Category Archives: Holidays

The “-Ism” Prism

Chanuka is the festival of lights, so it is both natural and paradoxical that the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles must ideally take place in the darkness. The lights of Chanuka come to dispel the darkness. But consider the association of Chanuka with darkness; so much of Chanuka revolves around darkness. The Midrash expounds the second verse in the Torah as referring to the four exiles that Jews will endure in our history, the third being the Greek-Syrian exile that ended with the triumph of Chanuka. “And ‘darkness’ – that is the Greek exile that darkened the eyes of Israel with its harsh decrees” (Breisheet Raba 2:4).  And the very form of the mitzvah of Chanuka emphasizes the darkness. When do we light? The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 21b) states “from the time the sun sets until pedestrian traffic ceases in the market,” further defined “until the Tarmodeans, wood sellers, are no longer walking in public.”

And where do light? Again, from the Talmud, “the mitzvah of the Chanuka candles is to place them out the entrance of one’s home, outside,” where it is dark, facing the public domain. The common custom of lighting inside is a compromise born of misfortune – “in times of danger it suffices to light inside on one’s table.”

Why then is Chanuka a commandment that is celebrated in the dark?

Five times in the last six weeks – and I wasn’t looking for it – I have come across similar statements made by five different individuals, I assume without coordination, all in the nature of: “if Orthodoxy and feminism are incompatible,” or “if Orthodoxy and egalitarianism are incompatible,” then I want nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Or, as one put it, “until I became a feminist, I had no idea that the Torah was so anti-woman.” Or, if the halacha is not changed, and the Mesorah is not flexible enough to accommodate my desires, then I am out. At a certain point I realized – again – how history and especially Jewish history repeats itself, and how time and again Jews lose their way and willfully self-destruct.

We have had many “–isms” threaten our faith over the centuries, beginning with Hellenism in the Chanuka story that swept away most Jews from observance of Torah. There have been other “–isms” even more recently – Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Objectivism, Feminism, Egalitarianism, etc. All have several things in common. They each presented singular overarching theories that to believers will solve all problems that they wish to see solved. And they all have been designated by their Jewish adherents as the “ikkar,” the essence, with the Torah relegated to something “tafel,” secondary. The “–isms” were so intellectually and psychologically dominant that they became (or become) the standard by which Torah is to be judged. And here is the basic rule of Jewish history: whenever the “–isms” became the lodestar, the touchstone, the benchmark by which all else – including the Torah – is measured, Jews were lost to Torah, by the thousands and tens of thousands. It is as if the believers concluded: If the Torah, a mitzvah, a minhag, a Jewish value, or a Jewish idea does not accord with one of the “-isms,” then they must be rejected, for G-d surely did not intend that, if there even is a G-d.

Even worse, the “-isms” became objects of worship, veneration and adoration, even more than the Torah. I once encountered a young person who had rejected the mitzvot and become an objectivist, a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand who was Jewish herself but non-practicing. Nothing I said could persuade him; some of her ideas made sense, and some were preposterous, but this young person was unmoved, even when I asked if my interlocutor realized that a choice between the Torah of the living G-d and…. Ayn Rand is really no choice at all!  There is nothing to compare! No matter. Rand it was. Whatever becomes the measure of all things – and is not Torah – is a ticket on the slow train to one’s spiritual doom.

And of course, none of the “–isms” are completely negative, otherwise they would not attract thinking Jews. In fact, the opposite is true. Each “-ism” had or has many fine features. Our Sages (Masechet Megila 9b) spoke glowingly of Hellenism: “’Let G-d expand the boundaries of Yefet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem’- may the beauty of Yefet reside in the tents of Shem,” son of Noach and ancestor of Abraham. There is beauty, harmony, and even nobility in Greek culture, properly indulged and characterized. It can find its place even in the tents of Shem. For a time, our Sages even permitted the Torah to be written in Greek and read in public – the only language afforded such a privilege.

Is there not the kernel of a good idea in Socialism – the democratic control over the means of production? It might not be my cup of tea, but it sounds fair. Only a Jew could have thought of Communism – an end to private ownership, the epitome of the egalitarian society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Sounds great in theory! Ayn Rand – self-help, self-sufficiency, individual rights, capitalism – wonderful. But it’s not Torah, so it’s flawed. All these doctrines were flawed in theory and practice, but it is not as if there is nothing attractive in them.

And the “-isms” also have in common that each ideology snatched pious Jews away from their faith – beginning with Hellenism (as history records: most Jews became Hellenists – that’s why the Maccabees were a minority in their own land among their own people) to all the modern movements. Socialism, Zionism, and Communism made inroads in every yeshiva in Europe. There were frum Jews – ordained rabbis from the finest yeshivot in Europe – who became staunch Communists and by the time they realized what Communism had in store for Jews, it was too late. There were distinguished, pious Jews who became revolutionaries – for socialism, Communism, against the Czar and others – and relinquished the Torah life as well. All these ideologies, in vastly different ways, were immensely seductive. The temptation to change the world, join the avant garde, and be part of mass international movements was extremely appealing.

Zionism is different in that the core of Zionism always was a Torah concept – the Return to Zion as promised by the Torah and our prophets. But there were many people who threw away Torah for secular Zionism – saying, in effect, “the mitzvot are only necessary for the exile!” – itself an incorrect paraphrase of a point made by the Ramban (Devarim 11:8). Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Eshkol and too many others all attended Yeshiva in their youth, and gave it up religious observance. They didn’t have to abandon the Torah life; Religious Zionism has demonstrated how one can be an observant Jew and a Zionist. But abandon Torah they did in order to create the “new Jew” who became remarkably like the old Jew who abandoned Torah for other “-isms.” Likewise, there are people who still grievously distort the Torah for anti-Zionism, which is also just another “–ism.”

I fear that the same thing is happening with feminism and egalitarianism. They are also just “-isms,” and each of them also contain some good – equality, fairness, sensitivity, an end to abuse, increased opportunities, etc. But each of them also contains ideas and practices that contradict the Torah as well, and therein lies the danger. The fundamental departure from Torah that characterizes these two “-isms” is the assertion that males and females are the same and therefore men and women are “equal.” Men and women are no more equal than an apple and a tomato can be said to be equal. They have some things in common, some things in which they are distinguished, and different roles (even different brachot). To build an ideology on that proposition is essentially to repeal parts of the Torah, nature and common sense.

Whenever something is designated as a counterforce to Torah, is deemed to be an idea or value that supersedes or transcends Torah, or is perceived as the barometer by which the Torah is to be measured – then you know you are on the wrong track. Whenever any “–ism” comes forward and says, “worship me, the Torah must obey me,” and induces one into thinking that if the Torah cannot be harmonized with the “-ism” then the Torah is flawed, know that you are on the wrong track. Then the person has to have the inner strength and fortitude to say “I may be a Hellenist, Socialist, Zionist, Feminist, Egalitarian, etc. but ‘ahd cahn.’ Only up to here. I can go no further without abandoning what is most precious to me, the Torah and its mitzvot.”

Shlomo, in his wisdom, summarized our obligations: “fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man in his entirety” (Kohelet 12:13).  Any ideology that takes us away from Mitzvot –  intentionally or unintentionally, permanently or temporarily – is flawed, invalid, and unworthy of a Jew. Those who believe in G-d and His Torah must internalize that our lives will not be measured based on how good Hellenists we were, or Socialists, or Communists, or Feminists or followers of Ayn Rand – but how good and faithful Jews we are. We delude ourselves at our peril into thinking we can have it all and embrace it all and harmonize it all. We can’t. The “-isms” of history swept away countless numbers of Jews; the modern ones still do.

The purpose of Chanuka is to illuminate the darkness outside, not to bring the darkness of the outside into our homes. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe  said the Mitzva of Ner Chanuka was so formulated – light candles in the place of darkness at the time of darkness – “so that we should bring our light into a darkened world,”  until the Tarmodeans – i.e., the mordim, the rebels and revolutionaries, can no longer stand in the public domain.

In times of danger, when the outside world beckons with its temptations and heresies, entices us to look at the world through the prism of an “-ism” and not through the Torah and our Mesorah, and tries to cajole us into making additions, subtractions and amendments to the Torah, then we have to ensure that our homes, our places of holiness, remain pure, and the jug of oil in our hearts is unsullied by alien ideas. We may not be able then to enlighten the world but we can keep our homes and families spiritually safe and secure.

Only then we will again be imbued with G-d’s spirit and worthy of having His presence dwell among us. Only then can we anticipate His protective hand that will shield us from the turmoil and struggles ahead, as He did to our forefathers (and foremothers) in those days in this season.

 

 

Omens

We are commanded this time of year to dwell in Succot (booths) “so all generations should know that G-d had us dwell in Succot when He took us out of Egypt: (Vayikra 23:43). We have been dwelling in Succot ever since –    a sign of G-d’s love and protection from hostile natural elements, and from hostile human forces as well. Our Sages famously disputed whether these Succot were real, actual booths or the divine clouds of glory. But how far does the protection extend?

Rav Rami Berechyahu (the fine Rav of Talmon in Samaria and founder of the organization “Maaminim Bamishtara,” an educational network for religious police officers in Israel) was once asked the following question: a fellow said that he was building his Succa and he injured himself, broke his finger when he smashed it with the hammer. He wanted to know how such a thing was possible when the Talmud (Sota 21a) states that when you are involved in the performance of a Mitzvah, you are protected from harm. So how was he hurt?

The Rabbi first answered that building the Succa is not the mitzvah but a hechsher mitzvah  (preparation for the mitzvah, which is dwelling in the Succa), so the aforementioned principle doesn’t apply) We might be tempted to dismiss such a question altogether but for the fact that many people live their lives according to such signs, omens, premonitions. This action brings good luck, and this brings bad luck. I’ll be successful if I wake up at a certain time, or the weather is a certain way, or this person calls me. As is well known, there are people who do this with mitzvot as well – if I observe this mitzvah, then that entitles me to this reward, or even this: if I do this mitzvah, then I can transfer my reward to someone else.

All of this is alluring but essentially baseless – we can daven for someone else (the primary way of helping another, aside from actually helping them) or even learn extra Torah for someone else. I’ve never seen an authoritative source suggest that I can assign my reward for wearing tefillin (or taking challah) to someone else, anymore than the Jets can assign extra points they have scored to the Giants (not that it would help). And if the transference of reward did work, would the converse also work – that someone else becomes responsible for my sins? (“I’m doing it for him, not for me.”)

Yet, interestingly, the notion that we can interpret events or signs is not unknown even in the world of Halacha. Two famous vignettes suffice: the Vilna Gaon long desired to implement the recitation of the Priestly Blessing every day in the exile, and not just on Yom Tov as we currently do. He tried several times but stayed his hand, until one time he decided that he would do it the next morning. That same night, he was arrested on slanderous charges (part of the Chasidic-Mitnaged wars of the 1700’s); when he was released he took it as a “sign from Heaven” (Aliyot Eliyahu, 44) that he should not make this change in the liturgy. Some years later, the Gaon’s disciple tried the same thing – and the night before it was to happen, the Bet Midrash in Volozhin burnt down.

So, too, the Chatam Sofer ruled that if a person ate meat late at night and arose early the next morning, it is permissible to have coffee with milk even before six hours have elapsed since he last consumed meat. One need not wait the customary six hours between consumption of meat and milk, as sleep speeds digestion. Most others disagreed, but having ruled, the Chatam Sofer decided to act in accordance with his ruling, ate a late night meat meal, rose early the next day, poured himself coffee, added milk, and… promptly knocked over the whole cup. From here he deduced that the halacha is not in accordance with his opinion.

What does this all mean? Are we mystics? Do omens matter? Rav Yisrael Salanter rejected all of these, arguing that the Torah is not in Heaven. Halachic questions must be decided based on halacha and not based on signs or wonders. The Bet Midrash in Volozhin was burnt down not by an act of G-d – but man, Rav Yisrael contended; it was arson by people who resented the change in minhag. (Some Jews will do anything to defend a custom – even violate several Torah prohibitions!) Perhaps on the level of the Vilna Gaon or the Chatam Sofer different rules apply. But who knows? Clearly such an approach is not normative. We can’t live that way.

Not everything has a deeper meaning. Rav Shlomo Aviner was once told by someone that he was trying to write a check for charity to a poor person when his pen ran out of ink. What message, he asked, was G-d sending him? Rav Aviner answered that G-d was telling him that he needs more ink in his pen. So too, Rav Berechyahu told his interlocutor that the signal the latter was sent from Heaven when he broke his finger while building the Succa was this: when you use a hammer, you have to be careful. That is also a divine message.

The Succa is a demonstration of faith on our part and of love on G-d’s part. The Vilna Gaon explained that the 15th of Tishrei was the day on which the divine clouds of glory returned to shelter the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf.  Those divine clouds of glory do not hermetically seal us. But without them, the actual Succot could also not protect us. They reflect the special Providence through which G-d preserves His people, and His love in giving us the Torah and Mitzvot, a land and a way of life, that doesn’t prevent harm but give us guidance in dealing with harm, especially the harm caused by G-d’s other creatures, human and otherwise. We don’t need a greater demonstration than Succa; we just need the Succa. It is our shelter of faith.

In so doing we find our deepest connection to G-d, our purpose in life, and our source of true happiness, and hastens the day of redemption, when G-d’s kingship will be recognized by all mankind.

G-d’s Hand in History

(The following was published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, on September 11, 2015 –  RSP)

Fourteen years ago today the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States of America, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking America (at least temporarily) out of its complacency and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars. Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.

On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones. Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives ended in sudden acts of unimaginable horror. When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities

Hashem  has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service. That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.

But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurim whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.

As we say in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.” It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.

If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control? Is it possible to understand G-d’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im ? Is there a divine message that we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?

G-d’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Moshiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely-ordained role in history.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, G-d forbid, as our and G-d’s enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence and down to our very day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire. That has been reciprocated, often and in many places still today, with hatred, overt or subtle, with physical violence and rhetorical scorn, and with persistent, baseless and scurrilous attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and/or conduct, all thinly-disguised assaults on the Jewish people.

Some wage open war on Jews across the globe. Others, especially the hostile elements in Europe and America, are still inhibited by the rancid Jew hatred of the Holocaust and so hide their contempt for all Jews behind the veneer of hatred for Israel – BDS and the like. All of this is contemptible and lamentable but little of it is new. It has accompanied us since Sinai, and the spasms of violence that erupt across the globe – so Chazal are teaching us – are on our “account.” When they fight against us, it is because they are waging war against the Jewish idea. But even when they fight each other, and bring enormous, unspeakable suffering upon themselves, at the root of their discontent is the distortion of the Jewish idea and a rejection of   G-d’s plan for mankind.

As Rabbi Berel Wein once explained, “it’s because of us but it’s not our fault.”

The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015) featured a graph that noted the current population of the world’s religions and their future growth. (By 2050, the global Muslim population will almost match the global Christian population, each near 2.8 billion people.) Today, there are 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.4 billion Hindus, even 1.3 billion unaffiliated. At the very bottom of the graph – the last line – are the Jews, hovering at or above (!) zero. We are not even a rounding error in the world’s population, less than that. We are not just statistically insignificant; we are statistically improbable.

“Hashem did not desire you or choose you because of your numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations” (Devarim 7:7). Yet, history revolves around the Jewish people. We are not afforded the luxury of being bystanders but rather of being in the forefront of every major world event and discovery. Our national homeland was not placed at the end of the world – say, New Zealand – where we could safely develop our spiritual aptitudes far from the madding crowd and high above the fray but rather at the crossroads of civilization and in the middle of every conflict.

No nation in the world tries harder to do good to all – even strangers – and no nation is as despised and reviled for those efforts. What does it all mean?

It means that G-d chose us as His vehicle to bring His morality to the world and effectuate His will in history. Rav Shlomo Aviner is fond of quoting Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the famed Italian philosopher and historian who posited – three centuries ago – that whereas the histories of the nations of the world are profane (meaning secular, guided by natural and political forces), the history of the Jewish people is sacred, directed by G-d, and not at all bound by the general laws of history. What applies to other nations and what happens to other nations simply do not apply or happen to us.

It is astonishing that Vico should have recognized that; it is even more astonishing when we – the Jewish people – do not and instead go about our business as if our destiny is that of all nations.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt”l regularly expounded what he called “Masechet Yisrael,” the “Tractate of the People of Israel,” both because it was worthy of study and because it underscored G-d’s plan for us in history. He highlighted three phenomenal dimensions – wonders – of the Jewish people: the wonders of our abilities, our survival and our influence. (See, for example, Rav Aviner’s annotated edition of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s “Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato,” footnote 266.)

We are an extraordinarily talented people, whose contributions to mankind have transformed the lives of billions of people. We need not even mention the disproportionate share of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, a mindboggling statistic that defies rational analysis. As a nation, we have been endowed by the Creator with capabilities that are designed to facilitate mankind’s pursuit of moral perfection, the material good and the welfare of all. The former is the very purpose for which we were given the Torah and prophecy.

The wonder of our survival continues to defy comprehension. No people has ever suffered the devastation of invasion, defeat, destruction, and exile – and twice – and then remained an intact nation that reclaimed its ancient homeland after 19 centuries. It is so inexplicable in human terms that it is the source of relentless irritation to our enemies, who deny it formally but are awed by it privately.

And, despite our insignificant and paltry numbers, the influence of the people of Israel on world events is itself astounding. Scarcely a day goes by without a Jew or the Jewish people in the headlines. The preoccupation of the world – actually, the obsession of the world – with the tiny State of Israel is a constant reminder to us of the expectations that the world has for the Jewish people, our outsized impact on social trends and political movements, and the uneasiness of the world’s powers with this upstart nation that, as the boxing saying goes, punches far beyond its weight class. It has been repeatedly noted that Jews have been in the forefront of great social and intellectual movements of the last two centuries – some good, some not so good – Jews like Freud, Marx, Einstein and others. Many of the high-tech innovations that have revolutionized modern life have originated in Israel.

These are all “wonders,” but none are inherently innate to the Jewish people. They are gifts from Heaven, all intended to provide us the tools with which we can carry out G-d’s will for mankind. Occasionally, perhaps more often than that, we have used these gifts inappropriately, for our own self-aggrandizement or for mere physical gratification, and forgotten or ignored the Giver and the purposes for which it was given. At those moments in history, we are sent reminders, sometimes gentle ones and sometimes less so, that we have strayed from the proper path. The road to return then opens before us, if our eyes wish to see and our hearts are receptive to the messages.

The Torah we were given, Rav Avraham Kook wrote (Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato, Chapter 5) is “not the imagining of the heart, not human ethics, not just worthy desires or appropriate fantasies, not the abandonment of the material world in any of its aspects, not the rejection of the body because of its ‘impurity,’ not the renunciation of life, society, government and authority because of their lowliness, and not the repudiation of the world and its natural forces that were corrupted by sinful man – but rather the exaltation of all of the above.”

This is the future towards which we are heading, notwithstanding all the challenges we face, the incessant Jew hatred that still afflicts too much of the world, the seemingly endless terror and war that is thrust upon us and other good people, and the rebuff of the Divine idea and moral code that is at the core of mankind’s discontent and moral perversions.

“Those who rise up against Israel rise up against G-d” (Tanchuma, Beshalach 16). It is a truism of history that wars against the Jewish people are a displacement for the real adversary that confounds our enemies – their war with the Creator (see Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen). We are simply convenient targets, but attacks on the Jewish people elicit a Divine response in history, and judgment of those nations ensues.

On the annual Day of Judgment, each person is judged both as an individual and as part of a nation. We live our lives not only to perfect our souls in this world but also to advance the goals of the Creator. If our personal judgments are enigmatic, then our judgment insofar as we are part of a nation is even more impenetrable. Those are the mysteries of life and are the exclusive domain of the Judge of all mankind. We can never comprehend why some lives were snuffed out by the godless forces of evil and other lives were spared. All we can do is thank Hashem for His blessings and commit our lives and resources to living in broad, historical terms and not just in the mundane matters of daily life.

The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 97b): “Rabi Eliezer said: ‘if the Jewish people repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed.’ Rabi Yehoshua said to him: ‘if they don’t repent, they won’t be redeemed? Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause a king to rise over them whose decrees are as harsh as those of Haman, and they will repent and be restored to the good.”

The king whose decrees will spur our repentance is not someone like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nevuchadnetzar or Titus; it is someone like Haman – a Persian descendant of Amalek who harbored genocidal ambitions against the people of Israel.

Some things never change.

And some things can change. When we realize our individual vulnerabilities, the opportunities we have been given and the great stakes before us, the moment for both individual and national teshuva beckons. May we all be worthy of inscription in the book of life, and may the current turmoil and our response to it prepare us for redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

Is there a more peculiar intruder into our Rosh Hashana service than the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general who fought against Devorah and Barak, and who is the reference point for so many of our shofar practices? The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) was in doubt as to the precise nature of the teruah sound, because the Torah does not define it. But the Targum interprets that as a yevava, and the Gemara elaborates that it is written in the reference to the mother of Sisera that she “wailed,” Vateyabeiv. One opinion held that she groaned (like the shevarim) and the other held she wailed (like our teruah). So we do both. And all because Sisera’s mother wailed we know how to blow the shofar?

There is more. Tosafot there quote the Aruch, Rav Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi, that we blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. Again, Sisera’s mother. Who exactly are we talking about?

Sisera was the general of Canaan, who tormented the Jews and conquered others, who dedicated his life to killing and marauding, who, when he attacked Israel in this instance with overwhelming force – nine hundred iron chariots – was met by a smaller army led by Devorah and Barak, and was routed. He fled the battlefield into the arms of  Yael, who in short order fed him, bed him – and then killed him.

And Devorah sang about his mother (Shoftim 5:28-30) – even a killer has a mother: “The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices, sobbing, ‘why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?’” And the princesses tried to comfort her:  “They must be dividing the spoils, seizing the maidens for themselves.” But Sisera’s mother knew better, and so “she wailed.”

It’s a poignant story until we stop and realizing that she is crying over his lack of success – this time – in murdering Jews and in conquering the land of Israel. Her son was exceedingly wicked, and we should curse the day on which she gave birth to him. So why is she the source of our shofar practices? What is it that happened to her that we want to recall?

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked me: is the world falling apart? Is this the worst it’s ever been – wars, plagues, terror, insecurity, uncertainty? The answer is – not by a long shot. But there is one thing to ponder, especially as on Rosh Hashana, when all nations are judged: “who will be afflicted by the sword, who will live in peace, who will suffer from famine, and who will have plenty.”

The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 32) states: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korach and his cohorts.” Every generation contains these people. They are not unique.

If you think that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – you are wrong. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it! “Contemplate the years of every generation.” Look around: every generation has vestiges of the generation of the flood, morally depraved and outspoken about it, not at all reticent and sometimes even boastful; every generation contains remnants of the generation of the dispersion, who deny G-d and set themselves over mankind as rulers and dictators; every generation has echoes of Sodom, its greed, selfishness and violence; every generation has its Korach, who denies the Mesorah and think they know better than G-d what the Torah should say. They challenge the Torah leadership with their populism and sophistry.

If so, what is new? To what is there to look forward? Is the whole script laid out for us? No. The Midrash continues: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korach, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Breisheet Raba 24:2). Every person has the ability to write his own page in that book, the Sefer Toldot Adam, the book that was originally published on Rosh Hashana, “this day was the beginning of Your work.”

Too often we think that we are set, we are who we are, and it is what it is. And nothing can change. Just another day, another month, another year, another Rosh Hashana. Sometimes it’s because we have given up, and other times because we are secure in who we are, certain about our course in life and our future. Everything is laid out for us, all going according to plan. We become very comfortable with our course in life, sometimes even with our sins – not even knowing or admitting they are sins.

We sit by the window, looking out at the world, and everything is familiar and recurring – until it is not. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Sisera’s mother had a routine. She knew he would win, even knew when to expect him back from the battlefield. She knew that he would return triumphant, with the spoils of war, with the laurels of his admirers, with the dread of the vanquished. She was certain – that was her life.

“The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices…” As she sat there, she started to sob, then to wail, then to mourn. Her certainty – about herself, about her son, about his and her destiny – was an illusion. It wasn’t real. As she uttered the words – “Why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why is he late today?” – she already knew the bitter truth: her world had suddenly changed. There is nothing in life set in stone. Not my life, not my choices, not my fate.

If our generation contains Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Korach in some form, if it has its share of hedonists, sadists and terrorists of all kinds, that is an unfortunate reality. But realize that our generation also has its true seekers of G-d, Torah scholars, righteous people and purveyors of kindness. So be in the latter group – nothing is fixed – even in the most troubled era, “each person is judged according to his deeds.”

The shofar draws its inspiration not from the anguish of Sisera’s mother, and not because we feel sorry for her, but because we want the shofar to awaken us, to shake us, like it did Sisera’s mother, to grab hold of us and say “life is precious, life is short, there is much to do.” Take nothing for granted, not the least of which one’s religious level in life and one’s aspirations. Everyone can grow and everyone can improve.

The wails of Sisera’s mother are the quality of the sounds of the shofar that penetrate our souls, and her one hundred sobs are the quantity that we require to soften our hearts. We can’t change the world, only our small place in it, beginning with ourselves. Thus we pray that the sounds of the shofar will break through and signal our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty so we may merit G-d’s mercies on us and our families, on our people, our land and our holy city of Yerushalayim, for a year of life of good health, prosperity and peace.

 

 

The Torah Imperative

On the festival of Shavuot, we saturate ourselves with Torah study, all very worthwhile and understandable. The Torah is “our life and the length of our days” (Devarim  30:20). But how is it our life, and how is “life” different from “length of days”?

We are living in remarkable times, and so we too often take for granted what we have today and what we have accomplished. In many ways, we are dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants, benefiting from the greatness of prior generations.

At the turn of the last century, the situation was dire for Torah Jewry. Upwards of 90% of immigrants to the United States gave up the observance of mitzvot, and of their children an even greater percentage. Shabbat was lost, as people were forced to work on Saturdays. Kashrut was in many places a joke, a scandal and a source of corruption, with many people relying on anything that had Hebrew letters on it, if they cared at all. Jewish education was almost non-existent.

Harry Fischel, one of the great builders of Torah in America, wrote that when he came to America he was told to forget about G-d and religion, and especially about Shabbat and kashrut. “You must work every day including the Sabbath and eat what you can eat, for G-d has been left on the other side of the ocean.” He begged to differ.

So how did we get from that dire situation to today’s world, in which, for all our grievances and all our trepidation about the Jewish future,  we are living in infinitely better circumstances with a flourishing Torah world ? What changed? What always changes Jews: Torah. From Yeshiva Etz Chaim to RIETS to Yeshiva College to Torah Vadaas and Torah U’Mesorah, and then high schools and elementary schools and Batei Midrash, the seeds of Torah were planted. The few Jews to whom it mattered were pioneers and revolutionaries – literally, “it was a tree of life to those who grasped it.” Because of their courage and self-sacrifice, we exist and thrive, overseeing Torah enterprises and enjoying a Torah renaissance that was unimaginable 100 years ago.

We are not accustomed to such self-sacrifice, indeed reluctant to rein in any impulse or desire just because we have accepted the Torah. Note the hoopla over the so-called “kosher switch,” because, you know, it is really too demanding to expect people to keep lights on or set a clock in advance.   Ask people to dress modestly? That, today, is “kill but don’t transgress!” Embrace the traditional morality of the Torah? No, we do not encroach on people’s freedoms, desires and self-expression. That is too big a sacrifice, too much to ask. That is a major weakness of our generation.

But at the heart of any Jewish community, at the foundation of Jewish life generally, is Torah, and especially the study of Torah. It is the secret to our existence and to our survival. And the most evil and heinous of our enemies knew it.

Right after the Holocaust, Rav Yitzchak Herzog was presented by a senior British officer with a most remarkable discovery. The British recovered from Hitler’s bunker two Jewish books and  Rav Herzog received a copy of a Talmudic tractate (Masechet Pesachim) and Chaim Weizmann was given one volume from the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah. Two sefarim! Hitler had two Jewish books on the shelf in the library in his bunker, where he killed himself seventy years ago. It is a true story that just sounds fabricated but his grandson (and namesake – Buji Herzog, leader of Israel’s’ Labor Party)  has a picture of his grandfather with that sefer. But why did Hitler retain these two volumes?

Of course no one knows. Perhaps to remind himself every day of his life’s mission – to murder Jews? But then he would have kept sefarim elsewhere also, in his other lairs and retreats and residences. They were only found in the Fuhrerbunker. Perhaps it was something else: Hitler only lived in his bunker during the last three months of the war. Maybe he knew that the Torah was the secret to Jewish survival. Or maybe he saw that the end was near, that the Reich that was suppose to last for 1000 years was collapsing – and he knew he had lost out to the Jews of the Talmud, to those who were faithful to the Rambam – because those Jews are indestructible.

Just as remarkably, barely a block from the site of Hitler’s bunker – now destroyed and remembered only with a sign, a diagram and apartments above it – stands Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, 2711 concrete slabs, looking like tombstones of different sizes, the number, said the artist, chosen at random. What is 2711? The number of pages in the Babylonian Talmud, in the Daf Yomi cycle. It is hard to believe, but it is true. Look it up.

The Torah is our life and the length of our days. It is our lives as individuals, but it is our eternity as a people. For an individual Jew, the study of Torah is the primary vehicle through which we eat the fruits thereof in this world but the principal is still stored for us in the world-to-come.

For the Jewish people as a whole, where there is Torah study, there is life, existence, vitality and vigor. Our enemies know it – but we know it as well. When Shavuot comes, we reinforce to ourselves this basic truth, with love and dedication, with renewed commitment and enthusiasm, not so much to defy our enemies as to reinvigorate ourselves, rejoice with the Giver of the Torah and all who love the Torah, and hasten the era of salvation.

Pesach and Gratitude

In one of the climactic parts of the hagada, we cite the Mishna ( Pesachim 117B): “Therefore  we are obligated to thank and praise G-d for what He did to our fathers and us” – all the wonders and  miracles  that accompanied the Exodus , and we begin  the recitation of Hallel . But then in the blessing that follows, we reverse the order, thanking G-d  who ” redeemed us and our fathers from Egypt. ” Why the change – first,  “our fathers and us” and then “to us and our fathers.”   Why the change?

There is a beautiful story in  the fascinating   hagada of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon  about Rav Yona Emanuel, late editor of Hamaayan and long-time teacher of Torah in Israel. At his grandson’s brit milah  in 1985, he related a story that he said he had never told anyone before, not even his wife or children.

Forty years earlier , he said, it was Pesach Eve 1945, and  a young Yona Emanuel was imprisoned  in Bergen-Belsen. He had been forced  for a long period of time  to rise early and spend his day at hard labor. He came back exhausted, just like every day, broken already by two years of maltreatment. He was 19 years old. His father was already dead, his older and younger brothers were dead, and his little sister was dead. His mother was barely clinging to life, lying ill in her barracks. In that time, days before liberation, Jews were dying by the hundreds every day of starvation and disease.

That night – Pesach night – he sat at her bedside and recited the hagada. Of course he had no wine  and  no matzot. All  he and everyone around him had  – in abundance – wa s maror. Life itself was bitter.  He whispered the  hagada  to his mother – he didn’t know whether or not she heard it – until he came to th e blessing cited above.  And he said,  “Who redeemed us and redeemed our fathers,” and when he came to these words, the prayer in the blessing,   “just like He redeemed us and our forefathers from Egypt, so too He will bring us to other holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, rejoicing in the rebuilding of Your city and joyous in Your service,” he suddenly stopped.

He could not say the words. For the first time, he didn’t believe what he was saying. And he thought to himself: Will any of us live to see “other holidays and festivals?” Will anyone here see the holy city of Yerushalayim? Can anyone even expect to be happy again? He burst out crying, and stopped saying the hagada. Soon after, his mother died.

But now, forty years later, he continued: that night, if only I could have even imagined that I would live to see the land of Israel, together with one sister and two brothers; if only I could have imagined that I would eventually live in a Jewish state, marry and have my own children; if only I could have imagined that forty years later, I would be the sandak at my grandson’s brit in Yerushalayim; if I could have imagined any of that, I would have been able to finish the hagada that night.

Why in the text do we first say “our fathers and then ourselves”   – and then switch the order in the blessing to “Who redeemed us and our fathers ?” When it comes to offering praise to G-d, everything starts wit h the Exodus from Egypt.  Because our fathers were liberated, so in essence  were we. But when it comes to offering thanks to G-d, that has to come from us first – “Who redeemed us and our fathers . ” In every generation, we have to find the opportunities to thank G-d – for our lives and our families, for our bounty and our freedom, for Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, and  for being given the opportunities to live full, productive, peaceful and prosperous lives.

To all but the most pessimistic and dour, we are living in one of the golden ages of Jewish history. We are not without problems – and the world is becoming increasingly more dangerous –  but our problems pale before our advantages, our gifts and our blessings – from  the ingathering of the exiles occurring before our eyes, to  Jewish statehood , to peace and prosperity almost everywhere in the exile , even considering the recent tribulations .

It is that gratitude that should overwhelm us this Pesach, and fill us with a yearning to better ourselves, to enhance our observance of Mitzvot, our service of G-d, and study of Torah.  It should encourage us to say again and again, with feeling and sincerity,   “therefore we are obligated  to thank and praise G-d for all the miracles down to our ancestors and to us; He who took us from slavery to freedom, from agony to joy, from darkness to a great light.” May  He once again – as He did then – take us from servitude to redemption so we may merit in our day the complete fulfillment of the vision of our prophets, speedily and in our days.

A kosher and happy Pesach to all!

 

Bipartisan Frays

PM Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress was a brilliant tour-de-force, timely, powerful, emotional and determined. It was enthusiastically received. It exemplified leadership in a way that Americans have not seen for years and for that reason alone would discomfit President Obama. Netanyahu became only the second foreign leader to address Congress three times (Winston Churchill was the other) and given the fact that Netanyahu lives in Israel, his three speeches contrast quite sharply with the mere ten or so times that Obama – who lives down the street – has addressed Congress. The relative numbers also speak volumes about each man’s attitudes towards Congress – Netanyahu’s admiration and Obama’s disdain. And given the stakes, those Democrats who boycotted – and only Democrats boycotted – and hid behind explanations that range from flimsy to reprehensible should be ashamed.

Start with the flimsy – the accusation that the speech was a “political stunt” and therefore without substance. Such could only be raised by a political lackeys unfit to serve in a position of influence, because it implies both that the Iranian threat is not real and that Obama is well-situated to protect America’s interests. They must explain why people should not take seriously Iran’s repeated declarations of its intent to annihilate Israel and its construction of intercontinental ballistic missiles that would enable its nuclear weapons to target the United States, and not just Israel. And those Jews who disappeared revealed again that their identities as progressives and Democrats are stronger than their identities as Jews and Americans. They are well represented in some of the liberal organizations that pretend to defend Jewish interests but essentially are just branches of the Democratic Party.

The reprehensible also stands out – the boycott by the entire Congressional Black Caucus whose reason for existence seems to be to keep racism alive by finding it everywhere and anywhere. Thus, Netanyahu’s address to Congress was deemed by them an insult to America’s black president, necessitating their boycott in Obama’s support. Are they serious?  (In the end, Charlie Rangel came anyway after saying he would not attend. Good for him.)

There is a political dimension to the speech because it took place against the will of a sitting president with radically-different (not to mention, radical) views on America’s role in the world and as leader of the free world than is customary in the United States. Certainly Speaker Boehner was interested in reasserting the Congressional role in foreign policy rather than have the President marginalize Congress again, and credit him with not caving under the pressure brought to bear. But this started not with Boehner and Netanyahu but with Obama dispatching British PM David Cameron (also in the middle of an election campaign, by the way) to lobby Congress a short time ago against the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran if the talks fail. Why must Congress listen to Cameron and be deprived of listening to an opposing foreign voice, that of Netanyahu? That is a good question, and Boehner gave his answer quite compellingly. A co-equal branch of government can indeed have a mind and will of its own.

Much has been made of the harm allegedly caused to the “bipartisan” support for Israel. This is a sensitive area filled with truths, half-truths and mythology. It is important to note that not everyone who boycotted is necessarily anti-Israel; some are just timorous hirelings beholden to Obama, but some are anti-Israel. AIPAC went to great lengths over the last few days to strengthen the notion of bi-partisan support for Israel, as did the PM in his speech. Such is true, thankfully so, but needs to be nuanced a bit. Things are not the same as in the past, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

The distinction seems to be as follows: bipartisan support for Israel is a Congressional phenomenon but it is no longer a grass roots phenomenon. Support for Israel in Congress is quite strong, and Israel counts among its most passionate devotees members of both parties. But it is clear to any observer that among the grass roots, support for Israel among Republicans is substantially higher than it is among Democrats. The recent Pew study bandied about in the media in the last few weeks bolsters this assertion: among Republicans, 77% of respondents favor Israel’s cause over the Palestinians. Among Democrats, only 39% support Israel. That is a substantial difference. Republicans are twice more likely to support Israel today than are Democrats. That is a staggering figure that Jews should not deny – nor for which, as some might, blame Israel.

One need only recall the 2012 Democratic National Convention whose platform at first omitted the boilerplate statement that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital.” When a horrified Democratic establishment realized the glaring omission, they hastily proposed such a clause which was then voted down by a voice vote. Shocked at the mutiny of their own delegates, it was voted on again through another two voice votes. To most observers and listeners, the “no” votes against the resolution drowned out the “yes” votes. It wasn’t even close, but the aurally-challenged former Mayor of Los Angeles, convention chairman Antonio Villaraigosa, “heard” that the “yeses” had prevailed. (He was a good sport about the whole thing, keeping a straight face throughout.)

What has happened to the Democratic Party? Simply put, the activist base of the Democrats and the grass-roots are dominated by the George Soros wing – far-left, anti-American, internationalist, and anti-Israel. They are the ones who vote in primaries, they are the ones who donate money and they are the ones who serve as delegates. The one-dimensional media obsess on the split between the Republican establishment and the grass roots Tea Party but the far greater divide in American politics is between the mainstream Democrat and the George Soros-base. At least among the Republicans, all believe in a strong America, in American exceptionalism and on most fundamentals. The chasm amongst Democrats is much greater.

That is why Soros leftists such as John Yarmuth, Al Franken and Elizabeth Warren boycotted the Netanyahu speech. They and others will usually say the right things, sort of, but then act in ways that are harmful to Israel.

As it stands now, Congressional Democrats remain overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, but the Soros wing is gradually making inroads. That wing has already captured the White House (Obama is an acolyte) and its candidates are slowly trying to infiltrate Congress as well. If it happens – in many places, fear of the Soros candidates has been a boon for Republicans and that has limited their successes – the reality of bipartisanship will be undone. That might happens sooner than one thinks, as other Soros candidates are poised to capture Democratic strongholds in the coming two years. Those Soros affiliates will cause tzoros for the Democratic Party and for America.

And then liberal Jews will be left with nostalgia – Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel, JFK’s sale of Hawk missiles to Israel, and the long-time support for Israel among Congressional Democrats when they were in the majority. Certainly most presidents – of both parties – have been well-disposed to Israel, and support for Israel has never been considered controversial or politically risky. Not so anymore. Kudos to our own Senator Bob Menendez (D) who has stood up to the White House on a number of issues, come under tremendous pressure and pushed back – as in his forceful speech at AIPAC the other night castigating the sellout with Iran. He could become this generation’s Pat Moynihan and has won the admiration of lovers of Israel and America on both sides of the political divide. Time will tell whether or not his kind of Democrat is a dinosaur.

Time will also soon tell us the fate of Binyamin Netanyahu. Cast in the Churchillian role of warning the Western world about the dangers of fascism – Nazi fascism for Churchill and Islamofascism for Netanyahu – the PM gave a Churchillian speech, passionate and evocative, that framed the issues of our time in a memorable way and included rhetorical touches that will also endure. But he would do well to recall that Churchill won the war –and then ignominiously lost the next election. The “grateful” British people voted him out of office just two months later forcing Churchill to depart the Allied postwar conference at Potsdam.

Apparently, not everyone appreciates true leadership…until it is missing and until it reappears in a new guise. Only then do we realize the enormous potential impact of the strong leader – to accomplish, to inspire, to wage war against the forces of absolute evil and to prevail against all odds. The US Congress, in its warm embrace and enthusiastic reception of PM Netanyahu, showed that it both recognizes true leadership and will stand firmly with Israel in the shared struggles ahead. The Obama administration, having crudely mocked Netanyahu’s courage last year, saw both courage and resolve. Notwithstanding the administration, the alliance and friendship between the United States and Israel is as strong as ever.

And, proud Jews stood a little prouder, with the spirit of Purim in the air.

Happy Purim to all!