Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Letter from Alon Shevut ...

People have asked me how it is living in Alon Shevut at the current time. The answer, in short, is… it's complicated.

On the one hand, there is pain, tension, some fear and much frustration.

Let's start with the pain. Last week, a beloved friend and community member, Yaakov Don z"l, was murdered just outside the gates of our Yishuv. (In the same attack, 18 year old Ezra Schwartz z"l was killed.)

The entire community of Alon Shevut has been thrust into deep mourning. Yaakov was an incredible dynamo of warmth and positive energy in the community and a dear friend to many. (I have written more about him here.) Many of our children are friendly with his children, or were inspired by his teaching and leadership in one of our local schools. Yaakov's terrible murder has brought the recent wave of terrorism home to us in a most immediate manner - into our hearts and souls - emotionally, viscerally, as an ever-present consciousness.

Tension - as the roads and sidewalks are simply unsafe. The violence, knife and car attacks started in Jerusalem some weeks ago, but now, Gush Etzion Junction, not 3 minutes from my house, has the unsavory status as the most dangerous spot in Israel, with over 10 attacks in the past month and 4 people killed just this week.  If Alon Shevut wasn't "famous" before, for its hitchhiking station nearby from which the "three boys" were abducted and murdered in the summer of 2014; now - with almost daily attacks - we feel vulnerable, tense, even fearful for our safety and that of our loved ones. After the 3 boys were abducted last year, we instructed our children not to hitchhike, but now after our friend Yaakov was murdered in a drive-by terrorist shooting, what shall we say to our children and spouses? Not to drive to work? Not to cross the road?  

And here comes some of the frustration, because prior to this, Gush Etzion was perceived, by its residents and by others, as a place of moderation and tolerance. Our local supermarket, Rami Levy, was a paragon of Arab-Jewish coexistence with Arabs and Jews shopping side by side, smiling at one another as we queued at the checkout, wishing each other a "Ramadan Karim!" and a "Shanna Tova!" Business was expanding, and the community was looking forward to the opening of a new shopping mall, for Arabs and Jews alike, a further step to normalization in the district. Gush Etzion's key rabbinic figures – Rabbis Amital, Lichtenstein and Riskin - were political moderates; its highly-educated population represents a more tolerant and open model than the classic "settler" stereotype. Gush Etzion was a pastoral, rural area in which our kids would walk, guitar in hand to swim in the local spring, as Jewish joggers and bikers would ride in-between Arab farmed vineyards in their weekend exercise. Our boutique winery, bakeries, restaurants and beauty spots had become increasingly attractive as tourist venues.

But now it feels as if this has all radically changed. Now, Gush Etzion Junction looks like a fortified army camp with security barriers and close-circuit cameras in every direction, a military watchtower and over 20 infantry soldiers in full battle gear keeping us safe.
Soldiers at Gush Etzion Junction
The Arabs are not shopping at the local supermarket. And the prospect of any co-existence seems elusive, and maybe completely impossible. In order to protect my children as they take an 8 minute walk to school, they pass at least four points at which armed guards are stationed. This is what we have to do to be safe; but it is a steep price to pay.

And we wonder - will it all return to normal after this wave of violence, or is our neighbourhood forever changed?

But in contrast to all this, the events surrounding Yaakov Don's murder has exposed real dignity and beauty, strength and determination, and yes – hope!

Mosaic in Yaakov's memory
Let me share a little about what went on in Alon Shevut this past week.

From the moment that we received the terrible news of Yaakov's murder, the entire community sprang into action in the most remarkable of ways. That weekend was supposed to be "Shabbat Irgun," an annual celebration of Bnei Akiva, the local youth movement. It is the crescendo of a month of frenzied youth activity, and that Thursday night had been earmarked as the annual "White-Night" as the kids would stay up through the night having fun and putting the finishing touches to their plays, presentations and the like.

At 6pm we heard the awful news, and celebration turned to mourning. At 8pm, the kids – over 300 of them from age 9 to 18 – gathered in the local youth center. The recited Psalms, they cried, they sang slow songs of yearning and sorrow, they divided into discussion groups to voice their fears and sadness. Parents guided some of the events behind the scenes, but in truth, the youth demonstrated such maturity, such greatness of spirit in absorbing the shock as they took comfort, in prayer, tears, and togetherness.

Some of the youth proceeded to the site of the murder, setting up a memorial stone and lighting candles. Some spent the night in a mosaic studio, making an incredible mosaic of a verse that encapsulates the sorrow over the death of Yaakov (Jacob) as well as their determination to continue: God will have compassion on Jacob; once again he will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land. (Isaiah 14:1).

The circle of song
Friday was the funeral. Thousands came. The celebratory youth Shabbat was postponed. However, 24 hours later, after Shabbat, the entire community gathered in our basketball court. It started with a small circle of youth singing songs from the Rosh Hashanna liturgy: "Hamol" – Have mercy of Your creations, "Ochila La-el" – I plead to God, "Rahem" – Have mercy upon Israel Your nation… on Jerusalem your holy city; "Hassoph" - … the days are long and there is no end to the days of evil; and other such songs. The circle widened and widened, until it filled the entire stadium. An entire community of children, surrounded by their parents, arm in arm, grieving together, singing together; it was a beautiful moment of faith and spirit.

After the songs, we proceeded to march to the Gush Etzion Junction with flags and song. What were we saying? I don't know!   - That we are here, that this is our home, that we will overcome! We stood together, sang Hatikva, Ani Maamin and returned home as a community - united.
A new parochet for the Bnei Akiva snif, Inscribed in Yaakov's memory,,, a reference to Yaakov and Torah (and Shevet Morasha) "The Inheritance of the Community of Yaakov"

The entire week of the shiva has seen the community rally around the Don family - the youth with their friends, the adults providing an endless supply of food, cleaning, and assistance of every kind . The house could barely contain the size of the minyanim, the endless flow of friends, neighbours, students, politicians who came to greet and console the family.

The violence has spurred neighbours and local people into remarkable activity. One woman organized a rally of several hundred mothers, demanding safety on our roads. On Thursday morning, as the Shiva came to an end, in a gesture of commemoration and defiance, "Derekh Avot" - the school in which Yaakov Don worked, held their morning prayers at Gush Etzion Junction and then marched and danced the kilometer back to their school.

The security forces that have flowed into the area to provide security and protection, have been met by droves of people in Efrat and beyond, families who have barbecued for the troops, offered food, laundry and showers. I encountered two soldiers yesterday in the evening cold. I offered to buy them a coffee from the local café. They replied: "We've eaten far too much today; people have been overwhelming in their generosity." The kindness and strength of the wider Gush Etzion community has revealed beauty and resilience, friendship, love and determination to continue.

And life continues... Alon Shevut celebrated two weddings this week as its children build their own homes! Next week, "Shabbat Ha-Irgun" will be celebrated in the Yishuv in the traditional manner.

I have yet to hear one person express a sentiment of "Death to Arabs" or a call for revenge. I have heard words of determination to continue, despite the violence, to develop our communities and institutions so that Gush Etzion can continue to thrive. I have heard people speak of the Jewish roots here in this region, with a Jewish presence that extends to Temple times. I have heard people recall Gush Etzion of 1948, four small settlements, that were overrun and destroyed by Jordanian troops on the eve of Israeli independence, many of the residents massacred, and the years of yearning to return, eventually realized in the Jewish restoration of the region following the Six Day War by a small, resolute group of idealistic pioneers. Today, Gush Etzion numbers over 50,000 people living, working and studying here. Despite the violence, we have the privilege to live in a beautiful region of our national homeland. Our educational institutions are among the finest  in Israel. Our children are proud of their home, despite the price it sometimes demands.  We are truly blessed.

One year ago, a Palestinian killed a young woman, Dalia Lemkus z"l, by ramming his car into a local bus stop. Our children decided that the best response would be to create a human chain,
an act of hope and defiance, to express that they embraced life; not death. Our enemies seek to kill and we embrace life; they destroy and we build. We vow that our enemies cannot deter us from building our special communities in this historic place.

This is the source of our hope.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Current Terror. Noah and Abraham Facing Evil

These are difficult days.

One walks through the streets and wonders if murder will strike  .at any moment. Terror terrorizes; it undermines and frustrates the calm of normal routine. I just walked through Talpiot's main shopping street. Streets are depleted. Everyone is eyeing up the other passers-by. On the streets, people are feeling tense, sad, even frightened. Everyone at work is tense, bracing for the next dreadful news report.

What are we to think? What can we say?

One thing is to gain some perspective.

Yesterday, my son's (home room teacher)  מחנך had a chat with the kids. He told them that the media "exaggerate" things and things are not as worrying as they sound. It was a discussion to calm the nerves of 10-year-olds, but really, he is not wrong; it was quite a good thing to say to young kids. The news doesn't reflect their lives, safe in school or safe at home. The vast majority of people will see no violence, will still have a job, will be healthy and safe, will go to work and shop and return to their loved ones. Israel is in good shape as a whole. My head can say that. My head can also say that the 2nd Intifada was far worse. All true!

But my nerves are not calmed. Why? Because an unlucky few will most probably NOT come home safe and sound. We all fear where the next attack will take place and if it will be on my watch.

I turn to the parsha for inspiration. Noah is faced with an evil, violent, generation; an environment of "Hamas" to quote Genesis. How does he respond? He hides. Under God's command, he takes refuge in an Ark. Humanity die; Noah is saved. But afterwards, what do we hear of him? Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk. After the flood, Noah cannot face life. He turns to the bottle.

Noah is contrasted with Abraham. In the Midrashic imagination Abraham also confronts a world in disarray; for the Midrash the world is a " palace in flames". Society is on fire; threatening to destroy civilisation. Abraham is depicted as wondering: “Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?” The owner of the palace looked out and said, “I am the owner of the palace.” So Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?” G-d looked out and said to him, “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.”Rabbi Sacks writes:

"This is an extraordinary passage... Surely the owner should be putting out the flames. You don’t leave a palace empty and unguarded. Yet the owner of the palace calls out to him, as G-d called to Abraham, asking him to help fight the fire. G-d needs us to fight the destructive instinct in the human heart. This is Abraham, the fighter against injustice, the man who sees the beauty of the natural universe being disfigured by the sufferings inflicted by man on man."
We are Abraham's children. When we see a world in flames, when we see violence, we do not shy away or back down; we fight to build a better world. We will not act like Noah and closet ourselves away; we will, like Avraham, vow to build a world of "tzedek umishpat - righteousness and justice," compassion and truth.

Israel has faced violence before. Terror is designed to frighten us, to unsettle us. We shall not hide away like Noah; we shall confront the world and the evil that surrounds us - that is our Abrahamic legacy. We shall uphold our right to the land, as well as our commitment to justice and kindness.
  • With full determination, we shall fight on defending our Jewish right to the land of Israel.
  • With full determination we shall continue to work to make Israel a light unto the nations.
  • We will try to continue with our routine while taking maximum care.
  • We will try to inform our children in safe ways, without alarming them.
  • With full determination we shall continue to build our lives, and thrive in Eretz Yisrael.
  • אתהלך לפני ה' בארצות החיים

Today is Rosh Hodesh and we said Hallel.  Sometimes we say Hallel and focus upon God's bountiful blessingsהודו לה' כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו.

At other times, like today, we pray
אנא ה' הושיעה נא!
מן המצר קראתי י–ה ענני במרחב י-ה!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Yom Kippur: The Drama of the High Priest

On Yom Kippur, at the climax of the Avodah (the description of the Temple service on Yom
Kippur), we sing:
אֱמֶת מַה נֶּהְדָּר הָיָה כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל. בְּצֵאתוֹ מִבֵּית קָדְשֵׁי הַקָּדָשִׁים בְּשָׁלוֹם בְּלִי פֶגַע. 

But did the Kohein Gadol's face really shine radiantly?

Whose face shone? - Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe Rabbeinu descended Mt. Sinai on Yom Kippur with the 2nd Luchot (Tablets), and with a message of divine forgiveness (Shemot ch.34) : "And Moses' face shone."
ומשה לא-ידע, כי קרן עור פניו--בדברו איתו
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest, who enters the Temple's inner chamber - the Kodesh Kodashim - simulates Moses' ascent to Mt. Sinai. This manifests itself in several ways:

1. The Kodesh Kodashim reflects the top of Mount Sinai:

  • Ramban (Ex 25:1; Num 1:1)) says that the Temple symbolizes Mt. Sinai; The Sanctuary structure is restricted to non-priests; just like Mount Sinai (Ex.19:22,24); the inner chamber - the Kodesh Kodashim - symbolizes the Mountain-top. It is the place that Moses encounters God, and the place in which the Law was transmitted. In the 1st Temple, th ekodesh kodashim contains those same Tablets of Stone - the Law.
  • On Yom Kippur the High Priest must enter the innner chamber with a cloud (Lev 16:2) of incense. The peak of Mount Sinai was covered by a cloud, symbolic of God's presence. (Ex 19:9, 16)
The High Priest enters the forbidden sanctuary, just like Moshe did at Sinai, to encounter the Divine.

2. The High priest is fasting just as Moses "He did not eat bread, nor did he drink water" (Ex.34:28)

3. The text mentions that the High priest must enter the Kodesh Kodashim unaccompanied. The same instruction was given to Moses when he ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets:

שמות לד:ג וְאִישׁ לֹא-יַעֲלֶה עִמָּךְ, וְגַם-אִישׁ אַל-יֵרָא בְּכָל-הָהָר
ויקרא טז:יז וְכָל-אָדָם לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, בְּבֹאוֹ לְכַפֵּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ--עַד-צֵאתוֹ; וְכִפֶּר בַּעֲדוֹ וּבְעַד בֵּיתוֹ, וּבְעַד כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל.
 4. The High Priest discards his golden garb before entering the Holy of Holies. Why? As the Talmud explains: "The prosecutor cannot act as the defense attorney." What does this mean? The golden garb accuses is Israel for the Golden calf; The High priest enters without any gold upon him.

I am suggesting that the main focus of Yom Kippur is the High priest entering the "virtual" zenith of Mount Sinai; reenacting Moses' encounter with God upon Mt. Sinai, on Yom Kippur, as he received the second set of Tablets.

Moses is invited to the top of Mount Sinai after the debacle of the Golden Calf. It had been Israel's greatest sin; the symbol of the covenant - the two tablets - were smashed.

But now, some time afterwards, God forgives. He invites Moses to craft, together with Him, a second set of tablets just like the first. (Ex 34:1-2)
The High Priest does not receive the Second Tablets. But he emerges with God's blessing, God's covenant of forgiveness. The High Priest's face shines because he is emulating Moshe Rabbeinu after the Egel (Golden Calf).

On Mt. Sinai, God taught Moshe the 13 Attributes of Mercy:

ה' ה' - אני הוא קודם שיחטא האדם, ואני הוא לאחר שיחטא האדם ויעשה תשובה

The covenant renewed AFTER the Great Sin of the Golden Calf means that God knows we are human, we are flawed, we sin. ""I am He before man sins, and I am He after he has sinned and done Teshuva"" But if we show our earnest commitment, God promises to renew the covenant; to forgo the strict law (Din) and to acknowledge that we are merely flesh and blood, אין אדם בארץ אשר יעשה טוב ולא יחטא... כציץ נובל וכענן כלה... we are fallible. God knows that. He wants the covenant to continue despite our flaws. This is an act of great divine love.

Yom Kippur is the day that God forgives us although we are human.

In the next 25 hours, we will seek God's closeness, we will bow (emulating Israel's remorse after the Egel. see Ex.33:7-11) and confess as a sign of remorse for our sins, and God in turn will demonstrate his love and forgiveness.

כִּי בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי ה' תִּטְהָרוּ.

As we emerge, purified, our faces will shine as well with the renewal of our relationship with God.

אמר רבי עקיבא, אשריכם ישראל, לפני מי אתם מטהרין, ומי מטהר אתכם, אביכם שבשמים

As we close Yom Kippur, Halakha advises us to move directly to the next mitzva; the building of the Sukka. How poignant!   Hazal say that the day after Yom Kippur, Israel began to build the Mishkan. On motzaei Yom Kippur we build our Sukkah that symbolises the Mishkan.

Wishing you all a wonderful year! Gmar Tov!

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:

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!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 22. Respect!

The Talmud suggests that many thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students died due to the discord and disrespect between them (Yevamot 62b). The period in which they died was the Omer. Hence, the Omer is designated as a space in which to improve on interpersonal relationships, a spirit of respect, forbearance and love to the people that surround us.  In that vein, here are two statements from Pirkei Avot to guide us as we start our week:

פרק ב', משנה י
רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, יְהִי כְבוֹד חֲבֵרָךְ חָבִיב עָלֶיךָ כְּשֶׁלָּךְ
Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your fellow be as precious to you as your own

פרק ג, משנה י'
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, כָּל שֶׁרוּחַ הַבְּרִיּוֹת נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ, רוּחַ הַמָּקוֹם נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ.
וְכָל שֶּׁאֵין רוּחַ הַבְּרִיּוֹת נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ, אֵין רוּחַ הַמָּקוֹם נוֹחָה הֵימֶנּוּ.

He [Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa] used to say:
A person with whom people are pleased, God is pleased.
But anyone from whom people are displeased, God is displeased.
 שבוע טוב!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 19-20. Yom Haatzmaut

We had our annual Yom HaAtzmaut tiyul and BBQ today. We share it with another 10 families, families who like me, went to Bnei Akiva in the UK and made Aliyah. After eating (extensively) we took out a guitar and sang all those classic "shirei Eretz Yisrael" - kids and parents all joining in. It was quite beautiful.

I took it all in and just thought to myself... Once we were all singing these same songs at age 14 and 16 and 18 [the ages of our kids!] around a campfire at Bnei Akiva camp in Somerset and dreaming that one day we may live in Israel. And here we are, 30 years later, living here, working here, hiking in Israel's gorgeous scenery. And today, on such a special day - Yom Haatzmaut - we are singing together with our beautiful children - all Israeli - surrounded by the beauty of the hills and trees of our homeland.

We are indeed living a dream! We can count our blessings!

On Erev Yom Haatzmaut, I spoke to my Eretz Hatzvi students. I sought to communicate to them the remarkable gift and significance of modern Israel, and inspire them with the religious obligation of thanks and praise on this historic day for the Jewish people. I am sharing the shiur here.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 18. Yom Hazikaron

Yom Hazikaron is a sacred day in the Israeli calendar. The nation mourns its fallen. In almost every workplace, people are absent on Yom Hazikaron; everyone has an "azkara", a memorial service for a relative, a friend, an army buddy. We who make Israel our home live in debt to these young lives - fathers who will never hug their children, wives who will never again embrace their husbands, children who will lose the memory of their fathers.

As I stand for the siren, I remember their memories and pray that God spare us further loss of life.

Last year, as I reached Jerusalem on the morning of Yom Hazikaron, driving from Gilo to Talpiot, I noticed this memorial. For Yom Hazikaron it was marked by a flag at half-mast and a fresh wreath. It is a memorial to a pilot, Dan Givon, whose plane was shot down by Jordanian anti-aircraft fire during the 6 day war. The sight of this roadside monument on a highway which I travel daily induced me to pen the following poem. This site commemorates the life of a single man of the 23,320 soldiers who have fallen in Israel's defense. One life is an entire world. One simply cannot conceive of the loss of 23,320 lives.

ה' עוז לעמו יתן, ה' יברך את עמו בשלום

By the road to work,
A roadside memorial,
A monument passed daily.
Barely noticed.

Today -
A wreath,
A flag at half mast.
A reminder
Of a life cut down.
A son,
A father?
A brother?

Between Gilo and Talpiot,
A hurried, frenzied daily commute,
Where drivers curse the heavy traffic,
Wars once raged,
Blood and bullets.
Soldiers, Young men,
Struck down,
Lives lost.

Were they heroes; the brave?
Or merely the unfortunate, caught in a crossfire.

בדמייך חיי!
They gave their life,
So we could have a country,
So that we can live,
Normal, ordinary life,
Of Waze-guided driving,
Traffic lights,
Cars and buses,
The rush home from work,
To the embrace
Of loved ones.

Today we salute those men,
And bless our good fortune,
That we live in the land of the living,
To live in the land of our past,
The land of our future.

נזכור את כולם
חג עצמאות שמח!

Omer 5775. Day 16-17. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z"l

The past 2 days have been tough. My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l passed away yesterday. Rav Lichtenstein was a brilliant scholar, an exemplary human being and Jew, and a lodestar for the Modern Orthodox community. I sat listening to his wisdom for over a decade, and never ceased to be amazed by him; his religious philosophy made the most profound impression upon my life and shaped my lifestyle, my passions and my worldview. I can merely echo the words of a dear friend at the funeral today: I cannot imagine what person I was before I met Rav Aharon.

I intend to pen a piece that articulates some of what I learnt from him. That will take some time. But for now, for this blog, let me simply record the sheer grief and sadness of these two days. On Tuesday, after I heard the bitter news, I was simply shaking. Today I spent the 3 riveting hours of moving hespedim (eulogies) - most of them by his incredible children - transfixed and in tears. I have been somewhat startled by the depth of my emotional reaction - I haven't cried this much since my grandfather died - but as the Gemara tells us, a Rav can be a form of parent figure, giving live, shaping ones future.

The funeral today was highly emotional but unbelievably inspirational. The hespedim depicted Rav Aharon in rich technicolour: His phenomenal humility, his unflagging commitment to, and joy in, Torah study; his novel and remarkable Torah methodology; his pride in, commitment to, and absolute love of his family; his normality of dress and personal comportment, his humanity and empathy, his economy of time - never wasting a second; his charity - and his joy in giving charity; his fearless and powerful moral voice, his vision, his simple faith, love of God, his piety, his passionate prayer, his sense of mission, of dedication, his Zionism. He was compared to the Ner Tamid - the eternal flame, to an army general leading his troops, to Jacob's ladder rooted on earth and reaching the heavens, to a walking Torah scroll, to an angel. Rav Gigi expressed how Rav Lichtenstein had raised the benchmark for Torah throughout the religious-zionist yeshiva world. His contribution to furthering Torah study and religious ritual for women was noted. And the family in their wonderful menchlechkeit thanked everyone possible, including (twice) Rav Lichtenstein's carer; in Esti Rosenberg's words: "You loved him and he loved you."

Thousands came out to accompany him on his final journey. The Modern Orthodox world has lost its leader.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 15. Building Israeli Culture

A vital culture, far from being detached from life, embraces it in all its aspects. Culture is whatever life creates for living purposes: Farming, building, and road-making - any work, any craft, any productive activity is part of culture and is indeed the foundation and the stuff of culture. The procedure, the pattern, the shape, the manner in which things are done - these represent the forms of culture. Whatever people feel and think both at work and at leisure, and the relations arising from these situations, combined with the natural surroundings - all that constitutes the spirit of a people’s culture. It sustains the higher expression of culture in science and art, creeds and ideologies. The things we call culture in the most restricted sense, the higher expressions of culture (which is what is usually meant when culture is discussed in our circles) - this is the butter churned out of culture in general, in its broadest sense. But can butter be produced without milk? Or can a man make butter by using his neighbors’ milk and still call the butter all his own? (A.D. Gordon. People and Labor)

Gordon believed that Israel had to be built by working in the fields, by building Israel; not by creating theories and philosophies of Zionism. He saw Israel as created not in a "top-down" motion - from the academies and halls of learning - but "bottom-up", from the grassroots, the smell of the earth and the song of the land, the hills and valleys, the rocks and rivers. That is why Israeli culture is created by the language, by the native foods, by the scenery, the music, the climate, the flora and fauna, the cities and highways, the inventions and achievements, the politicians and generals, and the modern and ancient history of our beloved land. This is what builds our Israeli Culture.

Hodesh Tov!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Omer day 13: Bialik's Shabbat Hamalka

After the trauma of Yom Hashoah, we need a break ... some music would be good!

Leading towards Yom Ha'atzmaut, let's get ready for Shabbat in true Zionist fashion with a beautiful zemer for Shabbat by Chaim Nachman Bialik, our national poet. When we were children, we would often sing this on Friday night at the Shabbat table. (You can find the words here).

Bialik studied in Volozhin Yeshiva, but rejected traditional observance. In his perception, the world of the yeshiva was going to disappear, and Judaism needed to evolve into a new Israeli Judaism. Shabbat was very improtant to his vision of a new Hebrew society and he used his influence to convince businesses to close on Shabbat in Tel Aviv! Bialik composed new songs for Shabbat to be sung at his new Oneg Shabbat meetings:
Bialik sought to put these ideas into practice through his Oneg Shabbat programs. In Tel Aviv, with its primarily secular atmosphere, many young people and adults had begun to spend their Saturdays at entertainment centers or on the beach. In an effort to counter this trend and infuse the Sabbath with Jewish content, Bialik invited the public to a weekly Saturday afternoon get-together that combined lectures, Torah study (in the broadest sense of the word), communal singing, cantorial music and refreshments. The lectures were on Bible, Haggadah, Talmud, Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, the history of the Jewish people, and more. These programs drew hundreds of people from all social sectors. In keeping with Bialik's plan, Oneg Shabbat societies soon sprung up in other parts of the country and even in the Diaspora. There were active groups, for example, in Jerusalem, Haifa, the kibbutzim and several European cities. (see the whole article here)

Bialik's attempt to include a different mode of Shabbat in the crucible of a new Zionist culture was an endeavour that I love, alongside with today's secular batei midrash and the like. Now, like then, we have to find ways in which to ensure that all Jews, all Israelis, have a connection with Judaism, viewing it as their own, and not seeing it as the exclusive domain of the religious sector. It may not be the manner in which I perceive Shabbat, but I would prefer a connection with Shabbat than none whatsoever.

Shabbat Shalom!

Omer 5775. Day 12 (2nd post). The State of Israel. Pride after the Holocaust

Yesterday's post challenged the philosophy that the answer to the Holocaust is mere survival and Jewish strength. I challenged a narrative that sees Medinat Yisrael as the answer to the Holocaust merely because it protects the Jewish people. I argued that the heroism of the Shoah is richer than endurance and defiance and that the response to the Shoah should be wider than mere survival, but should focus upon building a new society, rebuilding Judaism, forging a positive Jewish mission.

I challenged this philosophy on several accounts yesterday, and yet today, I would like to give the other side of the coin.

Every time I watch the state ceremony at Yad Vashem - with the Israeli soldiers standing to attention, the president and the prime minister, the diplomatic corps in attendance - I am struck by the dignity and pride that the State of Israel gives us as a nation. Each time, I ask myself, how would the Jewish people have managed to salvage itself after the Holocaust without Medinat Yisrael? After the Holocaust the despair, the depression and hopelessness would have been too crushing to inspire Jews to retain their future. But the establishment of Israel just 3 years later lifted the Jewish people, raised our pride and dignity.

The shamefulness of persecution and exile is intense. In my post yesterday, I mentioned Titus' Arch. I stood in Rome last year looking at the huge edifice of Titus' arch and I was struck by a mix of disbelief and humiliation. Why disbelief? Because the gateway to ancient Rome was Titus' arch, built to celebrate the downfall of Jerusalem. Every person that entered the city saw it, passed under it, and that is the image that endures in Rome to this day; that and the Coloseum, which as every tour guide says, was built by Titus with the money ransacked from Jerusalem in 70 CE and built by Jewish slave labor (80,000 slaves!). Disbelief because anti-semitism is so inexplicable, so perplexing. Why should the great Roman empire with its global aspirations care about the ancient Judeans, the Jews? and how is it that this monument to our Temple still stands as a testimony to the most irrational hatred?

And humiliation. Because look! Here is testimony to our exile, our national calamity, our Hurban! I thought to myself, I would have to stand here and "cut keriya" (tear my clothes in a sign of mourning) were it not for Medinat Yisrael and our national revival. To see our Hurban on public display, our slavery and destruction in the centre stage of the city which is widely viewed as the crucible of government, to see our disgrace paraded in full view - that is the epitome of national disgrace and dishonour.

With Medinat Yisrael, the pendulum of history has (thank God) swung in the opposite direction. Rav Soloveitchik put it well in Kol Dodi Dofek:
... for the first time in the history of our exile, divine providence has surprised our enemies with the sensational discovery that Jewish blood is not free for the taking; it is not hefker!”
Yes! Israel will stand up for and protect Jews all over the world; you cannot murder a Jew and expect to get away with it! Now there is an address, a source of dignity and pride. And furthermore, with the establishment of the State of Israel we end our ceaseless wandering; we have Israel as a homeland:
"...the gates of the land were opened. A Jew who flees from a hostile country now knows that he can find a secure refuge in the land of his ancestors…Now that the era of divine self-concealment (hester panim) is over, Jews who have been uprooted from their homes can find lodging in the Holy Land"
On Yom Hashoah I thank God that we have the protection and pride of the State of Israel. No - this is not all. As I said yesterday, Judaism is not just about mere persistence; but without survival and hope, we have nothing.

We have experienced the prophecy of Ezekiel's dry bones in the most literal way, and we have much for which to thank God and the visionaries and leaders of our modern State of Israel:
1 The LORD carried me and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones ... 3 And He said unto me: 'Son of man, can these bones live?' And I answered: 'O Lord GOD, You know.' 4 Then He said to me: …. 5. Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live….11 Then He said to me: 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost (avda tikvateinu); we are clean cut off. 12 Therefore prophesy, and say unto them: Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, my people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel. …. And I will put My spirit in you, and ye shall live… (ch.37)
They say, the world said only 70 years ago: "our hope is lost - avda tikvateinu!" But the State of Israel gave the strongest refutation of that - "Od lo avda tikvateinu" - our hope is NOT lost. Yad Vashem is like a dark tunnel, but when we emerge we find ourselves in rebuilt Jerusalem. We realise that our mission is to build our country, our society, or future in our own sweet land.

... onwards towards Yom Haatzmaut!