Recognition of Jerusalem vs. Discovery of Yerushalayim (Shel Maalah)

Last Wednesday, December 6, 2017, will certainly go down as a historic day. It was the day that President Donald Trump corrected a long-standing mistake and gave diplomatic legitimacy to Yerushalayim as the capital of Israel. While we are not seeking to make light of this decision, I’d like to examine a totally different angle.

On that fateful Wednesday night in Yerushalayim, at 7:30 p.m., I entered a taxi. After exchanging pleasantries and giving the address I was going to (a bar mitzvah, for those who really want to know), I turned to the driver and asked him, “Nu, so what do you say about Trump?”

Here comes a disclaimer: There is a certain stereotype about Israel’s taxi drivers. One can sense the political direction by just getting into a taxi. They all have their pulse on the news (not much else to do between customers) and are very opinionated (generally based on the most recent interview they heard). So I thought there was no better point to begin a discussion with the fellow to my left than the most burning issue and probably the most pareve topic on the agenda. Who hadn’t heard of Trump and his expected decision (half an hour later), and which kippah-wearing taxi driver would be upset with it?

So I was totally shocked when he turned to me and said that he had no idea what I was talking about, and — surprise, surprise — he didn’t even care in the slightest. “It has been eight full months that I haven’t listened to the radio or watched the news,” he says. “And I don’t regret it at all.”

He saw my response and asked me if I was interested in hearing his story. Since I would be with him for the next 10 to 20 minutes, I thought I didn’t have much to lose, and perhaps it might even be interesting.

So here goes his fascinating monologue:

“I was born and bred in Yerushalayim. I have lived here for 53 years. Yet I never knew the real Yerushalayim…

“As you can tell, I’m a Sephardi Jew, and although it is generally assumed that the Sephardim are more traditional, we kept absolutely nothing. Shum klum. Not [Yom] Kippur, not Pesach, not kosher, I barely laid tefillin for three minutes at the Kotel on my bar mitzvah for the cameras. And we didn’t live all that far from a religious neighborhood; we were in Nachlaot, close to Rechavia and Shaarei Chesed. Not only didn’t I know anything about Yahadut, I didn’t even care.

“Then I married, had four children and had a steady job. We were a group of buddies who would save up money and then leave everything behind and travel overseas to have the biggest and wildest adventures possible. And let me tell you, they weren’t considered mitzvos by any standard. We had the time of our lives…

“Last year, we all saved up a little more and went for a full month. This time, we went to a little village in South America, five hours’ drive from Sao Paulo. I actually felt that perhaps we were overdoing it this time, but it wasn’t realistic to stop.

“One day, a couple of Israeli guys turned up. (Later I learned that they were Chabadniks.) How they knew where we were beats me; as I said, this was a five-hour drive from the nearest civilization. They started talking to us in Hebrew and said that the next day is Pesach. None of us had any clue what they were talking about, and while the others had a laugh and went back to their merry ways, I decided to hear them out. This was the first I had ever heard of Pesach, and it enthralled me. I joined them for the Seder the next day, and the rest is history.

Im yihyeh nidachacha biktzei hashamayim, misham yekabetzcha u’misham yikachecha!

“I came back to Israel and re-invented myself. I dropped all connections with my former life, former friends, and have totally changed my entire life. I have changed jobs, become a taxi driver for a religious company, wear a kippah and try to spend as much time as possible catching up on what I have missed over the first five decades of my life.

“So you’re telling me that the American president has recognized Yerushalayim? That might be a nice thing, but I can tell you that I have found the Yerushalayim, the city in which I lived for 53 years and never knew about, the city that our forefathers yearned for and I was living here and knew nothing of it, of the life that we pray for — Vl’Yerushalayim Ircha — YOUR city of Yerushalayim, not only bricks and stones, but the deeper meaning of it. Yerushalayim shel maalah. And that I think I have found.”

And with that, we reached my destination, and it had been a worthwhile ride.

Vl’Yerushalayim Ircha took on an entirely new meaning that night in Maariv.

May we all merit to discover from a little closer what this man (I didn’t even get his name!) found out so far away, and perhaps that will help us get a little closer in our avodas Hashem.