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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Shofar Blower

From God's Middlemen: A Habad Retrospective : Stories of Mystical Rabbis:

By Reuven Alpert

He was known in Jerusalem simply as the "baal tokeya," the "shofar blower."
When the British forbade Jews from blowing the shofar at the Wailing Wall, he was the young man who had the guts to sound the traditional ram's horn at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. He was promptly imprisoned by the mandatory authorities and subsequently freed only after the personal intervention of Rav Kook, the chief rabbi. Rav Kook threatened not to break his fast until the "offender" was set loose.

When I became acquainted with Rabbi Moshe Segal, he was already an old man, but none of the idealism of youth had left him.

I had been sent by Rav Zevi Yehuda Kook to meet someone at a demonstration at Hakirya, the seat of the Israeli government. The small crowd outside Prime Minister Begin's office were mostly students of Rav Kook's yeshiva, there to protest Begin's ceding Jewish land to surrounding Arab nations. On the platform, spoke a slight man with a white beard. He had about him all the intensity of an Israelite prophet of old. Imagine my surprise when the "prophet" actually began to speak the ancient Hebrew words from the Book of Kings concerning Ahab, King of Israel and Ben Haddad, King of Aram. I never found the person I was supposed to meet, but my encounter with the prophet was more than sufficient reward.

Toward the end of his days, Rav Segal worked as a civil servant in Jerusalem's religious council. His relationship to the office was nothing less than Kafkaesque. The dreamer and fighter for Israel's independence, the ideologist of Berit ha-Hashmonaim ("Covenant of the Hasmoneans"), a religious offshoot of Jabotinsky's Revisionist movement, was reduced to politely listening to the idle chatter of his fellow civil servants.

In the privacy of his cubicle, he unburdened himself. Like so many of Israel's pioneers, he had come from Russia. What hadn't he done for his country? He had dried her swamps, paved her roads. But this was a pious pioneer. He had been one of the original founders of Kefar Habad, the Habad village near Lod, in the first years of the state.

His home town of Poltava, as many Russian towns, contained a mixed population of hasidim and mitnagdim. The rabbi of the hasidic community had been Jacob Mordecai Bezpulov, study companion to the Rebbe Rashab. The mitnagdim were led by Rabbi Elijah Akiba Rabinowitz, editor of the anti-Zionist Ha-Peless. In his youth, Segal knew Rabbi Hayyim Eliezer Bichovsky, who in the teens published in Poltava several important works of Habad hasidism. Torah Judaism was given a morale boost when, as a result of the upheavals of the First World War, the Mirrer Yeshiva, one of Lithuania's finest Talmudic academies, relocated to Poltava, Ukraine. The earnestness of the students, with whom he became intimately acquainted, made an indelible impression on Segal.

Yes, Segal was a Habadnik, but his love for Erets Yisrael came first. He had never seen the Rebbe, unwilling to leave the land for even a visit of such importance. He had seen the previous rebbe, Joseph Isaac, on the latter's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1928.

In 1967, right after the capture of the Old City of Jerusalem, he moved in. At first he was a lone Jew sleeping in the rubble of the former Jewish Quarter. His only neighbors were Arabs. Later, other Jews arrived, and today the area throbs with Jewish life.

He was thoroughly disillusioned with Begin. "I knew something was wrong when he formed a coalition with the Liberals. What has happened is that he is totally caught up in his mythos of peace."

He remonstrated with me to revive the vision, to go out to secular, leftist Israeli youth and implant in them the spirit.

"When I was young, we had none of the vessels but we had the light. Today, we have the vessels, all the trappings of statehood, but we have lost the light."

Rabbi Moshe Segal was no longer the kinetic youth. Old age had descended upon him and he broke down crying old man's tears.

Fittingly, Rabbi Moshe Segal passed away on Yom Kippur. As his grandson expressed it, those lungs that had suffered so much sent heavenward their last shrill note, "Tekiyah!"