“DAYEINU” and Tootsie Rolls

I know that it has been quite a while since I’ve written a blog but my schedule now is quite full and I’ve always felt that the purpose of writing this blog is to share personal thoughts or experiences that I feel are worth sharing and not simply writing for the purpose of writing. This past Yom Tov of Pesach gave me some time to reflect on different things, especially how the messages of the holiday should impact all of us. And so, I share this message with you.

Those of you who may have reached a more mature age may remember, as I do, the childhood exercise of reading the ingredients on a candy bar to see if we could eat it?

“Let’s see…hmmm. ‘Vegetable shortening’-well, that’s good. Do I have to have pure vegetable shortening or not?” “Ooooo, ‘Artificial Flavors and Colors’ well, nothing wrong with that, I guess.”

Of course we have become far more sophisticated and knowledgeable in kashrut matters and we realize that there are too many variables in the make-up of a food product so we understand now that foods are acceptable only with a reliable supervision. I had often thought of this while teaching my Middle School students. I would share with these young-adult students how fortunate they were to have Hershey’s and Nestle’s and even M&Ms available to them. Yet, inevitably, there was a voice raised in protest:

“Yeah, but why can’t we have Tootsie Rolls?” (At that time, they still had no kashrut certification)

It was, what I called, “The syndrome of original Man,” a “disorder” I’m sure you’ve all experienced. God told Adam “You may eat from every tree in the garden.” Adam could have it all. Nothing would being denied to him except……..that one tree! And you know what he wanted? What he just “had to have?” The fruit from that one tree. The Tootsie Roll of the Garden of Eden!

And you know who else suffered from that syndrome? The wicked Haman! Think about it!  EVERYBODY bowed down to him. All the nobles and servants in the King’s court kowtowed to the great Haman. But he wasn’t happy. Because there was this one Jew….. Well, you know the story.

But in studying the Haggada, I feared that its authors may have be blind to this widespread syndrome.

“Da, da yeinu, Da, da, yeinu, Da, da yeinu, Dayeinu, Dayeinu”
One of the favorite parts of the Seder

“It would have been enough!” Yes, God, it would have been enough for us had you but taken us out of מצרים” – that alone would have satisfied us! And yet you did so much more!
That is what we claim at our Seder
Really?
It would have been enough??
Uhhh, remember, Tootsie Rolls!!
Would we really have been satisfied were we to have been “dumped off” in the desert and left to fend for ourselves?
Weren’t the editors of the Haggada familiar with the temperament of our nation???
We would have been satisfied??
I‘m not so sure.
So perhaps we would do ourselves a favor and try to better understand the true message this popular chant delivers to us.
Because a closer analysis of the Haggada will lead us to the conclusion that we might very well have been misinterpreting this well-known poem, and for too long we really have not understood its message or its import.
In actuality, the authors were not telling God that “it would have been enough”
Or that we would have been satisfied.
Or that He didn’t have to do any more for us.
Not at all. They were telling us, the reader, the Jews, that “it is more than enough!”
That is, more than enough reason for us to sing praises to G-d! And -that any one of the kindnesses that Hashem showered upon us in Egypt would have sufficed to obligate us to thank Him and to praise Him!
It is a song reminding us to stop complaining about the lack of Tootsie Rolls!
For when we look at the events of the exodus one at a time, miracle by miracle, we start to realize how many reasons we have for which to thank God.
It is precisely for this reason that we begin to recite the Hallel soon after Dayeinu.
Dayeinu is actually an introduction to our praising Hashem!

But beside the obligation to thank Hashem, this prayer does something else as well: it teaches us a crucial lesson, one especially important for our generation:
It tells us that Redemption is a process. It takes place step by step, miracle by miracle.
That being so, we are challenged to understand that geula, the redemption, takes time.

And unless we pause and perceive the steps we have gone through-unless we step back to understand the remarkable progress we have made and unless we realize the myriad of kindnesses God has done for us-we will fail to recognize the entire process and how much we need to thank God.
And if this happens, we will never understand our need to sing the Hallel and we will never be satisfied!
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
For this reason, I believe that perhaps it is time for us to add some lines to Dayeinu, or at least consider these additions when sitting around the Seder table:

Had You provided refuge to our survivors and not given us an independent State…Dayeinu
Had You given us a State and not blessed us with visionary leaders…Dayeinu
Has You granted us visionary leaders but not inspired courageous soldiers…Dayeinu
Had You inspired courageous soldiers but not helped us absorb millions of immigrants…Dayeinu
Had You helped us absorb immigrants but not have the desert bloom…Dayeinu
…And on and on…
…but not given us the highest percentage of scientists in the world…Dayeinu
…but not given us the highest percentage of engineers in the world…Dayeinu
…but not given us the highest percentage of PhDs in the world…Dayeinu
…but not given us the highest percentage of physicians in the world…Dayeinu
…but not given us the largest number of start-ups in the world…Dayeinu
…but not made us the largest wholesale diamond center in the world…Dayeinu
…but not let us have the more museums per capita than any other nation…Dayeinu
…but not grant us more orchestras per capita than any other nation…Dayeinu
…but not teach us to publish more books per capita than any other nation…
…but not develop the most productive dairy cows in the world…
…but not have a most powerful army…
…but not have the third most stable economy in the world…
…but not have the humanity to provide medical, economic and agricultural aid to suffering nations…

DAYEINU DAYEINU DAYEINU!!!!!!!!!!!!!
ENOUGH, ENOUGH, ENOUGH !!!!!!!!!!!

We have so many reasons to thank You!

My friends, we do not live in a simple world or at simple time. Listening to the daily news reports, reading the newspapers and watching the TV news can give us a very twisted view of the events taking place in Holy Land where we are privileged to live.
As a result, we are too often blinded to the blessings that surround us all day and every day. We are led to see the negative and not the positive. We complain about the lack while failing to appreciate excess.
So that we, like my students, complain because we don’t have Tootsie Rolls!

In the special Haftarah we read on the Shabbat before Pesach the prophet Malachi says a remarkable thing. Although the Torah warns us not to “test G-d, the navi tells us that God Himself challenges us to do just that!
He promises great reward to His people and then He tells them:

“Now go and test me regarding this promise”

And He goes on to make the following remarkable promise:
“See whether, when the nation returns, if I don’t open up the ‘windows’ in heaven….”
And, listen carefully,  “….‘empty out’ my storehouse of goodness and shower you with blessing…” “ad b’li dei”- “…that is unending!”
In analyzing the prophetic vision of this “unending blessing”, Chazal add a brilliant comment.
They state that these words imply that G-d’s blessings would lead to a situation where
“Your lips will wear out from saying ‘dai!’ ‘ENOUGH!!”
You see, we may have failed to say “Dayeinu” in the past, but G-d promises that, in the future, we will get weary of saying it! Because, in the future, we will finally recognize the miracles that we had been taking for granted for too long.-We will focus on the miracles-NOT on the impurity; on the accomplishments and NOT on the shortcomings.
We will see the redemption and praise G-d for it.

Some may argue that we do not have it all in our blessed land. But it IS a blessed land So let’s make an effort to focus on those blessings and thank Hashem for them. And let us also understand that each and every day more and more of the geula is being revealed to us
And if our lips will tire from saying “dai, they should tire even more from saying “Dayeinu, thanking God for all He has given us”

-….even if we didn’t have kosher Tootsie Rolls when we wanted them.

Reacting To Reactions

“For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again” [Proverbs 24:16]

Undoubtedly, one of the more challenging biblical episodes I have had to teach Middle-School students over the past 40 years is that of King David and Bat-Sheva.  Clearly, every Tanach teacher of pre-teens who faces this challenge must determine how best to present this story in an age-appropriate fashion. But I have also found it necessary to prepare for the students’ reaction to the behavior of their righteous hero, King David. Reactions that, I learned, could often be quite emotional and agitated.

It was therefore my practice to introduce the entire episode with the aforementioned quotation from the book of Mishle, Proverbs: “For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again.”  It was a quotation that adorned my chalkboard (and, eventually the SmartBoard) throughout our study of the three chapters in which the account unfolds. I would begin the study by pointing to this verse and explaining that righteousness is not reached through one’s deeds alone but also through the response to one’s misdeeds.  So let us wait until the story unfolds and we see King David’s reaction before we react. The true nature of a tsaddik is best revealed not by never stumbling but by how he views himself after he stumbles: Is she able to admit her sin? Does he understand his trespass? Does she show true contrition and, as a result, repent?  Simply, a tsaddik is not judged by his/her actions but by their REactions.

The truth of these words hit home through the events of these past months.

The city of Amsterdam will give its Jewish community $11 million

Thus read the headline in the newspaper.  I was fascinated and needed to find out the details of such a generous offer and so I began reading the article.  The article explained that: “according to Yad Vashem, about 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded the country in May 1940….. The final tally of Jews deported stood at 107,000 in 1944, [so that] only 5,000 returned after the war. Over 75 percent of the Netherlands’ Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.”

Although these facts were important they had not yet explained the largesse that would be given to the Amsterdam Jewish Community. And so, I continued to read:

The issue first made headlines in 2014, when a historical study discovered that hundreds of Dutch Holocaust survivors who returned to Amsterdam after the war were required to settle overdue bills, city taxes and fines, accumulated while they were in camps or in hiding. ………. Even Jews who returned from Auschwitz were required to pay the bills, including money owed for gas that was unpaid by squatters residing in their property during the war.

I reread the article. Twice. I had to make sure that I had read it correctly because I simply could not believe it.  I was seething with rage at the absolute immorality of the city fathers and their insensitivity to the plight of the few survivors that they displayed at that time.  Yet, I realized that now they had reacted properly to their “misdeed” and would begin to make amends.  It was important for me to understand that and to accept that.  So why was I still irate and filled with feelings of outrage?

And I figured it out.

It was 71.

71 years.

It took 71 years to address and finally redress the unconscionable act!!!  It seems that successive city councils had brought up the issue but tabled it repeatedly.  So now, after almost every survivor had passed on, after those who suffered that double ignominy were gone, after the victims to whom that money was owed were no longer around to collect it, the Amsterdam municipality reacted.  It took the next generation, actually the third generation, to own up to the shameful acts of their grandparents and act to remove their shame.  So I wondered: is this the response to misdeeds that the Book of Proverbs, speaks about?  Is this the act of the penitent? Of the remorseful?  Is this the reaction of the righteous?

Perhaps that is why I remained outraged.

And yet, reactions are important and often indicative of one’s sincerity and true feelings.

A week ago, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe [CLAE] charged German museums with theft for having handed over artwork looted from Jewish homes to prominent Nazi families after the Holocaust.  The Bavarian State Galleries, who were given the restitution task by American authorities in 1949, kept some of the works and sold others to individuals, according to the CLAE.  Among those who purchased these precious pieces at deflated prices were the widow of Hermann Goring and the wife of Hitler’s district governor of Vienna whose husband was condemned at the Nuremberg trials for crimes against humanity, having deported 60,000 Austrian Jews.

It seems that following World War II, all confiscated artwork was to be returned to the rightful owners or their heirs.  It was part of the agreement to have the German people make amends for the losses caused by the looting and criminal confiscations during the war.  So how did they “make amends?” What was their response? How did they react to their misdeeds?

According to the CLAE, the Nazi families’ demands over the years were dealt with promptly and efficiently with little requirement to prove claims of ownership.  The looted families, however, had their claims thrown out or had impossible hurdles created to prevent them from recovering their artworks.  And the struggle to reclaim their rightful properties continues until today for the descendants of the victims.

The CLAE put it succinctly: “It seems that Bavaria thought “restitution” meant restitution to the Nazis rather than to their victims.”

Reactions.  They can tell us a lot about a person. Or an institution.

Last week we lived through a most horrendous few days with the butchering of an innocent 13 year child while she slept and the murder of a remarkable father of ten children before the very eyes of his family.  The reaction of pain and tears by communities near and far was immediate.  People from all over Israel, political leaders, venerable Rabbis, family, friends and simple Jews flocked to the funerals and houses of mourning.  After completing the shiva observance for their murdered daughter, the parents of young Hallel proceeded to travel to Otniel in order to comfort the Mark family whose husband/son/brother/father was murdered just one day after their daughter. Jews from all over came to Israel to do no more than identify with the collective pain that was felt by the entire Jewish community. Funds were established to raise money to help the victims and their families and even to provide secure transportation for those living in the area.

But those weren’t the only reactions.

The family of the Kiryat Arba attacker appeared on television that very day to praise their murderous son/brother and express their pride in him, calling him “a hero” and urging others to emulate him.   The Palestinian leadership responded as well, calling such murderers “holy martyrs” and reaffirming that the family of today’s murderer will immediately start receiving a monthly PA stipend that the PA pays to the families of all the “martyrs.”

Reactions that reflect one’s attitudes.

And what should we learn about the standing ovation given to Mahmoud Abbas by representatives of the EU after he reawakened the canard, last heard during the Middle-Ages, claiming that the Jews (actually he accused a non-existent Rabbi belonging to a non-existent Rabbinic group) demanded that their government poison the well water of the Palestinians.

What inflames our passions more-the libelous accusation or the unacceptable reaction?  What reveals more to us-the big lie or the standing ovation that followed?

There are reactions of the righteous that are remorseful and positive.

There are reactions of the far-less-than-righteous that are revealing and troubling.

“For the righteous may fall repeatedly but they arise again”

We have fallen, been thrown to the ground and trod upon by our enemies from time immemorial.  But the righteous recover and arise again.  Yet, we must get up wiser than we were.  We must learn from the revealing actions and reactions of others.  We must understand attitudes through the behavior we see repeatedly, so we do not fall again.

I pray that G-d strengthen our perception and resolve so we no longer must fall to prove to others the righteousness of our reactions.

Or of our cause.

 

Discovering Ourselves

“We went out searching for our boys……and we discovered ourselves”

This week is a very emotional one in the Jewish calendar – especially here in Israel.  Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, 3 days of memorials and celebrations, that are all condensed into the short period of a few days.  And although there is so much to share with you regarding the impact of these days for us in Israel, I have chosen to focus on a seemingly less important event, but an event that can grant us a different perspective regarding the significance of these days and these observances for us this year.

This month marks the two year anniversary of the kidnappings of the three boys, Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, a terrorist act that galvanized an entire people.  The eighteen nightmarish days between the kidnapping and the discovery of the bodies, days that were filled with desperate searches, passionate prayers and boisterous demonstrations, ended in dashed hopes and national mourning.  But from the tragedy emerged the realization that we are truly one.

During these weeks we displayed a unity, a oneness, that we had not shown in many years.  Nor was this limited to the State of Israel.  Jews around the world gathered to protest and to pray.  They sent letters to the families and to government officials.  They gathered in Times Square and in Rabin Square; they demonstrated in South Africa and South America; they prayed in the Mall and at the Wall.  For almost three weeks, our usually fractious and contentious nation stopped arguing.  Religious and Secular, Left and Right, Old and Young united for one purpose alone.  All hearts beat as one as the personal tragedy of three families put a face (or three) upon the national struggle of our people. The period of mourning and horror, therefore, became the time of self-discovery as well.

During the shiva mourning period Rav Chayim Druckman spoke to Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, and comforted her with the deepest truth and with moving words.  He told her: “We went out searching for our boys……and we discovered ourselves.”

Rachelle described this phenomenon with the following parable:

“The experience of our people during these days was much like a man who was lost in the forest on a stormy night.  There was no light to guide him onto the proper path nor could he see if there was anyone who would help. And so, as he tripped over roots and collided into unseen trees, he began to lose hope and imagined that he would never be capable of getting out of the forest.  As he pondered this frightening possibility, a flash of lightning lit up the skies and the forest so that, for a few seconds, the man was able to see where he truly was, which road he need take and all the others who were there ready to help.

Too often, we walk in a dark forest, not sure where we are or where we are going.  We are lost, believing that there is no one to help us and tripping our way through life-never really sure of whether we are capable of negotiating the obstacles and difficult times successfully-and never realizing our potential. But then come the moments, like those eighteen days, when a flash of lightning, an inspiring event, allows us see where we really are and that, indeed, there are others around us who will help.  It is that rare moment when we discover ourselves and recognize what we are capable of with the support of those who stand ready to help us.  Such moments may not come often, but if we can remember what we saw in that flash of lightning, that moment of inspiration, if we can realize that there are those around us who can and will help, we can understand our potential and work to accomplish much more than we ever imagined.

As a result of the remarkable response of Jews around the world, it was decided by the three bereaved families, the Gesher Foundation and the Mayor of Jerusalem that the date of the kidnappings would become an annual Yom Achdut, Day of Unity, when a “Jerusalem Unity Prize” would be awarded to those who have furthered harmony and accord within the people and the State of Israel.  And that day is celebrated this week, as well.

Yet, today, I truly worry.

Anti-Semitism is once more in vogue.  The guilt of the Holocaust, the active or tacit support by “civilized” countries of the murder of six million no longer haunts the consciences of these states.  Openly anti-Semitic statements expressed by members of the British Labor Party must worry us; university students who invite representatives of terror organizations to speak but deny that right to the elected leaders of the only democracy in the Middle East should trouble us and the decisions of UN committees to deny any historical connection of the Jewish nation to its holiest site needs to anger us.  Vile threats are hurled at us, historical facts are denied, truth is perverted and reality warped-all in service of the ultimate goal of delegitimizing the Jewish State and the Jewish people by erasing our past.

And yet, in my mind, none of these threaten us as much as the clear disconnect of more and more Jews from their religion, their nation and their state.  We have learned over the years to expect the hatred spewed by anti-Semites.  But must we now adjust to hearing the same vicious lies escape from the lips of our co-religionists?

Must we accept that so many Jews are members and leaders of the BDS movement?

Must we become acclimated to hearing a (former) “Jewish Outreach Coordinator” of a current presidential candidate publicly curse the Prime Minister of Israel and hold him guilty of the “murder” of 2,000 people?

Will we have to expect that the Jewish dean of a most prestigious law school would defend a student who insults a former Prime Minister and current member of the Knesset by publicly asking her why she smelled so much?

And must we understand that, though condemned by Muslim students, this perpetrator was subsequently defended by eleven Jewish students?

This past week, Daniel Gordis, well-known author and historian, wrote a powerful article in which he stated:

“To survive, Jews need instinctive loyalty to Jews…..when Jews are under attack, a long-standing instinct that has kept us going has been the instinct of loyalty.  That so many prominent Jews do not understand that is a sad indication of to where we have come.  More ominously, it may indicate where we are headed.”

And so, I worry because a mere two years after seeing the truth when lightning struck for those eighteen days, many have already lost their way and no longer search for, or care for, the others in that forest with them.

To these lost souls I recommend that they go search for their brothers.

 

Perhaps they would then discover themselves.

I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Place

Today, as I celebrate my second Purim as a citizen of the State of Israel, I look back on the past year and I can conclude that, on a personal level, it has been a very successful one. I recall writing months ago that I believed there were a few basic strategies that could ease the “klita,” the absorption into a new country.  I think that I have applied these strategies successfully, and, indeed, I came to the realization this week that I have become attuned to life here in Israel.

It was just this week when I realized that I can live opposite the cross street of Mordechai HaYehudi and Esther HaMalka and walk by them each day (including Purim), without stopping in amazement to stare at the street signs (that are, by the way, spelled differently on the opposite sides of the street). This week I also grasped the fact that I am used to seeing children AND adults walking in the streets and traveling on public transportation dressed in all types of outlandish costumes. Neither I, nor other onlookers, even raised a curious eye.

I have also adjusted to other parts of Israel such as parking at metered parking without paying the meter, simply by using my phone app, Pango.  I have become accustomed to making left turns ONLY at left turn signals and keeping an eye out for pedestrians at crosswalks.  I’ve gotten used to entering the bus through the rear door and paying my fare without having to bother the driver.

I have gotten used to emptying my pockets before entering the mall and I’m no longer surprised when I watch a sanitation driver jump off his truck on Succot morning in order to make a blessing over a Lulav and Etrog.  I have memorized my teudat zehut (ID number) and I’m used to being asked for it at most transactions.

I have learned to expect more congregants bearing arms than wearing ties in shul on Shabbat and I’ve also learned not to expect mail to arrive on time regularly.  I have adjusted to hearing horns blaring behind me if I fail to start driving even before the light turns green and to having motorcyclists cut in front of the long line of cars to cross the light before everyone else.  After some time, I also realized that purchasing 2K (kilograms) of cookies will yield me far more than I need and driving a consistent 55 kph (kilometers per hour) will find me left behind, crawling in the right lane.

Yes.  I have adjusted.  I’ve become accustomed to this place.

But, I admit, there are some things to which I have yet to adjust.  And they are quite challenging.

I have not become accustomed to being the world’s scapegoat.  I’m tired of having my country blamed for every world problem from terrorism to climate change.

I have not adjusted to being boycotted, sanctioned and divested from.

I have not accepted that the UN Human Rights Council will ignore the massacre in Syria, the terrorism in Belgium and the public executions of political prisoners in Iran in order to attack the only democracy in the Middle East by drawing up a list of all Israeli and international firms operating directly or indirectly in Judea/Samaria, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

I have not acclimated myself to the daily reports of the victims of terrorist stabbing attacks.

I have not adjusted to the acceptance of horrific anti-Semitism growing on college campuses as a “legitimate form” of anti-Zionism.

So perhaps my adjustment has not been complete,

Or perhaps, these are things I never want to adjust to.

We Want It Green – And So, It Is Green To Us

I grew up in a musical family.  Our Shabbat table rang with zemirot and accompanying harmonies, our home was filled with the sounds of my mother’s piano playing or the hi-fi (yes, not Wi-fi) radio’s classical music station.  Mostly, I recall the LP records (for those too young to remember, a record was like a CD with a goiter problem and LP meant “Long-Playing”), a library of these discs that included modern Israeli songs, Chassidic and cantorial selections and, included among them, records of Broadway musicals.

My parents loved these musicals and often would come home from a show with a recording of its music.  I was weaned upon the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein shows, Lerner and Loewe musicals and some Rogers and Hart productions as well.  There was, however, one musical that has haunted me recently.  It was not a great Broadway success and much of the music was, I suppose, quite forgettable.  But it was a musical about Israel and it was called “Milk and Honey.”  The plot revolved around the story of Jewish widows who visited Israel with an eye on finding a suitable husband there.  At one point, a prospective Israeli match explained to the women his attachment to the land.  In the show’s theme song he speaks of the beauty and attraction of Israel and then goes on to be a bit more realistic regarding the Jewish State of the 50s and early 60s and expresses a very profound thought:

“What if the earth is dry and barren?

“What if the morning sun is mean to us?

“For this is a state of mind we live in,

“We want it green-and so, it’s green to us!”

I know it has been some time since my last blog as I have been increasingly busy writing, teaching and lecturing.  As Tu B’Shvat approached I was urged to write another blog, hence the theme, “We want it green…”  But please be aware that this blog has nothing to do with Tu B’Shvat.  It does have everything to do, however, with Aliya in general and our situation in Israel in particular.

 

Before we made our Aliya, my wife and I were warned that the Israeli bureaucracy could make things difficult and, therefore, we were to expect many delays, curt civil servants and hours of frustration.  We found none of these.  Whatever bureaucracy we encountered was no worse than what we experienced in the US, the civil servants were helpful and regularly congratulated us on our Aliya and we felt almost no frustration.  As I shared my unique encounters with other recent olim, I found that they were not unique to me at all.  Why then the warnings?  Why was the word on the street so negative regarding the initial adjustment to life in Israel?

 

I came to the conclusion that, for us at least, much depended on attitude: “We want it green-and so, it’s green to us!”  When faced with the sometimes daunting challenge of successfully immigrating and adjusting to a new country and a new culture it is crucial to adopt this attitude.  It is important to see the positive and not the negative, to rejoice in what is (and will be) and not bemoan the loss of what was, to understand the now but to vision the dream of what could be; simply put, to live in a positive state of mind and see flourishing green where there may still be patches of barrenness and dryness.  If you want it green-it will be green for you.

 

Sadly, I have also seen this type of attitude used negatively, to poison the minds of so many when they view the State of Israel.  Clearly, there are differing opinions regarding the events in the Middle East.  Whether from the radical left to the radical right and any view in between one can hear emotionally powerful arguments supporting one side or the other.  But there must be some basic truths upon which all sides have to agree – otherwise, there could be no basis for an argument.  Arguments in any debate must revolve around convincing the opposing view that the agreed upon value(s) is (are) best served by one approach over the other.  For example: if one side believed that murder is wrong and must be condemned while another believed that murder is good and should be praised – any conversation about terrorist killings of innocent civilians would be a waste of breath.

 

So what happens when there is no agreement on the most basic principles??    What happens when one side is blind to facts and sees reality only as he wishes it to be and not as it is-when he sees green because he wants it to be green and not because it is?

It is an important question to ponder for that is precisely what is happening today.  There is a clear animus directed against the State of Israel by a sizeable population who, despite facts to the contrary, insists on viewing Israel as a pariah state and, as a result, has designated Israel as one of the leading causes of instability in the world and a threat to world peace.  It is an approach that belies the truth and paints the victim as the perpetrator because that is how they want it to be.  They see green because they want it to be green.

 

How else can one understand the EU’s collective decision to ignore over two-hundred disputes over “occupied” land and label only those products grown or manufactured in Judea and Samaria as coming from “occupied territories?”  Why else would a democratic government actively work to weaken the democratically elected leader of its ally?  What other reason could there be for the European states to undermine the laws of a democratic country by funding illegal construction there?  And why would the American administration campaign against the NGO bill (sponsored by Israel’s Justice Minister and up for a vote in the Knesset) that would require NGOs that are principally financed by foreign governments to identify themselves as foreign agents in their official communications and interactions when the US has, arguably, a more restrictive (!) bill in their own Foreign Agent’s Registration Act?

 

And there are more actions that reveal this willingness to deny reality and believe only what they want to be true.

  • How can the only democratic and free country in the entire Middle East that guarantees freedom of religion and equal rights for every citizen be labeled “an apartheid state” while other countries who deny rights to women and minorities, who restrict religious practices and who allow “honor killings” are accepted as equal partners and never condemned?
  • Why did we learn last month that our tax dollars are funding American espionage of Israel because the current administration regards as a top target for such activity?
  • And how could the UN Secretary General defend terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, attacks that, in this past week alone, left 12 children orphaned, by saying that it was a “natural” response for people to resist occupation?

 

How?  Why?  Because if want to believe something is what it is not-then no argument or logic will persuade you.  The victims are guilty, the perpetrators are innocent and the barren is green.

 

A story is told about the great 18th century Maggid (teller of parables) who was approached by an admirer and asked how was it that he always seemed to have a story that fit every occasion.  The Maggid smiled and said: “Let me answer with a parable: There was once an archer who was practicing his skills in the forest when a farmer came upon him and saw how every shot hit the mark-every arrow had landed right in the middle of the bull’s-eye.  He asked the archer how he became such a remarkable expert and the archer replied: ‘You simply don’t understand.  You believe that I paint the target on a tree and proceed to shoot the arrow into the bull’s-eye.  Actually, my secret is that I first shoot the arrow into the tree-and then I paint the target around the arrow.’  So too,” the Maggid explained, “I don’t hear a situation and make up the parable; I first make up the parable and then wait for the proper situation in which to use it.”

 

We have a world that draws targets after they shoot the arrows.  A world that condemns first and looks for reasons later; a society that makes up their mind without learning or even caring about the facts.  They want it green-and so it’s green to them.

 

Yes, I was brought up in a musical home and was exposed to show tune.  But I always understood that the music was merely an accompaniment to fictional stories.  How sad to see a world whose leaders endanger millions by denying reality and believing fiction. I am proud to be living in a country that, like the ladder of Jacob, has its head in the heaven of dreams while its feet are firmly planted on the ground.

 

A ground that, with God’s help, we will yet cover with green.

V’Ha’ikar, Lo L’fached Klal – Most importantly, do not fear at all!

In 1967, one month after the conclusion of the Six-Day War, I visited Israel for the first time.  Clearly, the visit made a deep emotional impact and a lasting impression on me.  But one of the lighter moments I recall came while traveling on a public bus.  Being somewhat fluent in Hebrew, I enjoyed engaging in conversation with the local residents who, invariably, preferred showing off their English proficiency to deciphering my American Hebrew.  One afternoon, a gentleman struck up a conversation with me and, upon learning that I came from New York, commented, incredulously: “And you haven’t been mugged yet?”  I gently explained that the picture you get from the news reports does not reflect the normalcy of life in the “big city,” but only the exceptions to that normalcy.

Over the years, while sitting in the United States and watching news coverage of the events in Israel, I realized that my comment on that bus ride was quite accurate.  The oft-quoted 19th century statement (the precise source is in dispute): “When a dog bites a man- that is not news but if a man bites a dog-that is news,” explains well why we get a skewed view of reality by relying only on media reports, and seeing only the exceptions and not the rule.  It caused heightened concern and tension for us who were 6,000 miles away from the events.  And that is certainly true of the current situation in Israel as well.

Despite this fact, I hesitated recording my view of the “truth” because so many have already shared their views about this subject, and their opinions can be found throughout the social media. However, I decided to accede to the many recent requests, and attempt to give you an “on-the-site” report from a Jerusalemite (it feels wonderful to describe myself as such) and to share my impressions of what my life is like here during this latest outbreak of violence.

Let me begin by telling you that my wife and I are no strangers to the tense and difficult times in Israel.  We were here in 1995 during the emotional demonstrations against the Oslo accords, we led missions during both the first and second intafadas, we were present when Jews were removed from Gaza, we experienced life in Israel during the Hezbollah shelling in the Lebanon War of 2006 and we toured the southern front during the 2014 war against Hamas (“Tzuk Eitan”).  We, therefore, had something with which to compare the mood and emotions that were engendered by this latest uprising.  In those years, we were tourists and we knew we would be leaving within weeks so whatever tension or agita we may have felt was only temporary.  Now, thank G-d, we are permanent residents, citizens who have no plans to leave.  So how do we see this violence now directed against innocent civilians, against us?

We got our first indication just a week ago.

My wife and I were sitting in our living room having a conversation when we heard the sirens.  Not one; not two.  The sirens continued while we watched the ambulances speed by.  Not one; not two. And the scenario played out that day again.  Not once; not twice.  And it continued for some days.  Not one; not two.  So we sat at our dinner table, or our desks or on the porch and waited for the dreaded sound of sirens.  Because we knew that sound meant someone was hurt-or worse.  My emotional tranquility had been broken.  And that bothered me.

And the second indication:

Twice weekly, I give a Talmud class (Daf Yomi) just some three bus stops from my home.  I happen to love the short bus ride when I have the opportunity of seeing citizens doing business on the phone, eating a late breakfast or reciting tehillim.  That morning, there was an attack on the number 78 bus, a bus I take at times on my way back from the class.  That day, I made the decision to drive to the shiur rather than take the bus.  I had been made to change my routine.  And that upset me.

And the third indication:

After Shabbat, we decided to stroll some two blocks from our apartment to a new ice-cream parlor that had recently opened and enjoy some post-Shabbat desserts.  As we stepped onto the main street, a major thoroughfare in the city, we were both taken aback by the eerie silence that greeted us.  We looked down the street, both northward and southward, and saw absolutely no one walking on this usually busy boulevard.  We glanced at each other, nodded, turned around and took our car to drive the two blocks.

These were, I believe, common-sense and responsible decisions.  Yet, these decisions angered me.

And then other events occurred that allowed me to see the situation in a very different way.  As a citizen of Israel.  As one who was no longer on the “sidelines” of history but who was part of Jewish destiny.  As a Jew who looked up to heaven and repeated the words of King David (Samuel II; 7): “And who is like Your people Israel-a unique nation on earth.”  For as I sat studying on my mirpeset (patio) one afternoon I heard sounds of music that got louder and louder.  I ran outside wondering where the music came from and I saw four flat-bed trucks with huge speakers blasting the words of R. Nachman of Breslov “… v’ha’ikar-lo l’fached klal “, “most importantly-do not fear at all!”  I stood in awe as the trucks continued driving through the streets and neighbors ran out to their porches singing and clapping hands.  And I smiled.

“Who is like Your people Israel?”

I saw young students distributing cakes and drinks to the many soldiers and policemen who were stationed throughout Jerusalem, and witnessed many adults thanking these courageous men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us citizens.  And I laughed.

“And who is like Your people Israel?”

And then, just this week, I turned to see scores of cars decorated as if it were Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, with Israeli flags flying from their windows and their horns blasting through the streets.  In this time of mortal danger for Jews, who risk having a knife thrust into their necks or a car drive over them simply because they are Jews, I saw these people proudly display exactly who they were and, by doing so, spread that feeling of pride to all who saw them.  And I rejoiced.

Indeed, “Who is like Your people Israel?”

And so, please know that all is well with us here.  These times are more difficult; these days are more challenging and we may even suffer more tragic losses, G-d forbid.  We must, therefore, be more cautious, more alert and, perhaps even change our routine.    But there is no other place that we would rather be, sharing our fate in the land we prayed for with our brave people who sing and dance and take pride in who we are.

… V’ha’ikar-lo l’fached klal “, “most importantly-do not fear at all!” because, this week we all should realize……………….

“And who is like our people Israel?” truly “a unique nation on earth.”

A Time of Joy?

“V’samachta B’chagecha,” “Moadim L’simcha,” the buses in Israel proclaim the wish for a happy, joyous holiday to all from the front and rear of each bus.  As soon as Yom Kippur ends and the public transportation resumes these holiday greetings fill the thoroughfares of Jerusalem.  And, as the sound of Succah construction and the sight of felled branches fill the streets, I am joyously reminded that I am, indeed, living in my land, and that there is nowhere else in the world where a Jew can feel so…..Jewish.  But the emotional transformation from Yom Kippur to Succot was, for me, always more complex than changing the signs on a bus.  After all, Yom Kippur is the spiritual highpoint of the year while Succot is, well, fun, enjoyable, even lighthearted.  But recently, that struggle no longer haunted me-for I no longer struggled.  Allow me to explain.

I was always proud of the Yom Kippur services in my synagogue.  As a congregational Rabbi, I always strived to make the tefillot both participative and meaningful.  And, for the most part, I think I succeeded.  I have always believed that the Yom Kippur service must stand out above the Shabbat and Yom Tov prayers in creating a special atmosphere of sanctity and sobriety, which is why I eschewed an extended “recess,” and limited the “required” break to about one hour.

At the end of the day, I left the synagogue inspired, committed to improve and feeling closer to both G-d and Man.

But I never left shul with feelings of overwhelming joy.  In fact, I never fully comprehended the Mishnaic statement (Ta’anit; 4, 8) that there were no better days than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur when the unmarried girls would dance in the vineyards and call to the young men to choose a bride.

On holy Yom Kippur?

The most solemn day on the calendar?

The day of fasting and repentance?

Furthermore, our Rabbis stated that we should feel joy, if not ecstasy, after Yom Kippur, confident that G-d will grant us the forgiveness we prayed for.

But I did not feel this “ecstasy,” nor did I understand how one could transform a day of such gravity and solemnity into a time of joy and happiness.

Yet, these conflicting moods was what was expected of me on this holy day and immediately afterward-especially as the celebration Succot, the Festival of Joy, followed a mere five days after Yom Kippur.

I was baffled and troubled…..until I spent my first Yom Kippur in Israel.

It was six years ago, toward the end of our six-month sabbatical, when we celebrated (yes, celebrated!) Yom Kippur in Alon Shvut, as guests of former synagogue members.  It was there that I learned how this holiest of days could be marked with great solemnity, with great intensity and gravity…..and with great joy!  The sincere supplications and heartfelt prayers that reminded us of our shortcomings evoked tears of regret and remorse, while the emotional recollection of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple magically erased two-thousand years of exile as we joined in a jubilant chant that brought tears of bliss to our eyes.

By the time the closing service had been completed I had been transformed and uplifted.  I left the synagogue inspired, committed to improve and feeling closer to both G-d and Man, as I had in the past.  But it was different.  This time, I felt as if I floated out of the synagogue as tears of sorrow had been transformed into tears of joy.  I was filled with ecstasy and overwhelming happiness.

And I finally understood what our Rabbis meant. And what Yom Kippur meant.

The experience had me rethink my previous assumptions about Yom Kippur and, only recently, I realized that it wasn’t the Day of Atonement that I had to redefine-it was the concept of joy.

We tend to equate joy with celebration: carefree partying, unrestrained laughter and even uncontrolled wildness.  All of these emotions often accompany joy, even reflect happiness-but they do not bring happiness nor cause joy.  As a result, we often feel that seriousness and solemnity conflicts with joy and happiness, so we believe that Yom Kippur cannot leave us happy and that Succot can never be serious.

This is simply not true.

Happiness comes from within-it comes from an inner peace brought about by a satisfaction with who you are and what direction you follow.  It can be found in the secure belief that the values you pursue are worth the sacrifice and dedication.  One can, therefore, be solemn and happy or, conversely, seemingly lighthearted yet troubled.  It is the celebration of Purim vs. the observance of Simchat Torah.  On Purim, when we mark the insecurity of life in the Diaspora, we are obligated to drink in order to create an artificial joy, one brought on by exterior stimuli. Succot, our Festival of Joy, requires no drinking and Simchat Torah is not a time of wildness.  The joy of these days comes from within.  And that inner peace is brought on by the soul-searching of Yom Kippur.

Over forty years ago, in 1973, I had a post-Succot conversation with a cousin of mine living in Jerusalem.  He told me that he, together with most citizens of Israel, had just fulfilled one of the most difficult mitzvot imaginable.  He had danced and rejoiced over the holiday at a time when so many friends and relatives were still fighting a war of survival in which many had already given their lives and many might still.

“How did you do it?” I asked him.

“We all had to dig deep down to find the joy within ourselves,” he responded, “because there was no joy to be found outside.”

A recent poll taken by the European Social Survey revealed that, as in the past, Israelis rank among the happiest people in the world, significantly beating the scores of the most wealthy of European nations including Britain, France and Italy.

But what glee do Israelis find when war threatens them every day?  What happiness can we feel when our children risk their lives daily at border crossings, roadblocks and demonstrations?  How can there be joy and ecstasy living in a world of Yom Kippur?  And as I write these very words, I am forced to add: How can we celebrate a holiday while we bury a remarkable couple who leave young orphans, victims of the latest inhuman outrage perpetrated on our nation?

We can do so only when we realize that true joy is found in the knowledge of who we are and in the pride we take in values we choose to pursue.

This, then, is the essence of “simcha,” to find the inner peace and joy in our very being, even when tragedy surrounds us.  And, for me and many others that simcha is found in the knowledge that we are, indeed, living in our land, and that there is nowhere else in the world where a Jew can feel so…..joyous.

Israel and Kids

I woke to the unusual sound of a police bullhorn blaring directives to, I assumed, a reluctant driver.

I walked out of my apartment some time later to witness a traffic jam in front of my building.

And I returned from shacharit to see a crossing guard at my corner (where there never was one before) berating a jaywalker and pulling aside overanxious motorists.

Welcome to Israel! It was September first, the first day of school

And in Israel, it is treated as an unofficial holiday.

As a new immigrant to the State I may tend to overreact to the simple things that I once took for granted in the US.  There is a first day of school there as well (something I am well aware of as a teacher for over 40 years).  And there is great anticipation (or dread) by parents and children and educators.  I know full-well that retailers there as well have been hawking “back-to school” wares for at least a month (I used to get upset while shopping as I was constantly being reminded that the new school year was soon beginning when my vacation had barely begun).  And yet…it is different here.

The day before the opening of school I turned on the radio and was serenaded with 2-3 hours(!) of Israeli songs all about the first day of school.  I met grandparents of first graders who, together with their grandchildren, attended a school program of creative, interactive activities a week before school opened, all meant to ease the children’s adjustment into first grade.  My neighbors actually enjoyed a complete Shabbat program with their grandchildren held in the school they would attend.

And then there was the crossing guard.

And the policeman.

And fathers and mothers laughing and joking with their children as they accompanied them to school.

There was truly a special atmosphere in the street.

More care.  More vigilance.  And more joy.

I find that there is a different attitude toward children here in Israel.  At times, more permissive; at times more demanding.  Every child is deemed to be your child for whom you feel responsible.  It is not uncommon to see a stranger reprimand a youngster for crossing the street carelessly or for not offering a seat on a bus to the elderly.  And people accept that.  We are, after all, “mishpacha.” And one cares for family.

Recently, a poll was taken among diplomats as to what they considered the best “posting,” i.e. the best country in the world in which to be placed.  From over one hundred possible places, Israel was considered fourth in preference as a country in which to raise one’s family and enjoy life!  Despite the wars, despite the heightened security, despite the supposed difficult bureaucracy, the diplomats saw Israel as a wonderful place to live. And in explaining his vote, one diplomat stated that life for children here is absolutely wonderful.  The many places for their amusement, the learning opportunities in visiting historical sites and the excellent schools made this country his choice for a diplomatic post, he said.

I have no doubt that all people love their children and caring deeply for them is not the exclusive domain of any one culture.  But, for a nation who lost one and a half million children in the last generation and who witness all-too-many young men and women dying to protect their land in this generation, children are all the more precious.

So they start school with a celebration.  And they take the time off to bring their young ones to school instead of just sending them off.  And they well realize that the little boy who sits in the back may very well be in your son’s platoon and “have his back” in a future war.

It is a sobering thought, but well-worth mentioning as we begin the school year and the New Year.  So we can all pray that these first graders (and their parents) will no longer have to think about wars.  Or about rockets or missiles or shelters.

We can pray that these little ones will be allowed to grow up to enjoy their childhood and that, in time, they will smile and laugh as they accompany their children back to school in a time of peace.

Why Are We Still Fasting? The Three Weeks.

For twenty years before our recent aliya, my wife and I spent each summer in Israel.  And so, sitting in our apartment during July and enjoying the cooling Jerusalem breeze is not one of those unique, new immigrant, experiences for us.

For that same reason, observing the mournful period of the three weeks, the days leading up to the fast of Tish’a B’av, here in the city where it all happened is not unique for us either.  I have always felt especially attached to the tragedies of the past when fasting and mourning here in Jerusalem where I can simply cross the street and view the Temple Mount or walk to the Old City, descend into the “Burnt House” and touch the ashes and soot from the conflagration of 70 CE.

But, in a certain way, it can be even more difficult to mourn the destruction of our Temple here in Jerusalem rather than elsewhere, a fact that became quite clear to me just one week ago.

As we were finishing the evening services, I was approached by a fellow worshipper who, “steeling” himself for abstinence required in the coming weeks of sadness, commented:

“I’m sorry. I can’t ‘get into’ them.”

“Likewise, I have difficulty fasting on Tish’a B’av; that is, difficulty in understanding why I must fast today.”

He then proceeded to explain:

“I look around me and see new construction taking place throughout Jerusalem.

“I see a once sleepy, sparsely populated eighteenth century village facing the challenges of the twenty-first century as a modern city, boasting one million residents!

“Each morning I gaze at the beautiful skyline of this city and see magnificent structures standing next to restored historical sites;

“I walk through the Old City and see a city rebuilt from the ashes, from the destruction of 2,000 years, including the 19 years while under Jordanian control, and I am expected to fast and cry over the destruction of ירושלים??  I am required to tearfully wail about “the mourning city that is destroyed, scorned and desolate” as the Tish’a B’av prayer states???

“I’m sorry.  I just find that too difficult to do”

And he added, simply:

“Why, after all, are we still fasting?”

There was much I had to say in response, because he wasn’t the first one to ask that question.

I recall that soon after the Six-Day War people all over the world-and especially here in Israel- asked that same question.

Jerusalem had been liberated just weeks earlier.

Jews from around the country-indeed, from around the world, were streaming to the Kotel, the Western Wall, that was now open to Jewish prayer for the first time in nineteen years.

The entire Jewish world felt a euphoria they had not felt for many years.

And they now were expected to mourn!

In fact, there were even individuals who went so far as to compose revised texts for the “nachem” blessing, omitting all references to a desolate, destroyed or scorned city, so that people could feel that the message of the day was more current and meaningful for them.

So, they too asked: “Why are we still fasting?“

But even they were not the first ones to ask that question.

Soon after Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, a delegation came from Babylonia and asked the Temple priests and the prophet Zacharia:

“Shall we fast in the fifth month (Av) as we have done in the past?”

These people, living in Babylonia a generation after the return to Jerusalem some 2,600 years ago, asked the same question!

“Why are we still fasting?” “Why are we still mourning?”

“We are back in Jerusalem again! -“We are rebuilding our Temple once more!

“Why are we still fasting?”

So you see, my friend’s question from last week was not at all unique

-and it is on the lips of many today as it was in biblical times.

And that it understandable.

And so, I dedicate this blog to those who care enough to ask the question, not because they hope to “escape” the mourning strictures of this period nor because they wish to avoid fasting. I address those who want to understand and appreciate.

The first and perhaps foremost reason for our continued mourning is that we haven’t yet learned the lesson.  The Second Temple was destroyed, we are told, because of baseless hatred of one to another.  So we must consider: have we repaired those sins already?  Have we ridded ourselves of such hatred?  Of slanderous speech?  Do we no longer find joy and satisfaction when those who disagree with us are proven wrong?  Or are shamed?  I know that, having experienced the last Israeli election as a citizen, we have a way to go in improving how we treat each other.  So, if we have not yet removed these tendencies from our nature then that is enough reason to mourn and fast.  In fact, that is the reason why the Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that any generation in which the Temple was not rebuilt must regard it as having been destroyed in their time, because if we had improved our ways, if we had removed those sins that caused its destruction, the Holy Temple WOULD be built!

Secondly, we must not forget that these fasts are mentioned in the Bible itself so they date back to the time of the prophets.  Indeed, God promised the prophet Zechariah that He will change those days of fasting, mourning the loss of the Temple, into days of joy and celebration.  What will it mean if we don’t observe these fasts? What would G-d then make into days of joy and celebration for us?  As the prophet Isaiah said:

“Rejoice over Jerusalem…all those who mourn for her,” which led our Rabbis to state: “Those who mourn for Jerusalem will be privileged to see it rebuilt.”

The truth is, these thousands of years of fasting and crying helped the Jew fulfill the psalmists charge: “If I forget you Jerusalem let my right hand forget its skill” and  implanted into the heart of every Jew the thirst for Zion, the love for our homeland and the yearning to return.  It is what made it possible, even for the secular Jew, to reject Herzl’s offer of Uganda and to demand only Zion.

We should not turn our backs on millennia-old practices without trying to find meaning in them for us today.

Lastly, as I contemplate my experiences as a Rabbi and teacher in the United States, I believe that there is another pressing reason to mourn and fast. The simple fact is:

Too many of us no longer perceive “Golus”, the exile, as a divine punishment and fail to realize the tragedy that it was, and is.

Today, it seems, Diaspora is OK!

Exile is good!

Golus can be fun!

There can be valid reasons for some people to remain in the Exile and not move to Israel.  But far too many reject Aliya outright, never even contemplating it as a realistic possibility.  Life is far too good and comfortable where we are.

In 1923, a few years after the Balfour Declaration had been issued (11/2/17), after the Ottoman Empire had been removed from the land and the British had opened the doors for Jewish immigration (years before they issued the notorious White paper), Chaim Weizmann was shocked at the lack of Aliya from the suffering Eastern European communities.  Jewish settlement in Palestine, as envisioned by Herzl, was primarily meant for the Jewish communities suffering under the oppressive rule of Eastern European powers.  Herzl himself never saw Palestine as HIS future home because he lived under the “enlightened” cultures of the west, Austria, Germany and France (whose Dreyfus trial and accompanying anti-Semitic demonstrations ironically led Herzl to write “Der Judenstaat” and found the Zionist movement).  But the poor Jews of Eastern Europe, of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine, suffered terribly.

Even as late as the 20th century, after Herzl’s demise, pogroms were unleashed against the Jews in Kishinev, in Kiev, in Berditchev, in Prokurov.  During the Ukranian civil war alone, 1,326 pogroms were unleashed against the Jews in which 70,000(!) Jews were killed.  A fact of which very few are aware, probably because the number pales when compared to 6,000,000.

The tragedy of Golus!

Understandably, therefore, Weizmann, in 1923, was disappointed with the lack of aliya from these suffering communities and he exclaimed: “JEWS, WHERE ARE YOU??”

Yet, I can understand the reluctance of the Jews then who faced serious questions. What, after all, was there in Palestine for them, especially when the doors were open for them to immigrate anywhere? And, indeed, millions emigrated to the United States.  But Palestine?  How could they protect themselves from the Arab pogroms that had just started?  How would they support their families?  And what type of religious life was there for them?

They had serious, and understandable, hesitations that made many choose to remain in the Diaspora, difficult as life was there.

But today, at a time when the dream of 2,000 years has been realized with the establishment of a Jewish government in the Jewish homeland, when economic opportunities abound, and when religious life flourishes, Weizmann’s question is still being asked as we wonder about the reluctance of so many to even consider moving to the Jewish State.

Some years ago, in the middle of the second intifada, a group of dedicated Zionists traveled to Israel, at a time when tourism was suffering terribly, in order to offer words of encouragement to their brethren.  They spent Shabbat in a community made up mostly of Anglos-many of them recent immigrants.  During the Shabbat afternoon session, the local residents shared their love of the town and of their life in Israel and encouraged their guests to join them in Israel.  In response, one of the American visitors declared:

“To be honest,” he said, “I don’t know why I should consider Aliya.                              I have a wonderful life where I live.  We have kosher restaurants, kosher                     caterers, kosher supermarkets, wonderful shiurim, outstanding rabbis and       great schools.

What do you have here that I don’t have back home?”

Everything is just fine here!

Diaspora is good!

Golus is fun!

Too many Jews just don’t realize the tragedy of the exile or the sanctity of our land.

“What do you have in Israel that I don’t have back home?”

“And the Jew will forget his roots and consider himself a secure citizen (in the Diaspora), believing that Berlin is Jerusalem……There then will come a tempest, a storm, when Jews will be uprooted from their homes and they will realize that they are indeed strangers in these lands.”

These prophetic and chilling words were written by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in his landmark work, Meshech Chochmah, just some years before his death in 1926, only  a few years before the Holocaust.

They are words that haunt me to this day as they should haunt you as well.

The three weeks marks the tragic events that led up to the destruction of both Temples.  But it is not about the past alone.  Certainly, we mourn what happened, but we also mourn for what is still happening, and what could have been.

Golus is a punishment our ancestors prayed would end.  The lack of a massive response to the establishment of the State must lead us to ask why.

And, perhaps, to reconsider.

And, yes, to fast.

So What Are You?

A number of years ago a new Oleh (immigrant to Israel) visited our community of Fort Lee and began discussing with me his new life in Israel. He told me that, although Israel had made major strides in “westernizing” its way of life, there still remained some basic differences between the life he left in the U.S. and the new one he began in Israel.

“What specifically?” I asked him.

“Well,” he said, “I can best answer your question by telling of an experience I just had. I came into the States last week to attend a wedding of a friend and sat at a table of people I had never met. We began by introducing ourselves to one another and telling each other where we lived and where we came from. Invariably, the very next question that was posed was: ‘So, what are you?’

We continued to discuss our professions with each other, sharing work stories and identifying other acquaintances who were in the same business. The conversation centered on our jobs for the bulk of the evening. And I walked away from the wedding feeling that we were still, more or less, strangers.

“Exactly two weeks earlier I had attended a wedding in Israel and also was seated at a table of strangers. But after introducing ourselves, we proceeded to explain our relationship with the bride or groom and told stories about the celebrating families. For the bulk of the dinner, however, we talked about our own families; our children or grandchildren, our personal stories of Aliya or of our years in Israel, and, of course, the ‘matzav,’ the security situation. Two of us even shared Divrei Torah we had recently heard. When I left that evening, I realized that I hadn’t the foggiest idea what these people did for a living. Nobody asked ‘What are you?’ because, I realized, in Israel your job does not define WHAT you are! In Israel, you are identified your disposition not by your position. So I recognized that here there is simply a different set of priorities and a different value system.”

I have recalled this conversation numerous times over these past years. And although I hesitate to make broad generalizations about entire societies, I can state that I have found the visitor’s words to be true quite often.

Six years ago, during a six month sabbatical, I traveled to Tel-Aviv to learn about the much ballyhooed “White Nights.” I had heard about it and I had read about it. I knew that it was an all-night event. But I had neither seen nor experienced it. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. When I arrived I stood before a huge street fair that stretched down a main artery of the bustling city. I wandered about for hours passing museums, book stands, children’s entertainment and reenactments of the historical events of Tel Aviv. It was a cultural smorgasbord informing and educating the public of the available learning opportunities awaiting both residents and tourists alike. And it remained open throughout the night. Hence, the appellation “White Nights.” I remember how amazed I was at the varied populations that attended: old and young, locals and visitors, secular and religious. What struck me most, however, was the thirst that was displayed for culturally meaningful experiences.

Having grown up in a television dominated society, a place when people would actually debate the positive and negative traits of a fictional television character, I struggled to pry people away from their TV sets in order to attend evening classes, lectures or other cultural events. Yet, here I saw masses of people spending the entire night in cultural pursuits. There simply was a different set of priorities and a different value system. For me, it was an eye-opening experience, truly unique, I thought, and rightly named a “White Night.”

It was at 3:45 a.m. recently when I realized that I had been mistaken. The “White Night” was not unique to Tel Aviv, or to any one city in Israel, for around the country thousands upon thousands remained awake all night. It was Shavuot, the festival celebrating our acceptance of the Torah, and myriads filled the streets to attend lectures, shiurim and discussion groups. Jews of all stripes gathered to study Torah! There were those who remained in one place all night and those who strode through the wide thoroughfares and narrow alleyways to attend a specific lecture or hear a specific lecturer. Famous rabbis, well-known professors, experts in different fields of Jewish study made their way from synagogue to lecture hall as the streets of cities all over Israel echoed with the sounds of Torah. What can I say? I saw a different set of priorities.

Six years ago, I sat in amazement as, at 3 a.m., the Minister of Justice of the State of Israel marched into the synagogue (with his security detail) and proceeded to give a one-hour class, accompanied by 20 pages of rabbinic references, on the importance of combining Torah study with regular employment. This year I picked up a map of Jerusalem showing all the different places in the city where classes were to be given-and there were hundreds of classes! I even became aware of the new phenomenon of “batei midrash,” study halls, opened around the country by secular Jews, who may have a very different approach to our Torah than I do, but who thirst, nonetheless, to deepen their understanding and appreciation of Jewish life. And they, too, filled the streets and study halls on Shavuot night.

I know that there are wonderful communities elsewhere who have all-night learning sessions, some with barbecues; some without. And I’m sure that others, in other cities, may have felt a little of what I did this past Shavuot. But walking on Emek Refa’im at 3:45 in the morning, and passing scores of people on their way to study Torah, I could only feel that there certainly was a different value system at work. And I never had to ask anyone: “So,what are you?”

I knew.

We were all Jews.