The difference between them is that Shabbat candles represent shalom bayit, peace in the home. They are lit indoors. They are, if you like, Judaism’s inner light, the light of the sanctity of marriage and the holiness of home.
The Chanukah candles used to be lit outside — outside the front door. It was only fear of persecution that took the Chanukah candles back inside, and in recent times the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced the custom of lighting giant menorahs in public places to bring back the original spirit of the day. Chanukah candles are the light Judaism brings to the world when we are unafraid to announce our identity in public, live by our principles and fight, if necessary, for our freedom.
As for the havdalah candle, which is always made up of several wicks woven together, it represents the fusion of the two, the inner light of Shabbat, joined to the outer light we make during the six days of the week when we go out into the world and live our faith in public.
When we live as Jews in private, filling our homes with the light of the Shekhina, when we live as Jews in public, bringing the light of hope to others, and when we live both together, then we bring light to the world. There always were two ways to live in a world that is often dark and full of tears. We can curse the darkness or we can light a light, and as the Chassidim say, a little light drives out much darkness. May we all help light up the world. By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org. More articles by Jonathan Sacks | 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.
"We’re more microbe than mammal. That really wasn’t well understood a decade ago, and so the new DNA techniques are allowing that. And what’s really remarkable is that not since Darwin’s concept of natural selection has something had such a profound impact on our understanding of “self.” In our anthropocentric world, we think we’re the center of it all, but at the end of the day, the microbes are actually pulling the levers on a lot of what’s going on when you consider that at the gene level they outnumber us 150 to 300 to 1. We’re born with genes that mom and dad gave us, and we’re pretty much stuck with those, but the genes in our gut – again, the bacteria are called the microbiota, and when you add their genes in as well, that’s our microbiome. Of course, a biome is just an ecosystem, so we have this inner ecosystem. So, depending on how we treat them, they can make life OK or they can make it problematic, and when they get out of balance, it’s now thought that that may be the root or the cause of a lot of disease. The problem is working out causality versus correlation."
The similarities – and essential differences – between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
It will never again happen in our lifetimes – unless you are somehow still alive 70,000 years from now.
This year the first night of Hanukkah will coincide with the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The latkes will share their prominent place at the festive meal with the turkey. Small wonder that some have already humorously decided that this year we ought to call the day by a new name – Thanksgivukkah.
In all seriousness, a “coincidence” of this magnitude requires some reflection. This is a perfect time to give some thought to the essential difference between the motivation for the American day of expressing gratitude to God and the Jewish rationale for our Festival of Lights. Because although thankfulness is the theme behind both of these holidays, they are significantly unlike each other in their emphasis on the particular reason that calls forth our response of appreciation to the Almighty.
As human beings we have two basic needs. One is physical. Because we are flesh and blood we require food to sustain us. Without sustenance we could not live. That is why there is a biblical obligation to bless God at the conclusion of every full meal, defined as one in which we have partaken of bread, the biblical staff of life. “And you shall eat, and you should be satiated, and you shall bless the Lord your God” (Deut. 9:7).
That is one of only two biblically mandated blessings. The other? The blessing over the study of Torah. Food is essential for our bodies but Torah is at least just as important for the preservation of our souls. Food allows us to live; Torah gives us a reason for living. Food satisfies our physical cravings; Torah responds to our deeper need for purpose and meaning to our existence.
We are a duality going back to the story of the creation of Adam who was formed from the dust of the earth and the breath of the divine. We need our bodies to house our souls; we need our souls to validate our presence in the world.
All other blessings in Jewish tradition come by way of rabbinic obligation. They are post-biblical efforts on the part of the rabbis to ensure greater awareness of God in our daily lives. But the Torah is primarily concerned with human recognition of the two major mainstays of our existence. We need to acknowledge the great gifts that make possible our physical as well as our spiritual survival – our daily bread and our opportunity to peruse the words of God’s Torah.
It is no coincidence then that holidays reflect sensitivity to these two different divine favors that we have found bestowed upon us in special moments of history. The First Thanksgiving
One need not be Jewish to grasp the concept of gratitude as it applies to God’s wondrous role in providing for the needs of our bodies. That indeed was what prompted the pilgrims to proclaim a special day of Thanksgiving. The "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. They based it, they wrote, on the biblical holiday of Sukkot, the festival of the harvest. It was a feast that lasted three days, and was attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 American Indians. The New England colonists became accustomed to regularly celebrating "thanksgivings”, thanking God for the blessings of the end of a drought as well as of abundant crops and material blessings.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the United States by way of proclamation of the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the American Civil War, President Lincoln, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. The document, written by Secretary of State William Seward, reads as follows:
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
To this day, Thanksgiving remains as a powerful reminder of America’s recognition of God’s role in our national prosperity. Our tables overflow with the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, testimony to heavenly blessings bestowed upon us that grant our bodies the sustenance they require. In biblical terms, Thanksgiving is a sequel to the biblically mandated Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals in which we express gratitude to the One Above “who feeds the world in his goodness with grace, with kindness and with mercy.” Spiritual Blessing
But Thanksgiving does not address another kind of thankfulness we owe to God. Its emphasis on material blessings requires another component that has its source in the second blessing demanded of us by the Bible. It is the blessing for the spiritual part of our lives. It is the thanks we need to recite before the study of Torah, a blessing that alerts us to the hunger of our souls and our yearning to be nourished by the sacred.
On the Jewish calendar that blessing has a historic source in the story of Hanukkah. To speak of Hanukkah as a military victory of the Maccabees is to totally misunderstand its meaning. There have been many moments in our past when we have survived the threat of physical destruction. They are not Hanukkah. The Jews in the Seleucid Empire did not need to fear physical death. Antiochus was not bothered by the survival of Jews; what he wanted at all costs to prevent was the survival of Judaism. His decrees were against the observance of Torah. Jews could readily find their lives spared if they would be willing to forfeit their faith.
Hanukkah is a holiday whose story is perhaps most relevant to our own days. Its threat was not to our bodies, but our souls. The danger was not death but disappearance by way of assimilation.
How appropriate, the Sages note, that the ritual of Hanukkah emphasizes the use of oil. For eight nights it is the source of the light that fills our homes and our synagogues. Oil has a unique and distinct property. All other liquids, when mixed, lose their individual identity and become unrecognizable. Oil however refuses to mix. Try to stir it with water and it refuses to “assimilate”; it rises to the top and remains distinctive and identifiable.
It is the ideal symbol for the Hanukkah story which recounts the miracle of those who championed commitment to the truths of Sinai over the temptations of secularism. The Greeks sought to transform the world to their belief in the holiness of beauty. The Jews saw as their mission the message of the beauty of holiness. Two philosophies were at war with each other. And miraculously, the spiritual ideal proved triumphant.
For those of us today who are frightened by studies which question the possibility of Jewish survival in the face of seemingly rampant assimilation, we need to remind ourselves that the miracle of Hanukkah is our affirmation that we will always persevere in our faith. Hanukkah teaches us that the light of our tradition, which some might say doesn’t even have the capacity to last for one night, will against all physical laws of nature miraculously grow stronger and brighter. And Jews, like the oil of Hanukkah, will never totally assimilate.
Hanukkah then is the historic sequel to the blessing over Torah. It commemorates our religious survival against all odds, the victory of the spiritual over the profane, the sacred over the sacrilegious.
And when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide we find ourselves doubly blessed. We will be able to offer thanks to God on the same day for both our spiritual and material blessings. Let us delight in this extremely rare opportunity to bless God for the food for our bodies as well as the survival of our faith that grants us spiritual sustenance for our souls. This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/h/c/t/dt/Thanksgivukkah.html
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"Or, as Obama enthused, if Iran “seizes this opportunity” to prove to the world that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes, then “the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations. This would provide Iran with a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect.”
Really? How about Iran’s part in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s massacre of tens of thousands of people? How about its continued development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that were not even mentioned in the Geneva agreement? How about its role in exporting terrorism around the globe? How about its stoning of women accused of adultery, hanging of homosexuals and gruesome rate of executions? How about the anti- Semitic ranting of its leaders? Does all of the above really render the world a safer place, as Obama said? This agreement shows that Iran can indeed do all of the above, yet still get to be a member of the international community."
Seattle resident Sarah Busch was chagrined when she opened her monthly Nordstrom statement. Instead of the concise, compact statement she had been receiving for decades, the 79-year-old retired bookkeeper unfolded a bulky 8 X 10 statement in a new format. She decided to complain.
She phoned Nordstrom's corporate headquarters right there in Seattle and asked to speak to someone in management. "Don't give me Customer Service," she instructed the operator. After a few rings, a masculine voice answered the phone. "First of all, I'd like to know to whom I'm speaking," Sarah Busch began.
"This is Blake Nordstrom," came the reply.
"Blake Nordstrom? You're the President!" a confounded Sarah Busch exclaimed.
Thanks for the reminder. Easy Fast. May we written in the Book of Life
Yom Kippur, Still Single? by Delia Fine
I slowly began to realize that Yom Kippur is a gift, not a burden.
Growing up, I often heard Yom Kippur described as the “saddest day of the year,” but I wasn’t sure what the women in my synagogue were crying about. Maybe they felt true remorse for their sins. Maybe they cried because they were begging God for a good year; their heartfelt wishes for the future bringing them to tears.
Answering Rosh Hashanah's Call by Sara Debbie Gutfreund http://www.aish.com/h/hh/rh/shofar/Answering-Rosh-Hashanahs-Call.html If you have ever lost a child in a crowded place, you know the raw fear. Has anyone seen a two-year-old with a blue shirt on? He has brown hair. A Gap baseball hat with green letters? A couple of years of ago we lost our toddler in an amusement park in Israel. One second he was right in front of us, and the next thing we knew he was nowhere to be found. At first we thought he had to be at most a few feet away, and we called out his name. No response. After a minute of looking around and shouting, I began to panic. Where could he have gone? We started stopping people and asking them to help us. I fought back tears as I ran past the jumping castles and bumper cars. By then we had a small crowd circling the area and calling his name.
The festival of Rosh Hashanah—the name means “Head of the Year”—is observed for two days beginning on 1 Tishrei, the first day of the Jewish year. It is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in G‑d’s world.
Rosh Hashanah thus emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, “all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” But this is also the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which also represents the trumpet blast of a people’s coronation of their king. The cry of the shofar is also a call to repentance, for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of man’s first sin and his repentance thereof, and serves as the first of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Another significance of the shofar is to recall the Binding of Isaac which also occurred on Rosh Hashanah, in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G‑d; we evoke Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, and plead that the merit of his deed should stand by us as we pray for a year of life, health and prosperity. Altogether, we listen to one hundred shofar blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah services.
Additional Rosh Hashanah observances include: a) Eating a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our desire for a sweet year, and other special foods symbolic of the new year’s blessings. b) Blessing one another with the words “Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim,” “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” c) Tashlich, a special prayer said near a body of water (an ocean, river, pond, etc.), in evocation of the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” And as with every major Jewish holiday, after candlelighting and prayers we recite kiddush and make a blessing on the challah.
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. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCYRM7KYJY4
One of the most obvious perceived contradictions between Torah and science is the age of the universe. Is it billions of years old, like scientific data, or is it thousands of years, like Biblical data? When we add up the generations of the Bible, we come to 5700-plus years. Whereas, data from the Hubble telescope or from the land based telescopes in Hawaii, indicate the age at about 15 billion years.
"A common modern use in order to emphasise to third parties the strength of one's opinion about a perceived necessary course of action is to add either at the beginning or the end of a statement the two opening words "Ceterum censeo?
I don't think that Iran and Hezbollah are the root of all problems in the Middle East but certainly they are responsible for a great many of them. However, a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel and an attack by Syria on Israel would be painful and deadly but not an existential threat. Whatever actions are taken or not taken on Syria will have an influence on Iran. It is much more important to think strategically about Iran than about Syria.
In the glorious song with which Moses addresses the congregation, he invites the people to think of the Torah—their covenant with G‑d—as if it were like the rain that waters the ground so that it brings forth its produce:
Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants.
G‑d’s word is like rain in a dry land. It brings life. It makes things grow. There is much we can do of our own accord: we can plow the earth and plant the seeds. But in the end, our success depends on something beyond our control. If no rain falls, there will be no harvest, whatever preparations we make. So it is with Israel. It must never be tempted into the hubris of saying: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”1
The sages, however, sensed something more in the analogy. This is how Sifrei puts it:
Let my teaching fall like rain: Just as the rain is one thing, yet it falls on trees, enabling each to produce tasty fruit according to the kind of tree it is—the vine in its way, the olive tree in its way and the date palm in its way—so the Torah is one, yet its words yield Scripture, Mishnah, laws and lore. Like showers on new grass: just as showers fall upon plants and make them grow, some green, some red, some black, some white, so the words of Torah produce teachers, worthy individuals, sages, the righteous and the pious.
There is only one Torah, yet it has multiple effects. It gives rise to different kinds of teaching, different sorts of virtue. Torah is sometimes seen by its critics as overly prescriptive, as if it sought to make everyone the same. The midrash argues otherwise. The Torah is compared to rain precisely to emphasize that its most important effect is to make each of us grow into what we could become. We are not all the same, nor does Torah seek uniformity. As a famous mishnah puts it:
When a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. God makes everyone in the same image—His image—yet none is the same as another.2
This emphasis on difference is a recurring theme in Judaism. For example, when Moses asks G‑d to appoint his successor, he uses an unusual phrase: “May the L‑rd, G‑d of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over the community.”3
On this, Rashi comments:
Why is this expression (“G‑d of the spirits of all mankind”) used? [Moses] said to him: L‑rd of the universe, You know each person’s character, and that no two people are alike. Therefore, appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition.
One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings. This is a point emphasized by Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed:
Man is, as you know, the highest form in creation, and he therefore includes the largest number of constituent elements. This is why the human race contains so great a variety of individuals that we cannot discover two persons exactly alike in any moral quality or in external appearance . . . This great variety and the necessity of social life are essential elements in man’s nature. But the wellbeing of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man. He must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, so that social order be well established.4
The political problem, as Maimonides sees it, is how to regulate the affairs of human beings in such a way as to respect their individuality while not creating chaos. A similar point emerges from a surprising rabbinic teaching:
Our rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one says: ‘Blessed be He who discerns secrets’—because the mind of each is different from that of another, just as the face of each is different from that of another.5
We would have expected a blessing over a crowd to emphasize its size, its mass: human beings in their collectivity. A crowd is a group large enough for the individuality of the faces to be lost. Yet the blessing stresses the opposite—that each member of a crowd is still an individual with distinctive thoughts, hopes, fears and aspirations.
The same was true for the relationship between the sages. A mishnah6 states:
When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, assiduous students ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When R. Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When R. Chanina died, men of deed ceased. When R. Jose Ketanta died, the pious men ceased. When R. Jochanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased . . . When Rabbi died, humility and the fear of sin ceased.
There was no single template of the sage. Each had his own distinctive merits, his unique contribution to the collective heritage. In this respect, the sages were merely continuing the tradition of the Torah itself. There is no single role model of the religious hero or heroine in Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The patriarchs and matriarchs each had their own unmistakable character. Moses, Aaron and Miriam emerge as different personality types. Kings, priests and prophets had different roles to play in Israelite society. Even among the prophets, “no two prophesy in the same style,” said the sages. Elijah was zealous, Elisha gentle. Hosea speaks of love, Amos speaks of justice. Isaiah’s visions are simpler and less opaque than those of Ezekiel.
The same applies to even to the revelation at Sinai itself. Each individual heard, in the same words, a different inflection:
The voice of the L‑rd is with power:7—that is, according to the power of each individual, the young, the old, and the very small ones, each according to their power [of understanding]. G‑d said to Israel, “Do not believe that there are many gods in heaven because you heard many voices. Know that I alone am the L‑rd your G‑d.”8
According to Maharsha, there are 600,000 interpretations of Torah. Each individual is theoretically capable of a unique insight into its meaning. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas commented:
The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons . . . were the condition for the plenitude of “absolute truth,” as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind.
Judaism, in short, emphasizes the other side of the maxim E pluribus unum (“Out of the many, one”). It says: “Out of the One, many.”
The miracle of creation is that unity in heaven produces diversity on earth. Torah is the rain that feeds this diversity, allowing each of us to become what only we can be. FOOTNOTES 1. Deuteronomy 8:17. 2. Sanhedrin 4:5. 3. Numbers 27:16. 4. Guide for the Perplexed 2:40. 5. Talmud, Berachot 58a. 6. Sotah 9:15. 7. Psalms 29:4. 8. Shemot Rabbah 29:1. 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 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.
Syria is currently on the operating table, and the question is whether, due to its lack of morals (the mass murder of civilians and use of chemical weapons), it will be allowed to die, permanently clipped by the knife of the coalition. It is not a question of leadership but rather an ethno-religious question. The Syrian leadership is trapped in the dying body of an artificially established nation that is in constant conflict with itself. Instead of resuscitating the dying country, a clumsy Western assault could actually accelerate its demise.
An artificial army
Unfortunately, the assessment is that despite the vast differences between the interests of the U.S., the West, the Arab nations and Russia, they all surprisingly share one common objective, which can be gleaned from the list of the operation's targets: To punish and deter Assad and his regime. However, the very definition of these targets suggests that the mission at hand is to preserve the existing Syrian regime, not to topple it.
Marc, I'm glad you enjoyed "The Evolution of God". I'm familiar with the other thread but I decided not post there because I disagree with the title . Science vs God is a false dichotomy . I see it as Science and Religion and I don't see a conflict.
Mayim Bialik: How I Teach My Kids About Both Science & Faith
As a scientist and a person of faith, I get asked the following question a lot: “How do you reconcile your scientific beliefs with your faith in God?” The question seems to concern others a lot more than it concerns me, largely because I see no conflict at all. They exist together, happily, and each supports the other.
How do I teach my sons about religion without compromising my scientific integrity? Well, I make sure to tell my sons that the Tanakh (Hebrew bible) is not a science book. God created the universe as a scientific one. God created evolution and gravity and placed the stars in the sky.
Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
"What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to walk that road now."
Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
"What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to walk that road now."
“It’s nonsense,” said Doreen Berger, the chairman of the Jewish Genealogy Society (JGS). “I have been researching Kate Middleton’s ancestry since it looked like she was getting engaged to Prince William.
“I’ve looked back as far as it’s possible to look back and she doesn’t have a Jewish link at all — it’s just not true. I’m 100 per cent sure.”
She added that Mr Cole was “confused. The names — Myers and Goldsmiths — are shared by non-Jews as well as Jews. Carole Middleton’s ancestors were a coal miner and a carpenter and they were not from Jewish areas.”
The “Jewish” surnames were also used by non-Jews, and “there is no evidence of synagogue marriages or Jewish burials,” Harris noted. On the contrary, there are solid records of church weddings among Carole’s ancestors going back at least five generations.
The office of the British Chief Rabbi, which keeps records of marriages in the Orthodox United Synagogue, says that previous publications debunking the Middletons’ Jewish heritage “make the issue completely clear.”
Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.
Imagine confusing the following two statements from a cancer doctor: 1) “You may die from cancer” and 2) “I want you to die from cancer.” It is not hard to see a rudimentary difference between these two statements. The first statement is a prediction — it is saying that something may happen given certain conditions (in this case death conditional upon having cancer). The second statement is a preference, a desire, or a wish for a world to one’s particular liking.
From the Rebbe's remarks at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on Shabbat, December 28, 1968:
Yesterday, an event took place that had no known precedent in human history: a manned spacecraft approached the moon, orbited it several times, photographed both its "light side" and its "dark side," and returned safely to earth at the exact time and place that were programmed.
The Baal Shem Tov1 taught us that "from everything a person sees or hears, he must derive a lesson in the service of his Creator." Indeed, this event, and its every aspect and detail, is full with instructive insights into our mission in life.2
Some twenty-four hours before the conclusion of the space mission, another event took place: a question was posed at an "Encounter" session3 -- a question that the said space mission can help address.
A participant in the "Encounter" challenged one of the speakers: "I understand that under Torah law, if a person eats a bite of non-kosher food, the penalty is thirty-nine lashes. I think that what a person eats is his own business. Laws should forbid and penalize actions that are harmful to others and to society, but should stay out of a person's private life."
The rabbi conducting the session was quite flustered by the question. How to explain to a roomful of young people, raised in free and democratic America, the fact that for an act as "harmless" and "personal" as eating a bite of food, the Torah instructs that a person be bound, stretched out, and thirty-nine lashes be administered to his bare back with a whip? After much hemming and hawing, he came out with the standard apologetic reply: that in order for a transgression to be punishable by lashes, it must be committed in the presence of two witnesses; that these two witnesses must first warn the transgressor of the criminality of his deed and of the penalty it carries; that the transgressor must commit the deed within seconds of the above warning; thus, due to these and a host of other stipulations, this penalty was rarely, if ever, actually carried out. It might therefore be said that the Torah-mandated punishment of lashes is more an indicator of the severity of the transgression than an operative penal procedure.
All this is of course true, but it doesn't really answer the question. Even if the penalty of lashes was administered but once in a hundred years, does the deed warrant such punishment? And why does the Torah legislate such a gross intrusion into a person's private life?
But our sages tell us that "A person is obligated to say: The entire world was created for my sake."4 In the words of Maimonides, "A person should always see himself as half meritous and half guilty, and the entire world as half meritous and half guilty, so that when he transgresses one transgression, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of guilt, and causes it destruction, and when he does a single mitzvah, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of merit, and causes salvation for himself and for the entire world."5
Ingesting a spiritually toxic bite of food is not a harmless act, nor is it a personal one: all of creation is deeply affected by our every thought, word and deed, for the better or, G-d forbid, for the worse. What greater crime can there be than for a person to knowingly jeopardize his own well-being, and that of his family, community and the entire world, because his taste-buds prefer a non-kosher piece of meat over a kosher one?
This is what is written in the books. The nature of the human being, however, is that things are more readily understood and accepted when he or she sees a tangible example of it. By divine providence, we have such an example in the space mission concluded yesterday.
Three adult men were told to put aside all personal preferences and follow a set of guidelines that dictated their every behavior, including their most intimate habits. They were told exactly what, how much and when to eat, when and in what position to sleep, and what shoes to wear. Should any one of them have challenged this "dictatorial" regimen, he would have been reminded that one billion dollars have been invested in their endeavor. Now, one billion dollars commands a lot of respect. Never mind that it's not his billion -- it's only Uncle Sam's billion -- still, when a person is told that one billion dollars are at stake, he'll conform to all guidelines and instructions. Of course, he has no idea how most of these instructions relate to the success of his mission -- that has been determined by grey-haired scientists after many years of research; but he'll take their word for it, and readily accept the extensive intrusion into his private affairs.
And what if at stake is not a billion-dollar scientific project, but the divine purpose in creation?
FOOTNOTES 1. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of Chassidism. 2. What follows is but one of several lessons the Rebbe derived in his talk from the said space flight. For another of these, see The Rocket Age 3. The Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights holds periodic "Encounter With Chabad" -- weekends, in which Jews of all backgrounds stay with Chassidic families and attend lectures and workshops on Jewish thought and practice. 4. Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a. 5. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:4 TOLD BY THE LUBAVITCHER REBBE Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber; originally published in Week In Review Originally published in Week in Review. Republished with the permission of MeaningfulLife.com. If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. More articles by Lubavitcher Rebbe; adapted Yanki Tauber | 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.
Of course, we could ask a similar question about our anger management. Since we continue to lose control on some occasions, should we just not even try to teach our children to manage their tempers? Of course not.
Life is all about growth and improvement. If we’re still angry or still lacking in an abundance of faith, that’s normal. The important thing is that we are constantly working on ourselves. Our kids should be able to see concrete signs of improvement: fewer angry outbursts, greater patience, more self-control, less wringing of hands, fewer words of fear and worry, greater equanimity in the face of challenge, more verbal expressions of sincere trust in G‑d’s ways.
So yes, imperfect as we are, we have the right and the obligation to help our children develop their emunah (faith in G‑d). It is an act of tremendous kindness on our part to help our children learn to swim confidently in the deep end of life, to have all the internal resources they need in order to deal with every challenge they will face. So let’s look at how we can help kids achieve faith.
Instilling Faith and Trust: Do’s & Don’ts
Let’s begin with the “dont’s”:
Try not to share your worries and negative thought processes with your children. Children can easily pick up on their parents’ habits and are likely to become worried themselves. When children express their own anxieties, never reprimand them with comments like, “Don’t think that way.” Anxiety and fears are not bad behaviors; they are emotions that require proper support and healing. Don’t shut children down by saying things like, “It’s all up to G‑d,” or, “Don’t worry--G‑d always protects us,” and so on. Although these are perfectly true statements, they should not be offered until you have helped the child address his or her frightened feelings. Fear causes cortical inhibition (a diminished capacity to process and utilize cognitive information), so providing education while the child is in a frightened state is usually useless. Moreover, Fear causes cortical inhibition so may be perceived as uncaring, which can harm the parent-child relationship. Now let’s look at a few “do’s”:
Do accept your child’s fear with open arms: “You’re afraid? Tell me about it.” This helps the fear begin to move out of the child and into your welcoming arms. If sharing the fear does not release it completely (which is quite often the case), offer other strategies for helping to calm the fear. (See “Fear Busters” below.) Once the fear is settled and the child feels more calm, offer the wisdom of Judaism on the subject of faith in G‑d. For example, “Instead of running scary pictures through your mind, imagine the situation turning out just fine. As the Rebbe said, ‘Think good, and it will be good.’” Or, “No matter how it turns out, we can remember that there is a reason for everything, and everything that G‑d does is for our good, whether we see it right away or not.” Check out one of the many wonderful books or online resources that explain the the concept of Divine Providence--the fact that G‑d supervises and supports each one of us in all the small and large details of our life. Take advantage of emotionally neutral moments to gently slip concepts of faith into your child’s heart and mind. Tell vivid stories of your own experiences of being supported by G‑d. For example, tell your child how you asked G‑d for help in finding a parking space right in front of a building because you were already late for a meeting. Sure enough, just as you were pulling up, a car pulled out right in front of the building, leaving you a perfect parking space. “Thank You, G‑d!” Help your child create a “faith-builder” diary--a personal record, complete with stories, drawings, and photos of events in which the benevolent Hand of G‑d became obvious to your child, especially the occasions that were preceded by worry, dread and fear. Fear Busters
There are numerous ways to help calm a child’s mind and body. Here is a small selection:
A child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization. After the child has described his scary image of unfolding events, and you have accepted the worry with open arms, ask him to close hisA child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization eyes and imagine everything working out just fine. Ask him to describe the positive events in his new “movie” to you. Ask him how the positive image makes him feel. Instruct him to repeat the exercise as often as possible and particularly when the scary story enters his mind. Another use of this visualization skill is to imagine G‑d’s divine protection and assistance in various ways. For example, “see” G‑d’s messengers, His protective angels, surrounding the bed when drifting off to sleep. Teach your child to use the breath to help calm the heart, which will then calm the brain, which, in turn, will release calming hormones to every cell of the body. There are numerous ways to breathe for this purpose, but a simple one is to breathe in normally and then breathe out slowly, thinking the number “one” on the out breath. To be effective in times of need, this breathing pattern needs to be practiced for one minute daily, forever. An ideal time for practice is at bedtime when falling asleep or in the morning just after awakening. There are many other strategies children can learn that will calm their anxious feelings. Always help your child turn off fight-or-flight chemistry before talking about Divine Providence! Most important, keep your own faith-builder diary that can strengthen your own belief that G‑d is there for you. The most powerful way to help children accept the reality of G‑d’s kindness is through your positive modeling. When you sound like you believe it, your kids will too!
BY SARA CHANA RADCLIFFE Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed.,C.Psych.Assoc. is the author of "Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice" and The Delicate Balance published by Targum Press. Click here to visit her website. More articles by Sara Chana Radcliffe | 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.
Marc, Thank for the kind words. I'm not really familiar with "The Evolution of God" It looks interesting. I just today finished reading/listening to the excellent "A History of the Jews" by Paul Johnson. It is a one- volume book of the history of the world "seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim." The author is actually a British Roman Catholic but this book is very popular among Orthodox Jews.
It's a blazing night in August. You grab a PowerAde and sneak in a serene midnight repose on the porch swing. The faintest tinge of a breeze wafts at your sweltering brow. It is a few minutes before midnight. Suddenly, a bluster of blinding light douses the darkened sky. The breeze is abruptly transformed into a ferocious gust that lifts you inches off your seat. Fear abounds, but strangely, it is accompanied by a remarkable tranquility that confuses and calms you at the same time. In a flash you find yourself in a scene from a sci-fi movie as a spacecraft, the size of two football fields, lands before you. A short ladder descends and a creature of sorts makes his way out of the vessel and walks towards you. You are too dazed to move.
The Morality of Love by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25) The Morality of Love
Something implicit in the Torah from the very beginning becomes explicit in the book of Devarim. God is the God of love. More than we love Him, He loves us. Here, for instance, is the beginning of this week's parsha:
If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love [et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed] with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. (Deut 7:12-13)
Again in the parsha we read:
To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations-as it is today. (Deut. 10:14-15)
And here is a verse from last week's:
Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength. (Deut. 4:37)
The book of Deuteronomy is saturated with the language of love. The root a-h-v appears in Shemot twice, in Vayikra twice (both in Lev. 19), in Badmibar not at all, but in Sefer Devarim 23 times. Devarim is a book about societal beatitude and the transformative power of love.
Nothing could be more misleading and invidious than the Christian contrast between Christianity as a religion of love and forgiveness and Judaism as a religion of law and retribution. As I pointed out in Covenant and Conversation to Vayigash, forgiveness is born (as David Konstan notes in Before Forgiveness) in Judaism. Interpersonal forgiveness begins when Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Divine forgiveness starts with the institution of Yom Kippur as the supreme day of Divine pardon following the sin of the Golden Calf.
Similarly with love: when the New Testament speaks of love it does so by direct quotation from Leviticus ("You shall love your neighbour as yourself") and Deuteronomy ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might"). As philosopher Simon May puts it in his splendid book, Love: A History: "The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and 'an eye for an eye,' while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history. For the Hebrew Bible is the source not just of the two love commandments but of a larger moral vision inspired by wonder for love's power." (1) His judgment is unequivocal: "If love in the Western world has a founding text, that text is Hebrew." (2)
More than this: in Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, philosopher Harry Redner distinguishes four basic visions of the ethical life in the history of civilizations.(3) One he calls civic ethics, the ethics of ancient Greece and Rome. Second is the ethic of duty, which he identifies with Confucianism, Krishnaism and late Stoicism. Third is the ethic of honour, a distinctive combination of courtly and military decorum to be found among Persians, Arabs and Turks as well as in medieval Christianity (the 'chivalrous knight') and Islam.
The fourth, which he calls simply morality, he traces to Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He defines it simply as 'the ethic of love,' and represents what made the West morally unique: "The biblical 'love of one's neighbour' is a very special form of love, a unique development of the Judaic religion and unlike any to be encountered outside it. It is a supremely altruistic love, for to love one's neighbour as oneself means always to put oneself in his place and to act on his behalf as one would naturally and selfishly act on one's own." (4) To be sure, Buddhism also makes space for the idea of love, though it is differently inflected, more impersonal and unrelated to a relationship with God.
What is radical about this idea is that, first, the Torah insists, against virtually the whole of the ancient world, that the elements that constitute reality are neither hostile nor indifferent to humankind. We are here because Someone wanted us to be, One who cares about us, watches over us and seeks our wellbeing.
Second, the love with which God created the universe is not just divine. It is to serve as the model for us in our humanity. We are bidden to love the neighbour and the stranger, to engage in acts of kindness and compassion, and to build a society based on love. Here is how our parsha puts it:
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. So you must love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:18-19)
In short: God created the world in love and forgiveness and asks us to love and forgive others. I believe that to be the most profound moral idea in human history.
There is however an obvious question. Why is it that love, which plays so great a part in the book of Deuteronomy, is so much less in evidence in the earlier books of Shemot, Vayikra (with the exception of Lev. 19) and Bamidbar?
The best way of answering that question is to ask another. Why is it that forgiveness plays no part - at least on the surface of the narrative - in the book of Bereishit? (5) God does not forgive Adam and Eve or Cain (though he mitigates their punishment). Forgiveness does not figure in the stories of the Flood, the Tower of Babel or the destruction of Sodom and the cities of the plain (Abraham's plea is that the cities be spared if they contain fifty or ten righteous people; this is not a plea for forgiveness). Divine forgiveness makes its first appearance in the book of Exodus after Moses' successful plea in the wake of golden calf, and is then institutionalised in the form of Yom Kippur (Lev. 16), but not before. Why so?
The simple, radical, answer is: God does not forgive human beings until human beings learn to forgive one another. Genesis ends with Joseph forgiving his brothers. Only thereafter does God forgive human beings.
Turning to love: Genesis contains many references to it. Abraham loves Isaac. Isaac loves Esau. Rebecca loves Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel. He also loves Joseph. There is interpersonal love in plentiful supply. But almost all the loves of Genesis turn out to be divisive. They lead to tension between Jacob and Esau, between Rachel and Leah, and between Joseph and his brothers. Implicit in Genesis is a profound observation missed by most moralists and theologians. Love in and of itself - real love, personal and passionate, the kind of love that suffuses much of the prophetic literature as well as Shir Ha-Shirim, the greatest love song in Tanakh, as opposed to the detached, generalised love called agape which we associate with ancient Greece - is not sufficient as a basis for society. It can divide as well as unite.
Hence it does not figure as a major motif until we reach the integrated social-moral-political vision of Deuteronomy which combines love and justice. Tzedek, justice, turns out to be another key word of Deuteronomy, appearing 18 times. It appears only four times in Shemot, not at all in Bamidbar, and in Vayikra only in chapter 19, the only chapter that also contains the word 'love.' In other words, in Judaism love and justice go hand in hand. Again this is noted by Simon May:
[W]hat we must note here, for it is fundamental to the history of Western love, is the remarkable and radical justice that underlies the love commandment of Leviticus. Not a cold justice in which due deserts are mechanically handed out, but the justice that brings the other, as an individual with needs and interests, into a relationship of respect. All our neighbours are to be recognised as equal to ourselves before the law of love. Justice and love therefore become inseparable.(6)
Love without justice leads to rivalry, and eventually to hate. Justice without love is devoid of the humanizing forces of compassion and mercy. We need both. This unique ethical vision - the love of God for humans and of humans for God, translated into an ethic of love toward both neighbour and stranger - is the foundation of Western civilization and its abiding glory.
It is born here in the book of Deuteronomy, the book of law-as-love and love-as-law.
1. Simon May, Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011), 19-20.
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Harry Redner, Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
4. Ibid., 50.
5. I exclude, here, midrashic readings of these texts, some of which do make reference to forgiveness.
Making Peace with People Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Infidel," views the Middle East from a Muslim background.
There is something dignified in the quiet, determined manner of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as she rises from the audience and walks towards the podium to deliver her lecture. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's intricate history starts in Somalia, where she was born to a Muslim family. At the age of five she underwent female genital mutilation. By her teens she was a devout Muslim. In her early 20s, upon learning of plans for an undesirable arranged marriage, she made her way to Holland, where she applied for asylum. Hirsi Ali studied at Leiden University and began publishing critical articles about Islam, the condition of the Muslim woman, and so forth.
Every Sunday morning I have the pleasure of studying with two Jewish surgeons. Each week we explore the meaning of a section of the siddur (daily prayer book). We were up to the Shema, the most prominent – and fundamental – Jewish prayer. “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Hear means more than just uttering words; it means hear the deep message and internalize it in our hearts and minds. When we say the words “God is One,” we are saying everything in the universe concurrently exists because God wills it to exist, and that life’s occurrences are a result of God’s inner-workings and underpinnings of the world.
The Shema expresses our complete devotion to God, regardless of our life circumstances. We are recognizing that everything is ultimately part of His Divine orchestration. Every time we cover our eyes and proclaim God’s unity, we are essentially stating that regardless of what is in front of my eyes today, regardless of whether life is delivering me celebration or tribulation, I cover my eyes and declare my devotion, no matter what is in front of me. It is about unconditional devotion.
by Sara Debbie Gutfreund A few years ago my grandfather passed away right before the 17th of Tammuz. On the fast day I was helping my mother as she sat shiva and an old family friend offered me a drink. "No thanks, I'm fasting." I said. "What are you fasting for?" he asked. So I explained that it was the 17th of Tammuz, and we were mourning the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached before the Second Temple was destroyed. "I never heard of this fast day. But you know what's even sadder? Last year my wife and I visited Israel for the first time. We went on a tour of the Old City and the tour guide points out the Temple Mount. And all we could see was this huge mosque and then the tour guide points out the Western Wall. And I couldn't believe it. That's it? That's all that's left of the Temple? One wall? So I think I know why there's a fast. There's so little we have left."
He put down his own drink and stared out the window into the withering summer day. And I thought about his words for days afterwards: That's it? That's all that's left? One wall?
In Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book, “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” she says something very wise and very important. And she’s very blunt. It’s something that can actually be extrapolated to many of life’s challenges. Under the heading, Ten Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend, she advises: 10. Don’t pressure them to “keep up the fight” or practice “positive thinking.” It’s cruel to imply that negative thoughts – that is, feeling discouraged, not battling hard enough, not having the “right attitude” – caused their illness in the first place or may have compounded their suffering. If your friend keeps getting sicker, the last thing they need is to blame themselves…Don’t say, “You’re gonna beat it!” when you know they probably won’t. Positive thinking can’t cure Huntington’s disease, ALS, or inoperable brain cancer. Telling a terminal patient to “Keep up the fight!” isn’t just futile; it’s mean. Don’t make a dying patient feel guilty for having lost the fight. Don’t make death into a personal failure. --- http://www.aish.com/f/mom/Advice-for-Sick-Friends.html
It is one of the most perplexing, even disturbing, passages in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Israelites for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.
No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time. Yet he was not destined to enter the land to which he had spent his entire time as a leader travelling toward. Why?
I personally think free will and an omnipotent God are not mutually exclusive.
However, the free will problem has been argued about by Jewish scholars for at least 2,000 years and possible closer to 3,000 years and I don't have the time or inclination to give it justice.
"On many accounts, the idea of "Freedom of Choice" seems a self-evident truth. It seems indispensable not only to any "religion", but also to any world-vision that holds the human being responsible for his or her actions. It resonates with the most fundamental element of our self-knowledge: that life is something that we live ("live" being an active verb) and our actions are things that we do. The fact that our choices and decisions have consequence does not need to be proven to us -- we experience it first hand, 24 hours a day, 3,600 seconds an hour.
But no sooner do we attempt to scratch the surface of this self-evident truth, that a flood of questions, paradoxes, absurdities and dilemmas overwhelm us. For this self-evident truth clashes with other, seemingly no less immutable truths: the apparently mechanical nature of our reality, the laws of cause and effect, and -- from a theological standpoint -- G-d's absolute knowledge of the "future" and His omnipotence and Oneness" http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3051/jewish/Freedom-and-Choice-an-Anthology.htm
When I was a freshman in college, the little brother of my close friend was shot in the back and killed. For his beeper. Beepers were cool back then, and I guess the kid who murdered him really wanted it.
His loss affected me profoundly. It was so senseless, so unjust, so unnecessary. And I need things to make sense. I need to somehow understand and find a logical cause and affect. If someone is sick, he might die. If someone is old, he might die. But if someone has a beeper and someone else wants it, he might also die? I just didn't get it.
I still don't get it.
I am a mother now. I have four kids. And there are many things they don't get. Many things I can't explain.
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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