Thursday, May 09, 2019

Loving Israel Isn't Dual Loyalty

An op-ed on the dual loyalty libel and Zionism, in today's Daily News.

".....I also celebrate Israel as a proud American, because the values of the United States are the values of Israel. It is an outpost of democracy in the Middle East, where Jews, Muslims and Christians are elected to Parliament in free and fair elections. It is the only country in the region with a Supreme Court that enforces the rule of law, and where the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ community are respected. Israel is a loyal ally to the United States; intelligence sharing between the United States and Israel has helped strengthen our country, and Israeli military innovation has saved the lives of American soldiers. To love Israel is to embrace an ally that shares our values..."

Monday, April 29, 2019

How to Say Never Again, Again

"......It is agonizing to have say never again, again and again. Whenever an anti-Semitic attack occurs around the world, Jewish communal institutions scramble to put out statements.  Unfortunately, with no shortage of attacks, statements have become a ritual, each with their own vocabulary and style. The organization starts out by declaring that it is “devastated,” “horrified,” and “shocked” by the attack........" for more, click here

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Siyum to Chullin 2019

Tractate Chullin ends with the following words:
אמר רב יוסף אלמלא דרשיה אחר להאי קרא כרבי יעקב בר ברתיה לא חטא מאי חזא איכא דאמרי כי האי מעשה חזא ואיכא דאמרי לישנא דרבי חוצפית המתורגמן חזא דהוה מוטלת באשפה אמר פה שהפיק מרגליות ילחוך עפר והוא לא ידע למען ייטב לך בעולם שכלו טוב ולמען יאריכון ימיך בעולם שכולו ארוך:
Rav Yosef said: Had Aḥer, literally Other, the appellation of the former Sage Elisha ben Avuya, interpreted homiletically this aforementioned verse: “That it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16), as referring to the World-to-Come, as did Rabbi Ya’akov, the son of his daughter, he would not have sinned. The Gemara asks: What did Aḥer see that led him to heresy? Some say that he saw an incident like this one witnessed by Rabbi Ya’akov, and some say that he saw the tongue of Rabbi Ḥutzpit the disseminator, which was cast in a garbage dump after he was executed by the government. Aḥer said: Will a mouth that produced pearls of wisdom lick the dust? But he did not know that the phrase “that it may be well with you” means in the world where all is well, and that the phrase “that your days may be long” is referring to the world that is entirely long.
As I have mentioned in previous siyumim, the end of the Mesechet is often a reflection on everything before it. So how does this final piece reflect back on Tractate Chullin?

The entirety of Chullin is focused on proper slaughter, on how to take the life of an animal in an ethical, spiritual, dignified way.

The last words of Chullin wonder if those very rules apply to God and celestial retinue when they take the lives of mankind. Elisha ben Avuyah, the famed Rabbi, is turned to heresy because of two tragic incidents.

One is the tongue of Huzpit the interpreter, which is found in the garbage dump. This of course is itself impossible to comprehend; the very interpreter, who can explicate so much to so many, suffers a demise that is inexplicable. Yet this indignity signals something larger: the Talmud (12a) says only a non-kosher animal would be tossed into the garbage dump. In metaphorical sense, it tells us the death of Hutzpit was not done in a kosher manner. (the other version of this story, in Kiddushin, has a pig dragging the tongue; again, only a non-kosher carcass was tossed to the animals, and here, to make the association stronger, it is specifically  the ultimate non-kosher animal carrying Hutzpit’s tongue)

The other case mentioned is found earlier in the passage:

“there was one whose father said to him: Climb to the top of the building and bring me fledglings; and he climbed to the top of the building and sent away the mother bird and took the offspring,thereby simultaneously fulfilling the mitzva to send away the mother bird from the nest and the mitzva to honor one’s parents, but as he returned he fell and died.”

Here too, the rules of Halacha are not observed by the Angel of Death. The mother bird must be sent before taking the child; but here, just within his father’s reach, the son’s life is taken away.

Clearly, the Talmud ends with the discomfiting reminder that the laws of ethical slaughter aren’t observed by the Angel of Death. And this puzzle has led Acher to leave the fold.

Despite this puzzle, the Talmud ends on a positive note: in the future, there will be a reckoning, and the accounts will be properly balanced. And to do this, they offer a powerful exhibit: Acher’s own grandson. Acher saw no future for a Jewish people that was pulverized by the brutal tortures of the Romans; yet his own grandson, Acher's very future, can explain the inexplicable, and maintain a sense of optimism about the future. But this salvation has nothing to do with death, ethical or otherwise, but rather comes from those who courageously hold on to life and faith.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

What Happened to Dov? Yom Kippur Sermon 2018

“The one thing I was certain of was that the world would never be the same”. Twenty one year old Haim Sabato goes to the battlefront in the Yom Kippur War, brimming with confidence. Israel had defeated the Syrian army in just six days a few years earlier, he had gotten a blessing the previous night from an elderly Chassidic Rebbe, and he was traveling together with his childhood best friend and study partner, Dov Indig. Haim expects everything will follow according to plan; the good guys will win, the righteous will be protected, and he and Dov will continue to study Talmud and Bible together. In “Adjusting Sights”, published in 1999, Sabato relates what happens next.

As Dov and Haim arrive in the Golan, panic and disorder meet them at the door of their bus. Even though they had always been in the same tank, desperate commanders were grabbing soldiers right off the buses adding them to makeshift crews. Haim goes with one crew, Dov with another, and enter into one of the most violent tank battles in the history of warfare. Haim’s crew is saved from certain death at the last moment; but Dov never returns from battle.

The rest of the book is filled with Haim’s singular quest to find out “what happened to Dov?”. Haim has lost his best friend, and in his grief, searches for a way to reconcile his own optimistic faith with an ugly, ungodly world that can instantly claim the life of a righteous man like Dov.

I read Adjusting Sights during a painful period in my own rabbinate. In the course of 18 months, I had officiated at 6 tragic funerals: A 9 year old who died of an aneurysm, a 27 year old newlywed who died after routine surgery, and four young people in the thirties with cancer. The pain that these families endured was indescribable.  As a Rabbi and a friend, I felt like I had nothing at all to offer the mourners. Answers? There is no such thing. Optimism? It is deeply insensitive to offer positive thinking to the victims of tragedy. As a Rabbi I felt like a fraud; as a human being, I felt insecure.

I was lost. 

As I sought to regain my bearings, I was pulled in two directions: towards life and towards death. Yes, they are opposite directions; but in many ways, they actually complement each other.

The Jewish instinct, honed through generations of persecution, is to immediately grab hold of life. Even the first shiva meal is a reminder to look for life. The tradition is that this meal is brought to the mourner by their neighbors. A 16th century Rabbi, Yehoshua Falk, writes[1]  that the reason we bring the mourners this first meal is because “the mourner is in grief and torment over their deceased, and doesn’t think about eating…..therefore we command him to eat the meal brought to him by others”.

One of the most painful things a mourner has to reconcile with is that life in the future is now a life without. Swallowed up in grief, eating seems pointless, a waystation to futility. Then neighbors arrive with plates of food, a gentle reminder that even in grief you cannot escape friendship. The community does its best to support the heartbroken until they are ready to turn to, and return to, life.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees this idea as central to the theology of Judaism.  In 1944, Rav Soloveitchik, who was then 41, published Halakhic Man, where he emphasizes the Jewish focus on life. He writes “Judaism abhors bids one to choose life and sanctify it. Authentic Judaism...sees death a terrifying contradiction to the whole of religious life[2].”. Rabbi Soloveitchik adds that his father, grandfather and great grandfather, all prominent Rabbis, never visited cemeteries because it would have distracted them from their mission to pursue life.

During the dark years of exile, while struggling against the forces of hatred, Jewish communities always turned to life; when struggling for survival, a community doesn’t have the luxury of self pity. Israel’s response to the intifada is a powerful example of this. Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, two journalists who wrote about their years in Israel between 2000-2007 explain that: "We were consistently amazed at how quickly Israelis returned to places that had been bombed. The police, the rescue teams and the cleanup crews restored a bomb site to an outward semblance of normality within hours of an attack. Debris was swept out. Hoses washed away blood from the sidewalk. Shattered windows were replaced. The yellow police tape came down.…. For Israelis, combating terror is not just a security question. It's a social, cultural and psychological issue and the whole country is required to play its role. It's often measured in small deeds, like going back to a favorite cafe after an attack[3].”

This communal resilience has allowed  Israel to survive through an unending barrage of attacks. Prof. Dov Waxman has said that: “Despite experiencing numerous traumatic events during the second Intifada, which should logically cause progressively more psychological damage, the rate of PTSD symptoms among the Israeli population remained at a fairly low level…..The concept of social resilience, therefore, helps explains why Israeli society was not demoralized by repeated terrorist attacks, despite the serious effects these attacks had on Israelis….”[4]

Jews throughout history have coped by turning to life. But there is one problem; it simply doesn’t work when staring into the face of the Angel of Death.

Fifteen years after writing Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik faced colon cancer. (He was diagnosed just a few weeks  before his daughter’s wedding).  In a later essay[5], he describes his emotions:

The night preceding my operation I prayed to God and beseeched Him to spare me, I did not ask for too much. All I wanted was that He should make it possible for me to attend my daughter's wedding, which was postponed on account of my illness—a very modest wish in comparison with my insane claims to life prior my sickness. The fantastic flights of human foolishness and egocentrism was distant from me that night…..

This frightening diagnosis changed everything for Rav Soloveitchik. Desperately bargaining for a chance to go to his daughter’s wedding, he learns that the most profound lessons about life are learnt in death’s shadow. He writes that:

“When one's perspective is shifted from the illusion of eternity to the reality of temporality, one finds peace of mind and relief from other worries, from his petty fears and from absurd stresses and nonsensical nightmares. ... At the root of our restlessness lies a distorted conception of ourselves as immortal beings. ... Man sees himself in the mirror of immortality. Hence his desires, dreams, ambitions and visions assume absolute significance, and any frustrating experience may break man. When one frees himself from this obsession, his perspective becomes coherent and his suffering bearable.”

While battling cancer, Rav Soloveitchik is not given the option of “abhorring death”; instead he finds a way to live in the valley of the shadow of death, and finds renewed inspiration to live from death itself.

Yom Kippur is when Jews visit with the Angel of Death. As we look forward to the coming year, we are uncertain what our fate will be; to emphasize this, we read the words of the “unetaneh tokeph” prayer: “who will live and who will die... who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst…” And at that very moment, we turn to death. Franz Rosenzweig[6] notes the kittel, the white coat worn on Yom Kippur is intended to be an imitation burial shroud, because the purpose of Yom Kippur is to have everyone roleplay their death[7]. There are times when you must turn to death before turning back to life.

When the book of death is open, one immediately understands what a privilege it is to be inscribed in the book of life.  Even so, to pursue life after reading from the book of death takes courage. There were Holocaust survivors who refused to have children in a world that could be filled with bitterness. (I knew one such person). Rashi says that the Biblical matriarch Sarah died from heartbreak after her son Isaac was nearly sacrificed at the Akeidah.

Abraham, Isaac’s father, is determined to take a different approach. Death prods him find greater fulfilment in life. He says to himself: “If my son had actually been slain, he would have died without children! I must marry him off….”[8].  And this is the lesson of the death theme of Yom Kippur: remember the inevitability of death, and grab hold of what you have left to do in life[9].

I must make it clear that this is very different than having a “bucket list”, where you write up a list of 101 things to do before you die, and try to experience them all. Most of these lists include activities like bungee jumping, visiting the Galapagos, and drinking a rare vintage wine; these are what you must do “before you die”. Like many pop culture ideas, a serious existential insight is transformed into an instagrammable vacation.

An authentic confrontation with death is different. When people learn that they are going to die, they think of the people they love, and try to find ways to protect them and embrace them. I remember a man of 60 who received a negative prognosis telling me: “I don’t worry about my death for myself; I worry how it will affect my children”. People with a grim prognosis don’t run away on vacation, they go home to embrace their loved ones.  Turning to death changes your priorities.

The story of 21 year old Haim Sabato is very much a Yom Kippur story. After the war, he continues to hold on to his faith, and becomes one of Israel’s leading Rabbis and authors. Adjusting Sights has brought enormous comfort to many other soldiers who left beloved friends behind on the battlefield. And that is the point of Yom Kippur; it teaches all of us that we must muster up Abraham’s courage and push on when facing our mortality. It teaches the broken hearted to have the courage to marry, to have babies, and build communities, even after they have read too many chapters in the book of death. Yes, we must find a way to savor life, to turn to life, to love life, and then to love it even more because we know how short it is.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life, and may we all love it even more this year.

[1] Prisha, Yoreh Deah 378 והטעם כי האבל דואג ונאנח על מתו ואינו חושש לאכול……. על כן צוהו לאכול משל אחרים
[2] Halakhic Man, pages 30-39
[3] Boston, Bombs And Lessons From Israel: NPR,April 21, 2013
[4] Living with Terror, not Living in Terror: The Impact of Chronic Terrorism on Israeli Society, by Dov Waxman, Perspectives on Terror 5:5, 2011
[5] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind, page 131ff
[6] The Star of Redemption, Franz Rosenzweig, University of Wisconsin, 345ff. A similar argument, to justify eulogies during Kol Nidrei, is made R. Yitzchak Weiss in Responsa Siach Yitzchak 305.
[7] Fasting and the other abstentions could also be seen as part of this theme as well.
[8] Rashi, Genesis 22:20
[9] Much like the Rashi about Abraham, Yom Kippur was traditionally a day of matchmaking. Facing death is a reminder to embrace life more firmly.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Femurs, Frailty and Friendship

“Help me, help me, I broke my femur.”

I was just about to settle in to my seat on the C train when the train lurched violently. Instead of resting myself comfortably on the seat, the back of my left thigh slammed into the hard edge of the chair. This impact caused  a 7-inch spiral fracture of my femur, a break so long and large, that when I shifted positions the broken edges of the bone made a cracking sound when rubbing against each other. I asked the people on the car to tell the conductor to stop the train, and to call EMS. Help was slow in arriving, and by the time they got me off the train it was nearly an hour since the accident had occurred.

Lying face down on the subway floor is the very portrait of human frailty. From one unexpected blow, I was reduced to a helpless puddle of flesh and blood, lucky to be alive.

Helplessness is a profoundly dehumanizing feeling. Rav Soloveitchik writes that human dignity is based on our capacity to master our environment. When our sense of control is taken away, we are diminished; and when lying face down in the subway, you resemble a piece of broken pottery more than a majestic being created in the image of God.

At that moment I felt an extreme loneliness. The Bible emphasizes that to suffer alone is the greatest torment. To be on the floor of the subway and to know noone, and not know if anyone will help, made my first few moments after the accident particularly frightening. It is for this reason that the obligation of Bikur Cholim, (visiting the sick), was established; to make sure that those who are ill get the support they need both physically and emotionally. No one should ever suffer alone.

I was fortunate enough to have so many who came forward to raise me up. A young man on the subway, Aleh, called my assistant Dina Farhi, who coordinated all the next steps. Rabbi Meyer Laniado came to the Columbus Circle station to lend his support. Multiple friends helped manage my medical care, made our apartment handicapped accessible, sent over refreshments and offered messages of encouragement. (I was also lucky to have had the foresight to marry Lisa 26 years ago; she has been at my side 24/7.) I might have fallen low, but so many came to raise me up.

During my first few days in the hospital, what shocked me is how ignorant I had been all my life. I had visited hospitals hundreds of times and listened to people describe their pain. But I never understood what they were going through, until I myself experienced the extreme agony of being absorbed in my own pain to the exclusion of everything else. In addition, I now have temporarily lost the use of a leg, and need a walker to move around, and help to do nearly everything else. Here too my ignorance shocked me; I have many disabled friends, but I never realized what a heroic effort they need to make to take care of their basic needs. I got renewed inspiration from these friends, who meet each day with courage and determination despite disabilities and hardships.

When I was riding in the ambulance to the hospital, George, the paramedic, shared a story he thought would resonate with me as a rabbi. He once had a call to aid a 96 year old man who was in great pain. George said to the elderly man: “this is probably the worst day of your life, right?”. The man looked at George and said: “no. The worst day of my life was when I was in Birkenau”. The elderly man went on to describe memories of his most horrific day at the camp. I told George that this story touched me because my mother had also been in Birkenau. At that moment I realized that whatever pain I was experiencing, it did not in any way compare to what my mother, and so many others like her, had to endure. Once again, I was not alone; I was surrounded by inspirational role models, true heroes who have met the worst in life with courage and determination. They continue to give me encouragement and hope.

Thank God, even at the lowest moment of my life, a group of strangers, friends, and role models have lifted me up. I am now on my way to recovery, and I hope to see you in KJ soon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Before You is a Blessing and a Curse: Responding to Pittsburgh

Delivered on Shabbat, November 3, 2018

For the past week, the following verse has kept appearing in my mind:

"רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה"
“See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”

Moses offers the desert generation, (the first to enter Israel), two paths, one of blessing and one of curse. Their task is to make the right choice, and choose the path of blessing.

It’s a meaningful lesson, if the choice is yours. But what happens if you find yourself on the cursed path anyway? What happens if the curses surround you, even though you didn’t choose them?

This past week was a cursed week.

On Saturday night I spoke to Rabbi Chuck Diamond, the former Rabbi of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because the names were not yet public, he could only describe to me the people who were murdered.  And when he started to describe Cecil and David Rosenthal, his voice started to crack.

These were two developmentally disabled men, who since childhood had been brought by their grandfather to synagogue; and the synagogue was their home. They would greet all visitors and make everyone else feel at home in the synagogue as well.

And they were murdered while praying in their adopted home.

This is a curse. 

Choosing the path of blessing is important; but how to navigate through the curses is even more important. Today, I’d like to share three lessons about the cursed path.

The first lesson is to recognize that a curse is a curse. Rabbi Jeremy Pappas overheard a young boy ask his mother in front of the Tree of Life synagogue say:  “Mommy, so this is where the people were killed just because they went to shul?” This murder was an act of anti-Semitism, and it should shock us as much as it shocks this child.

Anti-Semitism cannot be explained. It has been around since the times of Haman, and it has persisted in multiple forms: religious, racial, political, from the right and the left, from the illiterate and the highly educated. It makes contradictory claims, that the Jews are exploitative capitalists and revolutionary communists, that Jews love minorities too much and train police in methods of police brutality against minorities. The world’s longest hatred is an irrational fury looking for a convenient outlet; and that outlet is the Jews. So let’s call anti-Semitism what it is: a curse.

Why do I need to point this out? Because it is easy to let discussions of anti-Semitism and racism be subordinated to politics, used as wedges or dismissed as polemics. That is precisely the wrong discussion to have. We first need to remember that hatred is a curse. Like so many things that go without saying but still need to be said, hatred against any group is wrong and despicable. Bigotry, racism, xenophobia are dangerous, disgusting and immoral. Period.

Lisa said to me the other night that in a moment like this we need to be furious. We cannot talk about anti-Semitism and bigotry like anything else, because it is a monstrosity.  The idealistic among us want us to heal; but that is not enough. We must howl in anger, and let everyone know we cannot tolerate hatred.

Actually, we must take this lesson one step further. It is almost instinctual for Jews to dismiss everyday anti-Semitism as just an annoyance, something to be endured. But that is a mortal mistake, because anti-Semitism is a matter of life and death.

In Montreal, my previous synagogue had an anti-Semitic attack with some broken windows and graffiti. My initial reaction was to clean up the glass and forget it happened, but then I stopped to reflect for moment. The perpetrators had broken this window did so because they hate Jews; they hate me, they hate my wife, they hate my children and they hate my community. At the time my kids were considerably younger, and I shuddered to think of what these perpetrators would do if they found one of my children alone in a dark alley. What would the stonethrowers do as their next step? Tragically, we saw in Pittsburgh what happens when stonethrowers take the next step.

A curse is a curse is a curse, and we need to fight against this curse.

At the same time, there is another lesson: to look at the curse, and appreciate our blessings. The Pittsburgh massacre shocks precisely because this is America.

I had friend who was a Holocaust survivor who had one question for any Rabbi he met: do you know what happened in Kielce? Most Rabbis wouldn’t know, and so he would say, I can’t learn from a Rabbi who doesn’t know anything.”

The answer is that the Kielce Pogrom took place in the city of Kielce, Poland on July 4, 1946. Polish soldiers, police officers, and civilians murdered 42 Jews after allegations that the Jews had kidnapped a child. (The child had actually gotten lost in the woods, and already returned home).

Truth is, you can’t blame these Rabbis for not knowing about the Kielce pogrom, because in terms of Jewish History it is a obscure event. Despite being far worse than Pittsburgh, the Kielce pogrom is forgotten because the were so many other anti-Semitic attacks throughout European Jewish History.

From time to time someone tells me that they won’t travel on a mission to Poland because the “ground is drenched with Jewish blood”. However, by that standard,  you can’t go anywhere in Europe. Are you traveling to England? There was a massacre in York (New York’s namesake) on March 17, 1190 (Shabbat HaGadol), in which 150 Jews were trapped in a tower, murdered and burnt to death. France? The Crusades. Spain? The Inquisition. Poland and Ukraine? Cossack massacres. Russia? Pogroms including the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, where 49 were killed. Germany? Holocaust. There is no shortage of tragedy in European Jewish History. But the US is different.

When considering the worst anti-Semitic attack in American History, we must also reflect on what a remarkable country this has been for the Jews. The United States is the first modern country Jews have been able to call home from the very beginning. In the first year of his presidency, George Washington wrote a letter to Touro Synagogue asserting that Jews would be fully accepted as equal citizens, and that “...the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens....”

The unique culture of American democracy was called by the great Rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein a  חסד של מלכות, “a government of kindness”. This kindness was greatly appreciated by people like my mother, a Holocaust survivor, who recognized upon landing on these shores that this would finally be a place she could call home. Even when we struggle with the cursed attack in Pittsburgh, we cannot forget that America is a blessing to be cherished.

There is a third lesson as well: how to navigate from the path of curse to the path of blessing. There are no good explanations for why bad things happen to good people, and there never can be any explanation. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik says that the only question to be asked is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act, to comfort and aid those who have suffered.

It is important to note that this response need not be heroic. You don’t need to save the entire world, you just need to respond. There is a insightful saying from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement:

"מעט אור דוחה הרבה מן החושך"
“A little bit of light pushes away a great deal of darkness.”

The meaning of this lesson is that even the smallest gestures have a big impact. You don’t need to light a bonfire yourself to push away darkness, because even a small candle will help; and 100 candles together will do even more.

In the last week, so many have brought a little bit of light into the world.  Colleagues at synagogues have been getting flowers left on their front steps with notes of sympathy; I myself got an email from someone in Rangarajapuram, India who wrote: “Its very sad to witness the innocent Jewish brethren are killed. We pray never such thing happen in the future.”  A colleague who was going to one of the funerals in Pittsburgh had a very tight plane connection; when the staff on the plane heard what he was doing, they radioed the plane flying to Pittsburgh to wait so he could make it to the funeral. The Pittsburgh Gazette had a banner headline in Hebrew with the words of the Kaddish, and NBC Nightly News followed suit by ending the program with the words of the Kaddish, while photos of the victims were displayed on screen. It feels as if the entire United States is mourning with the Jewish community, and we are not alone.

In the Jewish community, there has been courage and compassion. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue told an interviewer that "we are Tree of Life, and as I said before to many, you can cut off some of the branches from our tree, but Tree of Life has been in Pittsburgh for 154 years. We're not going anywhere and…..we will be back stronger and better than ever.". A Ramaz alumnus studying in Pittsburgh, Effie Landau, wrote me about this Shabbat in Pittsburgh, the first since the murder:  “ I’m looking forward to it - Chabad and Hillel finally are joining up and tons of Jews are popping up we never knew about and we’re expecting over 500 people at Shabbat dinner for students in Pittsburgh!”.

At the memorial service, it was noted that one of the victims, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, would regularly stand to say Kaddish in memory of those in his synagogue who had died without relatives to say Kaddish for them.  When it came time to say Kaddish at the memorial, the entire audience got up to say Kaddish for Jerry Rabinowitz.

This is how one navigates from a curse to a blessing. We need to stand up with determination, kindness and unity. We need to light as many candles as we can, because the world can be a very dark place. And if we do so, we will find our way back to the road of blessing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

New Jews with an Old Song

Only in Israel could there be an organization like Koolulam which organizes large sing alongs with people from every ideology and religious background. It describes itself as a “social-musical initiative aimed at bringing together people from all corners of the diverse, multi-cultural Israeli society. Our idea is to stop everything for a few hours and just sing – together...”. Only in Israel could hundreds of people come to sing together, precisely because they know they are different from each other, yet at the same time, very much the same. And by singing together, they bring about inspiration and unity.

For Yom HaShoah, Koolulam produced an unique sing along (see video below). Partnering with Beit Avi Chai and Zikaron BaSalon, a group of 600 Holocaust survivors and their families sang Ofra Hazah’s hit song “Chai”, which has the following chorus:

..חי, חי, חי
כן, אני עוד חי.
זה השיר שסבא
שר אתמול לאבא
והיום אני.

אני עוד חי, חי, חי,
עם ישראל חי….

“Alive, alive, alive - Yes, I'm still alive!
This is the song which grandfather
Sang yesterday to father
And today I [sing]
I'm still alive, alive, alive
The people of Israel live”

The video of this sing along was highlighted in Jewish media across the world. But the media accounts left out  a significant point: “Chai” was originally composed in response to the Holocaust. It was written by Ehud Manor, the famed Israeli composer, when he heard that the Eurovision contest was going to be in Munich, Germany in 1983. He wanted to tell the German nation that we, the Jewish people, were still alive. When the song was performed, the back up singers all wore yellow, the color of the hated yellow star. Manor recounts how he was emotionally overwhelmed when the singers sang the words “Am Yisrael Chai” on the German stage.

However, this song forces us to wrestle with a mystery: How is is it that “Am Yisrael chai”? How did the weaklings of exile find their way to redemption after 1,900 years? What happened 70 years ago was unparalleled; a wandering people rebuilt their state after 1,900 years in exile, and a people that had sustained a Holocaust found the strength and courage to defeat powerful adversaries with far larger armies.

How did this happen?

This question was actually posed well before the State was established, by the founders of the Zionist movement. They wondered how the Jew of exile would ever manage to build an independent state. To this, they offered two answers: a “New Jew”, and an old song.

The New Jew answer is actually an old one. According the medieval thinkers Avraham ibn Ezra[1] and Maimonides[2], the generation that left Egypt was not capable of going to Israel because their character was weak; only their children, raised in the desolation of the desert, would be courageous enough to conquer Israel. The Jews needed to wait for a new generation of Jews before entering the land of Israel.

Early Zionist thinkers also saw the need for a “New Jew”. Max Nordau in a letter in 1903, said that his motto was: "We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles." He explained that “the fear of constant persecution.. turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face            of their executioners. But now… ..let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”[3]

For some, New Jew theory was an attack on established religious and communal norms; and it was seen this way by many in the Orthodox community. Remarkably enough, this theory was adopted by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook. In a highly controversial passage, he wrote that exercise for the sake of making one stronger to build the land of Israel was so holy, that “when young people engage in sport to strengthen the power and spirit for the sake of the might of the entire nation, that holy service raises God’s Presence higher and higher, equal to (reciting) the songs and praises that David, King of Israel, expressed in the book of Psalms.”[4] To Rav Kook, a secular soldier’s pushups are equal to a pious man’s prayers.

But many felt that the heart and soul of Zionism came from an “old song”, a dogged refusal by Jews to forget the land of Israel. In 1902, the founding manifesto of the Mizrachi movement declared that “We have always been united by that ancient hope, by the promise which lies at the very roots of our religion, namely, that only out of Zion will the Lord bring redemption to the people of Israel.”[5]  In Psalm 137, the Jews, upon reaching the Babylonian exile, promise never to forget Jerusalem:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
May my right hand forget her skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you,
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.”

While these words are familiar, their context is forgotten. This chapter comes right after 16 straight chapters of Psalms recited in the Temple. The worry in exile is that the songs of the Temple will be reduced to nostalgia, sentimental tokens of a forgotten past. Psalm 137 proclaims clearly, from the first moments of exile, that the Temple Psalms are not going to be a relic of the past, but a blueprint for the future. Jews vowed they would eventually leave exile and return to Jerusalem and once again sing these songs. “If I forget you O Jerusalem” is “the song which grandfather sang yesterday to father”, the song which declared that Israel is not just part of the Jewish past, but also the Jewish future.

This old song, composed on the river banks of Babylon, gave us hope throughout exile. Eliezer Ayalon (Lazar Hirschenfeis) was a Holocaust survivor whose entire family perished in Treblinka. He came to Israel in 1945, and fought in the War of Independence (as did thousands of other survivors). In an interview in 2008[6], Ayalon recalled “The love of this country that was imbued in me by my parents from early childhood made me decide that I am going to Eretz Yisrael.” He concluded by saying that “here I am right now, I have two married children, five grandchildren and one great-grandson. Three generations born and raised from the ashes of the Holocaust. Today I am the happiest man in the world.” Such is the power of an old song.

In the end, both answers were correct. The miracle that occurred 70 years ago was the product of New Jews singing an old song. It took the courage and daring of a new generation combined with the hopes of 2,000 years to bring us back to our homeland. And that spirit still lives, 70 years later.

Danny Gordis recounts a story that exemplifies this attitude[7].  In 2004, The Pelech School dedicated a Sefer Torah. This Torah had been brought to Israel by a group of 12th grade students who went on a heritage trip to Poland in 1990. (It was restored by another class, 14 years later). The students had gone to the Krakow market, and noticed someone selling “Jew Dolls”, crude caricatures of Hasidic Jews studying from a book. They took a closer look at the “books” the dolls were holding, and realized they had been cut out of a Sefer Torah. So they asked the seller where these parchment fragments came from, and he explained that his uncle had gotten the Torah scroll from a synagogue in Luminova. Immediately, they began negotiations to buy what remained of the Torah, and the girls pooled their pocket money to buy the damaged Torah scroll. But then they had a dilemma: what should they do with it? It was illegal to take the Torah out of Communist Poland; it was considered to be the property of the state. Gordis explains what happened next:

“They talked it over, and after a while, …."ha-lev gavar al ha-sechel" -- "the heart trumped reason." They decided to smuggle the Torah out of Poland and to bring it home to Jerusalem.

At the airport, however, each of them was required to put all their bags onto the x-ray machine. The first girl in the line, when she was told to put her bags on the belt, passed the Torah to the next girl in line. When that girl was told to do the same thing, she surreptitiously passed it to the girl behind her. And so forth. For the next few minutes, the Torah silently made its way back the line, until it seemed that they were not going to get it out.

And then, the belt broke. The machine just quit. The Polish authorities, too concerned with fixing the belt to inspect all the bags being brought through, just ushered the remaining girls by and the Torah made it out.”

The belt broke!! And the Torah was carried by these courageous teenage girls back to Israel. Gordis then wonders how the girls knew to do this:

How did they know that this Torah simply had to come home? Why, in a world in which last year's news is ancient history, did they know that the story of the Jews of Leminova, whoever they were, is their story, too?

How did they know? The answer is: because they are new Jews, but singing an old song. That is why these girls smuggled the Torah from Leminova to Israel; and that is why their parents and grandparents smuggled and struggled their way into Israel as well. Even 1,900 years after being exiled, successive generations continued to sing the songs of their grandfathers and grandmothers. They might live in a new world, with new technologies and perspectives, and thankfully they have a toughness that perhaps was lacking in previous generations; but inside their heart echoes the words of an old song: Am Yisrael Chai!!

Happy 70th, Israel!

[1] Exodus 14:13
[2] Guide for the Perplexed 3:32
[3] “Jewry of Muscle”, Max Nordau in The Jew in the Modern World, Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, Jehuda Reinharz, pages 547-548
[4] Orot HaTechiyah 34
[5] The Jew in the Modern World, page 549
[7] Daniel Gordis, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, pages 20-23