Friday, August 29, 2008

Parshat Re'eh - פרשת ראה

The name of our Torah portion is Re'eh, which means, "See." After the Jewish People entered the Land of Israel, the first place that they stopped at was the City of Shechem. Moshe commands the twelve tribes to split up and stand on two adjacent mountains, הר גריזים and הר עיבל, Mount Grizim and Mount Eval (/Aival), where the "Kohanim" and "Levi'im" would express God's blessing to them if they would fulfill the Torah, and God's curse if they sin.

These mountains, adjacent to each other, are unique. Mount Grizim is alive with foliage and vegetation, while Mount Eval is bleak and desolate. (These mountains can be seen today outside the city of Shechem/Nablus.) Six tribes were commanded to ascend Mount Grizim, to the south of Shechem to receive the blessing, and the remaining six tribes were commanded to ascend Mount Eval, to the north of Shechem to receive the curse.

The blessing and curse are visually apparent on the mountains themselves. Mount Grizim, the mountain of blessing, is green and verdant. Mount Eval, on the other hand, is barren and accursed.

Rabbi Hirsch explains the symbolism of these mountains. Although both mountains have the same sunlight, rainfall, and fertility, one is verdant and the second is bare. In Kabbalah, we learn that these two mountains represent two eyes. Mount Grizim represents the right eye of wisdom, from which emanates pure blessing. Mount Eval represents the left eye of understanding, from which judgments, even severe judgments, may manifest.

This symbolizes the concept of free will that our Parsha begins with: "Behold, I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse." (Deut. 11:26) It is possible for two people to have the same exact potential, while one thrives and the other withers. We all must choose the path of blessing or curse, and what we sow is what we reap.

The fact that six tribes stood on Mount Eval means that there was a positive element to the curse. In Hebrew, the word for "curse" is klalah; kuf, lamed, lamed, hei. The root of the hebrew word for curse, קללה - klalah is kalal - קלל; kuf, lamed, lamed, which means "brilliant, shining light," as in the expression nechoshet kalal, "brilliant copper." At its source, a curse is a brilliant, shining light. This brilliance can be blinding, making it impossible for us to understand and incorporate it into our consciousness. Even though a curse is the result of transgression, it is not a punishment or an expression of Divine revenge, God forbid. Rather, the curse that comes from the Torah is from a very high source, whose purpose is to rectify the souls of those who have transgressed.

Wishing you a beautiful...

שבת שלום ומבורך

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Machlis’s: Round 2, and the letter “J.”

I was at the Machlis’s again this week, (see my first post) and as with every week, people were invited to speak and relate Divrei Torah. One woman got up and related this heart-warming story, which while not quite Torah, is certainly worth repeating here.

The lady in question had been listening to the news before Shabbat came in, and heard that in Argentina a 14 year old girl had given birth to a baby. Quite unable to provide for the baby, she abandoned it in a field. That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. A dog found the child, and dragged it by it’s jaw through the field and to the home where the dog was being looked after, and put the baby with the young puppies she had recently given birth to. Not longer after, the owner of the dog came to feed the puppies and saw the baby. After calming down, she checked the baby to find that it was fairly bruised, but incredibly, had no punctured skin from the dog’s biting. Without doubt, the dog saved that baby’s life. Upon hearing this story, Rav Machlis added that we know the Hebrew name for a dog to be “כלב - Kelev.” This may be read as a contraction of, “כולו לב – all heart.” A dog is an animal, an impulsive creature, that follows it’s heart. A dog doesn’t have a sense of rationale, like we do. Humans have hearts and desires, but also brains, which can tell us when t listen to them. A dog on the other hand, has a one-track mind. But this is the other side of כלב. Man can use his brain and wisdom for bad things, whereas, with an animal, what you see is what you get. So now we can turn that statement, “כולו לב – all heart,” around and understand why dogs are frequently referred to as “Man’s best friend.”

Rav Machlis also gave a number of small Divrei Torah. In the last one, he explained how the word Ekev is related to what we call “Ikvot Hamashiach, – The footsteps of the Moshiach.” He explained that the Gemara describes what will happen in the world in the time preceding Moshiach’s arrival. One of the things was “Chutzpa.”* – a certain type of audacity. He said that as we are seeing now, Jews will become more “chutzpadik” about being themselves, about doing Mitzvot that they would have not had the confidence to do publicly in the Diaspora, and how it seems to him how this is very much true of today’s Israeli society. So next time you encounter a rude and chutzpadik Israeli, maybe you want to turn things around and say, “Hmmm, Moshiach’s coming!”

*Chutzpa. Rav Machlis, upon saying this word, asked “How do you spell that? ‘C-h’ or just ‘H?’ ” I think most of the people present answered “Ch,” which was unsurprising, given that they were mostly from America and Ashkenazi. Personally I would argue that H is better by itself, as it is more of a guttural sound.

The problem with transliteration is that it is limited. As a tool, it is powerful in that it enables people to speak a language they are not fluent in to a degree that is unattainable without it. But this accessibility comes at the cost of precision and accuracy. Words will inevitably be pronounced with the stress pattern of the user’s mother tongue, thus butchering the original word. Also, localised sounds that cannot be articulated in the framework of the user’s language end up being pronounced with the most similar letter/sound, which may be some way off the original pronunciation.

Despite that my opinion that “Ch” is not the best way to transliterate a “ח”, I sided with the consensus. I think that as “ח” is a sound all of it’s own and quite unlike anything English has to offer, and therefore cannot be truly rendered with an H. Attempting to equate it with an “H,” will end up with the ח being pronounced as an English “H” sound. “Ch” on the other hand, indicates that the sound is unique to Hebrew, unless you are like my hapless friend who once said “Chassid” pronounced with the same “Ch” sound and the same stress pattern as the word “Chapstick,” cue peals of laughter from our classmates.

Maybe we should all realise that the Spanish have a much closer sound then we have at our disposal, and use the Spanish “J.” (As in Juãn.)

Or am I taking this issue much too far, and being Jutzpadik?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Parshat Ekev - פרשת עקב

והיה עקב תשמעון את המשפטים האלה ושמרתם ועשיתם אותם
And "Ekev" you hearken to these commandments, and guard and do them.

The word that gives us the title to this parsha, עקב, is an intriguing one. It is an unusual word, for in this context, the word אם would normally be used. "עקב," however, when literally translated means "heel," much like a command to a dog to walk at its master’s feet. How does this fit in?

Why is a different word used, what does it offer that the regular "אם," does not? There must be a particular message that lies within the use of "עקב" in the context of the Parsha. The most familiar explanation is that of Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, who lived in France in the 11th Century). Rashi teaches that "עקב" stresses obedience to those commandments that a person is inclined to treat lightly. He says that The frame of reference here seems to be those Mitzvot that usually don't get the coverage they deserve because they are viewed as less important, or less pressing in the eyes of the people. His wording references the dual meaning of the word "עקב" as both "because," indicating the end result of Divine service, and "heel" indicating the lightest or lowest level of Mitzvot. These two words share the same spelling, but different pronunciation.

Rashi teaches us a very significant lesson; we may feel that some Mitzvot are less important; for example, most religious Jews would never dream of breaking Shabbat or eating non-Kosher food. But are the same people who are extremely fussy as to where they buy their meat concerned to the same degree about the basic things, things that we do every day? We are in no position to judge which Mitzvot are "ranked" higher and lower! In Parshat Beha’alotcha we learn that Aharon had renewed love for lighting the Menorah every single day. We too must realise that never should we do a mitzvah in a mundane manner, much less neglect doing it at all.

Thus, Rashi explained the verse homiletically, "If you will observe Mitzvot that are ordinarily trampled on by the heel of your foot," then the blessings of Hashem shall follow. It may be that Rashi is not expostulating. He is telling us the secret of spiritual survival. He is relating the formula that may be the secret to the Jew's existence and continuity. It's the small things that merit the blessings. It's the Mitzvot we tend to forget. Those we trample with our heel.

There are certain Mitzvot that anyone who prides himself as a Jew would not forgo. Yom Kippur and Passover are high on the list. Mezuzah and Kosher rank quite high, too. But there are too many others that get trampled. Rashi explains the verse by stating that if the little Mitzvot are ignored, it will not take long before the major Mitzvot join the little ones on their trek to oblivion. The Torah promises us the bounty of its blessing if we observe the Mitzvot. But Rashi gives us a lesson in assuring continuity. Rashi is telling us the Pashut P'shat (the simple meaning)! Don't tread on the little Mitzvot. Watch the Mitzvot that everyone tends to forget. If those heel commandments will be considered important, then all the Mitzvot will ultimately be observed. That's not allegorical discourse. That's the fact!
So may we be worthy of fulfilling our portion, and seeing the Moshiach in our time.

We can take this one step further. "עקב's" message to the Jewish nation might also be that we are not to take anything for granted, nothing should be viewed lightly, that nothing should be trampled on: "And it shall ‘עקב' come to pass, because you harken to these ordinances and observe and keep them, that God will keep his covenant with you." In other words, if you hear the music in the rustle of the trees, if you do not ignore the simple beauty in everyday life, then you will find true fulfilment.

In the realm of Mitzvot as well as in our outlook on life, nothing can be seen as insignificant. And God exhorts us to pay attention to the ordinary, the regular and the commonplace. Living a life in the fast lane (as many lead today), it’s so easy to run over and trample on simple beauty and everyday blessings. The Torah, then, in today’s Parsha, warns us against taking too great a leap in our quest for beauty and bounty. For in the midst of our search and climb, we often miss the first step.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Spotted in the Old City of Jerusalem

As with anywhere in the world, you get to see funny T-shirts, but Israel and Jews have spawned their own particular brand of humour. Anyone who has visited Israel in the past ten years or so will immediately recognise the "America don't worry, Israel's behind you" and "Guns and Moses" T's, but these have now become standard fare and have lost their freshness. So once in a while, when someone innovates, you have to stand back, smile, and scratch your head at why you didn't think of it first! And when I saw this Tee, I did a genuine double-take, I loved it so much!

Anyway, I got the permission of the "copyright holder" to take a photograph in order to publish here, but he wisely insisted on me cutting off his head. Without further ado...

Don't know about you, but I love it!

(Shiduch is loosely translated to: "Partner set up by a matchmaker.")

The "Inhumane" Israeli Army

Soldiers in skirts, with M-16 Assault rifles

My second post got me thinking, whilst on the topic of the army, I'd like to mention that before I enlisted in the IDF, I heard rumours that female soldiers were referred to as "Mitot," mattresses for their male counterparts. Well, I certainly can't tell you how each and every individual soldier acts and what he says, but I can tell you about my co-soldiers.

I worked in two different places in the army - mostly with a company of all male fighters in the 401st Armoured Brigade, and never did we refer to female soldiers, partially because we never had anything to do with them, we were an all-male Company, and only when the Mashakit Tash (Soldier's Welfare) or the Mashakit Aliyah (The Aliyah girl, who helped us with our Hebrew) appeared would we see females, and to be honest, they were never for a very long time. There was no chance of any scandalous activity happening, unless some of the male soldiers had a particular aversion I was unaware of, ahem.

My other position was in Intelligence, in a mixed environment, and although there was exposure to females , there were absolutely no crude references to female soldiers. Upon being drafted into the army, I received a small leaflet entitled "Ruach Tzahal" (Army Spirit,) with 13 hard and fast rules. The third rule is "Kavod Ha'Adam,"respect for your fellow man. There is a very strong emphasis placed on these rules, and all soldiers are to have this leaflet on them at all times. A friend who was in Brigade Headquarters outside Ma'ale Adumim was unfortunate enough to have an entire day filled by the new Brigade Commander who insisted on lecturing his new subordinates, and grilling them for close to 8 hours solid on these 13 points. Make no mistake, the Israeli army is serious about its ethics. Women are valued personnel, and while there will always be individual cases of wrongdoing, it is my belief that chauvinism in the Israeli military is but a myth. Now, compare that to this source, which claims that sexual harassment and rape are rife in the U.S. military. The reports claims that this abuse is so rampant that approximately 10% of female soldiers across the United States Armed Forces are subject to sexual harassment each year, and up to 40% of all female soldiers experience this during their military career. Even more disturbing is that many women are treated as if they induced the men into molesting and/or raping them, or are coaxed into dropping the case. Many have mysterious anonymous complaints filed against them; blackmail. And these are just those who report what's happening. It seems to me, in my humble opinion, that the Israeli Army is in dire need of a serious PR campaign to clear it's name, as it is in fact most probably the best army in the world with regards to equal rights.

Female soldiers equipped with M-16's and grenade launchers

On a similar note, when I was approaching the end of my basic training around October 2007, Israel launched an air raid in Syrian territory, destroying what we suspect may have been a nuclear reactor Syria was building with the help of North Korea. I was speaking to a friend in the IDF's spokesman's unit, and he told me how not long before the IDF had granted the BBC rights to footage of a female fighter pilot in order to portray Israel as a forward-thinking, egalitarian, democratic country. I certainly know of no other air force in the world that employs female fighter pilots. (I might be asking for a deluge of comments here, but I think it's worth risking it.) But the BBC, instead of using the footage for its intended purpose, used the footage to illustrate the news of the Israeli Air Force launching the raid on Syria. My friend was bitterly disappointed. He had worked hard to get the BBC the rights for these pictures, as it could have done Israel some good in the P.R. stakes, but all his hard work was thrown away, and the average TV license payer had no idea what was actually appearing on his screen.

A quick joke I saw online

I read this recently and loved it, hope you do too...

A story is told of a Jewish man who was on the underground reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his, who happened to be in the same carriage, noticed this strange phenomenon.

Curious as he was, he approached the newspaper reader. "Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?"

Moshe replied, "I used to read the Jewish newspaper, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted; Israel being attacked; Jews disappearing through assimilation and intermarriage; Jews living in poverty. So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now what do I find? Jews own all the banks; Jews control the media; Jews are all rich and powerful; Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!"

Ridiculous conspiracy theorists

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Israel possibly a sensitive country? (Perish the thought!)

I try to keep up with the news around the world as best I can, and along with local radio stations and word of mouth, the internet has a role to play. I regularly check the Jerusalem Post Ha'aretz, BBC, The Times (of London), Ynet, and Arutz Sheva websites. I also read blogs, and find that has many interesting articles.

Aside from Middle Eastern news, I try to keep abreast of world affairs, and the above mentioned news websites all keep me fairly updated. The recent Russian military response to Georgia's sending in of ground troops into South Ossetia has been well documented, and although this region is nominally part of Georgia, their attempt to regain control has sparked a swift and strong response for Russia. The forcefulness of the Russian response has seen it bomb Georgian airports and city centres (thereby killing many innocent civilians) and drive out many others. According to the BBC, "some 100,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict." A conflict which lasted all of four days.

The situation has caused much consternation worldwide, and as with every other country, Israel has found itself involved, as approximately 400 Israeli civilians were caught in a war zone. Quoting, "A third rescue flight for Israelis and Jews in the combat zones of Georgia landed in Ben Gurion International Airport early Wednesday morning as a fragile ceasefire began to take hold in the volatile region. More than 500 people have stepped on to the tarmac in Israel since the first El Al plane arrived from Tbilisi Tuesday evening, bearing 210 returning Israelis and 30 new Georgian immigrants making a hasty aliyah." Israel, as far as I am aware, is the only country in the world to have laid on such flights, might it be that Israel is the only country that really cares about it's citizens? Just a thought...

But it's not just Israeli citizens. In 1999, Turkey suffered a massive earthquake and Israel's expertly trained Zaka (terrorist response) teams were the first to aid the Turks. Turkish people now recognise Israelis as miracle workers. The Home Front Command rescue team returned home after a week in Turkey during which they rescued 12 survivors of the earthquake and uncovered 146 bodies. Additionally, the Israeli public launched a spontaneous campaign to assist the earthquake victims in Turkey, in an impressive display of friendship and goodwill. In the course of a single day, thousands of Israelis stood in line to donate 25 tons of equipment - blankets, clothing, food and more. The New York Times website reported, "Amid the scenes of horror and death that have afflicted this city since the earthquake last week, the brightest sign of life is a field hospital operated by doctors and nurses from the Israeli Army. Eight babies have been born here since the quake. One boy was named Israel, and one girl is called Ziona. Their names are symbols of how firmly the earthquake has sealed the alliance between Israel and Turkey. ''God bless the Israelis,'' said one new mother, Serap Balcioglu, whose child was born blue and seemingly lifeless but was revived by an emergency team at the hospital. ''They're taking beautiful care of me. What would we do without them?''

Sometimes we fail to realise just how ethical Israel is, and how desperate it is for peace. A storm has been brewing recently over an event that happened near Nilin, a small Arab village in the Shomron (West Bank). Two Israeli soldiers shot a blindfolded and masked suspect they had apprehended in the foot, and were caught on camera by a young girl who had been given a camera by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation. The shooting was most definitely inexcusable and certainly unacceptable, and the soldiers involved deserve severe punishment. But while this was worthy of news coverage, Britain would do well to remember that it's own soldiers are no stranger to controversy. Only in June did a private of the British Armed Forces die of exhaustion after being subjected to what amounted to torture. Private Gavin Williams, 22, collapsed and then suffered a heart attack following the extreme exercise session which was so intense it brought on hyperthermia and pushed his body temperature nine degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. Before he died in hospital, one of the officers who oversaw it was boasting to colleagues in the mess that it was the "best beasting of his life". Consider that this horrendous punishment was meted out to one of their own, and now take into account that such a thing never, never happens in the Israeli military. By way of comparison, it would seem that punishments like these are not unheard of in both the British and American armies. The BBC would also be advised to bear in mind the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, where grotesque pictures of routine abuse of detainees were leaked. Inmates were pictured stripped naked, humiliated and horrifically abused by American troops in direct contradiction of the Geneva Convention.

Although many regard the BBC as being vehemently Anti-Zionist, myself included, I have to say that I find their website a credible source of information. They have many good features and reports, that although often betray an anti-Israel stance are informative and dare I say it, balanced. Unfortunately they are often too short and concise so as to give a full impression as to what is happening, but then again, do I really expect the BBC to know exactly what's happening in the world? :D

One such article I read recently really struck a chord. It was explaining Israel's mentality and how Israelis feel that they can do no good, and are really honest people, who have no desire for war. I'll let you decide what you think of it - click here.

First Post

There are some things I really dislike about living in Israel, but there are many things that I love. I can't stand the "Arsim" who insist on having shocking music blaring from their car windows, and get really irked by the way the Home Office is run, to the point where a friend once had to barricade himself in a doorway and insist on not moving until he'd spoken to an advisor. And that security guards are able to ask me whether I have a gun on me with a straight face. I can just picture Ahmed, our would-be terrorist, turning around exclaiming, "Ooh yes, I nearly forgot about that! And mind the explosives strapped to my back, the wires are very close together, so be careful while you put that through the scanner." But I haven't set up this blog to complain or ridicule... well, not too much! :D

There are some incredible things about Israel, and in Jerusalem specifically the generosity really is staggering. This past Shabbat, for example, I stayed in Yeshivat Hakotel, but unfortunately no meals were provided for the few boys who had stayed over the summer break. You could be forgiven for thinking that this would surely be a bad thing, but having lived in Jerusalem for close to two years now, as any Yeshiva boy or Seminary girl will tell you, this poses no problem; for there are many people who maintain an open-house policy for Shabbat meals, something proven to be well received by said Yeshiva boys and Seminary girls!

So, I prayed at the Kotel as I usually do on Friday night, and after Ma'ariv was over, I went to the back of the men's section where a crowd of people wait, waiting to be "picked up," by a prospective host, or be paired up by the willing Mr. Jeff Seidel, who has spent many years helping people with no place to eat on Shabbat find a willing local. My meal was spent with a man by the name of Rav Yisrael Mizrahi, who lives on the periphery of the Ge'ulah neighbourhood. I have to say, R' Mizrahi is a lovely man, and he loves doing acts of kindness. He has set up a Havdalah stand at the Kotel every motzei shabbat as a public service for as long as I can remember, and the funding is not done on public expenses, he assures me! He also brought a huge amount of food recently for Motzei Tisha'ah B'Av, so that the visitors to the Kotel would be able to break their fast immediately, without having to wait to get back home. (Is that not incredibly kind and thoughtful?) For Shabbat every week he sets up a long table and about 25 chairs in the yard outside his house. He spends hours preparing the food and drink, and regularly has twenty-plus guests for each Shabbat meal. He loves making a fuss over his guests, and really receives each one with great joy. What is special is that he is a man of relatively modest means, and has to seat people outside the house rather than it, in order to maximise the available space so as to have as many guests as possible.

On Shabbat day, I went to the Machles' family, where about 80-90 people were gathered for lunch. Anybody who has been there knows what an incredible experience Shabbat is when spent with Rav Machles and his family. I particularly appreciate how he too clearly invests a lot of time and money into providing a Shabbat meal for anybody who cares to join, and regularly sets up additional tables and chairs to cater for all the guest until they actually end up overflowing out into his yard and out of the front door! And all this in a space that in England and America, people would say that they have the space to have maybe 6 or 7 guests over in!

I find something inspiring in the fact that people are so altruistic and generous, and are willing to share whatever they have with complete strangers. Feel free to leave a comment on this post with any feedback or stories you may have about your Jerusalem experiences :)