Sunday, December 26, 2010

Parshat Vaeyra - Pharaoh's heavy heart and the Book of the Dead

Any reader of Sefer Shemot will be familiar with the concept of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart. Now, I know that many philosophical questions have been asked about this issue, but I would like to address this concept from the perspective of Egyptology.

Our classic commentators were fully aware of the place of Egyption beliefs and the Egyptian pantheon of gods at the epicentre of the plague drama. Rashi, for example refers to the Nile as the god of Egypt (see comments to 7:17) or the god Ra - the sun god (comments to 10:10). Lesser known is the fact that the god of the midwives took the form of a frog (link). Not only does the plague of frogs now reverberate with deep irony (echoing Pharaoh's evil abuse of the midwives), but when God proclaims, "I will execute judgement over all the gods of Egypt," (12:12) his retribution via frogs or the eclipse of the sun in the plague of darkness were a sign of God's mastery over the gods of Egypt. An in depth knowledge of Egyptology would, I imagine, reveal yet more points of contact.

In a current exhibition at the British Musum, a papyrus from the "Book of the Dead" is exhibited (link). It shows a ceremony of the "weighing of the heart," from Thebes, and dated at around 1275 BC, not distant from the period of the Exodus from Egypt.

The Book of the Dead is full of spells and rules to help a person travel safely on his journey through the Afterlife. Above, you see the king facing his last and most important test – the weighing of the heart. On the left, he and his wife enter the area where he is to be judged. The Egyptians thought that a person’s heart showed all their good and bad deeds. Any’s heart is placed on some scales and weighed by the god Anubis (with the black jackal head) against the feather of truth. If it is lighter than the feather he will survive and continue into the next world. If it is heavier then he will be eaten by the Devourer, the monster on the right who is part-lion, part-hippopotamus and part-crocodile. Next to the Devourer stands Thoth, the god of truth (with an ibis head). He is checking that the weighing is fair.

Now we understand the Torah in an entirely new context. When the Torah tells us that "I will make Pharaoh's heart heavy" (7:14, 9:7,) and similar meptaphors, it speaks to the Egyptian psyche and tells us unequivocally, in their language and belief system, that Pharaoh is evil and unworthy of entering the Afterlife. He will be fed to the Devourer.

Amazing what Egyptology can teach us about our Torah!

Friday, November 26, 2010

On the Street #1 - A secular learning party

This poster caught my eye as I walked through Jerusalem this week.

It is an event on Sunday evening , a "learning party," run by "The Secular Yeshiva in Jerusalem." The big יז at the top of the poster represents the number 17, because the evening will take place at Jerusalem's leading nightclub and party venue, HaOman 17!

What is on the bill for the evening?

- A "session limmud" on Channuka: Judaism and foreign culture

- A talk by Dr. Ariel Hirschfeld "The Tanakh in the eyes of the secular reader"

- and then DJ Barry Saharoff will lead the rave into the night.

One should note how the poster (uncharacteristically for a secular crowd,) has the Hebrew date prominently displayed. Oh ... and all proceeds are "kodesh" to the Secular Yeshiva of Jerusalem.

The secular Yeshiva first opened in Tel Aviv (link) and apparently there is now one in Jerusalem. It represents a wider reconnection between elements who define themselves as ideological, zionist and secular to rediscover and reconnect with their Judaism (see here and here.)

I LOVE this type of engagement between Judaism and the young "secular" crowd. It is vibrant, contemporary, and shows a genuine thirst on the part of young Israelis to revitalise the relationship with their Jewish heritage.

כן ירבו! Let it grow!

An encounter at the mall: "I would really like to study Tefilla!"

I went to buy a coffee at Kanyon Hadar at lunchtime today. As usual, the security guard, a sweet Ethiopian man with a small knitted kippa, stopped me to check my bag. He ruffled through the contents, mainly sifrei kodesh. So I said to him:

"Which one would you like to study?"

To which he replied:

"I would really like to study about Tefilla."

I was unsure that I had heard him correctly, so I asked him what he had said.

"Tefilla, y'know - like the Tefillot of Shabbat. I'd love to understand them better."

He then told me that he'd love to get to a shiur but he also has an evening job, and he gets home too exhausted in the evenings.

Well, this encounter just put a big smile of my face. It's amazing how the security guard who you see every day is just such a special soul. We must never forget to value every person. And I was just filled with the feeling of how wonderful it is to live amongst our people, and just what incredible people we have.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Parashat Vayishlach. Two Camps

Some questions for the parsha. Please feel free to add answers in the comments section.

We all know the story. Yaakov prepares for his encounter with Esav by means of "prayer, war preparations, and gifts." (see Rashi 32:9)

And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: 'We came to thy brother Esau, and moreover he cometh to meet thee, and four hundred men with him.' 8 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. 9 And he said: 'If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape.' (32:7-9)

· How does this "splitting" or "halving" the people help Yaakov? He says that if one camp is killed, then the other will escape. But, how does Yaakov know in which camp to place himself? How is he sure that he will be in the camp that will get away? And what is to say that Esav will not hunt down the second camp?

· Interestingly, the Rashbam suggests (see 32:23) that when Yaakov gets up in the middle of the night and crosses his family over the river, he is escaping to avoid a confrontation with Esav. Is this the "two camp" thing? Yaakov leaves everyone else in the camp, and runs off with his family!

· And then the mysterious angel fights with him all night. He emerges bruised and limping in the morning and is immediately confronted unawares by Esav:

"And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. (33:1)"

This seems like an attempt to follow the original plan of "splitting the camp." But what effect does it have here? Is it merely a feeble attempt to follow the planned choreography? Why use the same word - ויחץ?

· One further point here regarding the splitting into "two camps." Halving the camps would appear top be a bad thing… due to Esav's impending attack and bloodbath ("women and children" - 32:10) Yaakov divides his camp into two as an act of defense. And yet, in his prayer (32:11) Yaakov expresses God's extensive kindness –chesed – in that "now I have become two camps," as if it were a good thing! (And see the end of last week's parasha - מחניים) So... two camps – good or bad?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Parashat Vayetze. Which Yeshiva did Yaakov attend?

Our parsha opens with Yaakov's travels to Haran. For the reader of peshat, the notable event interrupting his journey is the dream at Beit-El, otherwise his journey would seem smooth and relatively uneventful. But Rashi, suggests a rather that his journey to Haran was extended by 14 years:

וישכב במקום ההוא - לשון מיעוט באותו מקום שכב, אבל ארבע עשרה שנים ששמש בבית עבר לא שכב בלילה, שהיה עוסק בתורה: רש"י בראשית פרק כח

In other words, Yaakov had spent 14 years in the "House of Ever" learning Torah. Rashi is drawing upon a Midrashic tradition that there was a Yeshivat שם ועבר, an institution in which the Avot (and, it would seem, their contemporaries) would study "Torah."[1]

And this is fascinating. What did they study in Yeshivat Shem V'Ever? Why does Yaakov need to spend 14 years there? - After all, did he not have the best education at home? He would have studied with Avraham and Yitzchak!

Let us articulate a few reflections upon this Midrashic tradition:

Of course, homiletically, the Midrash seeks to view the Avot engaged in a classic religious act – sitting in the Beit Hamidrash over a Gemara and learning Rashi and Tosefot! However if we can be less literal about this Midrash, we may suggest the following.

1. Even if a person has a solid religious tradition from home, as a young person seeks to build his own independent life (Yaakov is leaving home and setting up his own family) he needs to develop an independent, personal religious direction. And that involves seeking other teachers, alternative spiritual models. We can build upon our parents' Judaism but it isn't sufficient. We need to move away, to reexamine and to reconstruct our own personal Judaism on our terms. This needs to be done by studying and experiencing fresh and different religious environments.

2. It is fascinating that there seems to be a Torah of the Avot, and then a Torah of Shem V'Ever which quite evidently represents a non-Jewish, universal monotheistic moral tradition. It is challenging to contemplate the thought that Yitzchak would need to study at this institute of universal wisdom. Does this mean that our parochial Judaism does not suffice as a preparation for the outside world? Or maybe along with our Judaism, we need to study other wisdom? Or was Yaakov – on the way to Mesopotamia – seeking to ally himself with local monotheists? Or possibly, in seeking a better preparation to confront the local challenges of Haran, he needed to study with people who had already contemplated and grappled with the local philosophies, and Yaakov needed their guidance.
Much to think about...
Shabbat Shalom

[1] Rashi's source is the Midrash in BR 68:11, (a tradition also mentioned by Seder Olam). For other references to Yeshivat Shem VaEver, see BR 52:11, 56:11 that Yitzchak studied there after the Akeida, 63:6 that Rivka consulted with Shem about her pregnancy, 63:10 that Yaakov studied there, 84:8, Shir Hashirim Rabba 6/6.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Parashat Vayera: Hospitality - A Family Project

Hospitality – A Family Project.
Rav Alex Israel

Our Parsha opens with the image of Avraham Avinu sitting at the entrance to his tent. Almost immediately, a small group of wayfarers enter the scene and we witness an account of Avraham’s overwhelming hospitality to them. Avraham Avinu, recovering from surgery runs to draw guests into his home. The words “run”, “quick” are repeated over and over as Avraham hurries to attend to the strangers' every need. He personally supervises the kitchens; he acts as a waiter serving their food. He also accompanies them on their way, not letting them leave without an escort.

The Halakha sees Avraham as a paradigm of Chessed. It uses Avraham as a Halakhic role model:

"Charity and Giving are traits of the Tzaddik, of the offspring of Avraham Avinu" (Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to Poor 10:1)

“The reward of escorting a visitor from one’s home is the greatest of all rewards for hospitality. This is a law set in place by Avraham Avinu and the charitable ways that he made his lifestyle. He would give wayfarers food and drink and would escort them on their way. “ (Mishne Torah. Hilchot Evel . 14:2)

These values are seen to override even the concerns of God Himself! The Halacha continues (based on Gemara Shabbat 127a):

“Hospitality is of greater worth than receiving the Divine Presence itself. This we learn from Genesis 18:2: ‘And he looked up and saw three men (and ran towards them)’.” (ibid – and see Rashi's reading of the opening passuk)


In another scene of the Parsha, we witness Lot's hospitality.

"1 And the two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them; and bowed low with his face to the ground. 2 He said: 'Please, my lords, turn, I pray you, to your servant's house, and spend the night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way.' And they said: 'No; we shall spend the night in the square.' 3 And he urged them strongly; and they turned his way, and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, baking unleavened bread, and they ate." (19:1-3)

This account of Lot's hospitality mirrors that of Avraham. He sees them, greets them, bows down to them imploring them to join him at his home, and he offers them a place to sleep the night. Like Avraham, he prepares a meal especially for them. Clearly Lot has learnt a considerable amount from Avraham.


But there is one striking difference. Avraham involves his entire family:

"6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' 7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the boy (Rashi – Yishmael) …" (18:6-7)

Avraham involves his wife, his son. This is not his own personal project; it is a family agenda. This family agenda becomes our NATIONAL legacy:

“... for I have singled him (Avraham) out that he may instruct his children ... to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just (Tzedaka) and right (Mishpat) ...” (18:16-20)

Avraham is not simply a man of personal ethical standards. He teaches his children to do that which is “just and right.” He establishes a family TRADITION of Chesed that needs instruction, teaching, cultivation. It doesn't just come naturally, it must be taught, inculcated not merely by example, but rather by practice and training.


And what of Lot's family? We do not hear of his daughters waiting upon the visitors at the table. Even his wife is absent as he entertains the two angelic messengers in his home. Lot has to bake the bread himself, it was Lot who personally prepared the food. His family was uninvolved.

Maybe it is not surprising then, that sons-in-law desire to remain in Sedom, his wife, so distressed at the destruction of her hometown, looks back and is turned into lifeless unproductive salt. And what of Lot's two daughters? They end up in an act of incest with their father. Lot's family do not join the community of Chessed, of that which is Just and Right, Tzedek and Mishpat. They live for themselves. Despite the example of their father, the value of Chessed failed to pass over the generational divide.


And for us, who are part of the legacy of Avraham Avinu, we should appreciate the central role of Chessed. And that the only way to pass on this vital tradition is by transforming our entire home into a welcoming place, a tent of Abraham, involving our entire family in the project of Hachnassat Orchim.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), Rabbi Yose ben Yochanan talks about our "home" being open. Chessed is not simply a trait adopted by individuals; it must permeate families, homes and communities. Then we can ensure that our children too will cherish their legacy and continue it always.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parashat Vayera - Welcoming Outsiders...or, musings on Orthodox tolerance.

Parashat Vayera opens with a scene that lies at the heart of Jewish ethic of hospitality. In the heat of the day, three strangers pass by Avraham's tent, and in flurry of activity Avraham welcomes them in , offers them food, slaughters an animal, bakes bread, and serves them a sumptuous meal.

We, the readers (and products of elementary Jewish day school education) all know that these are angels, divine messengers, but Avraham thinks they are merely three strangers. Avraham's hospitality is astounding in its energy, its sincerity and depth. Would we ever beg three homeless individuals to have a huge meal at our home?

I found myself using Avraham as a paradigm of openeness and acceptance in a recent conversation when I remarked how we in the Orthodox Jewish community are frequently inward looking, leaving outsiders - visitors and newly-religious people - feeling unwelcome, whether inadvertantly, or deliberately. The Orthodox world can often be wary and judgmental to Jews from other denominations, as with those whose actions, dress, or body language communicate the fact that they are non-observant. We have subtle codes that help us identify the members of our sub-group, and we frequently do not realise the degree to which our uniformity is off-putting and unwelcoming. When one encounters the rare Orthodox environment which is genuinely welcoming to ALL Jews, one realises how much effort and thoughtfulness needs to be invested to ensure that visitors feel fully comfortable in our communities.
(For an interesting piece about the Orthodox world in this regard, see Allan Nadler's article here.)

So as I said, I was talking about how Avraham just welcomes strangers to his home without any entrance requirements - no kippa, no Shabbat, no dress code - just a warm welcome.

and then I recalled this Rashi:

רש"י בראשית פרק יח
ורחצו רגליכם - כסבור שהם ערביים שמשתחוים לאבק רגליהם והקפיד שלא להכניס עבודה זרה לביתו.
"Wash your feet: He thought that they were arabs who worshipped the dust on their feet. Since he was particular not to admit idolatry to his house ( he asked them to wash off the dust."

In other words, the Midrash inserts that Avraham DOES have entry restrictions and particular standards of conduct for one to be admitted. Idolaters are not welcome unless they divest themselves of their idolatry!

It is amazing that a simple Rashi like this makes a huge difference in perspective. Do we welcome outsiders warmly, without question, or do we insist that in some manner or form, they conform to our modes of behaviour and belief, that they not interupt and obstruct our world, our value system?

Rabin Memorial Day - 15 years on

Today is the 15th anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin's assassination. Anyone who remembers that dreadful night and the shock filled days that followed remembers the overwhelming sense of pain, the confusion and bewilderment, the sadness, the trauma, the shame. It was an upheaval of the deepest and widest proportions as if an earthquake had transpired within our country.

15 years on, I want to share two thoughts that I had this year.

First, is the fact that even though the radio and TV have dedicated some time to Rabin today, it is not the first item on any of the news channels or websites. In contrast to the initial years following Rabin's murder when the awareness of Rabin's memory and the violence of the assassination was a palpable presence that could be sensed on the streets, in the air, on this day, this year I feel it is in the background. Yes, it is on the calendar, there will be a state ceremony, but the routine continues, life moves on, and everyone is functioning normally.

Is that bad? Is Rabin being forgotten? No! I actually think that it is a sign of the maturity and resilience of Israeli society that we have managed to emerge from those dark days and to move beyond the mourning and the pain. It is evidence of a healthy society that this has moved from the foreground to a quieter place, where it is noted but it doesn't dominate.

Don't get me wrong. I think we need to teach the lessons of Rabin's murder, about the need for care in our public discourse, of red lines that may never be crossed even in passionate public conflicts, and of the importance of tolerance, and an understanding that one must coexist with people with whom you passionately disagree. Nonetheless, the fact that this is less intense, is I believe a healthy sign.

My second point relates to the commemoration and grappling with the assassination within Religious-Zionist (Right-Wing) circles.

With Yigal Amir coming from Religious Zionist institutions, and with the Right wing the most vocal denouncers of Rabin, the Religious Zionist community was under harsh attack in the days, months and years following the assassination. By the Left-wing and media, the entire Right-Wing were labeled as pariahs and murderers in a harsh and unfair stereotyping. This lead to a situation in which the Religious Zionist communities had no way to mark or talk about Rabin's murder. After all, they disagreed with and fought his Peace process. And as for talk about tolerance and the danger of violent rhetoric, the Right Wing was too bruised to express themselves. (see for example, this article - link) For years, I was distressed that Rabin's assassination was barely mentioned in my kids' school.

And to my surprise, this year in Efrat, my daughter's school did organise an extensive program about tolerance to mark Rabin's assassination.

Maybe this also takes 15 years. For the Right wing community to feel that they are not under such harsh accusation, they too can now begin to grapple with aspects of this terrible crime.

One last thought. Yuli Tamir (a former Labour education minister) was quoted today (link) as saying that we need to educate more about the dangers of incitement within the Israeli public discourse. Well, I have one thing to say to Yuli Tamir. The public, just like kids, learn by example. If we wish to lower the excessive, harmful, levels of incitement within the Israeli political discourse, then the MK's should be the first group to tone down their harsh rhetoric, their labeling and their acrimonious speech. Then possibly we will have role models of tolerance and mutual respect in our midst.

If only!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sukka City. NY 2010

I just LOVE this competition for a innovative Sukka design that will "reimagine and renew" the Sukka. It also has a wonderful summary of the Laws of Sukka here (scroll down).
The truth is that it is the experiential process of building and living in our Sukka for 7 days - a weekly cycle - that is the TRUE renewal and reimagining of the Sukka. It happens in our minds and souls anew each year, as I have written here and here. (and I cannot WAIT for the end of Yom Kippur to get to work on building it... and annual highlight.) And yet, the whole concept of fusing contemporary design and tradition/halakha is exhilarating.

Check it out!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Torah Tees

I found these cool designs here. They mix a good sense of humour with some Torah.

or this for Rosh Hashanna (representing the sounds of the Shofar!)

This one is a little subversive: [The phrase from Pirkei Avot, "Be moderate in judgment" alongside the 4 categories of death-penalty according to Halakha.]

And in preparation for Yom Kippur - for those with a gory sense of humour - here is the "Avoda" T-shirt:


Hat tip - Ynet

Monday, August 16, 2010

What can we do for Gilad Shalit?

We spent Shabbat this week in Yerushalayim. I davened early and spent most of Shabbat morning in the park with my youngest. But at a certain point, we'd had enough of the park, and I suggested that we visit the Shalit family and wish them a Shabbat Shalom at the protest tent for Gilad that has been set up outside the PM residence . (Ever since the march from their home to Jerusalem, some 6 weeks ago, the Shalits have been living in a protest tent just 50 yards from the PM's official residence, and are promising to stay there until Gilad returns home.)

So my 6 year-old and I went to pay the Shalits a visit. It is quite startling to walk up to the tent and to be greeted by Noam Shalit, his face so familiar that you cannot quite believe that it is really him. And we chatted with him about the campaign, and how he is managing with their arduous vigil, and then we wished him well, and a Shabbat Shalom.

I asked Noam Shalit how we might be able to help, and he didn't really have much to say, other than "support us."

The sense of helplessness is palpable. I left asking myself the question; What have I done for Gilad Shalit? And, can I do more?

On the one hand, I am not a supporter of releasing one thousand terrorists for Gilad shalit, and despite the question, "If it were your son..." I do believe that a mass release of Hamas men would be a mistake.

And so, what then? What can I do?

My sister and brother-in-law say a tefilla for Gilad Shalit at Havdalla every week, bringing the prayers for his release into their home. I have had Gilad Shalit regularly in my tefillot, but maybe I can do more in that direction.

And I was just wondering whether we could get 1 million Shanna Tovah cards to Gilad Shalit delivered the the Director-General of the U.N. demanding that they be delivered to Gilad for Rosh Hahanna. Maybe some would be passed along? Who knows whether that might make some impression? Could we get something like that off the ground in the next 3 weeks? What do you think?
All addresses (and a card to download) may be found at a FB group I set up - here
You can send cards onling here at
Jpost piece here

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Gilo Wall comes down. Security vs. Exposure

Today, the Gilo Wall is being taken down (link, link.) What is this wall and when was it built?

Well, in the scary days of the second intifada (2000-2001), there was daily shooting from Beit Jala (on the outskirts of Bethelehem) towards the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo. Snipers fired into apartments of regular citizen, and made life unbearable for the people living in the southern edge of the city. And so, to give some level of protection at street level, Tzahal put up some ugly concrete blocks to give at least some degree of protection. That was a period in which I travelled the roads to Gush Etzion daily wearing a bullet-proof vest. It was a time when you felt that driving along the "tunnel road" from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion had a certain dimension of gambling with your life.

Of course, artists came along to paint on the wall, each with their own idea of the relief that their art might provide for the people of Gilo (see this video)

And now, a return to normalcy has been declared. The army feel that the wall is unecessary, the immediacy of the threat is absent, and the wall can be dismantled.

So what can we say about this situation?
1. That whereas there is a intense pressure for political settlements and Peace agreements, sometimes, away from the politics, the facts on the ground demonstrate a very concrete sense of improvement, calm and co-existence. (More about this in my upcoming post)

This should make us wonder as to how much can be done on the national level, and how much can be achieved at the grass-roots level.

2. Second, it is interesting to hear the statements by residents of Gilo as to their fear of exposure now that wall has been dismantled. We set up barriers and protections when we are in crisis, and then when life returns to normal, we feel exposed and unprotected without them. We forget about the ugliness of the wall, the price we pay for the loss of the beautiful scenery, the artificial scar upon the landscape.

I think this is true in many areas of life (including politics, religion.) We build mechanisms that respond to a problem. But we forget that when the problem is less acute, that we can dispose of those protections. Sometimes they give us a sense of security. At times, it is simply a fear of exposure that prevents a respone to normalcy. I am glad that the Jerusalem Municipality and Tzahal had the courage to engage in this positive change.

Shavua Tov!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Israeli Music engages with its Judaism

I have just posted my second memorial post in as many weeks. l don't want this to become some sort of obituary column, so it is time to post something of a positive nature.

This evening, Gush Etzion hosted a joint concert of Yonatan Razel (of Vehi She'amda fame) together with Arkadi Duchin. A dati and chiloni musician in concert together. This is not the first time that we have seen one of the central figures of the Israeli (secular) music scene demonstrate an interest in Judaism. In recent years there has been a huge revival of interest in Jewish themes. For example, Ehud Banai and his album of zemirot, the much hailed move to religious observance by Etti Ankri and her recording of a beautiful album of Rabbi Yehudah Halevi's songs. Barry Sakharof with an album of piyutim by Ibn Gvirol and Kobi Oz with his Psalms for the Perplexed. Kobi Oz is the lead singer of Tippex (Teapacks) and a prominer figure in the Israeli music scene. Here is a quote from him:

"In recent years I have steeped my soul in a warm marinade of Judaism, and the result is "Psalms for the Perplexed," an evening of brand-new songs that fall somewhere in the hazy area between "religious" and "secular." It is not something naïve, spiritual, or kabbalistic-just Hebrew songs that send a smile in the direction of our brilliant Sages"

There is no doubt that Israelis are seekers in many ways. Many search for spirituality in the Far East. But as Israel matures and grows-up, many Israeli's are asking themselves basic questions. Many young Israelis are far from the antagonism towards Judaism and rejection of religion that once held sway in secular circles. They are curious and intrigued as to what their heritage beholds. Sometimes they are trying to understand why we, as a Jewish country and nation, have such a unique fate, with such inordinate world attention and frequently inexplicable hatred directed towards Israel. Sometimes, it is a search for the spiritual, or a return to ancestral roots. Secular Batei Midrash like Alma or the secular yeshiva, and cultural centres such as Beit Avi Chai all examine Jewish themes. There was such a wide range of Tisha B'av programs for the average Israeli this week - demonstrating a clear revival of interest in Judaism (as long as it isn't coercive!) This isn't Aish Hatorah but rather an exciting dialogue with Judaism and Jewish tradition through music.

Some years ago, I was listening to a live concert by Avishai Cohen. Avishai Cohen is a world famous (Israeli) jazz player who "made it" on the NY scene, playing at all the top venues. And yet, once he had conquered the summit of the Jazz circuit, he came home to Israel. at this concert, he was talking about his new album, and he mentioned that he had always played instrumental jazz but had never sung lyrics. He decided that he wanted to sing, but which words, which text to sing? And then he said: "So I thought about this song that my grandfather used to sing. The words are shalom aleichem malachei hashalom." - Amazing! It isn't the version that you might recognise, but the fact that Israeli artists are enaging in a dialogue with Judaism is heart-warming.

Maybe we are moving forward after all!

Words of Tribute. Marc Weinberg z"l

On Sunday evening, Beit Knesset HaRamban in Jerusalem held an evening of learning that was dedicated to the memory of Marc Weinberg z"l. Many people have asked me to post the comments I made at the close of the shiur in Marc's memory. Here they are. But let me just say that this is far from a comprehensive Hesped. My paltry words cannot sum up the energy, charm and power of Marc. In addition, I was aware that many in the audience did not know him. Having said all that, here is the speech.

Tribute to Marc Weinberg z"l.
Comments at the end of my shiur. Erev iyun at Ramban shul – 18 July 2010 / 8 Av 5770

This evening, chaverim, we have discussed tragedy, death, destruction, pain, suffering, collapse, disintegration. We have discussed it on the national scale.

However all these words seen apt at describing the terrible afflictions of cancer that gripped the body of my dear friend and talmid, Marc Weinberg, in these recent years, until his tragic death, at the start of this "3 weeks" period.

I do not want to talk of the pain. In truth I prefer not to reflect on the broken twisted body that was forced to withstand all the torture and suffering of Iyov – and Marc held forth so gallantly and heroically. I prefer to recall the Marc Weinberg full of vitality - with his immaculate sense of fashion, his beloved suntan and his Sunday morning football game.

For many of you who did not know him, let me say a few words. On the one hand, this shiur is highly appropriate for Marc's memory. In a way, it is at variance with him.

It is matched to him because Marc loved Tanakh, limmud Torah, and particularly, giving Tanakh a structure, a pattern. Whenever I spoke to Marc, even in the latter months of his illness when he was seriously sick, he would ask me: "any new books that I should know about?" He loved getting to the core of the methodology of things. Marc was an educator to the core. He worked as a highly successful banker and financier. And yet, he spent evenings and Sunday afternoons teaching young people. He loved nothing more than taking really intelligent (but Judaically unlearned) kids and teaching them how to learn. Not just teaching them but giving them learning tools and a thirst for knowledge. A good shiur was one which had a clear methodology, order, system, and this is what he wished to impart to his students.

In one of our final conversations Marc related to me so excitedly how he had begun to teachTanakh and Judaism to the Hiloni son of a neighbour in Modiin , excited at how bright and well-read he was, and devastated at his dearth of Judaic education.

But in other ways this shiur is mismatched to Marc. I don't know which aspect of God Marc would have identified with: God as Judge, enemy or source of faith. That חשבון Marc can take up with the Ribbono shel Olam. God knows that Marc would have a long list of legitimate complaints to take up with Him.

But Marc was not a philosopher or a theologian. Marc was a do-er. He was a magnetic personality. People warmed up to him. But how did he use his charisma? Once again, we can talk about Marc and methodology. Marc believed living life according to principles, and he was proud of these principles and ethics – his Modern Orthodoxy, his commitment to intelligent Talmud Torah, Religious Zionism, Derekh Eretz, community, personal integrity. He spent time figuring out how things worked, and then he set to work. He took these foundational principles, and as he developed his confidence over the years, he applied them in the world of finance, community building, Zionism and Aliyah etc.

He acted. He built a shul. He had a Hashkafa that he was passionate about and knew that he could put it into place, and did. He was determined to establish a vibrant young Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist congregation in London. He did it. He was devastated to see Jews' College become a right-wing institution and yearned to see it as a hub of real education and inclusiveness, a forum for Modern Orthodox speakers and text-study. He built that. People who came to the shiva saw his daily lists which outlined his aims and objectives, his achievements and accomplishments, but most simply, his daily tasks, his list of people to be in touch with. This was a man on a mission. He developed a phenomenal network of contacts through his intelligence, hard work and integrity and most importantly his care and sensitivity, And he leveraged this network to help people - finding jobs for people, and when he had a new project to put into place, he knew precisely who could play every role. His confidence gave people an assurance that the project would work.

There are two types of response to tragedy. One is in the theological realm, but Marc would have said that the response to destruction is to build, and better not to let it be destroyed in the first place. To build our world.

May his family: Natalie, Yona and Maayan; Syma and Henry, Debra and Aviad, have much nechama from the realization that he did so much for so many people. May this be the end of any suffering for their family and may the passage of time ease their grief and allow them to move onwards and to smile at life (and may life smile at them!) And may we learn from the figure of Marc Weinberg z"l that we should not underestimate our power, our ability to shape and build the world around us.


p.s I found an email that Marc sent me which exemplifies exactly what I said above. It was sent on the day his eldest daughter Yona, started school:

01/9/09 Education Question


Today was Yona's first day of Kita Aleph.

This made me think how I can contribute to supplement her Limudei Kodesh. I love
structures and things I can follow. She cannot yet read hebrew fluently but she
says Tefilla and I could help with her general knowledge but have been doing so
without any structure .... I sort of want to know a program for the next few
years of goals I should be achieving with her..."

That email echoes much of what I said here.

May his memory be a blessing.

No Shortcut Judaism – In memory of מורי ורבי - Rav Amital

Rav Yehuda Amital passed away last week at age 86. He was my Rosh Yeshiva, my teacher, to whom I am indebted for much of my value system and my spiritual path in life. He was a Holocaust survivor, an ideologue, an institution builder, a master teacher, a Talmid Chacham, a humble Jew who cared about every other Jew, a proud Israeli who fought in the war of Independence, and founded Hesder, sending his own students to fight in the army, who began as a leading settler, and ended up as a supporter of Peace. He stepped into Israeli politics when he felt that his unique contribution could make a difference. Much has been written about him (see 1,2,3,4,5) however, in some manner of tribute I would like to add a few personal reflections. One caveat - a short blog entry could not do any justice to the depth of his learning, his extensive achievements, the magnetism and warmth of his personality, nor his personal charisma.

No Shortcuts – "אין פטנטים"

I believe that no student could pass through the Yeshiva without hearing Rav Amital's trademark saying – אין פטנטים. By this he meant that there are no shortcuts to spirituality, to mastery of Torah, to God. Rav Amital sought authenticity. He would sing over and over: וטהר לבנו לעבדך באמת – In other words, 'God purify us that we serve you authentically, in truth, in depth" and Rav Amital believed that this was hard work. He insisted that the Yeshiva be a place of learning without distraction, of depth and devoted study. He spoke about prayer and how religious connection is an "Avoda sheba-lev (service of the heart)" meaning that it was an Avoda – hard work. Spiritual highs cannot come instantaneously.

Rav Amital expressed his disdain for religious fads, superficial expressions of piety, and what he saw as shallow spiritual thrills. Furthermore, he was uninterested in religious practices that took a person out of the cycle of the "normal." Once, a friend of mine – a ba'al teshuva – was pedantically cleaning his hands PRIOR to Netilat Yadayim. He had studied the directive of the Mishna Berura that required that one ensure that no substance become a barrier to the waters and interfere with the ritual washing of the hands. Rav Amital saw him and gently said to him: "Danny. Be normal!" He believed that strict and full accordance with the Halakha was a way of life that demanded effort and work, but that it should not take a person away from the orbit of normal people, or regular living.

In this vein, he voiced his wariness with the increasing practice within the Religious-Zionist community to grow peyot (sidelocks) and don huge kippot (yarmulkas). He spoke against it saying that these outer trappings were an expression of fear and insecurity, that people were frightened that they could not withstand the pressures of secularism and modernity. He encouraged people to have confidence in the religious traditions of their families, in the depth and power of shemirat mitzvoth, and not to resort strange dress, and anti-establishment acts.

Truth, ideological shifting, courage.

Rav Amital's sense of truth expressed itself in other ways. After the Six-Day War Rav Amital saw the euphoria of Israel's successes as a sign of divine Redemption and encouraged that ideology as a practical roadmap for settlement of the land. However with the traumas of the Yom Kippur War (in which he lost 8 students – a tenth of his Yeshiva) and the moral questions of the Lebanon war, Rav Amital questioned his ideological priorities.

He felt that Religious Zionism had become morally compromised. When he set up Meimad, his political party, it was not designed to be left wing. It was designed to make the statement that the Land of Israel was not the sole challenge of Religious Zionists, not Judaism's prime emphasis. Rather Religious Zionism had to adopt other priorities such as social justice and reconnect with the mainstream of Israeli body-politic. He was ostracized for his views, but twenty years later, more and more people talk in that vein.

He had the courage to change his opinions even when his students and the entire Religious-Zionist world ridiculed and vilified him. He was the first major religious leader to suggest that territorial compromise might be a the best policy (under the circumstances) for the State of Israel. He was the first person to raise a self-critical voice calling for introspection after the Rabin assassination.

He always called for full allegiance and respect for the Israeli government, understanding that if we uproot our adherence to the source of our sovereignty, we risk everything.

In all these policies he spoke against the Religious-Zionist mainstream, but believed that the truth must be voiced, whatever the personal cost.

Empowerment and Truth

Rav Amital believed in empowering his students. On the inaugural evening of the Yeshiva, he stayed at home. People did not understand why he wasn't there at the inception of his institution. He replied to the boys: 'It is YOUR Yeshiva. I will help you, but YOU will make this place succeed or make it fail."

He invited a talmid chacham who was ten years his junior and a new Oleh – Rav Aharon Lichtenstein shlit"a - to take over the Yeshiva because he felt (his words) that he wanted a superior scholar to lead the institution. In a move of mind-boggling proportions, Rav Amital extended Rav Lichtenstein the position of leading the institution single-handedly as Rosh Yeshiva, and that he (Rav Amital) would merely teach on the faculty! In Rav Lichtenstein's words: "He left the keys on the table." Needless to say, Rav Lichtenstein accepted on condition that he partner with Rav Amital. Let me simply say that it is rare to see such an amazing partnership of mutual respect and love. But Rav Amital's humility allowed that to happen.

When he once gave a political speech in Yeshiva, he allowed his student (Hanan Porat), a leading Right Winger, to get up and take the podium immediately afterwards , to give a different perspective.

He believed that each person needed to find their truth. When asked by Shimon Peres what the political stance of Yeshivat Har Etzion was, he said the following:

Our stance has 3 principles.

First, that every problem of the nation must deeply bother every student.
Second, that the students must think about the problem carefully, long and hard, evaluating the arguments and implications to the full.
Third, we have no political stance – each student must make up their own mind.

The Crying Baby

No one can talk about Rav Amital without mentioning his famous story of the crying baby. It goes like this: That Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was studying Torah, heard the crying of his infant grandson. The elder rebbe rose from his studying and soothed the baby to sleep. Meanwhile, his son, the boy’s father, was too involved in his study to hear the baby cry. When R. Zalman noticed his son’s lack of involvement, he proclaimed, “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the cry of a Jewish baby, there is something very wrong with his learning.”

Rav Amital believed that everyone had a sense of mission to the Jewish people. That when the baby cried, one had to engage, to alleviate the pain. When they built the unconventional architectural structure of the Har Etzion Beit Midrash, the architect had planned the modern design without windows. He insisted that the Yeshiva have big windows. Why? Because the Beit Midrash must be connected to the people, to Am Yisrael.

There was so much more to Rav Amital. His attachment to all of Am Yisrael. His beautiful, elevating tear-stained davening on the Yamim Noraim.

As was said at the funeral, Rav Amital was a wonderful fusion of idealism and pragmatism, of conservatism and change, of misnagdic intellectualism and hassidic-mysticism, of the Beit-Midrash and the needs of the nation. However, unlike the Brisker dialectic weighing and balancing the two perspectives and reaching some manner of resolution, Rav Amital's moderation was visceral, seamless and spontaneous, rather than dialectical or intellectual. In this regard, I always saw his expertise and mastery of שו"תים - the Responsa literature – as a reflection of his connection to life, pragmatism, real people and their problems, rather than an inclination to theoretical scholarly ponderings.

There is so much that I owe him that it is difficult to describe. His ideas and students will live on. I am privileged to have studied with such a giant of the spirit, such a loving, God-fearing Rav, a true guide to the perplexing times in which we live.

Israel at its Best

I have decided, in honour of the Three Weeks, to write several posts that tell positive stories about Am Yisrael, or discuss optimistic trends in Israeli society. I am an optimist at heart, and I genuinely feel that if we could only focus and amplify the good energies that exist all around us, we could certainly alleviate much of the discord that separates us and threatens to divide us further.

So, here is today's story:

I flew to London last week. Sitting next to me on the plane was a man, probably a few years my junior. I decided to make some polite conversation seeing that we would be quite literally rubbing shoulders for the next five hours. It transpired that the man was a businessman, a senior sales executive for a large UK printing machinery business and had spent 2 days visiting clients in Israel. I asked him how he had found his experience here, wondering whether he would tell me about rude Israelis and sub-standard service. But he told a different story. It went something like this.

"Well, I got to my hotel in Tel Aviv at night and couldn't quite get a feel for the place, but when i woke up in the morning, well - what a beautiful beach; just stunning! And then up to Haifa and the Jezreel Valley. Very hot, but you have a beautiful country."

Well I couldn't agree more! Good so far, but it gets better. He then continued:

"My client drove all the way down from Haifa to pick me up from my hotel. They took me out to eat and were wonderful company. They even drove me to my meeting with one of their competitors, and waited for me patiently in the car until I had completed my meeting. at the end of the day they drove me back to my hotel. Their warmth and hospitality was quite overwhelming."

His closing comment put a big smile on my face:

"This trip has set new standards of hospitality for me. It has really made me think about how we treat our business partners when they visit us in the UK. We don't drive them around or accompany them home after a meeting. We certainly have a great deal to learn from the generosity and hospitality of you Israelis."

That company in Haifa should get an Israel Business award! What a Kiddush Hashem! Nice to hear about the positive aspects of our people and our country.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Shiurim on Melakhim Aleph

This year I wrote shiurim on Sefer Melakhim Aleph for Yeshivat Har Etzion's VBM.

I am excited to say that all 29 shiurim are archived are available here.


Oh! Maybe I should add that the writing of a high level weekly shiur (over and above all my other work) has proved so overwhelming that it absolutely sapped any energy that I had for writing/blogging this year. (I hope that a few readers noticed that my blogging has basically lapsed this year!) I hope that over the summer, I will have some more time and head-space to devote to thinking and commenting on Torah, contemporary Israel, and the Jewish world.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

National Treasure - the Key to our Future

I have to say how excited I am about PM Netanyahu's latest theme: Israeli and Jewish heritage. It all began with his speech at the Herzlia Conference:

Tonight, I refer to something even more basic. I am talking about educating children about the values connected to our identity and heritage, teaching children to know our people’s history, educating young people and adults to deepen our ties to one another and to this place.

I believe that this education starts, first and foremost, in the Book of Books – in the Bible – a subject that is close to my heart these days. It starts there. It moves through the history of our people: the Second Temple, the Middle Ages, the Enlightenment, leaving the ghettos, the rise of Zionism, the modern era, the wars fought for Israel’s existence – the history of Zionism and of Israel. A people must know its past in order to ensure its future.

There is a well-known story about Napoleon. One day, he passed by a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and he heard the weeping of the worshippers. He asked what they were crying about, and the Jews told him: “We are weeping because our Temple was destroyed.” He asked: “How can it be that I heard nothing about this?” He liked knowing what was going on. He wasn’t really interested, but he would have received a report. So the worshippers told him: “Sir, it happened more than 1,700 years ago.” And he told them: “A people capable of remembering its past so clearly has a guaranteed future.”

But the opposite is also true. Yigal Alon said so. He said that a people that doesn’t remember its past, its present is uncertain and its future is unclear. In other words, our existence depends not only on a weapons system, our military strength, the strength of our economy, our innovation, our exports,or on all these forces that are indeed essential. It depends, first and foremost, on the knowledge and national sentiment we as parents bestow on our children, and as a state to its education system. It depends on our culture; it depends on our cultural heroes; it depends on our ability to explain the justness of our path and demonstrate our affinity for our land – first to ourselves and then to others.

We must remind ourselves that if our feeling of serving a higher purpose dissipates, if our sources of spiritual strength grow weak, then – as Yigal Alon said – our future will also be unclear. It will happen if our young generation is not committed to our people and our country; if they do not love the pioneering spirit, if they do not travel our country, if they do not want to mobilize and sacrifice – then our future is truly unclear.

I am far from a Netanyahu fan, and I frequently feel a sense of depair that our country fails to address these fundamental issues. Now that Netanyahu has made this his pet project, including funding of 500 million NIS for a new "heritage trail" (see below) and today's cabinet meeting at Tel Chai, I am delighted to see education, Zionism and Jewish heritage on the national agenda. This represents an understanding that:

לא בחיל ולא בכח כי ברוחי - that it is not military might, but spritual fortitude that is the key to our success. (paraphrasing Zecharia ch.3)

In an era of "Big Brother" and "Survivor", how desperately we need this initiative. Ihope it is just the beginning.

And lest you think that Netanyahu is cooking up the entire thing as a right-wing political move, we should congratulate his son for winning the Jerusalem region Tanakh contest. These competitions are fiercely difficult, and his son's determination demonstrates how deeply the value of Tanakh has been instilled within him. I imagine that his father must have some share in that.

(p.s. The fact that the trail includes Gush Etzion: the sound and light show at Kfar Etzion, the Biyar aquaduct which lead to the Temple, and Herodian, is all the more exciting!)