Category Archives: Holidays

Succot and the Nations

(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)

     One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)

     Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?

     As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.

     Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.

      But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.

      Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.

       Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.

     Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by  all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.

      What changed in the 1960’s?

      Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.

      Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”

       Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.

       But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.

     With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.

      Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.

      The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.

      What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. Without G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the  idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.

     One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechina has precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.

     Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?

      Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values.  We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.

      It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.

       On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.

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The End of the “Three-Day Yom Tov”

It is official: the phrase “three-day Yom Tov” has been banned from these parts, never to be uttered again. The reason is simple. There is no such thing.

There can be a one day Yom Tov (Shavuot in Israel), a two day Yom Tov (Rosh Hashana everywhere or Shavuot in the exile), a seven day Yom Tov (Pesach in Israel), and eight day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in Israel or Pesach in the exile) and even a nine day Yom Tov (Succot/Shmini Atzeret in the exile). But there cannot be a three day Yom Tov, even though many use the term to describe the recent celebration of Rosh Hashana followed by Shabbat and the upcoming (in the exile) celebrations of Succot and Shemini Atzeret on Thursday and Friday followed by Shabbat.

Years ago, we banned from use the Purim expression “sending Mishloach Manot.” Obviously, one cannot “send the sending of manot;” just send them and be done with it. What we send are “manot,” period.

So there is no “three day Yom Tov” but rather two days of Yom Tov followed by Shabbat. Lest you think I am overly persnickety (just overly; a little persnicketiness would do everyone some good), please note that the difference is more than semantics.

The expression “three day Yom Tov” conjures up thoughts of drudgery that doesn’t seem to end – cleaning, cooking, eating, cooking, eating, cleaning, and then more eating – with many hours of shul attendance sprinkled in to get us out of the dining room. Some dread three whole days without their electronic devices – no phone, no internet, no texting, and no news updates. That is actually a good way to break the Smartphone addiction that has left many people – especially young people – almost incapable of carrying on a conversation with a live human being right next to them, a human being with whom the interlocutor has to make eye contact and enunciate words in full sentences, wait for a response and answer again.

Nonetheless, since there cannot be a “three day Yom Tov,” what should we call the celebrations of two-day holidays followed by Shabbat?

Rav Eliezer Melamed hinted at the answer which, if understood properly, can revolutionize our lives:

shelosha yamim shel kedusha,” or in our parlance, “three days of holiness,” or even just “three holy days.” (Note: not three holidays; it doesn’t sound the same nor convey the same meaning.) Three Holy Days. Say it again: “Three Holy Days.” It has a nice ring to it. Rolls off the tongue.

The notion of “Three Holy Days” is a far cry from the implications of the “three day…(banned phrase).” In the first instance, “Three Holy Days” reminds us that these days are not identical in their obligations and observances but are all defined by varying degrees of holiness.  Yom Tov and Shabbat are not the same and the distinctions should be noted. Secondly, “Three Holy Days” communicates a love of mitzvot and a desire to rejoice in our service of G-d, as if the purpose of these days is not just to eat and eat (and cook, serve and clean) but to internalize the profound ideas of Torah and Jewish nationhood that have sustained us for thirty-seven centuries. A “three day Yom Tov” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) is feared, a source of anxiety and trepidation, but “Three Holy Days” should be anticipated by all serious Jews with excitement and merriment. Who would not want to be immersed in Torah, Mitzvot and G-d’s presence for three full days, if not more? Who would eschew three consecutive days doing nothing but indulging our souls? Even the meals of the “Three Holy Days” have tremendous spiritual significance.

“Three Holy Days” marks this period of time, and which we will enjoy again this coming Shavuot, as opportunities to saturate our souls with the experiences that develop them and therefore our entire lives. There is little that we do during the working days of the week that has as considerable an influence on our souls as does our proper observance and celebration of the “Three Holy Days.” Our children and grandchildren will be shaped and inspired by what they see, hear, feel and experience far more than anything that happens outside this time.

If they perceive that the “Three Holy Days” are a burden, and involve chores and preparations that weigh down and even dispirit the adults in their lives – if, indeed, they are educated with the banned expression “Three Day-you-know-what” – then they will absorb this lesson quite well and chafe under the loss of work time and regret the hours they could have otherwise spent sharing the inanities of their daily lives on social media.

But if they learn the lofty phrase “Three Holy Days” they will understand the great blessings that we enjoy, of finding our true happiness in Mitzvot and divine service, and they will seek to surround themselves with holiness, holy things and holy moments. There is no better time for this than Succot, during which we enter into a mitzvah with our entire bodies and bask in the divine presence.

So long live the “Three Holy Days” – and Chag Sameach to all!

 

 

The Hidden Moon

A well known Torah teacher in Israel, Rav Eliezer Kashtiel, asks a familiar question. We generally celebrate our holidays at the full moon, in the middle of the month. Succot, Pesach, and Purim are all full moon holidays. Not only is Rosh Hashana different, but we highlight that difference: “Sound the shofar in the concealment of our festival day.” Which festival occurs when the moon is concealed? That would be Rosh Hashana (Masechet Rosh Hashana 34a). But why must the festival coincide with the moon hidden from sight? And why is our attention called to it?

There is a famous dispute between the Gaon of Vilna and the holy ARI on a sensitive question: is it permissible to cry on Rosh Hashana? The Gaon ruled that one is not allowed to cry, for at the beginning of the second Temple era, Nechemia admonished the people who had come to the Temple for the first time on Rosh Hashana to “go home, eat, drink, for this day is holy to G-d, and don’t be sad, for delight in G-d is your strength” (Nechemia 8:10). Thus, the GRA said, the prohibition against sadness precludes crying.

The ARI disagreed, as recorded by R. Chaim Vital and the Ba’er Heiteiv (Orach Chaim 584:3). The ARI would cry on Rosh Hashana and even said that whoever didn’t cry, it is a sign that his soul is not healthy. That’s the paradox of Rosh Hashana: on the one hand, it’s a happy and joyous day; while on the other hand, it’s a day of solemnity and judgment. Which is primary?

There are several answers that synchronize the opinions of the GRA and the ARI, but here is one. There are different types of crying. There are tears of sadness and there are tears of joy. Sometimes they are commingled, and sometimes they are distinct. And we all know the difference. Rosh Hashana is the only holiday that is celebrated at the New Moon, the beginning of the month, because, like the new moon every month, it symbolizes a fresh start, a rebirth. On Rosh Hashana, we are all children again. We are reborn. We still hear the cantor of our youth that shapes the way we absorb and understand the davening throughout our lives. We still see the sights and inhale the aromas of the homes in which we were raised. We are children again, full of hope and excitement.

What is the sound of the shofar? The whole year we talk to G-d, with words. On Rosh Hashana, we employ the wordless sounds of the shofar, the cry of the infant who can’t say anything or do anything. He just cries. It’s not a cry of sadness or of pain; it’s not the cry of longing for or regret for the past; that will come. It is the cry of the child who yearns for mother and father, for the security and comfort of home; it is our cry to our Father in Heaven that we have returned after being abroad for too long. Please let us in. We cry in joy over the future – like at all beginnings, births and weddings – not over the past. We cry over the journey that took us to distant places, but now we have come home.

There is no moon. The past is the past. We are born again. We just need to be delivered into the new world of the New Year.

The Torah tells us that the two great women, midwives, who ushered in the redemption from Egypt and the founding of our nation, were named Shifra and Pu’ah. In the understanding of our Sages, these noble women were Yocheved and Miriam, respectively the mother and sister of Moshe. So why were they called Shifra and Pu’ah? The Gemara (Sota 11b) says that one was called Shifra because her role was to straighten out (meshaperet) the limbs of the newborn, and the other was called Pu’ah because she cried out (po’ah) to the child to bring her forth into the world.

Shifra and Pu’ah. Those names should ring a phonetic bell in our minds. Pu’ah – crying, cooing. The hundred sounds of the shofar that we blow correspond to the hundred cries (pe’ayot) of Sisera’s mother. And Pu’ah’s mother was Shifra, a word like the shofar itself. The Baal Hatanya wrote that the sounds of the shofar accompany our rebirth. It calls out to us plaintively and seeks our improvement; it urges us to straighten ourselves out. It asks us to renew ourselves, that we cry not tears of sadness – “do not be sad  because the delight in G-d is our strength” –  but tears of joy (even if that too recollects what is missing), tears of hope and anticipation, tears of the newborn, of a reborn soul.

The Slonimer quotes the Toldot Yaakov Yosef who reinterpreted the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that discusses the three books that are open on Rosh Hashana – the books of the righteous, the wicked and the intermediates. The books are open, but we get to inscribe ourselves. We get to choose the book in which we want to be written. What are our true aspirations? Those who crown G-d as King over themselves – every limb, every deed, and every thought – have chosen the book of life. Those who cannot make that commitment are choosing a different book.

If the moon is concealed on Rosh Hashana, it is only to remind us that a new beginning awaits us, if only we want it, if only we are ready for it. May we embark on that new beginning wisely and choose the book of life thoughtfully, and may G-d show us favor and seal us in that book for a year of meaningful life and good health, of prosperity and happiness, and grace our people with renewal as well – to an end to fear and trepidation, and to the beginning of complete redemption.

Shana Tova to all!

Birth of the Eternal Nation

The Pesach Hagadah is dedicated almost exclusively, certainly in the first half, to the redemption from Egypt. Passages that do not quite fit this narrative were not universally recited, like, for example, Dayyenu (yes, that is hard to imagine) or the accounts of the miracles at the Red Sea. But one section seemingly does not relate at all to the Exodus, and yet appears in every Hagadah: V’hi she’amdah. “And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” It is a remarkable passage that should cause us to reflect on the eternity of the Jewish people. Individual Jews, and even large numbers of Jews, have suffered inordinately, but the Jewish nation miraculously endures and thrives. Yet, this passage also does not mention the Exodus at all. So why is it recited – and immediately before we begin our discussion of the events of the Exodus?

Last year, Natan Sharansky celebrated the 30th anniversary of his release from the Gulag after nine years in prison. As reported by the acclaimed journalist, Yedidya Meir, at the dinner of gratitude Sharansky made at the time (as he does every year on the date of his release, Rosh Chodesh Adar)  he told the following story. Over a decade ago, Sharansky was invited by President Bush to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, and the speakers that morning – politicians, celebrities, etc. – were asked to relate the event in their lives where they most felt God’s presence. Christians call it “bearing witness.”

All the stories were inspirational, some led to born-again moments in their lives, but all followed the same basic pattern. Some shared a low moment when they felt God’s presence lift them up, and others spoke about a dramatic moment when they felt divine intervention saved their lives. A fighter pilot related that a malfunction caused his engines to fail and he was plunging to earth – and he felt a heavenly force just intervene, restart his engines for no explicable reason, as if there was some superior force above him.

When it came time for Sharansky to speak, he said that Jews look at these experiences differently. We look for God’s presence not in the life of the individual but in the life of the nation, i.e., what God does for us as a people. (Sharansky knew well that not everyone present that morning was a lover of Israel.)

He told the audience that you – all Bible-believing Christians – know of the Jews enslaved in Egypt, and how Pharaoh refused to free them, and the plagues, the miracles, and the Red Sea. It was God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm that redeemed us from Egypt and founded our nation.

But not long ago – just a few years ago – there was a mighty evil empire that intimidated the entire world. And everyone was afraid to challenge them. Nations sought accommodation, détente, some arrangement whereby the world would keep the peace and no one would interfere in the domestic affairs of this evil empire.

There was one small group of Jews who arose, reasserted their Jewish identity and reclaimed their membership in the Jewish nation. It was a small group at first – dozens, then hundreds, then thousands – but small compared to the gargantuan size of their enemy of whom everyone else was afraid. And then Jews across the world heard of them and rallied for them, and pressured governments, and then blow after blow was rained on the Soviet Union until it collapsed from within and the Iron Curtain fell and the Jews were liberated, again.

Everyone burst into applause, and he continued. “For Jews, that is how God manifests His presence – in the life of our nation. He reveals Himself through what happens to the Jewish people.” He then told his audience that night, that this demonstration of God’s presence in the life of the Jewish people was greater than anything anyone of them had ever experienced in their lives as individuals.

“And this has stood by our forefathers and us; for not only has one enemy risen against us to destroy us but rather in every generation they rise against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The template for our survival and our eternity as a people was drafted in Egypt. The divine presence stands with us in every generation. In every generation we face enemies who wish to destroy us, not just one generation with one foe, but in every generation. “And God saves us from their hands.” and gives us – and the world – another chance.

That is why V’hi she’amdah must begin our recitation of the events of the Exodus. That is the pattern from that moment and throughout history until today. And every day, but especially every Pesach, we acknowledge it, give thanks for it, and promise to live in a way that makes us worthy of it, so that the day will soon come when  we again experience divine wonders such as those that liberated us from the bondage of Egypt and we will again see God’s mighty hand and strong arm on the mountains of Zion and Jerusalem, accompanying the dawn of our redemption.

Chag kasher v’sameach to all!

 

 

Two-State Illusion

The Jewish people have been “refuseniks” long before Jews from the former Soviet Union heroically gave that designation such honor. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Yosef, nearly falling into the lecherous clutches of Potiphar’s wife, extricated himself in a way that the Torah (Breisheet 49:8) described in one word: “And he refused.” That word is set apart from the rest of the verse by a psik, a sort of bracket, after which Yosef offers several explanations to the trollop who pined for him. But those disparate explanations are not essential to the narrative. What is essential is that one word: “Va’y’ma’ein.” And he refused. Period. The refusal matters more than the reasons.

Avraham refused to follow the debauched trends of his generation and ushered in a new era for mankind. Yitzchak and Yaakov both refused to buckle to their enemies and their inner strength and courage inspires us until today. Jews have always been refuseniks, and we would not be celebrating Chanukah this week but for a group of refuseniks called Maccabees who defeated a powerful Syrian army, rejected Greek culture, and overcame the Hellenist Jews of their generation who were trying to curry favor with the hostile, anti-Jewish establishment. Jews can refuse the enticements of sin, whether moral, physical or financial.

Herzl, Ben Gurion and Begin were all refuseniks in their own way, and today, we too are again called upon to be refuseniks, as the world community (read: UN) spearheaded by an American government led by a president, for whom so many Jews are still enamored, who has been waiting for an opportunity to stick it to Israel since his favorite preacher schooled him in the perfidies of the Jews. Yes, yes, this US government has provided Israel with $25B in military assistance in the last eight years, most of it spent in America; the same government has also furnished Iran with $100B to spend as they wish on terror, mayhem and the development of nuclear weapons.

Some Jews are irredeemably leftists and Obama supporters and nothing can happen that will change their minds. They have a unique capacity to be spat upon and then to exclaim with joy that it is raining. Gishmei Beracha. Or maybe Gishmei Kelala. Those “Jews” – make no mistake; a disproportionate number of them are not halachic Jews but the product of the scourge of intermarriage that is devouring American Jewry – would sooner blame Israel than open their eyes to Obama. Spare me the crocodile tears of those Obama supporters, some of whom voted for Obama twice, who now castigate him and offer platitudes of support for Israel, and of course would have voted for him a third time given the opportunity.

Obama is as much a product of his background – anti-Israel, liberationist theology – as John Kerry is of his: grandson of an apostate Jew who changed his name from Kohn to Kerry to try to pass himself off as Irish. We are now, indeed, being encircled by the rings of Kerry who does not even recognize his delusions. For example, 2.75 million Palestinians do not live under “Israeli military occupation,” as Kerry claims. Even ignoring the inflated number of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, more than 90% live under an autonomous Arab government. If they cannot vote, it is because the brutal Arab dictatorship under which they live does not allow elections. And if those Arabs cannot enter “Israel” at will, it is because Israel is supposed to be a separate country, especially according to Kerry, and countries have the right to determine who can and cannot enter. That should be obvious.

Obama’s treachery was widely predicted, including in this space, and it is still entirely possible that he will recognize a “Palestine” before he is shown the door. But, as is the case with almost everything that Obama did as president, certainly domestically, it can all be reversed and erased. That is not to say that it will be easy. It is entirely in keeping with Obama’s world view that he has alienated Israel (and other US allies) and befriended Iran and Cuba. He hates Netanyahu and loves Castro. He has a fierce hatred of the fulfillment of Jewish destiny in the land of Israel even as he has bolstered and promoted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and presided over the spread of Islamic terror across the globe. What a legacy.

UN Resolution 2334, orchestrated by the Obama administration, is similar in many respects to another act of treachery by Jimmy Carter, later exposed to be a rabid Jew hater. On March 22, 1979, Carter abstained on UNSC Resolution 446 that condemned Israeli settlements, including Jerusalem (!), stated they had no legal validity, violated international law, and deplored … yada yada yada. But Jews are refuseniks, and since 1979, almost 500,000 Jews have populated Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. May the current resolution result in similar growth!

Resolution 2334 differs substantially in only two respects: it calls on the world to “distinguish in their relevant dealings” between Israel “proper” and Judea and Samaria, effectively lending support to a boycott of Israel. And it refers repeatedly to the “two-state solution” and how settlements impair the “two-state solution.” It is time for that narrative change.

The problem is as much branding as it is politics and Jew hatred. There are problems and there are solutions, even if sane, realistic people recognize that not every problem has a solution. The very phrase “two-state solution” is the kicker. If there is a solution to a problem, only a nut would reject the solution and allow the problem to fester. It hasn’t dawned on the geniuses in the striped pants world (although it certainly motivates those who favor Israel’s demise) that the two-state “solution” is no solution at all. No reference was made to a two-state “solution” in Resolution 446 because it was then a dead letter. No rational person believed then that partitioning Israel and awarding its sworn enemies half its territory would be a solution to anything, except to those who perceive Israel’s existence as a problem. No rational person should believe it today.

We have to change the brand. Every time someone says “two-state solution” just write, blurt out or yell “two state illusion.” It is an illusion – indeed, a delusion – to think that an independent “Palestine” will bring peace. There never was an independent “Palestine,” there is no such political identity, no historic Palestinian figures from the 19th century going back to creation, and no means for even a peaceful “Palestine” to sustain itself as a state on territory that lacks material resources and infrastructure. It is a fabricated identity, fabricated not to buttress Arab claims but merely to suppress and eliminate Jewish claims. It is therefore not surprising that the “Palestinians” refused a state before 1948, made no effort to create a state when Jordan and Egypt controlled these territories from 1948-1967 and have rejected several ill-advised attempts to award them a state in the last 15 years. Let’s get real.

“Two state illusion” rolls off the tongue, and when uttered repeatedly, it makes a “two-state solution” sound much less appealing or even sensible. And it is a tribute to a number of Jewish activists that the Republican Party platform this year withdrew its support for the “two-state illusion,” and the incoming Trump administration seems presently disinclined to advocate it. And why would it? It can’t work, and if it could work, it would have worked already.

Much of the chatter makes it seem as if the “two-state illusion” was long-standing American and Israeli policy. It is not. Even the Oslo Accords did not endorse a “Palestinian” state, and the US only signed on to it at the urging of Ariel Sharon in 2004. Sharon encouraged the Bush Administration to support such a state in exchange for recognition of the settlement blocs as legal. This, sadly, was another disastrous legacy of Ariel Sharon. George W. Bush issued such a letter in June 2004, but US support of the settlement blocs was repudiated by Hillary Clinton in 2009 even as she pocketed the “two state illusion” as US policy conceded by Israel. Well, times have changed, and as Einstein noted, only the insane keep repeating the same actions and hope for different results.

Judea and Samaria represent Israel’s past and future. It is immoral to say that Jews can live in Shiloh, Illinois and not the original Shiloh. To articulate that sentiment is to be on the wrong side of history and to mock the Bible. Obama and Kerry are on the wrong side of history. In the story of Chanukah, it is distressing to note that most Jews sided with the enemy, the Syrian Hellenists who tried to stamp out Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel and eradicate the Torah itself. Those Jews were on the wrong side of history. Many of the battles of the Maccabees were fought on land that neither Obama nor Kerry recognize as Jewish. But it was then and is now.

Those Jews who are turning on Israel are also on the wrong side of history. It is patently clear that the closer Jews are to Torah the greater is one’s commitment to the land of Israel, whose possession by Jews is obviously a major element of the Torah.  Of course, there are observant Jews who are still enthralled with the two-state illusion but they are an ever declining minority of the Torah world. So be it.

The battles that are being waged now for the land of Israel during the celebrations of Chanukah are reminders to us that the old antagonisms still exist in every generation, and that the spirit of the Jewish refusenik that has animated us throughout history will give us the strength and courage to refuse even the entreaties of people who perceive themselves as well-meaning in their quest to hound, diminish and weaken Israel.

That light still shines in every truly Jewish home, and will shine forever.

Happy Chanukah!

 

The Joy of Torah

 

(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!

Honored Guests

Every year we welcome into our Succot some of the most distinguished guests in Jewish history – the “Ushpizin” – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. It is the Jewish dream team and a mystic’s delight, but for the rest of us – why are they here and what do they teach us?
Rav Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, once told the following story. In the year 2000, he was invited to deliver the annual St. George Lecture at Windsor Castle, the first Jew ever so honored. He was overwhelmed by the thought of it – and what he would say – especially considering that Windsor Castle is the oldest royal castle in the world in continuous use since its construction in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror, a decade after the Norman Conquest. Kings and queens have used that residence ever since and much happened to us while they were there.

In the almost 1000 years since, Jews underwent great hardship in the UK – starting with the blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190 (there’s a kinah that describes that), and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by King Edward I. Jews did not return legally to Britain until Oliver Cromwell permitted them in 1657. And Rabbi Sacks wondered: if those Jews could talk, what would they say now?

What he did say was this: I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who inherits this castle and who lives here. The place is saturated with history. Every royal who lives here sees this home as his personal history, but also as the history of a nation. The residents therefore have moral obligations to the past and the future, and not just the present. Every resident becomes part of that history, the history of Windsor Castle, and he has to preserve it for the next generation of Windsors, the next generation of royalty. This is life lived not just an individual but in an historical context.

Jews, he said, do not have castles. We do not have castles but our history, our memory, is built through words. In context, he meant the hagada – the lecture occurred before Pesach – words that emanate from the commandment of “and you shall relate to your children on that day,” to impart the story of Israel to every new generation. We don’t need buildings of brick and stone if we know the words, and the words are transmitted from generation to generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, frequently under conditions of hardships and travails. And every child is taught the words, because that is his legacy – to transmit those words to his children.

Edmund Burke wrote that “a partnership is not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Burke meant that everyone in society is part of the partnership – but we mean it as referring to the great Jewish odyssey. Indeed, the venerable Labor ideologue Yitzchak Tabenkin told David Ben Gurion not to accede to the partition demands of the Peel Commission, because he had “consulted” both his grandfather and his grandson, and neither would tolerate one generation’s surrender of the ancestral land of the Jewish people. No individual generation has the right to betray the past or the future.

I would take it a step further. Jews don’t have Windsor Castles; those do not represent our essence. We have our words but I would expand that too: what we have our experiences – experiences that we cherish, that define us, that keep us connected to G-d and to our people and that we transmit from one generation to the next.

We don’t need a fancy castle because we have a Succa – and in that Succa we hear the echoes of the giants of our history. The beauty of our history is that they – the Ushpizin – are the constants; we are transient. In our Succa, the guests are always the same – the Ushpizin; only the hosts change from year to year.

And what we convey most to our children are those experiences – of the Succa and the seder, of Shabbat and the shofar, of prayer and Torah study, of the innumerable acts and cherished values – that will both shape them and fully equip them with the means to live not just in the moment but in history, to see themselves as partners in the grand plan of the Creator in history.

“So that generations will know that I caused you to dwell in Succot when I took you out from the land of Egypt, I am G-d.” We dwell in the Succa so that we can transcend the generations – so that all generations will know that G-d has preserved us from time immemorial until this very day. Those Succot in the wilderness began our journey, which will culminate, as the prophet Zecharia taught, when all nations will come to Yerushalayim to celebrate Succot, in the era when G-d’s kingship will appear on earth and the entire world will pay homage to G-d, “and He will be One and His name will be One.”