Category Archives: Holidays

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 !

Lag BaOmer

Surprisingly, the holiday that requires the most advance preparation is not Pesach or Succot; those require one, two, maybe three or (all right, for some) four weeks. In Israel, preparations for Lag Baomer began well before Pesach, almost six weeks in advance of the celebrations. Why?
A ubiquitous sight from early spring was seeing children gathering wood for the big bonfires made on Lag Baomer. Children become scavengers. These urchins clear their homes of all wood in a way that is not done before Pesach with chametz. They frequent construction sites and build makeshift wagons, schlepping their new-found wood from block to block to the central gathering spot. Anything not nailed down is seized, and I suspect that even much that is nailed down is seized anyway. Often, the pieces of wood are two or three times the size of the child carrying it; it looks like the wood is moving itself. This went on for weeks, and really intensified this last week with Lag Baomer’s imminence.
Of course, there are persistent reminders to exercise caution. Fire is obviously dangerous, and in an American context, it is hard to conceive of letting children play with matches, much less ignite stacks of wood in the hopes of producing an enormous conflagration. And, indeed, most fires were well-supervised (although it is clear that the hills surrounding Modiin did catch fire.)
How seriously do Israelis take this quasi-holiday? This year, children were off from school for two days, Sunday and Monday. And the Rabbinate, wary of Shabbat desecrations if bonfires were lit on Saturday night, directed that Lag Baomer pyrotechnics be delayed until Sunday night. (The Rabbinate has developed a habit of minimizing the real dates of Jewish observances in favor of commemorating events.) As can be expected, this just induced the boisterous, youthful participants to light fires both nights – Saturday night in fulfillment of the “custom,” and Sunday night in deference (so to speak) to the Rabbis. What is the origin of this strange custom?
For sure, it is rooted in kabbala (admittedly, not my thing), and a celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who brought eternal light to the world through the Zohar and whose illumination is commemorated annually on this day. Perhaps there are other reasons, and some thoughts occurred to me.
In addition to the hilula for Rabbi Shimon, Lag Baomer primarily celebrates the cessation of the plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s disciples. There is a common denominator that links the two: both Bar Yochai, and Rabbi Akiva and his students, were caught in the inferno of Roman persecution. Rabbi Shimon had to hide in a cave with his son for many years, and Rabbi Akiva’s students were actively engaged – as was Rabbi Akiva – in the failed rebellion of Bar Kochva (which, as I learned last week from Modiin’s mayor, actually began in Modiin).
It was a dark time for the Jewish people. Torah study declined and had to go underground. Jewish settlement in the land of Israel was constricted. It was 75 years after the churban, and the future seemed even more bleak that at the time of the churban itself.
And yet, we survived. The plague stopped. The rebellion ended. Rabbi Shimon came out of hiding with a change of government, and Torah study began anew – culminating just a few decades later with the publication of the Mishna.
Fire is the symbol of Torah and Jewish continuity. We are the heirs to a “fiery faith” (Devarim 33:2). Even in the darkest moments, all it takes is one spark to reignite the flames of Torah and it burns again. And fire has the capacity of not being diminished when it is spread; one candle lights another without that flame being lessened in intensity at all. The spread of Torah enriches all of us – teacher and student, parent and child – and nothing need be lost.
In essence, Lag Baomer is a celebration of the mesorah – not just the hidden aspects as revealed by Rabbi Shimon, and not just the revealed aspects as represented by Rabbi Akiva – but a celebration of the mesorah of Torah and the land of Israel that sustains us, that gives us direction in life and eternal hope for the future.
Undoubtedly, children are always the best examples of this hope, and so they have become, if not the masters of the mesorah (yet), then at least the masters of the fire that symbolizes Torah, mesorah, our love for Israel and our confidence in the redemption ahead. They may fully comprehend why they toil for so long gathering their wood and assembling their bonfire, but they do not toil in vain. They aim to keep the fire raging until the coming of Moshiach. May they stay strong, and safe.

Some Lag Baomer pictures: