Thursday, June 27, 2019

Lessons from Entebbe

July 4th marks the 43rd anniversary of Operation Entebbe. On June 27, 1976 an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked after a stopover in Athens. The 247 passengers and 12 crew members were flown to Entebbe, Uganda. The hijackers were from a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The situation took a dark and ominous turn when soon after arriving at Entebbe, the non-Israeli passengers were separated from the Israelis, and then released. Besides the Israelis and the crew, all other Jews on the plane were also kept hostage, even if they were not Israeli nationals. (Remember this the next time someone makes the ridiculous claim that being anti-Zionistic is not the same as being anti-Semitic.)

Back in Israel plans for the rescue mission were being devised. The military officer in charge of planning this mission was Ehud Barak, who would later become Prime Minister of Israel.  The Prime Minister at the time, Yitzchak Rabin, was under tremendous pressure to ensure the safe release of the hostages – even if it meant negotiating with terrorists. PM Rabin finally gave the orders to embark on the rescue mission. The actual mission is the stuff of movies- in fact, three different movies.

The rescue mission was a success. All of the hijackers were killed, 102 hostages freed. But one Israeli soldier was killed during the operation- Yoni Netanyahu.  Soon the phone would ring in the home of Yoni’s brother, a young man then called Ben Nitay. Ben was studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The career shift of Yoni’s brother, current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the most visible legacy of that mission, but the impact of Entebbe is felt in other ways too. The PLO stopped hijacking planes and Idi Amin was overthrown, both results can be traced back to the Entebbe mission. The US military man in charge of the operation to capture and kill Osama bin Laden in 2011 was Admiral William McRaven, the author of a detailed study of the raid on Entebbe.
There are many lessons that emerge from Operation Entebbe. For us on Shabbat Parshat Shelach, two of those lessons stand out:

First, the Entebbe mission teaches us that enemies of Israel may be able to hurt and impede us, but nothing and no-one can prevent Jewish destiny from being realized. This was the mistake of the spies. After travelling the land, 10 of the 12 spies came back with negative reports about the Land of Israel. If we look closely at what they report, it is possible that their report is all factually correct. The inhabitants of the land were indeed giants. The cities were in fact fortified.  And yes, it was going to be hard to conquer the Land. But even though they may have been right about all of these details, the spies were still wrong- in their unwillingness to factor into their equation the Hand of God and Jewish destiny. As ben Gurion once quipped, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
Second, the Entebbe rescue mission demonstrated Israeli risk taking and initiative. As one military analyst noted, the fact that the Entebbe mission was a success was not surprising; the Ugandans were outmatched in all ways according to all opinions. What was impressive was the “guts” demonstrated by Israeli leadership in ordering the command to do the right thing and get the job done. This is the lesson that we can learn from Yehoshua and Kalev in our Parsha. These two spies understood the role of Divine intervention and Jewish destiny. They are forever remembered for their willingness to show the courage and resolve to speak up and to say what was unpopular and what most people did not want to hear (neither their fellow spies nor Bnai Yisrael).

Let us take a moment this July 4th to remember the lessons from Entebbe- especially those that intersect with the story of the Meraglim: The need to take risks, engage in bold initiatives, say things that at times may be unpopular, and do what needs to be done. At the same time, we must never underestimate the Yad Hashem, the role of God in the unfolding Jewish story. It is Jewish determination coupled with faith in God that assures that Am Yisrael Chai.

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.