My First Yom Kippur: An Interview with Sivan Rahav-Meir
BY HILLEL SHALIT AND ELAD HOMINER
“The first time I observed Yom Kippur and fasted was at the age of 15. I met a religious girl from Tekoa, her name was Talia Castelenovo, and she invited me to experience Yom Kippur from the inside, for the first time in my life.” So began our interview with media personality and lecturer Sivan Rahav-Meir.
In Ramat HaSharon and Herzliya, where Sivan grew up, Yom Kippur was a quiet day, thanks to the Jewish character of the State of Israel, “but it was also a day of cycling with friends. After my first fast, I went up to Jerusalem by bus, and I remember buying food all the time. I bought food in the central bus stations of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, because I was really stressed by not being allowed to eat for an entire day. Ultimately, though, this wasn’t the main part of the experience. I almost didn’t feel like I was fasting, I had so much enthusiasm for the holy day. Today,” she admits, “the fasts obviously challenge me more, and are not as automatically exciting as they were at the beginning.”
The first Yom Kippur had a great impact on Rahav-Meir. “We prayed with Talia’s family at the Italian Synagogue on Hillel Street in Jerusalem. It’s interesting because this has become a kind of ‘גִּרְסָא דְּיַנְקוּתָא’ for me, ‘the learning of my childhood.’ You are very influenced by the initial wording that you hear, and this nusach has become the version that I revert to in my thoughts, to this day. I will never forget how they repeatedly said the 13 attributes of mercy, ‘וַיַּעֲבֹר ה’ עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא, And Hashem passed before him and proclaimed’ (Shemot 34:6), and all kinds of other poems and melodies that suddenly come back to me. I was very excited to recognize Adon Olam, but other than that, most of what I encountered that day was new to me: standing before G-d, saying ‘ashamnu, bagadnu,’ and the vidui, the idea of forgiveness and atonement and a fresh start. Lots of ‘scoops’ were waiting for me. That night I couldn’t sleep from excitement. We slept at Talia’s grandmother’s and talked into the night. I read the Yom Kippur machzor throughout the day, as if it were a book meant to be read straight through, from beginning to end. I tried to ‘crack it,’ because I felt it contained a secret code.”
Sivan Rahav-Meir was born in Ramat HaSharon, to Aryeh and Ronit Rahav, and grew up secular. At the age of six, she moved with her family to Herzliya, and began writing for the children’s newspapers ‘Chopper’ and ‘Pashush.’ When she was eight years old she was identified as a gifted child. Later, Sivan hosted TV programs on ‘Educational Television,’ including the children’s program ‘Banana Boom,’ and served as a youth reporter for the newspapers ‘Kulana’ and ‘Rosh 1.’
As a Ba’alat Teshuva, are you able to relate to those who were born into a religious home, and are very worn out from the religious burdens of everyday life?
“When people ask me to talk about my teshuva story, I always say that there’s no great wisdom to learn from it. The story of people who grow up religious is much more exciting to me, precisely because it is not exciting. There is no great wisdom in becoming a ba’al teshuva. You come from outside without any coercion, you simply fall in love with the Torah. No teacher at school ever told me to make a beracha or to daven and no one criticized me when I studied Torah subjects. I came from outside of my own free will and choice – straight to the Torah, to G-d, to the thing itself. It requires real strength to grow up inside the religious community, and to find renewal from within. To continue the legacy of the generations that came before you and to add your own floor to the building you inherited.
“That’s why I most admire people who grew up religious and who light the spark within,” she explains, and immediately adds that it’s not her idea: “Our sages explain that Yitzchak’s prayer was accepted because he was a ‘righteous man who was the son of a righteous man,’ as compared to Rebecca, a ‘righteous woman who was the daughter of a wicked man.’ Why was Yitzchak’s prayer answered and not Rebecca’s? Wasn’t Rebecca on a higher level, because she was a ba’alat teshuva? It seems that being a righteous son of a righteous man is not easy. If your father and grandfather went to shul, in a world that constantly calls on us to innovate and reinvent ourselves and to rebel and break conventions – yet you still go to the synagogue with enthusiasm – then you are on a truly high level.”
Does working in the largest news network in Israel and the pressure associated with it bother you during the days of selichot and teshuva?
“In recent years, the media has come to understand that the pulse of Elul and Tishrei can translate into good ratings. There are many broadcasts about selichot, and many places ask to interview me during this period, to talk about the holidays. They understand that there is a huge public that is traditional, that hearts are opening, that the heavens are opening. Or maybe I’m just naive and the media just understands that it brings viewers,” she smiles. “In any case, I don’t feel a contradiction between the essence of these days and work, for the most part. There are a lot of lectures, and great demand to hear them, in places that are considered ‘far away’ from religion, and it’s great fun. The King is in the field, and so are the people. It’s a shame that we don’t have two months of Elul!”
Doesn’t your work, and ours as well as members of the media, contradict the essence of teshuva? The tendency to gossip and share bad news?
“For years I was an integral part of the media and accepted all its basic assumptions. People say that the news station tells you every evening at 8:00 pm ‘Good evening,’ and then proceeds, for a whole hour, to prove to you why this is not true. For years I worked according to these basic assumptions – to get up in the morning and look for what the Charedim are doing wrong, what the settlers are doing wrong, and in general, what is wrong with the world. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t problems, but the biggest problem of all is getting up in the morning and looking only for problems.
“Only a few years ago I realized that the word חֵטְא, ‘sin,’ derives from the word הַחְטָאָה, ‘to miss’ – and that it is a ‘sin’ against my mission to miss what I am supposed to be doing, to be in the wrong place. I am trying to correct this sin, this ‘miss,’ by using the talents I received to report on that which connects, unites, pleases, excites, and uplifts. To bring Judaism into the news as well. To understand that the parashat haShavua, the Torah portion of the week, is part of our pulse, part of our culture.”
Since Elul 5776, Rahav-Meir has been given a weekly class on parashat haShavua, connecting the parasha to current affairs. The class began as a local initiative but has become an event attended by hundreds of people every week, and many more watch it online. The class combines traditional commentators with personal stories, references to the news, the world of new media and the Israeli media, as well as letters that the audience themselves send to Rahav-Meir to read in the shiur.
“Among the general public,” says Sivan, “the reactions still surprise me. I did broadcasts on TV for many years and people would say ‘I saw you on TV.’ Okay, thanks for the update. But since I began speaking about the deeper issues of life, the soul, the Torah, the commentaries, people connect to the content itself. They say to me, ‘I have an idea from the Ramban to add to what you said,’ or ‘my wife was really moved by this commentary,’ and so on.
When I was chasing members of the Knesset for interviews, I never imagined that one day Keshet 12 would broadcast my shiur on parashat haShavua. It’s not something I even dreamed of.”
Can we say that you are the rabbi of the news people?
“Actually I’m more the address for questions people have about the behavior of other religious people. As we know, each religious person represents all religious people in the world, and I have to explain everything they do. I try to answer matter-of-factly, if I have an answer. It is very important not to get emotional, not to shout. I used to be upset and would come home angry after arguments like this. I hope that today I am more vocal, but also more calm. This is also my advice to others. But as the Rebbe of Lubavitch already said: ‘My goal is not to win arguments, my goal is to strengthen and help Jews.’ Meaning, my goal is not to fight and win and say to myself ‘I showed him!’ This is not the goal, not on the TV networks and not in life. The goal is to be useful, if possible.