Category Archives: Holidays

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.