Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Maariv (evening prayers) or is it the Rabbi?
Many communities have the Rabbi count the Omer rather than the chazzan. Why is this? In some places it might be to avoid shaming the chazzan. A chazzan might have dropped a day of counting mid-Omer, hence invalidating him from being able to recite the bracha. Hence, the Rabbi (who we assume attend shul daily and will not mess up) counts in order to eliminate asking the chazzan and possibly embarrassing him.
However I suspect another issue is at hand. In Hassidic communities the Rebbe counts. He is deemed as closer to God, and his blessing is more pure and holy. The Rebbe counts to add sanctity to the counting; to achieve a spiritual high that an ordinary commoner cannot reach. This veneration of the Rabbi is prevalant in yeshivot too, where the yeshiva head (Rosh Yeshiva) frequently has near cult-status, and hence in many yeshivot, the Rosh Yeshiva leads the counting.
Where I learned, in Yeshivat Har Etzion, both Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein never assumed that role, and they always told the chazzan to count. I always loved that. They didn't need to be the cult figurehead. I assume that they also presumed there was no significant spiritual advantage in them saying the blessing and counting aloud, and that the chazzan's counting was equally valid and equivalent in value to their own.
In my shul, the Rabbi counts and I wish he would ask the chazzan to do so. I think it would send a positive message. It conveys the sense that the religious observance of the average community member is on the same par as the Rabbi; that the Rabbi is no more holy than his congregants. Furthermore, it conveys confidence that baalei batim (congregants) can also successfully keep up with the counting. By this small gesture, the rabbi empowers his community and conveys to them that comprehensive halakhic observance is within their reach and a goal that they should set for themselves.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
In recent years, it feels like Jerusalem Day has become more complicated. The political entanglement of the "territories" has cast a dark shadow over the sheer joy of the day. Even a card-carrying right-winger would argue that the issues raised by Israel's control over/return to/liberation of Yehudah veShomron are far from simple, and as a result, for many the festivity of Yom Yerushalyim is fraught with the complexities of current politics. This has been a feeling shared with me by many religious-zionist friends.
But I would argue that this is one day to put all the heavy baggage aside. To paraphrase Kohelet; there is a time to deliberate, and a time to celebrate. And today - Yom Yerushalayim - one must celebrate.
Today we should rejoice at the return to the Kotel, and our reconnection to the site of our Temple, the beating heart of the Jewish people towards which all Israel directed its heart in prayer, its tears of sorrow, and its hopes and dreams for 2000 years.
We should celebrate Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem ... a fulfillment of the words of our prophets.
We should celebrate the astounding deliverance that was the Six-Day War.
We should celebrate the unification of our beloved city ... a city no longer severed by a dividing wall but now a viable, organic, united city; a flourishing centre, in contrast to the dangerous border-city that it was prior to June '67.
We should celebrate our ability to visit and reside in places that our ancestors dreamed of: Shilo and Beit-El, Kever Rachel and Me'arat Hamachpela.
And we should also direct our hearts in prayer, because even in Temple times when we happily declared: "Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem", we continued, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!" (Psalm 122)
Let us not forget that in the years between 1949 and 1967, Jerusalem was a backwater, a beleaguered border town. The city centre was divided, fractured. The main entrance to Israel's parliment, the Knesset was oriented to face the westerly direction due to the danger of Jordanian shelling; in other words, even our national symbols were under fear of foreign fire. Israel in the lead-up to the Six-Day War was a country that was petrified for its survival. And in six resounding days, Israel reunited Jerusalem and tripled in size. The pride generated by those events sent electric waves through the Jewish world. Jerusalem now is a city which is the center of the Jewish world, a place that inspires virtually every Jew that visits it. It is also a city open to its Arab residents, as anyone who lives here can see.
Yes, Jerusalem as a city is highly entangled and far from simple. The situation of Yehuda Veshomron/ the West Bank/ Liberated/ Occupied Territories (call it what you like depending on your political perspective) is complex and is at present an intractable problem that cries out for resolution. (Much of the political trouble around this topic is in itself a tool to weaken Israel.) Maybe some of the achievements of the six-day-war will one day be sacrificed for the sake of an accord with our Palestinian neighbours; maybe never. And yet, with all that said, let us deliberate and debate for 364 days of the year. But for today, for one day a year, let us celebrate this quantum leap forward for the Jewish people and let us rejoice without hesitation.
Feel free to visit this post (written 8 years ago) to which I still subscribe: http://thinkingtorah.blogspot.co.il/2007/05/make-yom-yerushalayim-national-holiday.html
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
The prophet answers: You are asking the wrong question. Buildings are nice. You can rebuild a Temple, but can you rebuild your society? אמת ומשפט ושלום שפטו בשעריכם ... Can we construct an ethical and compassionate society? We can establish a State, but can we suffuse it with Justice, compassion, and peace? If you haven't achieved a just society there is more work to do. [See Zecharia ch.7-8]
And it's Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) this week, and the words of the prophet could have been written for today.
Last night we visit the Israel Museum's 50 years birthday celebrations. Mazal Tov! Its a party! And we visit the exhibit where we can read the Ten Commandments out of one of the Dead Sea scrolls, 2100 years old! You can actually read those words: "Do not steal; Do not swear falsely". We walk outside onto the museum roof into the beautiful spring Jerusalem air, and we are confronted by an exhilarating view - our Knesset, the "David's Harp" bridge, our Supreme court, the city all around... "Jerusalem rebuilt like a city knitted together". Yes- our city is being rebuilt! A miracle! "We were as dreamers!" But on the radio we hear about corrupt policemen and attorneys, about deals and scheming in government.
I see Jerusalem rebuilt. I feel the words of the prophet. They excite and delight me: עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים. ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ. "So said the Lord of Hosts: Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of old age.And the streets of the city shall be filled, with boys and girls playing in its streets."
And I look with thanks, gratitude at our national institutions and I say a heartfelt prayer to our halls of law and government. אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם - We have lots if work to do if we want to raise ירושלים של מטה (the earthly Jerusalem) a little closer to ירושלים של מעלה (the heavenly Jerusalem.)
Sunday, May 03, 2015
Today is Pesach Sheni. No Tachanun this morning.
But what is the big joy in Pesach Sheni?
Pesach Sheni is a day of second chances. In Bamidbar (Numbers) ch.9, a group of people approached Moshe. They had missed the offering of the Korban Pesach (the Paschal sacrifice) due to ritual impurity and they didn't want to miss out on this religious opportunity. Moshe makes a special appeal to God, and God institutes a second Pesach, a chance for those who missed it the first time round to perform the ritual.
Maybe we can look at this day and remind ourselves to give ourselves a second chance for missed opportunities. An opportunity to call a friend, to say sorry, to start a chavruta, to do that thing you that you have been procrastinating about, but know you must do.
We all get second chances.
What are you going to do today?
Sunday, April 26, 2015
פרק ב', משנה ירַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרָךְ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ
Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own
פרק ג, משנה י'
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁרוּחַ הַבְּרִיּוֹת נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ, רוּחַ הַמָּקוֹם נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ.
וְכָל שֶּׁאֵין רוּחַ הַבְּרִיּוֹת נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ, אֵין רוּחַ הַמָּקוֹם נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ.
He [Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa] used to say:
A person with whom people are pleased, God is pleased.
But anyone from whom people are displeased, God is displeased.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
I took it all in and just thought to myself... Once we were all singing these same songs at age 14 and 16 and 18 [the ages of our kids!] around a campfire at Bnei Akiva camp in Somerset and dreaming that one day we may live in Israel. And here we are, 30 years later, living here, working here, hiking in Israel's gorgeous scenery. And today, on such a special day - Yom Haatzmaut - we are singing together with our beautiful children - all Israeli - surrounded by the beauty of the hills and trees of our homeland.
We are indeed living a dream! We can count our blessings!
On Erev Yom Haatzmaut, I spoke to my Eretz Hatzvi students. I sought to communicate to them the remarkable gift and significance of modern Israel, and inspire them with the religious obligation of thanks and praise on this historic day for the Jewish people. I am sharing the shiur here.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Yom Hazikaron is a sacred day in the Israeli calendar. The nation mourns its fallen. In almost every workplace, people are absent on Yom Hazikaron; everyone has an "azkara", a memorial service for a relative, a friend, an army buddy. We who make Israel our home live in debt to these young lives - fathers who will never hug their children, wives who will never again embrace their husbands, children who will lose the memory of their fathers.
As I stand for the siren, I remember their memories and pray that God spare us further loss of life.
Last year, as I reached Jerusalem on the morning of Yom Hazikaron, driving from Gilo to Talpiot, I noticed this memorial. For Yom Hazikaron it was marked by a flag at half-mast and a fresh wreath. It is a memorial to a pilot, Dan Givon, whose plane was shot down by Jordanian anti-aircraft fire during the 6 day war. The sight of this roadside monument on a highway which I travel daily induced me to pen the following poem. This site commemorates the life of a single man of the 23,320 soldiers who have fallen in Israel's defense. One life is an entire world. One simply cannot conceive of the loss of 23,320 lives.
ה' עוז לעמו יתן, ה' יברך את עמו בשלום
By the road to work,
A roadside memorial,
A monument passed daily.
A flag at half mast.
Of a life cut down.
Between Gilo and Talpiot,
A hurried, frenzied daily commute,
Where drivers curse the heavy traffic,
Wars once raged,
Blood and bullets.
Soldiers, Young men,
Were they heroes; the brave?
Or merely the unfortunate, caught in a crossfire.
They gave their life,
So we could have a country,
So that we can live,
Normal, ordinary life,
Of Waze-guided driving,
Cars and buses,
The rush home from work,
To the embrace
Of loved ones.
Today we salute those men,
And bless our good fortune,
That we live in the land of the living,
To live in the land of our past,
The land of our future.
נזכור את כולם
חג עצמאות שמח!
Sunday, April 19, 2015
A vital culture, far from being detached from life, embraces it in all its aspects. Culture is whatever life creates for living purposes: Farming, building, and road-making - any work, any craft, any productive activity is part of culture and is indeed the foundation and the stuff of culture. The procedure, the pattern, the shape, the manner in which things are done - these represent the forms of culture. Whatever people feel and think both at work and at leisure, and the relations arising from these situations, combined with the natural surroundings - all that constitutes the spirit of a people’s culture. It sustains the higher expression of culture in science and art, creeds and ideologies. The things we call culture in the most restricted sense, the higher expressions of culture (which is what is usually meant when culture is discussed in our circles) - this is the butter churned out of culture in general, in its broadest sense. But can butter be produced without milk? Or can a man make butter by using his neighbors’ milk and still call the butter all his own? (A.D. Gordon. People and Labor)
Gordon believed that Israel had to be built by working in the fields, by building Israel; not by creating theories and philosophies of Zionism. He saw Israel as created not in a "top-down" motion - from the academies and halls of learning - but "bottom-up", from the grassroots, the smell of the earth and the song of the land, the hills and valleys, the rocks and rivers. That is why Israeli culture is created by the language, by the native foods, by the scenery, the music, the climate, the flora and fauna, the cities and highways, the inventions and achievements, the politicians and generals, and the modern and ancient history of our beloved land. This is what builds our Israeli Culture.
Friday, April 17, 2015
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Leading towards Yom Ha'atzmaut, let's get ready for Shabbat in true Zionist fashion with a beautiful zemer for Shabbat by Chaim Nachman Bialik, our national poet. When we were children, we would often sing this on Friday night at the Shabbat table. (You can find the words here).
Bialik studied in Volozhin Yeshiva, but rejected traditional observance. In his perception, the world of the yeshiva was going to disappear, and Judaism needed to evolve into a new Israeli Judaism. Shabbat was very improtant to his vision of a new Hebrew society and he used his influence to convince businesses to close on Shabbat in Tel Aviv! Bialik composed new songs for Shabbat to be sung at his new Oneg Shabbat meetings:
Bialik sought to put these ideas into practice through his Oneg Shabbat programs. In Tel Aviv, with its primarily secular atmosphere, many young people and adults had begun to spend their Saturdays at entertainment centers or on the beach. In an effort to counter this trend and infuse the Sabbath with Jewish content, Bialik invited the public to a weekly Saturday afternoon get-together that combined lectures, Torah study (in the broadest sense of the word), communal singing, cantorial music and refreshments. The lectures were on Bible, Haggadah, Talmud, Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, the history of the Jewish people, and more. These programs drew hundreds of people from all social sectors. In keeping with Bialik's plan, Oneg Shabbat societies soon sprung up in other parts of the country and even in the Diaspora. There were active groups, for example, in Jerusalem, Haifa, the kibbutzim and several European cities. (see the whole article here)
I challenged this philosophy on several accounts yesterday, and yet today, I would like to give the other side of the coin.
The shamefulness of persecution and exile is intense. In my post yesterday, I mentioned Titus' Arch. I stood in Rome last year looking at the huge edifice of Titus' arch and I was struck by a mix of disbelief and humiliation. Why disbelief? Because the gateway to ancient Rome was Titus' arch, built to celebrate the downfall of Jerusalem. Every person that entered the city saw it, passed under it, and that is the image that endures in Rome to this day; that and the Coloseum, which as every tour guide says, was built by Titus with the money ransacked from Jerusalem in 70 CE and built by Jewish slave labor (80,000 slaves!). Disbelief because anti-semitism is so inexplicable, so perplexing. Why should the great Roman empire with its global aspirations care about the ancient Judeans, the Jews? and how is it that this monument to our Temple still stands as a testimony to the most irrational hatred?
And humiliation. Because look! Here is testimony to our exile, our national calamity, our Hurban! I thought to myself, I would have to stand here and "cut keriya" (tear my clothes in a sign of mourning) were it not for Medinat Yisrael and our national revival. To see our Hurban on public display, our slavery and destruction in the centre stage of the city which is widely viewed as the crucible of government, to see our disgrace paraded in full view - that is the epitome of national disgrace and dishonour.
With Medinat Yisrael, the pendulum of history has (thank God) swung in the opposite direction. Rav Soloveitchik put it well in Kol Dodi Dofek:
... for the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking; it is not hefker!”Yes! Israel will stand up for and protect Jews all over the world; you cannot murder a Jew and expect to get away with it! Now there is an address, a source of dignity and pride. And furthermore, with the establishment of the State of Israel we end our ceaseless wandering; we have Israel as a homeland:
"...the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from a hostile country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors…Now that the era of divine self-concealment (hester panim) is over, Jews who have been uprooted from their homes can find lodging in the Holy Land"On Yom Hashoah I thank God that we have the protection and pride of the State of Israel. No - this is not all. As I said yesterday, Judaism is not just about mere persistence; but without survival and hope, we have nothing.
We have experienced the prophecy of Ezekiel's dry bones in the most literal way, and we have much for which to thank God and the visionaries and leaders of our modern State of Israel:
1 The LORD carried me and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones ... 3 And He said unto me: 'Son of man, can these bones live?' And I answered: 'O Lord GOD, You know.' 4 Then He said to me: …. 5. Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live….11 Then He said to me: 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost (avda tikvateinu); we are clean cut off. 12 Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. …. And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live… (ch.37)
... onwards towards Yom Haatzmaut!
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
And yet, every year on Yom Hashoah I watch the national ceremony at Yad Vashem on television as the survivors, surrounded by their beautiful grandchildren, light six torches, and I cry as I spend the day listening to survivors' testimony on the various TV and radio channels. This day, a sacred day of sorts, is an intense period of communing with our collective memory and also the memory of my own ancestors, my family in Poland and in Germany, who were murdered so brutally by the Nazis. It is my good fortune that my grandparents escaped Germany in February 1939 or else I would not be here today. Yom Hashoah is a powerful experience during which we engage with a whole host of aspects of the Shoah; the systematic murder and humiliation, the defiance, the dignity, survival, the memory, the religious implications, and so much more. To me it is a highly important day.
A TALE OF TWO SCULPTURES
The sole focus upon survival and strength eclipses this lofty vision. This was stated by one of my teachers, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits:
"…we must beware against breeding a Holocaust mentality of morose dependency amongst our people, especially our youth…Should we not replace negative by positive factors to vindicate our claim in survival? The slogan, "Never Again!", now so popular is a poor substitute for purposeful Jewish vitality. We exist not in order to prevent our own destruction but to advance … the ageless values which are our national raison d'etre" ("Religious Responses to the Holocaust: Retrospect and Prospect" L'eyla, 1988)
The Heroism of the Shoah is not measure merely by armed resistance. The heroism can be in areas of simple humanity, dignity and spirit. When a mother comforted and reassured her child in Auschwitz, that is heroism! When a Jew shared a piece of bread with another inmate in Theresienstadt, that was true heroism! When we read of Janusz Korzcak who lead his orphans to their deportation singing even though he might have saved his own life, that is true humanity, true heroism. When we read of Rabbis who led their communities in faith and halakha despite the adverse conditions, and Jews who retained their commitment to their Jewish faith and law despite adversity - that is true Heroism!
The Haredi community do not commemorate the Shoah at Yad Vashem, with readings and with a minute of silence. But teh Haredi community has a heightened sense of Shoah awareness. The mourn for the communities lost, for the righteous who were murdered. But how do they respond? They have rebuilt institutions - indeed Mir, Ponevezh, Brisk, Gur, Belz etc - are institutions in Eretz Yisrael that bear the names and legacy of their European forebears; they live with the desire to revive what was lost. Ponevezh has a verse
This is a different response, but an incredibly powerful one - have children, rebuild Torah institution, replace the Torah communities that were lost. I would argue that this group's response - statistics show they are the largest growth group in Jewry today - may do more for the Jewish people than the Holocaust museums and the memorials. For they are filled with a burning desire to live Judaism, to continue its legacy in the world. The Holocaust spurs them to intensify their commitment to Judaism. But they focus on Judaism itself; not on the Shoah. This is a very different perspective and it should raise questions about limiting the response of the Shoah to mere survival or Jewish strength.
The questions of what is the desirable response, what is the best mode of commemoration is far more complex, far wider than the Israeli official narrative of memorial. We must widen the messages; encourage Jews not merely to ensure our national survival and the eradication of violence and hate, but also to foster an understanding of how to live as Jews.
On this point, I will end with a story by Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni from his years as a teenager in a German labor camp. He studied Torah before the War, he got through teh Shoah inspired by Torah, and continued learning and teaching after the war. For him, Torah AND survival is the true response to the Nazis:
I passed by the Todt (German Guard) as he was eating his scheduled snack, his meal between meals. In characteristic German style, he ate at the same time every night and, what's more, he ate the same thing every night: a thinly sliced sandwich containing some greasy substance that stained the wrapping paper and made it transparent. He and his eating habits became as much a feature of the tunnel as the chila (wagons) and carrying the drills.
This time, however, our meeting was different. His sandwich was wrapped in a page of "Orach Chaim," a volume of the Shulchan Aruch… It was my ambition as a child to own a … Shulchan Aruch. Here, of all places, in the shadows of the tunnel, under the threatening gaze of the German, a page of the Shulchan Aruch, with fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.
Upon seeing this wrapper, I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard, without even realizing why; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this bletl, this page. For a while he didn't know what was happening; he thought I was suffering from epilepsy. He immediately put his hand to his revolver, the usual reaction to an unknown situation. But then he understood. This was, I explained to him, a page from a book I had studied at home. Please, I sobbed, give it to me as a souvenir. He gave me the bletl and I took it back to the camp.
On the Sundays we had off, we now had not only Oral Torah but Written Torah as well. The bletl became a visible symbol of a connection between the camp and the activities of Jews throughout history. It was not important what the topic was… The bletl became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time, more so even than to the phylacteries. It was the bletl, parts of which had to be deciphered because the grease made some letters illegible, that summoned our attention. Most of those who came to listen didn't understand the subject matter, but that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the bletl.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
When writing this "Omer blog" my intent was to provide something of a commentary, a text that could supplement and enrich the meaningful days which are the Omer. And so, naturally, from now until Yom Hashoah, this Thursday, my posts will turn towards the topic of the Holocaust and the manner in which we relate to this topic here in Israel and beyond. I will open with a piece by Elie Wiesel (A Jew Today pg. 192-195). More to follow in the upcoming days.
I remember two episodes One took place in a train carrying hundreds Jews to their death They were pressed together so that they could hardly move or breathe Suddenly an old rabbi exclaimed, "Today is Simhath Torah Have forgotten what Jews are ordered to do on Simhath Torah?" Somebody had managed to smuggle a small Sefer Torah aboard the train; he handed it to the rabbi And they, began to sing, to sway, since they could not dance, and they went on singing and celebrating the Torah, all the while knowing that every motion of the train was bringing them closer to their end
The second episode took place inside the kingdom of night. In one of the barracks several hundred Jews gathered to celebrate Simhath Torah. In the shadow of shadows? Yes - even there. On the threshold of the death chambers? Yes - even there. But since there was no Sefer Torah, how could they organize the traditional procession with the sacred scrolls? As they were trying to solve the problem, an old man - was he really old? the word had no meaning there - noticed a young boy - who was so old, so old - standing there looking on and dreaming. "Do you remember what you learn in heder?" asked the man. "Yes, I do," replied the boy. "Really?" said the man, "you really remember Sh'ma Yisrael?" "I remember much more," said the boy. "Sh'ma Yisrael is enough," said the man. And he lifted the boy, clasped him in his arms and began dancing with him - as though he were the Torah. And all joined in. They all sang and danced and cried. They wept, but they sang with fervor - never before had Jews celebrated Simhath Torah with such fervor.
For in our tradition, celebration of life is more important than mourning over the dead. When a wedding procession encounters a funeral procession in the street, the mourners must halt so as to allow the wedding party to proceed. Surely you know what respect we show our dead, but a wedding, symbol of life and renewal, symbol of promise too, takes precedence.
Our tradition' orders us to affirm life and proclaim hope—always Shabbat interrupts all mourning, being as it is the embodiment of man's hope and his capacity for joy.
In more general terms, Judaism teaches man to overcome despair. What is Jewish history if not an endless quarrel with God? Pascal phrased it differently "The history of the Jewish people," he said, "is but a long love affair with God." And as in every love affair, there are quarrels and reconciliations, more quarrels and more reconciliations. And yet neither God nor the Jews ever gave up on the other.
... We went on believing, hoping, invoking His name In the endless engagement with God, we proved to Him that we were more patient: than He, more compassionate too. In other words, we did not give up on Him either. For this is the essence of being Jewish: never to give up—never to yield to despair.
Faced with despair, the Jew has three options. He can choose resignation, total resignation - as some of us did one generation ago. Or he can seek refuge in self-delusion - as some individual Jews did. To them assimilation was an option, as was conversion. Yes, there are Jews who arrive at the conclusion that since Jewishness has forever been linked to suffering, they must give it up to protect themselves and their children
But then there is a third option—the most difficult but most beautiful of all. To face the human condition —and do so as a Jew.
...Those who emerged from that ordeal were the stronger for it They were the strongest Jews in history, and their strength, paradoxically, had its source in the Holocaust.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
My Rosh Yeshiva loved to quote the following Midrash, not found in classic midrashic collections:
Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, "Shema Yisrael."
Ben Nanas says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Shimon Ben Pazi says: We have found a more inclusive verse and it is, "The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening" (Shemot 29:39).
Rabbi Ploni stood up and said: The halakha is in accordance with Ben Pazi...
דרש רבי נהוראי: היתה בת ישראל עוברת בים, ובנה בידה, ובוכה, ופושטת ידה, ונוטלת תפוח או רמון מתוך הים, ונותנת לו, שנאמר (תהלים קו, ט) "ויוליכם בתהומות כמדבר", מה במדבר לא חסרו כלום אף בתהומות לא חסרו כלום
Rav Nehorai offered the following midrashic understanding: When walking through the sea, if a mother was carrying her child in her arms and he cried for food, she merely reached out her arm and plucked an apple or a pomegranate from the sea and gave it to him ... just as wanted for nothing in the wilderness, similarly in the depths of the sea, all was provided for them.
כיון שירדו לתוך הים היה מלא טיט שהיה עד עכשיו לח מן המים והיה בו כמין טיט שנאמר (חבקוק ג, טו) דרכת בים סוסיך חומר מים רבים והיה אומר ראובן לשמעון במצרים בטיט ובים טיט במצרים בחמר ובלבנים ובים חמר מים רבים הוי וימרו על ים
When they had plunged into the sea bed, they found it was full of clay, because it was still wet from the water, ... the tribe of Reuben said to the tribe of Simeon: In Egypt we had clay, and now, in the sea, once again we have clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now, in the sea, once again we have mortar and bricks. Hence: "But they were rebellious at the sea," even at the Red Sea. (Shemot Rabba 24: 1)
(With thanks to Baron Dasberg)
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Chol Hamoed in Israel has a unique quality.
My recollections of chol hamoed during my years living in the UK are of a rather pallid experience, which could range from a nuisance at worst, to a sort of sideline at best.
The mild nuisance would be Sukkot with no Sukka for lunch, or the inability to buy coffee at my regular cafe on Pesach. (Once at LSE, chabad put sukka up. It was 3 walls that surrounded a park bench right outside the main library, just about the most busy corner on campus. The front of the bench was completely open, fully exposed; just the sides of the bench and its back were enveloped by walls. It was like a clichéd joke: How many Orthodox Jews can fit on a park bench! ...exceedingly embarrassing!)
But really, far more problematic was that Chol Hamoed felt more "chol" than "moed," more ordinary than festive. My Dad went to work, I attended college, and the chag shrank to prayer-times and mealtimes. The pervasive feeling of the chag, as felt for example on Yomtov, was strikingly elusive.
Not so in Israel where the entire country is on holiday! Today's main headlines were the traffic jams caused by a whole nation on vacation. People hike on nature trails and greet strangers with "chag sameach" greetings; even the newscaster opens the day's news with "moadim lesimcha!" Here it feels more "moed" than "chol" as one cannot be but aware that these are festive days, one gains a sense of the nation as one hikes the country, drives the roads, and visits tourist sites along with throngs of others.
It is really special. It is genuinely a seven day festival.
Moreover, in ancient times, the three pilgrim festivals ("regalim") were celebrated en masse with all Israel. We gain an inkling of that "am yisrael" experience in Israel today.
Both Pesach and Sukkot begin with a day of YomTov followed by intermediate days, as they end with a YomTov day. It is as if we take an intense shot of the chag at the start, then continue by experiencing the chag at a more normal level of intensity over the duration of a single week, a basic building block of time, allowing the practices of the chag seep in, penetrate the psyche. Then, we emerge into the final Yomtov to simply bask joyfully in the energy that the chag has generated by the preceding days. (-Both on Sukkot and Pesach, the final day of chag has no particular unique practices and seems as if it is there to gather and absorb the riches that the festival have has created.)
May we use these days to joyfully experience these happy and holy days of Pesach to connect with the mitzvot and momentum of the chag as we anticipate the finale on שביעי של פסח.
Monday, April 06, 2015
The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b) records a disagreement; Rabbi Eliezer suggests that the world was created in the month of Tishrei (September) whereas Rabbi Yehoshua proposes that creation happened in the month of Nissan (April).
At first glance, we may propose that Rosh Hashanna is the New Year of the individual; Nissan the birth of the nation. But this will not suffice.
But what of Rabbi Yehoshua? The spring is also a natural point of creation. After the dormancy of winter, nature wakes up. We feel as if we are experiencing a new Eden-like creation as dead branches come alive with new flowers and nature renews itself, the winter rains having cleansed the world. Now creation starts again! It is a time of renewal, joy, rebirth (eg. see Sir Hashirim.)
And it would seem evident that many of the rituals and traditions of Pesach recall the temperament of the Yamim Noraim (days of awe). The purging of Hametz is akin to the purging of evil from our lives. Hametz has been compared to idolatry, the evil inclination, pride, and much else. As we search, dispose of and burn the Hametz, we are clearing out the extraneous from our homes, the areas of life in which the metaphoric dough has risen beyond our control. (see for instance, the kabbalistic prayer to be recited after the burning of the Hametz, printed in many haggadot.)
The eve of Pesach is a fast-day - "the Fast of the Firstborn"! This strange tradition, with obscure origin, views the night of Passover as an auspicious time of "who will live and who will die" assuming that even today, years after the Exodus, the firstborn are in some manner "saved" annually from the destruction of the plague of the Firstborn, and need to recognize their salvation.
On the first day of Pesach, a festive rather than a sombre day, the Hazzan dons a kittel (white robe) and prays for dew, invoking the Rosh Hashanna-Yom Kippur liturgy, as the community turn to God: לחיים ולא למוות - "For Life and not for Death."
At the Seder, just as at Neilah, we close with "לשנה הבאה בירושלים - Next year in Jerusalem!"
There is a palpable sense that behind Pesach is indeed an alternative "Rosh Hashanna". As the seasons turn we get a new lease on life, a new chance to burn our "Hametz", to get back to the basics - flour and water, the simplicity of matza - an opportunity for reassessment and recalibration as we enter the summer months.
The Torah reading for the 3rd day of Pesach (Ex. ch.13) deals with turning the Exodus experience into a "zikaron." It is one thing to experience the Exodus first-hand, but the Torah turns its attention very consciously to crafting a legacy of memory, of remembrance and commemoration. The Torah rolls out a whole range of commemorative acts: the annual 7-day "chag hamatzot," the sanctity of the firstborn (animal and human) which perpetuates the final plague, the mezuzah on the door reminiscent of the blood on the doorposts in Egypt, and the mitzvah of Tefillin - a sign on the hand and mind.
Judaism is an action-intensive religion. One Exodus, and yet a whole panoply of reminders and commemorative rituals. The medieval work, Sefer Hachinuch suggests that the intense behavioral engagement in meaningful and positive acts will drive an idea deep into one's sub-conscience, "for a person's heart is drawn after his/her actions."
Nothing exemplifies this more than Pesach. On Pesach we turn our kitchen upside down, we absolutely transform our diet. Through this fundamental lifestyle shift, the resonance of Pesach enters into our lives in a most profound way. Sometimes Judaism's demands are quite grueling (Pesach cleaning, Yom Kippur, the 3 weeks, sleeping in the Sukkah) and yet I have always been amazed at the power of Judaism to utilize this "virtual reality," thrusting us into a radically different environment for a week, using this technique to impress its messages upon us.That is why the Rabbis declared: "God wanted the best for Israel so he gave them numerous commands [mitzvot]" so that they occupy our thoughts constantly and become our ongoing occupation… For through good acts we are affected to become better. The Rabbis hinted to this when they said: "One with a mezuzah on the door, wearing fringes [tzitzit] and tefillin, will never sin" (menachot 43a) because these are constant mitzvot and they influence us all the time.
Let us enjoy Pesach and revel in the numerous traditions and rituals that bind us closer to Judaism's mission, reinforcing and deepening its message in a rich tapestry and weave of action and reflection.