Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Prayer for Hoshanna Rabba 5777: "Do not Hide Your Face from me!"

This evening is the last day that we will be saying Psalm 27, לדוד ה' אורי וישעי this year. As I recited the psalm and thought about its words, I suddenly sensed a particular aptness and poignancy to this prayer, a relevance specifically for Hoshanna Rabba. Let me share this thought with you.

לדוד ה' – Psalm 27 – is a Psalm which takes us on an intriguing and maybe perplexing emotional journey. Let me explain. The first half expresses Man’s security and confidence in God’s absolute protection:

The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread?
2When evil men assail me to devour my flesh—
it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall.
3Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear;
should war beset me, still would I be confident.

Moreover, Man is invited to God’s house, God’s Temple. On the one hand, man is safe there; on the other, he has a spiritual opportunity to encounter God’s presence and beauty.

4One thing I ask of the Lord, only that do I seek:
to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to frequent His temple.
5He will hide me in His shelter (Sukka) on an evil day,
grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
6Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout;
I sacrifice in His tent with shouts of joy (Terua), singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.

This is the first half of the Psalm. But suddenly, at this point the author of the Psalm experiences a bewildering loss of confidence, a sudden attack of insecurity:

7Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me.
8 In Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!”
O Lord, I seek Your face.
9Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger;
You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me,
O God, my deliverer.

Suddenly, bewilderingly, the author feels that God has left him; he seeks mercy, asks God not to hide his face, is frightened of God’s abandonment.

Everyone who studies this chapter asks themselves as to this perplexing and sudden transition from security to helplessness, from God’s presence to His absence, from Man’s trust in God’s nearness to the sense that God is distant.

As I ponder the past month – we started selichot exactly a month ago – I feel palpably the rhythm of this perek. We have spent a month in God’s presence, in His tent so to speak. We began with selichot, and then crowning God as king, standing before Him in Judgement, but also in communion as we recognized that “we are your people and you are our God”. And after the tense standing before God during the Days of Penitence, we have now expressed our security in God’s protection by dwelling for a week in the Sukka, literally “to live in the house of the Lord … He will hide me in His shelter (Sukka) … grant me the protection of His tent.”

And now it is about to end. After a month in God’s presence, we are approaching the close of these days, and we wonder how we will manage without the immediacy of all the mitzvoth that have set God before us during this month. We feel: “O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me!” As we turn our sights to the cold winter months we want God’s presence to continue with us.

And now Psalm 27 doesn’t seem dissonant. It seems the perfect prayer for Hoshanna Rabba! It expresses the emotions of this day so palpably.

And suddenly I thought: How lucky we are that on the very next day, on Sheminni Atzeret, we start reading the Torah. With the end of the chagim, God’s presence loses its immediacy, but we begin again to read His Torah. His wisdom and guidance are with us in the form of the חיי עולם which he has נטע בתוכנו. As we open Bereshit, we will seek new wisdom from God and the feeling of His presence by our study of Torah.

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Bible Comes Alive!

Archaeologists have recently unearthed a most remarkable find in the ancient city of Lachish, which was the second most important city (after Jerusalem). It is a discovery that allows us to really "see" a passuk in Sefer Melakhim.

In the gatehouse of the city, they discovered a room that contained an altar, in other words, a small temple. The altar had been deliberately smashed and ruined, and then, the room had been turned into a toilet. It seems that there was a direct attempt to desecrate the illicit temple by turning it into a bathroom. Since the finds date to the period of Hizkiyahu, it is likely that the desecration of the altar were perfomed by the men of King Hizkiyahu's in their purge of the idolatry that endured from the reign of his father, King Ahaz.

Here is concrete evidence of a practice that is recorded elsewhere in Sefer Melakhim. We read the following in the depiction of Jehu's purge of the Baal: .
"וַיֹּצִאוּ אֶת-מַצְּבוֹת בֵּית-הַבַּעַל, וַיִּשְׂרְפוּהָ. וַיִּתְּצוּ, אֵת מַצְּבַת הַבָּעַל; וַיִּתְּצוּ אֶת-בֵּית הַבַּעַל, וַיְשִׂמֻהוּ למחראות (לְמוֹצָאוֹת) עַד-הַיּוֹם. (מלכים ב', י', כ"ז).
The NJPS translates it:
"27 They destroyed the pillar of Baal, and they tore down the temple of Baal and turned it into latrines, as is still the case."

How do you desecrate a pagan altar? Turn it into a latrine! There could be no greater indignity!
Amazing when archaeology gives as a snapshot into a passuk, and the Bible springs to life!

[Going back to Lachish, it is fascinating that whereas the pagan culture placed an altar at the city gates, the Torah states that we should place judges at the gates - שופטים ושוטרים! God wants justice at our gates more than ritual sacrifice!]

Shimon Peres z"l

We are all saddened today at the passing of Shimon Peres z"l. A few thoughts:

1. It is an open secret that Shimon Peres gave Israel its nuclear program. For that, we owe him a debt every single day. He was a contentious figure in Israeli politics and not always loved, but his achievements ensure our survival. 

His yearning for peace was sincere, and driven by a deep belief that only peace would ensure Israel's future: עת מלחמה ועת שלום.

2. Late in life, he became a consensus figure in Israeli society. He skillfully restored the honor of the presidency after it was so badly tarnished by Katzav and Ezer Weitzman who were both marred by scandal. He made the presidency into an institution of national unity and international respect.

3. As we will see the entire world leadership gather in Jerusalem on Friday to honor this remarkable statesman (- so poignant for Erev Rosh Hashanna ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת -) we should be reminded how important and historic the State of Israel is in the long landscape of Jewish History, in that it places us on the world stage and has given Israel and the Jewish people global standing and respect. If we act "like a light into the nations", the world is watching. The potential is enormous. It feels almost like a prophetic vision. I view this as nothing less than a divine miracle after 1900 years of exile and national persecution and humiliation.

4. There are many lessons that we can learn from this man. Shimon Peres got up every morning ready to work. His sense of mission was incredible. He never stopped thinking, planning, and working tirelessly for Israel. To quote Peres: "Sometimes people ask me, ‘What is the greatest achievement you have reached in your lifetime or that you will reach in the future?’ So I reply that there was a great painter ... who was asked which picture was the most beautiful he had ever painted. [He] replied, ‘The picture I will paint tomorrow.’ That is also my answer."
I heard an interview on the radio when he said: "Why celebrate your birthday? Every day when you wake up is your birthday! You are born anew. You have work to do!"

Avri Gilad said that Simon Peres taught us the lesson of אל תשליחיני לעת זקנה - not to give in to old age; to remain active until the last, not to retire, always to keep trying, to keep growing.

This is a fitting message for Elul and the season of "Teshuva". Whatever you are, wherever you are in life, you can change yourself, shift course, you can transform reality. You just have to set goals, believe in your abilities, and work hard to make change happen.

יהי זכרו ברוך.


We view Peres as a public figure, but here is a very different take.

Galei Tzahal had a show today in which they asked the public to share stories about Peres. A a man just called in with a remarkable story.
This man knew of a family in his neighborhood who were extremely poor; no food, no heating.
The man posted on Facebook and asked friends to donate to help the needy family and offer some financial assistance.
Nobody responded.
He was associated with the central committee of the Labor Party and thought that maybe, if he called the office of President Peres to present the problem, they may find a way to help this unfortunate family.
The next day he got a call from Shimon Peres himself. (He says that at first he thought someone was playing a practical joke.)
Peres asked him how much money he needed to help the family. The man told him.
"I will pay it myself" said Shimon Peres, "but with one condition. That as long as I live, you tell nobody that I was the one who donated the money." A few days later, he got a personal cheque from Shimon Peres.
Today was the first time he could tell the story! 

I wonder how many stories of this kind there are?

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Siddur" - The Downside of "Order" in the Synagogue

The other day in Jerusalem, near the Ticho House, I stumbled across this interesting art installation. It attracted my eye because it looked like pews from shul, all stacked up.

In fact, that is precisely what it is. The piece is entitled "Siddur" which refers on the one hand to the prayer book, but also can mean "order" or "organization" or "arrangement".

The seats are ordered vertically, or as the artist Noa Shkedi would say, "hierarchically". The artist intends to critique, or to give pause for thought about the way our synagogue seating is organized and whether the communal order it instills also possible excludes or creates walls.

It is always nice to have a fixed place in shul, in fact the code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Arukh O"CH 90:19) instructs a person to sit in a fixed seat. Many explain this as motivated by a desire to minimize distraction. A fixed seat means that your environment is familiar and one can focus upon prayer rather than the comfort of the seat, or the person alongside you.

But we have all had the experience, not as a community member, but as a visitor, walking into an unfamiliar shul and being asked to leave a seat because it is someone's place. It isn't a great feeling. Also, when the "old-timers" or the "important" people have their fixed seat, one gains the feeling of an unwelcoming shul, a place that doesn't want to engage with newcomers. Sometimes, "familiarity" doesn't merely help concentration; it also means that the new or unfamiliar see a mass of people who know all the lines, who know one another, and, even if highly unintended, these visitors feel like outsiders.

For this reason, my shul in Alon Shevut has eschewed the idea of fixed places and if you want a particular seat, you better come early. No one is allowed to ask anyone else to leave a particular seat. And yet, as a "fixed" community we have far to go to ensure that everyone who moves into our neighbourhood is welcomed, every person who enters the shul feels recognized. It is a task that needs constant attention and work.

On the one hand, I found this art installation a little cynical. After all, one could see this order, this "siddur" as the beautiful pattern of a community - young and old, olim and sabras, different levels of observance - all sitting in similar, identical seats; all equal before God. There are ways that our synagogue seating can be seen as highly positive and powerful - מה טובו אוהליך יעקב.

And yet, I will allow this art piece to reinforce our sensitivity to how alienating our shuls can be, how they can frequently feel closed and exclusive.

A decade ago, I spent a few weeks in Chicago, at a special shul - Anshei Shalom Bnei Israel. The Rabbi at the time, Asher Lopatin, made it a practice to announce page numbers during each and every prayer service. There were even some regular members who found it off-putting; after all these announcements made it seem a little like a beginners service, and they wanted a well-oiled Orthodox minyan. Rabbi Lopatin persisted, and explained: "We always have new people visiting the shul. If this helps a single person to feel welcome, then it is worth it." It wasn't fun for the Rabbi, and some congregants disliked it, but it made a statement that the shul intended to be welcoming. And indeed that shul has welcomed and continues to open its doors to great numbers of people who would otherwise not have stepped into an Orthodox congregation.

Ironically, the source for a fixed seat during prayer is learned (Berachot 6b) from Avraham Avinu:

'R. Helbo, in the name of R. Huna, says: Whosoever has a fixed place for his prayer has the God of Abraham as his helper. And when he dies, people will say of him: "Where is the pious man, where is the humble man, one of the disciples of our father Abraham?" - How do we know that our father Abraham had a fixed place [for his prayer]? For it is written: "And Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood." (Gen 19:27) And 'standing' means nothing else but prayer.'

Abraham knew of the intensity of a fixed place of prayer but he also knew how to welcome guests. The Rabbis even suggest that Abraham left a prophetic encounter with God in order to attend to a group of wayfarers, people that he didn't even know. (He also did not know that they were angels.) Apparently Abraham knew how to balance the difficult dialectic between a "fixed place" and having a welcome, open environment.

Let us too try to ensure that our shuls and communities are open to visitors, guests and newcomers.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Podcast. The Spiritual Essence of Yom Haatzmaut

Every year, as Yom Hazikaron turns into Yom Haatzmaut, as sadness turns to jubilation, I give a sicha, a talk, to my students at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi. My aim is to communicate some of the spiritual significance of Yom Haatzmaut. We have become so accustomed to the existence of the State of Israel that sometimes we fail to comprehend and appreciate just what a miracle it is. My task is to help them appreciate just how thankful we should be, and to recognize the extraordinary miracle of Israel's birth, survival and flourishing.

If you are interested in some Yom Haatzmaut inspiration, here is the (audio) shiur from last year.

The sourcesheet is here

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Lessons from Rav Lichtenstein z"l - On the 1st Yahrzeit

Few people who have impacted my life more than Rav Lichtenstein z”l and yet I have found it exceedingly difficult to write anything about him, both at the time of his passing, and throughout the year . Why?

Approaching Rav Aharon was never easy. When I first went to speak to him as an eighteen-year-old, I was so nervous that I would sit on my hands while talking to him because they were shaking so intensely. And later in life, as I got to know and love him, the awe of Rav Lichtenstein never faded. What was it? It was that Rav Lichtenstein was so great: His vast knowledge, his high halakhic standards, his personal piety, his humility, his maximization of every moment, his intellect. It was this that made him so formidable. Rav Beni Lau said: “With Rav Aharon, there was no "I didn't intend that" He was all intention, fully mustered.” He listened to your question so intently, so carefully, that you had to be pedantic in your wording or else he would answer the wrong question. I always felt so inadequate in his presence, always worried that I was falling short, because, after all, who could rise to his immaculate standard. I know that Rav Aharon wouldn’t have said anything critical and he would have welcomed his talmidim approaching him more. But I was reticent. One of my deep regrets is that I never adequately expressed to him just how deeply and profoundly his teachings directed and enlightened my life and thanked him appropriately. I did not visit enough, consult enough.  This concern, that I would never adequately manage to capture his greatness in words, is what has prevented me from writing. 

Don’t get me wrong. This awe was not fear in a negative sense. I loved Rav Aharon deeply. Here was a man whose teachings and guidance had shaped my passions and ideals, my ideology and life course. Here was a man whose words were filled with such truth, such depth, such inspiration, such perspective and insight. I very much loved and respected him. In the last years of his life, I watched his physical and mental decline and I felt the pain and distress as if I was watching my own grandfather. I have never felt such a fusion of love and awe regarding another human being as I felt towards Rav Aharon.

As we approach his first Yahrzeit, I do wish to share some of what he meant to me, so here is a hesped that I gave at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi a few days after his passing, one year ago. In addition to giving a sense of Rav Lichtenstein’s unique persona, it was an attempt to draw out messages that impacted me, and that could be relevant for a Modern-Orthodox audience.

Here is the Hesped from one year ago:

Morai veRabbotai!

I am sure you have heard a great deal about Rav Lichtenstein in the past week. He was my Rosh Yeshiva. He was the primary leader of the Modern Orthodox world. He could hold forth on any topic with mastery of the Jewish and Secular sources in a comprehensive and lucid manner.

But what made him so formidable was not one particular accolade or another. If I may echo Rav Yehuda Brandes' hesped for Rav Lichtenstein, it was the fact that he fused qualities that are rarely found in a single person: The full gamut of Torah learning and Secular learning, Halakhic conservatism fused with enormous intellectual creativity; exceptional personal humility together with bold communal responsibility. For example, his open letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a time of war, offering moral rebuke to the State of Israel! He fused absolute immersion in the heights and breadth of learning, with a concern for the suffering of every single person. Let me again give you two examples of his interpersonal care and empathy. At the shiva yesterday, the former owner of the local makolet recalled how when he left Alon Shevut, Rav Aharon sat at the community "mesibat siyum" for an entire 2 and half hours. This was a man who wasted no time! His family said to him: “Why waste your time at a leaving party for the owner of the makolet?” and Rav Aharon responded: “I bought my chalot from him every Friday! How can I not show appreciation!” I will never forget the vigor with which he danced at every wedding of a talmid, at my wedding; and, in contrast, the tears he shed at the funeral of a woman, a wife of a dear talmid, who had succumbed to cancer in her prime. Rav Aharon  burst into heart-rending tears, as if that talmid were his own son. Other fusions that he embodied: He had full dedication to his institution, but also deep commitment to family; his deep spirituality and piety was twinned with absolute worldliness; he had enormously high standards for himself and his students, and yet seemingly total understanding and love when some failed to live up to his worldview. As has been famed, he never let boys carry his books, sometimes carrying fifteen large volumes into shiur. He ran or rushed - around the yeshiva campus so as not to waste a single moment. Rav Aharon encapsulated these astounding traits and achievements, that are commonly exclusive. For that reason, we viewed him as so formidable. That is why we would be loved him so much, revered him so much. We would quake when we went to speak with him.

At the levaye (funeral) a friend commented to me that he doesn't remember his own thinking, his independent thoughts, before he met Rav Lichtenstein. And I realized that this is my problem in probing Rav Aharon's contribution to me. His worldview - his concepts and drive - so deeply penetrated my own attitudes, priorities and religious sensibilities, that I too feel that many of the ideas I express, the religious instincts I have, are influenced by his thought. [Rav Moshe Taragin put it well when he compared this modus to a computer "processor"… we installed his operating system, or his computer processor within us. Such was his power and influence. It was a way of seeing the world and processing it.]

To illustrate this let me share the following. On Shabbat I looked for a dvar torah to say at the table from him. I found one, from seuda shelishit 1992, that I had written down on that Motzaei Shabbat. (We would carefully note his methodical sichot (talks), committing to memory the analysis, the mekorot and occasionally, the accompanying stories or literature quotes and write them down later.) I read the sicha and I was astounded. I didn’t recall the specific sicha at all, but the message, the driving principle - this is a concept I have communicated to my students tens of times. I don’t know - 40? 50? 60 times? And I had no clue I got it from Rav Aharon. His ideas are seeded into my own religious worldview, and deeper than a worldview, into my religious sensibilities. That is what it means  עשה לך רב, and that is the only way that I may explain the deep emotional impact his passing has made upon me.

What was this mode of thinking? I will relate to just three ideas. First, I would point to, in his phrase, "the complexity of experience." Everything is to be examined from one side and then the other, in reference to the classic sources, in reference to its contemporary impact, deeply, comprehensively. Nothing is simple; always complex. A full evaluation needs to be made. But this never led Rav Aharon to paralysis. After that stage, a decision is made, a course, a path, that is informed and sensitized by these conflicting concerns. This generates a richness, a depth, a way of thinking about every idea. This approach permeates every article, every speech. It was his derekh ha-limmud.  after you sat with Rav Aharon, you can never think simplistically again.

In my שנה ב he delivered a series of lectures. He told us that he planned to deliver a comprehensive hashkafa (philosophy of life.) Concentric circles: First  - Humanity as a whole, then Judaism, then the Yeshiva world, Hesder, and last, Yeshivat Har Etzion. Several of these lectures were written up in the volume “By His Light”. I highly recommend that every one of you purchase the book and read it bechavruta cover to cover.

I want to share two critical ideas from this book, ideas that I heard in those lectures from Rav Aharon z"l, concepts that affected me in a most profound and transformative way:

The first idea begins with comments of the Rambam:

צריך האדם שיכוון לבו וכל מעשיו כולם לידע את השם ברוך הוא בלבד ויהיה שבתו וקומו ודבורו הכל לעומת זה הדבר ...ואפילו בשעה שהוא ישן אם ישן לדעת כדי שתנוח דעתו עליו וינוח גופו כדי שלא יחלה ולא יוכל לעבוד את ה' והוא חולה נמצאת שינה שלו עבודה למקום ברוך הוא ועל ענין זה צוו חכמים ואמרו וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים והוא שאמר שלמה בחכמתו בכל דרכיך דעהו והוא יישר אורחותיך.

A person must direct every single one of his deeds solely towards attaining knowledge of God. His sitting down, his standing up, and his speech should all be directed toward this goal. . . Even when he sleeps, if he sleeps with the intention of resting his mind and body so that he does not become sick—for he is unable to serve the Lord when he is sick—his sleep shall become a service of God. Concerning this, Chazal commanded (Avot 2:12), “Let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.” That is what Shlomo said in his wisdom (Mishlei 3:6): “In all your ways know Him, and He will make your paths straight.” (Hilkhot De’ot 3:2-3)

Rav Lichtenstein spoke about this principle and applied it to several areas including our professional life:

In effect, it tells you that when you are outside the immediate area of Torah, avoda and gemilut chasadim, when you are outside the beit midrash and the synagogue, you are not necessarily beyond the purview of avodat Hashem. You can be an oved Hashem in the field of business or in any other profession—“in all your ways.”

…no area of life, no area of endeavor should be divorced from avodat Hashem. There is nothing neutral. Whatever a person does, wherever he is, he can strive to structure his life so that it is ultimately geared to being an oved Hashem (though he may not be totally conscious of this at every point).

And Rav Lichtenstein encouraged us to see this potential for Avodat Hashem within everything we did: Work, leisure, and every human pursuit. I quote again from Rav Aharon:
The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports … real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. If you see someone on the basketball court who wants only to shoot and score, and defense means nothing to him, this is not simply disturbing to another basketball player, but is morally repugnant.
I know people for whom this changed their life. A close associate of mine abandoned his place in business school and went to become a medical practitioner. He wanted to rise to Rav Aharon's challenge and to spend every moment of his professional life in the mitzvah of healing people: v’rappo y’rapp-e – rather than the potentially corrosive pursuit of wealth. We could not remain apathetic to this challenge. It entered our psyche and altered our perspective.

A second theme may be seen in the 3rd chapter of the book, where Rav Lichtenstein addresses the theme of mitzvah:
We live in a world wherein the ideal of self-fulfillment is taken for granted…To many, there is perhaps no other way of seeing things, and they would be surprised that this goal is even being questioned. But surely, Judaism perceives human existence differently: “Vayetzav Hashem Elokim al ha-adam.” Our perception is that man or woman is fundamentally a being who is commanded, who is called, upon whom demands are made.
Rav Aharon gave a new dimension to the understanding of Mitzva. It was not merely a “good act”, and not even a “command” or an “obligation”. At one level, Rav Aharon saw the concept of mitzvah, and that status of ourselves as a "metzuve" as a direct connection with God:

The concept of mitzva presupposes an encounter between someone who issues a command and someone who receives it. This is one sense of the term mitzva: the act and the experience of God issuing the command and man absorbing it.
But beyond that, the stance of being locked into a relationship with the Ribbono shel Olam entails a limitation on our choice:
One shops in a department store precisely in response to one’s own needs and desires. It is part of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment. But one cannot shop around in God’s world. Either one understands what it means to accept the discipline of Avodat Hashem or one doesn’t. Either one is called and commanded—in which case you do not pick and choose among the commands, because if you pick and choose they are no longer commands
This deep sense of mitzvah made a remarkable shift in my consciousness. Many of us were brought up with a loose notion of Judaism as lifestyle. But Rav Aharon was shifting the stakes here. He was telling us that we must see ourselves as a "mutzuve" – a commanded being.

And yet, Rav Aharon was not interested in seeing people who would feel wrenched from self-fulfillment. Again, his humanity was astounding. The way he danced at our weddings communicated that he genuinely shared in our joy. But he encouraged us to align our sight with God's expectations and anticipations. He would quote Robert Frost:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

Vocation – our desires and interests – should ideally coalesce with avocation – the dvar Hashem.

Now I have simplified these themes. Read the articles; they are nuanced, they are powerful. For me, these themes affected my life.

The notion that "yes" I can engage in any human endeavor and be considered an Oved Hashem, a fully-fledged Jew, a lechatchila Jew, but that this undertaking can only be made if one is impressed with our role as a "metzuve" as a sense of answering a divine call, this sensibility, this constant awareness, this sense of mission was writ large in everything Rav Aharon said and did.

Rav Gigi said beautifully in his hesped that there are many people who saw Rav Lichtenstein as giving heterim for things. He gave a "heter" to study secular disciplines, he gave a "heter" for women's Torah study, he gave a "heter" for Hesder yeshiva and army service – But all these for Rav Lichtenstein, as with everything in his life, were not a compromise, but an ideal - "lechatchila!" Rav Lichtenstein saw these things not as a heter but as a "chiyuv" . The man was driven by a sense of divine mission in every walk of life. Secular study was a manner in which to appreciate the world – the mind, society, people – in a richer and more powerful way so that one could do Gods work more sensitively, in a richer and more profound way. Hesder was the ultimate Hessed, the ultimate obligation of self-protection. Women's Torah study, as his daughter Esti Rosenberg, head of Midreshet Migdal Oz said to me at the shiva, was not that Rav Aharon was a feminist. He wasn't a Feminist in the classic/modern sense of the word. But, for Rav Aharon, "learning Torah, knowing Torah was as elementary as breathing" (her words). Rav Aharon could not imagine a life, an experience of living, without the presence of the divine, and the divine call upon all of us. We are all the “metzuve”! We all live life as commanded beings. And this is what he wrote with regards to women's Torah study:
“The woman who is to serve as the educator of the coming generation needs something to pass on, and therefore she needs the knowledge as well as a personal commitment to encourage the transmission of tradition. For this purpose it is desirable that the learning be intensified, because in this way she deepens her own commitment, her sense of responsibility. When something is well learned, it creates personal commitment. There are things that can be known in a general way, but they are not felt existentially, and therefore they do not penetrate one’s consciousness. … Therefore, the study of Torah She’b’al Peh must be intensified.”
For Rav Lichtenstein life was one big mission. He would quote John Milton's desire to be: "As ever in my great taskmaster's eye." Rav Lichtenstein breathed that line, and he breathed it into us.

Let these teachings inspire us. We cannot become Rav Lichtenstein, but we can learn from his teachings and writings, and use his words to become better human beings, better Ovdei Hashem.

תהא נשמתו של רבנו צרורה בצרור החיים.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

A Yom Hashoah Prayer Drama

Most days, davening is a mundane affair, a routine non-event. But today's tefilla was filled with drama. Let me explain.

I went to shul today for Shacharit, like any other day. But today, Yom Hashoah it felt wrong, dislocated, at variance with reality.

I asked myself, I felt: How are we not saying Tachanun today?
On Yom Hashoah, how can we not say:
הַבֵּט מִשָּׁמַיִם וּרְאֵה כִּי הָיִינוּ לַעַג וָקֶלֶס בַּגּויִם. נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ כַּצּאן לַטֶּבַח יוּבָל. לַהֲרוג וּלְאַבֵּד וּלְמַכָּה וּלְחֶרְפָּה
וּבְכָל זאת שִׁמְךָ לא שָׁכָחְנוּ. נָא אַל תִּשְׁכָּחֵנוּ.
This morning I stood in shul and felt I needed those words.
I needed:
יהי רצון מלפני אבינו שבשמים . לרחם עלינו ועל פליטתנו ולמנוע משחית ומגפה מעלינו ומעל כל עמו בית ישראל . ונאמר אמן
So it is Nissan and we don't say tachanun, but today the entire public space, the air we breath, is filled with the Shoah, my thoughts and emotions are Shoah, today I wake up and think Shoah. It feels wrong.

Yesterday a new student joined my class.
I asked him, as two frum men might, "Where do you daven?"
He replied: "I daven ביחידות (alone) unless I have to say kaddish."
so I asked him why he davens alone.
His reply: "How can I say the siddur. It is not true. We say ותוליכינו קוממיות לארצינו and שתעלינו בשמחה לארצינו and we are already here! It is like a man whose wife left him, and then she comes back and they renew their relationship, but all he can say to her is :"Please come back! I love you.. please return to me!" I cannot  say those words to God. It is so false, so ungrateful. So I say my own prayers."

I must admit, this thought crosses my mind frequently on chag, on the Yamim Noraim, every day. So much of our prayer seems כפוי טובה ungrateful for the divine blessings that God has showered upon our generation. The blessings of freedom, of safety, of independence, of Jewish pride, of Eretz Yisrael, of Kibbuts Galuyot. How do I request הַרְאֵנוּ אות לְטובָה when there are plentiful signs?
How do I get up on a Monday and Thursday and say the same Tachanun that was recited in the shtetl in 1882 or in 1942, bemoaning the disgrace and humiliation of the Jewish people, when we are possibly the proudest generation in 2000 years?
A friend of mine adjusts benching, saying: ותוליכינו קוממיות בארצינו and not לארצינו because, after all, we ARE here!

So, I discussed this sentiment with my son. He responded that this is a shallow approach: "Even if we are in the midst of a positive process, we are merely at the inception of the "tikkun" we need to perform religiously, in terms of Jewish unity etc. We are nowhere near!"
He is correct. We have far to go on every scale. As a nation, we are deeply divided. We certainly fall short of our collective ethical and religious aspirations (as articulated by our prophetic heritage). We have much to do until we become the אור לגויים that we need to be. The majority of the Jewish people is not in Eretz Yisrael and overseas, assimilation is rampant. Regionally, Israel is distant from the Peace for which we hope and pray.

And still, how can we utter lies in Tefilla?

How dare we not recognize the critical shift in the global status of Jewry in an era of the State of Israel, when Jews around the world live in freedom and respect?

In the meantime, there are moments in which I am left with a huge dissonance between my prayerbook and myself. There are moments when Tachanun is in stark focus like today, Yom Hashoah. There are days when it is terribly dislocated.

So, I thought, maybe the only solution is for me, personally to be more dynamic, more pliable, more engaged and active in my prayer experience. To rely on my emotions more and the siddur less. To include certain things and to omit others, not permanently, but on an ad-hoc basis.

Or maybe, every tefilla any day, has a major note and a minor note. The question is not with the prayerbook but with me! How do I bring MYSELF to prayer

And so, I spent the morning mulling this and writing the first part of this post, feeling that the siddur was quite inadequate.

But then, I went to daven Mincha.
And somehow, probably because of the thinking I had done in the morning, I resolved to make it a "Yom Hashoah" mincha, to pour in special content, to really connect.

Surprisingly, Mincha was "real". I was able to genuinely talk to God.

And so, I am sharing some of my thoughts/kavanot (in very telegraphic form) that came to me as I recited the שמונה עשרה:

ראה בענינו - God see the suffering of your people, see the bitter suffering of the Holocaust, the crematoria, the gas chambers, the cattle trucks, the starvation, the death marches, the intimidation, the cruelty and torture ... The indescribable horrors .... and גאלינו make sure this never happens again! redeem us ... for ever!

רפאינו - Heal the survivors. Heal the children of survivors. Heal our nation. Close our divisions. As nature closes a wound, and broken  flesh heals and becomes one again. God, give us unity.

ברך עלינו bless this year. No war. No terror, no Gaza. Bless us. ואת כל מיני תבואתה - Just 70 years ago people foraged for food and could not find it. People died of starvation. Look at the plenty we have to day! We are so blessed! 

תקע בשופר גדול ... לקבץ גלויותינו   - A mere 70 years ago, Jews wandered the globe, homeless, with no place to take them in. Now we have a home. Jews have returned to Israel - over 6 million of us. How would we have managed without Israel after the Holocaust? How would world Jewry have raised its head of not for the pride of the State of Israel? There is more to do! Bring world Jewry home to Israel. Let us build our Jewish state together.

השיבה שופטינו - the force of Law. The Nazi regime began by destroying law, making evil, racist laws. But we must create a society of lawfulness. A law that stems violence and harm, punishing the guilty and guarding the innocent, a law that protects the weak, that ensures equality, that excoriates racism and discrimination, that protects free speech, that protects religion, that ensures our morality. And we must protect our judges and the importance of law  אלמלא מוראו איש את ראהו חיים בלעו

בא"ה מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט - How did You - השופט כל הארץ allow such evil, injustice, barbarity? Hashem. Please reinstate your status as מלך אוהב צדקה ומשפט.

ולמלשינים - In the Shoah, people who were informants led to the death of so many. Oh! the power of language to kill! And now, today, hate-speech abounds, evil talk, evil intent. Betrayal, antisemitism. God! Please fight that hate! Uproot and destroy it מהרה תעקר ותמגר ותכניע במהרה בימינו.

על הצדיקים ועל החסידים - The saints: the mothers who went to their deaths comforting their children, the rabbis who led their faithful despite the hardships, the people who prayed daily in the Camps and Ghettos, the people who kept human dignity, who shared their food, who risked their lives. What faith they showed! What love of God and Man despite the depravity all around.. ותן שכר טוב לכל הבוטחים בשמך באמת ושים חלקינו עמהם - these are the holiest of the holy. And those who lost faith. That was also אמת They could not lie about God after what their eyes had witnessed.

ולירושלים עירך - One walks out of Yad Vashem into bustling Jerusalem! Who would imagined that איכה ישבה בדד is now העיר רבתי עם - Amazing! The phoenix from the ashes. ובנה אותה בקרוב...בנין עולם ... we have further to go. We are just beginning.

את צמח דוד - God. we thank you for Jewish government, for independence. For the pride of having a nation State. So critical after the Shoah. As Ruby Rivlin said last night; Israel will never leave Jews abandoned. דם יהודי אינו הפקר

שמע קולינו ... self explanatory

רצה ה' אלוקינו את עמך ישראל - God! Please love your people Israel. Please never reject us the way you did between 1939 and 1945. ותפילתם - All those prayers and tears that were offered during those years by faithful devout Jews. Where did they go? תָּשִׂים דִּמְעוֹתֵינוּ בְּנֹאדְךָ לִהְיוֹת. וְתַצִּילֵנוּ מִכָּל גְּזֵרוֹת אַכְזָרִיּוֹת.

 מודים אנחנו לך - we have so much to be thankful for. For our families, our wives and children, our parents, peace and prosperity .... (and please ...keep going... count your blessings!) ועל כולם יתברך ויתרומם

שים שלום - Amen!!
עלינו ועל כל ישראל עמך
ברכינו אבינו באור פניך

And so ... as the afternoon progresses, tefilla comes into focus. The prayerbook regains relevance. In fact, it seems perfectly tuned to the spirit of the day!

Sometimes prayer comes to us. At others we have to create the prayer.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Letter from Alon Shevut ...

People have asked me how it is living in Alon Shevut at the current time. The answer, in short, is… it's complicated.

On the one hand, there is pain, tension, some fear and much frustration.

Let's start with the pain. Last week, a beloved friend and community member, Yaakov Don z"l, was murdered just outside the gates of our Yishuv. (In the same attack, 18 year old Ezra Schwartz z"l was killed.)

The entire community of Alon Shevut has been thrust into deep mourning. Yaakov was an incredible dynamo of warmth and positive energy in the community and a dear friend to many. (I have written more about him here.) Many of our children are friendly with his children, or were inspired by his teaching and leadership in one of our local schools. Yaakov's terrible murder has brought the recent wave of terrorism home to us in a most immediate manner - into our hearts and souls - emotionally, viscerally, as an ever-present consciousness.

Tension - as the roads and sidewalks are simply unsafe. The violence, knife and car attacks started in Jerusalem some weeks ago, but now, Gush Etzion Junction, not 3 minutes from my house, has the unsavory status as the most dangerous spot in Israel, with over 10 attacks in the past month and 4 people killed just this week.  If Alon Shevut wasn't "famous" before, for its hitchhiking station nearby from which the "three boys" were abducted and murdered in the summer of 2014; now - with almost daily attacks - we feel vulnerable, tense, even fearful for our safety and that of our loved ones. After the 3 boys were abducted last year, we instructed our children not to hitchhike, but now after our friend Yaakov was murdered in a drive-by terrorist shooting, what shall we say to our children and spouses? Not to drive to work? Not to cross the road?  

And here comes some of the frustration, because prior to this, Gush Etzion was perceived, by its residents and by others, as a place of moderation and tolerance. Our local supermarket, Rami Levy, was a paragon of Arab-Jewish coexistence with Arabs and Jews shopping side by side, smiling at one another as we queued at the checkout, wishing each other a "Ramadan Karim!" and a "Shanna Tova!" Business was expanding, and the community was looking forward to the opening of a new shopping mall, for Arabs and Jews alike, a further step to normalization in the district. Gush Etzion's key rabbinic figures – Rabbis Amital, Lichtenstein and Riskin - were political moderates; its highly-educated population represents a more tolerant and open model than the classic "settler" stereotype. Gush Etzion was a pastoral, rural area in which our kids would walk, guitar in hand to swim in the local spring, as Jewish joggers and bikers would ride in-between Arab farmed vineyards in their weekend exercise. Our boutique winery, bakeries, restaurants and beauty spots had become increasingly attractive as tourist venues.

But now it feels as if this has all radically changed. Now, Gush Etzion Junction looks like a fortified army camp with security barriers and close-circuit cameras in every direction, a military watchtower and over 20 infantry soldiers in full battle gear keeping us safe.
Soldiers at Gush Etzion Junction
The Arabs are not shopping at the local supermarket. And the prospect of any co-existence seems elusive, and maybe completely impossible. In order to protect my children as they take an 8 minute walk to school, they pass at least four points at which armed guards are stationed. This is what we have to do to be safe; but it is a steep price to pay.

And we wonder - will it all return to normal after this wave of violence, or is our neighbourhood forever changed?

But in contrast to all this, the events surrounding Yaakov Don's murder has exposed real dignity and beauty, strength and determination, and yes – hope!

Mosaic in Yaakov's memory
Let me share a little about what went on in Alon Shevut this past week.

From the moment that we received the terrible news of Yaakov's murder, the entire community sprang into action in the most remarkable of ways. That weekend was supposed to be "Shabbat Irgun," an annual celebration of Bnei Akiva, the local youth movement. It is the crescendo of a month of frenzied youth activity, and that Thursday night had been earmarked as the annual "White-Night" as the kids would stay up through the night having fun and putting the finishing touches to their plays, presentations and the like.

At 6pm we heard the awful news, and celebration turned to mourning. At 8pm, the kids – over 300 of them from age 9 to 18 – gathered in the local youth center. The recited Psalms, they cried, they sang slow songs of yearning and sorrow, they divided into discussion groups to voice their fears and sadness. Parents guided some of the events behind the scenes, but in truth, the youth demonstrated such maturity, such greatness of spirit in absorbing the shock as they took comfort, in prayer, tears, and togetherness.

Some of the youth proceeded to the site of the murder, setting up a memorial stone and lighting candles. Some spent the night in a mosaic studio, making an incredible mosaic of a verse that encapsulates the sorrow over the death of Yaakov (Jacob) as well as their determination to continue: God will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. (Isaiah 14:1).

The circle of song
Friday was the funeral. Thousands came. The celebratory youth Shabbat was postponed. However, 24 hours later, after Shabbat, the entire community gathered in our basketball court. It started with a small circle of youth singing songs from the Rosh Hashanna liturgy: "Hamol" – Have mercy of Your creations, "Ochila La-el" – I plead to God, "Rahem" – Have mercy upon Israel Your nation… on Jerusalem your holy city; "Hassoph" - … the days are long and there is no end to the days of evil; and other such songs. The circle widened and widened, until it filled the entire stadium. An entire community of children, surrounded by their parents, arm in arm, grieving together, singing together; it was a beautiful moment of faith and spirit.

After the songs, we proceeded to march to the Gush Etzion Junction with flags and song. What were we saying? I don't know!   - That we are here, that this is our home, that we will overcome! We stood together, sang Hatikva, Ani Maamin and returned home as a community - united.
A new parochet for the Bnei Akiva snif, Inscribed in Yaakov's memory,,, a reference to Yaakov and Torah (and Shevet Morasha) "The Inheritance of the Community of Yaakov"

The entire week of the shiva has seen the community rally around the Don family - the youth with their friends, the adults providing an endless supply of food, cleaning, and assistance of every kind . The house could barely contain the size of the minyanim, the endless flow of friends, neighbours, students, politicians who came to greet and console the family.

The violence has spurred neighbours and local people into remarkable activity. One woman organized a rally of several hundred mothers, demanding safety on our roads. On Thursday morning, as the Shiva came to an end, in a gesture of commemoration and defiance, "Derekh Avot" - the school in which Yaakov Don worked, held their morning prayers at Gush Etzion Junction and then marched and danced the kilometer back to their school.

The security forces that have flowed into the area to provide security and protection, have been met by droves of people in Efrat and beyond, families who have barbecued for the troops, offered food, laundry and showers. I encountered two soldiers yesterday in the evening cold. I offered to buy them a coffee from the local café. They replied: "We've eaten far too much today; people have been overwhelming in their generosity." The kindness and strength of the wider Gush Etzion community has revealed beauty and resilience, friendship, love and determination to continue.

And life continues... Alon Shevut celebrated two weddings this week as its children build their own homes! Next week, "Shabbat Ha-Irgun" will be celebrated in the Yishuv in the traditional manner.

I have yet to hear one person express a sentiment of "Death to Arabs" or a call for revenge. I have heard words of determination to continue, despite the violence, to develop our communities and institutions so that Gush Etzion can continue to thrive. I have heard people speak of the Jewish roots here in this region, with a Jewish presence that extends to Temple times. I have heard people recall Gush Etzion of 1948, four small settlements, that were overrun and destroyed by Jordanian troops on the eve of Israeli independence, many of the residents massacred, and the years of yearning to return, eventually realized in the Jewish restoration of the region following the Six Day War by a small, resolute group of idealistic pioneers. Today, Gush Etzion numbers over 50,000 people living, working and studying here. Despite the violence, we have the privilege to live in a beautiful region of our national homeland. Our educational institutions are among the finest  in Israel. Our children are proud of their home, despite the price it sometimes demands.  We are truly blessed.

One year ago, a Palestinian killed a young woman, Dalia Lemkus z"l, by ramming his car into a local bus stop. Our children decided that the best response would be to create a human chain,
an act of hope and defiance, to express that they embraced life; not death. Our enemies seek to kill and we embrace life; they destroy and we build. We vow that our enemies cannot deter us from building our special communities in this historic place.

This is the source of our hope.