Monday, July 06, 2020

The Rabbi and the Food Critic: Two Minute Wisdom

Friday, July 03, 2020

What Miracle Workers Can't Do: A Donkey's Perspective

They arrive from Israel every week, with bold notices in Jewish newspapers; "evil eyes removed! only 50$. Major credit cards accepted". They are the miracle workers, Rabbis and Rebbetzins who can magically change your life. These ads are seductive, especially when you find yourself needing a change of luck; and they have a veneer of authenticity because Judaism does accept that prayer matters, and the prayers of righteous matter. But these miracle workers don't offer a sincere prayer; instead, they sell spiritual voodoo. Sadly, many chase these blessings, assured by anecdotes and advertising.


This desire to gain control of God's plan is an old one; and a lengthy section of the Torah, Parshat Balak, is devoted to rebutting this primitive theology, the belief that God can be bought off with a few sacrifices or mystically rewritten Ketubah. In Parshat Balak, a powerful seer, Bilaam, is asked to curse Israel, in hope of defeating them. In turn, as much as Bilaam desires to curse Israel, he cannot. Even though "whom he blesses is blessed, and whom he curses is cursed", Bilaam still finds himself unable to do anything but bless Israel. The lesson is simple: man cannot control God. Man cannot dictate to God who to bless and curse.


This lesson is woven into one of the literary themes of the parsha. There is an enormous amount of animal imagery. We names that evoke animal life: Balak the son of Tzippor ("bird") Bilaam the son of beor (sounds like "livestock"). We have imagery of an ox licking up the grass of the field, and the image of covering the face of the earth (like locusts - cf. Exodus 10:4). And above all, we have Bilaam's donkey. This is no ordinary donkey; Bilaam's donkey is a talking donkey.


The donkey refuses to listen to Bilaam. Bilaam whips the donkey, hoping to beat it into submission, but the donkey freezes. Eventually, the donkey speaks, and tells Bilaam that it had always been loyal; but this time, the donkey was answering to a higher authority: God.


The message of the animal theme and the talking donkey is this: we expect animals to accept human authority. Humans are given control over all living beings, able to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28). We expect animals to follow our orders. We don’t expect animals to lead.


“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his owner’s trough”.(Isaiah 1:3). The animal imagery in our Parsha emphasizes that the animal has a subordinate status, one we expect it to play. But man needs to understand that he has a similar role to play, to be loyal to God, rather than trying to manipulate God to follow his own wishes. Bilaam tries to “lead” God, to decide who gets blessed and who gets cursed. The donkey’s lesson is this: humans are meant to serve their own master, God,  as well the donkey serves his. (Parenthetically, another character in the Bible, who wakes early to saddle his donkey, Avraham, does so in order to loyally follow God’s order, not to defy them).


The miracle working “Rabbis” who advertise cures are hucksters, pure and simple. But even worse than their deception is the upside down theology they offer. They tell their supplicants that God might ignore them, but that a small fee, the Rabbi can get God to “change” His mind. This is exactly what Bilaam said, and it is an inversion of what Judaism is all about. in the end, the donkey teaches us the fundamental lesson of Judaism: We are here to serve God, not to have God serve us.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Between Korach and Eldad and Medad

Readers of Parshat Korach who live in democratic societies might find this Torah reading uncomfortable. Korach seems to be drawing on an egalitarian ethos when he says: “For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?” Isn't Korach's argument what democracy is all about?  Shouldn't one's leaders reflect the will of the people?

It is worth noting in this regard that there is a sharp contrast between Moshe's response to the complaints of Korach and his response to the episode of Eldad and Medad. In our Torah reading, Moshe responds with fury to Korach’s defiance. The Eldad and Medad narrative is also one of defiance, yet Moshe reacts very differently. Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and work alongside him. And two men who have not been invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, become independent prophets. This is so shocking that Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi adds an additional note: Eldad and Medad were predicting Moshe would die before entering the land of Israel. Eldad and Medad are no less defiant than Korach.

Yet what is Moshe's response? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”

What accounts for the difference between these two reactions? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that the two sections are dealing with two aspects of Moshe's role. In the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophecy, a form of non-coercive influence. Prophecy is an inspiration that can be, and should be, shared widely. In this narrative, Korach wants to assume power in the place of Moshe. And that is impossible because two kings cannot wear one crown, and power must be united, not divided.

The difficulty with this position is that actually the 70 elders gathered to join Moshe are meant to be political leaders as well, helping Moshe lead the Jewish people; Moshe had just complained that he cannot lead the people on his own.

I would suggest a different approach. One verb that is shared between the two narratives is שא. However in each narrative it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad the verb is used to connote lifting a burden, that leading the people is an act of sacrifice, as if the leaders needs to carry the nation on their back. In the narrative of Korach, he uses this verb as reference to being lifted up, as if the political leader is the one who is lifted, and the leader is the one who benefits from his relationship with the community.

I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Edad and Medad are not searching for glory; they are simply finding inspiration and coming to offer support. That type of leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around. Korach however is in search of glory, and wants to be raised up by others. Ultimately, his thirst for glory would mean that Moshe would have to be deposed.

The ultimate difference between these two sections has to do with the attitude Korach on one hand, and Eldad and Medad on the other, take towards political leadership. When those with inspiration offer to help, then there is room even for the most defiant of voices; in this case, there is a common purpose and goal. When the leader sees themself as a servant, they are always happy to receive help. However, leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. 

The Greatest Miracle of All: Two Minute Inspiration

Friday, June 19, 2020

An Unusual Profile in Courage: The Ma'apilim

On November 25th, 1936, Chaim Weizmann offered his testimony to the Peel Commission. Weizman explained that for the millions of Jews left in Europe, "the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter."

It was in this context that Aliyah Bet was born. Initially, it was a matter of debate in Zionist movement. Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote an essay entitled "On Adventurism" in 1932 chastising the Jewish Agency for following the British imposed rules. But in 1937, the Peel Commission handed down a recommendation to limit immigration to 12,000 Jews per year. In response to this draconian recommendation, the underground Mossad L'Aliyah Bet was established, to support “illegal immigration”. Actually, that is what the British called it; for Jews, returning to the Holy Land was not immigration, but rather a return home, and certainly not illegal, no matter what the Mandatory authorities called it. An estimated 100,000 Jews managed to enter Mandatory Palestine during the War and immediately afterwards.

Those who made the trip took on immense risks. On February 24, 1942 the Struma, a ship sailing from Romania with 800 Jewish refugees, was torpedoed in the Black Sea by a Soviet submarine. There was only one survivor.

Even those refugees that managed to get to mandatory Palestine were often jailed. Some were imprisoned in Atlit or Cyprus, while in 1940, nearly 1600 refugees were sent to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean; they spent nearly 5 years there.

Aliyah Bet is a heroic chapter in Jewish history. But what is fascinating is the Hebrew word given for the illegal immigrants: "ma'apilim".

This word comes from our Torah reading. After the sin of the spies and the decree that the Jews would spend 40 years in the desert, there is a group that decides on their own to enter the Land of Israel. The word used by the Torah to describe what they did is Vaya'apilu, which is translated by various commentaries such as Saadia Gaon, Seforno and Shadal as stubbornness, arrogance, and impulsiveness.

So how did this pejorative term, Vaya'apilu, end up being used for the courageous refugees of the pre-State era?

Rav Elchanan Samet grapples with this question in his second series of Iyunim b'Parshiyot HaTorah. But part of the answer would seem to be obvious. While the ma'apilim are defying God's command, they had also overcome a character failing the generation of the desert had. The ma’apilim are the first group in this generation to show courage, and that represents a significant transformation.

And that courage will make a permanent difference as well. Samet quotes an inspirational passage in Rav Tzadok's Tzidkat HaZaddik (46). Rav Tzadok talks about the chutzpah of the ma’apilim. He explains that Chutzpah will eventually be important, as the Talmud says it will be necessary in the times of the Messiah. And when the Torah says about the attempt by the Ma’apilim to enter the land, "והיא לא תצלח", “this effort will not succeed”, it hints that on another occasion in the future, a stubborn attempt to enter the Land of Israel will be successful.

Rav Tzadok, who died in 1900, was anticipating heroism that would happen decades after his death. He predicted there would be a time when the Jewish people would reverse the meekness of the spies with acts of bravery. And on overcrowded ships that were barely seaworthy, the descendents of the wandering slaves in the desert proved themselves worthy of their own home in their own homeland. Finally, the ma’apilim came home.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Parsha is that one must faith in God, but also have faith in our own God-given abilities. One might think it is more difficult to have faith in God; but the lesson of the spies is that both types of faith go hand in hand, and without courage, faith will crumble.

Faith combined with courage gives us the ability to face all of our challenges. May we be fortunate enough to find both during these trying times.

Rabbi Lau, Juneteenth, and the Bible

Friday, June 12, 2020

The Speak Up Nation

Thorstein Veblen was wrong.

The famed Sociologist, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”, wrote an analysis of Jews and Zionism in 1919. The article, entitled “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe”, argued that the creative achievements of the Jews were due largely to their marginal status. It was renegade Jews with one foot in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world who were creative. They were "hyphenated" with two identities, neither of which they truly belonged to. And it was this marginalization, of being rejected by the larger society and rejecting their own roots, that gave them the "skeptical animus" that fueled their intellectual achievements.

Veblan thought that exile and persecution is the foundation of Jewish creativity, and marginalization was the foundation of Jewish intellectual achievement. And because of this, Veblan predicted that the establishment of a Jewish State would lead to a decline in Jewish creativity. A Jewish State would be filled with complacent, unoriginal Jews; no more Jewish renegades.

History has proven Veblen to be very wrong. But his thesis is reasonable. Like the Jews, other minority ethnic diasporas have a history of overachieving. Certainly the challenges of persecution and displacement can feed innovation; and as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes, being cultural mediators brought out the creative best in Jews.

Veblen's mistake was in seeing exile as the single cause of Jewish creativity. But there are multiple other foundations of creativity, including one from our Parsha, which includes the verse:

וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יְהוָה֙ נְבִיאִ֔ים
“May it be that all of God’s people were prophets!”

This is a statement Moshe makes in response to the words of Eldad and Meidad, who are prophesizing on their own, away from the tent at the center. According to Rashi, Eldad and Meidad were saying that “Moses will die and Joshua will bring Israel into the Land”. These renegade prophets were offering a message of chutzpah which challenged Moshe directly.

Yet Moshe refuses to interfere with Eldad and Meidad in any way. On the contrary, he makes it clear that everyone possible should be given the opportunity to experience revelation.

This is a revolutionary thought. Moshe is saying that outsiders can have a direct connection to God, and the rejected can still find inspiration. Leadership and insight doesn't belong to a select elite.

In a larger sense, this verse informs a culture that recognizes that the best ideas often come from outsiders. We want each individual to speak up and be heard; that is why we train our children to do so, starting with the Mah Nishtanah at the Pesach Seder. Anyone can come forward with their insight and inspiration.

Israel is a country where everyone speaks up, where everyone is a prophet; that can even be a headache at times. But it is the key to Israel’s creativity.

The magic of the start up nation is that everyone has an idea how to make things better; in the street you will get quick advice on how to carry your groceries and how to raise your children. But Israelis also have got better ideas for something other than unruly children, including cherry tomatoes, pillcams, mobileye, and Waze. Israeli innovations save lives every day, from ambucycles to emergency bandages and innovative therapeutics.

These innovations come from inventors who speak up even when others aren’t listening. One of Israel’s first major tech breakthroughs was drip irrigation. It was a system designed by Simcha Blass, who in the 1930’s saw an unusual tree, one that stood out in a field due to its unusual growth. He dug underneath the tree and found it was near a broken water pipe. Nearly 30 years later, with the advent of plastics, Simcha designed a drip irrigation system that yields more crops on only half the water. When he first showed this system to his colleagues, nobody listened. But he kept pushing forward, and eventually, in partnership with Kibbutz Hatzerim, brought this innovation to the world. Today drip irrigation is the best way to support farmers in semi-arid environments.

Israeli innovation is built on the ability to speak up. This has been part of our culture since this Parsha.

Next time you are in Israel (may it be soon!), and someone gives you unsolicited advice, don’t get annoyed; just remember that the start up nation began first as the speak up nation.

The Story of A-7241: 2 Minute Inspiration

Friday, June 05, 2020

Birkat Kohanim in the Times of the Corona

If you have not seen Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel you have not seen Birkat Kohanim.

Twice a year, on the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, tens of thousands of people crowd into the plaza outside the Kotel; and they are joined by hundreds of kohanim, who in unison recite the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.

This practice began 50 years ago, during the time of crisis. It was in the summer of 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition in the Sinai, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner began to think about prayers for peace and tranquility. He then reminded himself of a tradition from the Chasidei Ashkenaz in the late 12th century that:

ואם היו שלש מאות כהנים עומדים בהר הזיתים והיו אומרים ברכת כהנים היה בא משיח

“If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and say the priestly blessing, the Messiah would arrive.”

It was this tradition that inspired him to gather large groups of Kohanim to the Kotel; eventually, it became a yearly custom  on Chol Hamoed  Sukkot and Pesach, for people  to gather from around the world for this unique Birkat Kohanim.

Gefner was also inspired by a fascinating passage in the Midrash. The Mishnah in Sotah says:

"מיום שחרב בית המקדש, אין יום שאין בו קללה"

"From the day that the temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not have some element of curse."

But the Midrash Tehillim (7) responds to the Mishnah and offers a note of optimism:

"אמר רב אחא: אם כן בזכות מי אנו עומדים. בזכות ברכת כהנים".

“Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of the blessing of the Kohanim.”

Even in the most cursed of times, there is a blessing that sustains us, the Birkat Kohanim. But what exactly is the unique power of Birkat Kohanim?

Part of the story can be told by how the fingers should be configured during Birkat Kohanim.

We are familiar with the custom mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch, one with "five windows".

But there are several other views of how this is done, and described at length by Prof. Daniel Sperber (Minhagei Yisrael, volume 6); one, from the Maharil, has the thumb and index finger of both hands come together to create a window.

But there is another view, found in the name of Rabbeinu Tam, that the fingers switch position during the three blessings, and in the first they are configured to look like a shin, the second a daled, the third like a yud, and together spell God's name Shin Daled Yud, Shadai.

It is this view that I want to focus on. What is the meaning of all of this finger choreography?

I believe by spelling out God's name the Kohen is making a radical statement: the divine blessing that he is conveying is actually in the hands of the Kohen. And this idea is already found in the Midrash and Rabbeniu Bachya.

But the thought itself seems almost heretical; do the hands of the Kohanim create blessing? I believe it is meant to open our eyes to a very different understanding of how Birkat Kohanim works.

The moment that the Kohanim turn to the congregation and bless them with love is a moment that draws God's divine presence into the community. The moment when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face, and connect to each other with love, is a moment of true divine inspiration. God arrives to this special space of compassion and community to bring His blessings.

The blessing, built on the mutual connection between the Kohanim and the congregation, is a blessing that truly is our hands.

A few years ago there was a powerful article in Tablet by an American Oleh, Aaron Katz, about what he calls “a moving minyan”, on the train to Tel Aviv. He describes how as a Kohen, he makes his way to say the Birkat Kohanim on the train. He describes his feelings at that moment:

….as I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me ….. On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.

The Talmud explains …. that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people “out in the fields” who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields... of Ramla and Lod...during Birkat Kohanim, I.. smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?

This is what Birkat Kohanim is about: a connection between man and man that is more than the ordinary; a connection that truly is divine.

Our Parsha speaks of Birkat Kohanim, but in our current situation, none of us have the experience to hear them anymore. Even on Pesach,  due to the coronavirus crisis, there was a lonely group of 10 Kohanim who went to the Kotel and offered the blessing on television.  How can it be that in a time of too many curses that we don’t have the opportunity to hear these blessings?

But in actuality we do have Birkat Kohanim today.

We have high priests of holiness and kindness working in hospitals and helping the elderly and infirm.

We have high priests of education, caring for their students even when they are so far away. 

We have high priests of volunteering, chasing one opportunity after another to help others.

This blessing of Birkat Kohanim has never been more present in our community. These Kohanim may be partially hidden from sight, but they are all around us, bringing a unique divine energy into the world.

You Are What You Dream: 120 Second Inspiration

Friday, May 15, 2020

Be Strong, and We Will be Strengthened: Chazak v'Nitchazek

Crisis and the Formation of Community: The Lessons of the Damascus Blood Libel

On February 5, 1840, the Capuchin Friar Thomas, an Italian who had long resided in Damascus, disappeared together with his Muslim servant Ibrahim ʿAmāra. The monk was known to have been involved in shady business, and the two men were probably murdered by tradesmen with whom Thomas had quarreled. Nonetheless, the Capuchins immediately circulated news that Jews had murdered both men in order to use their blood for Passover.

As Catholics in Syria were officially under French protection, the investigation was conducted by the French consul. But the consul, Ulysse de Ratti-Menton, allied himself with the accusers, and the investigation was conducted in a barbaric fashion. A barber, Solomon Negrin, was arbitrarily arrested and tortured until a "confession" was extorted from him. He was coerced to tell a tale in which the monk was killed in the house of David Harari by seven Jews. The men whom he named were subsequently arrested; two of them died under torture, and one of them converted to Islam in order to be spared.

This revival of the medieval blood libel sent shockwaves through the Jewish world. After multiple diplomatic interventions, a delegation of European Jews, whose members included Moses Montefiore, his secretary Louis Loewe, Adolphe Crémieux and Solomon Munk, liberated the prisoners on September 6th. This was a remarkable achievement for the European Jewish community, which had just received political rights in the prior 50 years.

But there is a significant American element to this story. The Damascus Blood Libel represents the first stirrings of communal engagement in the United States.

American Jewry got involved rather late. The news took a long time to travel across the ocean, and it took even longer for the American Jewish community to organize themselves.

Joseph Jacobs, who writes one of the first historical accounts of the American reaction in 1902 explains that “So far as I can ascertain, it took about 30 days for the European mails to reach America, yet it was not till Aug. 17, more than two months after the Board of Deputies (of British Jews) meeting in London, that a meeting was held in New York.”

This slow response make sense. The Jewish community in the United States in 1840 was tiny: 15,000 Jews out of a total American population of 17,000,000. (For comparison, 56,000 Jews currently live on the Upper East Side.)

This small, scattered group had never organized before. But at this moment they took action, holding meetings about the Damascus situation in six cities around the United States. In Philadelphia they were led by one of the remarkable figures of 19th century American Jewish history, Rabbi Isaac Leeser of the Mikveh Israel synagogue. (Leeser was the founder of the first American Jewish newspaper, the first American translation of the Siddur and Tanakh, and the Jewish Publication Society.)

The speeches and resolutions for this meeting were published as:

Persecution of the Jews in the East, Containing the Proceedings of a Meeting Held at Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia, on Thursday Evening, the 28th of Ab, 5600, Corresponding with the 27th of August, 1840, C. SHERMAN & CO. PRINTERS, 19 ST. JAMES STREET.”

It is moving to read the resolutions. They demonstrate how this far flung Jewish community had not forgotten their brethren overseas, and at the same time, this growing young community was ready to unify and organize.

You can see their sense of solidarity with the Jewish world in three of the meeting’s resolutions, quoted below:

 Resolved, That they experience the deepest emotions of sympathy for the sufferings endured by their fellows in faith at Damascus and Rhodes, under the tortures and injuries inflicted on them by merciless and savage persecutors...

Resolved , That they will cooperate with their brethren elsewhere in affording pecuniary aid, if required, to relieve the victims of this unholy persecution, and to unite in such other measures as may be devised to mitigate their sufferings.

Resolved , That this meeting highly appreciates the prompt and energetic measures adopted by our brethren in Europe, and elsewhere, for the promotion of the object of this meeting, and the noble undertaking of Monsieur Cremieux and Sir Moses Montefiore, in coming forward not only as the champions of the oppressed, but also as the defenders of the Jewish nation; and this meeting expresses the hope that the God of Israel will shield and protect them, and restore them to their families in the enjoyment of unimpaired health.

To summarize these resolutions, the Jews of Philadelphia express their love for their fellow Jews in Damascus, commit to fundraise for them, and to work with Jews around the world to release the imprisoned Jews.

Then there were additional resolutions worth noting as well.

Resolved, That we invite our brethren of Damascus to leave the land of persecution and torture, and to seek an asylum in this free and happy land, where all religions are alike tolerated—where every man is allowed to enjoy his own opinion—where industry prospers, and where integrity is sure to meet its just reward!

This resolution reminds us how proud American Jews were to be Americans. They were standing up for the Jews of Damascus not just as Jews, but as proud Americans; so proud, that they were inviting the Damascus Jews to join us here.

Another resolution deserves our attention as well:

Lewis Allen, Esq., laid before the meeting letters accompanying a copy of the proceedings …. with instructions to furnish a copy of the proceedings of this meeting to every Jewish Congregation in the United States.

This resolution tells the story of a new national initiative taking shape, with Jews around the country working together on a matter of mutual concern. 

The letters sent from the 6 communities to President Van Buren received a very encouraging response. The Secretary of State, John Forsyth reported that the United states had already intervened on behalf of the Jews of Damascus. In addition, Forsyth in his letter recognizes that Jews are “some of the most worthy and patriotic of our own citizens”. For Jews to be considered valued citizens is something we take for granted now, but was not at all a given in 1840.

What does the American response to the Damascus Blood Libel represent? These petitions were too late to be effective; not only were negotiations for the release of the Jews close to their conclusion, but the United States government had intervened even before these petitions were sent.

But these meetings are significant because in 1840, American Jews  for the first time decided to work together for a mutual cause. Joseph Jacobs notes that  “it was not for naught that they had taken a worthy share in the universal protest of Israel….Their part in the Damascus affair was thus the beginning of the diplomatic or international phase in the history of the American Jews, and in this sense, I venture to think, deserves somewhat fuller attention than has hitherto been given” . The Damascus Blood libel transformed a scattered group of Jews, at a distance from the centers of Jewish life, to build a community.

This was a transformational moment, born out of a difficult crisis.

Sometimes it seems that Jewish unity is only possible when our community is in crisis.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes this connection as a "covenant of fate";  our shared suffering as a people is what unites the diverse elements of our community, from the atheist to the ultra-Orthodox.

But I believe that the connection is far more profound. The Jews are called the children of Israel in the Bible. The Book of Genesis makes it clear that Jews don’t see themselves as an ordinary nation, but rather as a family writ large. We are still Israel’s children, and one large family, with all of our tribes and squabbles. I would not call it a covenant of fate; I would call it a covenant of family. Jewish unity goes beyond shared suffering; it is born in love, the love of a family.

Sometimes families drift apart, and forget to show their love; but in crisis they pull together. The Jewish people are much the same; we may forget about each other, but we are always there for each other in times of crisis.

I sat on a panel yesterday with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl and Rabbi David Wolpe. The panel was organized by JJ Sussman of Gesher, for a group of Israeli leaders.

There were many questions; about how we connect within our own synagogues, how we connect to others in the community, and how we connect to Israel, during the time of the coronavirus.

The answers were all insightful and nuanced; but the questions were even more important. The beauty of this panel, and hundreds of others like it, is that we are searching. We want to find a way to connect with each other even when this virus keeps us apart.

In one of the most beautiful verses of the Bible, when Joseph is on a mission to find his brother, he is asked by a stranger what he is doing. Joseph’s answer is:

את אחי אנוכי מבקש

I am searching for my brothers.

There could be no better description for what the Jewish world is doing right now. We are searching for ways to connect, ways to support, and ways to help our brothers and sisters around the world.

When it's a crisis, you need to be there for your family.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Kiddush Hashem, Now More Than Ever

On April 14th, 2000, the New York Times wrote a moving article about two families, one in Brooklyn and one in Italy.
Miriam and Rabbi Ronald Barry had gotten tested in 1991 to see if they could be bone marrow donors. A few months later, a match came up for Rabbi Barry. There is a small risk, 1 in 20,000, associated with giving bone marrow. It is a small risk, but it is a risk nonetheless. Rabbi Barry decided to be a donor. As the New York Times wrote:
''How many people,'' Mrs. Barry asked, ''get the opportunity to say, 'I saved a life'? What a thing to take up with you at the end of days.''

After the bone donation, the recipient's family decided to reach out to the Barrys. The donation had gone to a 9-year-old boy named Nicola Trevisan in a small village of Tonco in the Asti region of Italy. The families began to correspond and to become friendly.

And then in 2000 the Barrys went to visit Italy.

The Trevisans, who had never met Jews before, took a crash course on the rules of Kashrut in order to host the Barry's. The Trevisons set up an entire day's tour for the Barry's, and located a nearby historic synagogue and had it opened. In the synagogue's guest book, Armando Trevisan wrote:

''This is the reunion of the Barry family of Brooklyn and the Trevisans of Tonco..".

And that night, at the Tonco city hall, the entire village came out to welcome and thank the Barrys. One act of kindness had touched hundreds of people on the other side of the world.

This is a story of Kiddush Hashem. This commandment is in our week’s Torah reading. To my mind, it is the central commandment of Judaism.

Let me explain why.

As you go through life there are three questions that you will ask yourself on a regular basis.

The first is what do I need? How do I ensure that I am nourished, clothed, and sheltered.

The second is what do I want? How do I find friendship, respect, love, and success.

The final question is why am I here? This is a question that we don't ask ourselves often enough, and it's a question we ask more frequently as we get older. We ask it more often at 18 than at 13. And we certainly ask it more often at 28 and 48.

Kiddush Hashem is the Jewish answer to the question of "why am I here?"

Through the ages, there have been two ways that kiddush Hashem has been practiced, what I would call “Yitzchak Kiddush Hashem” and  “Avraham Kiddush Hashem”.

Sometimes Kiddush Hashem demands a difficult sacrifice, like the Akeidat Yitzchak.

And since then, Jews have made enormous sacrifices to retain their Jewish faith; at times being called to make the ultimate sacrifice, and at other times giving up jobs and opportunities to maintain their observance of Shabbat and mitzvot.

But at other times, Kiddush Hashem has been about finding our mission in life, and sharing that mission with the world; this is what Avraham did his entire life, bringing spirituality and kindness to those around him.

In 2013, Rabbi Noah Muroff, then a Yeshiva High School teacher in Connecticut, bought a used desk off of Craigslist. It was too large to fit through the doorway of his office, so he had to disassemble it. And when he did, a large envelope of cash fell out. In it was $98,000.

Rabbi Muroff didn't hesitate and didn't wait; he immediately called the previous owner and returned the money. The previous owner had forgotten where they put the money, and thought it was lost forever.

This story made national news, and it made a Kiddush Hashem.

Rabbi Muroff wasn't thinking about what he needed, he wasn't thinking about what he wanted; He was thinking about the question of Kiddush Hashem: why am I here?

We are living in complicated times. I know that many of us are focused on what we need and what we want. That is absolutely necessary. We need to take care of ourselves first. But just as necessary is finding an answer for why I am here.

And that is what we must do.

I take enormous pride in how so many in our community have been making a difference in people's lives. Doctors, nurses, and healthcare professionals fighting on the front lines against the coronavirus. Initiatives like collecting iPads, sending meals to healthcare workers, and helping the unemployed find work have been organized. And multiple acts of kindness in our own community have been coordinated by our Chesed committee.

This difficult time has brought out the best in our community. And when we look back at this time, what we will remember most are these acts of kindness; how dedicated people made a difference and made a Kiddush Hashem, and reminded us what our mission in life is supposed to be.

Lag B'Omer and Seeing the Unseen

There is the Lag Baomer of Meron, and a Lag Baomer of the rest of the world.

Our Lag Baomer is a tepid affair in which we omit the tachanun prayer and send the students out on a field trip at school.

But the Lag Baomer of Meron (a small village in northern Israel) is very different. Chava Seltzer, an American immigrant who visited Meron in 1920 writes:

“And the eve of the holiday has arrived, and on the road going up to Meron, crowds of men, women, and children; some are riding donkeys and some are on foot. Here is a group of Yemenites in their unique clothes, some Bukharim, some Ashkenazim, and here is also the big eye-catching group - a group of Yemenites from Damascus, wearing Arab clothes and galloping on their horses, all of them wearing weapons: pistols, swords and lances…”

In actuality Lag Baomer has two different meanings. For most of us, it is a day of respite during the mourning period of Sefirah. Until Lag Baomer we mourn the loss of the students of Rabbi Akiva, which many theorize took place during the Bar Kochva rebellion. Lag Baomer is the day in which the deaths stopped, and on it we celebrate the end of grief.

The Meron celebration is about the Hillula (the date of death) of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai. The great Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, is attributed to him. And according to a tradition from the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is buried on Meron.

Today the celebration in Meron is a spiritual carnival. Tens of thousands flock from all around Israel. It is filled with people singing and dancing, eating and drinking. Others praying intently, for desperate needs and divine miracles.

The Meron celebration brings with it unusual practices. There is a custom to give 18 Rotel of alcoholic beverages, roughly 54 liters, for the celebration of the crowd. Boys aged 3 have their upsherin, their first haircut, in Meron that day. And at midnight the bonfire is lit. People throw expensive garments into the oil to be burnt with the bonfire. The right to light the main bonfire has been given to a rabbi who comes from the Rizhin dynasty, but many other rabbis light other bonfires as well. The Lag Baomer of Meron is a surreal mix of Purim and Yom Kippur,a mixture of tears and laughter, solemnity and silliness.

Yet every aspect of the Lag Baomer story raises questions.

Did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai write the Zohar? It was first disseminated by Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who lived in 13th century Spain. But there are serious questions about the Zohar, and many Rabbis, including Rabbi Yaakov Emden and Rabbi Yachia Kafach, have questioned whether it was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai even buried in Meron? Two visitors to Meron in the late 1100’s, Petachiah of Regensburg and Benjamin of Tudela, only mention seeing the graves of Hillel and Shamai and their students on Meron; they make no mention of a grave for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Their silence raises serious doubts about attributing the grave to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

 And finally, why would we celebrate the date of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s death? This riddle was particularly perplexing, because for centuries there was a custom to fast on a yartziet, on the anniversary of a death; Rabbi Moshe Sofer and Rabbi Joseph Saul Nathansohn, two renowned Rabbinic authors, found the idea of celebrating an anniversary of a death too strange to accept.

Lag Baomer is a grand celebration with an uncertain foundation.

But that may very well be the point. It is a holiday to see the unseen.

Someone just reminded me of a line in The Little Prince that says:

“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

That is the foundation of Lag Baomer. Much like the poetry of Midrash and the insight of Kabbalah, there is another way of seeing reality, grounded in imagination, potential, and vision. And that is what Lag Baomer celebrates. 

When seeing the world through Lag Baomer eyes, an unknown mountain can be a new Mount Sinai, the death of a great man can bring illumination to the world, and after hiding and running, an exiled people can find their way.

Lag Baomer teaches us to see differently, and to look beyond darkness and beyond dejection.

In the last century Lag Baomer has been an inspiration to two very different groups who seek redemption. It inspires mystics looking for a way to bring the soul out of its exile in this material world. But it also has inspired those who wanted to bring Jews out of their exile in the material world.

For Zionists, Lag Baomer is also about seeing the unseen. They saw Lag Baomer as a way of completing the rebellion of Bar Kochva, and seeing within what was once a historic defeat the possibility of a future victory.

For this reason Zionist youth organizations sponsored Lag Baomer events, with archery contests and long hikes. They were building a new generation that would return to the land ready for whatever challenges might arise. Yes, they were pursuing what Theodor Herzl would refer to as “a fairytale”. But they were inspired to see unseen, and to find a way to bring the fairytale to life.

In 1949, the first Lag Baomer after The War of Independence, Meron was filled with the representatives of the Israeli government and Israeli army. Just a year earlier there had been a dramatic battle in Tzefat and Meron, and the local community was overjoyed that they were now part of the State of Israel. Rav Yehuda Leib Fishman, the Minister of Religion for the new Jewish State spoke, and lit the torch for the bonfire. The newsreels of Lag Baomer1949 show groups of soldiers singing and dancing, carrying a Torah came to join in the festivities at Meron.

The participants in 1949  knew that Jews had long been inspired to see the unseen on Meron; but that year, they could see a miracle with their own eyes.

Lag Baomer that year had come to life.