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!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Omer 5775: Day 12 - Yom Hashoah. What is Heroism?

The Holocaust is a topic I shy away from. I don't like visiting Yad Vashem. I visited Poland once and don't want to repeat the experience of going to that bloodstained land.

And yet, every year on Yom Hashoah I watch the national ceremony at Yad Vashem on television as the survivors, surrounded by their beautiful grandchildren, light six torches, and I cry as I spend the day listening to survivors' testimony on the various TV and radio channels. This day, a sacred day of sorts, is an intense period of communing with our collective memory and also the memory of my own ancestors, my family in Poland and in Germany, who were murdered so brutally by the Nazis. It is my good fortune that my grandparents escaped Germany in February 1939 or else I would not be here today. Yom Hashoah is a powerful experience during which we engage with a whole host of aspects of the Shoah; the systematic murder and humiliation, the defiance, the dignity, survival, the memory, the religious implications, and so much more. To me it is a highly important day.

And yet, I would like to reflect upon the manner in which Israel as a country has remembered the Shoah, subject it to some criticism, and then reverse and find the power in that mode of memory.

Where to begin?


Tonight at Yad Vashem, the official national commemoration ceremony is held in front of two huge bronze relief sculptures, both by the artist Nathan Rappoport (They are also on the central memorial in the Warsaw Ghetto). These two monuments tell a story.

The first is low and long. What do we see in it? It is called "The Last March" and it depicts Jews being led away - to the ghetto? the cattle trucks? the gas chamber? death march? – We can imagine all of the above. All the Jews look broken, weeping, bent over. Two figures stand out. One, a man, carries a Sefer Torah and is raising his face to heaven – is he praying? Protesting to God? And if he is praying, he is the only one. And a second figure, a child, stares out. To whom? - To the perpetrators? the bystanders? to ourselves? Is he too young to know he must lower his head? Is he so naïve that he still retains his faith in humanity? And in the background, the helmets of the German guards. The posture of the Jews aligned with the soldiers helmets in the background is supposed to recall the relief from Titus' arch in Rome (see below) that depicts Jerusalem's exile.

Rapopport's second relief is vertical, not horizontal but erect and proud, and it shows the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto. In the centre like a Greek hero is Mordechai Anilewicz who led the Warsaw Ghetto revolt. One figure lies slain at the base, but all the other figures appear heroic, victorious, glorious. We even wonder whether certain of the figures are the same as the first relief. Has the religious man taken off his kippa, discarded his Torah and joined the fight? Is the boy on the right the same young child of the first relief but a few years older?


But what is the message of all this. Quite clearly, the placement of these two sculptures alongside one another conveys the sense that it is the fighters who are the true heroes of the Holocaust. The horizontal relief remarkably shows no actual violence; the Jews march to their deaths "like sheep to the slaughter." The second image is one of pride at the ability to strike back, to resist.

These sculptures reflect the atmosphere of Israel in the 1950's. Yom Hashoah is actually named "Yom Hahoah veHagevura -  The day of the Holocaust and Heroism" and was set on the date 27 Nissan because it marks the day of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

In the 1950's many Israelis were embarrassed by the Shoah. The new Jew of Eretz Yisrael who built the land and defended himself derided the meek, cowering Eastern European Jews, who, they assumed had done little to defend themselves. In the 1950's Israel the Holocaust was a source of shame and almost all that young Israelis could salvage from it was the revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto, so that is the day upon which they fixed Yom Hashoah.


But Israel grew up. The Eichman trial in 1961 suddenly brought the stories of the Shoah into the public eye for Israel, and ever since that moment, Israeli society has become more hospitable, more sophisticated about the Shoah. Movies, music, the second generation and now the third have added layer upon layer to our understanding of the Shoah. Today, every dimension of the Shoah is embraced and examined, the survivors are cherished and venerated, and virtually every Israeli High School student takes a trip to Poland, the army sends missions to Auschwitz, the Knesset too.

The Holocaust has become a huge part of Israeli consciousness. But. I believe that a central feature of the messaging is still somewhat problematic and open to distortion.

Why? What message? For many Israelis, the very existence of Israel has become somehow rooted in the Holocaust. The Holocaust expressed the powerlessness of the Jew and Israel is the embodiment of Jewish power. That is why we need a strong military, that is why Israelis look down at diaspora Jews for their powerlessness.

For a good expression of this perspective, see this scene from Operation Thunderbolt which recreates Yoni Netanyahu's speech as the soldiers embark on the famous Entebbe mission. There he tells his men how their job is to ensure the safety of Jews worldwide: (Now is not the time, but the movie itself is saturated with overtones of the Holocaust. For another post some time.)


Now this is not a problematic perspective in its own right, but it is worrysome when it becomes the sole or dominant approach to the Holocaust and Zionism, and this for several reasons:

First, because Israel is not invincible. In 1967, there was a genuine fear that Israel may be overrun by Arab forces. Thank God Israel has survived calamity time and time again, but Israel is not immune from disaster. If Israel is just about safety, and American Jew may argue that he is safer in the US than in Israel and see no reason or motive for residing in Israel.

Second, it reduces Judaism and Israel to a central principle of survival. But as a society - Jewish and Israeli - we aspire to so much more. Whereas some Zionist thinkers and founders saw Zionism's essence as obliterating anti-semitism, many of those thinkers and Halutzim dreamed of reviving a new Jew and a new Judaism; they sought to build a new society. And we should aspire to a society of justice and equal rights, we aspire to culture and progress, we aspire to a love of the land and its history, we aspire to create a successful ethical society, we aspire, as Jews, to realize our religious values and create an exemplary society.

The sole focus upon survival and strength eclipses this lofty vision. This was stated by one of my teachers, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits: 

"…we must beware against breeding a Holocaust mentality of morose dependency amongst our people, especially our youth…Should we not replace negative by positive factors to vindicate our claim in survival? The slogan, "Never Again!", now so popular is a poor substitute for purposeful Jewish vitality. We exist not in order to prevent our own destruction but to advance … the ageless values which are our national raison d'etre" ("Religious Responses to the Holocaust: Retrospect and Prospect" L'eyla, 1988)
As Jews we must understand why we live as Jews, and not put all our energies into how to avoid death as Jews; we should not keep Judaism so we may survive or persist - we must live so that we may live Judaism!

Third, when the Holocaust becomes our founding principle, we are prone to distortions of victimization, seeing all the nations as hostile and perceiving ourselves as perennial victims; we are prone to suspicion and defensiveness towards adversaries, and less open to conciliation and bridge-building.


This has been a long post, but let me just take this further and challenge the "sheep to the slaughter" attitude, and by the same token, open to other vectors of remembrance of the Holocaust.

The Heroism of the Shoah is not measure merely by armed resistance. The heroism can be in areas of simple humanity, dignity and spirit. When a mother comforted and reassured her child in Auschwitz, that is heroism! When a Jew shared a piece of bread with another inmate in Theresienstadt, that was true heroism! When we read of Janusz Korzcak who lead his orphans to their deportation singing even though he might have saved his own life, that is true humanity, true heroism. When we read of Rabbis who led their communities in faith and halakha despite the adverse conditions, and Jews who retained their commitment to their Jewish faith and law despite adversity - that is true Heroism!

The Haredi community do not commemorate the Shoah at Yad Vashem, with readings and with a minute of silence. But teh Haredi community has a heightened sense of Shoah awareness. The mourn for the communities lost, for the righteous who were murdered. But how do they respond? They have rebuilt institutions - indeed Mir, Ponevezh, Brisk, Gur, Belz etc - are institutions in Eretz Yisrael that bear the names and legacy of their European forebears; they live with the desire to revive what was lost. Ponevezh has a verse
emblazoned on its main entrance "And on the mount of God, there will be a remnant, and it will become holy". When Haredim are asked why they have such large families, they will frequently explain that they wish to replenish the ranks of the Jewish people who were lost in the Shoah. Their Holocaust sensibility is deeply entrenched.

This is a different response, but an incredibly powerful one - have children, rebuild Torah institution, replace the Torah communities that were lost. I would argue that this group's response - statistics show they are the largest growth group in Jewry today - may do more for the Jewish people than the Holocaust museums and the memorials. For they are filled with a burning desire to live Judaism, to continue its legacy in the world. The Holocaust spurs them to intensify their commitment to Judaism. But they focus on Judaism itself; not on the Shoah. This is a very different perspective and it should raise questions about limiting the response of the Shoah to mere survival or Jewish strength.

The questions of what is the desirable response, what is the best mode of commemoration is far more complex, far wider than the Israeli official narrative of memorial. We must widen the messages; encourage Jews not merely to ensure our national survival and the eradication of violence and hate, but also to foster an understanding of how to live as Jews.

On this point, I will end with a story by Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni from his years as a teenager in a German labor camp. He studied Torah before the War, he got through teh Shoah inspired by Torah, and continued learning and teaching after the war. For him, Torah AND survival is the true response to the Nazis:

I passed by the Todt (German Guard) as he was eating his scheduled snack, his meal between meals. In characteristic German style, he ate at the same time every night and, what's more, he ate the same thing every night: a thinly sliced sandwich containing some greasy substance that stained the wrapping paper and made it transparent. He and his eating habits became as much a feature of the tunnel as the chila (wagons) and carrying the drills.
This time, however, our meeting was different. His sandwich was wrapped in a page of "Orach Chaim," a volume of the Shulchan Aruch… It was my ambition as a child to own a … Shulchan Aruch. Here, of all places, in the shadows of the tunnel, under the threatening gaze of the German, a page of the Shulchan Aruch, with fatty spots all over it, met my eyes.
Upon seeing this wrapper, I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard, without even realizing why; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this bletl, this page. For a while he didn't know what was happening; he thought I was suffering from epilepsy. He immediately put his hand to his revolver, the usual reaction to an unknown situation. But then he understood. This was, I explained to him, a page from a book I had studied at home. Please, I sobbed, give it to me as a souvenir. He gave me the bletl and I took it back to the camp.
On the Sundays we had off, we now had not only Oral Torah but Written Torah as well. The bletl became a visible symbol of a connection between the camp and the activities of Jews throughout history. It was not important what the topic was… The bletl became a rallying point. We looked forward to studying it whenever we had free time, more so even than to the phylacteries. It was the bletl, parts of which had to be deciphered because the grease made some letters illegible, that summoned our attention. Most of those who came to listen didn't understand the subject matter, but that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the bletl.
That is Heroism!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 10. "Choose Life! Choose Judaism!"

We have now reached the point of the year in Israel at which the media, our national leadership, and soon the very atmosphere of our public spaces, will turn its attention to marking the critical events that have given shape to our Jewish existence over the past 100 years, our nation and our land, and those that continue to inspire and haunt us as a people. I am talking about the auspicious days of Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut. These will be followed some weeks hence, by Yom Yerushalayim.In Israel on Yom Hashoah all broadcasting is solely devoted to Holocaust related themes, places of entertainment close, and as a nation we stand in silence at 10am to remember our brothers and sisters who were murdered by the Nazis. Already Yom Hashoah fills the airwaves - yesterday the annual reports were published about the welfare of Holocaust survivors in Israel, about their depleting numbers, and the news reports and talk shows turned to ask whether society should be doing more to assist and care for these elderly heroes.

When writing this "Omer blog" my intent was to provide something of a commentary, a text that could supplement and enrich the meaningful days which are the Omer. And so, naturally, from now until Yom Hashoah, this Thursday, my posts will turn towards the topic of the Holocaust and the manner in which we relate to this topic here in Israel and beyond. I will open with a piece by Elie Wiesel (A Jew Today pg. 192-195). More to follow in the upcoming days.

I remember two episodes One took place in a train carrying hundreds Jews to their death They were pressed together so that they could hardly move or breathe Suddenly an old rabbi exclaimed, "Today is Simhath Torah Have forgotten what Jews are ordered to do on Simhath Torah?" Somebody had managed to smuggle a small Sefer Torah aboard the train; he handed it to the rabbi And they, began to sing, to sway, since they could not dance, and they went on singing and celebrating the Torah, all the while knowing that every motion of the train was bringing them closer to their end
The second episode took place inside the kingdom of night. In one of the barracks several hundred Jews gathered to celebrate Simhath Torah. In the shadow of shadows? Yes - even there. On the threshold of the death chambers? Yes - even there. But since there was no Sefer Torah, how could they organize the traditional procession with the sacred scrolls? As they were trying to solve the problem, an old man - was he really old? the word had no meaning there - noticed a young boy - who was so old, so old - standing there looking on and dreaming. "Do you remember what you learn in heder?" asked the man. "Yes, I do," replied the boy. "Really?" said the man, "you really remember Sh'ma Yisrael?" "I remember much more," said the boy. "Sh'ma Yisrael is enough," said the man. And he lifted the boy, clasped him in his arms and began dancing with him - as though he were the Torah. And all joined in. They all sang and danced and cried. They wept, but they sang with fervor - never before had Jews celebrated Simhath Torah with such fervor.
For in our tradition, celebration of life is more important than mourning over the dead. When a wedding procession encounters a funeral procession in the street, the mourners must halt so as to allow the wedding party to proceed. Surely you know what respect we show our dead, but a wedding, symbol of life and renewal, symbol of promise too, takes precedence.
Our tradition' orders us to affirm life and proclaim hope—always Shabbat interrupts all mourning, being as it is the embodiment of man's hope and his capacity for joy.
In more general terms, Judaism teaches man to overcome despair. What is Jewish history if not an endless quarrel with God? Pascal phrased it differently "The history of the Jewish people," he said, "is but a long love affair with God." And as in every love affair, there are quarrels and reconciliations, more quarrels and more reconciliations. And yet neither God nor the Jews ever gave up on the other.
 ... We went on believing, hoping, invoking His name In the endless engagement with God, we proved to Him that we were more patient: than He, more compassionate too. In other words, we did not give up on Him either. For this is the essence of being Jewish: never to give up—never to yield to despair.

Faced with despair, the Jew has three options. He can choose resignation, total resignation -  as some of us did one generation ago. Or he can seek refuge in self-delusion - as some individual Jews did. To them assimilation was an option, as was conversion. Yes, there are Jews who arrive at the conclusion that since Jewishness has forever been linked to suffering, they must give it up to protect themselves and their children

But then there is a third option—the most difficult but most beautiful of all. To face the human condition —and do so as a Jew.

...Those who emerged from that ordeal were the stronger for it They were the strongest Jews in history, and their strength, paradoxically, had its source in the Holocaust.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 9. The Power of Routine

We are now officially "after the chag" - tomorrow the kids go back to school, and I return to work. I return with great enthusiasm; I love routine. The discipline of routine, despite its daily grind, notwithstanding the occasional dreary monotony, affords us the quiet and discipline to get things done, to advance.

Some people thrive upon periodic excitement, the enthusiasm and fire that comes with an extraordinary moment, a surprise or special event; others flourish in the enjoyment of the daily order. In truth, we need both: our chagim and special days, festive and solemn, are true highlights that urge us and afford the tools to rise above the ordinary, to expereince inspiration, to celebrate and mourn, to remember and connect with events larger than us. But the routine has its own power, its own beauty and achievement.

My Rosh Yeshiva loved to quote the following Midrash, not found in classic midrashic collections:

Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, "Shema Yisrael."
Ben Nanas says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Shimon Ben Pazi says: We have found a more inclusive verse and it is, "The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening" (Shemot 29:39).
Rabbi Ploni stood up and said: The halakha is in accordance with Ben Pazi...
"Shema Yisrael", "Love your neighbour as thyself" are all huge teachings of love of God and love of man. But Ben Pazi teaches that the daily service of God - the morning sacrifice and the afternoon sacrifice, always the same; the daily brachot, birkhat hamazon, tzitzit, tefillin, morning, afternoon and evening prayers, the discipline of kashrut - all these unchanging daily religious routines have a deep and penetrating power. They represent a deep stability and consistency that form the backbone of our religion.

For further reading, see Rav Amital here and Rav Kook here.

Omer 5775. Day 8. From the Red Sea to the State of Israel

The seventh and final day of Pesach traditionally marks the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. Two midrashim present contrasting portraits of this miraculous moment. The first:
דרש רבי נהוראי: היתה בת ישראל עוברת בים, ובנה בידה, ובוכה, ופושטת ידה, ונוטלת תפוח או רמון מתוך הים, ונותנת לו, שנאמר (תהלים קו, ט) "ויוליכם בתהומות כמדבר", מה במדבר לא חסרו כלום אף בתהומות לא חסרו כלום

Rav Nehorai offered the following midrashic understanding: When walking through the sea, if a mother was carrying her child in her arms and he cried for food, she merely reached out her arm and plucked an apple or a pomegranate from the sea and gave it to him ... just as wanted for nothing in the wilderness, similarly in the depths of the sea, all was provided for them.
In this reading, the passage through the sea was Eden-like, all needs taken care of, and not even a cry hear. But see this second midrashic impression:
כיון שירדו לתוך הים היה מלא טיט שהיה עד עכשיו לח מן המים והיה בו כמין טיט שנאמר (חבקוק ג, טו) דרכת בים סוסיך חומר מים רבים והיה אומר ראובן לשמעון במצרים בטיט ובים טיט במצרים בחמר ובלבנים ובים חמר מים רבים הוי וימרו על ים
When they had plunged into the sea bed, they found it was full of clay, because it was still wet from the water,  ... the tribe of Reuben said to the tribe of Simeon: In Egypt we had clay, and now, in the sea, once again we have clay. In Egypt we had mortar and bricks, and now, in the sea, once again we have mortar and bricks. Hence: "But they were rebellious at the sea," even at the Red Sea. (Shemot Rabba 24: 1)
In this second reading, even as they cross the sea, the Israelites complain about their muddy walk. They see the mud and it reminds them of Egypt. Even at the moment of their redemption they are reminded of past oppression, they sense a looming threat, they worry that they are back in the mud of Egypt, and they criticize and grumble.

What might we say about this? Which midrash is "true?" I think it is entirely possible that even in the midst of an Eden-like divinely guided redemption, the people experience it as a testing, arduous trek. What do I mean?

We are now emerging out of the festive days of Pesach into the "y'mei Zikaron-Atzma'ut." This week we mark Yom Hashoah, next week, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut. We come out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and immediately find ourselves thrust into memories of the Holocaust, and the re-experience of our national revival, and the re-establishment of our independence in our national homeland.

Surely this is some form of "redemption", from Holocaust to Independence, from death to life, from exile to homeland, from slavery to freedom; it is historic, prophetic, indeed a process of national redemption. and yet it came with much suffering and many challenging difficulties. It did not come "on a silver platter." The War of Independence had moments in which the future of the Jewish State was for from assured. Our independence came at great human loss and great suffering. The new immigrants that were saved by, and boosted the young State of Israel were settled in shanty towns and tent cities (ma'abarot)  and there was a great deal of (justified) unrest and misery! So, is this a a welcome process of national redemption, or is it a story of complaint and fear?

Once I was leading a tour of midrasha students to Tel Bet-Shemesh. We toured the archaeological site and then I asked them to turn around and look at modern Beit Shemesh. I told them the story of the "development town", the rage of the sephardic immigrants, and the social problems, and then moved on to the more contemporary problems with the unrest generated by the influx of Beit Shemesh's Haredi population. I told my students that we pray daily for the blessing of the "ingathering of the exiles" but that at times, we find this "blessing" hard to swallow, difficult to digest, a grueling undertaking.

But we should not lose perspective. Sometimes, even though God is leading us miraculously through the sea to the promised land, fulfilling the promises of generations, we can only see the mud, we sense the hardship and the overbearing challenge, and we feel overwhelmed, frightened, and we complain. As a nation, we always have. But let us not lose sight of the larger picture. Redemption is a long and winding road, but we are walking to our historic destiny.

Shavua Tov!

(With thanks to Baron Dasberg)

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 4. Chol Hamoed

Chol Hamoed in Israel has a unique quality.

My recollections of chol hamoed during my years living in the UK are of a rather pallid experience, which could range from a nuisance at worst, to a sort of sideline at best.

The mild nuisance would be Sukkot with no Sukka for lunch, or the inability to buy coffee at my regular cafe on Pesach. (Once at LSE, chabad put sukka up. It was 3 walls that surrounded a park bench right outside the main library, just about the most busy corner on campus. The front of the bench was completely open, fully exposed; just the sides of the bench and its back were enveloped by walls. It was like a clichéd joke: How many Orthodox Jews can fit on a park bench! ...exceedingly embarrassing!)

But really, far more problematic was that Chol Hamoed felt more "chol" than "moed," more ordinary than festive. My Dad went to work, I attended college, and the chag shrank to prayer-times and mealtimes. The pervasive feeling of the chag, as felt for example on Yomtov, was strikingly elusive.

Not so in Israel where the entire country is on holiday! Today's main headlines were the traffic jams caused by a whole nation on vacation. People hike on nature trails and greet strangers with "chag sameach" greetings; even the newscaster opens the day's news with "moadim lesimcha!" Here it feels more "moed" than "chol" as one cannot be but aware that these are festive days, one gains a sense of the nation as one hikes the country, drives the roads, and visits tourist sites along with throngs of others.

It is really special. It is genuinely a seven day festival.

Moreover, in ancient times, the three pilgrim festivals ("regalim") were celebrated en masse with all Israel. We gain an inkling of that "am yisrael" experience in Israel today.

Both Pesach and Sukkot begin with a day of YomTov followed by intermediate days, as they end with a YomTov day. It is as if we take an intense shot of the chag at the start, then continue by experiencing the chag  at a more normal level of intensity over the duration of a single week, a basic building block of time, allowing the practices of the chag seep in, penetrate the psyche. Then, we emerge into the final Yomtov to simply bask joyfully in the energy that the chag has generated by the preceding days. (-Both on Sukkot and Pesach, the final day of chag has no particular unique practices and seems as if it is there to gather and absorb the riches that the festival have has created.)

May we use these days to joyfully experience these happy and holy days of Pesach to connect with the mitzvot and momentum of the chag as we anticipate the finale on שביעי של פסח.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Omer 5775. Day 3. Nissan: A New Year?

When is the start of the Jewish year? Judaism has two days which constitute the New Year. On the one hand, we commemorate Rosh Hashanna in Tishrei, at the end of the summer. But (Ex 12:1) the first month of the Jewish calendar is Nissan, in the Spring; it is the "first of months". 

The Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b) records a disagreement; Rabbi Eliezer suggests  that the world was created in the month of Tishrei (September) whereas Rabbi Yehoshua proposes  that creation happened in the month of Nissan (April).

At first glance, we may propose that Rosh Hashanna is the New Year of the individual; Nissan the birth of the nation. But this will not suffice. 

This is not an arbitrary debate; both Spring and Autumn are nature's nexus points, spaced six months apart. In Tishrei, the agricultural year comes to an end; the grain and fruit have all been harvested, and the farmer awaits the rains to plant the next year's crop. It is a natural period of assessment and making account of the past year. It is a time of anxiety of what the next year will bring; No wonder that we engage in soul-searching, repentance, and prayers for a good year.

But what of Rabbi Yehoshua? The spring is also a natural point of creation. After the dormancy of winter, nature wakes up. We feel as if we are experiencing a new Eden-like creation as dead branches come alive with new flowers and nature renews itself, the winter rains having cleansed the world. Now creation starts again! It is a time of renewal, joy, rebirth (eg. see Sir Hashirim.) 

And it would seem evident that many of the rituals and traditions of Pesach recall the temperament of the Yamim Noraim (days of awe). The purging of Hametz is akin to the purging of evil from our lives. Hametz has been compared to idolatry, the evil inclination, pride, and much else. As we search, dispose of and burn the Hametz, we are clearing out the extraneous from our homes, the areas of life in which the metaphoric dough has risen beyond our control. (see for instance, the kabbalistic prayer to be recited after the burning of the Hametz, printed in many haggadot.)

The eve of Pesach is a fast-day - "the Fast of the Firstborn"! This strange tradition, with obscure origin, views the night of Passover as an auspicious time of "who will live and who will die" assuming that even today, years after the Exodus, the firstborn are in some manner "saved" annually from the destruction of the plague of the Firstborn, and need to recognize their salvation.

On the first day of Pesach, a festive rather than a sombre day, the Hazzan dons a kittel (white robe) and prays for dew, invoking the Rosh Hashanna-Yom Kippur liturgy, as the community turn to God: לחיים ולא למוות - "For Life and not for Death."

At the Seder, just as at Neilah, we close with "לשנה הבאה בירושלים - Next year in Jerusalem!"

There is a palpable sense that behind Pesach is indeed an alternative "Rosh Hashanna". As the seasons turn we get a new lease on life, a new chance to burn our "Hametz",  to get back to the basics - flour and water, the simplicity of matza - an opportunity for reassessment and recalibration as we enter the summer months.

So let us use this opportunity of Pesach to allow ourselves to renew our lives, to eradicate our unwanted behaviour, to cleanse our lifestyles of extraneous and extravagant " hametz". This is a moment with potency for rebirth. Let us live up to the moment.

Omer 5775. Day 2. The Power of Our Environment

Its the 2nd Day of the Omer; the 3rd Day of Pesach and as we move deeper into the festival of Pesach, it is just beginning to become "routine", normal.

The Torah reading for the 3rd day of Pesach (Ex. ch.13) deals with turning the Exodus experience into a "zikaron." It is one thing to experience the Exodus first-hand, but the Torah turns its attention very consciously to crafting a legacy of memory, of remembrance and commemoration. The Torah rolls out a whole range of commemorative acts: the annual 7-day "chag hamatzot," the sanctity of the firstborn (animal and human) which perpetuates the final plague, the mezuzah on the door reminiscent of the blood on the doorposts in Egypt, and the mitzvah of Tefillin - a sign on the hand and mind.

Judaism is an action-intensive religion. One Exodus, and yet a whole panoply of reminders and commemorative rituals. The medieval work, Sefer Hachinuch suggests that the intense behavioral engagement in meaningful and positive acts will drive an idea deep into one's sub-conscience, "for a person's heart is drawn after his/her actions."

That is why the Rabbis declared: "God wanted the best for Israel so he gave them numerous commands [mitzvot]" so that they occupy our thoughts constantly and become our ongoing occupation… For through good acts we are affected to become better. The Rabbis hinted to this when they said: "One with a mezuzah on the door, wearing fringes [tzitzit] and tefillin, will never sin" (menachot 43a) because these are constant mitzvot and they influence us all the time.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Pesach. On Pesach we turn our kitchen upside down, we absolutely transform our diet. Through this fundamental lifestyle shift, the resonance of Pesach enters into our lives in a most profound way. Sometimes Judaism's demands are quite grueling (Pesach cleaning, Yom Kippur, the 3 weeks, sleeping in the Sukkah) and yet I have always been amazed at the power of Judaism to utilize this "virtual reality," thrusting us into a radically different environment for a week, using this technique to impress its messages upon us.

Let us enjoy Pesach and revel in the numerous traditions and rituals that bind us closer to Judaism's mission, reinforcing and deepening its message in a rich tapestry and weave of action and reflection.

Moadim le-simcha!