Friday, July 31, 2020
Thursday, July 30, 2020
This Tisha B'Av must be different.
There is a custom among some Chasidic Jews to play pranks on each other on Tisha B'Av. In many places to have the children throw berelach, little thistles during Kinot to lighten up the mood. Chasidic leaders felt that the Jews in Eastern Europe lived with too much difficulty and sadness, and a painful Tisha B'Av would do more harm than good.
These strange customs have a firm foundation in the themes of the day. Tisha B'Av has two sides to it. It is first and foremost, a day of mourning and grief. It is the day in which we remember not just the destruction of both Temples, but all of the catastrophes during the 2000 years of exile.
But aside from this, there is another side. Tisha B'Av is also a day of comfort. On the afternoon of Tisha B'Av, we recite a prayer, Nachem, to ask for comfort. We get up from our low chairs, put on our tallit and tefillin, and in these small comforts recall the Talmudic tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av.
Most years, it is more important to discuss the difficult side of Tisha B'Av. It is easy for us who are so comfortable to lose touch with the difficulties our ancestors endured. It is easy for us to become complacent and not search for a way to make the world better.
But this year, we must have a Chasidic Tisha B'Av. We have had enough difficulty and enough uncertainty. We do not need to be brought lower, to find greater sadness. Right now, we need to find as much comfort as we can, even on Tisha B'Av.
And the comfort that we have is in recognizing how far we have come. We need to recognize that the previous generations, whose tragedies we mourn, would have so much joy to see how far we have come. We have built a State of Israel, a miracle on the world stage. We have come so far.
Danny Gordis related an anecdote from the years of the intifada:
It was a time in Jerusalem when life was sad, and often frightening…..That holiday morning, as I made my way out of shul for Yizkor (since my immediate family is all still living), Siggy, who sat not far from the door, grabbed my arm just as I was about to step outside.
“You’re going out for Yizkor?” he asked me. When I nodded, somewhat perplexed, he continued. “When we first got here, after the war, there wasn’t a single person who could go out for Yizkor.
Not a single one.” And then, he said, “Ba’u od milhamot venaflu od banim.”
“More wars followed, and more boys fell. So for more years, no one could go out for Yizkor.”
He stopped for a moment, and I saw that his lips were trembling, ever so slightly. He pointed to the courtyard right outside our shul. “Ve’achshav, tistakel – kulam bahutz.” “And now, look!” he pressed me. “Everyone’s outside.” “Hamedina hazot nes.” “This country is a miracle.”
This year has so many of us feeling so low, after a 4-month battle with a horrible plague; but we can turn to Tisha B'Av for comfort. We can look at the arc of history, and recognize that we truly are the privileged ones. Even as we suffer, we are comforted by the fact that we already have overcome so much, and we will continue to do so in the future.
And we can be comforted that if the authors of the Kinot were here today, they would be smiling, even if it is Tisha B’Av.
Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Monday, July 27, 2020
Thursday, July 23, 2020
Monday, July 20, 2020
Thursday, July 16, 2020
Monday, July 13, 2020
Wednesday, July 08, 2020
Monday, July 06, 2020
Friday, July 03, 2020
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.