Posts

Over the last decade, I’ve been to a ton of kevarim, or graves of holy people, all over the place.

I’ve visited the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hevron; the tomb of King David in the Old City, the Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, up in Meron; the Ari and Rabbi Yosef Karo in Tsfat; the grave of Rachel Imenu, near Bethlehem – and all the Ukraine lot besides, including Rebbe Nachman, the Berditchever and the Baal Shem Tov.

But there’s one grave that’s stood out as a ‘must visit’ – and because it’s in the middle of a heavily populated Palestinian town with pronounced terrorist tendencies, getting to it has been pretty tricky, the last 10 years.

Yosef’s tomb is in Shechem, and you can only get to it if you go as part of a midnight convoy on armoured buses, with the whole trip coordinated with the Israeli army.

Long story short, until last Sunday, I’d never been able to organize everything to go. But a couple of days’ earlier, someone told me about a trip that was leaving on Rosh Chodesh Shvat, and even sent me an email with all the details.

I called them up Sunday morning – still only half interested, if I’m honest, as I like my sleep and Shechem is a 2 hour shlep by bus from Jerusalem – and there was a place free. So I decided to go.

I get to the bus stop in Jerusalem, and the first person I see there is a former room-mate from Uman, who starts telling me the most amazing, miraculously-hair-raising true stories of sons who recovered from terminal illnesses after doing a pidyon nefesh with Rav Berland; and people who dropped dead the day after they finished translating a particular Breslev book into English; and miraculous moving-apartments-with-no-money stories.

I took a breath of cold air, and I could smell Rabbenu all around me – it was that same heady mix of uncertainty, kedusha and surrealism that so often comes with me to Uman, when I’m going to visit Rebbe Nachman.

You start feeling like ‘anything can happen’, and it can be quite unnerving, if still exhilarating at times.

The bus showed up – and it was an old bullet-proof clunker with double windows so thick and scratched, you couldn’t see out of them at all. It was like being blind-folded and led off down an alley. I tried to fall asleep, and I mostly managed.

I woke up a few minutes before the convoy drove into Shechem (at least, that’s what I guessed, because I couldn’t see a thing through the window) and then the bus pulled over to the side of the road, and we got the order to move out. I stepped out of the bus, and into Arab Nablus at 2am.

It was a cold, clear night, and you could see Yosef’s tomb 50 metres ahead – surrounded by a whole bunch of army APVs and soldiers in all sorts of combat gear, many of whom were holding really big guns.

How cool! I thought. Then: How weird, to be visiting a kever at 2am with half a platoon of the IDF and a whole, very mixed, crowd of people from across Israel.

There were families with small kids, teens, chareidim, hill-top youth with huge payot, sem girls, Chassidic matrons from Monsey, yeshiva students from London, wives, grannies and everything in between, besides.

I tried to grab two minutes by the kever, before it turned into a tin of sardines, and then I spent the rest of my short time there standing outside the building, trying to take it all in. You could see dark Nablus towering up the slopes all around the tomb, and I thought this must look pretty impressive in the day time. (Maybe one day I’ll find out…)

I tried to do some personal prayer, but the truth is that between the trip, the tiredness and the surreal situation, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed and speechless.

So I watched, and this is what I saw: secular soldiers and chareidi men laughingly posing for pictures together; hundreds of people playing musical instruments and loudly celebrating Rosh Chodesh; ‘hill top yoof’ digging up the ground near the tomb and putting up a big blue tent (I still have no idea what all that was about, but it looked distinctly naughty; two teenage girls sat on the floor wrapped in the same blanket, reciting tehillim.

And the last thing I saw, just before I left, was a couple of teenage boys lugging a six pack of coke bottles around with them. At least, that’s how it looked from a distance, until I noticed a whole bunch of tubes were sticking out of the coke box, and were attached to one of the boys. The boy looked really ill – he had that ethereal, angelic quality that a person can get when they’re physically very frail. His friend had ‘disguised’ his respirator, or whatever it was, in a coke box, so his friend wouldn’t feel embarrassed while visiting the tomb.

That sight brought tears to my ears, and I said to God: Who is like your people, Av haRachamam?

There’s me complaining about making this grueling trip in the middle of the night, but look at all the old people, and small kids, and sick teens that have showed up here today, just to celebrate with Yosef HaTzadik. Unbelievable.

A little while later, we were back on the bus, and heading back to Jerusalem. As kever trips go, it was pretty uneventful in some ways – I had no big flashes of inspiration, no massive insights, no answers to big questions. What I did have, though, was a renewed appreciation for my fellow Jews.

Who is like your people, Am Yisrael?

Will I go back? Maybe. Not soon. It took me a day to recover and I’m still a little ‘out of it’ now. But one thing I can tell you for sure: Yosef’s tomb reminded me a lot of Rebbe Nachman’s. It was the same energy, the same intensity, the same holy madness. So something tells me that sooner or later, I will be going back.

In recent years, every time we get to parsha Mikeitz, where Yosef HaTzadik is finally freed from prison, and finally gets to see what all his suffering, loneliness and pain was for, I find myself getting in a funny mood.

You’re meant to find yourself in every letter of the Torah, somehow. Somehow, God’s put a coded message for every single one of us, into every nuance, every detail, every cantillation mark. Sometimes, you need to be a genius like Rebbe Nachman or the Vilna Gaon to have a clue about working them out. Other times, the messages hit you straight in the face with the force of a punch, and then you have to be a fool to miss them.

Yesterday, I read the parsha Mikeitz, and when Yosef starts sobbing when he sees his brothers, it struck me: the man went through a personal shoah. He lost his home, his family, everything he held dear, his status. He almost lost his soul, when enticed by Potifar’s wife, and then his faith in humanity (again…) when he was unfairly incarcerated as a result of doing the right thing.

How could he not lose his faith in God, when stuck in a hellish Egyptian prison for 12 years, all alone?

The fact that he didn’t shows how much he earned the appellation ‘ha tzaddik’. But existential loneliness, when God hides His face from you, and you have no-one in your life to love, or to love you back, is one of the worst punishments known to man.

Somehow, Yosef comes through all that. He finally gets out of prison. He finally rebuilds his life, albeit still all alone in his Egyptian splendor, with no old friends to reminisce with; no siblings to joke around with, or remember things with; no parents to encourage him from the side, and tell him how proud they are of him.

And then his brothers show up, and Yosef has to set a chain of events in train that will atone for their previous misdeeds against him, and rectify them for the future. And in the middle of all this, he suddenly realizes that these are his brothers. He’s reunited with his family physically, but spiritually and mentally, he suddenly realizes that what was, was. It can’t be regained, it can’t be rebuilt on the same foundations, because such a huge shift has occurred to the very foundation of who Yosef now is.

He’s a man who was sold out by his family, and treated mercilessly by the people who should have loved him the most.

He’s a man who had to face the most difficult, alien, exile alone, bereft of all sources of comfort except his emuna that God would eventually remember him, and turn it all around. He’s a man for who all the illusions and pretensions people like to have that ‘they are there for each other’, and that ‘they really care about each other’, and that ‘you don’t have to suffer alone’ had disappeared like smoke. And once those daydreams go, you can’t get them back, for all the wishing in the world.

So I think he was crying a little about what was, and what had been lost, and what had been done to him. But mostly, he was crying because even though they were all reunited again, really, he was as alone as he ever was. Maybe even more so.

The brothers could never go back to being true ‘brothers’ to Yosef, because even though he forgave them unconditionally, they couldn’t really forgive themselves.

Yosef was a permanent, and permanently uncomfortable, reminder to them of their own flaws and limitations and capacity for evil, and there was nothing Yosef could do to erase that knowledge, and truly regain his family.

I think this story has to resonate for anyone who’s a baal teshuva; anyone who’s made Aliya; anyone who found their life going in a direction that changed them fundamentally, even for best of reasons. The ultimate outcome is only good, the spiritual rewards are more than worth the pain and the effort.

But the aloneness of it all seems to stay with you forever.