Sunday, December 27, 2009

The power of questions

There is a frequently quoted story related by Isadore Rabi, the Jewish Nobel prize winner. When he was asked why he became a scientist, he replied:

"My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference - asking good questions -made me become a scientist!''

In other words, it is asking good questions that makes a good scientist - a curious relentless mind.

Well, we might ask, what character trait, what action or disposition creates a good Rabbi? This is an interesting question, and I am sure that many people will offer an entire range of answers. However, last night I witnessed something that deeply impressed me, which to my mind, shows the making of one excellent Rabbi.

I was at a symposium yesterday; a panel discussion about Pesak Halakha. There were a number of speakers, and the audience were encouraged to offer questions to the panel in writing, via the chairman. Many people wrote their questions on slips of paper, and by the evening's end, there was a pile of 30 or so questions on the dais, in front of the moderator of the discussion.

At the end of the evening, the hall was pretty empty and I saw a young man, a prospective semikha student, sitting at the dais and copying out the notes, the questions. I was rather curious as to what he was doing and so I asked him. He responded:

"If I am going to be a Rabbi, I have to know what issues are really bothering people. Those issues are in these questions."

This young Yeshiva student had come to hear the answers given by the panel, but he was ultimately interested in the questions, the dilemmas and concerns that were bothering the rest of the audience. I was really impressed.

So what quality makes a Rabbi? The ability to understand what is bothering the people. Not to ask your questions, but to be attentive to the questions of others! That sense of caring, that empathy, that attention to the problems and worries, to the needs and hopes of Am Yisrael, will prove to be a winning trait to at least one young aspiring Rav. I am sure he will succeed beyond all expectations.

We can all learn a lesson from his example.

לשמוע ללמוד וללמד
before we learn and teach, we need to listen. To whom? To God? To He who gives the Torah at Sinai? Yes, maybe. But equally possible, is that we have to listen to the heart of human beings. The first stage is to be sensitive and attentive to the emotions and sensitivities that surround us. Then, with great wisdom and insights, compassion and love, we may understand their lives, hopes and dreams. Then we learn, and we will begin to comprehend how the Torah that we study and analyze can apply, can interface with the people. That is when "learning" transforms itself into "teaching."

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New Melachim shiur

You might have noticed that I have been rather "silent" for the past 3 weeks. Yes -I haven't been writing any posts.

The reason is that I am exceptionally busy writing a new series on Sefer Melakhim for the Virtual Beit Midrash of Har Etzion. It is a challenging project in that whereas I have taught Melakhim countless times, I now have the task of transforming my classes into written form. I spend endless hours thinking about how to structure the articles, and despite the pressure, I am finding the process exhilarating.

My first two shiurim may be accessed here and here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Momentum of Chag

Jewish Festivals are so total, so enveloping. I can almost imagine Jackie Mason in a skit saying something to the effect of:

The Gentiles, when they have a festival, what do they do? - They make a party, they eat in the living room, they drink, exchange gifts. It's fun, it's relaxed.
But us - we build a shack, we shvitz to put up a rickety hut, and then we sleep in it and eat in it - and we call that a holiday? We clean the house on our knees, and wash the curtains and wipe down the kitchen and change our entire kitchen round, and eat indigestible matza - and we say: That's a Holiday! Ah! - A Yom Tov!
On their new year, they make a drunken party and sleep all day with a hangover. On our New Year, we get up early, and spend half the day in shul!
Some Festival!

Jewish Festivals do have their grueling aspects at times. But I love them. and I love them precisely because they are so overwhelming, so all-encompassing.

Take the Yamim Noraim. The Shofar 30 days before, the selichot - getting up early in an intense vigil of chanting, day by day. And then the symbolic foods, the Shofar, the prayer service, and the intensity of the Asseret Ymai Teshuva. It all crescendos perfectly at Neila. Even for a person who isn't prepared in any particular way, the acts of our tradition create a certain momentum, they propel a person forward, thrusting him or her into the mood, the themes, the ideas, the mindset of that particular time of year with totality and immersion.

Take Sukkot which we just celebrated. The lead-up straight after Yom Kippur, with buliding the Sukka, and then decorating it, buying the Arba'ah Minim, cutting Aravot. It's an entire mobilisation. And then Chag itself, when we try to spend as much time possible in the Sukka, eating, relaxing, I even took my laptop out to the Sukka, and we had an entire family sleep-in for 7 days as we all slept in the Sukka. Not to mention Hallel with Arba'ah Minim and Hoshanot each day. And here in Israel, the kids are off school, and we are off work. The country is filled with a variety of music and arts Festivals, and people are all out enjoying themselves. It has a real Holiday feel! Suddenly, the Chag starts weaving its magic. As one lies in the Sukka and the flimsy roof over one's head, the deliberate move away from the creature comforts of one's bedroom and living room, one is inexorably prompted to ponder the deeper meaning sof the Chag, and behaviourly, existentially, the Holiday begins to penetrate, to infiltrate to seep into our minds and souls.

And similarly for Pesach, and other special times of the year, for example the Three Weeks. What is phenomenal is that the more intensely and comprehensively one observes the laws, rites, traditions and practices of the Holiday, the more it envelops your reality, weaving a magical web, and literally reframing one's environment. It is as if life were a stage, and suddenly the backdrop, the scenery and soundtrack were able to generate an entirely new vista, a radically different world, a fresh mode of living, with its unique texture , sounds, smells, feelings, thoughts, a different mood, a new reality.

I think that it is only in recent years that I have become more sensitive and aware to the power of the Chag and its Laws in generating the atmosphere and content of the moment. When in school, we spend ages studying about the upcoming Holidays. we learn the customs, and songs, the ideas and the texts. We are over-primed!

But as life is more busy with kids and work, I have felt (even as a teacher, teaching my students about the Chag) that I have less and less time to work my brain into the correct atmosphere and mindset. With all the hectic preparations, we frequently dash out the shower to shul for YomTov without having engaged ourselves in deeper thought about the chag! It is here that the comprehensive nature of our tradition, the huge numbers of traditions and Halakhot, the physical investment in building the Sukka, or burning the Hametz, and then the rhythm and tempo of the Chag itself, begin to have that amazing effect of penetrating our psyche, our consciousness, as the content and inner spirit of the Chag begin to spread their special aroma throughout our minds, body and soul.

I'm looking forward to Channukah already!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Etrog Upside Down

How do you make the bracha on the Lulav and Etrog? I remember being taught that one should invert the Etrog to an upside down position when saying the bracha. Why? We don't hold our Kiddush cup upside down? What is the source of this practice?


First a few comments about the precise definition of the mitzva of Lulav.

A widespread misconception about the mitzva of Arba Minim is that we perform the mitzva by SHAKING the Lulav and Etrog. This is not true. The Torah states (Vayikra 23:40) “On the first day of sukkot, you shall TAKE the fruit of the beautiful tree and a palm branch .... and rejoice before the Lord your God”. The mitzva is simply to take the Lulav (and not to shake it). By the very act of PICKING UP the Lulav and Etrog, I have already performed the mitzva.

(NB - Taking it to shul in a container does not constitute the mitzva, since it must be performed ‘bederech kavod’; in a dignified way (O.CH 651:6) and having the Arba Minim in a box is not a dignified taking).


This definition of the mitzva provides a serious halachik difficulty as regards the recitation of the bracha on the Lulav.

There is a general principle of Brachot: A bracha must directly precede the action that it is being recited for, in the most immediate manner (Sukka 39a). This is the rule of “oveir le’assiatan”- that the bracha must be recited at the moment of performance of the mitzva or act concerned. An example would be a bracha for food. We hold the food in our hand and make the bracha and then immediately take our first taste of the food. The action should follow on smoothly from the bracha.

How does this work with Arba Minim? If I say the bracha without holding the Arba Minim, I will not be able to follow the brach with immediate performance of the mitzva. It frequently takes a while to get organised with the Lulav and Etrog. By the time we put down our machzor from the bracha and pick up the Lulav and Etrog from their respective boxes, we have already seperated the bracha from the mitzva by a significant pause!

Even if we can cut down the time, the ROSH brings the example of tefillin. When putting on tefillin, we make a bracha when they are already on our arm but before firmly tightening them. We do not make the bracha while they are still in the bag. A bracha must be recited at the moment one is primed for action!

How do we apply this principle regarding our Lulav and Etrog?


How do we have the Lulav and Etrog in our hands, ready to do the mitzva without fulfilling the mitzva? A number of solutions are presented in the Rishonim (medieval halachists).

1. Inverted: The ROSH gives the most famous suggestion. One cannot perform the mitzva of Arba Minim unless each species are held upright. He suggests that we take our Lulav and and then pick up the Etrog upside down. In this way, I am ready to perform the mitzva but I have not yet fulfilled it. I make the bracha and turn the Etrog around to an upright position and I have now performed the mitzva!

In this situation one must PICK UP the Etrog in an already inverted position. It doesn’t help to invert the Etrog after I have already handled it normally because I will already have been holding the entire Arba Minim upright before the bracha!

2. Intent:
A further option suggested by the ROSH is to expressedly have intention NOT to fulfill the mitzva until after the bracha. The Aruch Hashulchan rejects this as regular practice because those who are looking on , not knowing the intention of the person concerned, will follow the actions of the person and miss saying the bracha before the act of the mitzva. In addition, people don’t remember all the details of Arba Minim from year to year. They will remember what they DID but not necessarily the accompanyimg THOUGHT!

3. Hold the Lulav ONLY for the bracha: The THIRD OPTION suggested is to pick up the Lulav leaving the Etrog in it’s box, make the bracha and then immediately take the Etrog into one’s hand.

The SHULCHAN ARUCH (651:5) takes options 1 and 3 as recommended.

“ One should make the blessing of “al netilat Lulav” and “shehechiyanu” before
picking up the Etrog in order to recite the blessing in conjunction to the
performance of the mitzva.

Alternatively , one should invert the Etrog until one has made the blessing”


If one picks up the Lulav and Etrog in the normal way and forgot about all these restrictions, is a person still allowed to say the bracha? The answer is Yes.


The Mishna Berura(#36) states that despite the fact that one fulfills the mitzva without having shaken the Lulav, the shaking of the Arba Minim represents a higher dimension of the basic performance of the mitzva. It is on this added dimension that one is allowed to make a bracha if one picked up the Arba Minim without using the methods above. One should simply make the bracha before shaking the Lulav and Etrog.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Did we sit in Sukkot in the Wilderness?

“You shall live in Sukkot (booths) for seven days, all citizens in Israel shall
live in Sukkot (booths); in order that future generations may know that I made
the Israelite people live in booths, when I brought them out of the Land of
Egypt, I am the Lord your God.” (23:41-43)

The Torah informs us that the Sukkot, the huts or booths in which we reside for the week of Chag Hassukot correspond to a specific historical reality. God “made the Israelite people live in booths” during the Exodus from Egypt, and we imitate and simulate that collective experience on Chag Hassukot. Now, this familiar passuk has always raised a number of questions. What exactly does the Torah mean when it speaks about God housing us in "Sukkot" during the Egyptian Exodus? What booths is the verse referring to? Does the Torah record such an event?

Most readers are probably familiar with the Talmudic discussion in Sukka 11b:

‘I made the Israelite people live in booths.’
It refers to the “clouds of glory” said Rabbi Eliezer.
Rabbi Akiva says: God made real Sukkot for them.

For Rabbi Eliezer, the booths of the wilderness are the miraculous protective "Clouds of Glory." For Rabbi Akiva, God's booths are real huts in which the Israelites lived during their years of sojourning in the wilderness. Let us investigate this relationship between the past and the present. How do our Sukkot relate to the booths of the Exodus? We shall take our cue from Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva and investigate their respective opinions.


Rabbi Eliezer talks about Ananei HaKavod – Clouds of Glory. What are these clouds? The Mekhilta offers us some clarity:

"There were seven clouds[1]: Four of them to each side/direction (of the Israelites), one was above them and another below their feet. A further cloud would pass in front of them leveling the valleys and flattening the mountains." (Mekhilta Beshalach 1)

We are dealing with a miraculous phenomenon whereby mysterious clouds with protective and other powers shielded and eased the path of B’nei Yisrael as they trekked through the wilderness. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Sukkot that we inhabit mirror and reflect the cloud-experience of the wilderness. But how?

Obviously, this concept has its advantages and disadvantages. Advantages will include a straightforward reading of the passuk: I placed the Israelite people in sukkot. This is a Godly form of envelopment and protection, and hence God's protective clouds might fit the bill.


But for adherents of the peshat approach to Chumash the Anannei Hakavod are a red flag. After all, the text of the Chumash never mentions clouds leveling mountains, or clouds under the feet of the Israelites! Those who adopt a more rational mode of thought and more text oriented approach are immediately attracted to the more realistic proposition by Rabbi Akiva, that the Israelites lived in huts, shelters. After all, if we are commanded to live in huts in commemoration of the booths of our ancestors in the wilderness, we should assume that B’nei Yisrael did indeed live in huts!

They are in good company. The Ibn Ezra also didn't favour the theory of Annanei Hakavod very much!


"Some of the early scholars said that there were seven clouds, but to my mind, there were only two, and possibly only a single cloud." (Ibn Ezra)

The Ibn Ezra is commenting on the verse in Shemot that informs us that the Am Yisrael were lead by a cloud as we departed from Egypt:

"The Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they may travel by day and night. " (Shemot 13:21)

The Ibn Ezra reads that verse in the following manner:

"A pillar of cloud by day, to guide them: to show them the route. It also protected them[2], and this is the meaning of the phrase (in Tehillim 105:39) 'He spread a cloud as a screen.'
A pillar of fire by night, to give them light – It might be that the pillar of fire was within the pillar of cloud at night, as its states (Shemot 40:38) 'fire will be within it at night.'
That they may travel by day and night: They traveled around the clock … These clouds, if there were two, remained with them until the crossed the Yam Suf (Reed Sea) but in my opinion, they then ceased to accompany them for there wasn't a need to travel at night after Pharaoh and his army had drowned in the Sea. (Shemot. Peirush Katzar 13:21)

But questions remain. And the most significant of them is the origins of Sukkot. If we have debunked the theory of the "Clouds of Glory," then what are the Sukkot that Bnei Yisrael lived in during the wilderness era?

The Ibn Ezra answers:

"…Near Mt. Sinai was a forest of Acacia trees. When they arrived there (Sinai) and were told that they would reside there for some time – and there was no (protective) cloud as I have already explained – each person constructed a hut … and they cut down the entire forest…." (Ibn Ezra . Peirush HaAroch Shemot 25:5)

the Ibn Ezra's theory helps explain what the Biblical Sukkot were, but it also goes some way to inform regarding the source of the wood that the people contributed to the construction of the Mishkan.

So this is a neat answer. But, is it correct?


Let us check it out. Did the Israelites live in wood huts? Did they chop down a forest? Many places record the manner in which Bnei Yisrael dwelt in TENTS[3] , termed Mishkan or Ohel:

"And they (Moshe and Yitro) went into the tent." (Shemot 18:7)

"And the people bowed down, each person at the doorway of his tent" (Shemot 33:10)

"and Datan and Aviram emerged defiant at the portal of their tents." (Bamidbar 16:27)

"How comely are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places (mishkenotecha) O Israel." (Bamidbar 24:5)

In each place they talk about tents, and the term "Sukkot/Sukka" are noticeably absent! In fact, other than the Festival of Sukkot, that word is NEVER used as a term for a home for Bnei Yisrael when they are in the Wilderness! Never![4]

So, we are stuck. Because the Israelites lived in OHALIm and not SUKKOT. And now we are raising serious doubts as to the identity of the living shelters that housed Bnei Yisrael during their forty years in the wilderness. if our Sukkot commemorate the huts of the Midbar, do they refer to the physical object of a Sukka! Where does this leave us?


So let us investigate the verb S"CH"CH which is the grammatical root of the sukka. What does that word tell us? (Look up the root in the concordance!)

If you examine virtually every instance of the verb S"CH"CH in the Tanach, it refers to God's protection in some way. More specifically, it frequently refers to Temple references[5], but that is far from exclusive. The overwhelming majority refer to God as directly shielding or protecting a person:

"You shielded my head on the day of war" (Tehillim 140:8)
"With his wing he shelters you" (Tehillim 91)

This is about basking in the divine presence, or being protected by Him.

Or, for example, the Ark of the Covenant has cherubs that are "shielding – sochechim - with their wings over the Kapporet" The Ark is the place where God's presence is manifest! "and I will speak to you … from between the Cherubs" (Shemot 25:18)

And now I am understanding that this verb is dealing with God's protection, or even more than that, with God's Presence itself!

And I recall the passuk in Shemot: "God's presence – Kevod Hashem – appeared in CLOUD" (Shemot 16:10) Are ANNANEI KAVOD in truth, a metaphor for God's presence, his manifest protection?

And here I find myself coming full-circle. We are back to the start. We began by hearing Chazal talk about seven protective divine clouds. It sounded bizarre, textually unfounded, too supernatural. So we explored Tanach for a rational physical booth within which to understand the phenomenon of the sukkot of the Wilderness. And now, with a linguistic analysis, we understand that in truth, the word "sukka" refers quite directly to God protecting man.

In other words, the word "Sukka" refers quite clearly to the notion that we thrust our trust into God's hands and we rely upon Him. Or even further, that God allows us to have relationship with Him. Maybe this is actually the inner meaning of the Midrashic concept of the 7 protective clouds.

When we sit in our sukka this week, we are expected to allow our "home" to be rather more fragile than it usually is. But that very understanding – that we are limited and not absolutely able to control our personal and physical environment , our destiny – this very understanding affords us more "room " to recognize God's caring hand, God's presence in our lives

Wishing you a Chag Sameach!

[1] Interesting that in the Mekhikta, other views are offered:
Rabbi Yehuda – 13 clouds
Rabbi Yoshiya – 4 clouds
Rebbi – 2 clouds.
So there is far from consensus amongst the Tannaim on this point.
[2] The Ibn Ezra may be referring to Shemot 14:19 where we read how the "the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up place behind them. It came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel … and one could not come near the other throughout the night."

Might this episode be one of the primary sources for the concept of Annanei Kavod - protective clouds - in each direction?

At any rate, the Ibn Ezra seems to think (on the basis of the verse in Tehillim) that the pillar of cloud spread itself wide over them to shield them from the scorching desert sun.
[3] See also Devarim 1:27, 5:27, and possibly Bamidbar 19:14
[4] One could claim, even with the Ibn Ezra, that they used the wood to create some sort of frame, and that the walls were made of cloth, and that this sort of wood-frame/cloth structure is known as an Ohel, a tent. That would assist us with logistical issues, but it still leaves us bewildered as to the word "Sukkot."
As for the word "Sukkkot", there IS a PLACE named Sukkot (Shemot 12:37; Bamidbar 33:5) which was their FIRST stop in the Wilderness after leaving Egypt. Might the Torah be relating the booth-Sukkoth to the place called Sukkoth? That seems unlikely. (– more about this at the end of the shiur)
[5] See the work of Yaakov Nagen from Yeshivat Otniel, who elaborates upon the Sukka-Mikdash connection or symmetry.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Like a Pomegranate

Pomegranate is a fruit that has become associated with Rosh Hashannah. The true origin of the connection might well be (as I can testify from the tree in my garden) that pomegranates ripen just around the time of Rosh Hashanna. The coin in the picture here is from the period of the Bar Kochba revolt and clearly contains an image of three pomegranates. This is an ancient Jewish symbol.

People frequently quote the Talmudic saying "even the empty are filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate" which appears several times in talmudic literature. (Brachot 57a and Sanhedrin 37a) It means that even the ignorant, or unworth of Israel, are filled with good deeds like a pomegranate.

But this statement is strange. I understand that the uneducated can possibly exhibit be piety. But what if the phrase "empty" here indicates an unworthy person? Why should the "empty" (reikanim" be filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate? If so, why are they "empty"? Clearly they AREN't filled with mitzvot or else they would be "full"! Then how is this famous saying to be understood?

I had an insight into this as I was scooping out the seeds from a pomegranate of Rosh Hashannah. The seeds are tough to extract, and one constantly finds hidden chambers with yet another few seeds, and then a further section with yet another few.

maybe THIS is what Chazal meant. Even the empty of Israel have Mitzvot in all sorts of unexpected places. This is certainly true. How often do we realise that even the most unlikely Jews keep many aspects of tradition, or engage in secret acts of kindness. These are the hidden pomegranate seeds that every Jew possesses. The point then is not that the "empty" are filled with seeds like a pomegranate, but rather that their seeds are not necessarily self evident.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What's your Kavanna?

I love this story from Rav Steinsaltz. (article entitled "Education for Prayer.")

In order to explain something about this subject of kavvanah, I will quote a well-known anecdote:
They tell of a simple Jew, almost an ignoramus, who stood on Rosh Hashanah and recited with great fervor the liturgical poems: "These and these shout with a shouting, these and these roar with a roaring…" They asked him why this great fervor over '
befetsah mefatshin', and what did he understand by these prayers?
The Jew answered, “What do I care what is written there? - I know that all of the prayers have one meaning: Master of the Universe, help us to make a living."

On the topic of Kavanna, see this post too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Assaf Ramon z"l

The awful news of the death of Assaf Ramon has hit Israel by storm.

He was the eldest son of Ilan Ramon, Israel's only astronaut (and a pilot who bombed the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1976) who was killed so tragically before our eyes in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. We all watched on with tears in our eyes, how he wore his father's NASA jacket at his father's funeral. we watched with tears in our eyes as he graduated the pilot cadet course just a few months ago. And now, his plane has crashed. What a terrible tragedy for the family.

It is amazing how Ilan Ramon touched all of our lives. I wrote this at the time of his death, some 6 years ago:

The news that has occupied Israel over the past 24 hours is
the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and in particular,
our astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Israel has been overwhelmed with
a feeling of national sadness today. Despite the intifada
and the economy, Ilan Ramon struck a deep chord and his loss
has been devastating on a National scale. There has been
nothing else on the radio. All sectors of Israeli society
are subdued with this tragic news.

What particularly impressed me, and drew me to admire Ilan
Ramon, was his unusual sense of Jewish pride. He knew that
he was the first Israeli astronaut. Despite the fact that he
was not personally shomer mitzvot, he decided to eat kosher
on the space shuttle, to commemorate Shabbat by making
Kiddush, to recite Shema Yisrael as he passed over
Yerushalayim. He clearly had a deeply religious soul. In
addition, as a child of Holocaust suvivors, he took symbols
of the Holocaust, amongst them a Sefer Torah that was kept
in secret through the Shoah. This man understood that at the
heart of Jewish identity, is Shabbat, Kashrut, Sefer Torah,
Sh'ma; all this as an expression of Judaism, Holocaust and
Medinat Yisrael. For him there was no difference between
Jewish and Israeli. We did not simply have an astronaut in
space. We lost a precious person who represented so many
Jewish truths.

Today I heard a story that typifies his Jewish approach to
his Israeli-Jewish identity. The Chief Commander of the
Israel Air Force asked Ilan Ramon if there was anything that
he would like to take to Space to represent the IAF. Ramon
responded that he would like to carry to Space the Mezuza
from the IAF headquarters. Every connection had a Jewish
rootedness, certainly a very unusual trait to find.

May his family find comfort amongst the mourners of Tzion
and Yerushalayim. Today all of Tzion and Yeriushalayim was
mourning together with them. Tihye Nishmato Zerura Bitzror

At the time, my son was just in first grade. The entire school had been following the Space mission. These little boys were all recommended to watch the launch of the Shuttle. And there was a huge picture of Ilan Ramon, saying "Ilan will be coming home in X days!" His science homework was to watch the live TV feed from the Shuttle. Ilan became every little Israeli boy's hero. And then on Motzaei Shabbat after Havdalla, when the shuttle crashed and we were watching it on live TV, I cannot even begin to tell you how my little son was crestfallen, in tears, besides himself. I recall quite clearly how he simply didn't know how to react. In the end, he sat down and drew a picture of a Space Shuttle eneveloped in fire. I kept the picture. It expressed the only way that my son could deal with his disappointment and sorrow.

I cannot forget the story of how each astronaut would get woken up one day of the mission with their favourite music. Ilan Ramon's wife Rona, woke him up with a famous Israeli love song. I must be honest that I cannot hear that song anyomore without tearing up and thinking of him. The words are:

זֶמֶר נוּגֶה

הֲתִשְׁמַע קוֹלִי, רְחוֹקִי שֶׁלִּי,
הֲתִשְׁמַע קוֹלִי, בַּאֲשֶׁר הִנְּךָ –
קוֹל קוֹרֵא בְּעֹז, קוֹל בּוֹכֶה בִּדְמִי
וּמֵעַל לַזְּמַן מְצַוֶּה בְּרָכָה?

תֵּבֵל זוֹ רַבָּה וּדְרָכִים בָּה רָב.
נִפְגָּשׁוֹת לְדַק, נִפְרָדוֹת לָעַד.
מְבַקֵּשׁ אָדָם, אַךְ כּוֹשְׁלוֹת רַגְלָיו,
לֹא יוּכַל לִמְצֹא אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָבַד.

אַחֲרוֹן יָמַי כְּבָר קָרוֹב אוּלַי,
כְּבָר קָרוֹב הַיּוֹם שֶׁל דִּמְעוֹת פְּרִידָה,
אֲחַכֶּה לְךָ עַד יִכְבּוּ חַיַּי,
כְּחַכּוֹת רָחֵל לְדוֹדָהּ.

Will you hear my voice so far away from me
Will you hear my voice where ever you are
A strong voice,
praying silently
And beyond time, it sends a blessing

This land is large and has many paths
We meet for a moment and separate for ever
A man tries, but his legs fail
He will never find what he has lost

My final days are very close
Near is the day of good bye tears
I will wait for you until my life will end
Like Rachel waited for her lover

I always find it so ironic that this classic Israeli love song, became so true with Ilan Ramon. Like an epitaph.

And now, his son, who chose to follow in his father's footsteps - a boy who everyone says was quite an exceptional young man filled with idealism - is dead, also finding his death in the air.

Words cannot quite come to grips with the depths of tragic emotion in a story like this.
As the Sephardi consolation line reads:
מן השמים תנוחם

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Have you seen this video?

This is the new video from MASA that has aroused a huge controversy. MASA just publicised that they are pulling the plug on the ad (link.) If you haven't seen it, watch it now. Questions below...

(Who uploaded that with a spelling mistake?)

Is this ad offensive?
Does it assume that Jews cannot survive w-out assimilation outside Israel? - Is that incorrect?

So, the blogosphere is filled with discussion on this. See this and this.
Others simply raise the huge cost of this campaign and wonder whether MASA is using its money wisely (link).

But what struck me is the basic philosophy, this confidence that the greatest solution to stem assimilation is to come to Israel! I know that this is the premise upon which Birthright and other programs are predicated. I know the statistics show that it is successful. (This video is like a Zionist version of Aish HAtorah!)

But is Israel enough?

Is Israel alone the answer to assimilation?

And what of Judaism?

I recall, as a 16 year-old chanich in Bnei Akiva, discussing "Is it better to be a religious Jew in England or a secular Jew in Israel?" It was a silly discussion because one doesn't get that choice in life, but nonetheless, it raises the question.

Rav Yuval does it again! Violent tendencies and Religious alcohol abuse in the Rel-Zionist Community.

Rav Yuval Sherlo, once again demonstrates himself as one of the most courageous and clear-thinking Rabbis in Israel today.

In a recent article (link, and slightly skewed and tabloidified here in English) Rav Yuval warns about the potential to violent acts in the Religious-Zionist community here in Israel. His article comes after a frightening series of murders in Israel over recent weeks. Rav Yuval warns us that the religious community is not immune. Let me summarise a few points:

First, he stresses that just because we are religious , we are not unaffected by these problems. Just as the religious community has had to admit that it too has domestic violence, and a drug problem, so too, we may never assume that it is the secular - "them" - who are tainted by these social ills, and imagine that we are somehow insulated from them.

He then highlights a few areas of caution:

1. Violent language: Israeli popular language doesn't specialise in tact and subtlety. It is frequently crude and inflammatory. Violent speech creates an environment of violence.

2. Violent movies. In the religious world , parents prefer their sons watch violent action movies to the "other option", i.e. sexually explicit content. The result being that Religious youth watch a great deal of violent TV. Does this not have an effect?

3. Rav Sherlo warns about alcohol abuse in the religious community, especially under the guise of Hassidic tisches and the like. The rising Hasidic trends in the Religious-Zionist community, have lent a legitimacy to drinking in Yeshivot etc. He cautions that this drinking can lead to violent behaviour.

4. Political Violence. That there is an increasing legitimisation of political violence, whether in Mea Shearim, or other places (link). Rav Yuval warns that this violence will spin out of control.

Rav Sherlo's messages are vital and timely. I feel that the Religious Zionist community in which I live is far too carefree in these areas (link) and I frequently feel that that there is a thin line to violence and lawlessness that can be easily crossed. Just today, it sounds like there was a murder between Yeshiva students in Netanya (link). Maybe his words have come just in time. If only people would absorb his wisdom.

Unfortunately, not enough people will heed Rav Sherlo. He is seen as too moderate, Left-wing, and the like. But I am glad that there is someone that shares my concerns. He is one of our most farsighted, eloquent, thoughtful, and balanced leaders. I hope his influence continues to grow.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Branding Israel

Richard Branson, the business guru who has created Virgin records, and then the airline, and the cellphone company, is in Israel. Today, Haaretz published a fascinating interview (link) with him. This bit caught my eye:

"One thing in which Branson famously excels, aside from business, is public relations. He's a master. And in his expert opinion, on a PR basis, the endless Israeli-Palestinian feud has not been good - "zero out of 10," as he delicately puts it. He notes a story from last week, of Palestinian families evicted from their homes. He doesn't know the details of the story "at all," Branson says - but he does think he read that the families were in the middle of their dinner. "Can you think of a worse PR story for Israel?" he asks.

"The best way of sorting out getting good PR is by action. Virgin as a company, as a brand - we're only as strong as what we do. If we don't behave in an ethical way, if we don't behave in a way that we can sleep at night, then the brand will be damaged, and our PR will be damaged," he explains.

... Public relations is all about branding. What does brand Israel stand for, in the eyes of the world? That has changed over time, Branson explains. "I think it's something similar to what happened after 9/11. You know after 9/11 the world had enormous sympathy for America, and you know that sympathy was somehow lost. And obviously after the Second World War, the world had enormous sympathy for the Jewish people. Over a number of decades, that sympathy has been lost .... You've got a great country, but you've just got to hold the hands of your neighbors, and then you'll get back on top again."

Indeed, we need to find a way to re-brand Israel. I grew up in an age of recalling the glory of the Six Day War, the ethical edge of Tzahal, the heroism of Entebbe, the nostalgic return to Biblical places, the Peace Treaty with Egypt. Today's generation recall 25 years of lebanon war, intifada, suicide bombings, Gaza, seperation fences, and now in the Obama era, Settlements are obstacles, and Yehuda VeShomron is occupation.

We do need to re-brand.

But what should our new brand be? If good PR is action, then what actions may exemplify a moral and upstanding Israel? Is it only on the Palestinian issue , or could we improve by rebooting, re-educating Israeli society as a society of ethics and honesty, care and tolerance, non-agression, industrious and hard-working, environmental conscious, educationally aware and oriented, nationally motivated and Jewishly knowledgable and proud. If all that was what Israeli society stood for, then we would have fewer international and image problems.

Oh! and on that note... Branson calls to break the cartel of the cellphone companies and to start some real competition in the marketplace rather than the current price-fixing. I couldn't agree more.

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Qumeran to the Shrine of the Book

Children love detective stories, hidden vaults, and discovery. At first glance, the world of archeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls could be as dead as the people who wrote them. Why should a child be interested in some old scrolls of Isaiah!?

But last week, I took my kids on tiyul to Ein Gedi. On on the way, the kids began reading the road signs, that the municipality was called "Megillot" i.e. "scrolls.' This already had them asking question about the strange name. As we passed the Qumeran site, I told them, in my best adventure story style, about the way in which these scrolls were discovered. We spoke about the Essenes who wanted to live out of the corruption of Jerusalem in a pure environment. We continued talking about mythical battles between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Dark, and Star Wars (Darth Vader in Black) and it was all alive; the kids were really "into it!"

And then this week, we visited the Israel Museum and saw the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Shrine of the Book. I must have done something right because even my 4-year-old was fascinated by the artifacts: combs, cups and scythes of the ancient Essenes, and the clay jugs in which the scrolls were discovered. When we entered the main hall with the scrolls, they all enjoyed trying to decipher the text, and the architecture is also inspiring.

It is just fabulous to be able to do this detective journey here in Israel. This is the type of education I love, whether for my own kids or for the tours I lead, this is the stuff that makes the boring things become fascinating.

One thing that I was unable to transmit was the ecitement people felt by the validation, that the same scrolls which existed in pre-Exilic Judea, were still part of the Holy Books of the Jewish nation. The boost that it gave Zionism, and the feeling of return was a palpable exhilaration which animated the entire project of these ancient textual fragments. Kids aren't so good with a 2000 year Historical perspective, but the adults who were with us enjoyed that bit!

I think that someone needs to make an action packed TV adventure series here in Israel, incorporating adventure, ancient sites, codes, and ancient Historical figures who have come alive. (Sort of - the Da Vinci Code meets Indiana Jones and National Treasure.) If done well, it could help a generation of Israelis understand just how relevant and rich there History is.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Herzl and the challenges of Israeli Society

This week, as part of the kids' summer vacation we took them to the Herzl Museum at Har Herzl. It has recently been renovated and modernised. So here are a few impressions.

The museum is built with certain assumptions in mind. There is no doubt that it is directed at the young Israeli public, and to this purpose, it has to explain certain things:

1. It has to explain what anti-semitism is. It is quite incredible that our kids who grew up here have no idea of fear of non-Jews, or any sense of discrimination. As for my growing up in England, anti-semitic remarks were always around, and there was a latent feeling that as Jews we were somewhat vulnerable to attack. Israeli kids have no concept of an environment of exclusion and Jew hatred. (For example, we were discussing Soviet Jewry the other day and talking about Jews being restricted from practising their religion. My 4-yr-old said: "But where were the chayalim? Wherer were the Jewish Chayalim?" - He cannot conceive of Jews as oppressed, powerless; as objects of discrimination.)

So that is one thing they have to teach.

2. A second thing they try to transmit is the atmosphere of culture, of nobility, dignity and even high-society that represented the way of life for the ruling European echelons. From a contemporary Israeli perspective, life is so casual, there is so little sense of ceremony and formality that they need to explain this, both in order to describe Herzl's European persona, and also the manner in which he sought to launch his Congress in the best of European formality and decorum.

3. But the prime reflection that strikes a person as they experience the museum is that clearly the assumption is that young (school age?) Israelis see Herzl as archaic and irrelevant to their lives. It represents an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy man who dreamed of an Israel that has nothing to do with the Israel that we live in.

Here, I experienced a certain frustration. For me, as a Zionist, I was looking forward to something of a pilgrimage, to take my children to a place in which the assumption is that this man envisioned the reality of a Jewish national home, and set the foundational momentum to make it happen. Israeli society clearly has little sense of its "Founding Fathers." That is certainly a bad thing.

The museum ends by raising the question as to what degree Herzl's vision has been fulfilled. Is Israel the beacon of civilisation pushing back the frontier against barbarianism in the East? Is Israel the economic and industrial power that Herzl envisioned? Does it fulfill his thinking as regards the place of religion, and did he envisage a war-torn country, fighting well beyond its sixth decade?

And yet, this discussion as to the texture of Israeli civic society, about its values, its cultural thrust, its ideals, norms and principles, are a vital discussion. Frequently, I feel we discuss these issues only in moments of despair and crisis, and even then, as rivaling camps, as combaatants rather than people who seek to live together. Two recent events: the shooting at a Gay center in Tel Aviv (link), and the question of whether to deport Foreign Workers (link) have raised vital questions about what it means to be a "Jewish" - Yes, Jewish country.

Does Judaism dictate that we look out for the stranger in our midst (link), or alternatively, that we ensure that there are fewer non-Jews living amongst us, to reduce the possibility of intermarriage and assimilation?

Does Judaism dictate respect and tolerance, or does it condemn Homosexuals because the Torah forbids it? Do we hope, plan, educate to an atmosphere, a national culture of tolerance, acceptance, mutual respect, or one of condemnation, judgmentalism, and exclusion? And if we adopt the former set of norms, then how do we work towards goals and ideals? and in what way can we furter the Jewish charachter of the country?

I have been reading Rabbi Sacks' new book, "Future Tense". He has a chapter (A New Zionism) about this point:
"The first challenge of Zionism, the creation of a Jewish state, has been achieved. The second, the creation of a Jewish society, has barely begun."
Rabbi Sacks talks about " the absence of an Israeli national narrative" and the fact that we have yet to define a national set of priorities that can gain widespread commitment and give a raison d'etre for the entire nation. This is the building of a Jewish SOCIETY rather than just the building of a STATE. Here there are vital questions, and the work of Herzl and his compatriots are far from finished. We desperately need to have this conversation; yes - a conversation, rather than a confrontation. For this reason, we cannot enter, let alone emerge, from the Herzl museum tired and cynical.
There is much work to be done, and many unanswered questions.
(I have already written on these themes here and here and here)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Women's Learning and Women Rabbis

I surprised myself the other week by engaging in a passionate Feminist speech. I say surprised myself, because as I see it I have never held particularly Feminist views. I have certain problems with Shira Chadasha - the current cutting edge of Orthodox (?) Feminism - and I frequently find Feminist activism as petty, irritating and destabilising/anti-establishment.

So my harangue began as we raised the topic of the Maharat ordination (link1 link2). For the uninitiated, the Marahat is a title aimed at ordaining women as Rabbis in the Orthodox community. It has been instigated by Rav Avi Weiss of HIR in Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevai Torah.

I guess a few comments are in order as a prelude:

1. I am a big believer in Limmud Torah for women. I believe that true depth in Jewish belief, practice and emotional experience is a function of the extent to which we have learned and absorbed classic Jewish texts into our consciousness. This can only happen through serious and extensive Talmud Torah. I see no difference between men and women in this regard.

2. I have many role models of wonderful women Talmidot Chachamim in my community (Alon Shevut). My neighbours include several women who are widely respected and consulted for their Halakhic knowledge as Yoatzot Halakha (link). Then there are my colleagues and friends - some of the finest and most sought after women Torah teachers in Jerusalem. Alon Shevut has a women's Daf Yomi that meets daily, and every day, I encounter committed, bright, halakhic, spiritually and religiously motivated women who are living exemplars of Torah and who are certainly learned by any definition of the term.

3. I have said for some time, in conversation with my students, that Rabbis serve four primary functions:
#1. psak halakha; #2. teaching; #3. Counseling and giving guidance/advice; #4. A synagogue function.
As for women, functions #1-3 they already do. Women DO pasken (Yoatzot Halakha), DO give guidance and advise, and DO teach men and women Torah (Nehama Leibowitz anyone?) All this is de rigeur in the Modern Orthodox community.

Function #4. is more problematic since we have seperate zones in shul. But effectively, ignoring that, what is wrong with a woman "Rabbi"?

... And having said all of that, I didn't see it important to push for a title, or a communal status. It just didn't seem that important!

So, back to my harangue. It is connected to my experience, and frustration, with my daughter's schooling. My daughter is an excellent student, thank God, and is generally at the top-end of her class. She frequently acts as if school just isn't that challenging.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that in her school, she has just started a Torah Shebal Peh program this year. Let us begin with the fact that this topic receives only 2 hours/week, and she is in 5th grade...not exactly reinforcing the importance of the topic. But OK, if we do accept that, what are they studying in these 2 hours? - A single Mishna from Pirkei Avot each week. ONE MISHNA! These are Israeli kids who can simply read it. They aren't doing mepharshim. What are they doing???!!! Let me add that I have already studied multiple massechtot of Mishna with my daughter including Massechet Shabbat (24 chapters!) She knows Mishna. Why is Avot the only Toshb"p that she is doing in school?

[Just to make things clear, they study 18 hours+ Tanach a week! It is a high-level seriously religious girls school]

So why are they doing so little? So many excuses were given. But two things stood clear to me after some investigation:

1. The school doesn't particularly see the great need to teach my daughter Torah shebAl Peh. Let me add that in a neighboring school, boys are given the opportunity to study 2 extra hours of Gemara after school (called Tigbur - strengthening!) and the girls simply go home. Apparently girls don't need strengthening! But also it is clear that even in Gush Etzion with so many learned women and the towering institute of Migdal Oz, women's Torah Shebal Peh is not taken nearly as seriously, and is far below the level of their male counterparts.

2. One of the problems was that there simply were no female teachers on the staff of this particular school who felt adequately trained to teach Mishna at the requisite level. After all, a great Mishna teacher has studied Mishna and Talmud for years. He or she knows the material at a very high level and can bring all his or her experience to bear when teaching even basic material (Mishna) thereby injecting interest and investing the subject matter with depth and relevance. No women on the faculty had this capability.

So how can I change things? How can I get the school to take my daughter's brain and soul seriously? How can I get the teachers who know Torah Shebal Peh into the school?

And so, I began to think: In the Western world, when High Schools failed to take girls' physics seriously, someone said: "Well, we need women physics teachers. Until the students see a female role model, they will never take it seriously. And to get women's physics teachers we need female University professors. Because unless we have women teaching physics in University, we will never have physics taken seriously for girls at High School. " And I guess that is Feminism. And maybe - just possibly - it applies to my frustration. Maybe what is true for physics is true for Torah, or in our case, Mishna.

And I suddenly thought, well maybe we DO need to have publicly recognised communal figureheads who are versed in Torah ShebAl Peh. Maybe we do need women Rabbis, or at least women Talmidei Chachamim with some hefty public recognition. Why? -So that someone will take 5th grade Mishna seriously for my daughter!

Now, .... I am still torn, still a little stuck on this one. Maybe I am just torn between innovation and traditionalism. Maybe I am wavering due to my inability to read the long-term implications of such a move. I know that I don't particularly like the Maharat title as such. To be honest, I would like to see the Yoetzet title develop as the prime title that recognises women as masters of Halakhic study, (even if it is in Hilchot Nidda... after all, traditional Semicha is just on Kashrut topics.) I also have no real clarity as to the precise role I want such a women to play in shul, if she were to be the sole spiritual leader of a congregation. And yet, let me reiterate that unless the community see women Talmidei Chachamim ( - It doesn't have to be a Rabbi, or a Maharat, or a Yoetzet - ) and recognise that role of scholar, teacher and religious guide as a valuable pursuit, as a noble status for women; until then, our daughters' Talmud Torah will be relegated to second-rate status. Always.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Maccabiah 18. Everyone is Jewish!

The Maccabiah is a phenomenal enterprise. I saw this headline in Haaretz this week, which sort of sums it up:

'It's Amazing! Everyone's Jewish' (link)

To participate in a sporting event with over 5000 Jews coming together in Israel, is quite something. Many of these Jews mix predominantly in non-Jewish social circles. Some are from small communities where there are small Jewish populations. Suddenly they are in Israel, with 5000 Jews. It must be quite a celebration.

I spent a wonderful Shabbat this week at Kfar HaMaccabiah. It was quite a happening scene. A beautiful hotel and sports complex teeming with young and old - over 180 athletes and 150 delegate leaders - all dressed in colourful sports clothing, branded with their national colours and the Maccabiah symbol.

So why was I there? The Rabbinic organisation, Tzohar, sent me. They figured that with so many Jews, there should be some Judaism. This excellent initiative sent Rabbis to each of the Maccabiah hotels in order to inject some Judaism. We ran a lovely Kabbalat Shabbat and kiddush on Friday night. We tried to run some other programs in the course of Shabbat. (They didn't all succeed mainly due to lack of publicity. Next time - in 4 years - I will have understood better how to manouver the Maccabiah organisational system.)

We met some incredible people, including a lovely 84 year-old South African man, Isaac Joffe, who plays tennis in the over '80's category, and Albert, the head of the French delgation, as well as the Chilean rugby team who all attended Kabbalat Shabbat.

And yet, what does strike me is that we were a drop in the ocean there. There are so many Jews., but very little Judaism. Shani - the Israeli Culture Coordinator at our hotel, a young secular looking woman - was really excited at the prospect of a good spiritual Kabbalat Shabbat. I don't know her background, but as an Israeli, she had participated in Birthright and the spiritual quality of Kabbalat Shabbat on that program made a deep impression on her. It was strikingly evident that Shani was really hoping for a Jewish spiritual Friday night experience, as were many others. But 80% of the athletes were doing other things. (Yes - I know these people come for the sport, and have their mind on sport, but still, since this is a Jewish event, how DO we give it greater Jewish content?)

I have to be honest; I generally educate in Modern Orthdox circles, a world which I know intimately. I am more than a little puzzled whenever I come into contact with very secular Jewish groups, especially from abroad. I am always wondering: Where is their Judaism rooted? Of what does it consist? For me, my Judaism rests on the foundations of Halakha, ritual, community, study. It is everything to me. Without that, my Judaism would feel flimsy, unsubstantial. But can a Maccabiah identity be the totality of a person's Judaism? Can a Judaism that consists of vague rituals on Pesach and Yom Kippur, of sporting groups and some social and fundraising events, truly mobilise young people to be proud Jews? What content do these people give their Judaism? I don't mean to patronise. I am genuinely curious.

Tzohar have made a start. I would love to find ways to take this sort of thing further. But I also need to understand better what makes these young proud Jews tick. After all, these Jews are the majority of the Jewish world. What excites them? When they are proud to be Jewish, what is the source of that pride? These people do not observe shabbat, and their cultural context is entirely secular. I wonder, what acts ro situations do they consider to be "Jewish?" What contitutes their Judaism? What role does Israel play in all this? And will this be powerful enough to pass on to their children?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Simple Kindnesses

Chassidic stories and the like have a legend of "hidden tzadikkim", good people who look ordinary but do very special work behind the scenes, when no one in particular is looking. Where does one find such people?

Well, we made a "simcha" this past weekend - my eldest son's Barmitzva. It was all wonderful, and we had much to celebrate. It is the first "simcha" that we have made beyond the rushed organisation of a "Brit." And so in our planning and running of the events, we discovered certain things, or maybe I should say, people, that we did not expect.

Planning the Shabbat of a Barmitzva is quite a feat. If one wants to avoid the inordinate cost of a full blown caterer, how does one manage? After all, one needs tablecloths, napkins and dishes, and one wants them to be elegant, colour coordinated and the like. Moreover, one may wish to eat of china rather than plastic plates. How do we do this for forty people in a cost effective way?

What we discovered is that our Yishuv (community) has a Gema"ch (free loan society) for family celebrations. They have a storage room with tablecloths in about 20 colours, serving dishes, decorative pieces for the table, every last detail including a board to cut the Challah, and a mirror on which to place Shabbat candles. and the amazing thing is that one can take all these things for FREE! (One has to pay to get the tablecloths laundered but that is the total cost.) The people who work there volunteer. I don't know who set it up, nor who donated all the beautiful things there. But what an amazing concept! Everyone has bar/batmitzvas, aufrufs, and other family parties. Why not have a central facility that helps everyone to have a high-quality upscale simcha for minimal running costs? The fact that all this is offered to the community without charge is astounding.

And after the Shabbat, we had leftover food. Friends informed us of a man in our community who distributes leftovers to needy local families. We took him the food. He ensured that needy families received it. This man has created a discreet network which ensures that he is informed of families in need, and he provides for their basic needs.

Once again, here is a shining example of exemplary work performed without fanfare or prestige but this is a service which, no doubt, restores dignity and hope (let alone nutrition) to many desperate homes.

And I am quite amazed that I have lived in this community for 15 years and I was absolutely unaware of these terrific public services. It would appear that certain acts of kindness are done quietly; so quietly that until a person stumbles upon them, one just doesn't know about them.

But beyond these special acts and institutions let me mention something even simpler. we received many phone calls: from friends abroad, family, my parents' friends, all wishing us Mazal Tov. It warmed our hearts. So many people cared to boost our simcha. It doesn't take much to pick up the phone and speak and listen for 60 seconds, but it made a powerful difference to us. I frequently forget to call people in these situations. Now I understand just how incredible it is. The sense that people who you care about are remembering you and celebrating together with you is deeply heart warming. so this has taught me an important lesson, of the power of joining with others in their simcha, the potent force of caring and expressing love to others. That nurturing a friendship and demonstrating concern for friends - not the needy but friends - is also an act which raises us up and make our lives happy, worthwhile and meaningful.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Notes on Parashat Korach

1. Korach's political slogan is כי כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה in other words, the people are holy, sacred. Hence they are entitled to leadership. This seems like a wonderful democratic egalitarian argument.

I recall Yishayahu Leibowitz's comment when he notes that the paragraph that preced Korach is the parsha of Tzitzit where the people are also called holy:

"... in order that you may remember and perform all my command AND YOU WILL BE HOLY TO THE LORD."

Yishayahu Leibowitz puts it in the following way:

"The difference between these two perceptions of 'holiness' is the distinction between religious faith and pagan worship. The holiness of Parshat Tzitzit is not a given assumption but a task. There we are not told, "You are holy", but a demand is made to "become holy." But in the religious consciousness of Korach and his followers, "The entire congregation is holy." Holiness is something bestowed upon one.

The distinction between the two concepts is deeper still: ... In Parshat Tzitzit, holiness is expressed in the most sublime aspect of the life of faith and the religious mindset of man; that he is required to accept upon himself a task. Nothing is promised or assured. He is simply charged with a demand ... But, in the holiness of Korach and his group ... man frees himself from responsibility, from the mission with which he is charged and from the obligation to struggle." (Notes on the weekly Parsha pg.96-97)

2. Nonetheless, it is interesting that there may appear to be some truth in this egalitarian approach. I think from our modern perspective, we also have a difficult time understanding priesthood i.e. religious ritual leadership as restricted to a particular family or tribe. We value equal opportunity. Do we truly understand why the Kohanim and them alone, are selected as Aharon's descendents? Would a system of "bechor" with every tribe and family represented be so wrong - and don't we know that the priesthood was certainly open to corruption as was seen during 2nd Temple times.

Maybe there is some truth or sanctity here in the argument of the 250? And indeed certain fringe elements of the story do indicate that theer is at least some substance to their acts in that the firepans (of the 250) are "raised" (17:2) "for they are sanctified." Their act did have some residual sanctity. It was not all blasphemy. It was holy! Does this signify a kernel of truth in their motivation, their cause? See the Netziv who suggests that the group of 250 were Tzaddikim and their motivation was pure (if mistaken.)

3. Why did the 250 leaders agree to the ketoret (incense) test at ENTRANCE to the Mishkan? Why not INSIDE the Mishkan? Is it not a recipe for failure? After all the Ketoret is brought inside the Mishkan!
Two possibilities:
a. They were fearful of the inner chamber of the Mishkan. They were concerned not to enter inappropriately such as the acts of Nadav and Avihu. This was an exercise in caution.
b. Their bringing ketoret OUTIDE is a reflection of their call for access, for deregulation, for lowering the entry requirements and quotas. Their aim is to bring the Ketoret to the nation! Bringing the ketoret in the "hidden" chamber is an insult to the nation. They don't want to separate from the nation. They want to be connected. Bringing the ketoret OUTSIDE is precisely what they are about.

4. Moshe and Aharon's role and conduct in the parasha is nothing other than outstanding. They have suffered incredible personal attack and yet, twice in the parasha , God offers to destroy the nation (see 16:21 and 17:9) and Moshe and Aharon, despite the fact that they may have felt hurt by all the wranglings, refuse absolutely to "allow" God to decimate the nation. TWICE God tells them that they should remove themselves from the sinning throngs. each time they refuse.

Moshe and aharaon show themselves as the true champions of the nation, rather than Korach and his group who each seem to have a personal agenda clothed in idealism.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama's Perspective

Much has been said and written about Obama's Cairo speech. I am going to add a couple of thoughts of my own. (For some other responses, see here and here)

Let me begin by saying that Obama's speech was an attempt to be balanced, sophisticated and intelligent about the Middle East, respectful and generous about Islam. From an American perspective I think it was a good speech. From our perspective however, Obama's attempt to embrace the Muslim world isn't such great news for the Jews. We certainly drew the short straw. To quote a summary from the (London) Times:

"His toughest message was reserved for Jewish settlers on the West Bank, whose communities he termed illegitimate. He added that Jerusalem, claimed by Israel as its capital, should be a home for Jews and Christians and Muslims."

I should add that I support Obama, I like him, and his general approach. I should also add that I am frequently despondant that our leaders, both Left and Right, seem to be in an impasse as regards the Peace Process. The Right ignore the Palestinian's Rights, the Left seem unrealistic as to the threats of the enemy and the need to address and cultivate the Jewish soul of Medinat Yisrael. New ideas ARE needed. Israel is crying out for solid and final borders and a solution to the stalemate so that we can apply our energies to other things. Nonetheless, it is not fun to have the American President put us on the spot and effectively point the finger primarily at Israel as the major culprit or hindrance to Peace.

I have two comments.

1. There is no doubt whatsoever that Obama has shifted the U.S. administration's attitudes towards Israel. (I wrote about this months ago - link). And this shift is uncomfortable from the Israeli perspective.

One feels that Obama is picking on us in particular, day by day. I cannot help feeling that the pressure that he is applying regarding Israel is excessive. After all, Obam has repeated at least five times over the past 3 weeks as to how Israel must stop settlement activity, Clinton has also driven the message home, and so has Biden. what happened to being "diplomatic" in the sphere of diplomacy? This is a very heavy handed approach.

And one wonders, is settlement activity the most heinous crime in the region?
why is this policy in particular being singled out? - Is it the most dramatic obstacle to a two-state solution?
And whereas I feel that he is treating Iran with kid's gloves, we are feeling the heat.

At some level, this single minded focus on settlement building feels simplistic and shallow, easy pickings. But there are so many other factors to this crisis, not least amongst them, Hamas's ongoing refusal to recognise Israel, that one wonders how Obama can see settlement restriction as the panacea to a 100 year war.

2. And possibly this second point will help us understand how Obama sees things. See this quote from his speech:

"Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America's founding."

To understand Obama, one must realise that the civil rights movement, the oppression of the blacks in America and their eventual equal rights, is a force that animates his perspective. (Just read his book. It is at the centre of his consciousness.)

In this passage he explains something simple. From his viewpoint, Israelis are the whites, the oppressors, and the Palestinians are the oppressed, the blacks. For me this may explain why Obama feels so passionate about this issue. It also helps me understand why we shouldn't anticipate Obama to sympathise with our perspective. The way he sees things, the Palestinians are an oppressed nation. They are his brethren and they should be freed from their slavery. It's not a Muslim thing; it is deeper and more emotive than all that. His heart lies with the Palestinians. we are the rich, white slaveowners.

Now that doesn't look to good for our prospects over the coming years.

It's going to be a rough ride.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Silence of Israel's PM

I am jealous of the US. I am jealous of them because they have a leader who communicates. Obama's weekly YouTube video communications may be a gimmick, but nonetheless they express a deep respect for the electorate and a significant commitment to the spirit of democracy as he engages with the nation directly, explaining and inspiring, informing and sharing. These video communiques allow the general public to hear his messages and to understand his policy, to comprehend how their country is being run, on a regular basis.

And how about us here in Israel? Silence! - Bibi is supposed to be the great Communicator, the media genius, the TV wonder kid. And yet, we don't hear him. Except for a snippet or two at the start of a cabinet meeting, or a 5 second soundbite from a conference speech, I don't feel that my PM is communicating with me.

This is a problem at a number of levels. The first is that I don't know his plans: not on health, education, energy, let alone the Peace process and the problem of Hamas and what have you. Sometimes, one has the feeling that policies are invented at the last minute, that it is all very Israeli, patched together, off the cuff. Tell us the game plan, demonstrate that there is a plan, a strategy.

Second, there is the question of the national mood, the sense of leadership. Talking, imparting a message, communication is vital. It allows a leader to instill a sense of mission and common purpose in the nation. To share enthusiasm and passion, to have the nation embark on a journey together, to get everybody on board.

We need this desperately here in Israel. With so many challenges, some vision and hope are in short supply. If the PM were to address the nation regularly, we might be able to join together to address in unity certain key national objectives. The PM doesn't even need to reveal his Peace strategy (although it might be nice.) He could simply discuss topics less in conflict eg. Clean energy, Higher Education, the Zionist endeavour of settling the Negev and Galil, and outline thoughts on the more complicated and controversial policies too. we would like to hear his thoughts, his values, his ideas, hopes and fears. If ideas are shared, if thoughts are transmitted then we can truly work together.

And furthermore even when we disagree, if policies were expressed, presented and explained, it could foster a sophisticated discussion, rather than the awful political climate of shallow slogans and empty platitudes.

Why don't Israeli Prime Ministers talk to the people?

Sharon made silence and art form when he realised (or his spin doctors) that words just lose votes. He made silence a virtue when it came to electioneering, allowing images and a slogan or two to do the talking. Olmert followed in his footsteps talking little in election campaigns. and the result is that Israelis are not shocked when Prime Minister's make completely unpredictable policy shifts, light years from their election promises. Israelis are unfazed. as if to say... what do you expect?

But politicians are answerable to the nation. We simply know too little, we have not heard the leaders articulate their policy, we - the citizens - do not understand the views and proposed actions of our leaders , the directions in which they are leading us.

Go on Mr. Netanyahu. Talk to us! You are the Communicator. Tell us what is on your mind. Include us in the debate, in the conversation. Outline your plans, share your views, your policies and dreams. Let us share your vision. Let us begin a conversation. Let's get it out in the open. Enough feeling that all the decisions are made, ad hoc, behind closed doors, in dark shadowy rooms by faceless nameless advisers and aides! Enough of feeling that everything is a political compromise. We need more transparency. We need more inspiration, more vision. Talk to us! You will only win friends that way... and you may even convert some enemies.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Basic Books and Questions of Cultural Literacy

This post is appropriate at any time, but maybe especially in the lead-up to Shavuot, raising questions of our Kabbalat Torah and the extent to which we engage in the commitment of Brit Sinai (the Covenant that we made at Sinai.)

I'll begin with an anecdote. The other day, I took my son to the Hebrew bookshop i.e. the Sefarim store - Sifrei Kodesh. we were supposed to make a Barmitzva List - a list of books that he has designated, so that guests to the Barmitzva can have an easy time choosing a gift.

When I asked him what he wanted, he didn't really know, so I suggested that we buy the basic books that a person who wants to learn Torah should have. So we chose a Mikraot Gedolot, a Ramban, a Mishna Berura, Shemirat Shabbat Kehilchata, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch on Chumash, Nechama Leibowitz and much more. My son asked me what I was choosing and why, and I kept on repeating (somewhat unaware that this was my mantra,) that these are fundamental books that one should have and study. It became apparent that as the list grew in length, my son was getting somewhat nervous, and he challenged me: "Are you saying that ALL THESE are things I have to know?" And at that moment I realised that he was wondering how he was ever going to absorb all of that stuff!

But what is the basic Jewish bookshelf? and what is basic Jewish literacy? and why is it important?

I would say very simply that in every culture there is a corpus of knowledge - intellectual and cultural - that form the bedrock of that civilisation. and that in order to function successfully, let alone to play a central role, to become productive, to lead, to be valued in that society, one must have absorbed that bookshelf. We are talking about facts and ideas that form a foundational set of cultural vocabulary, the very language of that society. And to say something credible or articulate, to be a full member of that society, one must have absorbed that knowledge set.

This is certainly true in western society. and even in the various sub-groups and communities, each group has its own essential knowledge base and culture-set. For academics it will be certain books and papers, for the business community it will be interest rates and stock prices, for the average person it might be what is on TV last night ... i.e. the things that are assumed in your social surroundings.

And now to Judaism. what is literacy for us? For sure, it will differ within our sub-communities. But I have a feeling that if we wish to be "Torah" Jews, Jews who don't simply live life in a robotic set of ordinances and prescriptive directives, then we need to be knowledgeable. If we seek to produce thinking, self-reflective, articulate people who can understand their tradition - Torah Shebichtav and Torah ShebeAl Peh - then there is a certain knowledge base that allows a person to converse within the tradition, to evaluate positions and to find intellectual satisfaction within the world of Jewish ideas. It is from within the traditional bookshelf that we obtain that literacy, and it is only once we speak that language that we can really think Jewishly in the absolute sense of the word.

And it might be precisely this principle that underpins the mitzva of Talmud Torah - daily Torah study. We need to refresh our knowledge base, to encounter new ideas with regularity. We need to be conversant with our Torah texts and concepts in the same manner that we check our emails and favourite web-pages... daily (or multiple times a day.) For these are the experiences that give substance to our experiential reality, to the "now". to the ideas, emotions and impulses in my head.

I was discussing this with my students at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi. My students are currently about to leave Yeshiva and to start college. When on campus, where is your head space? Are you totally in the rhythm of the liberal value set of the college campus? Or are your thoughts, behaviour, speech and consciousness dictated by Torah and its values? I am not calling for sidelining college. But what I am raising is what is the "basic" literacy that governs our lives.

as we renew our covenant of Torah this Shavuot, we might want to mull this question, as to the prominence of Jewish substance at the bedrock of our daily reality.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

A message to Shimon Peres: The Making of True Leadership

I was rather appalled this weekend to read in Maariv (link) that the President (Peres) has had new lawns installed at the official Presidential Residence. Let's not even get into the cost which is a reported 3 million NIS. But what bothers me is the issue of water.

Every day on the TV and radio are commercials that inform us to take more water-economical showers, that the kinneret is drying up.

Indeed, our water resources are at a dismally low point. This is the fault of years of government negligence. They knew the problem and just failed to address it. Now, in order to seed new grass, a huge quantity of water is needed daily. Currently, the government are allowing us to water lawns only twice a week (link). Officially Peres' residence is subject to the same laws. It is "defined" by law as a private residence.

So why is Peres any different? - according to the article quoted above, a spokesman at the President's Residence said something to the effect of: What do you want? That Obama will come for a visit and see yellowed, dried-out lawns?

And I say - Yes! Do it Mr. President! Let Obama see dried out lawns. And then he will ask Shimon Peres why his grass is in such a terrible state. Shimon - citizen no.1 will answer him:

"We are a country with few water resources. We are currently suffering from severe water shortage. I have decided to set an example to the country. People will see my dried up grass and realise that this water situation is serious. I do not live in an ivory tower. I am one of the people. I need to lead by example."

And Obama will smile in admiration at this man who is willing to forgo the outer Presidential trappings and frills, in order to be a true leader. Shimon. If you just act in that way, you will win the admiration of any and every world leader.

In Bnei Akiva, we were always taught that to be a leader is to set a personal example. Our Hadracha (leadership training) was built upon the cardinal rule of "Dugma Ishit" - that the most effective leadership is one of personal example. That the ultimate hypocrisy is to preach one thing and to practice another. My experience in the world of education, community and parenting has demonstrated to me that this is true. If you genuinely want to change things, if you want to be an effective educator, a person who effects real internal change in others, start by acting in a manner that others can and will emulate.

Shimon. Show us all what a leader you are. Your Jerusalem residence is not Versailles. Join us, the people of Israel, in saving water, and we will all respect you more.

(For another just disgraceful and embarrasing example of total govermental blindness and arrogance in the water sphere, see this article. Is there no shame?)

Saturday, May 02, 2009

What does one do with music cassettes?

Naturally, when cleaning for Pesach, one throws out stuff; old papers, clothes that don't fit etc. But there is one thing that is sitting unused and unwanted that I am having a hard time with: my old cassettes. I barely own a cassette recorder anymore. Nonetheless, I am finding it hard to get rid of my cassettes: The first Police album that I purchased at age 13. Best of Queen, a full set of Beatles albums, Duran Duran, E.L.O, Blondie, Phil Collins and Genesis, Michael Jackson, and Simply Red, just to mention a few. In short, the best of the '80's. OK, and also some Miami Boy's Choir!

When I made Aliyah, I gave all my records (vinyl - yes!) to Oxfam. I hear that there is a new retro interest in records. But by my assessment cassettes are never going to make it back. No sentimentality there. And soon, even CD's will be dinosaurs.

I have nothing to do with the stuff. But it seems rather obscene to just throw 300 cassettes in the garbage! Any ideas? Do I just chuck them?

Comments are welcome!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yom Hazikaron 5769 - Siren and Silence

יום הזכרון תשס"ט
Pierre Koenig 11:00 am. Talpiot

The siren sounds,
A busy street comes to a standstill.
A call to attention,
A call to unity,
A summons to remember.
The world stands still.
אם יתקע שופר בעיר
ועם לא יחרד?

And I stand and think:
ונזכור את כולם
My cousin Yitzchak Hirschberg, who died in מלחמת שלום הגליל
Danny Frei – Larger than life. How charismatic! How driven to help the Jewish people, How filled with energy, warmth! Killed by a terrorist (in his bed!) in Michmas
Yoni Jesner – my Talmid. What potential!
Yeoshua Friedberg – who served his country. Gentle person. Part of our Katamon "chevra". Picked up at a trempiada. Killed by terrorists. How did he spend his last moments, in that speeding car?
Daniel Mandel - fighter, soldier, officer, from my Yishuv. Parents still distraught
יזכור אלוקים
May God remember them.
(Why do I know so many people...?)

אבינו שבשמים
ברך את מדינת ישראל
הגן אליה באברת חסדיך
ופרוס עליה את סוכת שלומיך
שים שלום בארץ
הגן את מגיני ארץ קדשינו.

הלנצח תאכל חרב?

The siren ends,
It splutters.
Breaths its last breaths.
- silence.

Life resumes,
traffic hums,
people walk,
Continue their daily routine.

But I observe:
A burly taxi driver wipe a tear from his eye,
A young man embracing and comforting the young lady who he is with,
And an elderly man, still standing to attention ... a full minute after the siren is quiet. Still there.

Life resumes?