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.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A Time to Be Silent; A Time To Speak Up

The beginning of Parshat Acharei Mot references the death of Aharon’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu. This tragic story was originally told in Parshat Shemini. There we read the response of Aharon in the aftermath of his sons’ deaths (10:3): “Vayidom Aharon” “and Aharon was silent.” In the face of personal tragedy, silence is often the most prudent and appropriate response. There are no words; no words to explain why the tragedy occurred, nor words that can adequately comfort the bereaved.
While the default response to a private tragedy is silence, this is not the case when a tragedy occurs that impacts the Jewish People. In such a case we must speak out to remember the victims, commit to not forgetting, and resolve to respond in a way that is both healing and constructive.

The shooting at the Chabad of Poway is an example of a tragedy for the Jewish People. Last Shabbat, the last day of Pesach, a gunman entered the synagogue as the congregation was preparing to recite Yizkor. He opened fire and killed Lori Gilbert Kaye, age 60. He then shot at Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Rabbi Goldstein stuck out his hands to block the gunman, at which point he was shot in the fingers, losing his index finger. The gunman then shot 8 year old Noya Dahan and her uncle Almog Peretz. According to Noya the gunman was aiming at the children.

Lori was murdered because she is a Jew. She died Al Kiddush Hashem. We mourn her death as a tragedy for the entire Jewish People, and we offer condolences to her husband, her daughter and the entire Chabad of Poway community. Since this was a national tragedy, the proper response is not silence but rather to speak up and speak out. First we must follow the heroic model of Rabbi Goldstein. This is what he said about the moments after the shooting, in a piece he wrote:

The ambulances had not yet arrived. We all gathered outside. I don’t remember all that I said to my community, but I do remember quoting a passage from the Passover Seder liturgy: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” And I remember shouting the words “Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel live!” I have said that line hundreds of times in my life. But I have never felt the truth of it more than I did then.

In the aftermath of this type of tragedy we cannot be silent. We must use our voices in at least two ways. First, we must denounce Anti-Semitism regardless of where or who it is coming from. We must also clarify that Anti-Israel and Anti-Zionist sentiment is usually poorly veiled expressions of Anti-Semitism.  Second we must use our voices to express our pride in living lives of Jewish values and Jewish observance. As Rabbi Goldstein wrote in that same piece:

From here on in I am going to be more brazen. I am going to be even more proud about walking down the street wearing my tzitzit and kippah, acknowledging God’s presence. And I’m going to use my voice until I am hoarse to urge my fellow Jews to do Jewish. To light candles before Shabbat. To put up mezuzas on their doorposts. To do acts of kindness. And to show up in synagogue — especially this coming Shabbat.