Groom’s Letter to Parents, Remembered After Fatal Hit and Run
The young groom took some moments on his wedding day to write a letter thanking his parents for never sparing time or money if he needed, say, a tutor or an eye doctor, and for sending him to yeshiva “to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.”
Children, Nathan Glauber wrote, often do not understand what parents do for them until they mature and have their own children, so he asked them to forgive him for any pain he may have caused them.
If you’re driving through a Jewish area this Saturday night or Sunday, don’t be surprised if you see lots of children in the streets wearing fancy dress and masks, or people going from house to house delivering presents of food and drink. The reason is that we’ll be celebrating Purim, the most boisterous and exuberant of all Jewish festivals.
Which is actually very odd indeed, because Purim commemorates the story told in the book of Esther, when Haman, a senior official of the Persian Empire, persuaded the king to issue a decree to annihilate all Jews, young and old, men, women and children, on one day: a warrant for genocide. Thanks to the vigilance of Mordechai and the courage of Esther, the decree was not carried out, and ever since, we’ve celebrated by reading the story, having parties, giving to the poor and sharing gifts of food with friends.
I used to be very puzzled by this. Why such exhilaration at merely surviving a tragedy that was only narrowly averted? Relief, I can understand. But to turn the day into a carnival? Just because we’re still here to tell the story?
Slowly, though, I began to understand how much pain there has been in Jewish history, how many massacres and pogroms throughout the ages. Jews had to learn how to live with the past without being traumatised by it. So they turned the day when they faced and then escaped the greatest danger of all into a festival of unconfined joy, a day of dressing up and drinking a bit too much, to exorcise the fear, live through it and beyond it, and then come back to life, unhaunted by the ghosts of memory.
Purim is the Jewish answer to one of the great questions of history: how do you live with the past without being held captive by the past? Ours is a religion of memory, because if you forget the past, you’ll find yourself repeating it. Yet it’s also a future oriented faith. To be a Jew is to answer the question, Has the messiah come?, with the words, Not yet.
There are so many parts of the world today where ancient grievances are still being played out, as if history were a hamster wheel in which however fast we run we find ourselves back where we started. Purim is a way of saying, remember the past, but then look at the children, celebrate with them, and for their sake, put the past behind you and build a better future.
It was one of those brutal winter mornings for this West Coast kid in Brooklyn, not so much for the stormy weather as for the struggle to sleep in a dormitory where the Israeli contingent had deemed that night party night. A small group of us had cut a deal with Rabbi Yoel Kahan, teacher supreme of Chassidut Chabad, to provide us a class three times a week at 7 AM. There were conditions: one of us had turn up at his home at 6:30 to wake him, drive him to our semi-authorized-but-not-really room outside the yeshivah, and brew him a strong coffee. Despite the vertigo and aching head, I wouldn’t miss that class for the world.
Reb Yoel, as all his students still call him (may he live for long and healthy years), recognized the torpor of that sleepless night on our faces. I don’t recall the passage we were studying—somewhere in the writings of Rabbi Sholom Dovber, from the year 5672 (1911–12). Deep stuff. Kinda too deep for a morning like this. But in the middle of some obscure passage, he leaped mischievously into a question so ridiculously simple, all of us were now bouncing off the edge of our chairs; so absurdly obvious, none of us could find an answer.
Reb Yoel wanted to know why we couldn’t see G‑d.
“He’s invisible!” came the first response.
That was certainly of no help. Yes, the class was in Yiddish, but Reb Yoel had the words for “tautology” nonetheless.
“G‑d is spiritual,” someone innocently suggested, “and we are physical.” Boy, was that a mistake.
Reb Yoel thundered back, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth!” G‑d created both the physical and the spiritual, he explained. He Himself is neither.
So we tried this: “Well, if we can’t see spiritual things, like emotions, ideas, angels and higher worlds, how can we expect to see that which is beyond even the spiritual?”
Now we were getting somewhere. Straight into the trap he had laid for us.
“Why can’t you see spiritual things?” he demanded. “There are entire worlds that are spiritual. Where are they hidden?”
“They’re not hidden,” someone responded. “They’re right here. Just that we can’t see them.”
Now Reb Yoel began to move objects around on the table at which we all were seated. “This here,” he pointed to a cassette tape recorder we had sneaked beneath the cover of a book, “is hidden. Why? Because it is not within my field of vision. My vision and this object are in two different places. Therefore, I cannot see it.”
Well, we thought it was hidden. Reb Yoel, at the time, never approved of us recording his classes.
“Now, what about radio waves? Are they hidden? Are they in the same place as we are?”
“Yes, they are,” I answered, eager to display my technological expertise. “This room, and everywhere around us, is full of them, broadcasting every station in New York City.”
“Then why can’t you see them?”
“Because,” I strained, grasping for some way to describe frequency spectrums in Yiddish, “radio waves are not . . .”
“They are not within the same space as your vision!”
“Okay.” Same difference, I figured.
“So, as far as your eyes are concerned, radio waves are not here. And the same with emotions, and ideas, and angels, and higher worlds—they are not here. They are not within the same world as your physical eyes. So, you can’t see them.”
This was starting to make sense. But I wasn’t prepared for the bomb that came next.
“So, why can’t you see G‑d?” he clamored. “Isn’t G‑d everywhere?”
The class exploded into yet more futile regurgitations of our earlier attempts, in yet more feeble forms.
“But G‑d is formless! How can you see something that is formless?”
Useless answer. He’s here, now, nonetheless. Here, in our world of form.
“G‑d is not something you see. Seeing and G‑d are way apart!”
He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. Why isn’t He in your field of vision? More useless. G‑d is everywhere. He’s in the heavens, and He’s here on earth. He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. He’s in the cool earth of the ground you clump in your hand and squeeze out between your fingers. He’s in the ethereal world of the philosopher, and He’s in the pragmatic world of the trucker speeding down Interstate 86. He’s in the putrid world of the worker digging out the city sewers down the street, and He’s in the aroma of the garlic our cook was now sprinkling on the chickens for tonight’s dinner. None of this could exist if He were not there. He’s everywhere, in everything. So, He’s certainly in your field of vision. Why can’t you see Him?
We had visibly given up, but the tension of the lecture was like static electricity waiting for a lightning bolt.
“The spiritual worlds,” Reb Yoel continued, “the World of Formation, the World of Creation—realms of angels and souls—they are not in another place that you could travel to. Yet, neither are they here. You and they are in different spaces—even more than radio waves.”
“But the World of G‑dliness—that is here, now!”
Then the answer. As simple as was the question, so the answer. Far too simple for sophisticated students as ourselves.
Reb Yoel leaned forward. “The only reason you cannot see G‑d,” he whispered, “is because He doesn’t want you to.”
“This is why we call Him ‘the hidden G‑d.’ Achein atah Keil Mistater—‘Truly, You are the Hiding G‑d.’ Because He is the only one who is truly hidden. Everything else is not truly hidden—it’s simply not here. But He, He is hidden even when He is here. He is present in His absence, absent in His presence.”
“G‑d, you see, is not a something, not a presence. G‑d just is.”
The rest passed over my head. And the cassette recording turned out futile as well.
In that class, Reb Yoel provided us a key to unlock so many passages in the teachings of Chabad. Here’s the vital passage in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s The Gate of Unity and Faith (both translation and italics are my own):
Now, just as no created being has the capacity to grasp G‑d’s mode of greatness—meaning, His capacity to create something from nothing and vitalize it . . .—just the same way, none has the capacity to fathom G‑d’s mode of might. This is the modality of constraining the spread of vital energy from His greatness, so that rather than an open descent, energizing and sustaining the creations overtly, the energy is masked so that it remains undetectable within the actual created being. The creation now appears as though it were an autonomous entity, and not simply the artifact of a breath-like current of energy. Rather than appearing as sunlight appears—as nothing more than the radiance of the sun—it is now a something all of its own.
Truthfully, it is not its own entity, but actually quite similar to the sun’s radiation. Yet, that itself is the awesome might of a wholly transcendent G‑d: He can do anything, and so He can constrain this breath-like vitalizing energy that flows from the breath of His mouth until it becomes undetectable, so as not to annihilate the identity of the created being.
This is the facet that no created mind can fathom: What kind of constraining process is this that renders a vital force undetectable—and yet, a creation emerges out of the void? This is not within the capacity of a created being to comprehend—just as no created being can fathom how something can be created out of nothing to begin with.
Years later, I found another expert to ask the same question—my three-year-old daughter. I asked her why we couldn’t see G‑d. Her eyes opened wide as she whispered, “He’s hiding!”
Only then did I feel as stupid as I should have felt back there with Reb Yoel. I guess, when it comes to G‑d, we’re all better off thinking like three-year-olds.
On the opening phrase of Mishpatim – “And these are the laws you are to set before them” – Rashi comments: “And these are the laws” – Wherever uses the word “these” it signals a discontinuity with what has been stated previously. Wherever it uses the term “and these” it signals a continuity. Just as the former commands were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai. Why then are the civil laws placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar ? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple. “Which you shall set before them” – G-d said to Moses: You should not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and its significance. Therefore the Torah states “which you shall set before them” like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating. (Rashi on Shemot 23:1)
Three remarkable propositions are being set out here, which have shaped the contours of Judaism ever since.
The first is that just as the general principles of Judaism (aseret hadibrot means not “ten commandments” but “ten utterances” or overarching principles) are Divine, so are the details. In the 1960s the Danish architect Arne Jacobson designed a new college campus in Oxford. Not content with designing the building, he went on to design the cutlery and crockery to be used in the dining hall, and supervised the planting of every shrub in the college garden. When asked why, he replied in the words of another architect, Mies van der Rohe: “G-d is in the details”.
That is a Jewish sentiment. There are those who believe that what is holy in Judaism is its broad vision, never so compellingly expressed as in the Decalogue at Sinai. The truth however is that G-d is in the details: “Just as the former were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai.” The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation. Freedom is more than an abstract idea. It means (in an age in which slavery was taken for granted – it was not abolished in Britain or the United States until the nineteenth century) letting a slave go free after seven years, or immediately if his master has injured him. It means granting slaves complete rest and freedom one day in seven. These laws do not abolish slavery, but they do create the conditions under which people will eventually learn to abolish it. Not less importantly, they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated. That is what these laws – especially the law of Shabbat – achieve, not in theory only, but in living practice. In this, as in virtually every other aspect of Judaism, G-d is in the details.
The second principle, no less fundamental, is that civil law is not secular law. We do not believe in the idea “render to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to G-d what belongs to G-d”. We believe in the separation of powers but not in the secularisation of law or the spiritualisation of faith. The Sanhedrin or Supreme Court must be placed near the Temple to teach that law itself must be driven by a religious vision. The greatest of these visions, stated in this week’s sedra, is: “Do not oppress a stranger, because you yourself know how it feels like to be a stranger: you were strangers in Egypt.” (Shemot 23:9)
The Jewish vision of justice, given its detailed articulation here for the first time, is based not on expediency or pragmatism, nor even on abstract philosophical principles, but on the concrete historical memories of the Jewish people as “one nation under G-d.” Centuries earlier, G-d has chosen Abraham so that he would “teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, by doing what is right and just.” (Bereishith 18:19) Justice in Judaism flows from the experience of injustice at the hands of the Egyptians, and the G-d-given challenge to create a radically different form of society in Israel.
This is already foreshadowed in the first chapter of the Torah with its statement of the equal and absolute dignity of the human person as the image of G-d. That is why society must be based on the rule of law, impartially administered, treating all alike – “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (Shemot 23:2-3)
To be sure, at the highest levels of mysticism, G-d is to be found in the innermost depths of the human soul, but G-d is equally to be found in the public square and in the structures of society: the marketplace, the corridors of power, and courts of law. There must be no gap, no dissociation of sensibilities, between the court of justice (the meeting-place of man and man) and the Temple (the meeting-place of man and G-d).
The third principle and the most remarkable of all is the idea that law does not belong to lawyers. It is the heritage of every Jew. “Do not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and significance of the law. The Torah states ‘which you shall set before them’ like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating.” This is the origin of the name of the most famous of all Jewish codes of law, R. Joseph Karo’s Shulkhan Arukh.
From earliest times, Judaism expected everyone to know and understand the law. Legal knowledge is not the closely guarded property of an elite. It is – in the famous phrase – “the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” (Devarim 33:4) Already in the first century CE Josephus could write that “should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls. Hence to break them is rare, and no one can evade punishment by the excuse of ignorance” (Contra Apionem, ii, 177-8). That is why there are so many Jewish lawyers. Judaism is a religion of law – not because it does not believe in love (“You shall love the Lord your G-d”, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”) but because, without justice, neither love nor liberty nor human life itself can flourish. Love alone does not free a slave from his or her chains.
The sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but G-d is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.
COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Yitro – The Politics of Revelation
The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parshah of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind. Other faiths (Christianity and Islam) have claimed to be religions of revelation, but in both cases the revelation of which they spoke was to an individual (“the son of G-d”, “the prophet of G-d”). Only in Judaism was G-d’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders) but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not yet righteous alike.
From the very outset, the people of Israel knew something unprecedented had happened at Sinai. As Moses put it, forty years later:
Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created man on earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of G-d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deut. 4: 32-33).
For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance was primarily epistemological. It created certainty and removed doubt. The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G-d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not genuine.
Looking however at the history of mankind since those days, it is clear that there was another significance also – one that had to do not with religious knowledge but with politics. At Sinai a new kind of nation was being formed and a new kind of society – one that would be an antithesis of Egypt in which the few had power and the many were enslaved. At Sinai, the children of Israel ceased to be a group of individuals and became, for the first time, a body politic: a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of G-d whose written constitution was the Torah and whose mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Even today, standard works on the history of political thought trace it back, through Marx, Rousseau and Hobbes to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and the Greek city state (Athens in particular) of the fourth century BCE. This is a serious error. To be sure, words like “democracy” (rule by the people) are Greek in origin. The Greeks were gifted at abstract nouns and systematic thought. However, if we look at the “birth of the modern” – at figures like Milton, Hobbes and Locke in England, and the founding fathers of America – the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle but the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes it 657 times in The Leviathan alone. Long before the Greek philosophers, and far more profoundly, at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born.
Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government (first by judges, later by kings), they had entered into an overarching covenant with G-d. That covenant (brit Sinai) set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires, and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.
Democracy on the Greek model always had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority”. J. L. Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. For this alone, the covenant at Sinai deserves to be seen as the single greatest step in the long road to a free society.
The second key element lies in the prologue to the covenant. G-d tells Moses: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now, if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . . .’” Moses tells this to the people, who reply: “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
What is the significance of this exchange? It means that until the people had signified their consent, the revelation could not proceed. There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is Creator of heaven and earth. I know of few more radical ideas anywhere. To be sure, there were sages in the Talmudic period who questioned whether the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai was completely free. However, at the heart of Judaism is the idea – way ahead of its time, and not always fully realised – that the free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. G-d, said the rabbis, does not act tyrannically with His creatures.
The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people” – men, women and children. This fact is emphasised later on in the Torah in the mitzvah of Hakhel, the septennial covenant renewal ceremony. The Torah states specifically that the entire people is to be gathered together for this ceremony, “men, women and children.” A thousand years later, when Athens experimented with democracy, only a limited section of society had political rights. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were excluded. In Britain, women did not get the vote until the twentieth century. According to the sages, when G-d was about to give the Torah at Sinai, He told Moses to consult first with the women and only then with the men (“thus shall you say to the house of Jacob” – this means, the women ). The Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty”, includes everyone. It is the first moment, by thousands of years, that citizenship is conceived as being universal.
There is much else to be said about the political theory of the Torah (see my The Politics of Hope, The Dignity of Difference, and The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah as well as the important works by Daniel Elazar and Michael Walzer). But one thing is clear. With the revelation at Sinai something unprecedented entered the human horizon. It would take centuries, millennia, before its full implications were understood. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” At Sinai, the politics of freedom was born.
My quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world.
When I was in kindergarten, I painted a picture of God. I was very proud of my artistic escapade into the non-corporeal. God had long white hair, a hot pink kippah, a technicolor tallit, no nose, and rather insufficient limbs (of the stick variety). God was deep in prayer, naturally, reciting the morning blessings to sing-song perfection.
I brought my modest masterpiece to the front of class, eager to show my teacher what I’d accomplished. The God who lived in the sky, probably somewhere near Marry Poppins – the God who Mommy cried to when she found out Grandpa died, and the God who smiled down at me when I didn’t pull my sister’s hair in synagogue – that God was now mine, a creation of crayon and colored paper.
But when I tugged on my teacher’s skirt to inform her of my theological milestone, she bit back a smile and gently reprimanded my efforts. “God isn’t a person or a thing, sweetie. We’re not supposed to paint pictures of God.”
I pinpoint my interest in Judaism and Jewish thought to that moment. Who was this God to whom I said good morning every sunrise and good night, right hand covering eyes tightly squeezed as I recited the Shema every night? Who was this God who demanded that we hide all our bread in cabinets marked with yellow warning tape once a year, and camp out in the backyard, in a tabernacle strung with Christmas lights and topped with sweetly smelling evergreen braches when the summer turned to fall? Who was this God who instructed us to put fixtures over the bathroom light switches on a Friday afternoon to ensure we don’t accidently desecrate the Sabbath? Who was this God, who gave me picture books filled with Abraham and Isaac and Sarah and Rebecca, in sweeping cloaks atop slender camels, but then told me not to draw Him a portrait?
Was this God camera shy, like Grandma, who always skirted to the edge of frame, muttering some excuse about age, before ducking out of finders view? Was God scared to be found?
The question, for me, never was “is He there?” If God was not there, who heard my mother’s whisper when she stood for several minutes, hands covering eyes, after lighting the Shabbat candles? During my summers in the years just shy of teenagehood, smelling of crisp mountain air, chlorine, and smoldering fire pits, I saw God too, in the stillness of the lake, mist rising silently, just before daybreak. In the song of the crickets as I meandered back to my tent, head thrown back to swallow the stars. If Abraham had found God traced in the sky, so could I.
When life introduced me to pain and death, I also found God. I screamed at Him on that still, October morning when my high school friend’s sister passed away without warning. And I cried to Him when I realized things wouldn’t change, no matter how much I screamed.
During my seminary year spent in Israel, I was told what I had heard before, but with newfound conviction and zeal, by people who didn’t just believe, but lived: God was everywhere. Nature was an illusion, only to test. I read of those precious few who had pushed past nature’s persuasive veil. Sitting cross-legged on the grassy hilltops of Jerusalem, it was easy enough to imagine how.
But skepticism and doubt crept between looming Manhattan skyscrapers, shadows obscuring the skyline from view. In the pages of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Spinoza, I found many of my fearful suspicions reflected. As I walked closer towards the simple, beautiful, portrait I had painted, I began to see flaws in the trusting, non-discriminatory strokes. I began to trace cracks, with trembling fingers. Disheartened, I fell back, disillusioned by the simple picture. I was angry with those who had confirmed and even encouraged my simple portrait, even while telling me, in gently reprimanding tones, that is not our place to paint pictures of God.
For a time, I hid that initial picture from view – the picture I had found among the stars, and in my mother’s whisper. I started on a new picture: a cold, analytical sketch. This picture was based upon thesis statements and comparative readings. The subject of this portrait would be built firmly upon books and articles, dissected and analyzed to avoid misstep. I wouldn’t be fooled again by beautiful simplicity, no matter how tempting. This portrait would be sketched in unforgiving, precise pencil, not crayon.
During my mid-semester break, I headed back to Israel, to Jerusalem. My head spun with questions. The canvas of my new picture had grown weary, streaked with eraser marks. I found myself growing weary. I missed the God I had resolutely left behind, as I wandered between the crowded skyscrapers of New York City.
The gap between my skeptical and emotional self did not close consciously. The serene, modest beauty of Jerusalem, hushed by rare snow, didn’t intellectually combat my neatly contested list of questions. Rather, she rendered them null and void. Like a mother, answering a tired child’s long list of bereavements with an embrace, rather than answers. The child is left hiccupping, still indignant perhaps, but with no breath left for complaints.
Watching the sunlight glint off the white, the questions that had built up, like a wall of stone, crumbled, as if by the sounding call of Joshua’s shofar, walls of Jericho sinking into the ground. The defenses, built up like a small army, melted like a child’s breath on a frosty pane. I stood at the Western Wall and cried to a God I had never lost. It was the same God who had inspired my childish fervor and creativity. The same God who winked at me from behind evergreen trees of childhood memories. The same God I trusted while sitting, cross-legged, atop Jerusalem’s blossoming hills.
I still have questions. I don’t regret asking, nor will I cease to do so. I am a more sophisticated thinker for the journey. The greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, after all, never desisted from intellectual inquiry.
But during my stay in Jerusalem, I realized my quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world. I realized simplicity and truth never were at odds. There will always be questions, debates, and philosophical contentions enough for any willing skeptic. But they fall, like matchsticks in the wind, in those rare, privileged moments when we face a portrait so beautiful, we cannot explain.
Let me tell you what the Rebbe very often told people: Many troubles come because they feel at home. That is, when a person’s mind is full of thoughts of how rotten things are and how bad they are going, the troubles say, “Hey, here’s a place for us with all our friends, where we can feel at home!”
So what do you need to do? Throw out the unwanted guests—meaning, all those lousy thoughts—and bring in some friendly ones. There’s always something good; all of us have many blessings in life. You are alive, you are a mother who cares, you are not starving in Africa. First and foremost, you are a Jew who can turn and speak to G‑d firsthand at any time and He will listen, because you are His firstborn son.
Once you start thinking those thoughts and banish all the lousy ones, the troubles don’t feel at home any more. Instead, all those blessings that have been standing out the door for years waiting to come in—but couldn’t, because it just wasn’t the right company inside—now they will all come to party and fill your house.
Granted, this is not an easy task, at least for the first week or so. But we know from much experience that it works, and it works wonders: Misery attracts misery; joy attracts blessings.
How about giving it two weeks and see what happens?
A majority of people report making resolutions each new calendar year. Unfortunately, your chances of making it through January with your resolution intact are slim. For while it’s easy to get fired up about starting the new calendar year off right, when everyone is making resolutions too and excitement about change is in the air, it’s harder to sustain that commitment as the weeks go by (the same phenomenon applies to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year). Right now, during the depths of January when we’re most struggling to maintain our resolutions, is the real time to change. Studies show that those who make it through this month have a better chance of sticking to their resolutions for the rest of the year. Jewish tradition gives us strategies for sticking with resolutions, even once the initial excitement has worn off. Even if you haven’t made any big resolutions yet this year, these behaviors can give you the tools to make this year your best yet. 1. Smart Planning The famous Jewish poem “A Woman of Valor” describes the ideal woman. In addition to being a wife and mother, she’s selfless and busy: a tireless businesswoman. Many commentators have taken her description to be an allegory for the entire Jewish people. One of the most important qualities ascribed to her is foresight: “she considers a field, a buys it” (Proverbs 31:15). Amidst all her busy activities, she takes the time to stop, think, and plan ahead where it is she wants to be. Jewish tradition encourages this type of preparing: set aside some time regularly – it can be annually, monthly or more often – to spend some time thinking about your goals and coming up with real life, detailed plans for tackling them. Brainstorm specific ways to replace old habits with new ones. When do you find it most difficult to implement your new behavior? What can you do when you feel yourself slipping back into old habits? Spending some time on this sort of exercise can transform resolutions from pipedreams to real, actionable plans. Modern research echoes this wisdom. Scientists have found that this sort of regular, detailed planning is much more effective than more general, sweeping goals. Spend some time honestly thinking about your strengths and weaknesses: try to anticipate the challenges you face, and work on coming up with strategies that will help you towards your goals. 2. Seeing the Bigger Picture While you’re brainstorming, spend some time also considering why you’ve chosen your goals and resolutions. What bigger picture are they part of? When the first excitement of new resolutions fades, having in mind what larger goals our resolutions are part of can help sustain us, giving us a larger reason for our behaviors. A person who wants to lose weight in the New Year, for instance, might ask herself why: does she want to be healthy? Does she want to have energy to be there for her family? What sort of person, ultimately, does she want to become? When we reframe our resolutions as steps towards our ultimate goals, we gain the confidence that it’s possible to reach them. In modern psychological parlance, this is called self-efficacy: the belief that our goals are possible, which greatly enhances our self-control and ability to realize our ambitions. This January, try asking yourself the big, heavy questions. What are you living for? What do you truly value? Thinking about these issues can help motivate us in keeping the resolutions that will bring us closer to our ultimate purpose. 3. New Habits The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Meir, who came to the aid of a couple who used to fight every Shabbat (Gittin 52a). Each Friday afternoon for three weeks, Rabbi Meir went to their house and acted as peacemaker, smoothing over their differences and helping them not to fight. By the end of the third week, the Talmud relates, the couple no longer had the habit of fighting: their problem was cured. The Torah recognizes that after three weeks, new behaviors begin to become routine; if we can only make it through this difficult, early phase, our chance of changing our conduct permanently is much stronger. Modern science also recognizes that forming new habits is crucial to changing the way we do things. Habit, which bypasses conscious thought, occurs when particular neural pathways in our brains are strengthened; brain activity along those lines is easier than other types of thought, and so becomes our default mode of behavior. It’s possible to “reprogram” our brains and create or strengthen new, different, neural connections. “Reprogramming” the way we behave usually takes several weeks of conscious effort. Researchers have found that three weeks – the same length of time the Talmud mentioned – is roughly the length of time needed to change our brain structure. Recognizing this – and realizing that once our new behavior becomes habit it will be much easier to sustain – can help get us through the challenges of our first month or so when keeping new resolutions. 4. Healthy Environments “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) the Torah enjoins. It can be hard enough to stick to a new regime without surrounding ourselves with temptations to lapse in our new resolutions. Whatever behavior we are trying to affect, it’s easier when we remove ourselves from challenging situations. Conversely, the Torah also instructs us to find mentors for ourselves. “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Attaching ourselves to people and communities whose behaviors model what we want for ourselves, can help move ourselves closer to our goals. 5. Connecting with God Finally, even after taking all these steps, it can be difficult to get over the hump of January (or any time following the decision to turn over a new leaf, whatever the time of year or one’s stage in life). There are times when we’ve all felt completely helpless: that achieving our goals is beyond our grasp. Click here to receive Aish.com's free weekly email. Three thousand years ago, King David grasped this truth. He realized his only chance to succeed was appealing to God, and he penned words that have guided Jews ever since: “From the depths have I called to You, oh God” (Psalm 130:1). In ancient times some synagogues even contained indentations in the floor where people could lead prayer “out of the depths”. Doing so – appealing to God when we realize we can’t succeed on our own – can bring us closer to the Divine, giving us both the strength and the resolution to succeed in our goals. When the going gets tough, try opening a dialogue with God. This can be as formal or informal as you like. Get used the idea of asking God for help with your resolutions. This dialogue can help us clarify exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve and why, and it can also help give us the energy and spiritual sustenance to succeed in our goals.
Va'eira(Exodus 6:2-9:35) Of Lice and Men Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs
http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/185800472.html?s=fb Throughout all Egypt the dust turned into lice. But when the magicians tried to produce lice by their secret arts, they could not. The lice attacked men and animals alike. The magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not listen Too little attention has been paid to the use of humour in the Torah. Its most important form is the use of satire to mock the pretensions of human beings who think they can emulate God. One thing makes God laugh - the sight of humanity attempting to defy heaven: The kings of the earth take their stand, And the rulers gather together against the Lord and His anointed one. "Let us break our chains," they say, "and throw off their fetters." He who sits in heaven laughs, God scoffs at them. (Psalm 2:2-4) There is a marvellous example in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people in the plain of Shinar decide to build a city with a tower that "will reach heaven." This is an act of defiance against the divinely given order of nature ("The heavens are the heavens of God: the earth He has given to the children of men"). The Torah then says, "But God came down to see the city and the tower ..." Down on earth, the builders thought their tower would reach heaven. From the vantage point of heaven, however, it was so miniscule that God had to "come down" to see it. Satire is essential to understanding at least some of the plagues. The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. By their "secret arts" the magicians believed that they could control these forces. Magic is the equivalent in an era of myth to technology in an age of science. A civilization that believes it can manipulate the gods, believes likewise that it can exercise coercion over human beings. In such a culture, the concept of freedom is unknown. The plagues were not merely intended to punish Pharaoh and his people for their mistreatment of the Israelites, but also to show them the powerlessness of the gods in which they believed ("I will perform acts of judgement against all the gods of Egypt: I am God", Ex. 12:12). This explains the first and last of the nine plagues prior to the killing of the firstborn. The first involved the Nile. The ninth was the plague of darkness. The Nile was worshipped as the source of fertility in an otherwise desert region. The sun was seen as the greatest of the gods, Re, whose child Pharaoh was considered to be. Darkness meant the eclipse of the sun, showing that even the greatest of the Egyptian gods could do nothing in the face of the true God. What is at stake in this confrontation is the difference between myth - in which the gods are mere powers, to be tamed, propitiated or manipulated - and biblical monotheism in which ethics (justice, compassion, human dignity) constitute the meeting-point of God and mankind. That is the key to the first two plagues, both of which refer back to the beginning of Egyptian persecution of the Israelites: the killing of male children at birth, first through the midwives (though, thanks to Shifra and Puah's moral sense, this was foiled) then by throwing them into the Nile to drown. That is why, in the first plague, the river waters turn to blood. The significance of the second, frogs, would have been immediately apparent to the Egyptians. Heqt, the frog-goddess, represented the midwife who assisted women in labour. Both plagues are coded messages meaning: "If you use the river and midwives - both normally associated with life - to bring about death, those same forces will turn against you." An immensely significant message is taking shape: Reality has an ethical structure. If used for evil ends, the powers of nature will turn against man, so that what he does will be done to him in turn. There is justice in history. The response of the Egyptians to these first two plagues is to see them within their own frame of reference. Plagues, for them, are forms of magic, not miracles. To Pharaoh's "magicians", Moses and Aaron are people like themselves who practice "secret arts". So they replicate them: they show that they too can turn water into blood and generate a horde of frogs. The irony here is very close to the surface. So intent are the Egyptian magicians on proving that they can do what Moses and Aaron have done, that they entirely fail to realise that far from making matters better for the Egyptians, they are making them worse: more blood, more frogs. This brings us to the third plague, lice. One of the purposes of this plague is to produce an effect which the magicians cannot replicate. They try. They fail. Immediately they conclude, "This is the finger of God". This is the first appearance in the Torah of an idea, surprisingly persistent in religious thinking even today, called "the god of the gaps". This holds that a miracle is something for which we cannot yet find a scientific explanation. Science is natural; religion is supernatural. An "act of God" is something we cannot account for rationally. What magicians (or technocrats) cannot reproduce must be the result of Divine intervention. This leads inevitably to the conclusion that religion and science are opposed. The more we can explain scientifically or control technologically, the less need we have for faith. As the scope of science expands, the place of God progressively diminishes to vanishing point. What the Torah is intimating is that this is a pagan mode of thought, not a Jewish one. The Egyptians admitted that Moses and Aaron were genuine prophets when they performed wonders beyond the scope of their own magic. But this is not why we believe in Moses and Aaron. On this, Maimonides is unequivocal: Israel did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the signs he performed. When faith is predicated on signs, a lurking doubt always remains that these signs may have been performed with the aid of occult arts and witchcraft. All the signs Moses performed in the wilderness, he did because they were necessary, not to authenticate his status as a prophet ... When we needed food, he brought down manna. When the people were thirsty, he cleaved the rock. When Korach's supporters denied his authority, the earth swallowed them up. So too with all the other signs. What then were our grounds for believing in him? The revelation at Sinai, in which we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears ... (Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah 8:1). The primary way in which we encounter God is not through miracles but through His word - the revelation - Torah - which is the Jewish people's constitution as a nation under the sovereignty of God. To be sure, God is in the events which, seeming to defy nature, we call miracles. But He is also in nature itself. Science does not displace God: it reveals, in ever more intricate and wondrous ways, the design within nature itself. Far from diminishing our religious sense, science (rightly understood) should enlarge it, teaching us to see "How great are Your works, O God; You have made them all with wisdom." Above all, God is to be found in the voice heard at Sinai, teaching us how to construct a society that will be the opposite of Egypt: in which the few do not enslave the many, nor are strangers mistreated. The best argument against the world of ancient Egypt was Divine humor. The cultic priests and magicians who thought they could control the sun and the Nile discovered that they could not even produce a louse. Pharaohs like Ramses II demonstrated their godlike status by creating monumental architecture: the great temples, palaces and pyramids whose immensity seemed to betoken divine grandeur (the Gemara explains that Egyptian magic could not function on very small things). God mocks them by revealing His presence in the tiniest of creatures (T. S. Eliot: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"). What the Egyptian magicians (and their latter-day successors) did not understand is that power over nature is not an end in itself but solely the means to ethical ends. The lice were God's joke at the expense of the magicians who believed that because they controlled the forces of nature, they were the masters of human destiny. They were wrong. Faith is not merely belief in the supernatural. It is the ability to hear the call of the Author of Being, to be free in such a way as to respect the freedom and dignity of others.
I want here to focus on just one passage in the long dialogue in which G‑d summons Moses to undertake the mission of leading the Israelites to freedom—a challenge which, no less than four times, Moses declines. I am unworthy, he says. I am not a man of words. Send someone else. It is the second refusal, however, which attracted special attention from the sages and led them to formulate one of their most radical interpretations. The Torah states:
Moses replied: “But they will not believe me. They will not listen to me. They will say, ‘G‑d did not appear to you.’”1
The sages, ultra-sensitive to nuances in the text, evidently noticed three strange features of this response. The first is that G‑d had already told Moses, “They will listen to you.”2 Moses’ reply seems to contradict G‑d’s prior assurance. To be sure, the commentators offered various harmonizing interpretations. Ibn Ezra suggests that G‑d had told Moses that the elders would listen to him, whereas Moses expressed doubts about the mass of the people. Ramban says that Moses did not doubt that they would believe initially, but he thought that they would lose faith as soon as they saw that Pharaoh would not let them go. There are other explanations, but the fact remains that Moses was not satisfied by G‑d’s assurance. His own experience of the fickleness of the people (one of them, years earlier, had already said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?”) made him doubt that they would be easy to lead.
The second anomaly is in the signs that G‑d gave Moses to authenticate his mission. The first (the staff that turns into a snake) and third (the water that turned into blood) reappear later in the story. They are signs that Moses and Aaron perform not only for the Israelites, but also for the Egyptians. The second, however, does not reappear. G‑d tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak. When he takes it out, he sees that it has become “leprous as snow.” What is the significance of this particular sign? The sages recalled that later, Miriam was punished with leprosy for speaking negatively about Moses.3 In general they understood leprosy as a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech. Had Moses, perhaps, been guilty of the same sin?
The third detail is that, whereas Moses’ other refusals focused on his own sense of inadequacy, here he speaks not about himself but about the people. They will not believe him. Putting these three points together, the sages arrived at the following comment:
Reish Lakish said: He who entertains a suspicion against the innocent will be bodily afflicted, as it is written, “Moses replied: ‘But they will not believe me.’” However, it was known to the Holy One, blessed be He, that Israel would believe. He said to Moses: They are believers, the children of believers, but you will ultimately disbelieve. They are believers, as it is written, “And the people believed.”4 The children of believers, [as it is written,] “And he [Abraham] believed in the L‑rd.”5 But you will ultimately disbelieve, as it is said, “[And the L‑rd said to Moses,] ‘Because you did not believe in Me . . .’”6 How do we know that he was afflicted? Because it is written,7 “And the L‑rd said to him, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak . . .’”8
This is an extraordinary passage. Moses, it now becomes clear, was entitled to have doubts about his own worthiness for the task. What he was not entitled to do was to have doubts about the people. In fact, his doubts were amply justified. The people were fractious. Moses calls them a “stiff-necked people.” Time and again during the wilderness years they complained, sinned, and wanted to return to Egypt. Moses was not wrong in his estimate of their character. Yet G‑d reprimanded him, indeed punished him by making his hand leprous. A fundamental principle of Jewish leadership is intimated here for the first time: a leader does not need faith in himself, but he must have faith in the people he is to lead.
This is an exceptionally important idea. The political philosopher Michael Walzer has written insightfully about social criticism, in particular about two stances the critic may take vis-à-vis those he criticizes. On the one hand there is the critic as outsider. At some stage, beginning in ancient Greece,
Detachment was added to defiance in the self-portrait of the hero. The impulse was Platonic; later on it was Stoic and Christian. Now the critical enterprise was said to require that one leave the city, imagined for the sake of the departure as a darkened cave, find one’s way, alone, outside, to the illumination of Truth, and only then return to examine and reprove the inhabitants. The critic-who-returns doesn’t engage the people as kin; he looks at them with a new objectivity; they are strangers to his new-found Truth.
This is the critic as detached intellectual. The prophets of Israel were quite different. Their message, writes Johannes Lindblom, was “characterized by the principle of solidarity.” “They are rooted, for all their anger, in their own societies,” writes Walzer. Like the Shunamite woman (II Kings 4:13), their home is “among their own people.” They speak, not from outside, but from within. That is what gives their words power. They identify with those to whom they speak. They share their history, their fate, their calling, their covenant.
Hence the peculiar pathos of the prophetic calling. They are the voice of G‑d to the people, but they are also the voice of the people to G‑d. That, according to the sages, was what G‑d was teaching Moses: What matters is not whether they believe in you, but whether you believe in them. Unless you believe in them, you cannot lead in the way a prophet must lead. You must identify with them and have faith in them, seeing not only their surface faults but also their underlying virtues. Otherwise, you will be no better than a detached intellectual—and that is the beginning of the end. If you do not believe in the people, eventually you will not even believe in G‑d. You will think yourself superior to them, and that is a corruption of the soul.
The classic text on this theme is Maimonides’ Epistle on Martyrdom. Written in 1165, when Maimonides was thirty years old, it was occasioned by a tragic period in medieval Jewish history, when an extremist Muslim sect, the Almohads, forced many Jews to convert to Islam under threat of death. One of the forced converts (they were called anusim; later they became known as marranos) asked a rabbi whether he might gain merit by practicing as many of the Torah’s commands as he could in secret. The rabbi sent back a dismissive reply. Now that he had forsaken his faith, he wrote, he would achieve nothing by living secretly as a Jew. Any Jewish act he performed would not be a merit, but an additional sin.
Maimonides’ Epistle is a work of surpassing spiritual beauty. He utterly rejects the rabbi’s reply. Those who keep Judaism in secret are to be praised, not blamed. He quotes a whole series of rabbinic passages in which G‑d rebukes prophets who criticized the people of Israel, including the one above about Moses. He then writes:
If this is the sort of punishment meted out to the pillars of the universe—Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the ministering angels—because they briefly criticized the Jewish congregation, can one have an idea of the fate of the least among the worthless [i.e., the rabbi who criticized the forced converts] who let his tongue loose against Jewish communities of sages and their disciples, priests and Levites, and called them sinners, evildoers, gentiles, disqualified to testify, and heretics who deny the L‑rd G‑d of Israel?
The Epistle is a definitive expression of the prophetic task: to speak out of love for one’s people; to defend them, see the good in them, and raise them to higher achievements through praise, not condemnation.
Who is a leader? To this, the Jewish answer is: one who identifies with his or her people; mindful of their faults, to be sure, but convinced also of their potential greatness and their preciousness in the sight of G‑d. “Those people of whom you have doubts,” said G‑d to Moses, “are believers, the children of believers. They are My people, and they are your people. Just as you believe in Me, so you must believe in them.”
BY RABBI JONATHAN SACKS Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org. More articles by Jonathan Sacks | RSS
The sequence from Bereishit 37 to 50 is the longest unbroken narrative in the Torah, and there can be no doubt who its hero is: Joseph. The story begins and ends with him. We see him as a child, beloved – even spoiled – by his father; as an adolescent dreamer, resented by his brothers; as a slave, then a prisoner, in Egypt; then as the second most powerful figure in the greatest empire of the ancient world. At every stage, the narrative revolves around him and his impact on others. He dominates the last third of Bereishit, casting his shadow on everything else. From almost the beginning, he seems destined for greatness.
Yet history did not turn out that way. To the contrary, it is another brother who, in the fullness of time, leaves his mark on the Jewish people. Indeed, we bear his name. The covenantal family has been known by several names. One is Ivri, “Hebrew” (possibly related to the ancient apiru), meaning “outsider, stranger, nomad, one who wanders from place to place.” That is how Abraham and his children were known to others. The second is Yisrael, derived from Jacob’s new name after he “wrestled with G-d and with man and prevailed.” After the division of the kingdom and the conquest of the North by the Assyrians, however, they became known as Yehudim or Jews, for it was the tribe of Judah who dominated the kingdom of the South, and they who survived the Babylonian exile. So it was not Joseph but Judah who conferred his identity on the people, Judah who became the ancestor of Israel’s greatest king, David, Judah from whom the messiah will be born. Why Judah, not Joseph? The answer undoubtedly lies in the beginning of Vayigash, as the two brothers confront one another, and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s release.
The clue lies many chapters back, at the beginning of the Joseph story. It is there we find that it was Judah who proposed selling Joseph into slavery:
Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover his blood? Let’s sell him to the Arabs and not harm him with our own hands. After all – he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. (37: 26-27)
This is a speech of monstrous callousness. There is no word about the evil of murder, merely pragmatic calculation (“What will we gain”). At the very moment he calls Joseph “our own flesh and blood” he is proposing selling him as a slave. Judah has none of the tragic nobility of Reuben who, alone of the brothers, sees that what they are doing is wrong, and makes an attempt to save him (it fails). At this point, Judah is the last person from whom we expect great things.
However, Judah – more than anyone else in the Torah – changes. The man we see all these years later it not what he was then. Then he was prepared to see his brother sold into slavery. Now he is prepared to suffer that fate himself rather than see Benjamin held as a slave. As he says to Joseph:
“Now, my lord, let me remain in place of the boy as your lordship’s slave, and let him go with his brothers. How can I return to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the misery which my father would suffer.” (44: 33-34)
It is a precise reversal of character. Callousness has been replaced with concern. Indifference to his brother’s fate has been transformed into courage on his behalf. He is willing to suffer what he once inflicted on Joseph so that the same fate should not befall Benjamin. At this point Joseph reveals his identity. We know why. Judah has passed the test that Joseph has carefully constructed for him. Joseph wants to know if Judah has changed. He has.
This is a highly significant moment in the history of the human spirit. Judah is the first penitent – the first baal teshuvah – in the Torah. Where did it come from, this change in his character? For that, we have to backtrack to chapter 38 – the story of Tamar. Tamar, we recall, had married Judah’s two elder sons, both of whom had died, leaving her a childless widow. Judah, fearing that his third son would share their fate, withheld him from her – thus leaving her unable to remarry and have children. Once she understands her situation, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute. Judah sleeps with her. She becomes pregnant. Judah, unaware of the disguise, concludes that she must have had a forbidden relationship and orders her to be put to death. At this point, Tamar – who, while disguised, had taken Judah’s seal, cord and staff as a pledge – send them to Judah with a message: “The father of my child is the man to whom these belong.” Judah now understands the whole story. Not only has he placed Tamar in an impossible situation of living widowhood, and not only is he the father of her child, but he also realises that she has behaved with extraordinary discretion in revealing the truth without shaming him (it is from this act of Tamar’s that we derive the rule that “one should rather throw oneself into a fiery furnace than shame someone else in public”). Tamar is the heroine of the story, but it has one significant consequence. Judah admits he was wrong. “She was more righteous than I,” he says. This is the first time in the Torah someone acknowledges their own guilt. It is also the turning point in Judah’s life. Here is born that ability to recognise one’s own wrongdoing, to feel remorse, and to change – the complex phenomenon known as teshuvah – that later leads to the great scene in Vayigash, where Judah is capable of turning his earlier behaviour on its head and doing the opposite of what he had once done before. Judah is ish teshuvah, penitential man.
We now understand the significance of his name. The verb lehodot means two things. It means “to thank,” which is what Leah has in mind when she gives Judah, her fourth son, his name: “this time I will thank the Lord.” However, it also means, “to admit, acknowledge.” The biblical term vidui, “confession,” – then and now part of the process of teshuvah, and according to Maimonides its key element – comes from the same root. Judah means “he who acknowledged his sin.”
We now also understand one of the fundamental axioms of teshuvah: “Rabbi Abbahu said: In the place where penitents stand, even the perfectly righteous cannot stand” (Berachot 34b). His prooftext is the verse from Isaiah (57: 19), “Peace, peace to him that was far and to him that is near.” The verse puts one who “was far” ahead of one who “is near.” As the Talmud makes clear, however, Rabbi Abbahu’s reading is by no means uncontroversial. Rabbi Jochanan interprets “far” as “far from sin” rather than “far from G-d.” The real proof is Judah. Judah is a penitent, the first in the Torah. Joseph is consistently known to tradition as ha-tzaddik, “the righteous.” Joseph became mishneh le-melekh, “second to the king.” Judah, however, became the father of Israel’s kings. Where the penitent Judah stands, even the perfectly righteous Joseph cannot stand. However great an individual may be in virtue of his or her natural character, greater still is one who is capable of growth and change. That is the power of penitence, and it began with Judah.
The magic formula to giving others the support they need.
I sat in the car, parked at the end of the trail, nervously waiting for my children. We usually did family hikes, but the Yehudiya, Israel’s most popular hike, is “for experienced hikers only,” with several steep ascents. That disqualified me. Our 19-year-old daughter Pliyah and 13-year-old son Yisrael were anxious to do the hike, so my husband and I decided to let them go by themselves. My husband had dropped the kids off at the trailhead at 10 that morning. Now, at 4 PM, allowing extra time for a hike that was supposed to take five hours, I started to worry.
I couldn’t phone them because they had purposely not taken their cell phones. The trail cuts off at the top of an 8-meter waterfall. The hiker has to jump into the large, deep pool below, swim across, and resume the trail on the other side. Only water-friendly devices survive.
I recited Psalms, trying to remain calm, but after 40 minutes of waiting, I left the car by the locked roadblock and started to walk along the trail from the end. I had been walking less than five minutes when I spotted a figure coming toward me. It was my son Yisrael. He was alone.
My heart clutched in fear. What had happened to Pliyah? I ran toward Yisrael, frantically shouting, “Where’s Pliyah? What happened to Pliyah!?”
Yisrael assured me that Pliyah was okay, then quickly amended his statement. “She’s not injured. She’s stuck on the trail. We were climbing the last, steep part of the trail, and we got to this place where you have to go straight up, even more than straight up, like the rock comes out toward you, and Pliyah was too scared to keep going. I tried to help her, I showed her exactly where to put her foot, I begged her to try, but she refused. We spent a long time on that narrow ledge. She finally told me to go ahead without her and get help.”
I raced back to the car and found the National Park brochure. At the bottom, in large print, was the EMERGENCY TELEPHONE NUMBER. I dialed and tried to explain to the park ranger, who was obviously used to panicked calls from desperate mothers, that my daughter was marooned on the side of a cliff. He noted our location and told us he would send help right away.
I sat there nervously trying to figure out how they were going to get a 5’10” girl weighing 135 pounds up the side of a rather sheer cliff. Five minutes later two uniformed men in a pickup truck pulled up. In the back of the pickup were a stretcher, a huge coil of thick rope, and some metal hooks. Apparently they were going to put my daughter into the stretcher and somehow pull it up the cliff, an operation fraught with its own dangers.
As one of the rangers unlocked the roadblock, he asked me if my daughter was injured.
“No, just scared.” I asked if I could go with them.
“No, you and your son stay here,” the ranger replied. “We’ll take care of your daughter. Don’t worry.” Then, looking at the Book of Psalms I was clutching, he added, “You just pray.”
Having the rescue personnel tell me to pray was less than reassuring, but pray I did. An eternity later, the pickup returned, with my daughter smiling in the back.
Amidst hugs, tears, and thanks to the rangers, I got my children into our car. On the way back to our Golan cabin, I asked Pliyah how they had managed to get her in the stretcher up the cliff.
“They didn’t use the stretcher,” she replied. “I climbed up myself.”
“Y-y-you climbed up yourself?” I was stunned. “But I thought you were too scared?”
“I was,” Pliyah explained. “But the two guys came to where I was, and the taller guy stood right behind me and said, ‘Ani homa. Ta'ali. I am a wall. Go up.’ And I realized that if I fell back, I would fall on him. So I wasn’t scared any more, and I just climbed up. No problem.”
“I am a wall. Go up.” What was this magic formula that had turned my daughter’s fear into confidence and propelled her upward?
Times of Paralysis
Life is a trail. When a person has undergone a devastating divorce, or given birth to a special-needs child, or received a dreaded diagnosis, or gone bankrupt, or suffered a death in the family, that person may be too paralyzed to move forward.
We, the friends or relatives, want to be helpful. But the person’s predicament is so complicated or the loss so severe, that pulling the person up the cliff would require far more rope and much more strength than we possess. So, despairing of our own ability to rescue him or her, we slither away.
I have a friend whose 21-year-old daughter was killed in a terror attack. In the wake of the murder, our community responded with an outpouring of love and support. Three months later, however, my friend mentioned to me that one of her oldest, dearest friends was avoiding her. This friend, who lives far away, visited every year on the holiday of Sukkot, but the past Sukkot she had neither come nor called. I was sure this bereaved mother was misreading the situation. Then she told me that as she walked through the narrow lanes of our Old City neighborhood, she often saw neighbors in the distance coming toward her, and then she’d see them abruptly duck into an intersecting lane in order to avoid meeting her.
This phenomenon is, in fact, widespread, and is discussed in the psychological literature. People are at a loss for what to say, or are so afraid of saying the wrong thing and making matters worse, that they avoid the victim of tragedy exactly when their support is most needed. They labor under the fallacy that their job is to pull the person up the cliff, and since this is humanly impossible, their sense of helplessness drives them to cruel avoidance.
From the Israeli Park Ranger I learned a different way: To stand firmly behind the person and say, in words or even with silence, "I am a wall. I’m here for you. You are capable of going up." That may give them the courage to take the next step whenever they are ready.
This means relinquishing the role of the Great Rescuer. It means not philosophizing, not offering unsolicited advice, and not questioning the choices they have made. (“Why did you choose chemo without even trying alternative therapy? “ “I wish you had seen Dr. Miracle the Marriage Counselor before going for a divorce.”) It means not patronizing with pity. (“I’m so sorry your baby is impaired.” “I’m so sorry your financial reverses mean you can’t send your son to the same school this year.”)
For those afraid of saying the wrong thing, here’s a four-word formula that never goes wrong: “I’m here for you.” And mean it.
My friend Shoshana Leibman is an exemplar of the I Am a Wall approach. When everyone in our community was reeling because a mother of many children had been diagnosed with a serious illness, Shoshana walked into their house and announced. “I’m here. Give me laundry to fold.”
Of course, to be a wall for another person, you yourself have to be strong, not in muscles but in faith. You must absolutely believe the foundations of Judaism:
That everything (including what is painful and challenging) comes from God. That everything (including what is painful and challenging) is for our ultimate benefit. That everything (especially what is painful or challenging) is an opportunity for spiritual growth. In addition to faith in God, you must also have faith in the other person’s ability to go up. Tamar was 51 years old when her husband walked out on her and their four children. Suddenly, she had to support the family, but she had not worked in her field for the last 20 years that she was raising children. Recently she called her friend Cookie and told her, “You were the only one who had faith in me that I could go back to school and catch up with the changes in my profession. Now I’m almost ready to rejoin the workforce. I couldn’t have done it without your faith in me.”
Barbara and her husband Josh are baseball enthusiasts. After six years of fertility treatments, they gave birth to a baby with Down’s syndrome. Barbara was shattered with disappointment and, yes, embarrassment. The next day, her sister Hannah arrived at the hospital bearing a large bouquet with a note reading: “I thought you two were good Little League players, but apparently God thinks you’re ready for the Major Leagues.” Then Hannah sat next to Barbara’s bed for four hours. The first two hours, Barbara cried, while Hannah held the newborn and said nothing at all. Slowly, gradually, Barbara and Josh started to move forward, searching for websites of organizations that deal with babies with Down’s and talking about the bris.
When Hannah left, Josh said, “Thanks for coming. You helped us a lot.”
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In my dream I was in some sort of huge, endless mall. I was wandering aimlessly, searching in vain for someone I knew to be missing. It was supposedly one of my younger children – though it was never specified which. In my dream I knew it was hopeless, that the lost child would never be found. The dream repeated itself a second time. After each time, I woke up depressed, with a heavy sense of foreboding.
Shortly after, my 18-year-old nephew passed away.
At the time of my dreams I had no idea my nephew was at the time experiencing headaches on account of a not-yet-diagnosed brain tumor. Ever since, I have learned to take very seriously my dreams which I awake from depressed.
The concept of dreams has both fascinated and haunted mankind. We dream about our hopes, we dream about our fears and anxieties, and we dream about our fantasies. Most of the time we dream about the people and events which occupy our minds during the day, but at times our dreams catch us completely by surprise. Psychologists see dreams as one of the keys to understanding the human subconscious. What is the hidden significance behind our dreams?
Even the Jewish sources on the matter are not entirely clear. On the one hand, the Talmud states that dreams are one-sixtieth of prophecy (Brachot 57b). Yet at the same time the Talmud writes that no dreams are without nonsense (ibid., 55a), and that the interpretation of a dream depends on the explanation given by the interpreter (55b). As the Talmud makes clear, any dream can have either a good or a bad interpretation, and it is at the mercy of the one who interprets it. How could a prophecy, even a very minor one, be up for grabs, so to speak, and depend upon how people explain it?
The Biblical Joseph is described in the Torah as a dreamer. He both experienced prophetic dreams himself and interpreted them for others. Why did the young Joseph, who knew he had already aroused his brothers’ jealousy, further antagonize them by telling them his dreams? Wasn’t he just fanning the flames of animosity? Was he just showing off, immaturely attempting to show his brothers that God had greater things in mind for him than them?
My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig noted a fundamental difference between prophecy and dreams. When a prophet is granted a vision or a message about the future, he knows that it is the future he is being shown. He knows that he is now in the present, viewing events which will occur on a future date.
A dream, by contrast, is an entirely different experience. The dreamer is not merely viewing the future. He is experiencing it right then. He feels that the events of his dream are occurring to him at that very moment. We often wake up from dreams with the thought “Thank goodness – it was only a dream!” Thus, unlike a prophecy in which a prophet today is being shown a vision of the future, the dreamer is actually transported to the future, to experience it right here and now.
Why is this distinction significant? Because of the critical role that time and free will play in Jewish philosophy. As Maimonides (Laws of Repentance, Ch. 5) explains, free will is one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism. Our actions are in our own hands. We can determine our future. There is no predestination in the eyes of the Torah. Our future is indeterminate. Every day of our lives we can wake up and decide if we want to be good or wicked. And as a result, God will reward or punish us for our every action and decision.
Prophecy can be viewed as an override of this principle. When a prophet comes and informs mankind what is in store for the future, it is no longer indeterminate. If a prophet would come along today and proclaim that the Chaldeans will attack tomorrow, presumably the Chaldeans have no choice but to attack. It has to happen; God already told us it would. Thus, free will would seem to be compromised. The future is no longer in the hands of man.
(At the same time, it should be mentioned that prophecies – especially ones which discuss distant events such as the End of Days, are often purposely vague. There are many ways in which they may come true. Such prophecies are vague specifically because they discuss events which are not yet entirely determined and may come true in many ways – generally depending upon how worthy we will be at the time. Likewise, Maimonides (Laws of Fundamentals of Torah 10:4) writes that negative prophecies may not actually occur. Such prophecies come as warnings to mankind; if we repent, we can avert them.)
Based on this, the distinction we made between prophecy and dreams becomes very significant. Prophecy means that a prophet is standing here today being told what will occur tomorrow. “Tomorrow” is thus no longer indeterminate. It has been established already today; free will has been compromised. Dreams, by contrast, are an experience in which the dreamer actually experiences the future. Dreams are a beyond-time experience. The future has not been announced and brought down to the present. It is still the inchoate future, and so by definition – since free will exists – it can happen in more than one way.
This is the intent of the Talmud when it states that dreams follow their interpretation. A dream by definition can come true in more than one way. It is still a “future” experience, not yet compromised by entering the world of time. Thus, until an interpretation is offered – whether good or bad – a dream by its very nature must have two possible outcomes.
Joseph recognized that he was a dreamer. He had the ability to relate to the universe beyond time, to future events not yet conceived. When he received his prophetic dreams, he realized he could not just sit back and wait for them to occur. These were not prophecies of the future brought down to the world of time – which would transpire whether we cooperate with them or not. They were dreams. Joseph was being informed of his potential future – what might be if he would only exercise his free will to make it happen. Thus, Joseph realized he had to act on his dreams, to concretize his potential future and make it his reality.
The Talmud writes that a dream which is not interpreted is akin to an unread letter (Brachot 55a). A dream which is relegated to the world of dreams has never left the future and so has no impact on the present. Joseph thus realized that he had to publicize his dreams, to begin actualizing his future potential. Far from immaturely boasting his dreams of grandeur to his brothers, Joseph recognized that his future would only be his if he himself would make the effort.
Our dreams today may be more or less prophetic, depending on how much nonsense we fill our heads with during our waking hours. To some degree, it is in our hands to latch on to our nobler dreams – both our sleeping and our waking ones – and to put in our own effort into making them come true.
Based primarily on thoughts heard from my teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig of the Talmudic University of Florida.
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Ouch! Upon hearing this voicemail message from a woman whom I had never met, I felt misunderstood and unfairly blamed. I wanted desperately to explain myself and my position to her. I looked for her e‑mail address in order to respond.
Blinking away the tears, I thought of the teaching of the sages: Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . . are like the sun going forth in its glory (Talmud, Shabbat 88b). I took a deep breath.
IThe phone call was apparently triggered by a short conversation I’d had with this woman regarding a gemach (free loan service) that I organize for our community. Upon hearing about my service, the woman had contacted me, wishing to donate some items—strollers, cribs and car seats. I had told her during our 56-second conversation that at this time I could not accept any more stuff, as the bedroom where I store the items is completely full.
As part of that 56-second conversation, the woman assured me that her cribs and car seats were in impeccable condition, and said that she could not understand why I was not taking them. I began to explain to her again about the lack of space in the room, but the woman yelled, “Why are you screaming at me?” and then hung up the phone.
I didn’t think my tone had been raised, but I’d had the conversation on a cell phone, and you can never be sure of the volume when it comes to a cell phone. And yes, I do tend to have a loud voice. Still, her message seemed somewhat extreme—what with the name-calling and angry voice.
Well, there is a motto that “it’s better to be loved than to be right . . . apologize.” So I sat down at my computer (I’d found her e‑mail address) and, in a carefully composed e‑mail, I expressed my regrets at not being able to accept her donations at this time, and my appreciation to her for wanting to contribute. I also referred her to an acquaintance of mine who also has a gemach, and suggested that perhaps that person would take her items. I apologized for our miscommunication and my loud voice.
The reply: “Miriam, I am not impressed. You are trying to rationalize away your rudeness to me this morning. People are donating out of the kindness of their hearts, and you treated me disgracefully! I have a sour taste in my mouth for the Orthodox community in general right now! I will not deal with any of your friends or give any of you any business, but rather with others who have decent manners!”
I wrote another quick e‑mail to her, explaining that this gemach is a not-for-profit organization that I run out of my own home. But another fast and furious reply bounced into my inbox: “Please do not e‑mail me again. I really do not care about your business and how you run it. You were rude and disgraceful to me this morning . . .”
Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . .
Maybe I really could let her insults go in one ear and out the other. But the woman’s words rang in my ears that entire day, and into the night.
Maybe she is right. That must be why I’m so bothered by this. Yes, I’m too abrupt. I need to tone down my voice. Maybe I should find out her home address and send her an apology note in the mail. Maybe I’m not running the gemach properly? Maybe I should give it up altogether? Maybe this is a message for me . . .
And so began my process of righting the wrong. No, I did not contact the woman again; however, I made a spiritual accounting within myself. I began the process by thinking back to why I’d started the gemach in the first place, several years ago.
A friend of mine, a wonderful, kind woman from the other side of town, had been running the gemach up until then. Now she was giving it up, and she’d asked me to take over her items. I was inspired by this woman and others like her; they always seemed to have enough time for everyone, and were always bringing joy to others. I, too, wanted to do that. And so, I told my friend yes.
I began storing, loaning out, and taking returns and donations of various categories of baby gear. People borrowed for long-term periods, as well as for the short term. My phone was constantly ringing with those in need of my gemach, and I felt gratified to be providing the service.
But maybe—just maybe—I was experiencing burnout now? Maybe I was overdoing the do-gooder behavior, and was therefore becoming tired and frustrated . . . and sounding like it, too, especially over the phone?
Since I believe nothing happens for naught, and events are orchestrated from Above, after this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping others. I made some amendments to my gemach’s policies and parameters. The following steps helped to prevent further burnout and misunderstandings between myself and my “clients.”
Setting limits and boundaries: I made up to set (and stick to!) specific hours during the week (listed on my answering machine) when I’d be available to answer questions regarding the gemach. No more 24/6 availability. Control the mode of communication: I set up my answering machine to refer people to a gemach e‑mail address and website, so that people could contact me easily for quick questions. I also made sure to put information about the gemach, such as its rules and policies, what the gemach carries and what it accepts for donations, etc., on the website, thus eliminating the necessity for phone calls. After this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping othersRemember—this is a side activity: To remind myself of this, I decided that messages left on my machine would be returned in the evening or by the next day, but not necessarily immediately. This would allow my gemach work to fit within the time schedule I could allot for it. A Meaningful Name: I chose to add to the existing name, to bring even more meaning and purpose to what I was doing. The gemach, “LA Baby Gear,” was given an additional name of Yad Aliza (The Hand of Joy), in memory of my daughter, Aliza Leah, of blessed memory, bat Chaim Shlomo, who died in infancy more than 25 years ago, a few days before Yom Kippur. It seemed apt to give the gemach a meaningful name. Mindfulness: I made up that when speaking to or emailing people who use the gemach, I would pay extra attention to being friendly and pleasant at all times, to the best of my ability. When we spread ourselves too thin, we don’t help anyone. By taking care of our own needs, and giving ourselves adequate personal time, we will be full enough to not only provide for others, but to do so with joy as well. And that, for sure, is the best act of kindness.
BY MIRIAM HENDELES Miriam Hendeles is a Los Angeles music therapist for hospice patients, and a writer whose topics include her experiences and growth as a grandmother. Reprinted from Mazel Tov! It’s a Bubby!, with permission from the publisher, Israel Bookshop Publications. More articles by Hendeles, Miriam | RSS The content on this page is copyrighted by the author, publisher and/or Chabad.org, and is produced by Chabad.org. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with the copyright policy.
When I first heard the ambulances, I didn't even pause to think about what happened.
I was cooking for Shabbos as my boys ran in and out of the kitchen. When we lived in Israel, I was used to checking the news anytime I heard more than one or two ambulances, but here in quiet, suburban Connecticut, I had stopped doing that.
After the sixth echo of ambulance sirens, I began to wonder what was going on. I picked up my phone to check the news and just kept shaking my head in horror and disbelief as I read about the shooting in a nearby elementary school that left 20 small children and six teachers dead. I was so shocked that I didn't notice my six-year-old standing next to me and peering over my shoulder.
"What happened?" he asked me.
I closed the news story and tried to think how and if to explain the shooting. "Nothing, it's okay," I said, heading back to the kitchen as the helicopters and ambulances echoed in the distance. A couple of minutes later, I noticed that it was eerily quiet in the living room. I peeked through the doorway and saw both my sons with their noses pressed to the window, listening to the sirens rolling through the mid-morning winter light.
Then I heard my son say to his little brother, "Something bad happened, but I don't know what. Shhh, Ima (Mother) doesn't want to say." And as they stood there, stiller than I had seen them stand for a long time, the questions began to run through my mind.
Why did he do it? Minutes after the tragedy, everyone wanted to know what the killer's motive was. What could possibly be a reason for killing 20 children? Police still haven't figured it out, but people are trying to guess. He was angry. Depressed. Was he on drugs? Insane? People want to pinpoint a motive so that they can somehow understand what happened. But evil needs no motive. It randomly destroys. It fills the world with hatred. It is the opposite of light.
But I have seen senseless, random goodness too. Like the elderly woman who I used to see on my morning runs in the Judean hills, picking up each piece of garbage on the street at dawn and putting it into a huge, plastic bag that she dragged along with her. Each morning I wondered what she was doing. One day I finally asked her and she said, "I'm cleaning the world. One piece at a time." At first I thought she was a little crazy but gradually I began to admire her random goodness. She was making the world better even if no one else saw it. Even if no one thanked her. Even if no one understood why she was doing it.
Why did God let this happen? We ask this question after most tragedies. Why didn't God cause the gunman's car to break down? Or have the kids somehow not be in the classroom? Or have his guns get stuck? God could have saved those children so why didn't He?
I don't know any strong answers to this question, but something that Avivit Shaer said after she lost her husband and five children in a freak fire last year still stays with me whenever I hear myself ask this question. She said that she has many questions for God, but she has begun to understand that God does not give us answers in this world. "It's not that there are no answers. But we humans are not equipped to handle the complexity or wholeness of God's answers. He has eternal considerations."
When I hear someone who has lost her entire family in one night say these words, I can stop my own whys. I can accept that there are answers even though I don't know what they are.
Why is this story in my life? Sometimes we hear about an event and forget about it soon afterwards. Or we dismiss it as too far away to be relevant. But every news story that we read and every event that crosses our paths is meant to teach us something. So what is the message in the wake of this tragedy? Maybe it's that we should appreciate each day with our own children. Maybe it's that we should realize that human suffering is never far away, happening to someone else. It should and does impact everyone that hears about it. Or maybe the message is that we should be sending our kids off to school not only with a sandwich but with a prayer for their safety.
But for me, the most crucial message hit me when I explained to my son what happened.
The ambulances were still blaring when I walked back into the living room and found the boys racing matchbox cars on the floor. I sat down next to them and watched them play before telling my six year old vaguely what had happened in words that hopefully wouldn't terrify him. I asked him if he wanted to say a prayer for the children who were 'hurt' and their parents.
He nodded without looking up from his cars, and then he started singing a song he had recently learned in school. "Esau was coming with 400 men but Yaakov was davening to Hashem." I sat there confused for a moment until my son said, "This is my song for the mommies and daddies. I'm sending them Yaakov's prayer so they shouldn't be scared. So that they should know how to pray for their children. Should I sing it again?"
I nodded as I thought about the words my child was saying. Evil is loud and senseless and comes in an army of 400 men. It comes in the deafening gun shots in a kindergarten classroom. Goodness is quiet. It comes in a prayer that no one else can hear. It’s in the almost invisible steps of an elderly woman cleaning the streets at dawn. And goodness sits behind the scenes in a life like Avivit Shaer's who could have given up and crawled into a hole of grief after losing her family in the fire but instead continued teaching and inspiring her high school students with her rock solid faith and perseverance.
Even though goodness is quieter and humbler than evil, it is far more powerful. Perhaps this is the message we need to hear in the face of such a senseless tragedy: the power of goodness is far stronger than evil. We don't have complete answers to the whys that run through our minds in the aftermath of the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. But we have hope. If every single kind deed that we do is far more powerful than any evil act, then we can at least wake up each morning with determination like the elderly woman who cleans up the world, street by street.
My son's song soon drowned out the sirens in the distance, and I hoped somehow that it reached the parents a half hour away outside the school. I stood by the living room window as he sang and pressed my own face against the glass, remembering the words of Avivit Shaer: "It's about bringing light into the world even when it looks dark." Piece by piece. Song by song. Word by word. Let's rebuild.
Our children look to us for their perceptions of the world. They look to us for guidance and understanding, to answer their questions, and to help them at times verbalize their questions. But mostly they look to us for reassurance -- reassurance that their world is okay, that they are safe, that while the stories they are hearing and the images they are seeing are terrible and incredibly sad, they are still safe.
When traumatic events occur, what we say to them is important. It is perhaps even more important how we say it. They watch our reactions; they look to see if we're frightened. Fear and panic is contagious even among adults; it is essential that we send out an aura of calm. Calm parents communicate reassurance.
As always, it is important to know your children and the different needs of each child. For younger children, under 8, focus less on details and more on general points. Older children need more information. For them, information is important in helping to process the trauma, and they may need to talk about it a lot. Be patient. We need to listen to them, and listen more. Children that are less verbal will still be listening though to the other conversations taking place in the family about the event. Include these children by talking near them. Give lots of love and gentleness, even with children who are difficult. Remember they are anxious and feeling stress.
It is our parental responsibility to ensure and protect the sensitive psyche of our child.
Parents though must filter the amount and the nature of the information. It is our parental responsibility to ensure and protect the sensitive psyche of our child. The less visual the images, the better. Young children should not see any images at all. No TV and no Internet images. They are detrimental and can be traumatic. It is not at all the same as watching a movie, even a horror movie. In movies there is always the underlying comfort that this isn't real, that it will end and have no effect on their lives. Watching actual tragedies may be moving, even compelling, but increase anxiety and are harmful for children. They are probably not particularly healthy for adults either.
Our children look to us and need to see that we are okay. They look for other reactions as well. They should see sadness and compassion on our faces for the victims and their families and friends. We can use this opportunity to talk to our children about the many heroes, the less dramatic stories and the more dramatic ones, the rescue workers, the small acts of kindness, the gentleness, and self-sacrifice of simple people. They need to hear about goodness as the way to counteract evil, and about reaching out to others and feeling their pain.
And they need to hear about God from you as well. Ideas that can include the following:
we don't know why G-d allowed this to happen it's okay if you feel upset that God wasn't absent even during the catastrophe, His hand could be seen in the countless miracle stories trickling out, as told by survivors and their families. they need to hear about trusting in God's love even in the face of terrible tragedy. about the power of prayer, to pray for more survivors, for the comfort and healing of the victims' families, of the injured, their families, and the American people. To pray for wisdom for President Bush, for American and world leaders and to pray for the safety and security of Israel as well
Our children are looking to us for calm, compassion, love, faith, and hope. Let's be sure we give it.
"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world." Fred Rogers http://www.fci.org/new-site/par-tragic-events.html
"Each time evil strikes it is a fresh wound to our spirit and an astonishment that people could so betray the image of God in each of us. We hope and pray that the wounded in Ct. heal, that the hearts of those who have lost be comforted, and that the souls of those innocents who were killed be gathered in love."
"Today is Rosh Chodesh, the new month, as well as Hanukkah and Shabbat is approaching. But no day is so sacred that human cruelty cannot mar its holiness. Yet no moment is so terrible that human kindness cannot contribute to its redemption. Yes, we can destroy; but we can also sanctify. We can also heal. And we must ever hope. Chodesh Tov, Hanukkah Sameach and Shabbat Shalom."
It began as the simple story of a military victory, the success of Judah the Maccabee and his followers as they fought for religious freedom against the repressive rule of the Syrian-Greek emperor Antiochus IV. Antiochus, who modestly called himself Epiphanes, “God made manifest”, had resolved forcibly to hellenise the Jews.
He had a statue of Zeus erected in the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem, ordered sacrifices to be made to pagan gods, and banned Jewish rites on pain of death. The Maccabees fought back and within three years had reconquered Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. That is how the story is told in the first and second books of Maccabees.
However, things did not go smoothly thereafter. The new Jewish monarchy known as the Hasmonean kings themselves became hellenised. They also incurred the wrath of the people by breaking one of the principles of Judaism: the separation between religion and political power. They became not just kings but also high priests, something earlier monarchs had never done.
Even militarily, the victory over the Greeks proved to be only a temporary respite. Within a century Pompey invaded Jerusalem and Israel came under Roman rule. Then came the disastrous rebellion against Rome (66-73), as a result of which Israel was defeated and the Temple destroyed. The work of the Maccabees now lay in ruins.
Some rabbis at the time believed that the festival of Chanukah should be abolished. Why celebrate a freedom that had been lost? Others disagreed, and their view prevailed. Freedom may have been lost but not hope.
That was when another story came to the fore, about how the Maccabees, in purifying the Temple, found a single cruse of oil, its seal still intact, from which they relit the Menorah, the great candelabrum in the Temple. Miraculously the light lasted eight days and that became the central narrative of Chanukah. It became a festival of light within the Jewish home symbolising a faith that could not be extinguished. Its message was captured in a phrase from the prophet Zekhariah: “Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, says the Lord Almighty.”
I have often wondered whether that is not the human story, not just the Jewish one. We celebrate military victories. We tell stories about the heroes of the past. We commemorate those who gave their lives in defence of freedom. That is as it should be. Yet the real victories that determine the fate of nations are not so much military as cultural, moral and spiritual.
In Rome the Arch of Titus was erected by Titus’s brother Domitian to commemorate the victorious Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70. It shows Roman soldiers carrying away the spoils of war, most famously the seven-branched Menorah. Rome won that military conflict. Yet its civilisation declined and fell, while Jews and Judaism survived.
They did so not least because of Chanukah itself. That simple act of families coming together to light the lights, tell the story and sing the songs, proved more powerful than armies and longer-lived than empires. What endured was not the historical narrative as told in the books of Maccabees but the simpler, stronger story that spoke of a single cruse of oil that survived the wreckage and desecration, and the light it shed that kept on burning.
Something in the human spirit survives even the worst of tragedies, allowing us to rebuild shattered lives, broken institutions and injured nations. That to me is the Jewish story. Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear. Whenever I visit a Jewish school today I see on the smiling faces of the children the ever-renewed power of that faith whose symbol is Chanukah and its light of inextinguishable hope.
In these days of Chanukah, light is on everyone’s mind. We’re hearing a lot about the tiny little flames that can cast away immense darkness. And as we light the Chanukah candles, we are filled with hope that our efforts will indeed cast away darkness and bring light into our lives.
But what is this darkness? Is it truly evil? This light? Is it really good? We are told that darkness has no existence, but if so, how can one dispel something that does not exist?
Recently I had an experience that—pardon the pun—cast some light on this dilemma.
I took a medication that had psychotropic side effects. The result felt as if someone pulled the curtains on my awareness. All light was blocked, and only darkness remained. My vision was filtered by a gray film obscuring all detail of color and texture.
During this intolerable period of time, everything I encountered was irritating, depressing, dissatisfying and miserable . . . including me. I was no fun to be around. If I thought about my life, it seemed hopeless. When I remembered my childhood, I saw only unhappiness. If I looked at my present situation, it seemed lacking and insufficient. My children turned from lovely and loving to noisy and irritating. My car was falling apart. My house, dingy and drab.
There was literally no aspect of my life that escaped this oppressive fog, as the medicine eclipsed and obscured all light. Fortunately, I was able to keep some grasp on reality. The pharmaceutical worked so fast that I was able to connect the darkness and depression to its psychotropic effects. But my grasp was weak, and ultimately I surrendered.
Even though I knew that the medicine was causing my shift in perspective, still, everything I was seeing through its black filter was true. The house was dingy and drab. The children were irritating. The car was falling apart. And certainly, my present situation did not match my life’s hopes and expectations. The medication had not created anything bad in my life. It had not put bad thoughts in my head. It had not harmed my character, turning me into the grump I now seemed during this unpleasant state of awareness.
Everything I was seeing existed. Only, it was only partly true. It was what remained when the light was blocked. It was what I could see in the monotone shadow that survived.
Life without light is like looking at a beautiful park at night. The flowers and colors and texture are all hidden. All that remains are the large, scary outlines of bushes and trees, boulders and rocks, hills and stairways. In the dark, these daytime objects of beauty and delight become imposing forms and weird shapes that play on our imagination and conjure frightening scenarios.
Has the darkness created these forms and shapes? Has it caused our flights into fear and anxiety? Has it created our spontaneously arising scenes of theft and mugging?
No. It’s done none of those things. The sun has simply gone to the other side of earth, its light blocked from our awareness. And in doing so, it has caused our world to plunge into darkness. Ignorance. Illusion. Confusion. And fear.
I could no longer hear the laughter in my children’s voices, nor see the sparkle in their eyes. I could no longer see the clutter in my house as charming and familiar. I could no longer remember the happy moments of my childhood, nor see the countless blessings that filled my life. Even my accomplishments paled in the face of what I could have done, or what others have done better.
The darkness and depression became so overwhelming that I finally surrendered and stopped taking the medication. Thankfully, within one day the light returned, and with it my equilibrium, my happiness, even a twinge of optimism.
What had changed for the better? The details. The color. The texture. The fullness. And the goodness. There was enough light to illuminate a greater totality of my life, to reveal more of the goodness embedded therein. Enough light to balance the shadows and fill in the outlines. Enough light to allow any remaining darkness to add contrast, complexity and subtleness, to add beauty and interest to my world, to enhance its wholeness. In short, there was enough light to suggest the fullness of G‑d’s creation, to allow for the interplay and reconciliation of opposites and contrasts.
Light reveals G‑dliness. Darkness is inconsequential. Adding light—opening the shutters and blinds of awareness—remains our only concern. Kindling the lights on Chanukah, the only mitzvah. Revealing G‑dliness, the only goal.
And so, we light the Chanukah candles. The flame tenuously flickers for a few seconds, and we hold our breath till it catches and shines. The children begin to sing. Suddenly we feel a bit brighter within. The glow begins to spread. And we have a sense of optimism, hope and impending victory.
And if we’re lucky, in the few moments we take to contemplate the flames in silence, our shutters open, flooding our awareness with light. The shadows become illuminated. The beauty of life and the blessings of G‑d shine brightly. We are transported to a place where light reveals formerly hidden aspects of G‑d’s existence and our souls shine in joy.
We will add more light each day, illuminating more of the fullness of our life and of creation. And then, not on the eighth, but on the ninth day after the first day of Chanukah, when we no longer kindle the flame at night, we will carry this awareness with us into the days ahead. And, should you or I ever be cast into darkness again throughout the year—by a medication, or by the folly that sometimes overtakes us—we will carry this memory and awareness and seek the light, dispelling our fear and confusion, recognizing them as the illusions that they are.
As part of his first-year studies, Stuart enrolled in a course called “History of Military Tactics and Field Strategies,” taught by a three-star lieutenant general with a Ph.D. in military strategy. The course surveyed major battles throughout history, down to the most recent wars of our modern era.
During the final two weeks of the course, Cadet Stuart raised his hand with a question: “Why did we not survey any of the battles fought by the Jews, either of ancient times (e.g., the Roman-Jewish wars) or of modern times (the Arab-Israeli wars)?”
“The normally friendly general snapped back with an order for me to see him in his office after class,” remembered Stuart.
When Stuart arrived, the general began his explanation. “Do not think that the staff here at West Point has left the Jewish wars unnoticed,” he said. “We have examined and analyzed them in great detail. We do not teach them at West Point because, according to military strategy and textbook tactics, the Jews should have lost them. You Jews should have been swept into the dustbin of history long ago. But you were not. You won those wars against all odds and against all military logic.
“This past year, we hired a new junior instructor,” the general continued. “During a private staff meeting, the Arab-Israeli wars came under discussion. As we puzzled over how the Israelis could possibly have won those wars, suddenly this junior instructor chirps up and jokingly says, ‘Honorable gentlemen, it seems to be quite obvious how they are winning their wars: G‑d is winning their wars!’
“Nobody laughed,” said the general. “The reason is, soldier, that it seems to be an unspoken rule around here at West Point that G‑d is winning your wars, but G‑d does not fit into military textbooks! You are dismissed.”
“I left the general’s office in a daze,” continued Stuart. “Wouldn’t you know it, I said to myself, I had to come to West Point to find out how great my G‑d is from a non-practicing Presbyterian three-star general . . .
“I went back to my dorm room, and dug down in my sock drawer to find that ‘flap of cloth’ that I threw on my head once a year on Yom Kippur. I said to myself: This thing is going on my head, because I found, in essence, who I am and where I come from.”
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Editor’s Note: This article was written with permission from the author’s mother, for the purpose of helping others . . .
I felt like I was born into enemy territory. I was convinced that you have a daughter to have a slave.
All I wanted was out, out of her way, out of my house, away from the constant barrage of criticism and orders and demands. Since I was too young and too afraid to run away, the only place I could be away from her was in my room. I sat and drew and wrote in my journal, and often cried. My room was the only room in the house where I felt safe. But it wasn’t long before even my room was no longer a safe haven.
I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. All I had done was be born, born a female with thick curly hair who apparently did not make a splash for cuteness. “You were supposed to be Gary,” I heard several times while growing up. But I wasn’t Gary. I came out a girl, not a boy.
From the first moment I can remember, there was little that was right about me. My hair was too wild, and my nose was too big. Everything about me needed fixing, including my personality.
Something was wrong. I knew something was deeply wrong.
By the end of my sixteenth year, I managed to get out of my house. I graduated early from high school and went away to university. Being 200 miles away and not living subject to constant criticism, I was finally finding joy in life and building my self-confidence. Still, my mother’s attitude did not change, and I was burdened with anger and resentment towards her. I was deeply wounded, and had an incessant fear of intimacy and abandonment. All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationships, feeling undeserving of long-lasting love. I knew that I needed to resolve my relationship with my mother in order to move on.
In time, and with years of work, I was able to transform our relationship from Mommie Dearest (the Joan Crawford story) to Dear Mom, from hatred to love. After making a short humorous film called My Nose about my mother’s campaign to get me to have a nose job, I learned I was not alone. People would come over to me after the screening and tell me three things: 1. I love your nose; don’t touch it. 2. I don’t like your mother. How can you? 3. Let me tell you my story. I would listen to them carefully and, interestingly, would find myself in a position to help others.
All I wanted was to be loved, but I found myself subconsciously sabotaging relationshipsHow did I do it? How did I learn to accept, and even love, my critical parent?
I identified seven steps, what I call the “Seven Healing Tools,” which enabled me to deal with a difficult person. I apply these tools to my mother, and to any and all difficult people I come in contact with. Understanding
Where is her negativity coming from? What happened to her in her childhood?
I was able to uncover family secrets, including attempted suicides and financial hardships that my mother suffered as a child. By doing so, I had a better appreciation of why she did some of the things she did. Create Distance
Lessen the pain of being around someone who is abusive to you by physically removing yourself from his or her location.
I went off to college, creating a distance between myself and the barrage of criticism. Create a Support System
A support system consisting of friends, family and/or coworkers is invaluable. You can’t choose your family, but you can certainly choose your friends.
I surrounded myself with positive and supportive people. In college, I gravitated towards many like-minded people. I was an art student, and was praised by my teachers and colleagues for my talent and my appearance. They loved my long, thick curly hair. I followed my passions, developed hobbies, joined various groups, went on a spiritual quest, and found a rabbi with whom I connected and joined his congregation. I also found a close friend who became my life coach. I rescued a little dog, who went on to become my canine best friend, therapy dog and healer. We even made a movie together. Forgive
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weightForgiving does not mean forgetting. It means unburdening yourself of dead emotional weight. “When you forgive, you love. And when you love, G-d’s light shines upon you.” (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild)
After learning about my mother’s childhood tragedies and the burdens she had to bear, I realized that she was doing the best she could. Expecting her to love and nurture me unconditionally at that time was like asking Stevie Wonder to drive a racecar. She was incapable. She was a wounded child. As soon as I changed my expectations of her, I was able to forgive her.
Do not wait for the individual to acknowledge or apologize for what they did to you before you forgive them. In many cases like my own, they won’t do either, and they will deny ever doing anything wrong. Remember, they are a wounded child and are unaware of their own actions. Change Your Behavior
Armed with understanding, physically removed from the source of conflict and having forgiven the individual for his or her offenses, you are now well positioned to begin to change your behavior—to begin reacting to the world in newer, healthier ways.
In my case, now that I had forgiven my mother and viewed her as a wounded child, I was able to change my responses to her disparaging remarks and actions. If your child said to you, “Mommy, I don’t love you,” you wouldn’t cringe and feel hurt; you would laugh it off. That is what I started doing with my mother. Every time she would say something insulting, instead of getting hurt, angry and defensive, I let it bounce off of me, always remembering the source. Many times, I made light of it. By doing this, I reduced her ability to press my buttons, and in essence rendered her powerless. And I was able to give her the love you would give a child who has hurt him- or herself. Let It Out
I viewed her as a wounded childThere is no value in keeping it in, tamping down your feelings. You are not alone. Many people have suffered greatly.
In my case, I found confidants, the right people to share with. I was selective about the people with whom I chose to share. I found people who are positive, sympathetic and empathetic, and who in some cases could even offer insight. I shared my pain; I shared secrets, because keeping them in and holding onto them can often make us feel ashamed and like a victim. I learned to live life with openness and honesty. Spin a Negative into a Positive; Be Creative
This is your life. This is your story. We all have incredible material. No one can steal your story. Use it. My life has been the inspiration for my creative work, whether it’s writing, visual art or film. They always say, “Write what you know best.” You will not only entertain others, but also often help them. And there is no greater satisfaction than giving to others.
As my life progressed along with my career, I, like all of us, have been and continue to be faced with difficult people. I have always managed to apply the tools I developed to deal with my mother to situations with others.
Judaism teaches us the concept that every descent is for the sake of an ascent. Difficult people present us with an opportunity to grow. I live life with gratitude. If it weren’t for my emotionally challenging childhood, I probably would not have learned what I know today, or be in a position to help guide others. I wake up every day and thank the Creator for giving me all that I have. I thank Him for showing me that when I am faced with an obstacle, it is no accident, and there is a lesson for me to learn from it. by Gayle Kirschenbaum Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy-winning filmmaker, personality and speaker. Called “the Nora Ephron of documentaries,” Gayle has turned the camera on herself. In her humorous film, My Nose, we follow her mother’s relentless campaign to get her to have a nose job. She created and executive produced several “little people” shows for TLC and Discovery Health. Gayle is currently in post-production on a feature documentary called Look at Us Now, Mother! where she explores the highly charged mother/daughter relationship through her own story.
Attacked by a barrage of rockets from Gaza that killed several, injured many and terrorized millions, Israel responded with airstrikes against military targets in Gaza. Radar guided missiles attacked terror cells, rockets launchers, bomb factories and Hamas government installations.1
The difference between the terrorist attacks and the Israeli retaliation is that the terrorists deliberately aimed for civilian centers seeking to kill innocent people whereas Israeli planes dropped leaflets encouraging residents to vacate the area of their intended targets. The terrorists seek out innocents, Israel works to save them, but every so often a target is missed and an innocent civilian is killed.
The death of an innocent is tragic. The heart trembles at the sight of little children, bodies broken and lives snuffed out. The Israeli military doesn’t target women and children, but their death is an inescapable consequence of military action. There is no way to ensure the safety of civilians when the theater of war is a crowded city. Surely responsibility lies with the enemy who fights from behind cradle and skirt, but the question remains, is it ethical for an army to pursue a war in the presence of an innocent population?
Our hearts demand that we stop such wars, but our heads tell us that withdrawal would enable the terrorists to terrorize with impunity. We are torn between duty and empathy, compassion for our children and compassion for the enemies’ children. What to do?
Fear and Concern
We are not the first to worry about casualties in war. When Jacob was informed that Esau had raised an army and was marching against him, he feared and he worried. Our sages explained that he feared for his own life, but he worried about being forced into a war that would require him to take another’s life.2
Rabbinical commentary on this explanation abounds, but most agree that Jacob was not concerned with taking Esau’s life. Esau had forfeited his right to life by marching against his brother. Talmudic law is clear on this point, if someone rises against you, rise up and kill him first. If you threaten the life of another you forfeit your own right to life. Jacob was concerned about collateral damage. He worried that others might be killed in the heat of battle.3
That he worried tells us that our heritage bleeds for the loss of innocent life. That this concern did not deter him from preparing for war tells us that notwithstanding the horror of civilian casualties we must take up arms when war is foisted upon us. Otherwise, our own children are at risk.
This is not to say that enemy civilians are fair game in war. Those who don’t offer the enemy aid and succor are not our enemies and we must make every effort to spare them, but there is no religious or legal statute in the world that prohibits military activity likely to result in unintended, unavoidable and unforeseeable civilian casualties. That would render every war effort including defensive ones obsolete.4
In peacetime, the causation of collateral damage is a murderous and prosecutable offense. For example, we have peacetime license to kill those who pursue us with deadly intent, but we have no license to cause collateral damage by killing the innocent human shields behind whom the pursuer ducks.5 But wartime conditions are different; they don’t allow for peacetime luxury. If war could only be prosecuted with guarantees against civilian casualties, no country would be able to defend itself in time of war and all aggression would de facto be rewarded. The laws of war are not derived from the peacetime law of the pursuer, which is why Jacob went to war despite his vehement distaste.6
Grieving for Enemy Combatants
Abraham, whose heart melted with love at the sight of a stranger, went to war against a coalition of four countries to save his nephew Lot. When he returned from the war God appeared to him and said, “Fear not Abraham, I shall protect you, your reward is exceedingly great.” Our sages taught that Abraham feared that he had forfeited his virtue by prosecuting the war. He knew he was right to save Lot, but was he right to save him at the expense of human life?7
Abraham took this even further than Jacob. Jacob was only worried about killing innocent bystanders, Abraham worried about killing the enemy’s soldiers and God had to comfort and reassure him. Those whom you killed, God said, deserved to be killed. They forfeited their lives when they took up arms against Lot.8 As our sages put it, they are thorns in the king’s garden, the king would have hired laborers to weed out the thorns, now that you did it for him, you need not worry. On the contrary, your reward is exceedingly great for you saved the victim from their abusers.
Abraham was the first Jew to take up arms in a just cause. It broke his heart to do so and when he returned from war he mourned the loss of his innocence. He was devastated by what his enemies had made of him.
Today, the Vatican seeks to teach us moral values by admonishing Israel for killing babies.9 Cardinal Ravasi ought to remember who he is talking to. Jews are the people of the book, who taught the world about sanctity of life. To the Jew, every life is precious, even the lives of our enemies.
Jews don’t perpetuate war because life holds no value. Jews perpetuate war precisely because life has value and must be protected. When war is foisted on us, we cry every time our enemies make killers of us. Abraham was devastated by the death of his enemy. Jacob worried about killing innocents. Yet, when war was foisted upon them, they sprang into action without hesitation. God endorsed their actions even as He understood their concerns. “Fear not Abraham, I shall be your shield.”
We too tremble when life is lost on either side of war. Sadly, Jews know grief better than any other nation; we know what it means to lose a loved one. It is not for lack of love that we undertake war, but in spite of love. War is not pursued with intent to kill, but with intent to save. We don’t undertake war to kill innocents or even combatants. We undertake war to reduce bloodshed on all sides.
On November 21, 2012, Egypt and the US brokered a cease fire agreement between Israel and Hamas after eight days of hostilities. Genesis 32:8 as elucidated in Bereshit Rabbah 76:7 and quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the verse. See Sifsei Chachamim, Maskil Ledavid and Gur Aryeh ad loc. Contemporary Halachic Problems III, Rabbi J. David Bleich, p.277. This, with the caveat, that the human shield is not a willng accomplice. See Amud Hayemini, Rabbi Shaul Israeli, 16:3-4. Another difference is that though bystanders are required to kill the pursuer in peacetime they cannot be compelled to risk their lives in the act. In war however, countries have the right to draft young men and women and force them to risk their lives against their will. Genesis 15:1 elucidated in Yalkut Shimoni Lech Lecha 16 and quoted by Rashi in his commentary on the verse. See commentary of R. Ovadya Seforno and R. Meyer Malbim ad loc. See Gur Aryeh for a slightly different angle. On November 21, 2012, Cardinal Ravasi, president of the Vatican Council for Culture, condemned Israel for Killing Babies. This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/Civilian-Casualties.html
Marc, If a student feels like theay are drinking water from a fire house it is generally a sign of a poor teacher. Are you interested in more of that series? I have usually been skipping the more in depth commentary but you and others had been very interested in the Rabbi Sacks commentary which tends to be more in depth.
Among other things I am grateful that I or anyone else wasn't injured in a impressive Pryex explosion/shattering . I heated it on a burner instead of the tea kettle. I'm also grateful that when I screw up my husbands only comment is generally I'm glad you weren't hurt and then he helps me clean up the mess.
I already had my earphones on, and I was about to step on the treadmill in the gym when I felt a tug on my sleeve. I turned around to see an older woman with sunglasses and a walking stick standing before me.
"Can you help me onto the machine?" she asked. I helped her set up her walking stick beside the elliptical machine, and she smiled warmly. "Such sweet women in this gym,” she remarked. “It's so nice to be around all these lovely people every morning."
The woman felt around for the handles of the machine and steadied her feet on the foot pedals. Then she thanked me and faced towards the picture window, moving slowly but steadily. I stared at the stunning orange, red and yellow leaves swirling from the trees and then I looked around me, at the dozens of women exercising. I realized that I hadn't really noticed any of them before. I was always rushing in and out of the gym, constantly late for something. But this blind woman beside me noticed them. She senses people’s movements in a way I am not attuned to. She hears kindness in voices that I don't even hear, as I block out any sound with my own music.
It reminded me of something a professor said when describing the loneliness most addicts feel when the object of their addiction replaces their social relationships. "For most addicts, everyone else is traffic." When an addict begins to spiral downwards, each person in his life becomes merely an obstacle to his goal of using. Connecting with others begins to feel like a waste of time. Relationships start to "get in the way" of what he wants. The addict travels down his futile road with great impatience, searching for instant gratification and wishing he could make anyone or anything in his path just disappear.
I drove home from class that day thinking about the professor’s statement as my car crawled along the highway. I thought about it as I stood on line at the grocery store waiting interminably. And it struck me – it's not just addicts, but so many of us view everyone else as traffic too.
The blind woman in the gym didn't have this problem. To her, everyone was a blessing and a hand to hold. And when I stood later that day on line at the supermarket, I kept reminding myself to try to see things the way the blind woman did.
Ironically, a customer at the front of the line was having trouble opening her pocketbook, and when she finally got it open, all her coupons spilled onto the floor. There was a collective sigh from the people on line. One guy talking on his phone said loud enough for all of us to hear, "Great, this is just what I need right now."
An older man who was standing in front of him spun around and asked, "Where are you rushing to? What is so important that you can't wait two extra minutes for someone to find her coupons? Why don't you help her instead?"
The man with the phone looked stunned for a minute, and then he went over to help the woman pick up her coupons while the rest of us stood frozen in place. "I just don't understand people today,” the elderly man shook his head and mumbled. “It's like no one can look up from their phone for even a second, everyone else is in the way."
Unpacking the groceries in the kitchen that day, I thought about another elderly man who had taught my husband and me a similar lesson when we first moved to Israel. We were going to buy a couch, and we were in a rush. Someone had recommended a tiny store that had good quality furniture. My husband met me there after shul one morning. We entered the store and the salesman greeted us, staring at my husband's tefillin bag.
"Is that tefillin?"
My husband nodded.
"My grandfather wore tefillin. But I haven't worn tefillin since my bar mitzvah," he sighed. We stood there, not really knowing what to say. Somehow, "Can you show us which couches you carry in white leather?" didn't seem like the right question at the time.
"Do you want to put them on?" my husband asked.
The older, Sephardi man's eyes lit up. "But I don't know what to say, and I don't have a kippah."
Then he suddenly had an idea; he grabbed a piece of cloth from the desk and put it on his head.
"Show me what to say!"
My husband taught him how to put on the tefillin and showed him where the Shema was in his siddur. I needed to go because I was almost late for class. I gave up on the couch and left my husband there, teaching a man with a couch cloth on his head how to pray. I stood at the window for a moment watching my husband find another page in the siddur and thinking that we almost missed out. If I would have asked to see the couches...If my husband hadn't offered his tefillin...If we hadn't sensed the salesman’s special, yearning soul...If we would have instead seen him as being in our way, taking up our time, just traffic, we would have lost a precious opportunity to give.
I look forward to seeing the blind woman in the mornings at the gym. She teaches me to see and hear. She teaches me to look around and reach out my hand to help, before I turn on the day's treadmill.
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How Long Has Hamas Been Shooting Rockets at Israel?
Many people think Hamas as only been firing rockets into Israel since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense, starting six days ago. In fact, Hamas has been targeting the Israeli Home Front since 2001, and firing rockets on a near-daily basis for years. Here’s a stream of selected tweets from the last year alone:
There is an interesting chart showing the number of rocket attacks form the Gaza Strip. In 2008 there were 3,278 rocket attacks In 2007 2,427
Doug Hamas is much more interested in destroying Israel than in taking care of its people. They don't have the same values a democracy does. It is a fascist death cult. THey will kill their own children to make Israel look bad. Why did 9/11 happen? Did we get a ransom note?
Was our response to 9/11 proportionate?
It is also partly a proxy war between Israel and Iran.
Golda Meir--"Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us. What bothers me most is not that Arabs kill our children, but that they force us to kill theirs."
In Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses is called the Chumash – shorthand for Chamisha Chumshei Torah, which literally means the "five-fifths of the Torah."
And while the term "Torah" can refer to the entire body of Jewish thought, it often refers to just the Chumash.
The Chumash is also known as Pentateuch, a Greek word ("pent" means five; "teuch" means book). Bible is also a Greek word, meaning "book." The first translation of the Bible was into Greek, in the third century BCE, when Ptolemy II coerced 72 rabbis to do the translation.1 It is thus called the "Septuagint," which means "seventy."
The Chumash is called the Five Books of Moses because God dictated the entire text to Moses, who wrote it down. The five books are divided into 54 sections, and one section (called a parsha) is read every Shabbat in the synagogue. (Occasionally, two portions are read together.)
Because the Chumash is the basic book of Judaism, it is essential to have a good overall grasp of its content. This course features an illuminating essay on each of the 22 key Chumash themes, written by Rabbi Zave Rudman, an educator in Jerusalem with 25 years of experience teaching Chumash. (Rabbi Noson Weisz of Jerusalem is guest author for two of the essays, "Purpose of Creation" and "Binding of Isaac.")
In addition, each of the 22 Chumash themes features a 3-minute video presentation by Rabbi Eytan Feiner, a popular international speaker and a senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
Here are the Five Books of Moses, with a brief description, and a distributive breakdown of the syllabus for this course:
(1) The Book of Genesis (Bereishit) deals with the origin of the world, the history of the world prior to and including the forefathers of the Jewish people, and the spiritual development of the Jewish people up until the era of Egyptian slavery. Essays in this section of the course include:
Class #2 – Purpose of Creation Class #3 – Garden of Eden Class #4 – Noah's Flood Class #5 – God's Covenant with Abraham Class #6 – Binding of Isaac Class #7 – Jacob-Esav Rivalry Class #8 – Story of Joseph
(2) The Book of Exodus (Shmot) includes the account of Jewish slavery, Moses' rise to the role of leader, the awesome events of the Exodus, and the seminal first months in the Sinai desert. Essays in this section of the course include:
Class #9 – Moses: Prophet and Leader Class #10 – Ten Plagues Class #11 – Splitting of the Red Sea Class #12 – Ten Commandments Class #13 – Golden Calf Class #14 – The Tabernacle
(3) The Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) is named for the Levites, the tribe from whom the Jewish priesthood (kohanim) emerged. The Levites were responsible for assisting with the service and maintaining the Tabernacle (and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). The major topic of this book is the kohanim, descendants of Moses's brother, Aaron, who performed the actual Temple service. Jewish tradition often refers to this book as Torat Kohanim, "the laws of the priests." Essays in this section of the course include:
Class #15 – Understanding Korbanot Class #16 – Holiness & Love Your Neighbor Class #17 – The Jewish Festivals
(4) The Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) is so called because it begins with a census of the Jewish population in the desert. In Hebrew, this book is called Bamidbar – "in the desert" – as it chronicles the bulk of the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert en route to the Land of Israel. Essays in this section of the course include:
Class #18 – Sin of the Spies Class #19 – Korach's Rebellion Class #20 – The Balak-Bilam Duo
(5) The Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) is a repetition of many concepts taught in earlier books. This book covers the final 36 days2 of Moses's life, and ends with an account of Moses's own death, as the next generation of Jews are poised to enter the Land of Israel, under the new leadership of Joshua. Essays in this section of the course include:
Class #21 – Wars of the Jews Class #22 – Tochacha and Teshuva Class #23 – Transfer of Leadership: From Moses to Joshua
And to review:
Purpose of the Bible
Much has been written about the very purpose of the Chumash: Is it a history book, a book of ethics, or a book of laws? In fact, as the #1 best-selling book every year for the past 3,300 years, it is all this and more. Let's explain:
(1) Law Book
Perhaps most obviously, the Chumash is a book of law. The word "Torah" itself means "instructions" – i.e. it contains every important law and concept necessary for proper Jewish personal and communal life. It is said that Torah is the "constitution" of the Jewish nation. The ideals of Shabbat, tzedakah, the centrality of Israel – in fact all of the 613 mitzvot are contained within.3 Without this book, Judaism would not exist.
(2) History Book
Yet the Chumash is more than just a dry listing of the 613 mitzvot; there are dozens of stories interspersed throughout. So in one regard, the Chumash also serves as a history book, a chronology of events of the first 2,500 years of human existence.4 In many instances, the Torah takes great pains to record accurately names, places and events; entire chapters are listings of names and generations. As the verse says: "This is the book of the chronicles of mankind" (Genesis 5:1).5
(3) Book of National DNA
Yet the Chumash still omits a great many details. For example, when Abraham first appears in the Book of Genesis, he is already 75 years old.6 He is one of the most significant figures in Jewish history and yet the Torah skips over his childhood and adult years.7
So obviously, those stories that are included must have a special purpose beyond their historical value.
There is a concept called Ma'aseh Avot Siman l'Banim8 – "the deeds of the ancestors are a sign for the children." On a macro-cosmic level, events that occurred to the patriarchs and matriarchs are a model for all of Jewish history. This is why we have to pay extra special attention to what's going on at this early phase of the Bible, because here is where the patterns are set. The events in the Torah create spiritual realities – the DNA, as it were – which persist throughout Jewish history. For example, the Jacob-Esav rivalry persists until today as one of the primary sources of anti-Semitism.9 In other words, "History repeats itself." Or in theological terms, Jewish history is Jewish destiny.
(4) Book of Wisdom
Beyond this, each incident in the Torah offers invaluable insights into human behavior. The Bible is often called Torah Chaim10 – literally "Instructions for Living." We derive lessons in behavior from the stories, which help guide and direct our lives. Torah is an inexhaustible source of wisdom that teaches us how to view the world – how to have better relationships, how to achieve peace of mind, how to relate to the world at large.
And while Torah values may occasionally seem irrelevant in light of the modern world, the opposite is actually true. Although many external aspects of society have changed over time, basic human nature has not. Unlike any other self-help book, Torah is a time-tested, proven formula, benefiting from thousands of years of meticulous analysis and practice. Its lessons are timeless. For while contemporary values are of human origin and transient, those of the Torah are divine and eternal.11
(5) Kabbalah Book
There is a deeper layer to the Chumash as well. The Midrash says that "God looked into the Torah and created the world."12 Just as an architect first draws up plans, and the builder produces the physical structure, God first wrote the Torah and then created the world using the Torah as its plan.13 In other words, Torah is the cause and the world is the result. As such, if Torah would cease to exist, the world would cease as well.14
Each detail of the world exists because the Torah says so. As the Vilna Gaon15 wrote:
The rule is that all that was, is, and will be until the end of time is included in the Torah from "Bereishit" (the first verse of Genesis) to "L'eynei kol Yisrael" (the last verse of Deuteronomy). And not merely in a general sense, but including the details of every species and of each person individually, and the most minute details of everything that happened to him from the day of his birth until his death.16
The most seemingly trivial passages and variations in the Torah text contain many secret meanings and lessons. Even as small a mark as a serif on the Hebrew letter yud, or decorative markings, were put there by God to teach scores of lessons.17
The Torah contains many coded messages as well. As the great kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordevaro,18 wrote:
The secrets of our holy Torah are revealed through knowledge of combinations, numerology (gematria), switching letters, first-and-last letters, shapes of letters, first- and-last verses, skip-letters sequences, and letter combinations. These matters are powerful, hidden and enormous secrets.19
It is said that "Torah is the mind of God."20 If we want to connect with our Creator, we must understand His book.
How and When
The Torah was given at Mount Sinai in the Jewish year 2448 (numbered from creation),21 or 1313 BCE. The Torah was dictated by God to Moses – letter by letter, word by word. Moses wrote the Torah very much the same way that a scribe writes today – with pen and ink, on parchment in the form of a scroll.
Many people ask: How do we know the Torah is true. Especially given the central importance of Torah to Jewish life, it is crucial to be able to establish the veracity of the Torah as an accurate and truthful document. There are many excellent writings on this topic. For an in-depth treatment, we recommend Permission to Receive by Lawrence Keleman (Feldheim.com), which presents four rational approaches to the Torah's divine origin. A more concise presentation is, Did God Speak at Sinai?, online at Aish.com.
Throughout all generations, great care was taken to preserve the Torah exactly as it was given to Moses. Since every Torah must be letter-perfect, it is forbidden to write a single letter without copying it from another Torah. Moreover, the scribe must repeat every word out loud before writing it down, so as to insure accuracy in copying.22 This procedure of writing a Torah scroll was repeated countless times throughout the ages by qualified scribes, ensuring the integrity of the Torah for over 3,300 years.
When was the Torah actually written down? Just before the revelation at Sinai, Moses wrote everything that had transpired up until that point.23 After this, God would dictate each passage, Moses would repeat it aloud, and would then write it down.24 At the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, after God had finished dictating the entire Torah, Moses bound them together into one scroll.25
The Torah was never written with punctuation, although its sentence structure was revealed to Moses and transmitted, along with the notes used in chanting the Torah.26
Before his death, Moses wrote out 13 Torah scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the Twelve Tribes. The thirteenth was placed in the Ark of the Covenant with the stone tablets. If anyone would come and attempt to rewrite or falsify the Torah, the one in the Ark would "testify" against him. Likewise, if he had access to the scroll in the Ark and tried to falsify it, the distributed copies would "testify" against him.27
Today we see the fruits of this system. Torah scrolls from across the planet – from Yemen to Russia, from Egypt to Australia – have proven amazingly accurate with virtually no variances.28 This gives us confidence that the Torah we have today, is the same text received at Sinai.
It is a foundation of Jewish belief that the entire Torah, both written and oral, was revealed to Moses by God. The Written Torah lists the commandments, and the Oral Torah explains how to carry them out. Many Jewish laws are not directly mentioned in the Torah, but are derived from textual hints, which were expanded orally. For example:
Totafot (better known as Tefillin) are mentioned in the Bible: "And you shall place totafot between your eyes."29 But how do we know what they are? What color are they? What size? Shape? What about the straps? How many compartments? What parchments go inside? How should they be worn? Who should wear them? When?
None of this is written in the Bible. For these important details, we need the Oral Torah. And there are many such cases.
Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch30 explains:
The Written Torah is to the Oral Torah, just as short notes are on a full and extensive lecture on any scientific subject. For the student who has heard the whole lecture, short notes are quite sufficient to bring back afresh to his mind at any time the whole subject of the lecture. For him, a word, an added mark of interrogation or exclamation, a dot, the underlining of a word, etc. is often quite sufficient to recall to his mind a whole series of thoughts. For those who had not heard the lecture from the Master, such notes would be completely useless. If they were to try to reconstruct the scientific contents of the lecture literally from such notes they would of necessity make many errors.
Yet why do we need an Oral Torah? Why wasn't everything just written down?
Torah is not a reference work made to sit on a shelf. It is meant to be lived and internalized. The oral give-and-take, from teacher to student, encourages us to discuss and clarify, to know it backward and forward. And thousands of people learning the same information guarantees that mistakes do not enter the transmission.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Romans captured Jerusalem and sent the Jews into exile. The president of the Jewish people, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, saw that the teacher-student framework was in danger of being disrupted, so he wrote down the Oral Torah – the Mishnah – to avoid it being forgotten.31
As the generations passed, more information – the Talmud – was written down to explain the Mishnah. Today, the basic laws are published in the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) and its accompanying commentaries. But much of Torah is still preserved in oral form, passed from teacher to student.
God, in His infinite wisdom, devised the consummate system for transmitting Torah throughout the generations. It is not a written law, and it is not an oral law. It is both.
Hebrew is a very special language. It is the language that God spoke when creating the world.32 As the national language of the Jewish people, it best captures the meanings of Jewish life, concepts and prayers. And of course, Hebrew is the original language of the Torah.
When the Torah is translated into other languages, it loses much of its essence. For instance, the familiar King James translation often diverges from Jewish teachings. Furthermore, our Sages teach that "every day the Torah should be as new."33 This can also means that archaic language should not be used in translations, because this would give the impression that the Torah is old, not new.
Although many "modern" translations are more readable, they are often even more divorced from traditional Judaic sources. They may ignore the Talmud and Midrash, which contain the tradition for how to translate the idiomatic language of the Torah.
Two modern translations are "Jewishly accurate" and highly recommended:
ArtScroll Stone Chumash (ArtScroll.com) The Living Torah, by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (aryehkaplan.com)
Of course, there is no substitute for learning the original Hebrew text. Hebrew, as God's holy language, has an enormous amount of subtlety that no translation can ever convey. For example, the Hebrew word for "human" is adam. The name itself is derived from the word adama, meaning "ground," from which the first person was created.34 It is also a composite of the word dam, which means blood, and the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, which always alludes to God.35 This teaches us that a human being is a composite of physical matter and a spiritual soul.
So while it is important to have a good translation on hand, it is equally important to make an effort to study Torah in its original language.
So what's the best way to get to heaven? Walk across a busy highway? Perform some amazing act of faith? Save a thousand lives? Well, a pretty good answer may be found in this week's Parshah.
We read the story of Jacob's dream and the famous ladder with its feet on the ground and head in the heavens. "And behold the angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it."
Let me ask you what they might call in Yiddish, a klotz kashe (simplistic question). Do angels need a ladder? Everyone knows angels have wings, not feet. So, if you have wings, why would you need a ladder?
There is a beautiful message here.
In climbing heavenward one does not necessarily need wings. Dispense with the dramatic. Forget about fancy leaps and bounds. There is a ladder, a spiritual route clearly mapped out for us; a route that needs to be traversed step-by-step, one rung at a time. The pathway to Heaven is gradual, methodical and eminently manageable.
Many people are discouraged from even beginning a spiritual journey because they think it needs that huge leap of faith. They cannot see themselves reaching a degree of religious commitment which to them seems otherworldly. And yet, with the gradual step-by-step approach, one finds that the journey can be embarked upon and that the destination aspired to is actually not in outer space.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn, I would pass a very big building on my way to school every morning. It was the King's County Savings Bank. All these years later I still remember the Chinese proverb that was engraved over the large portals at the entrance to the bank. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step." Now that's not only Chinese wisdom; we Jews agree. And it's not limited to starting a savings plan. It is a simple yet powerful idea that it need not be "all or nothing."
What do you think is a rabbi's fantasy? A guy walking into my office and saying, "Rabbi, I want to become 'frum' (fully observant), now tell me what I must do"? Is that what I lie awake dreaming of? And if it did happen, do you think I would throw the book at him and insist he did every single mitzvah from that moment on? Never! Why not? Because a commitment like that is usually here today and gone tomorrow. Like the popular saying goes, "Easy come, easy go." I'm afraid I haven't had such wonderful experiences with the "instant Jew" types. The correct and most successful method of achieving our Jewish objectives is the slow and steady approach. Gradual, yet consistent. As soon as one has become comfortable with one mitzvah, it is time to start on the next, and so on and so forth. Then, through constant growth, slowly but surely we become more knowledgeable, committed, fulfilled and happy in our faith.
When my father was in yeshiva, his teacher once asked the following question: "If two people are on a ladder, one at the top and one on the bottom, who is higher?" The class thought it was a pretty dumb question -- until the wise teacher explained that they were not really capable of judging who was higher or lower until they first ascertained in which direction each was headed.
If the fellow on top was going down, but the guy on the bottom was going up, then conceptually, the one on the bottom was actually higher.
And so my friends, it doesn't really matter what your starting point is or where you are at on the ladder of religious life. As long as you are moving in the right direction, as long as you are going up, you will, please G-d, succeed in climbing the heavenly heights.
The man who keeps Tel Aviv safe from rockets By YAAKOV LAPPIN 20/11/2012 “We set up this Iron Dome battery in only 24 hours."
Maj. Itamar Abu is keeping the millions of residents of the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan area safe from death and destruction.
As commander of the hastily assembled Iron Dome battery wheeled out on Friday to defend Israel’s largest metropolis, Abu is playing a critical role in ensuring that the powerful Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets fired from Gaza do not cause carnage on the city streets.
“It’s an amazing feeling when we make an interception,” Abu said on Monday.
“We set up this battery in only 24 hours. All of the people involved in this – when we see a missile strike, the incoming threat – feel an enormous sense of satisfaction.”
Three days ago, Abu was pursuing his university studies, when he was called back by the air force to command the new battery, the fifth of its kind deployed to defend the lives of civilians from Palestinian terrorists’ rockets.
It is one of the great visions of the Torah. Jacob, alone at night, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, lies down to rest, and sees not a nightmare of fear but an epiphany:
He came to a certain place [vayifga bamakom] and stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream. He saw a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching heaven. G-d’s angels were going up and down on it. There above it stood G-d . . .
Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “G-d is truly in this place, but I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of G-d; this is the gate of heaven.” (28:11-17)
On the basis of this passage the sages said that “Jacob instituted the evening prayer.” The inference is based on the word vayifga which can mean not only, “he came to, encountered, happened upon” but also “he prayed, entreated, pleaded” as in Jeremiah 7: 16, “Neither lift up cry nor prayer for them nor make intercession to Me [ve-al tifga bi].”
The sages also understood the word bamakom, “the place” to mean “G-d” (the “place” of the universe). Thus Jacob completed the cycle of daily prayers. Abraham instituted shacharit, the morning prayer, Isaac minchah, the afternoon prayer, and Jacob arvit, the prayer of nighttimes.
This is a striking idea. Though each of the weekday prayers is identical in wording, each bears the character of one of the patriarchs. Abraham represents morning. He is the initiator, the one who introduced a new religious consciousness to the world. With him a day begins. Isaac represents afternoon. There is nothing new about Isaac – no major transition from darkness to light or light to darkness. Many of the incidents in Isaac’s life recapitulate those of his father. Famine forces him, as it did Abraham, to go to the land of the Philistines. He re-digs his father’s wells. Isaac’s is the quiet heroism of continuity. He is a link in the chain of the covenant. He joins one generation to the next. He introduces nothing new into the life of faith, but his life has its own nobility. Isaac is steadfastness, loyalty, the determination to continue. Jacob represents night. He is the man of fear and flight, the man who wrestles with G-d, with others and with himself. Jacob is one who knows the darkness of this world.
There is, however, a difficulty with the idea that Jacob introduced the evening prayer. In a famous episode in the Talmud, Rabbi Joshua takes the view that, unlike shacharit or minchah, the evening prayer is not obligatory (though, as the commentators note, it has become obligatory through the acceptance of generations of Jews). Why, if it was instituted by Jacob, was it not held to carry the same obligation as the prayers of Abraham and Isaac? Tradition offers three answers.
The first is that the view that arvit is non-obligatory according to those who hold that our daily prayers are based, not on the patriarchs but on the sacrifices that were offered in the Temple. There was a morning and afternoon offering but no evening sacrifice. The two views differ precisely on this, that for those who trace prayer to sacrifice, the evening prayer is voluntary, whereas for those who base it on the patriarchs, it is obligatory.
The second is that there is a law that those on a journey (and for three days thereafter) are exempt from prayer. In the days when journeys were hazardous – when travellers were in constant fear of attack by raiders – it was impossible to concentrate. Prayer requires concentration (kavanah). Therefore Jacob was exempt from prayer, and offered up his entreaty not as an obligation but as a voluntary act – and so it remained.
The third is that there is a tradition that, as Jacob was travelling, “the sun set suddenly” – not at its normal time. Jacob had intended to say the afternoon prayer, but found, to his surprise, that night had fallen. Arvit did not become an obligation, since Jacob had not meant to say an evening prayer at all.
There is, however, a more profound explanation. A different linguistic construction is used for each of the three occasions that the sages saw as the basis of prayer. Abraham “rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d” (19:27). Isaac “went out to meditate [lasuach] in the field towards evening” (24:63). Jacob “met, encountered, came across” G-d [vayifga bamakom]. These are different kinds of religious experience.
Abraham initiated the quest for G-d. He was a creative religious personality – the father of all those who set out on a journey of the spirit to an unknown destination, armed only with the trust that those who seek, find. Abraham sought G-d before G-d sought him.
Isaac’s prayer is described as a sichah, literally, a conversation or dialogue. There are two parties to a dialogue – one who speaks and one who listens, and having listened, responds. Isaac represents the religious experience as conversation between the word of G-d and the word of mankind.
Jacob’s prayer is very different. He does not initiate it. His thoughts are elsewhere – on Esau from whom he is escaping, and on Laban to whom he is travelling. Into this troubled mind comes a vision of G-d and the angels and a stairway connecting earth and heaven. He has done nothing to prepare for it. It is unexpected. Jacob literally “encounters” G-d as we can sometimes encounter a familiar face among a crowd of strangers. This is a meeting brought about by G-d, not man. That is why Jacob’s prayer could not be made the basis of a regular obligation. None of us knows when the presence of G-d will suddenly intrude into our lives.
There is an element of the religious life that is beyond conscious control. It comes out of nowhere, when we are least expecting it. If Abraham represents our journey towards G-d, and Isaac our dialogue with G-d, Jacob signifies G-d’s encounter with us – unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected; the vision, the voice, the call we can never know in advance but which leaves us transformed. As for Jacob so for us, it feels as if we are waking from a sleep and realising as if for the first time that “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.” The place has not changed, but we have. Such an experience can never be made the subject of an obligation. It is not something we do. It is something that happens to us. Vayfiga bamakom means that, thinking of other things, we find that we have walked into the presence of G-d.
Such experiences take place, literally or metaphorically, at night. They happen when we are alone, afraid, vulnerable, close to despair. It is then that, when we least expect it, we can find our lives flooded by the radiance of the divine. Suddenly, with a certainty that is unmistakable, we know that we are not alone, that G-d is there and has been all along but that we were too preoccupied by our own concerns to notice Him. That is how Jacob found G-d – not by his own efforts, like Abraham; not through continuous dialogue, like Isaac; but in the midst of fear and isolation. Jacob, in flight, trips and falls – and finds he has fallen into the waiting arms of G-d. No one who has had this experience, ever forgets it. “Now I know that You were with me all the time but I was looking elsewhere.”
That was Jacob’s prayer. There are times when we speak and times when we are spoken to. Prayer is not always predictable, a matter of fixed times and daily obligation. It is also an openness, a vulnerability. G-d can take us by surprise, waking us from our sleep, catching us as we fall.
There is really nothing that adequately prepares you for the sound. You learn about it. Your kids have drills in school. Your community tests its siren and emergency broadcast system intermittently through out the year.
You know what to do. You know how much time you have to do it.
Until it actually happens – until you are forced to put the practice into action – you really don’t know.
You anticipate that the siren will be terrible. But what you are really unprepared for is the fact that the siren is not the most terrible aspect of the experience.
As a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, and a friend, there were a thousand things that flashed through my frenzied thoughts as my brain registered and processed that our community’s air raid sirens were in fact actually shrilling their warning to take cover. Immediately.
We in Gush Etzion are incredibly lucky. We have a full 90 seconds to get to safety. We have 6 times the amount of time as our compatriots in the south.
I think it only took about 10 seconds to absorb it. Good thing I live in Gush Etzion. 5 seconds would not have been adequate time to: 1) finish drying off after my shower, 2) race up the stairs while simultaneously stabbing my limbs into garments, and 3) rattle off the names of my husband, kids (who were home) and Shabbat guest, while also screaming 4) “get into the mamad (re-inforced room), this is probably not a drill.”
Somehow, the five of us all made it before the siren ceased its wail.
A bit of pressure accompanies the sound.
Sort of reminiscent of a sonic boom.
Except so much more sinister than the sound of an airplane breaking the sound barrier.
Designed to terrorize. Designed to kill.
We waited the required time – 10 minutes according to home front command – before exiting the mamad, wondering the entire time. Worrying the entire time.
It was 10 minutes. But it felt like 10 years.
We emerge grateful that we are all accounted for and unharmed. We hope that everyone in our area can say the same.
In shul, the boys hear from the men who serve on the community’s security squad that the rockets landed in an open area causing little damage and no injuries.
We finish our entry into Shabbat profoundly grateful that we and those we love and those we live among have been spared harm.
We worry about our compatriots. We worry about our soldiers. We worry about the Gazan civilians. We worry about the worrying of overseas family and friends.
Shabbat remains quiet, though we are all edgier than normal. The howl of the traffic from 60 plays tricks on our ears and on our minds.
Was that the start of the siren?
No. For us, mercifully, it was not.
Each moment that carries us further from those 10 minutes. Those 10 minutes which felt like 10 years.
It is Sunday. I, like every news-junkie Israeli, move between productive work and the news sites. Checking. Praying. Listening. Worrying.
And it occurs to me.
If that one time experience of 10 minutes felt like 10 years, what does 3 rockets a day feel like? 30 years?
What does 12 years of rockets feel like?
My heart is broken for the one million residents of southern Israel for whom these exaggerated moments have already stretched on for eternity.
It is enough. Enough is enough.
Kol Yisrael arevi’im zeh la zeh – loosely translated, this means all Israel is responsible for one another.
The time has come to put aside political, philosophical and theological differences. Our citizens may not be subjected to rocket fire.
You want to talk about all the ways that Israel can improve her international standing, her civil policies, her democratic process? Great. Me too. There is, admittedly, much work to be done.
At the moment, our only responsible action is to defend our citizens.
And know that we do this while taking extraordinary measures to simultaneously protect the innocent lives of non-militant Gazans.
It turns out the old axiom is true: time flies when you’re having fun.
Time should fly.
Missiles should not. Murphy is alive and well in Beer Sheva
Despite the chaos going on elsewhere in the south, it was a quiet morning in Beer Sheva. So much so, that I allowed myself to be lulled into a sense of normalcy.
In fact, I felt so relaxed that I actually made an appointment to go over to the Optician and pick up my new frames which they told me via SMS were ready.
No sooner was I away from the fortified protection of my office campus, I heard the Code Red sirens start to go off all around me. Following procedure, I pulled over and ran (hah!, my knee said, no... you'll stroll) to find the nearest shelter.
Nothing nearby. Not a building. Not a house.
So I stretched out in the dirt by the curb and prayed.
As the sirens were fading away a second set of sirenscame to life... this was a multiple rocket attack.
After a short time I hear seven distinct explosions off to my left and over head. Some were likely interceptions by the Iron Dome system and some were rockets that got through.
Murphy's law that I would pick that moment to venture out.
Gov Romney would have certainly been better on Israel and other foreign policy than President Obama but here is recent tweet from AmbassadorOren "Israeli Amb. Michael Oren praised "outstanding support from all branches of the US government. We could not ask 4 more" #Gaza". President Obamas statements on Pillar of Defense so far have been excellent.
Michael Oren has served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. for the past three years. But his real trade isn’t diplomacy, it’s the past: Before Oren took on arguably the toughest job in Washington, he wrote books about Mideast history. So when I spoke to the ambassador yesterday afternoon about Operation Pillar of Defense, I asked him what historical moment he’d compare this one to: “In the best of circumstances, it’s May 1967. And the worst, May 1948. Rarely in our history have we ever faced such a broad spectrum of monumental threats.”
There’s the Iranian regime bidding for nuclear weapons, a Muslim Brotherhood government running Egypt, Hamas ruling Gaza, Hezbollah controlling southern Lebanon, and the civil war raging in Syria that spilled into Israel earlier this week. Jordan, a reliable Israeli ally since the mid-1990s, has become even more critical since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Egypt. But many suspect it’s only a matter of time before the Arab upheaval fells King Abdullah II—especially given current protests.
That would be a worst-case scenario for Israel. “Jordan is what keeps Iran out of our backyard,” said Oren. “Our defense border is the Jordanian-Iraqi border”—that is, not the Jordanian-Israeli one.
It’s difficult not to see this operation— pinpointing and targeting Hamas leaders, while taking out underground missile sites—as intended for an audience beyond the Strip, namely the one watching in Tehran. (The Iranians have undertaken major air drills in the past few days, and revealed new missile systems.) But Oren insists the Islamic Republic has nothing to do with this operation: “This is not about sending a message to Iran. This is a message about defending a million of our citizens,” he said. “It would be the equivalent of 40 million Americans in bomb shelters.”
And yet Iran was the subject we kept coming back to. “I think that the key to it all is Iran,” Oren said. “Gaza’s basically an outpost of Iran. Lebanon is an outpost of Iran. Assad is a lackey of Iran.” Indeed, one key lesson Oren draws from Israel’s previous territorial withdrawals is that Iran’s proxies tend to fill the vacuum left behind. “Wherever we have withdrawn, the Iranians have filled it. In Lebanon, in Gaza.”
Since Israel pulled out of southern Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005), the IDF has played an ongoing game of whack-a-mole with Hezbollah and Hamas. Oren argued that this tactic has been more successful than some have claimed. “After the Lebanon war [of 2006] we were very tough on ourselves, with the whole Winograd Commission. But I think we were too tough on ourselves. In fact, we deterred Hezbollah” in that war.
Four years since Operation Cast Lead, deterrence is once again the name of the game for the IDF in Gaza: “Hamas may have to just be reminded again, and reminded in large scale, that we will not allow our citizens to be shot at with impunity,” Oren said. “It will go on for as long as Hamas continues to escalate.” Israel said Wednesday that it is prepared to expand this campaign into a ground operation.
“We have nothing to be ashamed about, nothing to apologize for. This is our right,” said Oren. “Ahmed Jabari killed dozens and dozens of Israelis.”
And what would victory look like? “Victory looks like security restored to the inhabitants of the south,” said Oren. Longer term, the goal is a change in mindset. “The Palestinian people have to internalize that as long as they choose leadership like Hamas, that will bring them no closer to statehood, no closer to economic and social development, and no closer to peace.”
With weeks until Israelis go to the polls, some see a clear connection between the election and this operation. Oren dismissed the question: “This is not about the elections. We didn’t want war,” he said. “This government has exhibited superhuman restraint: 2,500 rockets since 2009. Last month, 800 rockets. In the last week, 300 rockets. What government in the world wouldn’t have responded with war a long time ago?”
And two peoples from within you will be separated;
One people will be stronger than the other,
And the older will serve the younger [ve-rav ya’avod tsa’ir]. (Bereishit 25: 23)
Eventually the twins are born – first Esau, then (his hand grasping his brother’s heel) Jacob. Mindful of the prophecy she has received, Rebecca favours the younger son, Jacob. Years later, she persuades him to dress in Esau’s clothes and take the blessing Isaac intended to give his elder son. One verse of that blessing was “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.” (Bereishit 26:29) The prediction has been fulfilled. Isaac’s blessing can surely mean nothing less than what was disclosed to Rebecca before either child was born, namely that “the older will serve the younger.” The story has apparently reached closure, or so, at this stage, it seems.
But biblical narrative is not what it seems. Two events follow which subvert all that we had been led to expect. The first happens when Esau arrives and discovers that Jacob has cheated him out of his blessing. Moved by his anguish, Isaac gives him a benediction, one of whose clauses is:
You will live by your sword
And you will serve your brother.
But when you grow restless,
You will throw his yoke from off your neck. (Bereishit 27: 40)
This is not what we had anticipated. The older will not serve the younger in perpetuity.
The second scene, many years later, occurs when the brothers meet after a long estrangement. Jacob is terrified of the encounter. He had fled from home years earlier because Esau had vowed to kill him. Only after a long series of preparations and a lonely wrestling match at night is he able to face Esau with some composure. He bows down to him seven times. Seven times he calls him “my lord.” Five times he refers to himself as “your servant.” The roles have been reversed. Esau does not become the servant of Jacob. Instead, Jacob speaks of himself as the servant of Esau. But this cannot be. The words heard by Rebecca when “she went to inquire of the Lord” suggested precisely the opposite, that “the older will serve the younger.” We are faced with cognitive dissonance.
More precisely, we have here an example of one of the most remarkable of all the Torah’s narrative devices – the power of the future to transform our understanding of the past. This is the essence of Midrash. New situations retrospectively disclose new meanings in the text (see the essay ‘The Midrashic Imagination’ by Michael Fishbane). The present is never fully determined by the present. Sometimes it is only later that we understand now.
This is the significance of the great revelation of G-d to Moses in Shemot 33:33, where G-d says that only His back may be seen – meaning, His presence can be seen only when we look back at the past; it can never be known or predicted in advance. The indeterminacy of meaning at any given moment is what gives the biblical text its openness to ongoing interpretation.
We now see that this was not an idea invented by the sages. It already exists in the Torah itself. The words Rebecca heard – as will now become clear – seemed to mean one thing at the time. It later transpires that they meant something else.
The words ve-rav yaavod tsair seem simple: “the older will serve the younger.” Returning to them in the light of subsequent events, though, we discover that they are anything but clear. They contain multiple ambiguities.
The first (noted by Radak and R. Yosef ibn Kaspi) is that the word et, signalling the object of the verb, is missing. Normally in biblical Hebrew the subject precedes, and the object follows, the verb, but not always. In Job 14:19 for example, the words avanim shachaku mayim mean “water wears away stones,” not “stones wear away water.” Thus the phrase might mean “the older shall serve the younger” but it might also mean “the younger shall serve the older”. To be sure, the latter would be poetic Hebrew rather than conventional prose style, but that is what this utterance is: a poem.
The second is that rav and tsa’ir are not opposites, a fact disguised by the English translation of rav as “older.” The opposite of tsa’ir (“younger”) is bechir (“older” or “firstborn”). Rav does not mean “older.” It means “great” or possibly “chief.” This linking together of two terms as if they were polar opposites, which they are not – the opposites would have been bechir/tsa’ir or rav/me’at – further destabilises the meaning. Who was the rav? The elder? The leader? The chief? The more numerous? The word might mean any of these things.
The third – not part of the text but of later tradition – is the musical notation. The normal way of notating these three words would be mercha-tipcha-sof pasuk. This would support the reading, “the older shall serve the younger.” In fact, however, they are notated tipcha-mercha-sof pasuk – suggesting, “the older, shall the younger serve”; in other words, “the younger shall serve the older.”
A later episode adds a yet another retrospective element of doubt. There is a second instance in Bereishit of the birth of twins, to Tamar (Bereishit 38:27-30). The passage is clearly reminiscent of the story of Esau and Jacob:
When her time was come, there were twins in her womb, and while she was in labour one of them put out a hand. The midwife took a scarlet thread and fastened it round the wrist, saying, “This one appeared first.” No sooner had he drawn back his hand, than his brother came out, and the midwife said, “What! You have broken out first!” So he was named Perez. Soon afterwards his brother was born with the scarlet thread on his wrist, and he was named Zerah.
Who then was the elder? And what does this imply in the case of Esau and Jacob? (See Rashi to 25: 26 who suggests that Jacob was in fact the elder.) These multiple ambiguities are not accidental but integral to the text. The subtlety is such, that we do not notice them at first. Only later, when the narrative does not turn out as expected, are we forced to go back and notice what at first we missed: that the words Rebecca heard may mean “the older will serve the younger” or “the younger will serve the older.”
A number of things now become clear. The first is that this is a rare example in the Torah of an oracle as opposed to a prophecy (this is the probable meaning of the word chidot in Bamidbar 12: 8, speaking about Moses: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, openly and not in chidot” — usually translated as “dark speeches” or “riddles”). Oracles – a familiar form of supernatural communication in the ancient world – were normally obscure and cryptic, unlike the normal form of Israelite prophecy. This may well be the technical meaning of the phrase “she went to inquire of the Lord” which puzzled the medieval commentators.
The second – and this is fundamental to an understanding of Bereishit – is that the future is never as straightforward as we are led to believe. Abraham is promised many children but has to wait years before Isaac is born. The patriarchs are promised a land but do not acquire it in their lifetimes. The Jewish journey, though it has a destination, is long and has many digressions and setbacks. Will Jacob serve or be served? We do not know. Only after a long, enigmatic struggle alone at night does Jacob receive the name Israel meaning, “he who struggles with G-d and with men and prevails.”
The most important message of this text is both literary and theological. The future affects our understanding of the past. We are part of a story whose last chapter has not yet been written. That rests with us, as it rested with Jacob.
We had been helped by God, even in this forsaken little camp at Nieder-Orschel.
Excerpted from The Yellow Star by S. B. Unsdorfer
After having survived the horrors of Auschwitz, Simche Unsdorfer was transported to Nieder-Orschel and put to work making aeroplane wings for the German Luftwaffe. It is in this camp that the following story took place.
When writing the little diary in which I entered the Hebrew dates and Festivals, I discovered with great delight that Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, the festival on which we commemorate the recapture of the Temple from the mighty Greeks by a handful of faithful Jews, was only a few days ahead. I decided that we should light a little Chanukah lamp even in Nieder-Orschel, and that this would go a long way towards restoring our morale.
Benzi was immediately consulted because he had become the most reliable and trusted person in the block. Even those at the other two tables came to Benzi to settle their quarrels, which were mostly about the distribution of their rations. Benzi would stand no arguments at his own table. He cut every loaf into eight portions and shared it out indiscriminately. He who complained, received the smallest portion. “If you are dissatisfied,” Benzi would shout angrily, “go and join another table, where they have scales and judges.” Nobody ever left our table.
Benzi was enthusiastic about my idea. “Yes, we should get a Chanukah light burning,” he said. “It will boost our morale and lighten the atmosphere. Work on a plan, but be careful.”
Two problems had to be overcome: oil had to be “organised” and a place had to be found where the lighted wick would not be seen. The was no lack of oil in the factory, but how could we smuggle even a few drops into our barrack in time for Monday evening, December 11, the first night of Chanukah?
We knew, of course, that Jewish law did not compel us to risk our lives for the sake of fulfilling a commandment. But there was an urge in many of us to reveal the spirit of sacrifice implanted in our ancestors throughout the ages. We who were in such great spiritual as well as physical distress felt that a little Chanukah light would warm our starving souls and inspire us with hope, faith and courage to keep us going through this long, grim and icy winter.
Benzi, Grunwald, Stern, Fischof and I were in the plot. We decided to draw lots. The first name drawn would have to steal the oil; the third would be responsible for it and hide it until Monday evening; the fifth would have to light it under his bunk. I was drawn fifth.
Grunwald, who was to “organise” the oil, did his part magnificently. He persuaded the hated Meister Meyer that his machine would work better if oiled regularly every morning, and that his could best be arranged if a small can of fine machine oil was allotted to us to be kept in our toolbox. Meister Meyer agreed, so there was no longer the problem of having to hide it.
On Monday evening after Appell, everyone else sat down to his much awaited portion of tasteless but hot soup, while I busied myself under the bunk to prepare my Menorah. I put the oil in the empty half of a shoe-polish tin, took a few threads from my thin blanket and made them into a wick. When everything was ready I hastily joined the table to eat my dinner before I invited all our friends to the Chanukah Light Kindling ceremony. Suddenly, as I was eating my soup, I remembered we had forgotten about matches. I whispered to Benzi. “Everyone must leave a little soup,“ Benzi ordered his hungry table guests, and told them why. Within five minutes, five portions of soup were exchanged in the next room for a cigarette. The cigarette was “presented” to the chef, Joseph, for lending us a box of matches without questions.
And so, as soon as dinner was over I made the three traditional blessings, and a little Chanukah light flickered away slowly under my bunk. Not only my friends were there with us, but also many others from the room joined us in humming the traditional Chanukah songs. These songs carried us into the past. As if on a panoramic screen, we saw our homes, with our parents, brothers, sisters, wives, and children gathered round the beautiful silver candelabras, singing happily the Maoz Tzur. That tiny little light under my bunk set our hearts ablaze. Tears poured down our haggard cheeks. By now, every single inmate in the room sat silently on his bunk, or near mine, deeply meditating. For a moment, nothing else mattered. We were celebrating the first night of Chanukah as we had done in all the years previous to our imprisonment and torture. We were a group of Jewish people fulfilling our religious duties, and dreaming of home and of bygone years.
But alas! Our dream ended much too soon. A roar of “Achtung” brought our minds back to reality, and our legs to stiff attention. “The Dog” - that skinny little Unterschaarfuehrer - stood silently at the door, as he so often did on his surprise visits, looking anxiously for some excuse, even the slightest, to wield his dog-whip. Suddenly he sniffed as loudly as his Alsatian and yelled “Hier stinkts ja von Oehl!” (“It stinks of oil in here!”).
My heart missed a few beats as I stared down at the little Chanukah light flickering away, while “The Dog” and his Alsatian began to parade along the bunks in search of the burning oil.
The Unterschaarfuehrer silently began his search. I did not dare bend down or stamp out the light with my shoes for fear the Alsatian would notice my movements and leap at me. I gave a quick glance at the death-pale faces round me, and so indeed did “The Dog”. Within a minute or two he would reach our row of bunks. Nothing could save us…but suddenly…
Suddenly a roar of sirens, sounding an air raid, brought “The Dog” to a stop and within seconds all lights in the entire camp were switched off from outside. “Fliegeralarm! Fliegeralarm!” echoed throughout the camp! Like lightning I snuffed out the light with my shoes and following a strict camp rule, we all ran to the open ground, brushing “The Dog” contemptuously aside. “There will be an investigation…There will be an investigation,” he screamed above the clatter of rushing prisoners who fled out into the Appell ground. But I did not worry. In delight I grabbed my little Menorah and ran out with it. This was the sign, the miracle of Chanukah, the recognition of our struggle against the temptations of our affliction. We had been helped by God, even in this forsaken little camp at Nieder-Orschel.
Outside, in the ice-cold, star-studded night, with the heavy drone of Allied bombers over our heads, I kept on muttering the traditional blessing to the God who wrought miracles for His people in past days and in our own time. The bombers seemed to be spreading these words over the host of heaven. This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/h/c/s/h/48962046.html
On this Veteran's day, those of us who benefit from the great blessings of this land remember, salute and pray for those who fought and those who died so that this ever aspiring symbol of freedom might endure.
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks Sedra means torah portion and this is actual last weeks
The sedra of Chayei Sarah focuses on two episodes, both narrated at length and in intricate detail. Abraham buys a field with a cave as a burial place for Sarah, and he instructs his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Why these two events? The simple answer is because they happened. That, however, cannot be all. We misunderstand Torah if we think of it as a book that tells us what happened. That is a necessary but not sufficient explanation of biblical narrative. The Torah, by identifying itself as Torah, defines its own genre. It is not a history book. It is Torah, meaning “teaching.” It tells us what happened only when events that occurred then have a bearing on what we need to know now. What is the “teaching” in these two episodes? It is an unexpected one.
Abraham, the first bearer of the covenant, receives two promises – both stated five times. The first is of a land. Time and again he is told, by G-d, that the land to which he has travelled – Canaan – will one day be his.
(1) Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. (12:7)
(2) The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north, south, east and west. All the land that you see, I will give you and your offspring forever . . . Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” (13: 14-17)
(3) Then He said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this land to take possession of it.” (15: 7)
(4) On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates – the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.” (15: 18-21)
(5) “I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your G-d and the god of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give you as an everlasting possession to you and to your descendants after you; and I will be their G-d.” (17: 7-8)
The second was the promise of children, also stated five times:
(1) “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” (12: 2)
(2) “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.” (13: 16)
(3) He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (15: 5)
(4) “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” (17: 4-5)
(5) “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (22: 17)
These are remarkable promises. The land in its length and breadth will be Abraham’s and his children’s as “an everlasting possession.” Abraham will have as many children as the dust of the earth, the stars of the sky, and the sand on the sea-shore. He will be the father, not of one nation, but of many. What, though, is the reality by the time Sarah dies? Abraham owns no land and has only one son (he had another, Ishmael, but was told that he would not be the bearer of the covenant).
The significance of the two episodes is now clear. First, Abraham undergoes a lengthy bargaining process with the Hittites to buy a field with a cave in which to bury Sarah. It is a tense, even humiliating, encounter. The Hittites say one thing and mean another. As a group they say, “Sir, listen to us. You are a prince of G-d in our midst. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs.” Ephron, the owner of the field Abraham wishes to buy, says: “Listen to me, I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.” As the narrative makes clear, this elaborate generosity is a façade for some extremely hard bargaining. Abraham knows he is “an alien and a stranger among you,” meaning, among other things, that he has no right to own land. That is the force of their reply which, stripped of its overlay of courtesy, means: “Use one of our burial sites. You may not acquire your own.” Abraham is not deterred. He insists that he wants to buy his own. Ephron’s reply – “It is yours. I give it to you” – is in fact the prelude to a demand for an inflated price: four hundred silver shekels. At last, however, Abraham owns the land. The final transfer of ownership is recorded in precise legal prose (23: 17-20) to signal that, at last, Abraham owns part of the land. It is a small part: one field and a cave. A burial place, bought at great expense. That is all of the Divine promise of the land that Abraham will see in his lifetime.
The next chapter, one of the longest in the Mosaic books, tells of Abraham’s concern that Isaac should have a wife. He is – we must assume – at least 37 years old (his age at Sarah’s death) and still unmarried. Abraham has a child but no grandchild —no posterity. As with the purchase of the cave, so here: acquiring a daughter-in-law will take much money and hard negotiation. The servant, on arriving in the vicinity of Abraham’s family, immediately finds the girl, Rebecca, before he has even finished praying for G-d’s help to find her. Securing her release from her family is another matter. He brings out gold, silver, and clothing for the girl. He gives her brother and mother costly gifts. The family have a celebratory meal. But when the servant wants to leave, brother and mother say, “Let the girl stay with us for another year or ten [months].” Laban, Rebecca’s brother, plays a role not unlike that of Ephron: the show of generosity conceals a tough, even exploitative, determination to make a profitable deal. Eventually patience pays off. Rebecca leaves. Isaac marries her. The covenant will continue.
These are, then, no minor episodes. They tell a difficult story. Yes, Abraham will have a land. He will have countless children. But these things will not happen soon, or suddenly, or easily. Nor will they occur without human effort. To the contrary, only the most focused willpower will bring them about. The divine promise is not what it first seemed: a statement that G-d will act. It is in fact a request, an invitation, from G-d to Abraham and his children that they should act. G-d will help them. The outcome will be what G-d said it would. But not without total commitment from Abraham’s family against what will sometimes seem to be insuperable obstacles.
A land: Israel. And children: Jewish continuity. The astonishing fact is that today, four thousand years later, they remain the dominant concerns of Jews throughout the world – the safety and security of Israel as the Jewish home, and the future of the Jewish people. Abraham’s hopes and fears are ours. (Is there any other people, I wonder, whose concerns today are what they were four millennia ago? The identity through time is awe inspiring.) Now as then, the divine promise does not mean that we can leave the future to G-d. That idea has no place in the imaginative world of the first book of the Torah. To the contrary: the covenant is G-d’s challenge to us, not ours to G-d. The meaning of the events of Chayei Sarah is that Abraham realised that G-d was depending on him. Faith does not mean passivity. It means the courage to act and never to be deterred. The future will happen, but it is we – inspired, empowered, given strength by the promise—who must bring it about.
When I took this job at Chabad.org Ask-The-Rabbi, I didn’t realize I was supposed to be G‑d’s defense attorney. But for whatever reason, people intuitively see religion as a comfort pillow, a set of answers to questions that will set everything alright so that they can go on living within a stable, explicable world knowing that some rabbi at the other end of their mobile device will have an answer to whatever’s gone wrong.
Enough griping, Freeman. People are cold, wet, hungry and exhausted. They’ve lost their homes, their possessions—their whole future has been abruptly and violently pulled out from under them. And they want you to explain to them how, despite all external appearances, Hurricane Sandy was an act of G‑d, and not just a freak incident of some indifferent entity called nature.
C’mon, Freeman. Torah’s gotta have an answer to that.
Whose Garden Is This?
One of the first narratives we heard as kids in Hebrew School is how Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden. Nice, simple story, right? No, please, no. The story is deep, so very, very deep.
Creator makes earth. He likes the earth He made. It’s good. He makes Adam. He likes the Adam critter, too. He’s very good. So He puts the Adam in a beautiful garden with dates, almonds and figs for the picking, lovely rivers in which to bathe, a controlled climate system, caressed gently by a warm, distant ball of fire by day, and a not-so-distant semi-reflective device by night. He split the Adam in two, because loneliness was deemed “not good,” and blessed them to be fruitful and multiply, as stewards of this beautiful garden custom-designed just for them.
But the Adam critters are not satisfied with tending to someone else’s garden in which they have no say and just have to follow the rules. The Adam critters have this need to feel their own sense of being, to have their own lives; in a certain way to be like the Creator Himself. And they let their Creator know that, with just one mischievous deed—and a lot of blaming.
But the Adam critters are not satisfied with taking care of someone else's garden. They want their own lives, with their own world. So the Creator says, “Okay, you want your own lives. Not a bad idea. But then you’ll need to have your own world as well. So I’ll give you a wild, bucking-bronco world, and you’ll have the responsibility of taking care of it, and taking care of yourself inside it. And then you too will have some of the sense of being a Creator.”
And with that the Adam critter, which is us, is sent out of the garden, “to work the earth from which he was taken.”
It is still very much a controlled earth, by far the mildest of planets we’ve observed with any telescope. A thin, translucent cloak shields life from harsh cosmic rays, while carrying just the right trace of carbon to retain its warmth. It juggles that carbon, along with nitrogen and water in perpetual life-giving cycles, turning air into living organisms that breathe back life into the air. Winds moderate temperatures, while carry moisture from the seas, casting gentle flakes upon the mountains, and descend in the warmer seasons to water the plains and valleys. That semi-reflective device also works nicely to provide a cycle of tides that marry together the seas and the dry land. Magnificent, beautiful, beyond ingenious.
But the system is not always so friendly. And there come those times when it downright turns blindly against us, as though we don’t exist. We find ourselves rendered helpless before a force much greater than us. Suddenly, we are small. Suddenly it hits us that, hey, we didn’t make this place. And we don’t control it, either.
Yet, it is at these times that we must ourselves become G‑dly. Because we are being forced to take responsibility for our own world. The environmental scientists will argue over whether this has to do with us tipping that delicate balance of carbon in the atmosphere. One thing I know for sure: We have to clean up the mess our fellow Adam critters are in, and we have to build a world that disasters like this cannot so easily tumble.
What I’m not going to say is that it’s just nature, things like this just happen. Like Maimonides writes, people who say “things just happen” are cruel people. Why cruel? Because they’re robbing from others the opportunity to lift themselves up, from entire communities the opportunity to transform. To realize that “things happen” because there’s a Creator, and we are His creations with an assignment. We’re here to make this world, and all those in it, know how G‑dly it is.
Look at what’s happening today in the seaside neighborhoods of New York and New Jersey. Communities are being forced to build themselves back up. Let me tell you this: No outside agency is going to be able to do all that for them. If anyone can do it, it’s the community itself.
I’m hearing from Chabad rabbis whose homes and centers were wiped out, and they’re running around getting meals to seniors, generators to cold homes and bringing in busloads of volunteers to clean out the sand and muck and deliver meals. Sure, there’s a truck down the street where people are lining up to get food packages, but how are people stuck in their apartments without a phone supposed to know? There’s an American Army, there’s FEMA, there’s the Red Cross—but sometimes it takes someone like this little, bearded guy who knows the streets, knows the people, is trusted by them, and who feels his destiny is tied to theirs, to pick up their spirits and get them to rebuild their homes and their lives.
Hey, when you’re without phone, electricity, heat or transportation, the grocery stores are in ruins and there’s nowhere to grab a meal, and you look down the stairs at a muck-saturated clump of everything you ever saved, your clothes, your books, your family heirlooms, and it’s all gone, all gone—it’s no small deal when the local rabbi drops by with a kosher meal, some news from the outside world, and you can pour your heart out to him. Life becomes once again a viable option.
Are You Comfy Yet?
Does that answer the question? Does that make you feel all comfy, because everything is explained, including hurricanes, tsunamis and the Creator of the universe?
I hope not. Because it’s not supposed to. Torah is not G‑d’s defense portfolio. It’s His instructions to us, telling us what we’re here for and what we’re supposed to do right now. Every mitzvah you do, from wrapping tefillin to lighting candles before Shabbat, is included in instructions to fix the world, right now.
Right now, the best thing you can do is get a truckload of generators, power cables, heaters and sandwiches, drive into one of those seaside neighborhoods with a few friends, and yell out, “Anyone need help? Anyone need a generator or heater at cost price? Anyone need a few hands to shovel out the sand?” Then go into apartment buildings and knock on doors.
If you can’t, and even if you can, you can help out our men and women on the scene, integral members of those communities, some of whom have lost everything, and yet are dedicated to get their entire community back on its feet. One way to do that is through our Hurricane Sandy Emergency Relief Fund.
But please don't stop there. Like I said, it's a deeply intertwined ecosystem in which every mitzvah of the Torah has its vital place in healing the world—and here are ten great starting points.
And here’s a photo essay I made back when Katrina hit, saying pretty much the same thing: We’re not here to explain G‑d. We’re here to act G‑dly. And to make this a G‑dly world.
BY TZVI FREEMAN Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. More articles by Tzvi Freeman | RSS The content on this page is copyrighted by the author, publisher and/or Chabad.org, and is produced by Chabad.org. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with the copyright policy.
“There is water outside my house and it is rising fast. It’s already on my first step and I see water bubbling in the middle of the street. I’m not sure what’s happening but I’m scared that my house may fill up with water in the next few hours.”
“Sir, we are looking at your location and our emergency personnel can’t make it down your block.”
“But I have five little children here? What am I supposed to do?”
“We’re sorry sir. We can’t help you. Good luck.”
There I was, staring out my bedroom window with the phone at my ear as water was rushing up my front steps. In the other room, my wife and five children were sound asleep. I stood there overwhelmed. I turned to God and asked for help. Then I ran down the stairs.
Welcome to Hurricane Sandy, one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Northeast, ever. Hundreds injured, over 50 dead. Thousands without homes. Millions without power.
As I sit here in Sandy’s aftermath, sirens screaming in the background and debris in front my house, I keep thinking of one maxim: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Judging by Sandy’s onslaught, there is some serious strength waiting for us. Sandy brought her game, now it’s time to bring ours.
So I decided to make few resolutions.
Related Article: Heroes Everywhere
#1: Be Happy with Normal
I remember when I was 16 years old. I was home on Saturday night with nothing to do, moping around, feeling sorry for myself when my grandparents came over.
“What’s the matter?” my grandmother asked.
“I’m having a bad night, my plans unraveled and I have nothing to do,” I kvetched.
My grandmother, who at my age was in Auschwitz, commented, “Boy, what I would have given to have nothing to do when I was your age.”
Enough said. Checkmate. Perspective gained.
It’s amazing how when our lives are functionally normally, we focus on what we are missing. We run through our days barely paying attention to all the things we have like health, shelter, family, electricity and heat. We are too busy coming and going, buzzing and beeping, thinking and worrying about what more we can get, to slow down and see what we already have.
Then something threatens our “normal.” A loved one gets sick. We encounter tragedy. We are in danger. Almost instantly, we shift perspective. We stop focusing on more. We stop worrying about what’s next. We just want it to go back to “normal.”
My Hurricane Sandy experience began Monday evening. We had been inside the house all day. The winds were howling and the trees were shaking. The lights began to flicker, and then … black.
We lost power. They told us power outages were likely but you can never fully prepare to lose power. It was dark. Real dark. For the next few hours, we slowly felt the effects. No internet, cell phones, heat, hot water, refrigeration. We huddled together. I couldn’t help but think, pray and silently beg for power. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t even care what it was powering; just power.
Power? Who appreciates power? I have never once turned on a light and said, “Wow, power. Amazing!”
But at that moment, that’s all I wanted.
Our Sages define happiness as the ability to take pleasure in what we have, and not pain in what we don’t. Positive Psychology gurus like Tal Ben Shachar speak about the scientific relationship between happiness and gratitude. We all know this, but we never seem to integrate it into our lives.
We live in a time where most of the civilized world enjoys more luxuries than the wealthy elite just decades earlier. We have so much, and yet we just want more. We are waiting for something to make us happy. But there is nothing that can make us happy. Happiness is a choice.
Of course we should strive. Growth is part of our life. But we need to make sure we live with perspective. We have to start to take pleasure in “normal.” We have to start to enjoy life the way we have it. We shouldn’t need a Category 1 hurricane to have us cheer and hug when the lights go back on.
Resolution #1: Every day, notice one thing in my “normal” life and be grateful for it.
Related Article: Huricane Sandy
#2: Trust the Greatness Within
As I stood there, staring out the window, it hit me. No one was coming. No one.
I always thought there would be someone to turn to in times of need. A police officer, firefighter, emergency personnel, family or friend are just a phone call away if the going got rough.
I was wrong.
I was alone, and responsible, and in need of help.
Standing in my room, a thought popped into my mind. A person is never alone. God is not in the sky watching down at the earth. He is Infinite and All-encompassing, in every bit of reality. He is not just “up there,” He is “right here,” the glue holding us together. We all have a depth of strength, wisdom and perseverance that we can draw on. He is with us, always. I prayed that I can find Him, and now.
An idea came to me. Grab the family and run out the back. But before I woke them, I needed to make sure we had a place to go.
I ran down the stairs, out the back door to the backyard. I jumped a tall fence, through a patch of trees and then to the back of a home that faced another street. I climbed the back stairs and saw a window. I banged and banged until someone answered.
Thankfully, they were home and welcoming. Within minutes, I went back to my house, woke my family and then, one by one, retraced our steps until everyone was in the house, safe.
My actions were but a pittance of the courage, heroism and strength brought on during Sandy. Throughout the storm, thousands of “regular” people tapped into an internal source they may have never previously accessed. Doctors and nurses moved hospitals wards and saved lives. Police and firefighters swam, ran and drove boats to save people from underwater homes. Neighbors, friends and total strangers literally saved people’s lives.
Why? It’s not because crisis breeds heroes. Crisis enables people to bring out the heroism they always had within them.
We are created with a soul that is Divine. Like a well, the more we draw, the more we recognize its depth. Sometimes it takes tragedy to realize how kind, caring and generous we are. Sometimes a crisis reveals the courage, bravery and strength that we never saw before.
Resolution #2: Dare to be great. Every day, set one goal beyond my perceived limitations and go for it. Push to see how much potential I really have.
Related Article: Slovie’s Hurricane Sandy Diary
3. Restructure Your Life to Align with your Priorities
Famed author and speaker, Dr. Stephen Covey, ran a seminar where he invited people to place different size rocks into a bucket. After multiple failed attempts to get all the rocks in, Covey demonstrated how to do it. He started with the big rocks and after careful placement, all the rocks fit. He turned to the audience and surmised: “If you don’t put the big rocks in first, you’ll never get them in."
How many times do we feel overwhelmed but unfulfilled? Busy but out of control? Sensing that life should feel different than it currently does. The reason is that, many times, our lives don’t align with our priorities. We are out of balance and we feel it.
There is nothing like a crisis to realign our actions to our priorities.
After I secured the safety of my family, I headed back home to get some basic items. On the way back in, I surveyed the damage. My car was under water, my home was filling up. I realized that this storm may wipe out my possessions.
I tried to be upset but I couldn’t. I didn’t care. Not even a bit. I knew I would care tomorrow, but for tonight, there were more important things. I rushed to collect diapers, water, socks and pajamas and headed back to my family. Stuff is what it is, stuff. For tonight, it didn’t make the top of my list.
How many times do our loved ones get rescheduled for our work? How many conversations did we miss even though we were physically there? How many family members get less attention than our hobbies?
And we wonder why we feel unfulfilled.
There is a family in my neighborhood that awoke to water gushing into their home. They climbed to their attic until they were rescued hours later. The next day, I saw the father walking with his kids. He had a gym bag of his possessions. His house was under water. I asked him how he was. He responded “Thank God, everything is great!” Seeing my facial response, he continued, “I’m not sure if I have a house, but I have my wife and kids. That’s all I need.”
Lesson #3: Each day, hug each kid, tight. Pick a family member to call to say I love you.
#4: Giving is what makes the world go ‘round
“The world was built on kindness” (Psalms 89:3)
As we sat in my neighbor’s house, I couldn’t help but smile. We were practically strangers. Yet their outpouring of support was amazing. They made us feel as welcome as can be. They brought food, water and blankets. We made quite a mess and a ruckus, and they were not bothered in the slightest.
Giving feels better than taking because giving is a Divine quality, and the more Godly we act, the better it feels.
There is something about crisis that brings out the best in many of us. Deep down, we know we are one people. During “normal” times, it’s easy to focus on the differences. It’s easy to entrench and protect ourselves. But when our normal is threatened, we realize that we need each other. Our differences are eclipsed by are similarities. We are free to be our true selves. We are free to give.
The day after the storm, I walked up the street. People were outside their homes offering help to each other. We were sharing sub pumps and wet-vacs. One woman, whose house was spared, drove by and brought us groceries. Someone else dropped off a pie of pizza. At night, a friend stopped by with heaters. Families moved in with others. Our phones are buzzing with well-wishers.
Resolution #4: The next time I have an opportunity to give, I will just give.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012. 9:00 am EST
I walked outside my home to survey the damage. The streets were still filled with water. Coast guard boats were evacuating people from their homes. Sirens were blaring down the streets.
“What happens now, Daddy?” my son asked.
“There is only one place to go from here,” I answered.
Here in New York as well as in most of the Northeast of the United States hurricane Sandy, in all of its fury, canceled our schools, closed our bridges, tunnels and transportation systems, shut down the stock market and disrupted our lives in countless ways we never would’ve thought possible.
Ask millions of us yesterday what we were going to do today and staying home would’ve been the most unthinkable answer. After all we had so many plans that simply couldn’t be changed. And yet we suddenly learned the truth of the adage that man proposes and God disposes.
There’s a remarkable passage in the Talmud that gives us a unique insight into the laws of nature. Science has convinced us that the laws of nature are immutable, constant and highly predictable. We can know with certainty exactly when the sun will rise and when it will set in every portion of the globe, not only for today and tomorrow but for years to come. God wanted us to be able to regulate our lives and endowed us with the intellect to make the necessary computations for most of the laws that govern our reality.
But there are three things that God chose to keep hidden from us. These were meant to remain the great mysteries of mankind.
"Rabbi Yochanan taught, there are three keys in the hands of God that are not entrusted to an agent. They are: the key to rain, the key to conception, and the key to revival of the dead.”
Why is it that we can split the atom and land on the moon but still have the weather forecaster get it wrong with almost the same frequency as the result of a toss of the coin? Because God intended for the world to retain some reminders of the limits to our own power.
Three times a day in our prayers we praise God by acknowledging that it is He who “is responsible for life,” “resuscitates the dead” and “makes the wind to blow and the rain to descend.” Much as we try to control these events, our efforts are overshadowed by the Divine will that invariably makes the final decision.
It is a truth we need to remember when we hope for a child and turn to fertility doctors. Their knowledge is vital – but it is far from determinative. It is God who decided to keep everlasting control over the key to conception.
It is a fact that physicians are entrusted with the mission to heal. But whether their efforts will succeed and the patient will live or die is a second key retained by the Almighty.
And remarkably enough, rain – the gift from the heavens that is necessary for human survival but can turn deadly when granted in excessive measure – is the third key that God chose to maintain for constant personal supervision rather than to turn into a predictable law of nature.
As we unexpectedly sit at home during hurricane Sandy, perhaps we ought to reflect upon the Divine message of a storm that has the power to make us change plans that we thought were unalterable.
Related Article: The Fury of Frankenstorm
Where Are You Going?
There is a classic Jewish tale about an old rabbi in Russia, who would visit a synagogue near the town square every morning. Not a day passed that he skipped this routine. An anti-Semitic policeman who hated the sight of the rabbi desperately sought to find a reason to justify imprisoning him.
One morning, as the rabbi approached the town square, the policeman walked up to him and asked, “Sir, may I know where you are going?”
The rabbi replied, “I don’t know.”
The policeman seized on this and said, “Old man, you are lying to me. I know you are going to that synagogue over there. I have seen you every day. I’m going to arrest you for lying to a member of the police force.”
The policeman took the rabbi to the nearest police station and put him in one of the cells. As he was locking the door, the policeman proudly remarked, “Now you foolish man you will realize never again to lie to me.”
The rabbi replied, “My son, I have no idea why you claim I lied to you. I told you I didn’t know where I was going. Indeed I did not – I thought I was going to synagogue but, as you can see, it turned out I was going to jail.”
It is more than a story; it is a parable of our lives. We think we know where we are headed but in truth we can never be certain. And every so often we need to be reminded: God runs the world. God decides whether our appointment calendar will be kept. God has the power to suddenly transform our lives.
And perhaps, in the aftermath of perceiving how disruptive unexpected storms can be, we will also be moved to appreciate in much greater measure how grateful we must be to God when nature returns to its regular laws that normally guarantee us so much blessing.
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Should one seek the advice of a friend who is beneath him?
"And God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre." (Genesis 18:1)
The Midrash relates that when God commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and his entire household, Avraham sought the advice of his three confederates - Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner told him that the bris would weaken him and render him vulnerable to attack from relatives of the four kings he had just vanquished. Eshkol stressed that the operation itself, with the attendant loss of blood, was life threatening. Mamre, however, told Avraham that having experienced God's deliverance from Nimrod's furnace and the miraculous victory over four mighty kings, he should trust in God and follow His command. For this advice, Mamre was rewarded by God appearing to Avraham on his estate - "in the plains of Mamre."
There are several difficulties with this Midrash. Most importantly, why did Avraham feel the necessity to seek advice whether or not to fulfill God's command? And if he needed advice, why did he not go to the Yeshiva of Shem or Ever, rather than ask Aner, Eshkol and Mamre? And if two out of the three emphasized the danger involved, why did Avraham listen to Mamre, who stressed the need for trust in God? Finally, why was Mamre rewarded for giving Avraham obvious advice, rather than Aner and Eshkol punished for attempting to dissuade him?
To answer these questions, we must first understand the essence of friendship and the value of a friend. The Sages teach that before God created man, He first consulted with the angels. From this we learn that one should seek advice even from those on a lower spiritual level. Similarly, the commentators to Pirkei Avos (1:6) comment on the teaching "...acquire a friend for yourself" - even one at a lower spiritual level.
But why should one seek the advice of a friend who is beneath him?
Everyone's perspective is highly subjective and biased with respect to all matters concerning himself. His desires blind his eyes from anything other than the object of his desires, and prevent him from weighing the pros and cons objectively. For this reason, writes Meiri in his commentary to Proverbs (20:18), one needs the perspective of someone who is removed from all the subjective biases that cloud one's vision, someone who can weigh the situation without having to contend with a welter of strong desires. A friend need not be at a higher spiritual level, or even as high, to offer valuable advice; he need only be free of the particular desires which render one incapable of objectivity.
So important is objective advice that Rabbeinu Yona (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:53) learns that the prohibition, "Do not put a stumbling block before the blind," applies not just to giving bad advice, but requires us to provide good advice as well. Depriving someone of objective counsel is itself putting a stumbling block before him. Without such counsel he will certainly err.
Rashba in his responsa (1:48) goes a step further. Even if one has already reached a definite decision, Rashba says, he should still seek the advice of others, since it is not only the action which is important, but also the feelings and intentions that go with it.
The purpose of a friend's advice is to provide an objective view of the issue at hand. Therefore the friend must not introduce his own biases, emotions and subjectivity. His task is not to imagine himself with the same dilemma, but rather to ask himself, "If I were he, without his subjective bias, what would I do?"
Avraham never doubted that he would fulfill God's command concerning the bris. Nevertheless he still sought the advice of his three confederates to gain a more objective view of his situation, just as Rashba says one should. And Avraham went precisely to those who could perhaps put themselves in his place, because they themselves had experience with a bris. Because Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre had forged a bond with Avraham, they had the potential to relate to the concept of bris.
Aner and Eshkol did not give him bad advice. In fact, the Midrash never says explicitly that they advised him not to perform the mitzvah. Rather, they considered what they would do if faced with a similar command and advised Avraham accordingly. By focusing on the dangers involved, they in effect advised Avraham to perform the mitzvah with such fears uppermost in his mind. This was not bad advice, but no advice at all because they failed to put themselves into Avraham's position, minus his bias and subjectivity.
Mamre, by contrast, projected himself into Avraham's place and advised him on the basis of Avraham's frame of reference and experience of Divine protection. Hence Avraham's thoughts while undergoing the bris centered on faith and trust that God would assist him in fulfilling this command, as He had assisted him throughout his life.
For freeing himself from his own subjective perspective, Mamre was rewarded by God's appearing in his portion. Objectivity is the precondition for recognition of the truth, i.e. the recognition of God Himself.
Through God's revelation to Avraham in the plains of Mamre, we learn that receiving guests is greater than receiving God's presence, for Avraham interrupted his communion with God to run to greet the three angels disguised as men. Entertaining guests requires consideration of another's needs and shedding one's own narrow subjectivity. The ability to attain objectivity allows perception of the truth of the Divine on a constant basis. Thus the ability to properly treat guests is superior to a one-time revelation of God's presence.
We pray three times a day, "Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first..." May we all merit to both receive and provide objective advice so that we can live our lives according to the principles of righteousness set down by our judges of old. And in this way, "...God will remove from us sorrow and groaning."
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I have been researching the Seven Noahide Laws. I understand these are the biblical commands to all humanity—the children of Noah—and they provide the basis for ethical living. But looking at the list, there seems to be one that does not fit with the others:
Do not worship idols—agreed, we have to believe in G‑d. Do not curse G‑d—have respect for Him. I can dig that. Do not murder—obvious. Do not steal—okay. Do not commit adultery—fine. Set up courts of justice—needed to ensure the other laws are kept. But: Do not eat the limb of a living animal. I am bewildered as to why you would include the seventh law, “Do not eat the limb of a living animal.” While I have no intention of tearing off any animal limbs, I can’t see how that would be in the top seven most important things for all of humanity to observe.
Thank you for any help in enlightening this Noahide!
What is the true test of a moral person? How do you know that someone is truly a good person, and not just preaching?
One test is to observe the way they treat subordinates. Someone who can show concern for those who are lower and more helpless than themselves is a person who is truly good.
And so, in formulating laws for all mankind, the Torah gives seven commandments that are considered seven categories of ethical behavior. The prohibition to steal includes all dishonest and unethical business practices. The outlawing of adultery encompasses all inappropriate relationships. And the ban on eating the limb of a live animal is a general law which commands us to be kind to animals. In fact, Jewish law prohibits inflicting unnecessary pain on animals.
These are not arbitrary categories of law. They cover the full gamut of moral obligation toward our fellow beings: respect for G‑d who is above us, respect for human beings who are equal to us, and respect for the animal kingdom beneath us.
There is a clear hierarchy here. We are not equal with G‑d, and animals are not equal to humans. The myth of equality is necessary only to protect the weak in a world devoid of morality. But moral beings with a clear code of ethics can recognize the innate inequality of nature without exploiting it. Being higher means being more responsible. Nature is here to serve us, but we are here to serve G‑d, and that means treating all His creatures, equal or not, with respect.
Please see more on the Seven Noahide Laws on The Judaism Website.
BY ARON MOSS More articles by Aron Moss | RSS The content on this page is copyrighted by the author, publisher and/or Chabad.org, and is produced by Chabad.org. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with the copyright policy.
EXCERPT FROM Animal Suffering: The Jewish View Animals and people are kindred spirits, but far from equals. by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem
An additional reason mentioned by the Sages for human treatment of animals is that it cultivates humane conduct toward other people, while inhumane treatment of animals carries the danger of inculcating insensitivity toward others. (Research confirms a connection between people who torture animals as youngsters and those who are violent as adults, though there is no way to tell if there is a causal relationship.)
The Sefer Hachinuch (596) writes: "Among the motivations for this commandment is to accustom ourselves to delicate souls, choosing the straight path and adhering to it, and seeking mercy and kindness. Once we obtain this habit, then even toward animals, which were created to serve us, we will show concern." And Nachmanides writes: "The reason for refraining [from taking the eggs in the presence of the mother] is to teach us the quality of mercy, and not to act cruelty. For cruelty [toward animals then] spreads into the soul of man [and expresses itself toward people as well]."
Marc, Thanks for sharing the article. Marc and GM-- Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you liked it.
It makes sense that it would have universal appeal. Abraham's goal and Judaism's goal is not to convert people to Judaism. The goal is to spread ethical monotheism to everyone. You do not need to be Jewish to be a good person, to serve G-d or to have a share in the world to come(Heaven).
The 7 Noachide Laws http://www.aish.com/w/nj/For_Non-Jews.html The Jewish idea is that the Torah of Moses is a truth for all humanity, whether Jewish or not. The Torah (as explained in the Talmud - Sanhedrin 58b) presents seven mitzvot for non-Jews to observe. These seven laws are the pillars of human civilization, and are named the "Seven Laws of Noah," since all humans are descended from Noah. They are: Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not worship false gods. Do not be sexually immoral. Do not eat a limb removed from a live animal. Do not curse God. Set up courts and bring offenders to justice.
Maimonides explains that any human being who faithfully observes these laws earns a proper place in heaven. So you see, the Torah is for all humanity, no conversion necessary. As well, when King Solomon built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he specifically asked God to heed the prayer of non-Jews who come to the Temple (1-Kings 8:41-43). The Temple was the universal center of spirituality, which the prophet Isaiah referred to as a "house for all nations." The service in the Holy Temple during the week of Sukkot featured a total of 70 bull offerings, corresponding to each of the 70 nations of the world. In fact, the Talmud says if the Romans would have realized how much they were benefiting from the Temple, they never would have destroyed it!
Covenant & Conversation: Vayera – Even Higher Than Angels 5773, Bereishit, Covenant & Conversation Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks http://www.chiefrabbi.org/2012/10/29/covenant-conversation-vayera-even-higher-than-angels/#.UI78_Gl27Sw It is one of the most famous scenes in the Bible. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when three strangers pass by. He urges them to rest and take some food. The text calls them men. They are in fact angels, coming to tell Sarah that she will have a child.
The chapter seems simple. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:
Verse 1: G-d appears to Abraham.
Verses 2-16: Abraham and the men/angels.
Verses 17-33: The dialogue between G-d and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.
How are these sections related to one another? Are they one scene, two or three? The most obvious answer is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, G-d appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick” after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news about Sarah’s child. Then takes place the great dialogue about justice.
Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed II: 42) suggests that there are two scenes (the visit of the angels, and the dialogue with G-d). The first verse does not describe an event at all. It is, rather, a chapter heading.
The third possibility is that we have a single continuous scene. G-d appears to Abraham, but before He can speak, Abraham sees the passers-by and asks G-d to wait while he serves them food. Only when they have departed – in verse 17 – does he turn to G-d, and the conversation begins.
How we interpret the chapter will affect the way we translate the word Adonai in the third verse. It could mean (1) G-d or (2) ‘my lords’ or ‘sirs’. In the first case, Abraham would be addressing heaven. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.
Several English translations take the second option. Here is one example:
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . He looked up, and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them. Bowing low, he said, “Sirs, if I have deserved your favour, do not go past your servant without a visit.”
The same ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19: 2), when two of Abraham’s visitors (in this chapter they are described as angels) visit Lot in Sodom:
The two angels came to Sodom in the evening while Lot was sitting by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low he said, “I pray you, sirs, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night there and bathe your feet.”
Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halakhic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case is unusual, because if we translate Adonai as ‘G-d’, it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If we translate it as ‘my lords’ or ‘sirs’, then it has no special sanctity.
The simplest reading of both texts – the one concerning Abraham, the other, Lot – would be to read the word in both cases as ‘sirs’. Jewish law, however, ruled otherwise. In the second case – the scene with Lot – it is read as ‘sirs’, but in the first it is read as ‘G-d’. This is an extraordinary fact, because it suggests that Abraham interrupted G-d as He was about to speak, and asked Him to wait while he attended to his guests. This is how tradition ruled that the passage should be read:
The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to G-d] he said: “My G-d, if I have found favour in your eyes, do not leave your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree…”
This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine presence.” Faced with a choice between listening to G-d, and offering hospitality to [what seemed to be] human beings, Abraham chose the latter. G-d acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom.
How can this be so? Is it not disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of G-d?
What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshipped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshipped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that G-d is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.
The forces of nature are impersonal, which is why those who worship them eventually lose their humanity. As the Psalm puts it:
Their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell… Their makers become like them, and so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalm 115)
You cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person: compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that G-d is personal, someone to whom we can say ‘You’, we honour human dignity as sacrosanct. Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of G-d in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine presence when G-d appears as G-d. What is difficult is to sense the Divine presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving G-d and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.
One of the most beautiful comments on this episode was given by R. Shalom of Belz who noted that in verse 2, the visitors are spoken of as standing above Abraham [nitzavim alav]. In verse 8, Abraham is described as standing above them [omed alehem]. He said: at first, the visitors were higher than Abraham because they were angels and he a mere human being. But when he gave them food and drink and shelter, he stood even higher than the angels. We honour G-d by honouring His image, humankind.
What makes some children succeed while others fail? More generally, what drives some people to great achievement while others languish, their dreams unfulfilled? That is the question that intrigued American writer Paul Tough. His answer is contained in his book How Children Succeed, published last month.
Tough discovered that what makes the difference is not intelligence, skill or native ability. It isn’t cognitive at all. The difference, he argues, lies in character, in traits such as discipline, persistence, self-control, zest, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, courage and conscientiousness. One dimension, though, matters more than all the others. He calls it grit: the ability to keep going despite repeated failures and setbacks. People with grit grow. People without it are either defeated by life’s challenges or – more likely – become risk-averse. They play it safe.
I am fascinated by the stories of people who had grit, who overcame repeated failures and rejections. I think of the lonely single mother, close to destitution, who sat in coffee bars writing a children’s novel to earn some money, only to find that the first twelve publishers to whom she sent the manuscript rejected it. She kept going. You’ve heard of her. Her name is J. K. Rowling.
I think of another writer of a book about children who suffered even more rejections, twenty-one in all. The book was eventually published. It was called “Lord of the Flies,” and its author, William Golding, was eventually awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
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The most famous failure of our time was the late Steve Jobs. In his magnificent commencement address at Stanford University he told the story of the three blows of fate that shaped his life: dropping out of university, being fired from the company he founded, Apple, and being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rather than being defeated by them, he turned them all to creative use, eventually returning to Apple and developing three of the iconic inventions of the twenty first century, the I-pod, I-phone and I-pad.
The house of the Chief Rabbi happens to be close to a street called Abbey Road. Fifty years after the group that made it famous had their first hit, you can still see crowds of tourists being photographed on the world’s most celebrated zebra crossing. Their first audition has passed into legend. They performed for a record company only to be told that guitar bands were on their way out. The verdict, in January 1962, was: “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
J.K. Rowling, William Golding, Steve Jobs and the Beatles were not, as far as I know, religious people. Some people just have grit. It is part of their nature. But what about the rest of us? Can you learn grit? Can you acquire it if you were not born with it? I am not sure there is a general answer to that question, but here is a personal one.
I have known my share of failures. Early in my career I was turned down for almost every job I applied for. It took me two years after qualifying as a rabbi to find a congregation. From the age of twenty, one of my ambitions was to write a book. I tried and failed for twenty years. I still have a filing cabinet full of books I started and did not complete. Finally, energized by a statement of George Bernard Shaw that if you are going to write a book you had better do it by the time you are forty, I completed my first at that age and have written one a year ever since. I learned to embrace failure instead of fearing it.
Why? Because at some point on my religious journey I discovered that more than we have faith in God, God has faith in us. He lifts us every time we fall. He forgives us every time we fail. He believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. He mends our broken hearts. I never cease to be moved by the words of Isaiah: “Even youths grow tired and weary and the young may stumble and fall, but those who hope in the Lord renew their strength. They soar on wings like eagles, they run and don’t grow weary, they walk and don’t grow faint.”
The greatest source of grit I know, the force that allows us to overcome every failure, every setback, every defeat, and keep going and growing, is faith in God’s faith in us.
It’s been three weeks since the car accident I had which damaged my right hand and set me on a course of several months of recovery, lots of lying on the couch, and more negotiating with dosages of acetaminophen and ibuprofen than I care to discuss.
I have written about the accident cursorily and somewhat lightly: how I removed my false eyelashes in the ambulance, made jokes about desires for tummy tucks with my plastic surgeons who repaired my hand, and the breathing and meditative techniques of natural labor I utilized to manage pain and fear. But my religious identity has pursued me–or I it–throughout this ordeal, and I have a desire to write about some of the more complex aspects of the accident and recovery as an observant Jew.
(I have many non-Orthodox, secular, and atheist thoughts, desires and friends. I do not intend to imply superiority to my identity as an observant Jew. I sincerely hope this will be interpreted as demonstrative and reflective rather than being perceived as self-righteous and as advocating for Orthodoxy, which I am not.)
I have outlined the significant events of the accident and hope to demonstrate the consistency of my belief system, the complexity and strength I draw from it, and the desire to have every aspect of my life affirm and not contradict it as a testament to the unbroken chain of tradition I cling to.
By either no significance or all of the cosmic significance in the Universe, the events broke down into seven mini-epochs, which I realized only after I identified them, parallel–you guessed it – the seven days of Creation.
Day One: EMPTINESS, DARKNESS AND LIGHT
First there was darkness. In the beginning of Creating, there is emptiness of an astonishing quality, and darkness upon the surface of some great depth. My experience of darkness was a loud cacophonous shattering, a flash of white exploding (the airbag, I later realized), smoke rising up, and an astonishing emptiness known to us mortals as a horrifying and deafening silence. My instantaneous instinct was simply to survive and to find light, to get out of the car immediately and find my way to my children, wherever they were (10 miles away at a museum). I knew that I had to reach my husband, and I had to reach him immediately.
This accident was very dark. The darkness still consumes me. But it is always darkest before the dawn, isn’t it. Jewish “days” begin at night because our Torah tells us so: “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” We cannot detect light and color and shadows and subtlety if not for the contrast of darkness, and we have only one way to pass through darkness, and that is through the darkness and into the light.
Second Day: WATERS ABOVE AND WATERS BELOW
From the moment I stepped out of my smashed up car until I arrived at the hospital over an hour later, I was stuck in the middle of everything, it seemed. I see why Creation includes separating the waters above from the waters below as distinct from just making land and sea. There is a middle existence before land and sea; a floating, a hovering. I was in that: I was floating and hovering, between Heaven and Earth, if you will, for those tempestuous hours.
I couldn’t escape a sense of movement in my soul and body and a desire to maintain movement for survival. I tried to anchor myself to something but failed. I knew from my neuroscience training and my training in self-hypnosis (which I used successfully for pain management during the birth of both of my sons) that I needed to decrease my blood pressure to let my body block pain with the natural endorphins and opiates our bodies contain.
I tried to remember which tehillim (psalms) I used during labor, but my brain would not be still long enough to remember. One line from Psalm 118 broke through the chaos: Min ha meitzar: “From the narrow straits, I called upon God. God answered me with expansiveness.” I couldn’t hold more than a few phrases at a time in my head, but I was grateful for something to hold onto. And through the chaos, I found a separation that comforted me, as if to affirm for me: This is who I am, and everything else is not who I am. I felt scared, and impatient, and lonely. But an abstract and simultaneously very palpable notion of not being alone because God is always with me tore through the nothingness and made me feel my sense of identity, concreteness, and self coalesce. I am never alone. This deduction (or wishful thinking?) is not an argument for Belief, but rather is, for me, a consequence of Belief.
Third Day: LAND AND SEA
Arriving at the hospital was the first notion I had of solid ground. It was a place fear and comfort could both reside in contrasting ambiguous safety. As I was wheeled into my hospital room, I asked the nurse to stop my gurney at the doorpost so that I could kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe. That’s how it is in Jewish hospitals. I acknowledged internally that my right hand, the dominant hand in Judaism, is the one with which we typically perform this act. I recall some sort of internal debate I had about using my left hand to touch the mezuzah and bring my fingers to my lips, and I made a mental note to find out from one of my religious friends what the Jewish laws of mezuzah-kissing are.
Onkelos, the 1st century scholar and one of Judaism’s most famous converts to our faith once taught that in most communities, legions of military, dignitaries and soldiers stand guard outside of a King’s quarters. Judaism, however, places God outside the door (mezuzah anyone?) to watch over and protect the most precious thing held inside: us.
I tethered myself to the solid ground of my faith as pain and fear and shock threatened to send me out to sea: when the cheery hospital volunteer opened my door, she couldn’t even get out the sentence, “Is there anything you need?” before I blurted out something you can blurt out at Jewish hospitals: “I need to see a rabbi.” The volunteer looked at me as if no one had made that request in a very long time. She smiled and I decided she was Jewish, too. She told me that she would leave him a message but that he wasn’t due to arrive until an hour later, at 2 p.m. In a sea of panic and fear, I had caught sight of dry land. It was right under my feet.
Fourth Day: THE LUMINARIES
As the sun guides the day and the moon guides the night and the stars shine always in myriad formation and permutation, I found guidance and direction from our tradition for the next hours in which waiting was my main preoccupation. I waited for my husband. I waited to be examined. I waited to be X-Rayed. I waited for my IV to be put in. I waited for the rabbi. I waited to stop hurting.
I chanted out loud to myself the first supplication ever uttered in the Torah: the prayer Moses offers up for his sister: El na, refa na la: “God, please heal her, please.” My husband arrived at the hospital after dropping our sons with a close friend just as the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was young, looked straight out of a Maccabeats video, and was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. We knew people in common, and I was relieved he was Orthodox and therefore knew about the things that would matter to me even in a dire medical situation: not shaking hands with men, not wanting to be seen in any state of undress by men, maintaining modesty even with my husband, not wanting unkosher food served to me.
But what was most comforting and what guided me faithfully was the common language we spoke and the universality of his presence and his words. I recounted the accident for the rabbi and I wasn’t embarrassed to say “Thank God” as many times as I did. I knew he understood me. As I spoke to him, I cried. It was the first time I cried that entire day. I needed to cry.
I asked the rabbi for a book of Tehillim (psalms) which he happily brought me and he left a card at my bedside printed by the hospital wishing me a refuah shleyma, a complete healing, in Hebrew and English. He blessed me and I cried as I heard my Hebrew name pronounced. Out of the mess I was in, this Rabbi led me through dark and showed me light as he declared, God, please heal Mayim Chaya bas Brayna Basha, please.
Fifth Day: CREATURES OF THE WATER AND BIRDS IN THE SKY
And then there was the first emergence of primal life and primal love. There were murmurings and rustlings of something growing and coming alive. The Yeshiva University Maccabeats, my famous frum friends, sent out a tweet asking people to daven for me. I cried at this show of broad and intimate love.
The book of Tehillim which the rabbi had brought me held my tears, and I told anyone Jewish I could find that the Psalm for that day was Psalm 73 and contained the following passage: “I was always loyal to You, You grasped my right hand.” Indeed, God held my right hand and continues to hold it fast. The skeptics among you will justifiably assert that I–or any religious fanatic–would have found any comfort in any Psalm on any day. I choose instead to see this as a stirring of inspiration and love. Because I want to. And I can. I take great comfort in the slow building of momentum towards vibrancy, intensity, and life itself.
Sixth Day: LIVING CREATURES, MAN AND WOMAN
And then there were people. Doctors, nurses, surgeons, attendants. And a nurse in recovery who instead of sending me home in scrubs found me a long hospital gown to go home in since the dress I was wheeled into the hospital wearing was all bloody and the sleeves were too slim to fit over my cast and bandages. There were faces and hands, and the products of our hands: needles and masks and gloves and scalpels and surgical thread.
And when I came home, there were more people. Visitors, therapists, emails from people and phone calls and flowers from people. And there were the people with whom I connect to on a deep level; the religious level, the intellectual level, the emotional level: the chevrusa (study partner) I met through Partners In Torah, my fellow Kveller writers Carla Naumburg and Matthue Roth, my best friend Adi, and yes, my favorite Maccabeat. These people and others asked for my Hebrew name, so that when they lit candles for Shabbat, they could think of me.
That Friday when I crawled off the couch to light candles for Shabbat, my older son reminded me to pray for myself.
Seventh Day: THE SABBATH
“Thus the Heaven and the Earth were finished and all their array.” The first Shabbat after my accident, I was not yet well enough to walk to shul, but the following Shabbat, my husband, sons, and I stayed walking distance from our preferred shul so that I could bensch Gomel, a prayer which is recited after a life-threatening incident such as I had experienced.
That Friday night as Shabbat began, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services at a small Carlebach-style minyan I love. My husband took care of the boys so that I could have some time alone to daven, meditate, and also sing and even dance a little with the other women there. I felt a tremendous sense of joy that Shabbat as well as a healthy amount of fear and trepidation.
Bensching Gomel after the Torah service the following morning, although brief, was very emotional and complicated. I thanked God for saving even the unworthy, as the prayer states. I wondered who is unworthy of saving, and decided to simply be grateful I was alive and not alone.
Blessed. Sanctified. Abstention. Shabbat.
Eighth Day: BEYOND CREATION
There is no eighth day of Creation. However, in Judaism, the number eight holds powerful significance. There are eight days until a boy’s bris, many of our holidays span eight days, and there is a mystical notion that whereas seven is this-worldly, eight is other-worldly. As Matisyahu says in Miracle, his song about the eight days of Chanukah, “Eight is the number of infinity, one more than what you know how to be.”
Our tradition suggests that one who recites Gomel make a donation to tzedakah so as to make some good come from a tragedy. In addition, a Seudah Hoda’ah, or Feast of Gratitude, is also suggested when you are feeling up to it, consisting of a simple meal, breaking bread, and making a Dvar Torah speech including an acknowledgment of gratitude to God.
My hair and makeup artist had, in the weeks preceding my accident, been talking to me about helping her brainstorm ideas for how to sponsor a well for a community in need in Haiti. Days after my accident, I told her to stop brainstorming.
I have decided to take on this well building as my healing/tzedakah project and will be hosting a Seudah Hoda’ah next week to try and make what is this-worldly resonate in the realms of the other-worldly.
Thank you, God, for bringing light to darkness, stability to chaos, guidance, love, people, hands, medicine, and the holy Sabbath. Thank you for a pure soul that longs to cling to You, and an open heart that wants to draw near. Every act of mine is an act of devotion and a reaffirmation of my gratitude. Always.
U’sha’avtem mayim b’sasson, mi’ma’anei ha’yeshua. “You shall with joy draw forth water, from the fountains of salvation.”
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Navigating my way one day along a busy sidewalk in downtown Jerusalem, my head was immersed in all sorts of forgettable thoughts when suddenly I stopped short. A young woman had thrust her face into my line of vision.
The young face was old -- ancient, even, and haggard -- then turned young again, then old. She was talking at me.
Now, this city’s full of beggars -- nothing unusual there, especially at this time of year -- but this was your classic beggar, a beggar’s beggar, a beggar extraordinaire. She could have been an extra in an amateur production of Oliver Twist. (Wanted: Underweight female of indeterminate age/ good cheekbones/ for role of desperate, bedraggled, homeless pauper.) Her aggressive dark eyes and pleading mouth, the melodramatic hands imploring, demanding ...these automatically served to warn me: Beware. All this neediness, real or feigned, was too much. Too raw, too unrefined, and she was standing too close; my innards recoiled spontaneously. I could smell her. In anthropological lingo, she was violating my culturally learned spatial boundaries. What claim could she have on me, an inward-looking stranger in the pre-Rosh Hashana crowds, attending to mundane High Holiday errands? Some horrible and tragic calamity, apparently. An emergency! A horrendous injustice had befallen her children! It’s your job to save us!
Not a fundraiser for Hadassah, that’s for sure. The Jewish Federations would not have hired her.
There are Israelis whose Hebrew I take pride in understanding quite well, but this woman’s diatribe I could not construe at all. Her brow squeezed up in lines of torment (those brown eyes flickered, reminding me eerily of something, but instantly the illusion passed) and the chin lifted beseechingly, as did one upturned palm, long fingers reaching for my good fortune. For of course I’d already taken out my coin purse (though it was a little hard seeing what was in there, tipping it towards me to shield the fifty-shekel bill from her invasive gaze.) I’d make my getaway momentarily, but didn’t want to bear sin on account of her, either, just in case...In case, by some chance (Yom Kippur was in the air).she was for real. Theoretically, at least, a cluster of peeping little ones could actually be out there somewhere, in their dark, isolated nest, waiting for this scarecrow of a Jewish mother to fly home with crumbs, a taste for them of milk and honey.
Better to err on the safe side.
I extracted a ten-shekel coin and placed it upon that palm, noticing within me the sunflower of predictable, simple happiness which blooms involuntarily at such moments, in spite of my suspiciousness, in spite of myself. Her head cocked to one side.
“Toda,” she said, and our eyes met.
She smiled, almost, and I saw my father.
My father, Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins, was someone for whom giving -- not only of his money but of himself -- seemed to come easily, by second nature. He gave away what he had, period, minus the second thoughts, and was a happy man. If this daughter had any complaints against him at all, it’s that by comparison to his goodness, my self-image (and ultimately, what could have been my inheritance) suffered proportionally.
Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l once said that when you do something good (and he was referring here, by the way, only to adults, not children) you should try to keep your mouth shut. The less said about it the better, and the better you’ll emulate God.
My father’s private thoughts regarding the Almighty will remain, for the most part, unknown to me, but he did, in my opinion, manifest many of His attributes. It was only after his death, for example, that I heard about the overcoat.
One snowy night in midtown Manhattan, someone broke into my parents' parked car and stole my father’s briefcase and brand new winter coat. “They’d put the magazine to bed already,” my mother told me, “and the whole dummy of that week’s issue was in there with a lot of other things. And it was such a nice warm coat, Daddy loved it.”
Minutes after reporting the theft in the local police station, my parents got a phone call to come on back. The briefcase had been found intact in a nearby garbage can, and the police had caught the thief red-handed.
“They found him walking off in the coat!” said Mommy.”We were tickled pink. After they handed us the coat and Daddy checked the briefcase and saw that everything was still in there, he asked where the man was. The police said not to worry, the thief was in their holding cell until they could transfer him to Federal Detention downtown. Daddy asked if he go in and meet him. The police were surprised but they said ok and Daddy was in there for more than an hour. When we left he told me that the two of them had had a very good talk, and that he was a decent man, just desperate, fallen on hard times and homeless, out of work and nowhere to go. Daddy found out when the trial was and came to testify. He told the judge that if they’d let the man out on furlough, he’d take legal responsibility for him, and that’s what happened. Daddy got him a job somewhere – I think in a printing press - and oh, he gave the man his coat. Daddy said it fit perfectly.”
Another memory, from a1980s visit of my parents to Israel: We were just getting out of a taxi whose driver had been grouchy and unpleasant, when my father (who was unfamiliar with Israeli currency) asked in an undertone how many shekels the tip should be.
“Oh, you don’t have to,” I said, thinking: especially not this guy. “We don’t tip taxi drivers here.”
My father remained seated and ignored my comment. “How much is this?” he asked me, holding out five shekel coins.
“About a dollar and half.”
He gave it to the driver, emerged from the car, and looked me in the eye. “You know, Sarah,” he said quietly, “taxi drivers have a hard job. Being in traffic all day, and people are rude. I’m so grateful I don’t have to do that for a living.”
Our forefather Joseph famously invoked the image of his father Jacob to save himself from sin. I can’t say the same for me. Faced by my brethren’s need, something uncomfortable within me -- I can’t even say what -- often turns away.
But I did get a glimpse of Daddy in that mother’s familiar Jewish eyes. I suppose that God, Who wants just to give, and Whose nature it is to give, is more like my father than like me. Yet for a mortal such as myself to keep trying (even unsuccessfully!) to transcend her nature and emulate Him is also noble, and a joy, and one of the most meaningful triumphs He made available to us humans.
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Currently I'm not interested in discussing politics and my schedule will probably only permit me to post in the Power of the Word.
This probably fits better in the Health Thread but the original discussion started here and I have dramatically changed my views on animal protein and eating more meat, fish and eggs has greatly improved my health for the better. Different macronutrients levels and different diets are right for different people but animal proteins are some of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. I now eat animal protein and lots of vegetables at every meal. My view that I should be eating less animal protein made me less healthy because I was trading nutrient dense foods for food that was making me sick. Thankfully, not everyone has my reaction to gluten but I would recommend that everyone try going wheat free for a week and then see how they feel. I do still agree with Michael Pollan on many things but my new favorite food philosopher is Robb Wolf.
Henryk was very young in 1945, when the War ended and solitary survivors tried frantically to trace their relatives. He had spent what seemed to be most of his life with his nanny, who had hidden him away from the Nazis at his father's request. There was great personal risk involved, but the woman had readily taken it, as she loved the boy.
All the Jews were being killed, and Henryk's nanny did not think for a moment that the father, Joseph Foxman, would survive the infamous destruction of the Vilna Ghetto. He would surely have been transferred to Auschwitz -— and everyone knew that nobody ever came back from Auschwitz. She therefore had no scruples about adopting the boy, having him baptized into the Catholic Church and taught catechism by the local priest.
He told his son that he was a Jew and that his name was Avraham It was Simchat Torah when his father came to take him. The heartbroken nanny had packed all his clothing and his small catechism book, stressing to the father that the boy had become a good Catholic. Joseph Foxman took his son by the hand and led him directly to the Great Synagogue of Vilna. On the way, he told his son that he was a Jew and that his name was Avraham.
Not far from the house, they passed the church and the boy reverently crossed himself, causing his father great anguish. Just then, a priest emerged who knew the boy, and when Henryk rushed over to kiss his hand, the priest spoke to him, reminding him of his Catholic faith.
Everything inside of Joseph wanted to drag his son away from the priest and from the church. But he knew that this was not the way to do things. He nodded to the priest, holding his son more closely. After all, these people had harbored his child and saved the child's life. He had to show his son Judaism, living Judaism, and in this way all these foreign beliefs would be naturally abandoned and forgotten.
They entered the Great Synagogue of Vilna, now a remnant of a past, vibrant Jewish era. There they found some Jewish survivors from Auschwitz who had made their way back to Vilna and were now rebuilding their lives and their Jewish spirits. Amid the stark reality of their suffering and terrible loss, in much diminished numbers, they were singing and dancing with real joy while celebrating Simchat Torah.
Avraham stared wide-eyed around him and picked up a tattered prayer book with a touch of affection. Something deep inside of him responded to the atmosphere, and he was happy to be there with the father he barely knew. He held back, though, from joining the dancing.
A Jewish man wearing a Soviet Army uniform could not take his eyes off the boy, and he came over to Joseph. "Is this child... Jewish?" he asked, a touch of awe in his voice.
"This is the first live Jewish child I have come across in all this time..." The father answered that the boy was Jewish and introduced his son. As the soldier stared at Henryk-Avraham, he fought to hold back tears. "Over these four terrible years, I have traveled thousands of miles, and this is the first live Jewish child I have come across in all this time. Would you like to dance with me on my shoulders?" he asked the boy, who was staring back at him, fascinated.
The father nodded permission, and the soldier hoisted the boy high onto his shoulders. With tears now coursing down his cheeks and a heart full of real joy, the soldier joined in the dancing.
"This is my Torah scroll," he cried.
Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League -- the Avraham in our story -- remembers this as his first conscious feeling of a connection with Judaism and of being a Jew.
By Ruth Benjamin More articles... | Originally published in Kosher Spirit About the artist: Sarah Kranz has been illustrating magazines, webzines and books (including five children’s books) since graduating from the Istituto Europeo di Design, Milan, in 1996. Her clients have included The New York Times and Money Marketing Magazine of London
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If you were asked to define Judaism in one line, what would you say? Is it unique among religions, and if yes, how? What has it brought to the table of religious discourse? Holiday Naming
Those who have named children, companies or products, or have picked titles for books or events, know the amount of thought that goes into the process. Which name best expresses the uniqueness of this item, person, or gathering? How do I capture the essence of the name-bearer?
The same is true regarding Jewish holidays.
The G‑d-given names of the dates we celebrate, spread throughout the Jewish calendar, were chosen to convey the central theme and unique message of that particular holiday.
If anything, the mitzvah of sukkah—and the name Sukkot—seems to point only to the holiday’s setting and venue(So that Passover, for example, which teaches freedom, is called in the Torah Chag HaMatzot [the “Festival of the Matzahs”], after the matzah or unleavened bread we eat. The name recalls the haste with which G‑d redeemed our people from Egyptian bondage, and the simplicity of the bread [called “poor man’s bread”] bespeaks humility—the key to achieving freedom. The names of other Jewish holidays are winners as well.)
What about the holiday of Sukkot, named after the sukkah, the outdoor hut we call home throughout the week-long holiday of Sukkot?
Why is this mitzvah chosen to represent the inner message of the holiday—what of the holiday’s other mitzvot? There’s the biblical command to take the Four Kinds, the mitzvah to be extra joyful, there’s the water-drawing celebrations, etc. These rituals and mitzvot also seemingly define the manner in which we celebrate this momentous festival and the attitude and mood that pervades it, not merely the mitzvah of sukkah.
If anything, the mitzvah of sukkah—and the name Sukkot—seems to point only to the holiday’s setting and venue. Why, then, did the Torah choose to name the holiday after the mitzvah of sukkah, a mitzvah that seemingly demands of us no more than the switching of our location?
But that’s what Judaism is all about.
Do whatever you normally do, all those mundane activities—but move it to the holy shade of the sukkah, and you’ve done a mitzvah. Same is true with everyday life: do whatever you normally do, all those mundane activities—but move it to the realm of holiness.
The sukkah emphasizes that almost every act of living can be holy, and that no act (that isn’t expressly forbidden by the Torah or the sages) is intrinsically “mundane.”
It teaches that holiness need not be imported from heaven, but is to be readily found here on earth. Holiness need not be created, for it’s already extant in creation, waiting only to be accessed and revealed.
“Holiness” is a fancy word that describes perspective and choice of function, and has much to do with motive and intent. Take the act of eating for example. How I view my (kosher) food determines its level of “holiness”; it can be gluttonous and self-serving, or sacred and G‑d-serving. The difference is purely in the mind.
The sukkah thus teaches that physical existence need not be transformed into something it is not; it needs only to be looked at differently, recognized for what in essence it truly is.
In sum: The sukkah is not just about a shift of location for living life, but a shift of perspective on living life.
To connect with G‑d, so long as that is your objective, you don’t need to draw water, you can drink water; and you don’t have to bind and bless fruit, you can eat them. For material life doesn’t need to be renovated or its sanctity generated—only activated.1
And about Judaism in one line:
Here’s how the Lubavitcher Rebbe answered the question, “How would you define Judaism in a nutshell?”
Here’s how the Rebbe answered the question, “How would you define Judaism in a nutshell?” . . .“Judaism is not something abstract,” the Rebbe replied, “detached from ordinary everyday activities. Judaism must concern the Jew twenty-four hours a day, in every environment and in every activity. This is the Jewish way of proclaiming G‑d is one!” What’s in It for Me?
Many of us tend to dichotomize and compartmentalize our lives, interests, values, and even personalities: there’s the secular and the sacred, the spiritual and the material, the refined and the natural. There’s who I am in the synagogue, and there’s who I am on the street. Often, the two seem hardly related.
To be holy is to be holistic.
Just as G‑d is one, we must be one.
A chassidic lumber merchant in Riga was calculating his accounts. Under a column of figures, he inadvertently wrote, “Total: Ein od milvado—there is none besides Him!” In response to his assistant’s raised eyebrow he said: “It is considered perfectly natural that during prayer one lets his mind wander off to his lumber in Riga. So what is so surprising if in the middle of business dealings, my mind is invaded by thoughts of the unity of G‑d . . . ?” PrintSend this page to a friendShare this CommentComment FOOTNOTES 1.
Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings, published in Likutei Sichot, vol. 22 (Emor) and vol. 2 (Sukkot).