Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 46. Should the Rabbi be Counting the Omer?

Who counts the Omer in your shul? Is it the shaliach tzibbur/chazzan (prayer leader) for
Maariv (evening prayers) or is it the Rabbi?

Many communities have the Rabbi count the Omer rather than the chazzan. Why is this? In some places it might be to avoid shaming the chazzan. A chazzan might have dropped a day of counting  mid-Omer, hence invalidating him from being able to recite the bracha. Hence, the Rabbi (who we assume attend shul daily and will not mess up) counts in order to eliminate asking the chazzan and possibly embarrassing him.

However I suspect another issue is at hand. In Hassidic communities the Rebbe counts. He is deemed as closer to God, and his blessing is more pure and holy. The Rebbe counts to add sanctity to the counting; to achieve a spiritual high that an ordinary commoner cannot reach. This veneration of the Rabbi is prevalant in yeshivot too, where the yeshiva head (Rosh Yeshiva) frequently has near cult-status, and hence in many yeshivot, the Rosh Yeshiva leads the counting.

Where I learned, in Yeshivat Har Etzion, both Rav Amital and Rav Lichtenstein never assumed that role, and they always told the chazzan to count. I always loved that. They didn't need to be the cult figurehead. I assume that they also presumed there was no significant spiritual advantage in them saying the blessing and counting aloud, and that the chazzan's counting was equally valid and equivalent in value to their own.

In my shul, the Rabbi counts and I wish he would ask the chazzan to do so. I think it would send a positive message. It conveys the sense that the religious observance of the average community member is on the same par as the Rabbi; that the Rabbi is no more holy than his congregants. Furthermore, it conveys confidence that baalei batim (congregants) can also successfully keep up with the counting. By this small gesture, the rabbi empowers his community and conveys to them that comprehensive halakhic observance is within their reach and a goal that they should set for themselves.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Jerusalem Day. A Time to Celebrate; Not a Day to Deliberate

Today is Yom Yerushalayim. Happy Holiday!

In recent years, it feels like Jerusalem Day has become more complicated. The political entanglement of the "territories" has cast a dark shadow over the sheer joy of the day. Even a card-carrying right-winger would argue that the issues raised by Israel's control over/return to/liberation of Yehudah veShomron are far from simple, and as a result, for many the festivity of Yom Yerushalyim is fraught with the complexities of current politics. This has been a feeling shared with me by many religious-zionist friends.

But I would argue that this is one day to put all the heavy baggage aside. To paraphrase Kohelet; there is a time to deliberate, and a time to celebrate. And today - Yom Yerushalayim - one must celebrate.

Today we should rejoice at the return to the Kotel, and our reconnection to the site of our Temple, the beating heart of the Jewish people towards which all Israel directed its heart in prayer, its tears of sorrow, and its hopes and dreams for 2000 years.

We should celebrate Jewish sovereignty over all of Jerusalem ... a fulfillment of the words of our prophets.

We should celebrate the astounding deliverance that was the Six-Day War.

We should celebrate the unification of our beloved city ... a city no longer severed by a dividing wall but now a viable, organic, united city; a flourishing centre, in contrast to the dangerous border-city that it was prior to June '67.

We should celebrate our ability to visit and reside in places that our ancestors dreamed of: Shilo and Beit-El, Kever Rachel and Me'arat Hamachpela.

And we should also direct our hearts in prayer, because even in Temple times when we happily declared: "Our feet stood within your gates, O Jerusalem", we continued, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!" (Psalm 122)

Let us not forget that in the years between 1949 and 1967, Jerusalem was a backwater, a beleaguered border town. The city centre was divided, fractured. The main entrance to Israel's parliment, the Knesset was oriented to face the westerly direction due to the danger of Jordanian shelling; in other words, even our national symbols were under fear of foreign fire. Israel in the lead-up to the Six-Day War was a country that was petrified for its survival. And in six resounding days, Israel reunited Jerusalem and tripled in size. The pride generated by those events sent electric waves through the Jewish world. Jerusalem now is a city which is the center of the Jewish world, a place that inspires virtually every Jew that visits it. It is also a city open to its Arab residents, as anyone who lives here can see.

Yes, Jerusalem as a city is highly entangled and far from simple. The situation of Yehuda Veshomron/ the West Bank/ Liberated/ Occupied Territories (call it what you like depending on your political perspective) is complex and is at present an intractable problem that cries out for resolution. (Much of the political trouble around this topic is in itself a tool to weaken Israel.) Maybe some of the achievements of the six-day-war will one day be sacrificed for the sake of an accord with our Palestinian neighbours; maybe never. And yet, with all that said, let us deliberate and debate for 364 days of the year. But for today, for one day a year, let us celebrate this quantum leap forward for the Jewish people and let us rejoice without hesitation.

Feel free to visit this post (written 8 years ago) to which I still subscribe: http://thinkingtorah.blogspot.co.il/2007/05/make-yom-yerushalayim-national-holiday.html

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 38. Truth, Justice, Peace

Yesterday I was teaching the prophet Zechariah. The scene: The Second Temple is under construction. The prophet is asked: "shall we weep in the fifth month?" Should we still fast and mourn on Tisha Bav? We see the Temple rising upon the Jerusalem skyline. Is the Exile over?

The prophet answers: You are asking the wrong question. Buildings are nice. You can rebuild a Temple, but can you rebuild your society? אמת ומשפט ושלום שפטו בשעריכם ... Can we construct an ethical and compassionate society? We can establish a State, but can we suffuse it with Justice, compassion, and peace? If you haven't achieved a just society there is more work to do. [See Zecharia ch.7-8]

And it's Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) this week, and the words of the prophet could have been written for today.

Last night we visit the Israel Museum's 50 years birthday celebrations. Mazal Tov! Its a party! And we visit the exhibit where we can read the Ten Commandments out of one of the Dead Sea scrolls, 2100 years old! You can actually read those words: "Do not steal; Do not swear falsely". We walk outside onto the museum roof into the beautiful spring Jerusalem air, and we are confronted by an exhilarating view - our Knesset, the "David's Harp" bridge, our Supreme court, the city all around... "Jerusalem rebuilt like a city knitted together". Yes- our city is being rebuilt! A miracle! "We were as dreamers!" But on the radio we hear about corrupt policemen and attorneys, about deals and scheming in government.

I see Jerusalem rebuilt. I feel the words of the prophet. They excite and delight me: עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ מֵרֹב יָמִים. ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת מְשַׂחֲקִים בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ. "So said the Lord of Hosts: Old men and women shall yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each man with his staff in his hand because of old age.And the streets of the city shall be filled, with boys and girls playing in its streets."

And I look with thanks, gratitude at our national institutions and I say a heartfelt prayer to our halls of law and government. אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם - We have lots if work to do if we want to raise ירושלים של מטה (the earthly Jerusalem) a little closer to ירושלים של מעלה (the heavenly Jerusalem.)

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Omer Day 29. Pesach Sheni - Missed Opportunities; Second Chances

Omer 5775 Day 29.

Today is Pesach Sheni. No Tachanun this morning.
But what is the big joy in Pesach Sheni?
Pesach Sheni is a day of second chances. In Bamidbar (Numbers) ch.9, a group of people approached Moshe. They had missed the offering of the Korban Pesach (the Paschal sacrifice) due to ritual impurity and they didn't want to miss out on this religious opportunity. Moshe makes a special appeal to God, and God institutes a second Pesach, a chance for those who missed it the first time round to perform the ritual.

Maybe we can look at this day and remind ourselves to give ourselves a second chance for missed opportunities. An opportunity to call a friend, to say sorry, to start a chavruta, to do that thing you that you have been procrastinating about, but know you must do.

Pesach Sheni.
We all get second chances.
What are you going to do today?

Shavua Tov!