Sunday, July 30, 2006

A Wonderful Shabbat Story

Many of you have heard about the efforts of our dear friends, the Mirivis's in Sde Ilan, as they assist the Tzfat community. They, in comjunction with kibbutz Lavi, have been organising hundreds of meals for the Tzfat community. Families in Tzfat, Naharia etc. who have not left their homes are frequently the elderly and poor who have few means. In those cities they have no public transport to get to the shuk, the pharmacy is closed, and the local makolet is too. They have no money because the bank is closed as well, and the ATM is empty.

Here is a great pre-Shabbat story.

Thursday night, at 9:00 pm Elisheva received a phone call from the Breslav community in Tzfat.

"We have six hundred mouths to feed for Shabbat. Is there any way that you can help us?"

Well, Thursday night at 9:00 p.m. is not the earliest time to get organised, and Elisheva had already sent all the food out. What was she going to do? Just as she began to collect her thoughts, the phone rang once again.

"Hello, this is Radio X," said the broadcaster, "we have heard that Rabbanit Elisheva is doing wonderful work in Tzfat and we wanted to interview her about it."

So in five minutes Elisheva was "on air" asking whether anybody could donate money for the Breslav community this Shabbat!

And one hour later, she had 22,000 shekel to pay for it all.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Spirit of the IDF

First, I just love this campaign from Elite and Ha'aretz to send sweets and chocolate to our soldiers. Spend a moment filling it out!

Second, this Haaretz op-ed inspired me. (I have been a little upset by Haaretz over this war... even in the midst of battle, many of their journalists write as if taking the enemy stance. Frankly, I find it nauseating. Even more than the views offered, it is the distant stance, the snooty, know-it-all tone, the passifism and always seeing things from the other side. There is a time for criticism, and a time for Unity. Most of the country realises that this is a time for support. whereas many of their pieces have crossed the line, this one was very different.)

'Those who cannot protect their freedom do not deserve it'
By Yair Ettinger

Shortly before midnight, the soldiers of the Golani Brigade's 13th Battalion, Company A gathered a few meters from the Lebanese border. In a few minutes, they were due to cross the border and join the battle, like their comrades in 51st Battalion, who fought in Bint Jbail on Wednesday and sustained fatalities.

"It's our turn now," said Captain Ori Lavie. "It's our turn to protect the border. And we'll carry out any mission we need to, against any force, in the best way possible. If we don't, we have no right to exist."

Excited and armed from head to toe, the young soldiers listened, hanging onto every word he uttered.

"We will not lose this war," said Lavie. "We did not start it, but it's our duty to protect the Jewish nation and see to it that the residents of Metula and Haifa can live in peace. If we don't do it, no one will. We waited 2,000 years for our own state, and we won't fold because a group of terrorists think that they can scare us."

"Someone who cannot protect his freedom does not deserve it," he continued. "When missiles and rockets land on all the northern cities and reach Haifa, and when two of our soldiers have been kidnapped and ten have been killed and dozens have been wounded - this is no time to talk, it's time to fight. From the moment we cross the border, you must be super alert, super sharp. We are threatened from every side. Each of you is responsible for his comrades."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Chodesh Tov!

Rosh Chodesh is a happy day -
(וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם (במדבר פרק י פסוק י

But also a solemn one, as we say in Mussaf: ראשי חדשים לעמך נתת זמן כפרה לכל תולדותם
based on the passk:
( וּשְׂעִיר עִזִּים אֶחָד לְחַטָּאת לַה' (במדבר פרק כח:טו

In this regard it mirrors Rosh Hashanna which is a fusion of celbration and solemnity, feasting and forgiveness. Rosh Chodesh is seen as a meeting point with God. To that end it is happy, but also generates feelings of trepidation, inadequacy, and a call to self-betterment and atonement.
In the current war situation, may we merit the fufillment of these verses. May God remember us and save us:

במדבר פרק י
(ט) וְכִי תָבֹאוּ מִלְחָמָה בְּאַרְצְכֶם עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרוֹת וְנִזְכַּרְתֶּם לִפְנֵי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְנוֹשַׁעְתֶּם מֵאֹיְבֵיכֶם:
(י) וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֱלֹהֵיכֶם: פ
9 And when ye go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresseth you, then ye shall sound an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies. 10 Also in the day of your gladness, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, ye shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your God: I am the LORD your God.'

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shabbat Chazon

Shabbat Chazon
Sedom, Amora, and Jerusalem.

Our Haftara this week is rather frightening. It so embodies the gloom and foreboding of the lead-up to Tisha B'av that our Shabbat - Shabbat Chazon - is named after its opening phrase: "Chazon Yishayahu."

What is the story of our Haftara? In short, Yishayahu in his opening chapter looks around First Temple Yerushalayim. What does he see there? What impresses him? - A corrupt Judiciary, a culture of bribery and perjury. He sees widespread abuse of the lower classes, the defenceless; he witnesses murder, he experiences a criminal government. And at the same time, this is a society that puts on a front of religious devotion. The people, despite their degenerate society still visit the Temple, sacrifice, pray. Yishayahu tells them that destruction is on its way, and that "your land shall become desolate, your cities wasted" unless Jerusalem changes its ways, transforming itself to a society of law, justice and compassion: "tzedek umishpat." Read the perek! It is a monumental socio-religious commentary that has so much to teach us, even 2800 years on!

One of the phrases that Yishayahu uses, one of the epithets with which he describes the depravity of the people, is to call them "Officiaries of Sedom ... nation of Amora." (v.10) This infamous title echoes an earlier phrase that foresees the destruction of the land as severe as the desolation of Sedom and Amora (v.9).

What is the comparison that is being made here between Jerusalem and Sedom and Amora? In what way are the two paired?


At first glance, it is all obvious. I assume that we can all recall the circumstances in which Sedom was destroyed. Genesis Chapter 19. Two angels posing as wayfarers enter the city of Sedom. They are offered hospitality by our hero, Lot. However no sooner have they had a meal and settled down for the night do the entire city encircle the house in order to lynch the guests. The text seems to say that the crowd would like to take the guests and abuse them sexually. The guests/angels use their angelic powers to extricate both themselves and Lot's immediate relatives. But this story gives us a glimpse at the culture of Sedom, and acts to justify the destruction of the city.

What is the sin of Sedom? At first glance we might simply say that it is a lack of hospitality[1]. This is a place that is closed to strangers.

But it goes deeper than that. This is not simply a place that has a problem with foreigners. If anything, we should say that the town does not seek to share anything of itself with outsiders. Rather, it demands that strangers be used to satisfy the twisted desires of the townsfolk. This is a society which takes, it does not give. In an interaction with the non-citizen, the inhabitants of Sedom will take everything he has in order to fuel their own pleasures.


This would all seem to be precedent enough for our Chapter of Yishayahu, and here the lesson could end: the selfish cruelty of Sedom giving a message to Jerusalem. However, I believe that in Tanach, Jerusalem and Sedom are inextricably linked with a more fundamental connection.

Sedom has already appeared in Sefer Bereshit. In Chapter 13 Lot chooses Sedom as his residence. In Chapter 14, Sedom is attacked by foreign invaders and the entire population taken captive, including Lot. Bereshit 14 follows Abraham as he wages battle and wins against the kings who have invaded Sedom, thus saving his nephew, Lot and the entire population of the city.

It is upon his victorious return that the Torah depicts two Kings coming out to meet Avraham. The first we would expect. It is the King of Sedom (who had abandoned his nation in its hour of need?) The second is the King of Shalem – identified as YeruShalem – Jerusalem. That man is Malki-Tzedek – a name that literally reads, "My king is Justice[3]." Moreover, he is a "priest to the Supreme God." Apparently Malki-Tzedek is a monotheist.

Avraham is approached by two kings. What does each King offer?

The King of Sedom says:

"Give me the people and take the property (the war booty.)" (14:21)

As for Malki-Tzedek:

'And Malki-Tzedek, King of Shalem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of the Supreme God. He blessed him saying; "Blessed be Avraham to the Supreme God, creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be the Supreme God, who has delivered your foes in your hand."
And he (Avraham) gave him a tenth of everything. (14:18-20)

The king of Sedom comes to Avraham with a political deal, imagining that he will have to bargain with Avraham for the lives of his townsfolk, for their property. He is a pragmatic man. He is willing to make a deal.

What's in it for Avraham? Why would Avraham want to make a deal with the King of Sedom, after all he is already a wealthy man? The answer may be found in Bereshit Chapter 13. In this chapter, Lot separates from Avraham, his uncle, over a land dispute. There is simply not enough land for these two relatives to shepherd their flocks together. This chapter drives home the rather unstable alien status that Avraham has to contend with in the Land of Canaan. Avraham is a foreigner, he owns no land. He is a passing shepherd, but he is not a fixture, not a power player in the Canaan landscape. Until now! Until Chapter 14. Avraham, as victorious warlord, now has the opportunity to begin to create a pact with local kings, a pact that might provide stable tenure in Canaan and an opportunity for permanence and influence. And this is a very good reason to begin to seal agreements with local leaders.

But the Torah has already made things clear:

"The inhabitants of Sedom were exceptionally evil and wicked to God." (13:13)

Why does Malki-Tzedek make the journey from Jerusalem? To praise God? Maybe! But there is more going on here. It would appear then that Malki-Tzedek arrives, just in time, to remind Avraham - at the critical moment, seconds before he is likely to strike a deal with the King of Sedom - that everything; heaven and earth, bread and wine, and victory in war, all come from the Supreme God. Stability in the Land of Canaan shall not be won by military treaties and pacts of Kings. Rather it is earned by kindness and moral fortitude.

It is then not surprising that Avraham, influenced by Malki-Tzedek, refuses all of Sedom's overtures:

"I swear to the Lord, the Supreme God, creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, 'It is I who make Avraham rich.'"

An absolute refusal! But look at the text closely. It already tells us what might of happened had Avraham made the deal. It explains why Avraham refuses. "You shall not say, 'It is I who make Avraham rich.'" What is going on here? Why would the King of Sedom want to say: "It is I who make Avraham rich"? Why is it important that he should not be able to say it?

Let us repeat. This is a crucial moment for Avraham. With whom does he strike alliances? When one receives something, one is in some way indebted, or at the very least, interconnected, to the bestower of the gift. Avraham states emphatically: My patron is God and God alone. I will not make alliances with anyone other than God.

Who has assisted Avraham in making this decision? It is very clear. Avraham adopts MalkiTzedek's language. MalkiTzedek whose name belies the fact that he perceives God in the sphere of kindness and Justice, apparently approaches Avraham in order to thwart a possible Avraham-Sedom alliance. He knows that this will be devastating for an ethical-monotheist such us Avraham, that it will corrode his moral fibre, his religious soul. Instead of taking, becoming rich (HE'ESHARTI) through the King of Sedom, Avraham gives a tithe (MAASER – same root) to Malki-Tzedek. He gives instead of receiving. He makes a religious-ethical coalition rather than consorting with the King of Sedom.

We shall return to these formative moments soon. The stories of Avraham become the bedrock of our collective identity. His life is the early stages of our national gestation. Decisions made by Abraham have exponential significance. There is an important message here. Avraham does not live in a vacuum. Avraham stands somewhere between Jerusalem (Shalem) and Sedom. He has the possibility of allying himself with either culture. His fate is in some manner dependent on where he casts his vote.


Let us look at two passages that once again link Jerusalem with Sedom and Amora.

Behold, a day of HaShem cometh, when thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. 2 For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, but the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city. 3 Then shall HaShem go forth, and fight against those nations, as when He fighteth in the day of battle. 4 And His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleft in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, so that there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south….And there shall be one day which shall be known as HaShem'S, not day, and not night; but it shall come to pass, that at evening time there shall be light. 8 And it shall come to pass in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem: half of them toward the eastern sea, and half of them toward the western sea; in summer and in winter shall it be. 9 And HaShem shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall HaShem be One, and His name one. 10 All the land shall be turned as the Arabah, from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem; and she shall be lifted up, and inhabited in her place, from Benjamin's gate unto the place of the first gate, unto the corner gate, and from the tower of Hananel unto the king's winepresses. 11 And men shall dwell therein, and there shall be no more extermination; but Jerusalem shall dwell safely (Zecharia Ch.14)

And he brought me back unto the door of the house; and, behold, waters issued out from under the threshold of the house eastward, for the forefront of the house looked toward the east; and the waters came down from under, from the right side of the house, on the south of the altar. 2 Then brought he me out by the way of the gate northward, and led me round by the way without unto the outer gate, by the way of the gate that looketh toward the east; and, behold, there trickled forth waters on the right side. 3 When the man went forth eastward with the line in his hand, he measured a thousand cubits, and he caused me to pass through the waters, waters that were to the ankles. 4 Again he measured a thousand, and caused me to pass through the waters, waters that were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and caused me to pass through waters that were to the loins. 5
Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass through; for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed through… 8 Then said he unto me: 'These waters issue forth toward the eastern region, and shall go down into the Arabah; and when they shall enter into the sea, into the sea of the putrid waters, the waters shall be healed. 9 And it shall come to pass, that every living creature wherewith it swarmeth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live; and there shall be a very great multitude of fish; for these waters are come thither, that all things be healed and may live whithersoever the river cometh. 10 And it shall come to pass, that fishers shall stand by it from En-gedi even unto En-eglaim; there shall be a place for the spreading of nets; their fish shall be after their kinds, as the fish of the Great Sea, exceeding many. (Yechezkel Ch.47)

Both of these passages are filled with enigmatic apocalyptic imagery, much of which I do not understand (and I apologise for the translation, but it is all I could find online,) but they share a unity of theme.

In both passages, a "Yom Hashem" – a day of Judgement, reckoning, recognition of God, is underway. Water is described as somehow emerging from Yerushalayim and flowing down into the Jordan valley thereby "healing" the dead waters of the Dead Sea. In Zecharia, the Mount of Olives splits open; in Yechezkel the water would appear to emerge from the Beit Hamikdash itself, but in both books, the water flows towards the Arava, or the "Eastern Sea." This excess of water transforms the sea in which nothing had been able to live – the Dead Sea – making it "live" once again, so much so that fisherman will set sail from Ein Gedi and haul in a catch similar to that of the Mediterranean.

What is the meaning behind these images. What is the metaphor here? What are the Neviim telling us?


In the Torah, the Jordan valley is described as a paradigm of fertility.

"And Lot saw the entire Jordan valley to Tzoar, fully irrigated like the Garden of God, like the Land of Egypt; all this before the destruction of Sedom and Amorah." (Bereshit 13:10)

The Jordan valley is the epitome of paradise - water, fertility - until the destruction of Sedom. Simply put, the desolation of the Jordan valley takes place as a result of the moral degradation of Sedom. Land and moral standards share a single fate. And indeed if you ever visit this region of Israel, it resembles something like a moonscape. It is harsh, parched, unfriendly territory. It is desolate.

However, our Neviim describe how, in Messianic times, Sedom is healed. If we work off the model of Sedom's destruction then we will surmise that it is not simply a physical transformation that is to happen here. Sedom can only spring back to life if there is a moral corollary. When the evil, the injustice of Sedom is a thing of the past, then the life-giving waters are returned to Sedom. This is the vision of "end-of days." And where is the source of this morality, this justice? Where is the water-source? Jerusalem.

The reference here in Bereshit 13 to "the Garden of God," the comparison between the Jordan valley and the Garden of God, is interesting. What is "the Garden of God"? Apparently, it refers to the Garden of Eden, in which we hear of:

"And God planted a garden in Eden in the East… A river flowed forth from Eden to irrigate the garden and from there it separated into four arteries…" (Bereshit 2:8-10)

In the book of Bereshit, Gan Eden is the source of life-giving waters. In Messianic times, the source of water is Yerushalayim! Yerushalayim becomes a place in which God is ever-present – "And HaShem shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall HaShem be One, and His name one" - just like in the Garden of Eden (see Bereshit 3:8), and Jerusalem also becomes the source of healing waters![4]

And so, we have established an interesting link between Sedom and Jerusalem. All this to reach the fundamental question that is being raised by Isaiah. It is this: Will Sedom control Jerusalem, with its injustice, death and destruction? Or shall we manage to bring Jerusalem to Sedom and transform it into a place of life and Justice? Shall an environment of cruel opportunism, of feeding indiscriminately upon the misfortune of the poor and weak, of a valueless political culture of opulence, lawlessness and self-centredness, a brutal, violent immoral public environment animate Jerusalem? Or shall Jerusalem spread the word of Justice, caring, compassion, truth, honesty and peace to the world? (See the continuation of the Haftara – Yishayahu 2:1-5)

Or putting it another way:

· With Abraham, Malki-Tzedek brings Tzedek from Jerusalem to Sedom.
· With Yishayahu (ch.1), the culture of Sedom has overpowered Jerusalem, and hence Yishayahu heralds its imminent destruction.
· In Messianic times. Jerusalem once again overpowers Sedom, spreading Justice and life to the parched Jordan Valley.


The prophet Isaiah hasn't finished this theme in chapter 1. It resurfaces later on in the book. Let us conclude with a hope and a prayer that we merit THESE words of the prophet Isaiah, here in a most positive prophecy that truly sums up our shiur:

"Listen to Me, you who pursue JUSTICE,
You who seek the Lord:
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to AVRAHAM your father,
And to SARAH who brought you forth …
Truly the Lord has comforted Zion,
Comforted all her ruins;
He has transformed her WILDERNESS into EDEN,
Gladness and joy shall abide there,
Thanksgiving and the sound of song." (Yishayahu 51:1-3)

Kein Yehi Ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom.

[1] This is certainly the perspective from Yechezkel 16:49. Focuses exclusively on the issue of chesed or lack of it, and ignores the sexual dimensions of the story.
[2] For a useful analysis of this perek, refer to Judy Klitsner's article, "From the Earth's Hollow Space to the Stars," in the volume, "Torah of the Mothers" ed. Ora Wiskin Helper and Susan Handelman pgs 262-279. (Urim, 2000)
[3] Tzedek isn't simply legal Justice. It is sort of an overlap between the concept of Justice (mishpat) and kindness (Chesed.) Tzedek (like Tzedaka, tzaddik) is the true, just, honest thing that guarantees an outcome of fairness and interpersonal harmony.
[4] See also our Parsha shiur to Parashat Ekev that goes deeper into the Eretz Yisrael-water connection and explains why there is potential in the river lands for the moral deprecation that characterised Sedom.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Prayer For Israel

So far 2,200 missiles have been fired at Israel in the past 10 days! (figures released today.)

A Prayer For Israel
Tammuz 5766

In the light of the current war, we want to daven (to pray) for the situation in Israel. We feel an intense desire to say something to God. But frequently we simply do not know WHAT to say. Rather than add extra teffilot (prayers) here are some recommendations of how to insert new Kavanna (direction, thoughts) into our daily Amida – our most focused prayer.

The Amida consists of 19 Berachot (blessings), each with a "theme." The idea is to think of ideas that tie in and echo each of the berachot that we recite:

All the phrases here relate to God as "help, saviour, protector." We look to Avraham who wandered from land to land powerless, and who also had to wage war to save his captured relative as a paradigm in asking for God's help and protection.

The phrases here deal with God's power as He who gives, sustains and takes life. We can praise God for the gift of life, and think of God as He who "supports those who are falling, heals the sick, and frees prisoners" - asking God to invoke these qualities in our present reality.

God is holy and we are holy because we praise God. Holiness is what we would like to see in this world, even though it sometimes appears elusive.
The Torah tells us that the war-camp should be a place of Holiness – Devarim 23:15. We achieve this goal by restraining negative impulses and moral degradations that can emerge in war-time. In our time Tzahal (IDF) insists that its army adopt a high moral code (Tohar Neshek). In this manner we are fulfilling a Divine mandate.

May God give intuition, vision, clear-thinking, far-sightedness, strategy, intelligence to our troops in combat, strategists and generals.

May we return to Torah and Jewish Values.
We pray that the Jewish People return to one another – feelings and acts of mutual respect and honour rather than suspicion and harshness. That we fulfill our obligations to our fellow man. Likewise that we fill our lives with the Jewish actions that connect us to God: Shabbat, Kashrut, Jewish Learning, honesty, integrity etc.

"If God keeps a strict account of our sins, who ever has a right to exist?" (Tehillim 130) and so let us ask that God forgives us for our guilty acts, and sees us as worthy of mercy.

"See our distress, and fight our fight…" – this one is pretty easy!
"May you save us QUICKLY!" – May this war not become a protracted affair. May our armed forces be successful in the shortest possible time.

For the wounded, for the injured soldiers, for the emotional traumas, etc.

That there should be a "blessing on the land" - that the war should create neither poverty, nor cause an economic crisis.

This week Nefesh Bnefesh brought another 300 Olim! The Jewish people are coming home from all over the world. Israel is a realisation of the words of the prophets who spoke of a return from the 4 corners of the globe. There is such an important future in the making here!
But I also think about the captured soldiers as I say "sound the Shofar to our freedom" and "gather the lost ones of Israel."

May our leaders and politicians make principled and wise decisions.
War can at times induce a warped sense of morality and a cheapened value to life and suffering. May our values and human sensitivities remain strong.

Does the name Nasrallah or Ahaminajad come to mind?!

May God be an emotional support to all those in bomb-shelters, to all those in fear, to the parents of soldiers to the fighters themselves. May God be their courage and may He calm their fears. May God keep the Israeli population tenacious and strong.

May God continue to build Jerusalem and help it flourish. May Jerusalem become a paradigm of justice, peace and Godliness. May we move forward to an era of redemption in which we feel God's Shechina (presence) in Yerushalayim.

We yearn for the Mashiach who will embody the appropriate fusion of government and spirituality. We pray for a time in which God will save and protect the entire Jewish nation from wars, and any form of attack.

So many Jews around the world are praying for Israel, So many Jews love this little country. We have so many hopes and dreams, so many loved ones. God, please accept our heartfelt prayer!

May God respond to our prayers and give us ongoing opportunity to connect with Him, allowing us an open channel of communication with Him at all times.

We thank God for our lives, for our health, for our parents and children.
We thank God for Medinat Yisrael which instills Jewish meaning and pride throughout the Jewish Globe, and has created Jewish opportunities that we would not have dreamed of 100 years ago.



Saturday, July 22, 2006

Look at the Chessed!
Here is just an amazing array of Chessed organisations involved in the current situation. Feel free to contact and contribute time or money!
Shavua Tov for us all.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Shabbat SHALOM

Today my neighbour and another few friends in infantry units received emergency call-up (Zav 8) . It looks like things are intensifying and that next week, troops are going in for a ground assault. Another friend whose son is in army reconnaisance said that the IDF has been watching and observing for months as the Hizbolla have been "digging in". There are no surprises here. I think we just have to be happy that we have done this sooner rather than later. Kudos to Olmert. I just hope that we manage to overcome them quickly.

When neighbours go to war, then it all feels rather close to home. And the worry creeps a little closer.
Many people have said that in this war, the home front feels like the front line, and that there is no difference between the home and the front. This is very true. But this point is driven home by our parsha this week.

Our parsha decribes a war - the War aginst Midyan. There we read about the equal sharing of the war booty:

" divide the prey into two parts: between the men skilled in war, that went out to battle, and all the congregation." (31:26-7)

Here the Torah records a fundamental practice enforced by the army of Bnei Yisrael; the equal share of the Spoils of War between the "Home Guard" and the Front Line. What is the ideological basis of this law? For sure, we are saying that the spoils are far from the exclusive property of the fighting force. Certainly the gesture here is one of the unity of the ENTIRE nation. The Army may not split from the people they are fighting for. They could claim; "we put our lives on the line! What did you do?" But the Torah cautions us to remember that the nation is a unified whole. The cook is as important as the infantryman, the truck driver as vital, as the sharpshooter. The Front Line is inextricably linked to the Home Guard.

I find this interesting when thinking about the story of Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven in the very next chapter. . A close look at Chapter 32 reveals that the entire story revolves around the responsibility of Gad and Reuven to volunteer for the army.

When the tribes of Gad and Reuven outline theri original request to remain in TransJordan, Moses' intial reaction is one of complete rejection, and outright opposition:

"Will your brothers go to War while you sit here (at home)?" (32:6)

Why is he outraged? He is shocked that these tribes expect to sit at their farms while their brothers fight a war. The point that he insists upon is their full participation in the army. As if to say; we cannot allow one sector of the People to be exempted absolutely from the military. How can you sit with your feet up on the couch as your brothers endanger their lives? That is the deepest point of Moshe's objection. And indeed in the final compromise, it is on this point that he stands his ground. His sole demand is that Reuven-Gad serve as the "Halutzim" – the Front Line troops in the conquest of Canaan.

So, once again, the connection between the Home Front and the Front Line. There may not be a separation between the two. Apparently, they are inseparable.
Well, one again, we find ourselves on the home front while others go to war. We find the "home front" becoming the "front line" more than the soldiers themselves. We are reminded that we are all one nation.

And in conclusion, one of the amazing stories that I heard this week was about an Israel celebrity called Ninnette. She is probably the most popular TV personality teenage hearthrob etc. On the Maariv website they had an artcile about how she had SMS'd her entire contacts list to recite Tehillim ch.73. She is far far from being a religious figure and yet, at times like this, we do begin to become something like the people we are supposed to be.

Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom, and praying for success in this war and eventual peace.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Some thoughts for Parashat Mattot and the current War in Israel
Tammuz 5766

It is uncanny how current events and parsha seem to go together sometimes. This week's parasha describes a war that Am Yisrael wage against Midyan. Interestingly, Midyan is not a nation state. They seem to be a nomadic people who wander and attach themselves to other countries. In our situation we find Midyan in alliance with Moav. God commands Am Yisrael to fight Midyan as revenge (31:1): "For they assailed you by the trickery that they practiced against you" (25:18) in the planned seduction of Bnei Yisrael at Shittim (see ch.25). In other words, Midyan is a cunning aggressor who target Bnei Yisrael deliberately. And Am Yisrael have to fight them.

I have always been puzzled by this Rashi, and I find it very bizarre indeed. But in the current situation of flying missiles, this Rashi seems somewhat apt!
רש"י במדבר פרק לא

וכלי הקדש - זה הארון והציץ. שהיה בלעם עמהם ומפריח מלכי מדין בכשפים, והוא עצמו פורח עמהם. הראה להם את הציץ, שהשם חקוק בו, והם נופלים, לכך נאמר על חלליהם במלכי מדין, שנופלים על החללים מן האויר, וכן בבלעם כתיב (יהושע יג, כב) אל חלליהם:

"….Bilaam was with them (The Midyanites) and he would use magic to help the Kings of Midyan fly, indeed he would fly together with them. He (Pinchas) would show them the Tzitz with God's name engraved upon it, and they would fall down (to earth.)…"

Shooting down human missiles!

Another Rashi that has always bothered me, but is worth contemplating in our current reality is this comment.
רש"י במדבר פרק לא

בחרב - הוא בא על ישראל, והחליף אומנתו באומנותם, שאין נושעים אלא בפיהם ע"י תפלה ובקשה. ובא הוא ותפש אומנותם לקללם בפיו, אף הם באו עליו והחליפו אומנותם באומנות האומות, שבאין בחרב, שנאמר (בראשית כז, מ) ועל חרבך תחיה:

Am Yisrael are characterized as a people whose primary art is by the tongue – via words. We fight by our speech – by our prayers. Gentile nations fight by the sword. In this Midrash, Bilaam is in no doubt that the tongue is mightier than the sword and that Am Yisrael are at a distinct advantage. Hence Bilaam's method, his tactic is to attack the Israelites by the power of speech. In other words he uses Israel's weapon. In return, the Israelites turn to conventional battle, to warfare and defeat the Gentiles in their strength – by the sword.

This has always made me think from a contemporary Zionist perspective. Part of Zionism is precisely the ability to take History into our own hands; not to be the defenseless Ghetto Jew, but rather the fighting Jew. In addition, with all my belief in prayer, did not Gideon and Shmuel, King Saul and King David, Yehuda Hamacabee and Rabbi Akiva, fight on the battlefield? Is this approach a philosophy developed during the years of foreign domination, encouraging a certain pacifism and a move towards a philosophy that sees our power in the world of learning, Torah and prayer rather than rebellion and revolt? After Bar Kochba, Jews saw their strength in the spirit rather than the sword.

But from a Religious Zionist perspective, where does this leave us? On the one hand, we passionately believe in the power of prayer. But we also know that we have to fight. (See Rav Lichtenstein of the Ideology of Hesder We make no utopia of the world of war, but we do it when necessary. Is that what this Midrash is saying?

Certainly over recent years, military options have been proving less effective. Whether the US in Iraq or Israel in Gaza or Lebanon, conventional warfare – the sword – is having a difficult time against insidious terrorists. We realise that the power of military might is limited. And sometimes, prayer does seem like a logical option.

I know that I have no conclusion here, but the notion of where the essence of Jewish power lies – according to this Midrash – in the "word" is certainly an important balance as Tzahal bombs away at Hizbollah. We do certainly know that one of the great strengths of Hamas and Hizbolla is precisely their faith – their religious beliefs. I believe with a passion that the key to our long-term success here in Israel is ONLY through "the word." I mean this in the sense that only if we understand what it means to be Jewish, what Eretz Yisrael means to the Jewish people; only if we value our religion, history, heritage and varied traditions, only if we know the Bible and the practices of our people, will WE have the strength to understand why we are here and hence the tenacity – a quality that is essential for life in the Middle East – to stay here, to flourish here. And then let us take our "word" – the Torah – the Tree of Life, and let it give life, spread peace, truth and justice and compassion to Am Yisrael and the World.

With blessings of Shabbat Shalom, and Besorot Tovot.
- Alex

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Current Hezbollah War

Everyone has now realised that Israel is effectively at war. Thus far, Israel has been hit by over 800 rockets and the Israeli casualty figures are over 20. Israel is not fighting Lebanon, but Hezbollah, an extreme Moslem militia sworn to the destruction of Israel. Israel has set itself certain objectives in this war:
1. To secure the return of our two soldiers seized by Hezbollah
2. To ensure that Hezbollah do not return to the Israeli-Lebanese border (as is in fact legislated by a UN resolution - but the UN never enforced it) so they cannot engage in border attacks on Israel.

I would like to make two significant points that people should know.

Who are Hezbollah?
See this article, from today's London Times. Here is a quote:

"THE present conflict between Hezbollah and Israel is not just a local quarrel between bitter foes who have been fighting each other in southern Lebanon for a quarter of a century. It is an attempt to redefine the balance of power in the Middle East.

As such it has implications not only for Israel but also for the Western-friendly, Sunni-led Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

The stakes are enormous. By attacking Haifa, Hezbollah has transferred the conflict to Israeli territory, undermining the latter's longstanding military doctrine of defeating its enemies on foreign soil.

"If the Israeli public begins clamouring for a ceasefire, then the Israeli army will have been neutralised," Amal SaadGhorayeb, a Lebanese expert on Hezbollah, said."It will shatter the myth of Israeli invincibility."

The previous head of Mossad - Ephraim Halevy, was interviewed on the radio here today and said a similar thing. He said that Israel is fighting Syria and Iran in this war. They are the backers of Hezbollah. And precisely because of this we cannot lose this war! It is a battle for the very existence of our Jewish State. Once again Israel is fighting for survival.

And it is amazing how we are the front line against these extremist Islamic Jihad states who are likely to threaten the entire Western World foreseeable future. This is the first battle in a long war that will be fought for decades.

Israeli Morale
Israelis understand this. There is a solidarity here that is astounding.

First people are opening their homes to total strangers. In upscale Tel Aviv yuppie neighbourhoods, people are calling the local municipality to request that a family from the North stay with them. Today the sports Wingate Institute gave a free Summer Camp to 250 kids from the North. Hotels are giving free rooms to residents of the North. David Broza, a famous Israeli singer with very left-wing tendencies has been going from one air-raid shelter to the next entertaining Haifa residents. The politicians who regularly lose no speed in arguing and baiting each other, all present wall to wall support of this war.

I heard an interview withe a pilot this morning, a pilot of the IDF who has been in service for 25 years. He said that he has never heard from his colleagues such a consensus as to the legitimacy and the need for war as he has at this time. From the right-wingers to the lefties, everyone knows that this is the right thing, everyone is helping out. There is an amazing feeling of unity here, despite the fear and the worry.


Because if we don't do this, our soldiers will be snatched and held for ransom, our entire country will be awash with Iranian made missiles, and there will be absolutely no security, or hope for our little country.

So, we find ourselves at war again.

Once again we fight for survival. But we are fighting together, shoulder to shoulder - K-ish Echad Belev Echad.
Parshat Massei
The Travels of Bnei Yisrael.

Parashat Massei opens with a summary list of the travels of Bnei Yisrael, from Egypt to the Borders of Israel. Sometimes, when we read through our parsha, and other parshiot that contain extensive listings, we wonder to ourselves what the Torah really wants to achieve by its long, seemingly endless summary of rather technical information.

Now the fact of the matter is that the Torah seems to quite enjoy listing things! Throughout the Torah, list feature prominently. A random sample will open with the genealogies of Bereshit ch.5 and 11-12, the list of Esav's army generals (Bereshit 36), the details of the plans for the Mishkan (Shemot 25-40), the census of Bnei Yisrael (twice!) and the twelve-fold repetition of the gifts of the Princes of the Tribes to the Mishkan (Bamidbar 7.) And there are many more. We might come to the conclusion that the Torah is unconcerned with the tedium of repetitive lists, that listing, and repetition are simply a literary technique that is one of the hallmarks of the Torah.

This approach would appear to be adopted by Robert Alter, one of the groundbreaking academics of the Biblical literary approach, who determined the phenomenon of repetition as central to Biblical narrative (Art of Biblical Narrative pg.88-113.) What is this technique of repetition? Sometimes, we are dealing with lists. At other times, a story will be repeated in multiple versions. In other instances, we will simply hear an instruction by God, and then the way in which the instruction is performed.

Robert Alter suggests that this technique reflects "a mentality alien to our own and a radically different approach to ordering experience from the one's familiar to us. In the more leisurely, simpler life-rhythms of the ancient Near East, so it would seem, every instruction, every prediction, every reported action had to be repeated word for word in an inexorable literalism as it was obeyed, fulfilled, or reported to another party. Perhaps, some have impressionistically conjectured, there is an "Oriental" sense of the intrinsic pleasingness of repetition in the underlying aesthetic of the Bible."

Regarding the repetition of the gifts of the Princes of the Tribes in Bamidbar 7, Alter even suggests that "one can imagine members of the tribe waiting to hear the individual items on their own ancestors' archetypal offering to the Lord – though the entire passage surely presupposes a certain delight … in the very mechanism of patient repetition."

Now, I don't know what you will make of this approach, Alter is assuming that the Torah preserves an ancient literary style in which people revelled in repetition. I don't know whether this has been substantiated by any outside evidence. However if this is true, then we need not probe deeper into the detailed listings of the journeys of the Israelites in the Wilderness. After all, there is nothing to say! This is simply the literary style of the Torah. Nothing deeper, no messages beneath the surface.

Now there might be some truth to Robert Alter's approach, but our mepharshim all searched for a deeper truth behind the details, and the listings. Our sages, infused with a belief that Torah was a book that sought to teach a way of life, to transmit God's wisdom always saw the words of Torah, whether encased in a gripping story or conversely, a tedious barrage of information, as harbouring a truth that had to be unveiled and deciphered. Our parsha is no exception.

We shall look at a number of approaches.


"Why were all this journeys recorded? To draw attention to God's[1] kindness. Despite the fact that God had decreed that they wander through the wilderness, do not say that they were in a constant state of movement and travel from place to place throughout the forty years and that they had no rest. After all, there are only forty-two journeys in the list, four of which were in the first year prior to the decree (of the Spies) … and another eight journeys, after Aharon's death … took place in the fortieth year. In a period of thirty-eight years, they traveled only 20 times! This from Rabbi Moshe (Hadarshan)
…. Rabbi Tanchuma read the following message from the parsha. It may be compared to a King who had a sick son. He took him from one place to the next in search of a suitable cure. When they were on their way home, his father began to recount all their travels. He said: We slept here, here we were cold, here your head hurt you … etc."

It is interesting that Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan wants to minimize the number of journeys travelled by Bnei Yisrael, each leg of the trek through the wilderness involved tremendous hardship and considerable effort. The aim of this account is to understand just how little they travelled.

In contrast, Rabbi Tanchuma's approach celebrates each leg of the journey. For Rabbi Tanchuma, this list is a celebration a nostalgic recollection. Let us remember Rabbi Tanchuma's comments. We are dealing with a father who is travelling with his ailing child apparently in search of a cure for the son's illness. If father and son are travelling home, then the child has recovered. The danger is past. Let us transpose this onto Bnei Yisrael. In what way were Bnei Yisrael sick? Does this relate to the sin of the Spies which they were required to purge and cleanse? Or alternatively, it might allude to a lack of readiness on the part of the nation, a "sickness" that the nation emerged with from Egypt that restricted their immediate entry into the Land of Israel. Whichever way, according to Rabbi Tanchuma, the Wilderness Years represent a process of healing, a cure for the ailments of Am Yisrael. At the end of it all, when the danger is behind us and the future looks bright, Am Yisrael can leaf through the album of their travels, reminiscing about the good times and bad. But, from the perspective of their good health, nothing appears quite as threatening; from this vantage point, they remember the Midbar with a smile. It is all good memories. And Parshat Massei represents the intimacy of father and son, of God and Israel, as they return from their ordeal, stronger and closer than before.

For Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, the Wilderness is harsh, uncomfortable and unwelcoming. It is a punishment. The details and deliberate listing functions as a defence of God! It proposes how gentle and forgiving God was in that he did wish us to be marching around the desert in a constant state of movement for forty years. Rather, God applied the punishment mercifully, fulfilling the decree of the Midbar but not having Am Yisrael suffer too greatly.


The Sephorno offers the most positive approach:

"God wished to write the travels of Israel to inform us of their great merit in following God " to the wilderness, a land that was not sown,[2]" in such a way that would make them befitting to enter the Land (of Israel.)"

In other words, the Sephorno totally ignores the sin of the Spies, the rebellions and waywardness of Bnei Yisrael in the Midbar. For Sephorno, it is all a labour of love, As Yirmiyahu remembers "the love of your youth," Bnei Yisrael is depicted as passionately loving the Almighty to the point at which they are prepared to enter a wasteland simply to follow their beloved. The detailed travel itinerary demonstrates the extent of Israel's dedication and commitment to God. Maybe the Sephorno adopts this perspective because the list ignores all the sins and punishment of the Midbar. I imagine that Sephorno see this list not as a thorough review, a comprehensive account. Rather, there is a different agenda, an ideology that underpins the particular events chosen and the way that they are written.


We have three radically differing perceptions as to what this list says about Bnei Yisrael and the wilderness years. What was the wilderness about?

Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan: Harsh Punishment
Rabbi Tanchuma : A process of reconciliation and repair.
Sephorno : A communion of love between God and Israel


But maybe we can add a final note here. I think that frequently, we perceive travel as a means to an end. We travel so that we might reach our destination. The journey is a nuisance, but a necessary inconvenience if we are to traverse distances. In modern times, we are delighted that we can travel faster – our cars, high speed trains, air travel and the like - allowing us to cover enormous distances in minimal time. And even then, we all feel the strain of the journey. It is tedious, and uncomfortable to travel for hours on end, and at times unpleasant and even gruelling.

But there are times when "travel" becomes an end in itself. Some people will take a year off after college to "travel." We might have a vacation touring a particular part of the world. In that situation, travel is a positive experience to be savoured and absorbed, to enrich and enlighten the traveller with new sights, sounds, people, experiences. And in that way, the individual will expand his horizons, he will grow and learn, developing new insights into the world, and the arena of human experience.

Is Parshat Massei the first type of travel or the second? Are we simply interested in traversing the expanse of wilderness that stretches between Egypt and Israel, or is the travel itself an enriching period of growth, a time for learning, for change, a period in which development can take place, outside of society, outside civilisation, as a national group learn and discover their true legacy, their identity.

I would suggest that the Torah's pedantic and deliberate listing of each place, each journey, each encampment, every destination, is there to tell us that it was the very journey that was important. The Midbar was not solely a means of "getting from A to B." A Mekhilta that we have quoted once in another context puts it in the following way:

“God did not bring the people to Israel on the direct route. Instead he took them through the desert. God said ‘ If I bring them to the Land of Israel now, everyone will immediately involve themselves with their field or vineyard and they will pay no attention to Torah! Instead, I will take them through the wilderness. They will eat the Manna and drink water from the miraculous Well and the Torah will become absorbed within their body.”

Am Yisrael were very much "in process" at this delicate stage of their infancy, and the Wilderness afforded them the opportunity of growth and development, spiritually, culturally, civilly, in order to enter the Land of Israel in a more mature state.

One passuk stands out in my mind that would seem to focus upon the "process" involved in the forty year Wildreness experience. It is passuk 2 in our parsha.

"Moshe recorded their starting points for their journeys, by the word of God, and these are their journeys according to their starting points."

The passuk begins by saying that the main thing is the starting point, but then seems to suggest that the central issue is the journey itself. I would suggest that indeed, a journey, in the spiritual sense, will always begin from a certain point, however, we have to move on, move upwards from that point, ascending, growing, through the journey.

Our "starting point" for our next journey will then be a very different one.

May we always be moving onwards and upwards.
Shabbat Shalom.

[1] Rashi here uses God's title of "Makom" a familiar annotation of Hashem. I cannot help but feel that there is some irony here, as we talk of the turbulence of travel, in drawing attention to God's aspect of "place."
[2] Paraphrasing Yirmiyahu 2:2 – last week's haftara.