Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?

“היש ד ‘ בקרבינו-אם אין?”

“Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?”

I have always found the past fascinating.  I love studying history which is why I continue to lecture in Jewish History, as I have over the years.  Perhaps that is one reason why I feel so privileged to live in Jerusalem.  Walking on the very stones Rabbi Akiva tread upon before entering the Temple Mount, standing in front of the wall where Jews prayed 2,000 years ago and descending into the cave where the Kohanim (priests) purified themselves before participating in the Temple service connects me to my people around the world and throughout the ages.  Our story is truly a remarkable one!  In fact, I invariably begin my history lectures by stating that anyone who does not believe in God should study Jewish History to rekindle his faith.

In keeping with this passion, my wife and I walked through an ancient aqueduct, found near the UN complex of Armon HaNetziv, that was created during the Hasmonean era about 2100 years ago, to carry water from the heights of (what is now called) Gush Etzion to the Second Temple. As much as we would have taken this tour on any day it was particularly fitting that we did this just 2 days before Yom Yerushalayim.

Yom Yerushalayim, the day marking the liberation and unification of our Holy City, is one of great emotion and significance to me.  Perhaps that is true because I am old enough to recall the events of that day-and the difficult days that led up to the war.  Perhaps it is because I remember the prophecies of doom offered by Israel’s enemies, as well as by respected military analysts, that preceded the remarkable victory. Or perhaps it is because, in some degree, I re-experience the emotions I felt when hearing that the Jewish army had raised her flag over holiest place in the Jewish world.

Yet, upon further consideration, I believe that the reason may be far simpler: the events of this day, the 28th of Iyar, were, for me, the first true miracles I ever witnessed.  I had read of the splitting of the sea, I had learned of the water gushing forth from a rock and I had heard of the Sinaitic theophany.

But I SAW the victory of the Six Day War and the return of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem. I SAW the masses making their way to pray the Kotel that was finally in Jewish hands for the first time in 1,897 years.

I SAW G-d’s hand as the miracles unfolded before my very eyes.

It was not history for me; it was reality.

And that, truly, is a very emotional experience.

But, to our dismay, not everyone recognizes miracles when they occur.

A few weeks after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea they were attacked by the Amalekites.  It was an unprovoked attack against the weaker elements of the nation. Our Rabbis, however, suggest that there was indeed provocation-but it was not Amalek who was provoked-it was G-d Himself!  Our scholars point to the event that preceded the attack in which the Israelites complained of a lack of water.  After Moses struck the rock as G-d commanded and brought forth water from the stone, he named the place “Massa U’Meriva” for Israel had argued with G-d (“Meriva”) and tested Him (“Massa”), asking: “Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?” (Exodus 17; 7).  Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma in explaining how Israel “provoked” G-d with their question.

“I have been here providing all of your needs and you ask: ‘Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?’ I swear, I shall have a “dog” come and bite you and you will cry out to Me and see if I am here!’ “

The Israelites had experienced the most obvious revelations of G-d’s power, from the ten plagues to the splitting of the sea, from providing manna from heaven each day and meat in the evenings to defeating the Egyptian army and sweetening the bitter waters of Marah…yet NOW they question whether G-d is there for them!!! They failed to open their eyes and see what stood right before them.  G-d was provoked by their lack of awareness of His protection and His miraculous intervention on their behalf. So he allowed the Amalekites to attack to teach Israel what would happen if G-d removed His protection.

But He also taught them another lesson.

No longer would G-d do FOR them; He will now only do WITH them.  When the Egyptian army pursued the escaping Israelites Moses proclaimed: “G-d will fight FOR you and you (just) remain silent”.  Yet when Amalek hordes attack the nation Moses calls upon Joshua to gather an army and fight the enemy.  G-d is still there, as Moses miraculously controls the battle and insures victory by keeping his arms raised, but G-d will no longer fight for-only with.  The Israelites learned the lesson to act as if there would be no miracle but, at the same time, recognize that behind their efforts, behind their successes, there is G-d’s hand, G-d’s miracles.  More subtle miracles-perhaps, but miracles nonetheless.

Yesterday, I gathered with 30,000 others to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim with the “Parade of Flags.” It was an emotional high as young men and women-primarily high school students-danced and sang down the streets of Jerusalem until they and their flags made their way to the Old City.  It was a wonderful celebration but it was not a nationwide celebration.  It was a day observed, primarily, by the nationalist/religious community and, for the most part, ignored by the rest of the country.  It is a troubling phenomenon that tells us we have failed to teach the message of the day.

Consider the following:  In early June of 1967 hospitals around the country were preparing for an influx of casualties while graves were being prepared in expectation of thousands being killed.  Sandbags were being filled by schoolchildren to slow the expected invasion of enemy troops and parents sobbed in the streets as their young sons went to battle.  And yet, in six days, Israel had vanquished three armies, destroyed two air forces and liberated the Biblical cities that had been denied Jewish presence for years.

History had been changed in less than a week. And I recall the posters and stickers I saw during my first visit to Israel just one month after war: “Kol HaKavod L’Tzhal!” – “The IDF deserves all the glory (credit)!”  And I really understood that immediate reaction.  But when the rejoicing died down, I had hoped there would have been a more sober reaction-perhaps the reaction reflected in the stickers I saw after the Yom Kippur War: “Yisrael B’tach BaShem!” – “Israel-trust in God!”

In truth, I believe that the failure to “spread the word” of the significance of this day is ours-that is, we who DO celebrate the 28th of Iyar.  We still have too many who are blind to the miracles and still ask: “Is G-d truly in our midst-or not?” We can open their eyes by recalling and retelling the miracles of this day, especially we who, like myself, SAW the miracles and lived through those wondrous days.  We must help teach the lesson God taught us at the battle against Amalek: we will fight as if G-d is not there but recognize that any victory was wrought by God alone.

And in closing:

The Torah tells us that the Israelites entered the Wilderness of Sin on the fifteenth of Iyar, a Shabbat, according to the Rabbis.  The Manna fell for them during that week and the next Shabbat, the 22nd of Iyar, some of the nation searched to collect Manna, against God’s directive.  During the following week the people complained of a lack of water and “tested” God – so God allowed Amalek to attack.  That attack, according to tradition, took place on Friday, the 28th of Iyar, that was destined, thousands of years later, to become Yom Yerushalayim!!

The challenge of the Israelites remains our challenge too-especially on Yom Yerushalayim.  Living in the Holy City I am surrounded with miracles.  I simply must remember to open my eyes and see what stands before me.


The Blood We Wear

It seemed that they all had nicknames: Bini, Shmulik, Gabi — but, I supposed, that was to be expected from boys of 18, 19 or even 20. What was not to be expected was having to read them from their grave stones.

This past week, we visited the military cemetery on Har Herzl in the hills of Jerusalem. I could go on simply describing the beauty of this place, its awe-inspiring atmosphere and its pure sanctity. But that is not why we made our visit. We felt it important to prepare for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day. Ordinarily, I might not have felt the need to prepare for such a moving day, but as a new immigrant, I was haunted by the thought (guilt?) of why I now merited to live in this place of holiness by merely taking a ten-hour flight from Newark Liberty Airport, while those who rested here, who wanted so much to continue life here, these thousands who had so many more years to live here, eighteen and nineteen year olds with nicknames who gave their lives for the dream of living here…well, they are no longer living.

How could we go through our daily activities without remembering who made it possible for us to make Aliya and live in this blessed land? Those heroes who allowed us to simply take that flight and live in this country deserved a few hours of our time. Just so we could say thanks. And just so that we don’t forget. Hence, our visit to Har Herzl.
But allow me to expand my explanation by recalling events of 42 years ago.

My first year in the Rabbinate was spent in Cincinnati during a time that the Church was preparing for a major conversionary effort called “Key ’73”. These early efforts were focused upon college campuses and a number of students from the University of Cincinnati requested that I meet with a certain individual who was spreading the “gospel” of Jews for Jesus around campus, claiming that no one-not even Rabbis- could disprove his statements. I agreed to meet with the individual, and a number of students from both sides, in my office. The representative argued that one can be a true Jew only by accepting the Christian Messiah. He based his argument on the fact that G-d needed sacrificial blood, death, punishment, to atone for sins and today, with no sacrifices, G-d’s forgiveness could be attained only by accepting the “sacrifice” of their Messiah. I rejected his claims on a number of grounds and when I quoted a verse from Psalms (78; 38) to disprove his theory that G-d forgives only through blood or destruction he mumbled something and left.

It was, perhaps, a trivial, unimportant event yet I remember it well because the very approach I disproved I had heard from my others who attempted to explain the inexplicable: the divine reasons for the Holocaust. Many claimed that the Holocaust was necessary in order to establish the State of Israel and I vehemently argued that G-d does not need the destruction of one-third of His people in order to keep His covenant with us. Furthermore, despite what some individuals-even political leaders-might believe, our right to this land is not predicated upon the fact that 6,000,000 perished from 1939-1945 but upon the promise made to Abraham in 1948 BCE which established this land as the homeland for the Israelite nation, something it remained throughout biblical times and for hundreds of years after that, until we were forcibly removed
But if that is so, if G-d needs no such spilt blood, then why am I standing in a military cemetery gazing at the graves of thousands of young men and women, only some of over 23,000, who had to shed their blood so that I could live here?
So I turn to the biblical text seeking an answer to the question.

We in Israel will be reading the Torah portion of Acharei Mot (and Kedoshim) this coming Shabbat while those in the Diaspora will be reading the previous portion of Metzora (and Tazria). Many commentators point out that there is a fascinating connection between these two parashot (portions). The very puzzling ritual of purification from tzara’at affliction found in the parasha of Metzora, they say, can be better understood when comparing it to the Yom Kippur ritual of atonement found in the parasha of Achaei Mot. Just as two goats were chosen for the Yom Kippur ritual, so were two birds chosen for the purification ritual; just as one goat was randomly selected to be slaughtered, so was one bird; just as one goat was sent out into the wilderness, so one bird was sent out to fly freely into the field; and just as the blood of the slaughtered was used to purify the sanctuary so too the blood of the slaughtered bird was apparently used to purify the leper.

The parallels are striking!

But Rabbi Yonatan Grossman suggests that the similarities fade away with closer analysis of the two rituals. The slaughtered goat is a sin offering, the slaughtered bird is not a sacrifice at all; the goat that is freed is eventually killed, while the bird flies off to freedom; the goat’s blood is sprinkled on the holy objects, the bird’s blood is not sprinkled upon the leper but is placed in a basin into which the live bird is dipped. The Yom Kippur ritual is one of purification and forgiveness but the ritual of the leper is neither. It is rather, Rabbi Grossman contends, a symbolic process of the leper’s return-not to G-d but to society, to community. It is a rebirth of sorts allowing the once banished victim to start over and begin life anew. The outcast is back in camp as a full member of his people, ready to begin life again, resurrected and prepared to contribute after having been seen as dead (Numbers 12;12). And while the white garments of the Yom Kippur ritual are representative of purity and atonement, the white blemishes of the leper represent death. And whereas red blood is generally representative of sin and death, the blood of the leper is, as the Torah states, representative of life (Leviticus 17; 11) . It is mixed with mayim chayim, “living” water and the “tzipor hachaya”, the living bird is dipped into this mixture. And it is only at this point that the bird is set free.

Which brings me to the point.

The Yom Kippur goat carries “the sins of the Israelites” into the wilderness where he meets his end. The bird, however, carries with him the blood, the lifeblood of his fellow fowl who died so that he could be free. And the freed bird wears that blood with pride carrying the burden of memory and responsibility as he begins his new life with the knowledge of what sacrifices were made so that he could be free.

G-d does not demand death in order to redeem us but the Jewish nation is immersed in lifeblood spilled for them and bequeathed to them by their brothers, their sisters, their sons and daughters, the fathers and mothers-those with the nicknames and those without. And, as I stood in the cemetery, ready to start a new life, joining those who were also reborn in this land, I understood more clearly what my responsibility now is.

To live.

And to make sure others do.

And to lay the groundwork for a future in this land.

And, having been sanctified by the blood of my brothers, I”m also charged to remember the words of the national poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote the final lines of his poem “Im Yesh Et Nafshecha Lada’at

ובמותם ציוו לנו את החיים – החיים עד העולם

And in their death they commanded us to live – to live eternally.

The Scars We Keep

Last night, I sang the anthem of the State of Israel, “HaTikva.”

Not an experience of which I would ordinarily wax poetic. But this rendition closed the Holocaust Memorial program in my Bet Knesset, my synagogue. With this program, we began to mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering the loss of 6,000,000 souls to the Jewish nation.

As a new Oleh, it is the first time I was privileged to experience this day as a citizen of the Jewish nation-state. I did so by singing the anthem of the independent Jewish State. And, for me, therefore, it is something to write about.

This coming Shabbat, we in the Holy Land will be reading the parshiyot of Tazria/Metzora that focus upon the diagnosis and treatment of tzara’at (a possible form of leprosy), and other types of blemishes. All of the laws of the ritual defilement and eventual purification are found in these two portions-with the exception of one found in Deuteronomy.

Be careful regarding the affliction of tzara’at to carefully follow all that the kohanim (priests) teach you….

Our Rabbis questioned what was meant when we were instructed to “be careful?” They explain that this specific commandment prohibited the afflicted individual from scratching off the signs of the disease, eradicating the scars and thus, making it impossible for the Kohen to inspect the blemish and possibly render the individual impure.

The message of this commandment should echo in our ears today and especially on Yom Hasho’ah. For thirty-six years I was blessed and honored to serve the community of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a community built, in large measure, by Holocaust survivors. As the years passed and I got to know more of them, and some quite intimately, I became more convinced that the term “survivor” is not a fitting description of these remarkable individuals. As much as they should take pride in that portrayal these people were far more than that. You see, they didn’t simply survive-they thrived! Despite the nightmarish past they experienced they never gave up on life. They did not give in to their bitterness. Instead they raised families, formed businesses, succeeded in their professions and yes, even helped build a state. They would not scratch off the external scars but did not allow those tattooed numbers to define them. These were far more than survivors; they were builders, givers, creators, accomplishers; indeed, they were heroes for more reasons than simply having survived.

But there are still those who seek to remove their scars. Perpetrators of the greatest massacre in human history find it more convenient to erase that blemish from their collective memory and present themselves as unscarred and untainted. On this solemn day, local news media carried three headlines that shouted this very fact to all: “Over 40% of Germans Want Closure on Nazi Past,” an article that also included a report regarding the growing tendency of Germans to see themselves as victims of the war they started; “Violent anti-Semitism Surged 45% in 2014,” that discusses how many European streets have become hunting grounds for Jews and “US Holocaust Museum Slams Iranian Revisionist Cartoon Contest,”  reporting on the offensive Tehran-based contest to create cartoons challenging the historical truth of the Holocaust and the government sponsored demonization of the Jews (the contest is encouraging characterizations of PM Netanyahu and Adolf Hitler).

Throughout these past years, we have heard the very nations who perpetrated the slaughter of millions, and those countries who turned a deaf ear to their cries, now dare to pontificate to Israel the moral way to treat those who seek to destroy her; those who attack her innocent civilians. They scratch away their scars, displaying an “unblemished” past in order to preach morality to the very nation who spread G-d’s moral code and who suffered the consequences from those who rejected the divine teachings.

I live within a nation that does not remove her scars but rather learns from them. So please excuse me for turning my back on those hypocritical, self-righteous preachers who are busy scratching off their scars. I have more important things to do.
I must sing the anthem of a scarred but proud country who remembers its heroes and refuses to allow its surviving few to suffer any more scars.