Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Our Family Has Arrived


A local Eilat brewery changed it's label with the new slogan of Israel: "Together we will win."

 "Abram ha’Ivri" is a curious term, most often associated with Egypt, and first used in our Torah reading. The meaning of the word Ivri is unclear. But one interpretation in the Midrash is influential in its own right. Rabbi Judah interprets Ivri as meaning "the entire world is on one side and Abraham is on the other (m'ever) side." Rabbi Judah sees in this phrase a critical aspect of Abraham's mission: to stand apart from the rest of the world. Jews are meant to remain eternal iconoclasts, beginning with the rejection of idolatry.


To live apart need not mean living alone. Abraham himself had close allies; Mamre, Eshkol and Aner are mentioned in the very same verse as having formed a covenant with Abraham. There were people, then as now, who appreciated the Jews for their differences, not despite them. 


These allies are exceptionally important now. As I traveled through Israel this week, Israelis of every political persuasion told me how grateful they were for stalwart support, both military and diplomatic, that the United States and President Biden have offered to Israel during this war. And it is not just the United States; England, France and Germany among others have come forward in support. Israel is not alone. Abraham would have found it difficult to fight the war against the four kings without the the support of his allies; the same is true of Israel today. 


Even so, living apart has had a profound impact on our history. The stubborn Jewish insistence on being a nation that dwells alone drew derision from the Greeks and fury from the Romans. Jewish rejection of Christianity and Islam provoked further hatred; the insistence on dwelling apart stoked theological animosity.


Through the centuries these negative attitudes morphed into antisemitism, an amalgam of attitudes that made the Jew the protagonist of all the world's ills. 


Culturally, antisemitism has shaped how Jews see themselves. Because of it, Jews were constantly under the spotlight, with the behavior of a single Jew becoming the standard by which every Jew is judged. 


The legacy of this spotlight endures. Even after being granted political rights, many Jews made sure to carefully modify their behavior to become more acceptable to non-Jews. At times, they would cut off their Jewish legs to fit the shortened bed of "tolerance" the hostile world offered them, and imitate the very people who ridiculed them. 


Among non-Jews, the constant and careful examination of Jews to see if they are actually worthy of being treated as equals became a stealth form of antisemitism, an expression of disgust hidden under the mask of "honest criticism." Under this protocol, every Jewish criminal is highlighted, and every Jewish misdeed exaggerated.


Both of these responses are on full display during this conflict. Jewish students who desperately want acceptance avoid expressing public support for Israel; a small group of them have become her fiercist critics. It is a Jewish Stockholm Syndrome, an unhealthy need to identify with those who detest you, the product of centuries of exclusion. 


At the same time, Jewish students are watching their friends rush to go out and protest on behalf of Hamas, even before Israel responded. These students feel profoundly betrayed by classmates and teachers who celebrate those who murdered their fellow Jews.


This one-sided perspective of "honest criticism" of Jews leads to this. A monstrous massacre of burning, beheading, raping and kidnapping is quickly ignored and put on the back burner. At the same time, any misstep by Israel is immediately seized upon. If Israel is thought to have bombed a hospital, the world is up in arms. When it turns out that Islamic Jihad actually bombed the hospital, the very same Palestinian deaths are no longer worth discussing. 


Although I could certainly go on, I want to turn to another aspect of Jewish identity found in this week's parsha: a deep loyalty to family.


The Torah speaks at length about Abraham's war. Four kings come from the East to Canaan, to reassert their control over five local kings. Abraham rushes to defend the local kings. 


One might wonder why this is relevant to Abraham's biography and included in the Torah's account. Is it to show that Abraham is a capable general? Is it because he felt deeply connected to the local nations? 


The answer is offered by the way the Torah phrases how Abraham heard the news. It says "and Abram heard that his brother was taken captive..." Lot, Abraham's nephew, was taken captive during the war; and Abraham rushes to set him free. The Torah actually calls Lot a brother even though he's a nephew, to let us know that for Abraham, Lot is a brother. And this perspective that Jews are a family, rather than an ordinary nation, stands at the center of Jewish identity. 


Abraham's war to free Lot is the first example in Jewish literature of what the rabbinic tradition calls pidyon shevuyim, the ransoming of captives. Charity must be raised to ransom any Jew, even a compete stranger; and pidyon shevuyim is considered by the Talmud to be the highest form of charity. No Jew can be left behind.


The Jewish passion for ransoming captives became so large, that the Talmud had to insist that no ransom exceed the normal price one would pay for a slave; they didn't want kidnappers to target Jews. What is fascinating is that Jews continued to pay large ransoms, and developed halakhic rationales to allow it. The long history of ransoming captives is best explained by this: The Jewish people consider themselves to be one large family. 


I was in Israel this past week with Rabbi Josh Lookstein on a mission on behalf of our community. Everywhere we went, we repeatedly spoke about this bond of family. Israelis I met were moved to hear about all our community has been doing on behalf of Israel at this time. The metaphor of family came up often; and the remarkable organizations that have sprouted up everywhere to help the soldiers and the displaced are a reflection of this idea. I will have more to say about this on Shabbat, when I deliver the Leah Modlin Annual Lecture on Caring and Community Service. There are so many exceptional stories. 


But one last story for this article. In Ichilov Hospital, I met a young man, Omer, who was saved because someone in his group messaged a friend, who then drove down to save them. I was told that this was not unique; multiple people, after getting a text jumped into their cars to help family and friends.


One such story, which has been reported widely, is about the Tibon family. Amir and Miri Tibon and their two little daughters live in Nachal Oz. They entered their safe room after hearing the sirens; a little while later they heard gunshots, and Amir immediately understood there were terrorists in the Kibbutz. He immediately texted his father, Noam, a retired general, saying Nachal Oz had been invaded. His father wrote back: "I'm coming."


Noam drove south. Much happened to Noam along the way, including a firefight with Hamas terrorists and transporting wounded soldiers. It took a lot of time. Noam finally met up with another retired general, and together they drove to Nachal Oz. There, they joined forces with a small group of soldiers that were getting ready to liberate the Kibbutz.


Meanwhile, inside the safe room, the two young girls were barely able to remain disciplined. But Amir told them not to worry, their grandfather, Saba, is coming. They just had to stay quiet a little longer.


Finally Noam made his way to the house, knocked on the window of the safe room and said, "I'm here." The two little girls jumped up and shouted: "Saba Higiyah," "grandfather has arrived."


I have thought about this story throughout the last two weeks. Family shows up when their relatives are in need. What I can tell you is that Israel's needs are enormous, economically, militarily and emotionally. This the greatest crisis since the Yom Kippur War, and may even be larger than that as well. Before I went to Israel, I had monitored the news constantly. I imagined then I understood what was happening; but now I realize things are even more desperate than I previously thought. 


I know our community has done so much already. But this is going to be a long journey, and we must not quit. We will need to give more, lobby more, demonstrate more, and just do more of everything. Because when family needs you, no distance is too long.

Just ask Noam. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

We Will Rebuild, Even After This


Love at the Western Wall, Jerusalem.

Jewish history seems to be impossible. How can a tiny nation persevere despite centuries of persecution? This question has been posed many times by many observers. Mark Twain wrote the following in an essay for Harper's Magazine in 1898:


All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?


Many countries mastered Empire-building. Twain lists the empires that once dominated the world but have since shriveled away: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. They had dominating militaries and well-developed economies. But once these empires fell apart, they couldn't rebuild.


On the other hand, Jews have always known how to overcome adversity. The Yiddish phrase mir zaynen du, “we are here,” is both a description of Jewish history as well as the vow of Jewish determination.


After the barbaric Simchat Torah Massacre, we have once again seen Jewish determination in action. Israelis have come together to fight for their country, and the Jewish world has stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Israel. Rabbi Joe Wolfson in Tel Aviv described it this way: “I have lived 100 years in 5 days. If there is one thing I know it's this: If we are like this we are truly undefeatable.”


This courageous response is far from instinctive. Grief is an all-encompassing emotion. The darkness felt after experiencing trauma seems to lead in only one direction: resignation.


Comfort seems unattainable at such times. And this is what happens to Noah. After the flood, after the entire world is wiped out before his eyes, Noah immediately plants a vineyard and drinks its wine. George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Alcohol is the anesthetic which enables the bereft man to endure the painful operation of living.” Noah is simply searching for a way to numb the pain.


Another Biblical character, Lot, does much the same. After witnessing the destruction of Sodom, including the loss of several family members, he too turns to the bottle and gets drunk.


At first glance, their response is reasonable. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 70a) remarks that “wine was only created in order to comfort mourners.” Noah and Lot are mourners searching for a way to cope with the pain.


Yet the verdict on their drinking is negative. Noah falls into a stupor and lies naked in clear sight of his children; he is later humiliated by his son and grandson. Lot, when he gets drunk, is seduced by his daughters. The outcome of these Biblical episodes is meant as an editorial comment; Noah and Lot’s drinking is implicitly condemned. But the question remains: What did they do wrong? Didn’t the Talmud say that is what wine is for?


The answer can be found in a Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 36:3). It quotes the verse (Genesis 9:20) that says, “Noah, a man of the soil, began to plant a vineyard,” and comments:


Noah, a man of the soil, began [vayaḥel] – he lost his holiness and became ordinary [ḥulin].


Using a play on the Hebrew word vayahel, the Midrash deems Noah’s behavior as merely ordinary, rather than holy. This itself is a bit puzzling; what status of holiness did Noah have? Generally, it is the Kohanim (priests) and sacred items that are considered to be uniquely holy because they are involved in the Temple service.


But that is exactly the point. Kohanim are prohibited from drinking when they are on call to serve in the Temple; they must be fully focused on their divine service. Like the Kohanim, this Midrash argues that Noah also had a divine mission.


Noah’s failure is that he didn’t realize this. Another Midrash criticizes Noah for not wanting to leave the ark. Perhaps for an ordinary person, that would be completely understandable; who would want to go out and witness the destruction the flood left behind?


But more is demanded of Noah. If God selected him to be the only survivor of the flood, that means that Noah is being designated for the mission of rebuilding the world. He must not hide in the ark; and like a Kohen, he must remain focused on his mission and not get drunk and distracted. Noah must go out and rebuild the world.


The Midrash concludes by saying:


And he planted a vineyard.” Should Noah not have planted something else that was constructive, perhaps a fig tree branch or an olive tree branch? Instead, “he planted a vineyard.”


Noah missed his calling.


Jews see rebuilding as sacred. In the previous generation, many of the Holocaust survivors, broken in both body and soul, saw their mission as rebuilding what was destroyed. They fought to create the State of Israel, established Jewish communities, schools, and synagogues, and built beautiful Jewish families.


Here, one can find the elusive secret of Jewish survival: the determination to rebuild.


This belief in rebuilding is part of Israel’s DNA. Even during the worst days of the intifada, Israel moved forward. Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin, two journalists who lived in Israel between 2000-2007 wrote 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.


One must never allow destruction to be the final chapter.


Israel today is filled with grief, anxiety, and heartbreak. A cartoon now circulating shows a caricature of the map of Israel lying on the couch, while Sigmund Freud listens. The caption reads: “How does one find a psychologist for 9.3 million people?” So many families have experienced horrific loss; the families of hostages sit helplessly as their loved ones are held by a group of depraved murderers. Every Israeli, and every Jew, is heartbroken.


Even so, Israel is rebuilding. In Kibbutz Be’eri, where Hamas destroyed dozens of homes and murdered over 100 people, the famous printing house, which is the largest business in the area, has reopened. The surviving children, who are now housed in a hotel in the center of Israel, once again have a kindergarten in their hotel. Photos of it were posted online. They look pretty ordinary: toys, books, cheery signs, and sippy cups with each child’s name. Yet that kindergarten is quite extraordinary.


The weddings are also extraordinary. The Talmud says that every rejoicing bride and groom is the equivalent of rebuilding one of the destroyed buildings of Jerusalem; and today in Israel, young couples are coming forward to take part in the heroic act of Jewish rebuilding.


Tamar and Adir had not yet made plans to get married. But once the war broke out, they decided it was time; the future could no longer wait. They had a joyous wedding near the front, and walked down the aisle in their military uniforms. The video of them dancing with their parents into the Chuppah has gone viral in Israel. There are so many weddings of this kind, that one newspaper wrote an article about all of the “Weddings Under Fire.”


Total strangers have come forward to help with these celebrations. Aviva and Yisrael, one of the engaged couples that moved up their wedding date, had decided to have a simple affair; their family, who lived in the South, couldn’t leave their homes to attend. They asked a local rabbi to help with a minyan for the wedding. The Rabbi shared the request on social media.


Aviva explains what happened next:


Two amazing guys from Ramot, Naveh and Ori, stepped in and helped organize everything. A hall, food, a photographer, musicians, and a DJ all materialized seemingly from thin air—the goodwill of Jewish people wishing to celebrate with a brother and sister they’d never met.


Every wedding is another step towards a better future. The Jewish tradition encourages the brokenhearted to find the inner strength to marry, have babies, and build communities, even after they have experienced death and destruction. The Jewish way forward is the way of rebuilding. And that has been the secret of Jewish survival.


We are all uncertain what will happen in the next few months. But one thing is certain: Israel will rebuild. Jews have always been ready to write the next chapter of Jewish History.


Am Yisrael Chai!

Friday, October 13, 2023

Despite the Tears, A Shehecheyanu


Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets troops on the Gaza border, October 10, 2023

There are times when the grief-stricken must recite a Shehecheyanu.


This blessing is meant for joyous occasions and thanks God for having "kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.”


When one is grieving, this blessing seems out of place. But Jewish law expects mourners to recite this blessing when they are the beneficiaries of a gift. We don’t ignore the good, even in the worst circumstances.


This past week, I was thinking about a Shehecheyanu that was recited 80 years ago.


In Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach recounts when the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Spira, recited this blessing on a Chanukah evening in the Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp:


….a wooden clog, the shoe of one of the inmates, became a hanukkiah; strings pulled from a concentration camp uniform, a wick; and the black camp shoe polish, oil.


Not far from the heaps of the bodies, the living skeletons assembled to participate in the kindling of Hanukkah lights.


The Rabbi of Bluzhov lit the first light and chanted the first two blessings…When he was about to recite the third blessing, he stopped, turned his head, and looked around as if he were searching for something.


Immediately, he turned his face back to the quivering small lights and in a strong, reassuring, comforting voice, chanted the third, Shehecheyanu blessing: "Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment."


Among the people present at the kindling of the lights was Mr. Zamietchkowski, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Bund….Afterward, he turned to the rabbi and said, "I can understand your need to light Hanukkah candles in these wretched times. I can even understand the historical note of the second blessing, 'Who brought miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season.' But the fact that you recited the third blessing is beyond me. How could you thank God and say 'Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord our God, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment'? How could you say it when hundreds of dead Jewish bodies are literally lying within the shadows of the Hanukkah lights …and millions more are being massacred? For this you are thankful to God? For this you praise the Lord? This you call 'keeping us alive'?"


"Zamietchkowski, you are a hundred percent right," answered the rabbi. "When I reached the third blessing, I also hesitated and asked myself, what should I do with this blessing? … But as I turned my head, I noticed that behind me a throng was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith and devotion... I said to myself, if God, blessed be He, has such a nation that at times like these ... stand and … listen to the Hanukkah blessing, … if, indeed, I was blessed to see such a people with so much faith and fervor, then I am under a special obligation to recite the third blessing.”


What the Bluzhever said is particularly relevant now, as we search for hope while engulfed by tragedy. 


Yes, our grief is overwhelming. A friend of mine in Israel told me that his children who serve in the IDF have lost more friends in the past few days than he did in his lifetime. Entire families have been wiped out. The loss is so severe, that Israeli cemeteries are calling for volunteers to dig graves. The Jewish people are in mourning, just two degrees of separation from someone who was murdered or kidnapped.


Analogies fail when it comes to this attack. To call it a pogrom is a dramatic understatement. Even 9/11, which remains a deep American trauma 22 years later, pales in comparison to this attack; the Simchat Torah massacre is the equivalent of thirteen 9/11s. The only proper analogy for the two days of horror is the Holocaust.


The barbarism of Hamas is incomprehensible. They murdered individuals by shooting them at point-blank range with rocket-propelled grenades. They slit throats. They massacred 40 babies. They took such pride in their depravity that they videotaped what they did.


Actually, incomprehensible is the wrong word to describe Hamas’ crimes. Good people simply have a failure of imagination, and they often refuse to understand the mindset of those who are evil. And that is a flaw. It hobbles democracies when they have to take on dictatorships; they imagine they can negotiate with those who are ruthless, and “bring out the best” in them. One who desires love finds it difficult to imagine that there are people who have a passion for cruelty.


Our Torah reading introduces us to Lemech, the first person who takes joy in violence. He boastfully recites the following poem to his wives:


For I have killed a man as soon as I wounded him,

Even a young man as soon as I hurt him.

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,

Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.


This passage is enigmatic and difficult to interpret, and commentators offer multiple approaches. But the above translation is based on the commentary of Umberto Cassuto, who follows the approach of Rabbeinu Bachya. Lemech is the one who popularizes violence; his son is the inventor of the sword. Lemech sings about how strong he is, how easily he killed a young boy who displeased him; as Cassuto puts it, Lemech “boasts with great bravado of this cruel murder.”


There are always people who love violence. Lemech, and his son Tubal-Cain, refine the brutality of their ancestor Cain. While most people compose songs of love and inspiration, Lemech sings a song of death. And the Torah wants to show us, up close, that there are evil human beings like Lemech in this world.


It is fascinating that Lemech refers to God’s protection of Cain. This reminds us that forgiveness is not endless. Perhaps Cain deserved God’s mercy; he had committed a then-unfamiliar crime and did so in extreme jealousy. But Lemech mocks God’s kindness towards Cain by expecting the same for himself. This violent murderer has the brazen chutzpah to demand forgiveness afterward.


What Hamas and its helpers in the international community do is pretty much the same. They expect all of their brutal crimes to be completely forgiven and any mistake by Israel to be severely punished. Our dear member Gilad Erdan has to combat the endless lies disseminated in the United Nations; dictatorships that murder their own people come forward to criticize Israel, and everyone sits and listens seriously to their prattling propaganda. But Hamas’ constant lying shouldn’t surprise us; if you're willing to murder babies, how difficult is it to lie?


For the tragedies of this past week we all weep, and our eyes flow with tears. Yet even so, we must make a Shehecheyanu, just like the Bluzhever Rebbe.


We must make a Shehecheyanu on exceptional kindness. A friend described what is happening in Israel as a “balagan of chesed,” or a chaotic whirlwind of kindness. Everywhere people are running and doing what they can for those in need. One Chabad in Jerusalem packed 25,000 sandwiches for the soldiers. There are hours-long waits at hospitals to donate blood, because so many people have come forward. Hundreds of volunteers have come to Soroka Hospital to help the wounded and their families with laundry, prescriptions, and rides. And here in New York, a lone man stood inside Kennedy Airport, buying plane tickets for soldiers returning home.


We have to make a Shehecheyanu on the beautiful unity. This was not the case at all a few weeks ago; but now, in a crisis, Israel has once again pulled together. (But why does it have to wait for a crisis?) Yotam and Assaf Doctor, who own the aptly named “Brothers Restaurant” in Tel Aviv, started delivering thousands of meals to the front lines. But many soldiers wouldn’t eat them, because the restaurant wasn’t kosher. What did the Doctor brothers do? They called in the Rabbinate, and for the first time, became a kosher restaurant. The Jewish people are brothers and sisters; and family must stick together, in good times and in bad.


We have to make a Shehecheyanu because of extraordinary courage. Perhaps, as the Haggadah says, in every generation someone comes to destroy the Jewish people. But more important to remember is that in every generation we have found the courage to overcome those enemies. They have been tossed into the ash-heap of history, and we are still here.


This brings me to another Shehecheyanu story, from just a few days ago. Israeli media shared a video of David, a soldier in camouflage netting, holding his smartphone. David was participating in his son’s bris, and saying his blessings while in the field of battle. Following the Sephardic tradition, David recited the Shehecheyanu blessing.


A pessimist might object to his Shehecheyanu, and see this as a moment of extreme disappointment. A young father should be with his family, not on the front lines endangering his life. A young mother should have her husband at her side, rather than worrying about if he will ever get to hold his baby boy.


Even so, David’s Shehecheyanu is a meaningful blessing, and expresses the destiny of the Jewish people. For much of Jewish history, we were defenseless. That ended with the establishment of the State of Israel. That’s why, despite the circumstances, David can say Shehecheyanu.


At the end of the bris, David and his fellow soldiers recited the words from Ezekiel (16:6), “And I said to you in your blood you shall live, and I said to you in your blood you shall live." Some of the soldiers began to cry. It is a time of bloodshed; these soldiers have witnessed the aftermath of Hamas’ atrocities. But the message of Ezekiel is that even in the worst times, Jews know that there will be better days ahead. Even amidst the blood, there shall be new life.


And for that, we can all make a Shehecheyanu.


Am Yisrael Chai!