Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Please Say Tehillim

For a very dear friend and student who has just been diagnosed with Leukemia.
His name is:
Shimon Elimelch ben Sima Rivka
שמעון אלימלך בן סימה רבקה

רפואה שלמה

Parashat Chayei Sarah: Yitzchak's Conversation

In the famous scene at the end of the parsha, Avraham's servant returns from Padan Aram. He brings home a very special woman, the woman who is to become Yitzchak's life partner.

"Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer Lachai Ro-ee; He lived in the Negev. And Isaac went out to converse in the field towards evening, and looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rivka saw Yitzchak. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, 'Who is that man walking in the field towards us?' And the servant said, 'That is my master." And she took her veil and covered herself."

Chazal in a famous passage suggest that Yitzchak was praying.

"Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer, as it says, and Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening, and 'meditation' means prayer, as it says, 'A prayer (tefilla) of the afflicted when he faints and pours out his meditation (sicho) before the Lord.'" (Berachot 26a)

Rashi adopts this reading of the verb "lasuach" - that Yitzchak was praying in the field.[1] However, from a purely textual basis, the words fail to specify that Yitzchak is engaged in prayer. Is the verb "lasuach" necessarily indicative of prayer, or possibly Yitzchak was conversing with another individual?

The Ibn Ezra suggests that Yitzchak

"Went to walk through the plants."

He sees the verb "lasuach" as related to "siach" – a plant! Hence Yitzchak goes out in the cool evening hours for a walk in nature[2]! The Rashbam takes a similar approach:

"He went out to plant trees and to talk to his workers."

Or the Ramban who suggests that we are dealing with an actual conversation:

"He conversed with his associates and friends."

It would appear that the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban have a good textual basis for their translations. They seem more literal somehow. We wonder why the Rashi chooses the unusual option of prayer. How did Rashi decide that prayer was the appropriate meaning here?

Now some might suggest that Rashi frequently resorts to Midrash. However I believe that in this cirumstance , there is a more solid foundation for Rashi's choice. Nechama Leibowitz[3] notes that the word "siach" as in plant, or tree, never appears in the grammatical form of a verb. It has only the Noun form. However, if you open a Concordance (or use the Bar Ilan disk!) and look up the verb "siach" as a verb. you will see that the verb as it appears in Tanach comes up almost exclusively (20 times!) in the context of self contemplation (in a religious context) or talking about God. The form of the verb is never used to describe a mundane conversation between people. And so, from a "Bekiut" knowledge of Tanach, Rashi deduced that Yitzchak must be meditating or thinking about God.

Possibly the Sephorno's reading is the most suitable:

"Yitzhak went to meditate in the field: He went off the path in order to 'pour out his conversation' to God. (He choseto pray specifically in) the field so that he would not be distracted by passers-by… and even before he prayed, he was answered (by Rivka's arrival.)"

Yitzchak knew that Avraham's servant was on a mission to find him a suitable wife. He was davening for a good "shidduch." And sure enough! He had barely started to pray and his prayers were answered!

[1] A view shared by theTHE Rasag and Rabbeinu Chananel
[2] See Radak
[3] In her book on Rashi's Commentary – a University course for the Open University (written with Moshe Ahrend)

Friday, October 26, 2007

She is Riding 80 km! Feel Free To Sponsor Aliza

My wife Aliza (I think in a moment of temporary insanity) has decided to ride on a 1-day charity bike ride on November 1st. It is to raise money for Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem. The ride goes from Tel Aviv to the hospital in Jerusalem (80 km). She has been in quite a training routine schlepping up and down the hills of Gush Etzion. I even accompanied her on one 15km ride. Never Again! I have never been so exhausted!

Anyhow, this is a call for Tzedaka and sponsoring. Please hit this link and donate. Anything would be happily accepted. It will boost Aliza's riding power next Thursday and provide funds for a wonderful hospital.

To Donate: Go to this site. Decide in which currency you wish to donate. Then look up the name Aliza Israel and donate generously!

Alyn is an incredibly impressive rehabilitation hospital for children and teens. Aliza and the big kids visited it earlier this year (at their own initiative, I might add) on Purim, when they distributed Mishloach Manot provided by our friends and neighbors in Alon Shvut to the kids there. Alyn is one of the world's leading specialists in the active and intensive rehabilitation of infants, children and adolescents regardless of religion or ethnic origin and is affiliated with a broad range of physical disabilities. (You can read more about the hospital itself at

Thanks in advance and – wish Aliza lots of luck on this hills!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Positive Thinking and Darfur Refugees in the Jewish State

It is nice to hear some positive thinking about Israel from time to time. This article is great! In it, Daniel Gordis tells an incredible story about a devastated Sudanese Refugee who decides to walk through the desert to get to Israel. Why did he do it? The refugee said:

“I knew I must go to Israel. I have read in the Bible that the Jews are good to strangers. Israel will take care of me, I know.”

What do you think happened when he arrived here? - Read the article!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chariots of Fire and Haftarat Lech Lecha

The most moving rendition of this week's Haftara that I have ever heard (and seen) is in this excellent '80's movie, Chariots of Fire. Unfortunately, the Haftara bit is a sermon in a church! but the words never seemed more appropriate!

The movie is about two athletes who participate in the Olympic games; a Jew who is running away from his Jewish identity in an effort to blend with society and to be more British, and a Christian who upholds his beliefs by refusing to run on the "Sabbath". Of course from our Jewish perspective, it is a sad tale; the tale of assimilation. But the resolute figure of Eric Liddell - the Christian - who refuses to realise his dreams of winning in the Olympics because it will clash with his Faith is a true example of Emuna, and what Rav Soloveitchik would call, "Heroic retreat."

(This film once came up in a conversation I had with Rabbi Sacks. He remarked that once when he met David Putnam, the film's directer, he asked him whether he could make another film about a Jew who KEEPS his faith at Cambridge university!)

 I am unsure that you will appreciate it fully without having seen the entire film. This is truly one of my favourite films. The mix of the British feel and the drama of faith in an alien environment is a great recipe!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Question for Parashat Lech Lecha: The Pairing of The Avraham Stories

One of the most striking features, to my mind, of these stories is that many of the episodes in Avraham's life seem like repetitions, or at least the stories are intertwined. Let us examine the evidence:

ch.12 – Sarah taken by Pharaoh /Ch.20 Sarah taken by Avimelech
Ch.14 – Saving Lot / Ch.19 – Saving Lot
Ch.16 - Hagar runs away / Ch.21 – Hagar sent away
Ch.17 - Promise of Yitzchak's birth / Ch.18 - Promise of Yitzchak's birth
Ch.21 Avraham gives up his son / Ch.22 – Avraham gives up his son

Maybe we can add to this TWO stories of covenants (ch.15 and 17) and two Avimelech stories (ch.20 and 21) What does all this mean? Why do the stories of Avraham appear in "pairs"?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Parashat Noach / Zecher Tzaddik Livracha

When we talk about a (good) person who is no longer alive we tend to add the phrase "Zecher Tzaddik Livracha" and we are used to the abbreviation, even in English - zt"l! Generally we translate this as "Of Blessed Memory" I always understood this as meaning his memory or Neshama should be blessed. Or some people say "May his memory be a blessing."

Upon reading the opening Rashi of the parasha, it occurs to me that this phrase originally could have refered to those who are living as well! Certainly Rashi and earlier texts apply it in a very different manner than its contemporary usage.

Lets remind ourselves. The parsha starts with the verse:
ט) אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו אֶת הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ נֹחַ:
וַיּוֹלֶד נֹחַ שְׁלֹשָׁה בָנִים אֶת שֵׁם אֶת חָם וְאֶת יָפֶת

Obviously, the question is that teh text begins saying: "These are the generations (offspring) of Noach" but it fails to mention his sons until the next verse! Why the interjection of Noah's righteousness? After all, it would seem to be a very different point!

Rashi tries to explain:

ט) אלה תולדות נח נח איש צדיק - הואיל והזכירו ספר בשבחו, שנאמר (משלי י ז) זכר צדיק לברכה.

"Once the Torah raises Noah's name, it tells of his virtue. As it states: The memory of the righteous should be blessed."

It would appear that the logic is as follows. Whenever a positive person comes up, say a little of his good deeds, his achievments.After all, we are dealing with a Tzaddik! How can we mention him without at least a story, an indication of his good actions?!

Hence, the minute Noah's name is mentioned, the Torah has to say the "bracha" i.e. that he was righteous and walked with God, and then it can get back to the point of his children.

In other words Zecher Tzaddik Livracha is "When you mention a Tzaddik, state his good points." Or possibly "When you mention the name of a Tzaddik, state that he is blessed i.e. a person of blessed virtuous status."

The original verse comes from Mishleiמשלי פרק י פסוק ז
זֵכֶר צַדִּיק לִבְרָכָה וְשֵׁם רְשָׁעִים יִרְקָב:
"The mention of the Tzaddik should be for a blessing and the name of the Rasha (evildoer) should rot"

and Rashi comments there:
(ז) זכר צדיק לברכה - המזכיר צדיק מברכו
If you mention a Tzaddik, bless him.

The verse in context is quite clear. The name of evil people should rot, decompose, be forgotton. The righteous should not only be mentioned but should be blessed, enhanced, publicised, celebrated.

So far, what we have is that when we bring up a good person in conversation (also a living person), we should stop and mention his greatness or bless him.

The Mishna is a little closer to our usage. In the Mishna of Yoma, there is a historical list of "good" indiciduals and "bad" priestly families. The "bad" families kept their skills to themselves refusing to teach and share their expertise. For example one family knew the method of the blending of the incense but kept the skill within their family. I imagine this was so they could remain influential as they were essential to the working of the Temple. The good families all donated special objects for public use. After listing the families, the Mishna concludes:

על הראשונים נאמר זכר צדיק לברכה ועל אלו נאמר ושם רשעים ירקב (משנה יומא פרק ד :

in other words, let the memory of these bad families rot and let the good deeds of these people be eternally remembered for good. On the one hand this is close to our zt"l, as we are remembering personalities of the past for their good deads. On the other hand it is more than "of blessed memory."

I imagine that we reached our contemporary meaning quite simply. Every time the name of a Tzaddik would be mentioned, rather than actually detaiing his good acts, people would just quote the words of the passuk in Mishlei (like the Mishna in Yoma) and hence people simply use the phrase זצ"ל. For Rashi however, it could certainly apply to the living as much as for the dead.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Israel Initiative

I commented to a friend recently that:
The Right have genuine concerns about security and land, but have no answers for the human and democratic rights of the Palestinians/ demographics etc.
The Left have a passion for Peace and the Palestinian Rights but are totally blind when it come to legitimate security risks.

I just saw this website by Benny Elon which actually addresses the Palestinian issues. I think his solutions will be unacceptable to the Palestinians, but then again, Yossi Beilin's plan is unacceptable to me as well!

Kiruv is In; Settlements are Out!

NRG reports about a Shabbaton of Maayanei Hayeshua - a religious Zionist kiruv movement - that took place this week in Ofra. There, three leading figures in the Religious Zionist right wing: Rav Aviner, Effi Eitam, and also Rav Shmuel Eliyahu all stated a rather surprising shift, or about-turn in the priorities of the community. They stated pretty clearly that now Kiruv has to become the major priority of the Rel-Zionist community over and above settlement of the land of Israel. "The central struggle is the fight for the identity of the State of Israel, and the mindset and identity of its citizens" said the director of the organisation.

Once again, we are seeing new thinking in the Religious Zionist community. This is partly in the wake of the Disengagement, and partly the internalisation of the growing post-Zionist thinking in secular echelons of Israeli. The feeling is that unless there is a sea-change in Israeli identity, the future of the land, and much more, is in jeapordy. However many settlers will go populate the West Bank, if the secular leadership loses touch with Israel as a Jewish State, then not only the land but the entire raison d'etre and reality of Medinat Yisrael is in danger of being lost.

Already we have seen many graduates of Mercaz Harav and Beit El and similar Yeshivot prefering to join "Torah Garinim" in Lod, Akko, Tel Aviv and many other cities. This is the first time that figures on teh religious Zionist Right have stated these things as a policy shift. Let's see how these statement will translate into further action.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Sukkot Thoughts ... Still Inspired After All These Years!

So Sukkot was spent in a variety of family activities. I would like to mention just a few things that gave me an opportunity to revel in the privilege of living here in Israel, and just how fortunate we are to be here.


On Sunday Night of Chol Hamoed, my wife and I went to an open-air concert in Ir David. We'll get to the concert in a moment. But getting there was an adventure in itself! The Rova (Jewish Quarter) was packed - at 8:00 p:m - as I have never seen before. And the festive atmosphere was palpable! There was music in the streets, and people just milling about - in leisure mode - taking it easy, strolling, hanging out. It was chag! Whenever I visit the Old City over Chag, I feel that one gains a glimpse of Aliya Laregel, of:
עומדות היו רגלינו בשעריך ירושלים
ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו
ששם עלו שבטים שבטי י-ה
עדות לישראל
להודות לשם ה'

And there they are... yes! - Am Yisrael - in their throngs, all the tribes together!
- An inspiring sight.


And so we battled the traffic congestion, and the crowds, to the Ir David concert. Shlomo Gronich was the singer. Maybe you know his music. He is a famous Hiloni (secular) artist. He is well known for the beautiful album he made with children of the Ethiopian Aliya, singing about the dream of Zion and the hardships of Aliya.

Now this concert is a new show, and it's title is "From the Sources - מן המקורות" In other words, all the songs come from Tanach. Shlomo Gronich intrigues me as a singer and a Jew. He has a very mischievous, secular side, and yet he is clearly attracted to Judaism and has recently been collaborating with Religious groups such as Ahron Razel, and Reva Lesheva. So when he comes out with a concert of religious verse, I just felt that I wanted to hear it. Oh ... I forgot... Shlomo Gronich plays a mean Shofar. His whole intro was him making the most incredible sounds from a Shofar (through a synthesizer!)

The experience of sitting in Ir David - our ancient Royal City - and hearing the words of teh Tanach was enormously powerful. In one piece he spoke of the first time he had personally encountered the words of Torah ... at his Barmitzva ... and then he proceeded to chant the Haftara of Parashat Yitro according to the trope - from Yishayahu ch.6 - according to a musical arrangement. That chapter talks about Isaiah's revelation of God in the Temple. And here we are... not 400 yards from Har Habayit! It was quite something! And when he sang Yishayahu's rebuke of ואשיבה שופטיך כבראשונה, the words of the prophet seemed to come alive. Just unbelievable how Yishayahu was walking on that very hillside prophesying and preaching those messages, and here we are hearing them.

He had a very beautiful piece for the words of Tefillat HaDerekh. In his introduction to the song, he explained that over the war last summer he was very distressed and depressed, and needed to find a text to give him spiritual sustenance. He opened the Siddur, and the Tefillat HaDerekh came to life for him. This "secular" man with such a religious soul.

Again... where else can we feel so connected to our past and present, to Arts that connect to our Tanach? I sensed this deep sense of belonging, of the organic flow of what it means to have a cultural integrity of a nation in its land with its heritage, and texts. Here it just clicks together.


The next day, we went to a kite festival at a small outlying Yishuv called Pnei Kedem. It is 20 minutes from our house, but the way there felt like we were entering the back of beyond! The terrain, as we made our way deeper into Midbar Yehuda , became dry, very hot, rocky, uninviting and uninhabited. And then suddenly we came across the Yishuv. 16 families live there, and this kite festival is an annual celebration of the Yishuv. There were arts and crafts stalls, and pitta baking, and inflatable jumping things for the kids, as well as - lots of kites! A concert by Soulfarm etc.

But back to the place. It is on the very edge of the desert, overlooking Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, with incredible views over to Jordan. One can see (it was hazy on the day we were there) how one can see the whole Jordan valley from that spot.

It was only after I returned home, that the significance of the place dawned upon me. Pnei Kedem sits directly to the East of Hebron. Suddenly I began to imagine the scene in my mind, as Avarahm escorts his 3 guests... the angels... who he had served and welcomed into his home. He walks with them until they begin their descent to Sedom. This , or a place very much like it, is the vantage point from which one looks down at Sedom! It was in a place very much like this that Avraham argued with God for the fate of the city, (Bereshit 18:22-24) and the same place that "the morning after" he prayed again (19:27-28) as he looked down and witnessed the devastation and destruction. Just thinking about these pesukim, gave a totally new dimension to a place that had seemed just hot and parched, and now was filled with Biblical significance.

So this is about the past giving meaning to the present. בשוב ה' את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים. we must appreciate how God has allowed us to live in a dreamy reality. Yes! I know that in these comments I sound hopelessly sentimental. But when it comes to these things, I feel moments of elevation and true powerful inspiration. It is truly wonderful to be able to live here in our dear Homeland!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Coming in from the Sukka.

After a wonderful Sukkot, filled with friends, family, Hallel, tiyulim,and good family time, we put away the Sukka.

I carefully stored the wooden boards and the s'chach in our store room, trying to pack it tightly to allow more room for the kids bikes and the lawnmower. I was struck by the though of how little, how very compact and tiny this structure is. Just a few boards, planks of wood, and some straw matting. That had been our home for the week! And in contrast, what a large house!

It forced me to reflect just on how much we have! How blessed we are. How materialistic we are. After all, how much does a person genuinely need? How many rooms does a person need? (For this one week, the entire family slept in the Sukka - in a single room!) We live in a world that constantly feeds us with the message that we need this and that , and that if we only had those commodities, our lives would be so happy. It's a lie! The modesty and simplicty of the sukka - although obviously temporary - are very beautiful. As Kohelet says "הכל הבל" - all the material things are quite insignificant really.

As we come in from the Sukka, these thoughts should act as a tempering counterbalance in our lives.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Simchat Torah / Vezot Habracha

Somehow, we never seem to learn Vezot Haberacha. Why?

Maybe we are busy learning other things about Sukkot and Shemmini Atzeret. Possibly we are turned off by the heaviness of the poetic language.

(Equally true is that we know far more about the beginnings of books than the ends of books. Compare your knowledge of Bereshit with your knowledge of Vayechi, your familiarity with Parashat Bamidbar as opposed to Parashat Massei. We know the start of books better than we know their conclusions!)

Whichever way, Vezot Haberacha gets a raw deal.

So let us look at the parsha and gain some basic familiarity. At first glance, we have two Chapters, two parshiot, with distinct topics and literary style. We can look at in the following way:

Ch.33 – Moshe's final blessing to Bnei Yisrael
Ch.34 – Moshe's final hour: Moshe viewing Eretz Yisrael, and his death.

If we may home in upon Ch.33. This chapter has a poetic, somewhat cumbersome style, with many cryptic phrases and therefore it presents many difficulties in translation. So how are we going to understand its content? A good place to begin is to realize that this chapter has a clear chiastic structure

33:1-5 Introduction
33:6-25 The blessings to the Tribes, Tribe by Tribe
33:26-29 Conclusion

The "middle section" of the berachot is clearly structured as the name of each Tribe is mentioned prominently at the head of each section (parshia). Exceptions to the rule are the Tribe of Shimon, who are omitted totally. Yissachar's blessing would seem to be absorbed into the blessing of Zevulun. But the pattern works for the majority.

It is evident that Moshe's berachot addressed to each Tribe have a preamble and an epilogue. Who is addressed in this section? What is the subject of these pesukim?

At a basic level this is a poem that describes the relationship between Am Yisrael and God. [For a detailed analysis of these passages, please see Rav Mordechai Sabato's shiur, sent out by the VBM 5764.]

33:1-5 (please look at the pesukim in a chumash)
These verses appear to take us back in time to Sinai. They develop the theme of the difference, or contrast between Israel and the surrounding nations. The backdrop to all this is clearly the Torah, which is the "heritage" or "inheritance" of the "Community of Jacob."

If this is true, then the Torah is stating here that it is Torah that gives Am Yisrael a special relationship with God, a relationship which does not exist for other nations. It should not be surprising then, that the Sifrei selects our passage as the source-text for the famous legend in which God offers the Torah to all the surrounding nations. In that Midrash, the nations all reject the Torah due to the contradiction between the high moral demands demanded by Torah Law and the chosen lifestyle of those nations. In this context we read the famous verse: Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe: "Moses instructed us in Torah; The heritage of the congregation of Jacob." More about this passuk in a minute!


These verses discuss God's salvation of Israel and the protection that He bestows upon them. It is as if God's own pride or honour is tied up with that of Am Yisrael (cf. parallel phraseology 25 and 29). The background here would seem not to be Torah, but rather the Land of Israel that will become the land of God's protection and ongoing care. This land will produce sustenance plentifully and God will take care of the enemies of Israel.

So we have the Berachot of the Tribes flanked by the two most central themes in Torah: Torah itself, and Eretz Yisrael.

TORAT YISRAEL; AM YISRAEL; ERETZ YISRAEL with God intertwined into every section.


Maybe, I should add one further reflection prompted by the Midrash. In these pesukim, God is ascribed considerable mobility and movement: Verse 2 uses at least 3 metaphors for God's spatial movement, God's feet in verse 3, God "riding the heavens" in verse 26. However in verse 27, we might witness a change. The Midrash comments upon these verses highlighting the meaning of the word "ma'on" as "habitation" or permanent residence. Might we suggest that reflecting the transition of Am Yisrael from Midbar to Canaan, the shift from wanderers to fixed dwellers, the Torah depicts God Himself as undergoing a metamorphosis from transience to permanent residence? Might this explain the focus upon God's movement as opposed to the term "maon?" Then, these pesukim are especially poignant as Am Yisrael take their first steps to creating a nation State. The nation are ending their 400 year long nomadic stage. They are now settling in their promised land. God apparently also settles with Am Yisrael.

[for further investigation of this topic, see the article by Nechama Leibowitz – "The Eternal God A Dwelling-Place," And the comments of the Netziv in particular, which to my mind reinforces this theme.]