviscerated. Individuals with children in the same schools or even the same classes finally communicate after passing like ships in the night for too long. These observant walls are witness to the breaking down of the artificial boundaries often found between dissimilar people.

The Talmud in Yoma 47a records the episode of a woman named Kimchis who merited superlative children due to her extreme care with the mitzvah of covering her hair. The poskim relate that her observance went beyond that required by the letter of the law. It is interesting that Chazal communicate this story by saying the “walls of her home” never witnessed her hair uncovered. It is as if the walls are a human entity that witnesses and feels. How are we to understand this formulation?

We often speak in terms of the “daled amos of halacha.” The Talmud in Brachos 8a notes that after the destruction of the beis hamikdash, all that remains for Hashem in this world are these four cubits. These four cubits reference each person’s personal domain. That Hashem resides near those who demonstrate fidelity to the area of Torah study called ‘halacha’, the embodiment of a living breathing Torah.

These four cubits of Halacha are really imaginary walls that insulate and protect people from negative forces and spiritual despair that abound. The walls of this Upper West Side mikvah are a parable for the four cubits of Hashem’s presence in this world. The insides of the walls of the mikvah, as well as the home of Kimchis, symbolize Hashem’s constant presence and watchful eye. In these special contexts of mitzvah performance of both bein adam l’chavero and bein adam lamakom, engaging our fellow man and engaging Hashem, we are ensconced and enveloped in His protective embrace.

The famed mashgiach Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l, named his classic sefer “Alei Shur” as a hint to the walls we all must erect to protect ourselves from the influences of the secular world. In particular, he argues that the “ben yeshiva” has an inner sanctum that is walled off from all else. These concepts are derived from a verse in Vayechi in Yaakov’s brachos to Yosef that Yosef Hatzadik was so handsome that women would peek over the walls to gain a glimpse of his countenance. There was a wall that needed to be traversed to catch a glimpse of something refined, transcendent and unique.

Elul is the time when the “King is in the field.” It is more than the standard walls of Hashem watching, listening and protecting us albeit from the distance. “Walls Having Ears” connote a lack of awareness at times that we are being listened to. This auspicious time on the calendar is more intimate and intense. It is an opportunity to actively engage the King. It is a time to leap over those walls, to be “alei shur” and search for a new dynamic, a fresh, closer relationship. To be constantly aware of His presence.

The apex or pinnacle of this period is Sukkos. The walls of the sukkah are flimsy. After traversing these 40 days of increasing closeness to Hashem, there are barely walls left at all. There is an entirely new dynamic at play. May it be His will that we merit to remove all the barriers to our closeness with Him through the purification of the mikvah tahara that is Elul and the Yomim Noraim.

Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the new rav of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere. He is also the national director of community engagement and a development executive at YACHAD, the National Jewish Council of Disabilities.

He is the author of “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016).

By Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen


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