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Israel Today

     Rav Shlomo Aviner (Rosh Yeshiva of Ateret Cohanim and Rav of Bet El) was once asked: is it appropriate to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, when Israel has a secular government and is not yet a Torah state ? He answered that it is not only appropriate but also a mitzva to give thanks to G-d and not be indifferent or blasé about the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. What generations pined for has come true in our day, and legions of Jews who dreamt of returning to Israel would probably be astonished at the impertinence of Jews who are disenchanted because statehood has not unfolded the way each person anticipated. There are always Jews who despair of any challenging situation ever improving; some despaired that Jews would ever return to our homeland, and some despair whether Jews will be able to retain our homeland. But the Torah obligates us to be appreciative of our gifts, and accept all challenges – personal and national – as divine opportunities to develop ourselves and perfect His world.

     It has been more than 40 years since my first trip here (yes, I was very young at the time). The roads, telephone service, culture, transportation, mails, business, etc. were, frankly, primitive. Israel existed – in the minds of many Jews, especially American Jews – as a refuge, a haven for the persecuted, somewhere for Jews from Russia, Ethiopia, Argentina, France, Yemen, Iran, etc. to flee when their hostile host governments turned on them. Neither beggars nor refugees can be choosers, so whatever meager services, housing, or job opportunities were offered sufficed for them, and for Jewish tourists as well. Israel as asylum still exists, of course, but it is much, much more than that. There is a flourishing, modern, and most livable country, with all – literally, all – the conveniences to which Western man has become accustomed. There has been a steep decline in “coerced aliya” of Jews hounded to Israel by our enemies and grateful for their mere survival. Most aliya today is, well, dream-like, of Jews who come here to live in a Jewish state, and who are able to live very well. It is a positive, voluntary, purposeful aliya, which still perplexes some Israelis but gladdens most of them. And that Jews today have the opportunity to come home, build a state, fully live the rhythms of Jewish life, and be proud and happy about it is something to cheer. Actually, it is something that should cause us to stand up, take notice of the hand of Providence, and, at least, be overcome with gratitude. Moreover, it should prompt a personal reckoning of whether each of us can become part of this historic undertaking, and how, and when. The prophet Yeshayahu (42:5, in the haftara for Breisheet) said that “God… gave a soul to the people who dwell on it [the land of Israel] and a spirit to those who walk on it.” (See Ketubot 111a as well.) What sounds trite to some and obvious to others is nonetheless true: the Jewish soul comes alive, and can be fully developed, only in Israel. Only here do we encounter the tableau on which the Torah is implemented, and only here do we find the opportunity to fulfill all the mitzvot. In a real sense, Jews in Israel live, and Jews in the exile live on spiritual “life support”. In galut, we remain tethered to the Torah and are sustained by the oxygen of mitzvot. But the Torah makes clear, again and again, that there is something artificial about it, and something essential that is missing. Here, just the breadth of subjects covered in weekly shiurim that deal with the interface of Torah and modern life are awe-inspiring corroboration that the Torah – in all its dimensions and grandeur – can be the foundation of a modern state. In the exile, the reach of Torah is necessarily truncated.

     That is not to sound Pollyannish about life here. (I am reminded of the old joke about the Israeli who told his friend that, despite all the problems in this part of the world, he has decided to be an optimist. Asked by his friend, if so, why do you look so despondent, he replied: “You think it’s easy to be an optimist ?”) What is most irksome about life here is the realization that every scoundrel, every thief, every rude driver, every indifferent bureaucrat, every corrupt politician, every person who expelled Jews from their homes and then turned his back on them, every person who is indifferent to the fate of the residents of Sderot, and every brutal police officer – is a fellow Jew. But what is most endearing about Israel is the realization that every ba’al chesed, every lover of Torah, every developer of the land of Israel, every stranger who inquires about your family and wants to set up his niece with your nephew, every store clerk – in whatever form of dress and whatever level of observance – who wishes you a heartfelt “Shabbat Shalom”, every person who took in the refugees of Gush Katif and visits the Jews of Sderot, or who sits around at night arguing over how to make the Jewish State better, or who rejoices in the smachot of every Jew, or who visits a perfect stranger who is sitting shiv’a (because each one is a brother or sister), every driver who abruptly cuts you off enabling you to see his bumper sticker that reads “Ein od mi’lvado” (“there is none beside G-d”), and every individual who cries over the fate of every Jew – is also a fellow Jew. There is a profound sense of family, the family of Israel. And, I suppose, even the scoundrel has a role to play in this great enterprise.

     To walk again good Jews who build Israel, learn Torah, raise families, serve in the army, do mitzvot, seek out chesed, and want to be part of the destiny of an eternal people in these momentous times is itself a blessing. May our share be with them, the builders of the “resting place” of the divine presence on earth. May we all soon merit finding our share in fulfilling the prophetic vision of old, and be present to welcome the son of David, speedily and in our days.

Shalom from Israel !


    Ever wonder why English is the language of both air traffic control and the Internet ? After all, far more people in the world speak Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and other languages. One factor might be that Americans created both (I think a former Vice-President brought us the Internet), or that Americans are also notoriously monolingual. But there is a more fundamental reason: America is a cultural hegemonist (I prefer that word to “imperialist”) and the world’s trendsetter. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel. American English is a second language in Israel, but even that does not convey the extent of its infiltration into Israeli society. It is not that you can get by without speaking Hebrew; indeed, it is difficult to embrace the society without speaking Hebrew. But English idioms have become commonplace in Israeli speech – and not just the “ya” endings of yesteryear (televizya, protektsiya). Listen to any Israeli speak – an ordinary citizen or media personality – and they will sprinkle their sentences with words or phrases like “why not, time, time out, so what, picnic, shopping, reform, focus, center, fight, loser, campaign, OK, activist, forum, compliment, chance, conflict” (pronounced con-FLICT, plural con-FLICT-im), not to mention technical terms like “internet, e-mail, fax, high-definition” and literally hundreds of other words. These words are all transliterated into Hebrew in the press. No doubt this is partly the influence of globalization, here known of course as “globalizatzya.” Rather than grasp for a Hebrew word, it is often easier just to say it in English, with the occasional conversionary suffixes. Preparing for a public speech a few weeks ago, I looked up the word “speculative”. I need not have; the Hebrew is “speculativi”. Occasionally, the pronunciations and etymologies are humorous. Liat Collins, who writes a language column in the Jerusalem Post, reported on an argument she had with her commander in the army many years ago, who gave her an “ool-ti-mah-tum” (ultimatum) claiming it was a Hebrew word and correcting her (she is British) when she insisted on pronouncing it “ul-ti-mah-tum”. (Of course, they were both wrong; ul-ti-may-tum). There is such a thing as the Academy for the Hebrew Language, but if it is not defunct, it is certainly moribund and irrelevant. On this subject, part of me wishes that “Saturday” would enter the Israeli lexicon in order to avoid hearing such non sequiturs as “On Shabbat, we drove to the Galil for a picnic”. Another part of me feels that at least use of the word “Shabbat” helps keep the idea of Shabbat alive, even if it is not observed properly. And if language in Israel is an amalgam of Hebrew, English and a little Arabic (my time here has been both achla and sababa), the culture itself is dominated by America and American entertainment. The reality TV craze in America has hit Israel with full force – the shows with the amateur survivors, singers, dancers, models, etc. are featured prominently and achieve high “ratings” (also a “Hebrew” word). Full disclosure: I have never watched any of those shows, either Israeli or American versions, but I have read about them. The most amusing American template that I have seen is “Ha-laila”, Israel’s Tonight Show. (“From Kikar Dizengoff in Tel Avivvvvv, it’s Halaila – starring Lior Schleiiiiiiiiin”!). It is rank mimicry of the late night talk shows in America – featuring the host, the monologue (I never would have thought that Asara B’Tevet could be mined for comic material!), the desk, the backdrop (Tel Aviv, instead of New York City or Hollywood), the sofa chairs, the band and the banter with the bandleader. (The celebrities are a little third-tier. A singer performing at a kiosk in Ashkelon ?) No institution in society is spared the comic barbs of the amiable host – politicians, the army, the Haredim, the Arabs, even the Tel Avivians. But if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then America, consider yourself flattered, and then some. The penetration of all things American (including glitzy political campaigns that mask inept and often corrupt politicians) certainly enables American olim to make an easier adjustment. The comfort level with English and American culture is such that living in Israel can have quite a familiar feel. (I even watch Fox News Channel here.) I wonder though at what cost, and whether indeed olim – especially religious olim – are looking to find the 51st State here. I think most are not, and not only because of the occasional decadence of Western culture but rather because of a desire to develop and immerse themselves in an indigenous Israeli, or religious-Jewish culture, befitting a Jewish state. Certainly, the culture as it is has little general appeal to the more traditional elements in society. Religious Jews have begun in the last decade or so to fashion purely religious cultural offerings – literature and movies – and of course religious music has been a powerhouse for several decades already. And religious Jews are blessed with a plethora of shiurim¬ – every night of the week, and on an immense variety of topics – in almost every community in the country. (I do wish Israelis had a keener sense of time. It is not atypical for an evening shiur to start 15-45 minutes after the scheduled time, almost like a Syrian-Jewish wedding. I have begun asking Rabbanim if their shiurim are starting “on time” or “on Israel time.” One answered: “Well, we are in Israel.” Major exception: I attended this week the World Conference of Orthodox Rabbis, under the auspices of the WZO, and it ran like clockwork.) But it is very difficult to combat a cultural behemoth like the United States. The revolution against Greek culture during the second Bet HaMikdash era began right here in Modiin. Yet, it is worth recalling that despite the Chanuka success, Shimon the Maccabee’s own great-grandsons (less than 100 years later) bore the fine Greek names Hyrkonus and Aristobolus, fought each other for the throne, and self-destructed. Even the Chashmonaim succumbed in the end to Greek cultural dominance, and with it, their kingdom fell and their legacy was tarnished. That Israel sees itself as living in the cultural shadow of America – even, at times, as America’s step-child – often has grave political ramifications. There is almost a palpable fear – completely unwarranted, I think – of denying almost any American request, as if the child Israel must always have the approval of the parent America. Israeli politicians loathe saying “no” to the United States; no other country in the world today has such hesitation. PM Netanuyahu, to his credit, is learning but the potential for recidivism always exists. Israelis speak of “American pressure” as if it is impossible to resist, and politicians routinely contrive “American pressure” to justify their own poor decisions. “Please, twist my arm, please?!”(For example, the United States was uninvolved in the Oslo process at the beginning, and President Bush opposed the “Gaza Expulsion Plan” for the better part of two years.) A country with its own culture shapes its own destiny, and develops a strong sense of national pride. American culture may be a dominant world power, but, in truth, it is scarcely felt in countries like Russia or China which have a rich cultural tradition of their own. There is an indigenous Israeli culture, but it is overwhelmed by America’s. Israelis write books, but the bookstores are mainly filled with Hebrew translations of American best-sellers. In time, and given the right circumstances, Israel will surely develop a culture that is uniquely Jewish and that touches the mind, heart and soul. Witnessing the national mourning on Yom HaShoah, and seeing the preparations for Yom Haatzmaut to come, one realizes that there is an Israel unto itself, with which outsiders scarcely identify. That is all part of building a state, liberating the Jewish spirit from centuries of exile, and shaping the national character that will engender “a kingdom of priests and a holy people.”

Shalom from Israel !

Summer Plans – Switzerland

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     Our forefathers all had parenting challenges, but none more than Yaakov, our ancestor who was closest to us in time and life experience. In a sense, Yaakov had more difficulties in raising his children – for the most part, as a single parent – than did Avraham or Yitzchak. It is easier to raise children if one is righteous and one is wicked. We have clearer guidelines when the dichotomy is black and white. Between Yitzchak and Yishmael, between Yaakov and Esav – there are separate, distinct paths. Shades of gray – the dazzling diversity of Yaakov’s children as exemplified by his blessings – are more difficult to manage and direct, and Yaakov was blessed with twelve colorful children, thirteen if Dina is counted, all whom required direction and discipline. And the stakes were never greater.

      Somehow, despite their famous feuds, all of Yaakov’s sons gathered around his deathbed, and Yaakov was quite precise in identifying their uniqueness, their personalities, and their destinies are part of the nation of Israel. Of the twelve, only Shimon and Levi are described as “brothers” – in Ramban’s phrase, “complete brothers, resembling each other in a brotherly way in thought and deed.” All the others were individualists – and Yaakov raised them all, and uneasily, with one objective: to create the nucleus of G-d’s people. So how does one rear – and discipline – diverse children?

     The model of our forefathers – and life itself – reinforces that there is no perfect system and no guarantee of ultimate success – but there are patterns that lead to successful discipline that in many ways is on the wane today. Here are some rudimentary thoughts:

       Firstly, a parent must be a parent first, and a friend second or third, if at all. A child has friends – a child needs parents. A parent who acts like a child is not acting like a parent – and a parent who feels a need to ingratiate himself/herself to a child or who craves the child’s approval is also not acting like a parent. And a child needs a parent. I recently heard, incredulously, about the mindboggling case of parents who allow their children to smoke marijuana in their home – preferring that they smoke there “under supervision” than outside the home without supervision. Heaven save us – and children – from such “parents” (and their not-so-supervision) who through their children are undoubtedly re-living their wayward youth that apparently turned out so…well, or from parents whose search for personal happiness induces them into shirking or abandoning their parental responsibilities.

      Parenting, secondly, requires occasionally saying “no.” Not always saying “no” or always saying “yes,” but occasionally saying “no.” A friend rarely says “no” – or you would just find another friend. There are parents who feel their children will love them less if they say “no.” In fact, the opposite is true – children love their parents more when the parents set limits. Limits – discipline – are examples of parental love, not only authority. In truth, parents whose good values have been absorbed by their children (and whose personal virtues have been witnessed by their children) will have to say “no” less frequently as the child grows in adolescence, not more frequently.

     Rav Shlomo Wolbe cited the verse in Zecharia (11:7) as illustrative of the two models of parenting: “And I took two staffs, one I called noam, “pleasantness” and the other chovlim, “destruction,” and I shepherded the flock.” Parents have two tools of discipline – noam and chovlim – at their disposal, and must choose wisely.

      There is a destructive form of discipline – when the parent thinks he/she can create a clone of himself/herself and becomes intolerant of any deviation. The child must look, speak, think and act like the parent, walk in the parent’s footsteps – live in the same community, attend the same school, etc. That is wonderful if the child so chooses, and destructive if it is coercive. It is destructive when parents discipline in anger, and without reason or rationale. That is the “makel chovlim”– the destructive staff.

     The “makel noam” is pleasant – it rewards, it gives incentives, it provides guidelines, and it sends a message of love. Discipline is like the guardrails on a narrow, winding road; guardrails are not unreasonable constraints on one’s freedom but rather expressions of societal concern and caring. Guardrails do prevent one from experiencing the exhilaration of sailing over a cliff, but also spare one the gruesome reality of hitting rock bottom. Guardrails allow room for maneuverability – within limits. The great criticism lodged against King David, who also struggled with many of his children, is that he never disciplined his rebellious son Adoniyahu – “His father never aggrieved him” (I Kings 1:6) – never caused him any grief, never challenged him, and never said “no.”

      Thirdly, it is no crime not to be able to afford something – especially these days when many parents seem to fear telling their children “we cannot afford that, you can’t buy that.” Indeed, it is no crime not to buy something even if you can afford it. Nor is it a crime to say “no” – “you can’t go there, you can’t watch this, you can’t buy this” – even if all your child’s friends can. Parents who judge their worth based on what they give their child materially are not really worth that much, or giving them that much. There are vapid politicians today who lament that our children’s generation might be the first in American history not to out-earn their parents – and the very sentiment corrupts our children’s values. So what if they are not wealthier – there are greater, more valuable legacies we can leave our children. Would we be in a state of deprivation if we had the same material bounty, or even a little less, than the last two generations? Certainly not.

      Yaakov’s twelve sons were not an easy bunch – they were strong-willed, complicated, dynamic individuals who had legendary problems with each other and occasionally with their father. Yet, when Yaakov said “gather and listen,” they gathered and listened. And he blessed them, each with a personally appropriate blessing.

       For a parent to bless a child requires that the parent knows both his child, and the blessing. To know the child and not know the blessing is as ineffectual as knowing the blessing but not how to transmit it to the child. We need both.

         To know one’s child requires insight and objectivity, and to know the blessing – to recognize and use the “staff of pleasantness”– requires knowledge of Torah, and the spirit of our ancestors, our fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. And then we will merit children who are productive Jews and responsible adults, we will be positive role models to the world, and our national history will reach its inevitable – and grand – climax.