Friday, October 19, 2018

The Responsibility of the Gift

The greatest gift of our generation that the Jewish people have experienced has arguably been the rebirth of Jewish life in its ancestral homeland. The population in the land of Israel currently stands at about 8.5 million of which well over 6 million people are Jews. Besides all the modern advances the modern Jewish state has made in areas of medicine, science and hi-tech, it has one of the advanced militaries in the world. There has been a spiritual rebirth in the land as well. There are more people studying Torah and davening in the Land of Israel for the first time in over two thousand years. Our people have prayed for a return to Zion for thousands of years and it is being realized in our lifetime. Of course, we continue to pray for the complete redemption with the arrival of the Mashiach and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But for now, we are grateful to G-d for the special gift of the Land of Israel and our ability to access the land.

Sadly, the legitimate presence of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland continued to get challenged and contested. The so-called “international community” frequently condemns the ability of Jews to purchase or build homes. It is noteworthy that it was considered a news item that the Israeli government approved a new Jewish neighborhood inChevron. The government approved for the construction of 31 homes, two kindergartens, a daycare center and a public park in the Hezekiah Quarter of Chevron. This was followed by a blanket condemnation by much of the world. Some Jewish organizations joined the opportunity to condemn the action of homes and day care center going up in a residential neighborhood. Indeed, there was a leader of a high profile Jewish organization that was invited to speak at the United Nations Security Council to condemn the building of residential areas in certain parts of Israel.

With all this in the background, it is important to recall the commentary of the first Rashi in the Torah. He writes that the primary purpose of studying the book of Bereishis/Genesis is to teach about the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel. In this weeks parsha, we study that G-d promised our ancestor Avraham that this land will belong to his decsendants. Immediately afterwards we find that he called out in the name of G-d. Our rabbis have taught that Avraham lived his life as an ambassador for G-d. the conduct and everyday dealings of Avraham reflected Godliness and people were eager to connect with G-d because Avraham was such a great role model. This drives home an important lesson that we know of but need to remind ourselves periodically. With privileges come responsibilities. The privilege of living in the Land of Israel comes with the responsibility of being the most effective ambassadors for Hashem. Let us pray that our generation lives up to this great challenge.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Is this an Appropriate after a Terrible Tragedy?

As we approach Tisha B’av once again it is important to recall and reflect on what tragic events occurred on this day. One of the calamities that occurred was the fall of Beitar. It is not a really well known story, so it’s important to review what occurred.

Following the destruction of the Temple, there were remnants of Jews throughout Israel and waged a rebellion against the Roman Occupation. After many years of hostility and oppression, the Jews were led by a dynamic and heroic leader who managed to keep the mighty Roman Army at bay for nearly three years.

Bar Kochba organized a large guerilla army and succeeded in actually throwing the Romans out of Jerusalem and Israel and establishing, albeit for a very brief period, an independent Jewish state. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b) states that he established an independent kingdom that lasted for two and half years.

At the time, however, Bar Kochba ― who was a man of tremendous leadership abilities ― managed to unite the entire Jewish people around him. Bar Kochba initially was effective in uniting the factions and the Jews were a force to be reckoned with. They overran the Romans, threw them out of the land of Israel, declared independence and even minted coins. The Romans pushed back and began to supress the Jewish rebellion. Bar Kochba made his final stand in the city of Betar, which is to the southwest of Jerusalem. You can go visit it today, thought ancient Betar has not been excavated. The Talmud (in Gittin 57a) relates what happened in Betar:

They had the custom in Betar that when a baby boy was born they planted a cedar tree and for a baby girl they planted a pine tree, and when they would marry they would cut them down and make a marriage canopy of the branches. One day the daughter of Caesar was passing and the shaft of her litter broke. They cut down a cedar and brought it to her. The Jews of Betar fell upon them and beat them. They reported to Caesar that the Jews were rebelling and marched against them... they killed [Jewish] men, women and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea... It was taught that for seven years the gentiles cultivated their vineyards with the blood of Israel without requiring manure for fertilization.

The city fell on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar ― the 9th of Av of the year 135, the same date as both the First and the Second Temple fell.

The Romans, in their fury, did not want to allow the Jewish bodies to be buried; they wanted to leave them out in the open to rot. According to tradition, the bodies lay in the open for months but did not rot. Today, when Jews say the Grace after Meals, Birkat HaMazon, they add a special blessing (ha tov u'mativ) as a way of thanking God for this act of mercy in Betar.

Many have wondered about the appropriateness of the blessing of Hatov U’mativ which literally means that G-d is good and bestows good. True, the bodies didn't compose after so many Jew were killed in the battlefield at the hands of the Romans. However, it was a gruesome defeat which was the final nail in the coffin that the Romans nailed in and pretty much wiped out the Jewish presence from the Land of Israel for many hundreds of years. Is this the time to start praising G-d for being good and bestowing kindness??

The Meshech Cochma provides a fascinating insight into this. After the defeat of Bar Kochba and the Jews in Beitar, the obituary on Klal Yisroel was being circulated throughout the world. After all, the mighty Roman Empire had destroyed the mighty Jewish Temple and displaced the Jews into exile. The last hurrah that was waged by Bar Kochba in Beitar was squashed and there was simply no way that Jews would have any future. It seemed that G-d had finally abandoned the Jews and we would be relegated into the dustbin of history. Sometime later when they noticed the bodies didn’t decompose after several months, they realized there was a larger message beyond this specific incident. It was a sign from G-d in arguably the darkest chapter of Jewish history, that despite the terrible defeat and destruction, the Jewish people would continue to endure and see brighter days ahead. That is the deeper message of this blessing of HaTov U’mativ.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gift for Our Generation

This week will mark a major historic milestone as Israel and Jews around the world celebrate the 70th anniversary of the creation of the modern Jewish state. For thousands of years, Jews around the world fantasized about the reality that exists today. Our liturgy is replete with the theme to return to Zion and Jerusalem. Every monumental event from the conclusion of the Pesach Seder to the newly married couple standing under the chuppah, the prayer to return to Jerusalem has been etched on the lips of our ancestor for generations. The prophecy in the Book of Zecharia that foretold that “Old men and women shall dwell in the streets of Jerusalem and that the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets”, has turned into reality. For the first time in two thousand years, there is a stronger presence than ever of Torah Study, Observance of Mitzvos and vibrant Jewish life. Not to mention all the modern advances in the area of science, healthcare and security innovations. The list can go on and on. The Jews that are not fortunate to live in the Land of Israel still have the opportunity to visit with relative ease in contrast to earlier generations. It would be disappointing if the marking of this important date was met with a shrug or just eating a falafel. As with all gifts in life, we must express our thanks to G-d for the great privilege of making Israel a home for the Jewish People in our lifetime.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Mitzvah To Remember

Every year on the Shabbos before Purim we read Parshas Zachor. The Torah commands us never to forget the evils of Amaleik and the atrocities it attempted to inflict upon the Jews as they departed from Egypt. It does seem a bit unusual to be commanded to remember an event. Isn't this event noteworthy in our story as a people that it wouldn't be forgotten, irrespective if there is a mitzvah to remember?

One of the blessings of Jewish life for the last few decades particularly here in the United States has been the relative peace that we have been privileged to enjoy. As with many privileges and blessings in life, there is one glaring downside. That is the feeling of complacency that has crept into our lives. With complacency comes a tendency to forget some of the difficult memories of the past. We have been rudely reminded of that in recent times with the Polish Government outlawing any mention of Polish involvement in the Holocaust. It has been disturbing to watch some of the indifference in reaction to this new law. It is not just the memory of the past that needs to be remembered, but as we say in the Haggadah “in every generation, there is a group that seeks to annihilate us.” The first step in not letting the ugly past repeat itself is by ensuring that our history is not forgotten. Let us be particularly mindful of the mitzvah of Zachor this Shabbos.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Pure Foundation

The first Jewish fundraising campaign is found in this weeks parsha. The Israelites are told to bring forward raw materials for the construction of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. With a Super Walmart or Home Depot that was not around the corner, where did they procure all the materials for the building of the Mishkan? The precious metals such as gold, silver, and copper were part of the spoils that came with them from Egypt. They were quite resourceful in securing all the rest of the materials that included the fine fabrics. There was one notable exception to this. The Atzei Shittim/Acacia Wood came from Israel. Rashi elaborates with the details. A couple of centuries prior to this event when Yaakov was relocating to Egypt from Israel, he made it his business for this wood to be transported to Egypt for the eventual construction of the Mishkan. It seems to be quite a lesson in advanced planning. Why was it necessary for Yaakov to shlep all this wood down to Egypt for an event two hundred years into the future? Were there other materials that were perhaps also worthy of such attention?

The Atzei Shittim/Acacia wood was primarily used for the construction of the beams. The wood functioned quite literally as the foundation of the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Yaakov was teaching us a profound lesson. In regards to most things one can be creative and under the appropriate circumstances even compromise on certain things. However, in regards to the foundation, it must always emanate from a pure source, and one cannot compromise on a foundational issue. The Mishkan was the structure in which the Israelites come to connect as a people to connect with G-d, and that is why our ancestors took great pains to bring the wood from the Holy Land for this purpose. Our Rabbis have taught that each individual is a Mishkan in the sense that there is a divine spark within everyone. That is our foundation of who we are as people. Let us treat it with the honor and respect a holy foundation deserves.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Who's Contributing The Other Half ?

As we are on the cusp of the month of Adar, we once again read the parsha of Shekalim this Shabbos. This was the directive that G-d communicated to Moshe that Israelites contribute a half shekel for this national campaign. This campaign had a dual purpose. Firstly, the donated silver was ultimately melted and used for the construction of the mishkan/tabernacle. It  was also done for the purpose of the first national census. Instead of counting heads, we were told to contribute a half shekel coin. However many coins were counted was the amount of people that were accounted for in the census.

I have often wondered, why couldn’t everyone just contribute a shekel ? Was there any reason for the frugality here ? After all the proceeds went to the construction of the mishkan/tabernacle  and the more funds collected would just make this fundraising campaign that more successful ?

Upon reflection, the half shekel contribution does teach us a great lesson. It reflects the notion that although each and every individual is valuable and significant we are only part of something that is much greater than the sum of all of our parts. Klal Yisroel is not just a collection of individuals. Rather, we are a nation in which each tribe uniquely contributes in a way which cannot be duplicated. Everyone has a special purpose and mission. Unfortunately, we tend to hear how one individual or group disparages another and claims the other contributions are unworthy. Yet, as we know the Kohanim, Levites and Israelites all contributed into weaving the larger tapestry of Klal Yisroel. This fundamental lesson manifests itself precisely with the contribution of the half shekel. Let’s remember there are other Jews that contribute a half shekel in their own unique way.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Most Important Top Ten List

For some reason, the term “ Top 10” has become a defining way to communicate the most valuable moments. From Top Ten plays of the Super Bowl to Top Ten sports bloopers of all time, we frequently evaluate important events that way. In fact, the first “Top Ten” is recorded in this week's parsha of curse with the Ten Commandments. This is arguably the most important event in the history of mankind. This is the moment when G-d communicates His message of what it means to be a chosen people for a unique and chosen mission. This was not just delivered to one individual, prophet or rabbi. Rather this was a national experience that every man, woman, and child heard on that fateful day at Mount Sinai. It all started with the deafening words “  I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt.” Many have wondered about the latter part of the verse which references the Exodus of Egypt. After all, is that isolated incident, the greatest accomplishment that G-d could come up with? What about something more universal as “I am the Lord your G-d who created heaven and earth”?

Upon taking a closer look at the verse, there is a very profound lesson for us to internalize. G-d is telling us that He took us out of Egypt, but to be more precise He is saying that in the singular tense; I took YOU out of Egypt. Translation: I took you out of your difficult situation and state of confinement. This was not only ancient Egypt that we were emancipated from but rather during every difficult personal situation, He is there for us. Essentially, we are being told, “ I am you personal G-d who wants a personal relationship with you.” This cannot be overemphasized about the importance of our faith. To paraphrase the sage Hillel, This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary which you must go and study.

People Love Dead Jews

People Love Dead Jews. Dara Horn authored this book with this provocative title. Society is fascinated with the death of Jews but cares lit...