My family loves the north. We appreciate the greenery, the waterfalls, and the cooler temperatures. We’ve taken countless family vacations to the Golan during all seasons of the year. When we are looking for a change, we head to the Galil, also up north. Rarely do we venture down south, but this week my husband and I had reason to travel there, and we thoroughly enjoyed taking in the new sights.
The impetus of the trip was to visit my son at his army base and to try to lift his spirits and those of his fellow chayalim who have been a bit down of late. Last week, a few soldiers were diagnosed with corona the day before they were all scheduled to go home for a much needed and deserved break. It would be at least two weeks until they would be permitted to leave the base and they were not happy about this. For my son, it wasn’t so terrible, since he had just been home when he quarantined with us for two weeks. But some of the soldiers were already not home for quite some time. Morale was understandably low. So, I baked some of my son’s favorites, and after a quick stop at the supermarket to pick up a bunch of treats for the chayalim, we headed down to the base.
On the way down, we drove by places we had heard about but had never visited. We passed the Yishuv of Tifrach, home of the famous yeshiva, and Ofakim, where Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l had lived. We traveled on the road parallel to Gaza until we arrived at the base. We were permitted to leave the goodies outside the base and wave to my son from a distance. Definitely worth the trip. Once we were done with the “visit,” we decided to drive around a bit and scout out the area. We drove approximately one minute and found ourselves at the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Kerem Shalom is a border crossing at the junction of the Gaza Strip-Israel border and the Gaza-Egypt border. It is where Israel, Gaza, and Egypt meet. The crossing is used by trucks carrying goods from Israel to the Gaza Strip. Although Kerem Shalom is one of three Gaza border crossings, it is where most goods pass through on a daily basis. The crossing is capable of handling 450 trucks every day. Israel and Gaza are separated by a 400-meter (approximately a quarter of a mile) drop-off zone used for unloading the goods. I’d been pretty close to Gaza in the past, but I was never this close to Egypt, watching its flag waving in the wind.
Heading home, we passed near Netivot and decided to stop off at the kever of the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abuchatzeira. We had never been to his kever, and there is always what to daven for. Baba Sali literally means “Ha’Abba Hamitpallel,” “the Praying Father.” The Baba Sali was a leading Moroccan Sephardic rabbi and kabbalist who was renowned for his ability to work miracles through his tefilot. He made aliyah in 1964 and moved to Netivot 10 years later, where he remained until he died in 1984.
When we entered the parking lot, the area had a feel reminiscent of Meiron. There was a hachnosas orchim area and a souvenir shop. It wasn’t a very busy time, with just a few families milling about the indoor and outdoor areas. All the way at the end of the parking lot, we noticed a larger crowd involved in some sort of joint activity. We have often seen families barbecuing in the parking lot of the kever of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, but here there was lively simchah music playing. It seemed out of place so close to the cemetery. This piqued my curiosity so, after davening at the kever, I went to check out the scene. I must say I was taken by surprise to find that there was actually a Bar Mitzvah celebration taking place right there in the parking lot. Guests dressed in their finest were enjoying catered food, music, and speeches. This was all being photographed by a professional photographer. This is something I had never seen. Being coroneurotic as I am, my first reaction was that this must be a creative, yet unusual outdoor venue for a Bar Mitzva in order to maintain compliance with corona restrictions. But as I thought about it a bit more, I realized this didn’t make sense. There are many more outdoor areas much more befitting a Bar Mitzvah than this. There must be something more to it than that.
Through a bit of research, I learned that the Baba Sali was a very holy man who was considered a miracle worker. People from all over the country would flock to his simple home to get brachot and advice. He was able to heal many people by davening for them and by pouring special water on some of them. The Baba Sali was very careful about shmirat eynayim, guarding one’s eyes, and would not look at women at all. He was also extremely sensitive to his surroundings. On the day that he made aliyah to the port of Haifa, he was welcomed by a crowd, among them a government minister. The minister offered him a ride in his car. However, the Baba Sali declined the offer because he could feel the car was used for chilul Shabbos. In actuality, the government minister was shomer Shabbos, but his driver was not. The Baba Sali was able to sense this without being told. When he died in 1984, over 100,000 people attended his levayah, including rabbis, officials, and politicians. Since then, his kever has become a pilgrimage site visited by over 600,000 visitors per year. Stones from the courtyard of the kever are sold as a segulah to those who wish to buy them. Several years ago, millions of shekels were budgeted to renovate not only the kever, but also the surrounding area. The plan for the architecture, stones, and colors is designed to foster a Moroccan atmosphere.
Many people, particularly Moroccans, wishing to make a Bar Mitzvah in a holy venue will do so at the kever of the Baba Sali. The Bar Mitzvah boy can get an aliyah at the shul on the premises and he and his family can get a brachah from a rav at the site. The celebration can be accompanied by drummers if so desired. The fact that this all takes place in the middle of the parking lot of the municipal cemetery does not seem to detract at all from the simcha.
From Netivot is was only about a one-hour drive back to Ramat Beit Shemesh. As we drove home, we thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset in the rolling hills and farms in the southwest of Israel. We were fortunate to see another part of Israel we had never visited before, something which is always a thrill, especially in this small country. Baruch Hashem, all in all, it was a very meaningful and pleasant day.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.