Thursday, June 20, 2019

Meant To Be Difficult

          In Parshat Beha’alotcha we read about two objects that were impressively made from one single piece of metal.

          The Parsha opens with the command directed towards Aharon to light the Menorah. Then the Torah provides a one-pasuk description of the Menorah’s construction:
“This is the workmanship of the Menorah: hammered out of one piece of gold; from its base to its flowers it is hammered out.”

          The fact that the Menorah was sculpted out of one piece of gold was a feat so impressive that even Moshe was stumped as to how the Menorah was supposed to be built.

          Later in the Parsha, we read about the Chatzotzrot. Moshe was commanded to make two silver trumpets.  Here again the Torah specifies that the trumpets must be “Miksha”, hammered out of a single piece of silver. (This is probably why there are no Chatzotzrot in the IKEA catalogue.)

          Though not mentioned in our Parsha, there is one additional ritual object that had to be shaped from one piece. The Keruvim, which sat on top of the Holy Ark had to also be Miksha.

          The word Miksha comes from the word Kashe, which means hard or difficult. To sculpt these elaborate objects is certainly difficult. But why were these three items singled out for Miksha treatment? Is there any common thread between the Menorah, the trumpets and the Keruvim that can help shed light on this shared construction requirement?

          The key to understanding the Miksha factor is by seeking the symbolism inherent in each of the aforementioned items.

          The Menorah symbolizes Torah knowledge. The Talmud in Baba Batra learns from the position of the Menorah in the Mishkan that Harotzeh Sheyachkim yadrim: one who wants to become wise must go south. Similarly the Midrash recounts how Moshe would meditate by the light of the Menorah when he was trying to figure out a particularly difficult lesson from Hashem.

          Keruvim represent children. Rashi in Parshat Teruma (25:18) quotes the Gemara in Sukah (5b) which states: The Keruvim looked like children.

          The Chatzotzrot, trumpets, symbolize happiness. In this morning’s Torah reading, the last pasuk relating to the trumpets sums up the instances in which they were to be blown (10: 10). The sound of the Chatztzrot was supposed to both foster and express our feelings of joy.

          Torah, children and happiness: three of the most fundamental and essential aspects of our lives. Each stands on its own as an important pursuit, and yet they are inextricably intertwined one with the other. One might think that as fundamentals, success in these areas should be easy. Comes the Torah and tells us in each instance: “Miksha Hi.” They’re hard to accomplish and maintain. These three goals seem to pull us in three different directions. Spending time learning Torah versus time spent on maintaining the family. The financial stress of paying for a Jewish education for our children, and how much happier we imagine we could be without that expense.

          Some people believe that such tensions and questions are symptoms of a lack of faith and that the Torah has a clear answer for every situation.

          By examining the Menorah, the Chatzotzrot and the Keruvim, we are better equipped to appreciate that at times the Torah’s lesson is to embrace the challenge and the tension. By specifying these three objects the Torah teaches us that even with goals as noble and essential as Torah, family and joy, it’s okay to say “Miksha Hi.” Life is hard, and that’s why it’s meaningful. By appreciating the inherent difficulties, may we merit to enjoy the full measure of Hashem’s blessing in all of these areas.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

“All Our Deed are Recorded”

This week I attended a presentation for parents organized by Brauser Maimonides Academy presented by Dr. Eli Shapiro, creator of the Digital Citizenship Project. The goal of this project is to help children utilize technology in a healthy and positive way. One of the things we have to teach our children (and remind ourselves) is the notion of our “digital footprint”: that everything we post on social media and any place that we are mentioned on the internet becomes part of our permanent record, accessible via internet by anyone even years and decades later. Dr. Shapiro shared a news article that in 2017, Harvard University rescinded the admission of ten students after uncovering offensive and inappropriate posts on private Facebook messaging groups.

Some are fighting for a limit on the accessibility of their digital footprint. In 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Google had to remove links to out-of-date information about a Spanish man, because he wanted to be free of people learning about his bankruptcy more than a decade before, every time they searched for his name. This has become known as “the right to be forgotten”, and other European countries have adopted similar policies. Though some want there to be a “right to be forgotten” in the US, most scholars find it unlikely that such a law could pass, since it might violate the First Amendment (free speech and free press).

Judaism does not believe in a “right to be forgotten”. As the Mishna in Pirkei Avot (2:1) teaches us:
Apply your mind to three things and you will not come into the clutches of sin: Know what there is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.

At the end of Parshat Nasso we read about the donations offered by the Nesiim at the time of the dedication of the altar. Rashi (7:3) notes that whereas at the building of the Mishkan the princes donated last, here they donate first. Rashi explains that earlier the princes made a mistake by waiting to see what was needed to finish building the Mishkan (and nothing was needed.) This time, the princes learned from their mistake and are the first to bring gifts.

This week marked the passing of Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, son of Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and author of the (in)famous book The Making of a Gadol.  In a 2003 New York Times article about the book, Joseph Berger noted:

What has made the book so controversial is that the portraits are perhaps too human. Rather than the saintly figures often depicted in biographies for the Orthodox market, the Lithuanian sages -- a godol is a great sage -- are shown wrestling with the lures of secular life and with their own sometimes crusty personalities. Even as they display remarkable analytic powers in tackling the Talmud, they read Tolstoy, they have relatives tempted by Communism, they write love letters to their fiancées, they are mercurial and moody.

As a result, the first edition of his book was banned by some Rabbis. However Rabbi Kamenetsky defended his book by noting that all details of a great person should be remembered, as it provides a full picture of their greatness. For us, knowing that great Jewish leaders struggled with shortcomings and confronted challenges similar to ours, allows us to appreciate them more. And if they had similar struggles then we should look to them as role models whom we can emulate, and not angels that have nothing in common with mere mortals.  Here again, we are reminded that all of one’s deeds are remembered; not only in Heaven but here on earth.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Putting the “You” in Shavuot

During Torah reading people follow along either standing or sitting. However, as we read the Ten Commandments everyone is requested to rise, if they are able to. This is in accordance with the Ashkenazic tradition. This custom is not without its Halachik controversy. There’s a Mishna in Masechet Tamid that states that there once was a practice in the Beit Hamikdash for the Kohanim to read the Aseret Hadibrot as part of their daily Temple service. However, this practice was soon abolished because of a concern referred to as “Taromot Haminim” – the arguments of heretics. There was a fear that heretics would convince less knowledgeable Jews that only the Ten Commandments are true and the rest of Torah is false. They would point to the fact that the Ten Commandments received special treatment in the Beit Hamikdash as their proof. This Mishna is the textual basis for not standing for the Ten Commandments. The Rambam was strongly opposed to the custom to stand only for Aseret Hadibrot. He felt that this practice undermines our belief in the validity of the entire Torah. Yemenite and some other Sephardic communities follow the Rambam’s view.

        The most common Ashkenazic practice is to allow and even encourage standing for Aseret Hadibrot- especially on Shavuot. The reason is because on Shavuot we stand in order to re-enact the event of Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai as the pasuk says, (19:17):

“And the nation stood at the bottom of the mountain.”

        The Midrash takes the idea even further. It states that every Jewish soul ever to be born, as well as the souls of those who would convert throughout the ages, were spiritually present at the time of Matan Torah. That means that when we stand for Aseret Hadibrot on Shavuot morning, we were not just re-enacting an historical event, but re-experiencing in physical terms something that our souls experienced 3331 years ago. This Midrash reinforces the connection between Pesach and Shavuot. On Pesach we personalize the Exodus and appreciate that event’s direct impact on our lives. So, too, on Shavuot we must personalize the Sinai experience and appreciate the importance of Matan Torah in our own lives. Externally we show this by standing during the reading of the Ten Commandments. But how else can we foster a personal appreciation for the importance of Matan Torah?

        The Talmud records a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua as to the most appropriate way to celebrate Jewish holidays. According to Rabbi Eliezer a person’s Yom Tov can be either spiritually focused- with an emphasis on prayer and Torah learning; or physically focused, with an emphasis on eating and drinking. Rabbi Yehoshua believes that the holidays should be evenly split between physical and spiritual pursuits.

        Comes Rabbi Elazar and says:
“Hakol Modim Ba’Atzeret Deba’inan Nami Lachem.”

        On Shavuot, everyone agrees that there must be some focus on the physical- ie eating and drinking. This seems counter-intuitive. If anything, I would have thought that on the day on which we receive the Torah, we should de-emphasize the physical and focus more on the spiritual elements of the holiday.

        Rabbi Elazar is teaching us a key to personalizing Matan Torah. We are better off for receiving the Torah, and to demonstrate that we are encouraged to indulge in physical enjoyment on Shavuot to reinforce the association between Torah and pleasure.

        It is through personalizing the experience of Matan Torah, putting the “You” in Shavuot, that we are able to fully celebrate this Yom Tov.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Jerusalem: The Gratitude and the Prayer

On Israel Independence Day 1967 two things happened which now seem like prophecies. In the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook gave an historic speech in which he lamented: "Where is our Hebron, where is our Shechem?” And that night, at the Israeli Song Festival, an unknown singer named Shuli Natan got up and sang for the first time what would later become Israel's all-time favorite song – Naomi Shemer's "Jerusalem of Gold - Yerushalayim Shel Zahav" which stirred the hearts of an entire country with longing to return to Jerusalem's Old City and the Temple Mount.

Just three weeks later, Hebron, the Old City, and the heartland of Biblical Israel, were suddenly and miraculously restored to the Jewish People.

                Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, celebrating the 52nd anniversary of the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.  As a Floridian, I am especially proud this week as Governor Ron DeSantis, while making good on his campaign promise to visit Israel on his first foreign trip, made history by convening a Cabinet meeting in the US Embassy in Jerusalem.  Earlier this year, the Florida Cabinet issued a proclamation declaring Jerusalem as “Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.”

                On the same day that Florida’s Cabinet met in Jerusalem, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif made the news with his most recent untrue tweet: “Al-Quds (Jerusalem) is neither America's to give away nor Israel's to take.” I partially agree with Zarif, in that Israel cannot take Jerusalem, for you cannot take something that already belongs to you. We must call out those who espouse untrue histories about Israel and Jerusalem. Specifically we must push back on and reject the narrative that the Jewish right to Israel is a result of the Holocaust. The Jewish claims to Israel and Jerusalem go back 4,000 years (when God promised the Land to Avraham), not 75 years.

                David Ben Gurion once said, “If a land can have a soul, Jerusalem is the soul of the Land of Israel.” Throughout the 2,000 years of Jewish exile and dispersal, the Jewish People never forgot Jerusalem. In the immediate aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction, 2,500 years ago, the author of Psalm 137 declared, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This quote has remained relevant and the lived experience of Jews ever since.

                As happy as we are to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, it is also a time to note that the full potential of Jerusalem has yet to be realized. In Tehillim 122 we note

Yerushalayim Habenuyah k’ir shechubra la yachdav
The built-up city of Jerusalem is like a city that is united

Jerusalem continues to be built-up. As much as I love visiting that which already exists in Jerusalem, I am always excited to count the number of cranes one sees across the Jerusalem skyline. And yet the city still lacks a unity among its inhabitants: secular and religious, and even differences within the religious Jewish communities.

                Today on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Muslims are free to worship, but Jews and Christians are barred from praying on that site. Yet In Isaiah (56:7) the prophet refers to a future time when the Temple Mount will be available for prayer for all nations, as it was in the days of the Beit Hamikdash
כִּ֣י בֵיתִ֔י בֵּית־תְּפִלָּ֥ה יִקָּרֵ֖א לְכָל־הָֽעַמִּֽים:
for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples
                On Yom Yerushalayim let us express our gratitude for our connection and access to Jerusalem today, even as we pray for the realization of Jerusalem’s full potential in the future.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Observing Memorial Day

Recently our son Eitan asked both Rebecca and me questions about Memorial Day, observed this coming Monday. He had learned about Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and he wanted to understand how Memorial Day in the US compared/ differed with Yom Hazikaron in Israel. Specifically he was curious to understand why sales at stores, which he heard about on TV and radio commercials, were connected to Memorial Day, and how shopping was an appropriate way to mark the day.

Memorial Day in America has a fascinating history. In May 1868, General John A. Logan, the commander-in-chief of the Union veterans’ group known as the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30th should become a nationwide day of commemoration for the more than 620,000 soldiers killed in the recently ended Civil War. On Decoration Day, as Logan dubbed it, Americans should lay flowers and decorate the graves of the war dead “whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”

According to legend, Logan chose May 30 because it was a rare day that didn’t fall on the anniversary of a Civil War battle, though some historians believe the date was selected to ensure that flowers across the country would be in full bloom.

Although the term Memorial Day was used beginning in the 1880s, the holiday was officially known as Decoration Day for more than a century, when it was changed by federal law. Four years later, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 finally went into effect, moving Memorial Day from its traditional observance on May 30 (regardless of the day of the week), to a set day—the last Monday in May. The move has not been without controversy. Veterans groups, concerned that more Americans associate the holiday with the first long weekend of the summer and not its intended purpose to honor the nation’s war dead, continue to lobby for a return to the May 30 observance. For more than 20 years their cause was championed by Hawaiian Senator—and decorated World War II veteran—Daniel Inouye, who until his 2012 death reintroduced legislation in support of the change at the start of every Congressional term.

It seems that it was when Memorial Day was shifted to Monday that it became more closely associated with shopping and barbecues, and less observed as a solemn day of remembrance.
I believe that there are other factors at play that cause us, as a community and as a country, to downplay the solemnity of Memorial Day. First, most of us are detached from the military and the US soldiers serving and protecting us. In Israel, every citizen is expected to serve in the IDF. Military service and sacrifice are embedded in the country’s psyche. Here in America many of us don’t personally know any active-duty military. Military service can seem like something that other people do, but does not affect or impact us personally. Another factor that desensitizes us to the solemnity of Memorial Day is that we take our freedom and our safety for granted, when really it is in large part due to the efforts of the brave men and women who serve in our armed forces.

In 2000 the U.S. Congress passed legislation that all Americans are encouraged to pause for a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time on Monday. This Memorial Day, let us take a moment to appreciate the service and sacrifice that allows Jewish communities like ours to thrive in America. We can utilize Memorial Day as a springboard to being more grateful and more aware of our role and responsibilities as members of society and citizens of this country.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Only Jews Have the Burden of Being "Adam"

The story is told that on one occasion the local Catholic bishop commented to Hagaon Reb Yitschok Elchanan Spector that one of the major causes of anti-Semitism was the Talmudic statement that "Atem kruyim adam ve'ein umos ha'olam keruyim adam". This statement is found in regards to ritual purity and literally means: “You (Jews) are called Adam (man) but the other nations of the world are not referred to as Adam”. The bishop argued that if the Jews do not consider non-Jews to be human beings, how could Jews expect anything less than animosity from non-Jews?

Reb Yitschok Elchanan explained to the bishop that he had not properly understood the Talmudic statement. What the Rabbis mean to say was the following: In Biblical Hebrew there are four terms for a person - ish, enosh, gever, and adam. The first three terms have a different form when used in the plural (anashim, gevarim). The last term - adam - remains the same even when used to refer to many people.

With respect to any other individual who murders, steals, or acts improperly, we do not say that his/her behavior is representative of the entire nation. We would say that that individual is bad, but the rest of the nation as a whole is basically good. We distinguish between gever (in the singular) and gevarim (in the plural); between ish (in the singular) and anashim (in the plural). But with respect to the individual Jew, we call him adam, used for both the singular and the plural, as a declaration that an individual Jew is in some way representative of the entire Jewish People. Only regarding the Jews is there a principle that "kol Yisroel areivim zeh lazeh", ie that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that the action/behavior of one Jew reflects on all of us. This application of nationhood only applies to the Jews: "Mi keamcha Yisroel goy echad ba'aretz"; other peoples are called "mishpachot ha'adamah" (families of the earth).

This is why Chilul and Kiddush Hashem can be performed by non-Jews as well, although the stakes are much higher for us Jews. Towards the end of Chapter 22 in Parshat Emor we read:
וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel.

Within this phrase are two of the most important concepts in the Torah: Chilul and Kiddush Hashem. Our job is to bring G-dliness into this world, to be walking advertisements for Hashem, the Torah and the Jewish way of life. We must be careful not to do anything to undermine our efforts - which may lead to a decrease in the respect for and acknowledgement of Hashem, aka Chilul Hashem. We must always seek opportunities to create Kiddush Hashem. And we must realize that the unity of the Jewish People is both a gift and a responsibility. It is a gift because it provides us with a sense of identity and belonging. Anywhere a Jew goes s/he can enter a shul and feel a level of familiarity and comfort. We support Jews in our community and around the globe simply because they are part of the Jewish People. But this unity also connects each Jew to the community in a most profound way, such that each of our actions - for better or for worse, reflect on Am Yisrael. It is a serious responsibility, but one that we are up to, and one that pays incredible dividends.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Dr. Chaim Saiman noted on Facebook that American Modern Orthodox schools and shuls are the last places that still associate Yom Haatzmaut / Israel with falafel. Many view falafel as the national food of Israel. However, according to Vered Guttman, falafel most likely originated in Egypt (though others claim it comes from India), where it is called ta’amiya and is made from fava beans. Jews who lived in Egypt and Syria where exposed to falafel for centuries. Falafel was made popular in Israel by Yemeni Jews in the 1950s. They brought with them the chickpea version of the dish from Yemen and introduced the concept of serving falafel balls in pita bread. Due to its popularity, falafel is sometimes called Israel’s national food. However Israel’s food scene is much more diverse than just falafel. That’s why the Israeli Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs has asked Israelis to explain to people abroad that Israel has plenty more to offer, and that Israelis do not eat falafel and hummus three times a day.

                Today Israel has a flourishing International culinary cuisine scene. Anyone who has been to the Machane Yehudah market in Jerusalem after dark knows that to be true.  As I learned in the Kahoot online trivia game that Rav James prepared for Yom Haatzmaut, Israel has the third most sushi restaurants per capita, only behind Tokyo and New York. Israeli citizens come from 100 countries of origin, and the food scene in Israel reflects this fact. Even the way an Israel’s national food is served speaks to the “ingathering of exiles” in Israel:  a typical falafel sandwich may be served with Israeli salad, hummus, German sauerkraut, Iraqi fried eggplant, pickled mango sauce, Yemeni hot sauce and French fries.

                In Israel grilled meats are the most popular way to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut. In a recent article in the Times of Israel, food anthropologist Prof. Nir Avieli tried to explain this phenomenon.  Avieli is a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, and he is an expert on the history and politics of food.

“Meat is the ultimate expression of power and control,” says Avieli, explaining mankind’s obsession with its favorite protein. “You take a knife and slaughter a living thing. You take its life and put it into your own body. Also, there is an assumption among human beings that if you eat meat, you are taking its power into yourself. These are beliefs that have a nutritional basis as well, but it’s mostly a social issue.”

Also, Avieli notes that throughout history, eating fire-roasted meat was a rare thing, limited to the wealthy and powerful. “Roasting meat is something that rich people do. If you take a kilogram of meat and cook it in 10 liters (roughly 2.6 gallons) of water, you get dozens of portions of soup. If you roast the cut over the fire, it shrinks, loses about half of its weight, and is enough for maybe two or three people.”

                As we reflect on Israel at 71 we note with pride the country’s strengths: military and economic, but also intellectual and religious and in the realm of global social activism. Whether you celebrated Yom Haatzmaut this year with falafel or a barbecue (or both like we did at YIH), let us reflect on the success of the State of Israel after 71 years and pray for her future achievement, safety, growth and peace.