Category Archives: Holidays

Atonement

(NOTE: I again announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is written in English, available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!)

My new book (have you heard??) is entitled “Tzadka Mimeni” to recall a specific incident in the Bible that had enormous and historic ramifications. It was the phrase Yehuda (son of Yaakov) used to admit his complicity in the affair with Tamar, who refused to publicly identify him as the father of her child but subtly indicated so to Yehuda. Rather than deny, obfuscate, change the topic or blame someone else, Yehuda admitted his role: “Tzadka Mimeni.” She is more righteous than I am. She is right. I am wrong. It is my fault.

That confession not only saved Tamar’s life and was an act of moral courage; it also qualified Yehuda, in the opinion of our Sages, to become the progenitor of the royal house of Israel. It was the response of a real leader, who knows how to take responsibility for misdeeds and failures and not pass the buck to others.

Those days are long gone, at least here in the United States.

Barack Obama’s inability to take responsibility for anything has become a running joke, albeit one without humor and incapable of inducing laughter. These cannot even be considered gaffes, as they are second (or first?) nature to him. The most recent example is almost run-of-the-mill. Asked whether he was surprised by the rise of ISIL, Obama shifted responsibility for being surprised to the equally hapless James Clapper, even if the intelligence services had, indeed, warned of ISIL’s rise more than a half-year ago. “It wasn’t me! It was him! He didn’t tell me!

It is actually worse than that. I receive a daily briefing on the military situation in Iraq and environs (you can too!) from the Institute for the Study of War, complete with maps and analysis. Note this:

       “ISW’s Jessica Lewis assessed in July 2013 that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi literally aimed to declare an Islamic State: “When al Qaeda in Iraq last enjoyed this operational advantage, it chose to announce the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and to appoint emirs and Shura councils in every province. This historical parallel places Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent announcements of his envisioned Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the literal context of a deliberate campaign to establish governance over areas in Iraq and Syria.”

Check the date: July 2013. That was 15 months ago, at least six months before ISIL became better known in America, and 12 months before they started beheading American journalists.

In August 2013 (that’s over a year ago), ISW reported on ISIL’s territorial gains in Iraq and in Syria, a period that by pure chance coincided with the President’s annual Martha’s Vineyard location. What does ISW know that Obama doesn’t? Perhaps their analysts pay more attention to the intelligence coming their way than the President does to his. Perhaps the President should subscribe to ISW’s daily reports, although he would still have to read them.

But that is only the latest example. The hallmark of this administration has been a headlong flight from personal responsibility – on Putin’s military advances, the botched rollout of Obamacare, the corruption and dirty-dealing at the IRS, the Benghazi attack, the failures at the Veterans Administration, etc., and etc. to the etc. Events seem to swirl around this President and he is often, apparently, the last to know what is happening on his watch and the least able to influence the course of events. He will look dutifully somber, and promise justice, getting to the bottom, etc., but without much passion, engagement, or real acceptance of responsibility. That the White House admitted this week that they learned at the same time the press did that an armed felon rode in an elevator with the President and an unsuspecting Secret Service along for the ride is par for the course (pardon the golf reference). All agencies take their lead from the chief; it stands to reason that the Secret Service is as detached as the man they are sworn to protect.

Indeed, judging by customary reactions from this White House, George W. Bush is more responsible for the events of the last six years than Barack Obama.

This diffidence has had the effect of reducing Obama and the United States on the world scene. Part of this is intentional: Obama believes the dispatch of the American military across the world to be an “evil,” which he will not do absent an attack on the homeland, and perhaps not even then. He does not perceive the US military as a positive, virtuous force (witness the “coffee salute”) but rather as a symptom of the “bad America” that he was elected to transform. And part of this is simply the natural effect of the way Obama is perceived by other world leaders, especially American allies who are counting the days and holding their collective breaths until January 20, 2017.

This week, and once again, Obama was rebuked in private by PM Netanyahu, admonished to “study the facts and details” before reflexively criticizing Israel’s municipal building plans. Foreign leaders have the advantage of piercing the cordon sanitaire that Valerie Jarrett has erected around Obama to shield him from criticism. In private, they tell him exactly how they feel, even if in public, they pay him deference, out of respect to his office and especially to the historic role of the US in world affairs which will outlive even Obama’s efforts to strangle it. Obama, after six years, is unaccustomed to hearing criticism or even dissenting voices and is visibly uncomfortable with it. But it exists.

Netanyahu, who is a serious man and proved it again this week (he also remains Israel’s most effective spokesman when he is overseas), knows that Obama will do nothing about Iran’s nuclear program. The American president lacks both the will and a plan, and, like with ISIS, will offer desultory demonstrations of resolve and might, however ineffectual they are. (In the case of ISIS, an air show that will change nothing on the ground, and in the case of Iran, an empty agreement that will also change nothing.) Personally, I found Obama’s repeated references to the PM as “Bibi” to be disparaging attempts to belittle him; Netanyahu, presumably, had the grace not to refer to Obama as “Barry.” (But did Israel’s PM have to traipse from one treif restaurant to the next in NYC, of all places, and during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, of all times? There was a time when Israeli leaders had a little more Jewish pride, or at least, self-awareness.)

Incidentally, as noted here not long ago, Obama takes liberties with his conduct of “war” that he doesn’t allow Israel – e.g., bombing from the air (which he insisted that Israel not do in Gaza; for the most part, they ignored him). It is also fascinating how there seem to be no casualties from any US bombing run – neither terrorist nor civilian. Those really are smart bombs.

Leadership requires, first and foremost, the capacity to accept responsibility in a serious and sincere way. So does atonement. At the very heart of Yom Kippur is the recognition, stated again and again, that “I am responsible” for my sins. No one else is responsible. I cannot pound the chest of the person standing next to me, as tempting as that sounds. I cannot shift blame to others for my failures. I cannot hang my mistakes on the fellow who preceded me in my seat in shul.

If anything, the contrast between the modern world and G-d’s expectations for us is so stunning that it should force us to take a deeper, more introspective look at our deeds and misdeeds, our ambitions and objectives in life. Fortunately, Yom Kippur provides us the opportunity to do that.

Politics aside (this too shall pass), our inner world is the real world in which our moral perfection is sought and measured, and where it has true substance and makes an eternal difference. May we take such messages to heart, merit      G-d’s grace and forgiveness, and be inscribed for a year of life, good health, prosperity and peace.

The Mystery of the Shofar

(NOTE: I am happy to announce the publication in Israel of my new book, entitled “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.” It is available now in Israel and should arrive in the United States in a little over a month. Then, it will be available at fine Jewish bookstores. Even now, it can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com or Bn.com. Enjoy!

And Ktiva vachatima tova to all!    – RSP)

 

Is there an instrument in Jewish life that is as enigmatic, as mysterious, as the shofar? The other mitzvah items to which it is linked in halacha –  Matza, Succa, Lulav –  each have a defined purpose and a clear connection to the holiday on which they are used. But nothing in the Torah indicates why on Rosh Hashana day at this time a shofar has to be blown.

Rav Saadia Gaon famously filled in that gap, and offered ten reasons why the shofar is blown, ten allusions of the shofar that recall historical events, moments of national significance or personal inspiration. The best known are the first two – we blow theshofar as an act of coronation of God, on this anniversary of man’s creation; and we also blow shofar as a clarion to man to examine our ways and repent. But how can both of those ideas co-exist – how can the same instrument and the same notes used in a coronation of the King of kings speak to us as well? It almost seems disrespectful. Imagine the flourish that welcomes the president to his inauguration – and then imagine that those same trumpets have a secondary purpose – to call a meeting to order, to start a football game. Lèse-majesté. It would lose its magnificence. How do we get away with that?

When Rosh Hashana came in the year 1959, the Brisker Rav, Rav Velvel Soloveitchik (known also as the GRIZ), was critically ill; in fact, he died a week later, on Erev Yom Kippur. As he lay ill, he wondered “what will be?” And he took comfort in the famous Yerushalmi (Masechet Rosh Hashana) that we always ponder this time of year:   “It is customary that a person who is being judged by a human court is worried, wears black, grows out his beard, and fears for his future. But the Jewish people – while the Jury is out – wear white, and shave, and eat and drink and rejoice, knowing that G-d performs miracles for us.” The GRIZ asked: how do we know? What is the source of this confidence?

He answered by quoting from one of the well known piyutim of Rav Shlomo ibn Gabirol, “so even if You slay me, I will still yearn for You. If You seek [justice] for my iniquities, I will flee from You towards You.” How does one run from G-d and towards G-d at the same time? They would seem to be polar opposites.

What a beautiful phrase – “Evrach mimecha eilecha” – “I will flee from You towards You!” It is a beautiful description of faith and bitachon and what has sustained Jews for millennia, that gives us strength and succor in difficult times, both nationally and individually. When we run from G-d, the only refuge we have is to run towards G-d. It is the natural state of the Jew.

It is astonishing – and inspiring – that every tragedy of the Jewish people has been followed by a period of spiritual growth and wonderment that was unanticipated before. The bondage in Egypt was followed redemption and the gifts of Torah and the land of Israel; the destruction of the first Temple  was followed by the systemization of the Oral law, and that of the second Temple by the publication of the Mishna and later the Gemara. The Crusades were followed by the era of the Baalei Tosafot and the Rambam, the Expulsion from Spain by the return to Israel and the glory days of Tzefat – the Ari  and Rav Yosef Karo – the Chmielnicki massacres by the rise of Hasidut and the eternal contributions of the Vilna Gaon, and the Holocaust by the re-establishment of the State of Israel.

When trouble comes, and the Jew wants to flee, we run from G-d – and towards G-d at the same time. Wasn’t that the story of Yonah – “I will flee from You towards You”? The anxieties of life can erect a barrier between us and G-d, and induce us to hide from the day of travail  until it passes over us. But ibn Gabirol continued: “I will hide from Your wrath – in Your shadow.” On Rosh Hashana, we seek out G-d’s protective shadow and thus rejoice, “knowing that G-d does miracles for us” As we reflect on this past year, the Jewish people have been the beneficiaries of open miracles and divine kindnesses that have our enemies shocked and dismayed. For that, we give thanks to the Creator and proclaim his greatness to all.

The GRIZ said to bury our heads in the sand and just say “all will be good,” is not bitachon. Bitachon only exists in the person who is afraid, who has strayed and sinned, and runs to G-d to do more, to be better, to supplement our own spiritual lives with another Torah class, another act of chesed, another kind word, another commitment to the Jewish people, a better davening, something that can expand on what has come before.

That is why the same shofar  that crowns the King also exhorts man to return and to repent, “so that all who wish to return can return.” We cannot crown G-d the King of Kings dispassionately, from a distance, without a personal stake. G-d’s coronation itself awaits our commitment. In a world where G-d’s name is often sullied by those who cite Him as their motivation for pure evil and wretched behavior, only we can redeem Him by our dedication and enthusiasm, by our fearless defense of His truth that He has entrusted to us, by our sacred impulse, “I will flee from You towards You,” by the sounds of the shofar that link us to G-d for all eternity.

In so doing, we hear echoes of the other shofarot – of the Ingathering of the Exiles and of the great and awesome Day of Judgment to come in the near future, and prepare ourselves for them, and thereby merit inscription for a year of life, good health and joyous occasions, of good tidings and redemption, for us and all Israel.

Shana Tova to all!

 

Limits

When biblical heroine Ruth pleaded with Naomi not to send her back to Moav and its pagan existence, Naomi shared with her some of the commandments she will have to embrace as a Jew, like we do with converts today. As the Talmud (Yevamot 47b) relates, Naomi said: “You should know that Jews are not allowed to walk beyond a certain point on Shabbat, 2000 cubits from our domicile.  And Ruth responded: “Where you go, I will go.”

It is fascinating. Of all the mitzvot that Naomi could have shared with Ruth, that’s what she chose – Tchum Shabbat?! Why would she think that would make an impression on Ruth? The question itself is strengthened when we realize that there was another occasion – essential to our celebration of Shavuot – in which great emphasis was also placed on boundaries that could not be breached: at Sinai before the Revelation: “And you shall set boundaries around that mountain, warning the people not to encroach on the territory” (Shemot 19:12). They must keep their distance on pain of death. Later, G-d again told Moshe: “go down and warn them not to break through” (ibid 19:21), and Moshe answered that they won’t, they already heard “the boundaries of the mountain are delineated and sanctified.” But why does the Torah highlight this point – to keep our distance from the mountain, to always know our place?

In the past year, a new phenomenon arose in Jewish life that has already seemed to have exhausted the initial enthusiasm it engendered: the Ruth Calderon experience. Born and raised a secular Jew, MK Calderon remains a self-defined secular Jew but on her own admission filled a void in her life by studying Talmud, eventually getting a doctorate in Talmud and founding a secular Bet Midrash. She became renowned across the Jewish world because hundreds of thousands of people have viewed on You Tube her maiden speech in the Knesset, in which she taught a story from the Talmud (something unprecedented in the Knesset, and which, if done by a religious MK would have been castigated as inappropriate religious coercion…). It was very moving and very impressive, and her words were poignant.

And yet, at a conference I attended last year at which she spoke – and she is very earnest and affecting in her speech – she was largely booed by the audience. I didn’t heckle (it’s not polite) but what she said was disturbing. She spoke about same-sex marriage, and how she knows the audience won’t agree with her, but she hopes in a few years, maybe ten, Jewish law will recognize such a relationship. And people booed, and she said, I know you can’t accept it now, but maybe in a few years. And what was clear was that she doesn’t believe the Torah is divine. To her, the Torah is sublime and inspirational, but it is nothing more (and nothing less) than the cultural heritage of the Jewish people. And I wondered – and it has become a continuous discussion in Israel, as elsewhere – is there a value to such Talmud Torah, to Torah study divorced from its divine roots, to Torah study that does not lead to the observance of mitzvot because mitzvot – commandments – come from G-d, and G-d is not really part of that world view? This notion of Jews doing Jewish stuff not because they are serving G-d but for a variety of other reasons is not unknown to our world. But how should we relate to that?

It is not a simple matter. For sure we say that “a person should always learn Torah even for ulterior reasons, for by doing it not for its own sake one will come to do it for its own sake” (Masechet Pesachim 50b). And we say that when a person who learns Torah, “the light of Torah will bring them back” (Midrash Eicha Raba) if he has strayed. But does it always? Is there a value in Torah study not in order “to preserve and to do?”

Conversely, King David said (Tehillim 50:16) “G-d says to the wicked one, who are you to speak of My statutes and you keep My covenant (the Torah) just on your lips?” And our Sages implied that we maintain that studying Torah “not for its own sake”is a step in the right direction only when it is perceived as a mitzva. But if it is not perceived at all as a mitzva, it is better not to have been born (Masechet Brachot 17a). As the Talmud (Masehcet Yoma 72b) notes: whether the Torah is the elixir of life or a deadly poison depends on one’s attitude. Perhaps this new wonder – the secular Bet Midrash – could be part of a new wave of teshuva – or perhaps it could be part of a new type of rebellion. The attitude is key, and the book is still open.

And that attitude is shaped by one concept: limits. Sinai was partitioned off; man has to stay off the mountain, otherwise he would claim a partnership in writing the Torah. He would commingle his ideas and claim they too are G-d’s word. The whole Torah is about limits – where we can and can’t go, what we can and can’t do, what we can and cannot say, eat, think or be.

Ruth – the ancestress of Jewish royalty – was taught like all of us that Jews can’t go everywhere, do everything, or ay everything. And she answered correctly: “where you go, I will go. Your G-d is my G-d.” It all comes from Him.

On Shavuot we celebrate not just our cultural heritage, our intellectual gifts, or the treasure that remains ours, but the divine origin of Torah. “And G-d spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord your G-d…” Without that, there is nothing special about us. But with that – G-d as the Giver of the Torah to the Jewish people and the Guarantor of our existence – we can exult, as the prophet Habakkuk did, that “G-d is my strength…I will exult in Him, and rejoice in the G-d of my salvation,” as we pray and hope for the day when all Jews come back to their G-d, their faith, and their nation.

Chag Sameach!

Preserving Shabbat

Here in Israel, the festive month of Iyar is bracketed by the two special days, Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Flags flutter the entire month, which is one long celebration. One issue that takes center stage is the role of Shabbat in these celebrations, and the extent to which Shabbat observance is encouraged or protected in society generally.

      It is well known and appreciated by many that the celebratory days are shifted annually – so the official reason goes – in order to avoid Shabbat desecration. Preparations, building, driving, etc. would all serve to undermine this cardinal Jewish value. So, for example, Israel’s independence – the first declaration of Jewish sovereignty over part of the land of Israel in almost nineteen centuries, an incredible, unprecedented and  majestic event – came into effect on the fifth of Iyar in 1948. As 5 Iyar fell this year on a Monday, that necessitated (by virtue of rulings of the Knesset and the Chief Rabbinate) that Independence Day be postponed to Tuesday. Otherwise, Yom Hazikaron would have been observed on Sunday, and the preparations for that day might have entailed desecration of Shabbat (for those pre-disposed to desecrate Shabbat).

   The same holds true for years when 5 Iyar falls on Shabbat, or on Friday; then, Yom Haatzmaut is advanced to Thursday, and Yom Hazikaron to Wednesday. It comes out the only time Yom Haatzmaut is ever observed on its original day – 5 Iyar – is when it falls on Wednesday.

    Cynics note another possibility. To take this year, as an example, if Yom Hazikaron – a day of intense mourning in Israel – had been observed on Sunday, that would have required the closing of places of entertainment the night before, the busiest night of the week in those industries, and the same would have pertained the week before, as Yom Hashoah is invariably observed on the same day of the week as Yom Hazikaron. That loss of business for two consecutive weeks would certainly harm the bottom line. What is stranger is when Yom Haatzmaut coincides with Friday; by the time Shabbat arrives, the festivities are over. So why should a Friday 5 Iyar demand that the celebrations be advanced a day? People who desecrate Shabbat tend to desecrate Shabbat fairly consistently, so who or what is being protected?

  One issue that compounds the problem is the strong desire to juxtapose Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, for some very sound reasons: catharsis, a longing to link the celebrations to the sacrifice, and the like. All plausible, but the linkage does understandably trouble bereaved families who cannot easily turn off the spigot of tears when Memorial Day ends.  De-linking the two days would bestow 5 Iyar with greater gravitas as an historically memorable moment. (To use this year as an example: observe Yom Hazikaron on Thursday night and Friday, and then Yom Haatzmaut on Sunday (even Monday).

The purists note something else. It is rare for countries to shift their independence days, one of the most – if not the most – fundamental days in any nation’s narrative. For example, in the United Sates, Independence Day is always observed on July 4. That is the official day of celebration and public events. If it happens to coincide with a weekend, then another day is added as the official day off, either Friday or Monday.         Israel is different, and the good news is that if the reason for all the shifting is to safeguard the proper observance of Shabbat, such speaks very well of the Jewish state.

     The bad news is that, apparently, not everyone got the memo.

     The esteemed columnist for Besheva, Yedidya Meir, reported two weeks ago that he and others were disheartened and then horrified to see a scaffold being erected at Yad Labanim in Yerushalayim on Shabbat itself, for memorial ceremonies not scheduled to begin until Sunday night. A crowd, part aggressive but mostly plaintive, gathered to inquire of the workers as to how they can be desecrating Shabbat for Yom Hazikaron when the whole point of moving the day was to avoid Chilul Shabbat. The foreman sheepishly explained that he was ordered to have the job finished by the night before – Motzaei Shabbat – that he would rather not be doing it, but was given no choice.

   For all the healthy interest in avoiding Chilul Shabbat in the abstract, it strikes me that those who regularly desecrate the Shabbat do so irrespective of the changing of the dates, and those who don’t would not violate Shabbat if Yom Haatzmaut was observed on Shabbat itself. Those who do will, sadly, find other ways to desecrate Shabbat if the option of preparing for Yom Haatzmaut or Yom Hazikaron is precluded.

   The columnist continued that the Sabbath desecration in this instance reflects a lamentable and quite recent pattern in Israel, in which the laws that prohibit work on Shabbat are routinely violated and routinely not enforced. Tel Aviv is notorious for its Shabbat desecration, and there are chain groceries that are open on Shabbat. Every few months those stores pay a small fine that amounts to a joke when compared to the revenue earned on those days. A major court case not long ago decided that enforcement of Shabbat laws was not religious coercion (if so, they would have ruled against Shabbat!) but rather that the shameful non-enforcement fell under the rubric of labor laws – workers’ rights laws – that had to be enforced. As the plaintiffs argued, they do not want to have to work seven days a week, and smaller groceries that are closed on Shabbat have a harder time competing with those stores open for seven days.

   That is something to which denizens of the exile should be sensitive. Often, prices are lower in large supermarket chains that sell kosher foods (Pathmark, Shoprite) not only because of greater volume but also because they are open seven days a week, and sometimes 24/7, whereas the “Jewish stores” can only be open for fewer than six days a week. And Jewish-owned stores largely appeal only to Jewish clientele, who can jeopardize the viability of those stores by trying to save a few pesos elsewhere.

     The court ruled that the dignity of man, and not the laws of Shabbat, required that stores remain closed on Shabbat. Unfortunately the secular government of Tel Aviv has decided not to enforce the court ruling (only in Israel; so much for the “rule of law,” a club with which the right is regularly clobbered) and is attempting to enact new legislation permitting public Shabbat desecration.

        But as the column points out, the implications are ominous. Most traditional Israelis, even those who do not completely observe Shabbat, enjoy a family Shabbat dinner, complete with candle-lighting and kiddush. But the peace of Shabbat and family harmony are impaired when some people are literally being forced to work. He mentioned two painful anecdotes – of a makeup artist at a television station lamenting to Yedidya’s wife that she was told she has to work Friday night or she will lose her job, so she cooks all the traditional foods on Friday morning and her family has Shabbat dinner without her. Another technician at a radio station, anguished, asked him one Friday afternoon to please think of him when he is making kiddush that Friday night, as he too is being forced to work against his will. Both are what is called here “masorati,” traditional, with good Jewish hearts, but lacking the willingness to sacrifice for Shabbat because their observance, although respectful, is not rooted in abstaining from the 39 forbidden labors and their corollaries.

   For sure, it is bitterly ironic that in most instances there is more legal protection for the Sabbath observer in America than there is in Israel! While jobs that specifically call for work on Shabbat are understandably not accessible to Jews (something that effectively ended my professional baseball career before it began; it was never a question of talent), Jews are regularly accommodated by non-Jews and allowed to take off, or make up hours Thursday night, or Sunday, or some other time. That is both fair and just. Anecdotally I have long heard that Jewish bosses (of the not-yet religious variety) are usually much less understanding about the Shabbat needs of the observant Jew than are non-Jews.

  Hence the Shabbat problem in Israel. It is almost a throwback to the America of one century ago, where immigrant Jews were told that if they did not show up for work on Shabbat, they need not come back on Monday. Many (most?) succumbed and paid a very stiff spiritual price for it in terms of their children’s commitment to Torah. The minority that persevered, suffering penury and anxiety in the process, became the backbone of today’s Torah world. It is simply incomprehensible that Shabbat – the focal point of the Jewish week, the pride of the Jewish nation, and the essential definition of the pious Jew- should be trifled with in the Jewish state, of all places.

  In 5774, it is elemental fairness that a full time employee who works a five-day, 40 hour or more week, should not be compelled to work on Shabbat. If employers deem it necessary to conduct their business on Shabbat (life would not end if there was no television on Shabbat, certainly not for me, but even for non-Shabbat observers) then there is no shortage of non-Jews or even (sad to say) Jews not yet aware of the gifts of Shabbat who can fulfill those non-essential tasks and not oblige Jews who desire Shabbat to desecrate it and violate their conscience.

  I am told that resolutions here are in the works, grinding through the coalition, courts, government and rabbinate. The people that accepted Shabbat from the Creator as His gift and shared it with the world in one form or another should be the very first people to protect the Shabbat as much as it has protected us. Then, even Yom Haatzamut on Shabbat itself will entail nothing but joyous and holy festivities.

Betrayal and Salvation

Here in Israel, Chanuka is a magical time, celebrated as a national holiday and for the best reason: it is a national holiday. One night, I attended the lighting of the Menorah at the Kotel (the Western Wall, the remnant of the ancient Temple) and it is an incomparable experience to be present at the very location where the miracle of Chanuka occurred, just footsteps away. The previous Chief Rabbi, Rav Shlomo Amar, presided, in front of a crowd of more than 1000 people. The plaza was illuminated, alive and bustling – and Chanuka was more than the seasonal, gift-giving, party holiday it has become in America but rather an authentic expression of Jewish history before our eyes that arouses a present yearning for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The miracles of Chanuka are also being commemorated this year at a time when Israelis (and thinking Americans) see the looming specter of an emboldened jihadist Iran on the horizon. Nearly 80% of Israelis believe that this agreement will not prevent Iran’s entry into the nuclear club. President Obama’s domestic failures pale before the breath-taking incompetence of his conduct of foreign affairs that has made the world an increasingly and frighteningly more dangerous place. And there is a simple way to understand just how the Obama-negotiated accords with Iran has betrayed allies and friends, weakened America and strengthened Iran.

In one fell swoop, Obama undermined and vitiated more than a decade’s worth of UN resolutions designed to pressure, constrain and debilitate Iran. For the first time, Iran’s uranium enrichment program was legitimized, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons thereby, in effect, approved. The sanctions regime that was painstakingly assembled – garnering even Russian and Chinese approval in the United Nations – was greatly weakened. Even assuming that Iran’s economy is suffering and that such matters (to dictatorships such as Iran, civilian suffering is inconsequential), the injection into the Iranian economy of billions of dollars will enable it to survive even a re-imposition of sanctions in the future. Like the many US laws that Obama simply chooses not to enforce – his own health-care law when it suits him, its waivers and carve-outs, drug laws, immigration laws, etc., simply because he always knows better – the President has simply overridden Congress and the UN’s application of sanctions, because he knows better.

This is not merely opinion. The clearest proof is not the reaction in Israel to Obama’s betrayal, or the disgust with which the Saudis and the Egyptians feel let down by the American government. The rejoicing in Iran should be enough to give Obama acolytes pause. As Arutz-7 reported last week, the Chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee boasted on Iranian television: “After ten years, we have emerged victorious over the west. They wanted to prevent us from acquiring nuclear technology, but we have reached that point…The Americans reached the conclusion that it would be futile to continue with their policy of confronting the Islamic Republic.”

As its centrifuges continue to spin, and its uranium continues to be enriched to weapons grade level, Iran edges closer to its cherished goal of acquiring a nuclear weapon that will transform it into the dominant power in the Middle East. Try imposing sanctions (“ratchet it up…crank it up” in Obama’s tired clichés) then on a nuclear Iran, and the world will learn the power of nuclear blackmail. The greatest change in US policy is that for the first time in almost 35 years, the United States has recognized the legitimacy of the Revolutionary Government in Iran – that same regime that held Americans hostage, killed hundreds in Beirut and across the world, and has been the leading sponsor of global terror in pursuit of the propagation of the “religion of peace.”

It is chilling that this agreement was negotiated largely by Wendy Sherman, whose prior negotiations with North Korea ended with the North Korean nuclear bomb, despite all her rhetoric, the signing ceremonies and the diplomatic pieties. Talk about “failing upward.” (Sherman’s professional training is as a social worker, apparently a most useful field of study when dealing with genocidal maniacs.) After the fiasco in her previous attempts at nuclear de-proliferation, promoting her to conduct the same negotiations with Iran makes as much sense as hiring a community organizer to be Commander-in-Chief of what was the world’s major power. But that happened as well, with predictable results.

Thus, Iran retains much of its nuclear fuel – for the first time, with Western acquiescence, can continue to enrich its uranium to a grade that permits easier enrichment to nuclear grade, and has delayed its program according to intelligence estimates by roughly…two weeks. It is even unclear whether all of its facilities have been revealed. Obama has chosen to rely on Iranian good-will in allowing complete inspections of its facilities, apparently unaware of the Islamic doctrine of takkiya, which permits lying to the infidel in order to promote jihad. And as if “inspections” have been effective in the past in halting anyone’s nuclear programs. That is deadly naïveté.

All is not lost. A visiting Israeli diplomat said last week that Israel possesses the capability to deal with Iran, although ideally several countries would act in concert. Iran’s military power is overrated, hence its quest for weapons of mass destruction. But it will not be easy, nor will it be pain-free.

Which brings us back to Chanuka. At the Kotel, Rav Amar noted that multiples of seven all celebrate aspects of the natural world. There are seven days of the week, two major holidays last seven days (Pesach and Succot) and the third holiday comes after the counting of seven weeks. Chanuka is our only eight-day holiday. It is beyond nature, super-natural. It is one of the special occasions during the years when we celebrate the divine miracles that have sustained us throughout history, until today.

And as he spoke, Rav Amar pointed to the ancient Herodian stones behind him that ringed the Second Temple and said that these stones are “witnesses.” They are witnesses to what happened on Chanuka (i.e., the stones beneath the Herodian ones), witnesses to the Jewish connection to this holy place, witnesses to our faithfulness throughout the long exile, and witnesses to our return to our roots and the place where the Divine Presence is most tangible.

At that time and at that place, it was impossible not to sense that our modern crisis will also be resolved, with determination and strength, and that salvation will come to us and our world, as it did to our forefathers in those days and during this season.

The Few v. The Many

One of the more unheralded, even obscured, aspects of Chanuka is this question: where were the Jews? We exult in the notion that the victory came about miraculously – rabim beyad me’atim – with the few defeating the many. But why were the Maccabees the few and the Syrians the many? In every struggle for national liberation, the indigenous population is always more numerous than the occupying army, otherwise they do not constitute a nation and likely could not prevail. For example, the Jews before 1948 and the American colonists during the Revolutionary War both outnumbered the British occupiers. How could they not? Part of the problem of being an invader is that the native population is always more numerous. So what happened here that the Maccabees (never numbering more than several thousand, and at the beginning totaling in the hundreds) were the “few” who defeated the “many”?

The sad answer is that the “many” included not only the Syrian tyrant and his military forces but also the Hellenistic Jews who supported them. They were the “evildoers given over to the righteous” and the “brazen vanquished by those were faithful to Your Torah.” But why did the Hellenistic Jews want the Syrian-Greeks to win? Granted, they were imbued with the Hellenistic spirit – but what happened to their patriotism, their national spirit, and their sense of kinship with their fellow Jews?

Perhaps they were realists – and did not see any way in which the small band of guerillas could defeat the world’s most powerful army. So they made their peace with the devil. Such “realism” flies in the face of Jewish history – so they too were defeated. But there is another type of realism that is probably even more harmful.

As the Jewish world continues to fragment, we have grown accustomed to a painful mindset that is pervasive among certain segments of Jewry. For sure, there have always been pro-Arab Jews – Jews who cast their lot with our enemies. Many of the Israel’s most prominent and hateful critics are Jews who become willful tools of those who wish to destroy the Jewish state and bitterly oppose any expression of Jewish nationalism. Some of them traditionally write for the New York Times. Indeed, one of the quickest routes to media fame is to be a Jew critical of Israel in front of non-Jewish audiences.

Add to that list the deleterious phenomenon of the “moral equalizers,” those who see fault on both sides, who criticize Israel for any act of self-defense and weep at the suffering of our enemies – suffering for which our enemies themselves are usually the catalysts. This group is always seeking “peace” (meaning a treaty signing; what happens after is of little concern), strutting about with a faux moral supremacy that them, enlightened ones that they are, to see both sides, to see all sides. They lament, in the words of one, the entrenched “narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator,” eschewing a greater concern for their own people than for our enemies. As the writer Cynthia Ozick once noted, in many cases, “universalism has become the particularism of the Jews.”

But shouldn’t we care about our children more than about someone else’s children, or our parents more than another’s parents? Shouldn’t Jews be able to feel more loyalty to Jews before any feelings of loyalty to mankind? After all, that is the essence of nationhood and the hallmark of a people that sees itself as family.

Surely there were Hellenistic Jews who thought that the Maccabees could not defeat the mighty Syrian army – and there’s no sense in fighting a futile, suicidal war. Make peace with them, whatever it takes – and there are Jews today who believe the same thing. Compromise, concede, and hope for the best. That is one group of “realists” who maintain that when you cannot win – by traditional analysis – then don’t fight. Give up.

But there is another group of Hellenists. They don’t necessarily believe that the Maccabees cannot win; rather they believe that the Maccabees (or Israel) should not win. They think that winning is immoral. They are so permeated with a foreign culture and alien ideas that they do not want to win. They would rather lose and die and be perceived as virtuous, than triumph and live and be perceived as morally unfit by the cultural elites of the society in which they live.

And that is the dangerous world in which we live. Israel’s might is muted and its ability even to speak of victory is muffled when it has accepts the limitations placed upon it as well as the narrative of the impossibility of victory, the inevitability of two states, and – for many – the morality that exists on both sides – victim and aggressor, lover of all mankind and the hater of all mankind, and especially the Jews. Even the hater, after all, is a “child of G-d.”

This is why the Hellenist Jews fought against the Maccabees and preferred the Greeks, and it is why Israel cannot even fantasize about victory over its enemies, much less plan strategically for it. But that victory, that spirit, is the very essence of Chanuka, and the exhortation of the prophet Zecharia that our wars are not won with might or force – but with the spirit of G-d that animates our lives, preserves our morality, and will guide us to victory over all our enemies that will culminate in the rebuilt and rededicated Bet Hamikdash.

The Muddle

As Rosh Hashana, the New Year with its awesome judgment approaches, we remind ourselves in prayer that all mankind are judged on this day, wittingly or unwittingly. There is a special resonance this year to the passage: “Regarding countries, it is said today which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance…?”

President Obama has certainly worked himself into an untenable predicament – and of his own making. The obvious should be stated at the outset: once he launches an attack against another country – e.g., Syria – that has not attacked the United States, he becomes what he long decried, mocked and lambasted. He becomes Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II. He becomes the commissioner of America, the world’s policeman. No wonder he is tap-dancing around this decision and his ever-fanciful foreign policy.  His background, temperament and every instinct militates against aggressive action against Syria, and yet on some level he certainly realizes that the American president has a different role on the international scene than, say, the Chilean president.

Obama, who has long confused his musings for policy and his speeches for action, has boxed himself into a corner. Whatever the polls say – and I believe that Americans have little interest in intervening in Syria’s civil war, notwithstanding the horrendous loss of civilian life and the wanton use of chemical weapons – the United States still defines itself as the nation that upholds the world’s moral order, that seeks justice for the oppressed, that has less interest in expanding its empire than in exporting its values. (There’s a reason why super heroes who fight injustice – Superman, Batman, et al – were all American creations.) Obama has never subscribed to that notion of American exceptionalism, and tragically abdicated that role; the vacuum has been filled by an assortment of rogues, miscreants and murderers, and especially Russia’s Putin, who has run circles around Obama on several occasions and does not seem to be swayed by Obama’s “charm.” Putin is today the world’s most consequential leader, the first time in generations that role is not being played by an American president. It is Putin, ultimately, who will decide Bashar Assad’s fate, not Obama and his missiles.

For sure, Obama recognizes the foolishness of his red lines and the vacuity with which his threats have been greeted in the Middle East. He would love to be the first president since Hoover (Carter?) never to have fired a shot at an enemy of his own making. But the world does not lend itself to liberal fantasies, and has become under Obama’s watch a much more dangerous place given America’s retreat from the global scene.

That is why the current “crisis” atmosphere is surreal. The “red line” was crossed months, not weeks, ago and prompted no reaction but words, threats and investigations. Then, battleships were dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean, ready to fire. Then, nothing, except an unnecessary deferment to Congress and a quick round of golf. The hunger for political cover is itself stunning, as if Congressional approval will allow Obama to tell his friends on the left that he had no choice. The hypocrisy is also breathtaking; would Nancy Pelosi et al support such an authorization requested by a Republican president? And the delay masks a plan that, by all accounts, will do little more than lob missiles at Syrian targets – but not endanger the regime (ruled out) nor seize the cache of chemical weapons (not possible without ground troops). The purpose is to “do something;” in halachic language, it is to “be yotzei,” but without accomplishing any strategic objective. “Doing something” may play well on television, but has little effect in the Middle Eastern cauldron.

Obama’s caution was warranted for at least one reason: the civilized world benefits from evildoers killing each other, even if the collateral damage (innocent civilians, women, children, etc.) are sadly slaughtered in the process. The world has long looked at the massacres of innocents with treacly  laments,  pious intonations, and chants of “never again,” from the Holocaust, to Biafra, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, a host of others, and now Syria. The custom is to pay lip service and vow action, but remedial or effective action is exceedingly rare. And, the innocents aside, who is really fighting and dying in Syria’s civil war? The combatants share two common denominators: all the groups hate Jews and Israel, and no group boasts a Thomas Jefferson or James Madison. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is horrific, but so was the cannibalization by one of the rebel groups of a dead loyalist soldier whose heart was summarily excised from his chest and proudly consumed by his killer, sans condiments or cutlery.

One recalls the Iran-Iraq war that lasted almost a decade in the 1980’s and how the civilized world benefited from that carnage. It is easy to draw the same conclusion here. While the loss of any life is a tragedy from a divine perspective, the world in which we humans live benefits from the death of the wicked. “The death of evildoers is satisfying for them and for the world” (Masechet Sanhedrin 71b). The lucky Syrians – and the intelligent ones – seem to consist of the two million refugees who have fled the killing fields, and surely they are ripe for humanitarian assistance. But it is hard to see how an Assad replaced by another murderous dictator really solves anything or advances any moral cause.

It is also hard to imagine that Congress will deny Obama the right to fire his missiles. Too many Congressmen are genuinely troubled by the butchery (some of them, by the way, like Secretary of State Kerry, not long ago considered themselves confidants of Bashar al-Assad), others enjoy the projection of American power, and some responsible ones see the defeat of an American president’s request in this sphere as a terrible loss of prestige for the United States and a further erosion of American influence in the world. An Obama threat of retaliation against Syria that goes unfulfilled will simply further embolden Iran to ignore this President’s idle blandishments and hasten the completion of its nuclear program. What to do? Here’s a suggestion.

Go to the source. Rather than waste rockets and missiles in a futile effort to weaken Assad, expend that effort in militarily engaging Iran. Iran is Syria’s sponsor and patron. If Iran is weakened – nuclear capabilities thwarted, regime changed, etc. – then Syria falls. The source of evil in that part of the world is not Syria but Iran. Wasting energy on a theatrical attack on the proxy but leaving the principal in place accomplishes less than nothing. By all accounts, the US (and/or Israel) will have to confront Iran someday soon. A nuclear weapon in Iranian hands is more dangerous than even chemical weapons in Syrian or rebel hands. It is not at all unlikely that the use of chemical weapons here was undertaken at Iranian initiative to gauge the American response, as Assad has the upper hand over the rebels with his conventional weapons. So why delay until tomorrow what can be done today?

This would be an opportune moment for that attack. Nonetheless, it is unlikely because Obama is so enamored of his rhetorical abilities he believes his words alone will halt the Iranian race to the bomb. So, for all the current commotion, there will be a lot of sound and fury signifying next to nothing, as politics once again trumps policy.

“And so of the countries, some will be destined for the sword,” not because     G-d necessarily decreed it but because they have chosen it, and others will be blessed with peace because they have worked at it, fought and bled for it, and appreciate it. And some, like Israel, will desire peace, but not yet be its beneficiary because it is surrounded by hostility, evil and the forces of intolerance.

We are left to mourn the loss of innocent life, and pray for the time when G-d will instill His awe upon all His works and His dread upon all His creatures, so we may yet become a single society – a bond of brothers and sisters that do His will wholeheartedly.

And may the world then be blessed with redemption and peace.

Shana Tova to all !