Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Finally a (grudging) mention

This article went online on the BBC's website last night. At first, I was pleased. A good article, so I thought, that refrained from blaming Israel. For that I should be grateful, I supposed.

But as I thought about what I had just read, I realised that several key points were missing. I realised that I was looking at yet another example of our enlightened left-wing, liberal-minded media studiously avoiding painting a full picture of what is happening in the Middle East.

I am currently studying for the American SAT. One of the subjects tested will be my essay writing skills. During my revision, I have learned that a good essay will take various sources and will make observations and progress to a mature conclusion. In that context, I am utterly dismayed that nowhere in the article is there mention of the word terrorist. True, that is unsurprising given the media's preference for the more sterile "militant," but "militant" doesn't appear either. "Hamas" is mentioned, but not once in connection with the suffering of the residents of Sderot at the hands of the rockets that they fire. Where would the BBC have us believe that these rockets appear from? Are they hoping to delude the public into thinking that rockets land in Sderot out of thin air?

Once again, the BBC is guilty of painting a misleading picture. The article mentions that the rockets come from Gaza, which is very true, but the point is that Hamas as administrators of the Gaza strip have both actively fired and passively overseen the firing of rockets aimed at civilians in Israeli towns such as Sderot. Which touches another point, that these rockets were aimed at civilians.

Why had such an article not been written before Israel's attack against Hamas? Why didn't the BBC feel that the situation, something that has been daily conversation here in Israel now for over two years, warranted a full-length article long ago? Why is it that when Israel responds to the terrorists the whole world sits up and takes notice, thoroughly condemning their "disproportionate" actions, but as rockets continued to hit Sderot throughout a ceasefire, the press' reaction was one of silence. Where was the international condemnation then? Where were the students protesting outside the embassies in solidarity with their Israeli brothers? (OK, I'm deluding myself a little there, but you surely catch my drift.)

Only after five days of this incursion/war in response to Hamas' insufferable provocation do the left-wing loonies at the BBC see fit to describe the suffering that Sderot residents are enduring. By way of comparison, countless articles have been posted online describing the suffering of Gazan residents as a result of the Israeli blockade and over these last five days many more have been published detailing their suffering in the latest bout of the conflict.

I have a sneaking feeling that the only reason why this article was compiled was merely so that their reporting of the situation could be perceived as balanced. To have masses of editorials online documenting the suffering of the helpless Palestinians, yet not one about the victims of Hamas's reprehensible "bad habit" of firing military grade weapons at civilians would be clearly indefencible proof of bias. Even the BBC would cannot tolerate such an absurdly assymetrical level of reporting.

By grudgingly producing the mimimal number of "pro-Israel" articles however, (and by that I mean "non-pro-Palestinian" articles,) the lefties can claim to be neutral and falsely assert that they are willing to equally report both sides of the conflict. They will self-righteously point to the few articles of this nature, and thus impudently deflect criticism of their one-sidedness. Do not be fooled.

In case we weren't absolutely sure why Israel launched this operation (Part 2):

Here is a short but powerful clip from highlighting the effects of Hamas's terrorism that have caused Israel's recent operation.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In case we weren't absolutely sure why Israel launched this operation:

If there was any doubt as to whether Hamas' rudimentary Kassams have any real effect on the residents of Southern Israel, here's a resounding yes for you.

(Hat tip: Muqata)
Translated from Arutz Sheva Israel:

9 year old "Shir" wrote a list for herself in case of rocket attacks on her home in Southern Israel. This way she knows how long it takes to run to the bomb shelter from everywhere in her home, from the time she hears the air raid siren.

From the living room -- 10 seconds to run to the bomb shelter.
From Or's bedroom -- 10 seconds to run to the bomb shelter.
From the dining room -- 6 seconds to run to the bomb shelter.
From Shir's Bedroom -- 13 seconds to run to the bomb shelter
From my parents bedroom -- 10 seconds to run to the bomb shelter.
From the hall bathroom -- 10 seconds to run to the bomb shelter.

That unfortunately, is little Shir's reality. She has to know how long it takes her to run from place to place, because it might well save her life.

I don't know about you, but that is not normality. That is no way for a nine year old girl to live. That is unacceptable, and that is why Israel has finally acted.

So who's fault is it?

Foreign governments trying to be "neutral" (see my earlier post about what that's all about,) experience real difficulty in admitting the reality of the current situation in and around Gaza, but ironically enough the Egyptians have no such qualms.

(Hat tip to Little Green Footballs and in turn, to Aaron.)

We are most amused.

I make it my business to keep up with the world's latest news and opinions, and while some of the material I come across on the main news agencies can be very dry, once in a while a story pops up that is so funny as to make all the hours wasted sifting through mundane politics worthwhile. Here is one such article.

While the concept of dealing with local leaders is certainly not new, the kinds of products traded in the past tended to be more practical. Having said that, the results seem to be fantastic:

In the case of the 60-year-old warlord - the head of a clan in southern Afghanistan who had not co-operated - operatives saw he had four younger wives. The pills were explained and offered. Four days later the agents returned.

"He came up to us beaming," the Post quoted an agent as saying. "He said, 'You are a great man... And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area."

The pills could put chieftains "back in an authoritative position", another official said.

Monday, December 29, 2008

An insight as to the nature of miracles.

I know it's the end of Chanukkah now, but I haven't made an entry and I really wanted to put something down so here goes...

I was in a shiur today, and the Rav mentioned that we follow Hillel's way of lighting the Chanukiah, adding a new candle each night, starting with one flame and adding a new light for each successive night, ending up with eight lights. Shamai's view on the other hand, was that we should start with eight, and remove one flame for each successive night.

The Rav giving the shiur posed a question: What's the reasoning behind Shamai's method? We can all easily understand Hillel's logic; that for each extra night the flame burned the נס, the miracle, became that much stronger and special, thus meriting an extra light. Shamai's method seems illogical. Why remove lights? Surely the flame's continued burning became more miraculous as one day's worth of oil turned to two, two to three, and so on?

The Chassidic master the S'fat Emet presents an answer to this very question. He said that if we look at another debate between Hillel and Shamai we may understand his logic. The debate is well know - the debate of preparation for Shabbat. Various sources, (notably the Ramban,) say that the Mitzvah of Zachor et Yom HaShabbat L'kadsho refers to an obligation during the week. On Shabbat it is no problem to remember that we are keeping Shabbat, it's obvious; the Shabbat spirit surrounds us. The real Mitzvah is to remember Shabbat during the week. It is for this reason that in Hebrew each day of the week is a reference to Shabbat - Sunday, for example, is called Yom Rishon because it is the first day after Shabbat. It is important to be conscious of Shabbat's higher reality during the mundane reality of the week.

With this in mind, the debate between Hillel and Shamai was thus; how do we prepare food for Shabbat? Shamai's point of view was that if a man was to find a nice cut of meat on Sunday for example, he would buy it and save it for Shabbat. If he were then to find a choicer piece of meat on Monday, he would then buy that, reserve it for Shabbat, and eat the other piece. Shamai's approach was to save the best for Shabbat. Hillel on the other hand, followed the rule of Bitachon Yom-l'Yom, to trust that Hashem will give us what we need each day and not to rely on our own (ultimately futile) efforts, to have daily bitachon in Hashem. Hillel's opinion was that one should live on a day to day basis and enjoy whatever came one's way. If one deserved a choice piece of meat for Shabbat, he would find it on Friday. Both points of view are perfectly understandable, and through their logic here we can understand their opinions on the Chanukah lighting poser above.

Hillel viewed each day of the chanukah as an extra dimension of the miracle being revealed. The miracle was ultimately complete on the eighth day, and thus for each day Hillel adds a light, building up to eight. Shamai, on the other hand, does not view the נס of the last remaining bottle of oil as the עיקר of the חנוכה story. His opinion was that the oil that was found, the oil that gave us enough time to get us back on our feet again, was actually the secondary aspect of the story. The miracle by itself would be rendered a neat trick, but pointless, were it not for what followed it. The נס was special because it enabled us to get back to the state whereby we were producing oil again and lighting the Menorah on a daily basis. Therefore, each day that passed was a day in which the miracle headed towards ending, a day headed back towards normality, a day headed towards the time when we would function after Hashem's covert intervention. It was the "9th" day that interested Shamai, the day when we returned to performing mitzvot in the Bet Hamikdash like we should.

Through this example we have an insight as to the nature of miracles. Hashem only performs acts that are above the realm of nature when it enables us to do something we merit. (There are apparent exceptions, but let's not go ther.) There is no point in performing a miracle for people who will not build in the base given to them. Shamai's understanding was that the miracle of Chanukah was all counting down to the point where Chanukah was over and the true light of our work, the light of Avodat Hashem would burn again.

In a similar fashion, may we merit the coming of the Mashiach and the imminent arrival of the third Bet Hamikdash. Amen!

The trouble with "impartial" reporting.

Reporters working on the recently resumed hostilities in the Gaza strip on major news agencies, news websites and newspapers tend to take a supposedly neutral standpoint on events there. Unfortunately, what theey perceive as "unbiased" reporting, especially such as seen on the BBC website is particularly misleading. Allow me to explain.

The BBC website is good enough at taking isolated events of "Israeli oppression" and highlighting how Israel is relentlessly hounding the poor Palestinians. That kind of journalism is easy enough to single out as prejudiced or biased. This is mostly because even the BBC wouldn't argue against claims that these articles are one-sided; such articles are supposed to take one particular incident at a time and as such naturally tend to only examine one particular event.

What irks me however, is when the media reports on a chain of inter-related events in a fashion that does not make clear what the causes and effects are, consequently blurring the lines and equating the two. Additionally, the media repeatedly prints condemnation of Israel by the UN, even when such condemnation has no verifiable basis in reality. For example:

A UN human rights monitor accused Israel of "shocking atrocities".

Richard Falk - the special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories - said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its attacks on Gaza.

"Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population - attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months," Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

In a similar fashion, when we see quotes like this by clearly biased sources, we expect a minimal addendum to explain that Israel is, in actual fact, conforming to international law, and is not perpetrating any war crimes or otherwise:

The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, has called for a new intifada, or uprising, against Israel.

Hamas's advisor on foreign policy, Dr Ahmed Yousef, warned that the Israeli operation could lead to suicide attacks.

"The scale of damage, they're destroying all the government buildings and mosques, schools, amenities," he told the BBC's World Tonight programme.

"When the people look to these crimes and the scale of damage that's happened here, yes, some of the people will go to get revenge."

Sensationalist language is something we expect to see in the tabloids, not in a publicly-funded internationally reknowned corporation the size of the BBC. Unfortunately, by refusing to place individual acts within context, time and again Israel is framed to appear aggressive and unreasonable when that is absolutely not the case. The only time I have seen mention of Hamas' continued use of human shields is at the end of one article, as a quote from a married Jewish couple. There are no statements of fact, only a quote by "biased Jews."

Similarly, after the ceasefire was broken in October, I read on the BBC website how there had been "a heavy reduction in rocket fire and Israeli incursions" during the ceasefire. Again, this happened today when the BBC published an article detailing the targeting of the Egypt-Gaza tunnels which are regularly used for smuggling weaponry. On the side of the page, a boxout details the "Run-up to Gaza raids." The page is available here. Below is a screen-grab of the page:

Notice the ambiguous wording which only partially decribes the situation accurately. The word "reduced" is employed in a way that cleverly decieves all but the most attentive of readers. Hamas has indeed overseen a reduction in rocket fire towards Israel. Israel however, has not similarly "reduced" incursions into Gaza. In fact, until the ceasefire fell apart, Israel suspended all violence towards Hamas. (Take note Hamas, ceasefire means ceasefire.)

While terrorists in Gaza made a mockery of the ceasefire, and from start to end launched rockets into (internationally recognised) Israeli territory, Israel did not Admittedly, there was a heavy reduction of these rockets being fired, but launching as much as one solitary rocket was a breach of the ceasefire. On the last day of the ceasefire, Noam Bedein of Sderot Media Center wrote that "377 missiles were launched towards Israel during the 'relaxation' period."

By grouping Israel and Hamas into one phrase together, the BBC made it seem as if we were equal in our efforts and commitment to the ceasefire. The reality was that this ceasefire had been repeatedly ignored by Hamas and that it had been respected by Israel, depsite the vast amount of rockets launched at her civilians. The phrasing suggested that Israel and Hamas had *equally* reduced attacks on one another. This was absolutely not the case.

It is totally wrong to equate Israeli air strikes on specific targets and Palestinian terrorists launching rockets at civilians in Sderot during the morning rush hour in an attempt to kill children on their way to school. Admittedly both are violent acts, but one is an act of unmitigated aggression and evil, whereas the other is an attempt by Israel to rid herself of an imminent threat to people's lives.

By refusing to overtly take sides, some media are placing the unssuspecting public in in the trap of condemning the Israelis and the Palestinians as being the same. I understand that people across the world will take sides in this war, but isn't it possible to condemn rocket strikes on a civilian centre like Sderot? Doesn't that appeal to the liberal mind, doesn't that equate to a humanitarian crisis, or do those only occur in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli aggressors? Do Jewish lives not count? The UN have condemned the attacks in Sderot, but only occasionally as an afterthought after vilifying Israel for defending herself.

It was interesting to read the following article a month or two ago:

Four Palestinians were killed during an Israeli air raid in the Gaza Strip, medical officials said. They were hit by an air-to-surface missile at the Shajaiye area of the city of Gaza. The Israeli military confirms the airstrike.

The dead were members of the Popular Resistance Committees. A spokesman for the group calling himself Abu Attaya conveyed the four were firing mortars into Israel when they were killed.

Earlier, two Palestinian rockets landed inside Israel on Sunday. According to Israeli reports, the rockets struck open areas and did not cause any casualties or property damage.

-Article quoted from

It was particularly pleasing to see that an Arab news agency has no problem telling the truth, and helps make chronological order of events clear: "the four were firing mortars into Israel when they were killed." Israel was responding to a terrorist attack, and they don't mind saying so.

Tim Franks, a reporter for the BBC has a page on their site called "Jerusalem Diary" - a blog on the BBC website documenting the news and people's views of current events here in Jerusalem. Tim particularly likes talking to settlers as he knows that their views clash with those of most Westerners, and making them sound extreme is easy fodder for him. Last month, he interviewed one man, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the following quotes made it into this blog entry:

"The Jewish people don't have another country, and the Arabs have 21 countries. We have a small country, and from this they want to uproot us."

His wish is simple: "When you have a people that rise against you, kills you, massacres you, wants to take your home - you shouldn't let them stay. They should be deported."

The sub-headline was based on this last line (I suppose this should be unsurprising given his uncompromising stance is great fodder for journalists,) but was reworded and given a little twist. The end result - 'Deport The Arabs.'

Talk about quotes being taken out of context.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why is it that liberals gravitate towards extremists?

English state-sponsored television has never been a particularly reliable source for accurate news, but Channel Four has until now done well to stay reasonably impartial and provide a relatively good resource for current affairs.

There was an uproar recently on the internet, particularly within the “blogosphere,” (referring to weblogs around the world,) when Jon Snow (an otherwise fairly decent reporter) referred to the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist attacks as “practitioners.” An excellent article on the Wall Street Journal website referring to the horrific media coverage of the attacks is available here, and I highly recommend that you read it.

The concept of political correctness, abhorrent to anyone with even a minimal cluster of functioning brain cells, seems to be reaching breathtaking new lows. “Terrorist” has been a naughty word for quite a few years, and the more sanitised “militant” has been employed in its place with minimum fuss by such enlightened organisations as the BBC and the Independent. But it would seem that this word too could end up getting blacklisted. (If we look at the Negro/Coloured/Black/African-American precedent, this could very well be true.) Like all PC words, as soon as the so called free-thinkers in our society realise that a word is being used for something that is either construed as bad or something that really is bad, the word itself must be blacklisted and supplanted with a more sterile alternative. Now if that is the case, “militants,” what with its shocking etymological link to words such as Militia and Military, will soon come to the end of its lifetime and be deemed too reminiscent of aggression and bloodshed than is acceptable, and hence a new, meeker word will be introduced. If Jon Snow is anything to go by, “practitioner” would be a good bet.

Now the last time I checked, the only kind of practitioner I ever met was a General Practitioner, a GP, otherwise known as a Doctor. If these terrorists are to be dubbed “practitioners,” what is it that they practise exactly? Tolerance and love? For crying out loud, world, wake up!

Apart from that unfortunate episode, Channel Four has a solid reputation as their reporting of the news is actually normally fairly factual and well balanced. But then some fool decided to approve what must frankly be ranked as one of the most idiotic decisions in British television history. First, a bit of context is needed. The Queen of England has traditionally given a speech of seasonal goodwill every Christmas day every year of her reign. The tradition began in 1932 with a radio broadcast by King George V, and Queen Elizabeth II has continued the tradition, delivering the speech almost each Christmas ever since, with the 1969 being the sole exception. The messages of the past few years have increasingly made reference to themes of cultural and religious diversity and the benefits of tolerance.

Quoting Wikipedia, “Since 1993, Channel 4 has broadcast an "Alternative Christmas message" featuring a contemporary, often controversial celebrity, delivering a message in the manner of Her Majesty.” Past speakers have included parents of a murdered schoolboy and a mother of a child infected with CJD and a British soldier injured in action in Afghanistan, amongst others. I take no issue with soldiers, mothers, schoolchildren or even comedians issuing a message to Britain, even if it turns out to be a heavily politicised and biased one, but this year Channel Four decided that the platform ought to be given to the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before I continue, I must make it absolutely clear that I believe in a free media, in the basic right to freedom of expression, and what I am about to state absolutely does not that belief.

It is my belief that it was foolish, dangerous and wrong to invite a crazed maniac such as Ahmadinejad to speak on a level parallel to Royalty. His words are twisted and we should not give him so much as a second to spout his drivel on national television. I understand the broadcasters’ need to win their ratings and the viewing wars against other channels, but there are limits of taste and decency that simply must come first. I shouldn’t be surprised after seeing countless re-runs of unfunny American sitcoms and endless reality TV, but if television ever had a soul, it would seem that it sold it a long time ago.

Britain’s core values are based on tolerance and liberality. Freedom of expression is taken for granted in the Western World and people of all religions and sexual orientation are free to live their lives as they wish, with minimal intervention by the government. We can now juxtapose Ahmadinejad’s Iran with this free society. Iran has seen countless alleged homosexuals killed over the last year, men and women slaughtered in the streets in the name of Allah and in the name of family honour. To give this man airtime on a day that celebrates the birth of Jesus, on a day that Christians mark what should be goodwill to all men and their pinnacle of the season of peace is frankly repulsive.

The decision drew a fluury of criticism, and even the government condemned the choice to allow Ahmadinejad to speak as likely to cause "international offence." As Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said, Ahmadinejad is a "criminal despot, who ranks with Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and the Burmese military junta as one of the world's most bloody tyrants". Henry Grunwald QC of the Board of Deputies of British Jews commented that "The appearance on our television screens of a man whose prejudices are so well-documented and who has openly called for the eradication of another member country of the United Nations is an affront to decency... To invite him to deliver a Christmas message, even a so-called alternative one, fills me with disgust."

The decision to allow such a man to address a nation as supposedly liberal and tolerant as Britain is utterly lamentable. In the U.S., the fault line between acceptable “alternative world views” and perspectives so vile as to be unfit for public consumption is a preacher who’s done good work for AIDS victims but is tepidly opposed to gay marriage. In Britain, it’s this turd — and as it turns out, he’s on the right side of the line. This is the same cretin who humiliated British sailors on worldwide television; who provoked an international standoff over a nuclear program that will end up starting an arms race in the Middle East; and who’s been sending weapons into Iraq for years to do to British soldiers there what was done in Afghanistan to last year’s “alternative message” presenter. It’s because of all that, not in spite of it, that he’s being handed this platform — on Christmas Day, as a de facto rebuttal to the Queen, to invite his audience in a thinly veiled way to convert. Imagine the contempt you’d have to have for your country to give him the opportunity.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Parshat Miketz - פרשת מקץ



Friday, December 19, 2008

Parshat Vayeshev - פרשת וישב

I was speaking to a friend late last light, and I asked him whether he had any triggers for a good D'var Torah for my post on this week's Parsha. Thankfully, he jumped at the chance, and told me how he had read a great piece by Rav Hirsch. I hope to look at the D'var Torah in Rav Hirsch's words before I get to publishing this entry, but if I run out of time to do that I hope that this shall suffice.

.ויספר אל אביו ואל אחיו ויגער-בו אביו ויאמר לו מה החלום הזה אשר חלמת הבוא נבוא אני ואמך ואחיך להשתחות לך ארצה
.ויקנאו-בו אחיו ואביו שמר את-הדבר
.וילכו אח֑יו לראת אׄתׄ-צׄאן אביהם בשכם
(בראשית לז: י-יג)

Yoseph, having just related the second of his famous prophetic dreams to Ya’akov is met with by a certain ambivalence from his father. Whereas his siblings abhorred and utterly resisted Yoseph’s visions, his father’s reaction was to initially rebuke his son, but soon turned to being more open-minded and receptive. The Pasuk employs the conservative “שמר,” indicating that his father quietly listened to him and regarded Yoseph’s words as a possibility in his mind, but did not act on it one way or another.

It is interesting to note that in the last of the three P’sukim I have quoted above, the Pasuk is broken with an Etnachta (a symbol used for singing the Torah which indicates a pause) in an unusual place. Liberally translated, the Pasuk reads, “And the brothers went (Etnachta) to see their father’s flock in Shchem.” Why the break? What does the break imply? Rav Hirsch goes on to point out that Shchem was 80Km away from Hevron, where the brothers were. He explains that the brothers left immediately as soon as they heard their father humour Yoseph and seriously entertain the notion that his dreams had true meaning, hence the Etnachta cuts off the words “And the brothers went” from the rest of the sentence to show that the brothers left immediately. And why Shchem? Rav Hirsch points to the Midrash Rabba, which references the two dots that appear above the word את. These two dots signify that the brothers didn’t truly go to the sheep, rather that they used the sheep as an excuse to get away and spend some time mulling things over. They actually went to themselves, in that decided to take some time for introspection. It is significant that they went to Shchem because that was the place where they first demonstrated their sense of family unity. It was at Shchem that Shimon on Levy massacred the whole male population so that their sister’s name would not be besmirched. If this was the case when they were threatened from outside the family, it makes sense that when they were threatened from within the ranks, the family should return to the place where they first experienced true solidarity.

So Yoseph’s brothers did not exactly warm to his predictions, as is clearly stated in the Pasuk, “ויקנאו-בו אחיו – and his brothers were jealous of him.” The traditional understanding of this Pasuk is that the brothers were appalled to hear of their younger sibling’s grandiose statements about his future role as ruler over them. Moreover, the assertion that he would dominate over his father was even more contemptible in their eyes, and they soon moved to act in an attempt to ensure that such an occurrence would never come to fruition.

The interpretation that Rav Hirsch provides however, is far more fulfilling. In the same way that Adam HaRishon came to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as a result of his ultimately good intentions, it would be churlish to suppose that the brothers’ scheming was simply evil, or that they were acting in a selfish manner.

Rav Hirsch offers the explanation that the brothers actions (like those of Adam HaRishon) were ultimately meant for the good, and that we should not allow ourselves to think that they merely acted on impulse against a perceived threat to the regular familial hierarchy. It would be a mistake to think that they were so simple. Often people look back at history and wonder how famous people could have acted quite so foolishly. If we think that way, we are the fools; those people knew what they were doing. Just because the characters we study in our history classes lived hundreds of years ago, doesn’t mean that they were lacking in common sense! Additionally, as was the case with the twelve tribes, many were far more spiritually sensitive than we are today.

So how can we understand their behaviour? What was the cause for their mistake? Rav Hirsch proposes that only recently had Nimrod introduced the world the concept of a kingdom. Up until that time, the brothers had never been exposed to a ממלכה – a Kingship, and and to be honest, Nimrod’s Kingdom wasn’t all that great. Nimrod was an evil and corrupt ruler who imprisoned his people and subjected them to slavery. The brothers’ cousins in Seir-Edom had “been enslaved by the whip of the Alufim (chieftains) and kings.” By way of comparison, Ya’akov’s family were quietly creating a society of equality and tranquillity. But what would happen to this model if one man were to rise to the top and dominate over everyone else? The brothers had this one terrible example of Kingship, and when they heard their younger brother’s dreams, they quite understandably resolved themselves not to allow the Jewish nation to be ruled over by a monarch, assuming with relative plausibility that a rule of monarchy lead to the oppression of Am Yisrael. The brothers were determined not to let the future generations of the Jewish nation be reduced to slaves, and so we can now understand that their actions were not out of foolish pride or a bloated sense of self-importance, rather they were driven by their perception of Yoseph as a severe threat to the future of Am Yisrael.

Wishing you a beautiful “Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach!”

Friday, December 12, 2008

Parshat Vayishlach - פרשת וישלח

As I referred to last week, in this week's Parsha, Ya'akov is given a new name - Yisrael. Unlike other biblical charachters, though, he retains his original name, and the Torah continues to refer to him by this name as well as the new.

The difference here is that while characters such as Avraham and Yehoshua underwent transititions that meant that a new, more appropriate name was requried, Ya'akov was remained an apt name, and Yisrael was not intended as a replacement. How can we understand this?

If we understand Ya'akov's role as the final patriarch before the generation of the twelve tribes, we can see that he had not one, but two defining qualities. It is imperative to understand the Jewish nation's continuing mission in the context of Ya'akov two names.

I read on that, "Jacob and Israel are two different names, with two different meanings. While it is true that Israel represents a loftier state of being than Jacob (thus the Israel element in Jacob is "no longer Jacob"), there are certain virtues to the Jacob state that the Israel state cannot possess. So Jacob remains a name for both the third Patriarch and for the Jewish people as a whole. Israel might represent a higher stage in the Jew's development than Jacob, but the greatness of the Jewish people lies in that there are both Jacob Jews and Israel Jews, and Jacob and Israel elements within each individual Jew."

The Kli Yakar explains that the two names of Ya'akov and Yisrael are analogous to two exiles and redemptions of Am Yisrael. He writes that the name Ya'akov (which etymologically derives from the word "heel") is meant as a parallel to the redemption of the exile in Egypt. He describes that redemption as not being the most notable and prominent of the redemptions of the Jewish nation, rather that its miracles should be regarded as “Tafel,” almost as a bonus. It is said in the Bereshit Rabbah that similarly the name Ya’akov should be regarded as secondary to the primary Yisrael. And if that is so, the two are really two aspects of one particular thing. Both names are necessary to understand the concept of Ya’akov/Yisrael.

Rashi suggests that the name while the name Yaakov indicates subservience, Yisrael signifies strength and victory. Another view is offered by the Meshech Chochma, who sees the different names as expressing the distinction between Yaakov as an individual versus Yisrael as a national identity. Thus, according to Meshech Chochma, God addresses "Yisrael" exclusively when, and only when, there are national issues at hand. For this reason, both names are retained.

It is interesting to note that Ya’akov takes his name from Esav’s angel, the angel that opposed him at the river, the angel that wrestled with him in a ferocious struggle. The angel’s name was Yisrael, which as the Kli Yakar points out means “Straight to Hashem.” Now, I don’t know how you understood the struggle, but however you read it, it doesn’t seem as if the angel was assisting Ya’akov in his task of getting closer to Hashem. It doesn’t seem as if he was doing anything like getting him towards Hashem, on the contrary, he was opposing Ya’akov, blocking Ya’akov’s path! It is instructive to note that every angel is named after the very specific task he is assigned, so how can it be that this angel seems hell-bent on stopping Ya’akov?

The answer is revealing in its depth. The angel was doing exactly what was required of him. To him, it very possibly made little to no sense at all, but the angel, somewhat paradoxically, fulfilled his task. This world is not a simple place. Our task is not always obvious, and often takes painful turns and requires arduous journeys. Yet if we stick to our task, we will find the straightest path to Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Parshat Vayeitzei - פרשת ויצא

In this week's Parsha, we read how Ya'akov sets out for Charan. Ya'akov had spent many years studying with his father, and was now coming from 14 years solid learning at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. There, we have learned, he did not break from his learning even to sleep. Ya'akov was totally alien to the outside world, he was a "יושב אוהלים" as is said in last week's Parsha; a tent dweller, one who spent his days devoted to the study of Torah.

Out of the three forefathers, the three אבות, the Jewish nation was named after one - Ya'akov. Not by that name, though, for we are known by the name he was later on given, the name of Yisrael. Other Biblical characters had their names changed, too: Avram became Avraham, Sarai became Sarah, and Hoshea later on became Yehoshua. In the cases of Avraham and Sarah, their names were changed by God himself. Surely their names would be a more fitting title for the Jewish nation?

Let's come back to that later. First, we must look at the Avot, and Ya'akov's position within them. Avraham was the first of the Avot. The Jewish nation have a title that comes from him, but it is less commonly employed: זרע אברהם - literally "Seed of Avraham." Avraham and Ya'akov were very similar to each other. The best way to understand it is as follows. If we examine the natural pattern of many things in this world, we can see that there are often three very distinct stages: Firstly, the initial spark, a wonderful eternal potential, but one that disappears within moments. The second stage is one of darkness and hard work. The third stage is the stage of the completion of that work, and the sweetness at the effort and perspiration of the second phase having realised the vision of the first stage. The third stage is an exact parallel of the first stage’s potential, for it is merely that potential having been realised.

Avraham Avinu was considered to be that first phase of the Jewish people, whereas Ya'akov was the third stage. The first stage is the flash on unlimited potential, in our case the vast promise that the Jewish people holds. The third stage was the actualisation of that dream, Am Yisrael being born. (From Ya'akov, the archetypal twelve tribes were born.) Avraham Avinu was typified by the ten tests given to him by Hashem, ten challenging tests that none of us have ever faced. Ya'akov had relatively normal tests in his life, nothing like being asked to slaughter his only son, or to jump into a furnace. His challenges were far closer to the challenges that most people have, nothing particularly extreme. Because he was so removed from mundane matters; he achieved a unique level of holiness that merited his station as the "בחיר האבות," the choicest of the forefathers, the one whose name would be lent to the nation that would descend from him.

Interestingly, the בתי מקדש are seen as being linked with the three Avot. If we look back to the aforementioned three-phase process, it is said of the first stage that it though it lasts only a while, it will seem at the time as though it will last forever. The second stage, the stage of darkness and hard work, is said to have the scent, but not the taste of the first stage. (We can understand this by referring to the World before the sin of Adam HaRishon. I have learned that back then, a fruit tree and a fruit's peel would taste and smell the same as the fruit it bore, whereas nowadays, after our perspective of reality was changed by the sin of Adam, only the smell remains.) The third stage is very much like the first stage, only this time there is no illusion of permanence; it is real. In this light we can understand the Zohar when it says that the first Bet Hamikdash is associated with Avraham, the second with Yitzchak, but the third and final Bet Hamikdash, which will be established in the End of Days and will be everlasting, is related to Yaakov.

And so Ya'akov set off for Charan. As we know, if we look closely at the names in the Torah, we find deep meaning to them. Charan is no different, it's name is particularly apt. Ya'akov left for Charan, for charono shel olam, the wrath of an unfriendly world. Ya'akov left 14 years of learning, and set out to continue his learning elsewhere, but something happened that wasn't on his script.

On his journey, Ya’akov came across a certain place, and stopped there overnight. The Pasuk uses the odd word "ויפגע," he “encountered” this particular place where he would experience the vision of the ladder. Chazal teach us that this encounter meant that he sought to travel on, to escape back to his quiet life of learning, but the place itself opposed him like a solid wall blocking him. This was not a chance meeting, Hashem brought him to a place where he would experience a clash that would change his perspective. Ya’akov went to sleep and had his famous dream, and he woke up a different man. Ya'akov then understood his mission, and it was then that he undertook his life's task. If we see Avraham and Ya’akov as being equal, as being in parallel, we may argue that while Avraham was all about the extraordinary, typified by exceptional and spectacular demonstrations of commitment to Hashem, Ya'akov was all about the Kedushah inherent in (what we perceive to be) the ordinary.

As mentioned before, Avraham was defined by the ten tests posed to him by Hashem. They demonstrated how Avraham, faced with tremendous difficulty and disappointment, never lost a beat in serving Hashem with joy and eagerness. The narrative of his life is an unfolding of the greatness of his accomplishment. What is there to say about Yaakov, however? His narrative seems so mundane, so full of details about ordinary, pedestrian life – dealing with sibling strife, acquiring a large family, raising the children, making a living.

In truth, however, the sagas of the two Avot are precisely balanced and parallel. Ya'akov is about Kedushah, and more specifically, about the Kedushah inherent within the ordinary. By following Ya'akov's example, we may learn how to change our perception of existence, taking the commonplace the events and mundane objects of material existence and turn them into spirituality on the highest plane. In this way, everything around us can become a כלי, a vessel, for spirituality. It can be argued that Avraham and Ya’akov’s traits were almost identical.

This lesson has vital relevance for today's generation. It is essential that we study Torah, but we must take it out with us into the real world. We must be fluent in our tradition of the Torah, we must be "עוסק בתורה," but simultaneously it is important to remember that we deal on a day-to-day basis with the outside world, with people who are not like us, who do not want to be like us. Ya'akov wanted to continue on his way, learning Torah, but Hashem made him collide with the world. Hashem brought him to the realisation that his task was not to sit all day and learn Torah, but to serve Hashem within the context of everyday life.

Returning to my earlier question, we can understand that it is not surprising therefore, that Ya'akov received the name Yisrael, which may be read "ישר-אל, Straight to Hashem." Through our interaction with the challenges and temptations of business, for example, one can either attempt to make his fortune, or make a Kiddush Hashem by dealing in a way that befits a God-fearing Jew. We can utilise all that is in this world to forge a direct connection with Hashem. It is for this reason that the Jewish nation was given Ya'akov's name to adopt above any other.

This last week, we have seen distressing events in Chevron unfold. I must make it very clear from the beginning that I empathise very strongly with the settlers, Israel is absolutely our land, Chevron is one of the four holy cities in Judaism along with Jerusalem, Bet El and Tiveryah. It is our right to live there, and to make pilgrimages as and when we want to Ma'arat Hamachpela.

But at the same time, I saw things this week that were no short of tragic. I saw video footage of Jews throwing projectiles from the roof of Bet Hashalom at passing Arabs, turning household objects into missiles with which to aim at the Arabs of Chevron. If there is one thing I am ashamed of, it is the undermining of our own (valid!) cause by acts of violence and extremity. I have no issue with eight families living in one house; they legally own it, they have the right to do with it as they wish. They may choose to protest against the police, but when these legitimate protests take a turn and become violent, making other people's life a misery, I get more than merely upset; I become greatly distressed. To borrow an expression of Rav Riskin's, "my Torah is crying."

I see a shameful misrepresentation of what true Judaism is, and I am horrified. It is not merely required, but it is absolutely against Halachah to hurl abuse at the soldiers whose job it is to protect the settlers. Yes, they also do the job of removing Jews from their homes, but to the average irreligious Israeli, there is no problem with that. They have no concern for Halachah, and screaming in their faces that the Torah says that this is our home will not change that. To attack a fellow Jew because he is following orders is unacceptable. Just because he is doing something wrong, does not mean we have an halachic imperative to attack him. It was shocking to see reports on the Jerusalem Post website of crude missiles, such as potatoes with nails hammered into them, found in what amounted to a ammunition depot of rudimentary projectiles to aim at the soldiers.

It is horrific to see stories of settlers throwing an Arab child of a rooftop on media such as The Times website. Make no mistake, it is heartening to see the settlers' commitment to our inheritance and our right to live in places such as Chevron. It brings me tremendous simchah to see Jews who have such a strong belief in the Torah, despite the world's dismissal of religion. I absolutely agree with them that Hashem has promised us this land, from the Mediterranean sea to the Jordan. But we are still in the Galut, Mashiach has not yet made his grand arrival. We still have to make do with what we have. We have to know how to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting a Jew, and when to concede certain things.

Not that we should concede anything and everything. Specifically, the Israeli government has no right to make Jews leave their homes in Chevron, especially after previous governments encouraged such settling activity. That is something that I, as a Jew cannot accept. The settlers are now effectively caught in an trap. It is absolutely wrong to tear people from their homes, especially when these people are the legal owners of their home. It is right and just to protest against any decision that states otherwise. And yet, we must protest strictly within the confines of the law. It is nonsensical to viciously attack soldiers for "God's word." What happened to the commandment forbidding us to raise our hands to our fellow Jews? We must learn from Ya'akov Avinu, we must continue to learn our precious Torah, but we too must involve ourselves with the outside world, and be careful to create a Kiddush Hashem, not a Chilul Hashem. In any case, Hashem's plan will be revealed according to His desire in the end.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Tuition Fees in Israel

A friend of mine, Lahav Harkov, writes a blog that is published on the Jerusalem Post website. In a recent post, she described the susceptibility of Israeli universities to strikes from professors demanding a higher wage. Lahav explained the professors' stance, explaining how "last year, senior professors did not teach until February, demanding a raise in their salaries and better working conditions." Lahav concluded that the best solution would be to raise tuition fees. The argument seems reasonable enough; bite the bullet, invest in your future and reap the rewards after university.

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Israeli students haven't exactly warmed to this idea. As Lahav wrote, "the Ministry of Education and the Treasury formed the Shochat Committee, which was meant to find a cure for Israeli higher education's numerous ailments. When the Committee recommended that tuition be raised in 2007, the National Union of Israeli Students called a strike."

It would seem that we have a catch-22 situation, the professors strike demanding more money, and the students strike when it is recommended that they pay higher fees. Both sides are playing hardball, stubbornly refusing to yield or accept any concessions. As Lahav said, only three days before the university started "the universities were granted 515 million shekels in an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Ronny Bar-On and Education Minister Yuli Tamir." These funds have not yet arrived, and now more strikes are on the horizon.

Despite funds being formally pledged, the simple truth is that there simply isn't enough money to go around, and the government's hesitant stance on increasing university funding is understandable. I have heard stories over the last couple of years of old people in Israel freezing to death in their homes in the winter because their pensions don't cover their heating bills. I have heard how at least one elderly Holocaust survivor has returned to Germany because the money she receives there is far more than she is given far more than here. What money Israel does have cannot be used on all these causes. Something's got to give.

Of course there are some grants that are paid. Olim Chadashim receive what's called a "Sal Klitah," an "absorption basket" of assorted rights that help ease the transition and aid people settling into a new country. I will be making aliyah next year, and there is a very good chance that I will go to Bar Ilan University like Lahav, and have my tuition fees paid for by my Oleh Chadash government grant. In my case, this fund is a real boon and will be very welcome, given that I am nearing financial independence from my parents, and will soon have to account for every last penny. Seeing as I haven't yet got an income of my own, a government grant will make a world of a difference. I don't know Lahav's situation, but I'm certain that she similarly appreciates the opportunity of a free university education.

For as long as I can remember the Israeli government has offered, and continues to offer, Jews in the diaspora incentives to make Aliyah. Olim Chadashim receive a wide array of "zchuyot" - discounts, rebates, various tax reductions and notably for young people, free university schooling. A major reason why I decided to make Aliyah now (as opposed to after studying in England at a more prestigious university) was that I would have my degree paid for by my Aliyah rights. Over the three years that I will be studying here though, my basic living expenses will cause me to out-spend the money saved on the degree itself. It's a win-win situation for both the economy and for myself.

I agree that it is in the best interests of the government to entice people to immigrate, seeing that Jews outside of Israel are typically wealthier than their Israeli counterparts. I agree that it is a good idea to offer many of these discounts to Olim Chadashim so as to ease the transition to a new country, but I have serious misgivings about offering full university grants to every immigrant. Admittedly, many of the Olim to this country are poor people (If you're reading this Paul, I don't do P.C.) from Africa, Russia and South America, but the fact remains that the Olim most likely to attend university here are those who immigrate from North America and Europe. If we look at this particular demographic, we see that many of these Olim are middle-class and lived a fairly comfortable life abroad.

To make it clear, here is the crux of the issue; the middle-classes in Canada, England and America are considerably wealthier than those in Israel. I have a number of friends who came to Israel to learn in yeshiva or a midrashah, and have now made Aliyah and are studying in an Israeli university, or will do so in the near future. These same people would have most likely attended a respected university in America or England had they not moved. Imagine that they had gone to one of Cambridge, YU, UCL, or Harvard. As far as I understand, English university fees are about £3,000 a year and American fees can easily reach $40,000. These are not small sums of money, but as a matter of routine, young Jewish men and women attend these universities and make that hefty investment in their future.

I agree with Lahav that students should be prepared to invest more into their futures, as she says, "the benefit of receiving a quality higher education outweighs its cost by far." Having said that, Lahav was speaking from the point of view of an "Olah Chadashah," and as such has her fees paid by the government. Can Lahav and I truly expect to have our fees continued to be fully subsidised while the native Israelis' fees are raised? I stress again that I think it positive that Israel attempts to make Aliyah easier and appealing, but it's a rather wasteful of the government to distribute grants unnecessarily when there is a real shortage of funding for other, far more pressing and important, needs. I believe that the benefits offered to immigrants are a good policy because they ultimately benefit everyone, but there has to be a limit.

Now that these students have made the jump to Israel and attend one of the top Israeli universities such as the Hebrew University, The Technion in Haifa or Bar Ilan, are they suddenly impoverished and unable to pay their fees? Without doubt, there will be a significant number needing financial assistance, but what about the American students who would have otherwise stayed behind in America and attended Stern or Yeshiva University and would have had to pay fees many times the amount Israelis pay here? I cannot fathom the logic in granting them total subsidies. It makes no sense to offer full bursaries as standard and to raise the Israelis' fees at the same time.

I do agree with Lahav when she says that students in Israel must learn to accept that if they want to learn at a prestigious institution with good facilities and respected professors, they must be prepared to invest heavily. It's for their own good. I agree that the best solution is not to demand more of the government, there's no point in requesting more grants - we'll only get higher taxes by way of return.

But at the same time, while professors are striking in Israel year after year, maybe the best thing would be to cut back the funding to Olim Chadashim. I don't mean that no grants should be given to Olim, I am sure that for many people it makes the difference between going to university or to the job centre. Rather I propose a sliding-scale system, a need-based scheme to distribute Israeli money properly. The money saved should go some way to paying the professors' wages and help alleviate the hike in Israeli students' fees.


I have been driven to post this entry upon seeing an exchange on Facebook last night. A friend of mine posted the following 'status update', "Karen is disturbed that her college chaplain believes the Islamists attacked their victims randomly and without regard to religious or national affiliation."

I was a little taken aback. Firstly because that is a foolish belief for anyone to hold. Secondly, because that's a Cambridge chaplain, not some average jo-shmo at Middlesex poly. Anyway, I don't get shocked anymore, there are plenty of different flavours of fools out there, and the intelligent are not immune.

A friend of Karen's commented: "Why? Those guys are known for attacking dudes indiscriminately. I'm sure they'd rather have killed lots of Jews and Americans, but they didn't. I'm sure the majority killed will transpire to be Hindus and Muslims, probably roughly divided along the lines of Bombay demography. How can you walk into a train station, randomly shoot the place up and still claim to be making targeted attacks? That seems like silly minutia to be bothered about - why not just accept that it was wrong to kill any civilian - Jews, Muslims, Americans or anybody else?"

What gets me is this word indiscriminate. It's like saying that they terrorists thought, "We don't care who we kill, we just want to cause mayhem!" These are religious and political acts; our villains aren't of the same mould as the Joker from Batman whose sole aim is to cause pandemonium. To anyone who insists on referring to any terror attack as indiscriminate, I ask the following simple question: When was the last time, if ever, a terrorist planted a bomb or detonated a suicide belt in his home, or in his place of worship? Or at the very least, in his village?

Seems a daft question. "Well of course they haven't done that!" you'd exclaim. What purpose would that serve? It would be utterly pointless and self-defeating to kill of their own. Herein lies the crux of the matter.

On September 11th 2001, individually random people were killed. That much is true. But there was a very specific target that day - American civilians. On 9/11, fear was struck into the heart of an entire nation, and the world looked on in awe. In London's 7/7 London Underground and bus attacks, random people were killed. Yes, one can argue that they were killed "indiscriminately," but the truth is that the act was far from haphazard. There was a very real aim, the fact is that it was not an indiscriminate attack. If it was, why didn't it happen in Bradford, where there is a far higher percentage of Muslims?

The attack was on London's heart and soul. Random people paid the ultimate price, but the real target was freedom of expression, justice and Western liberal values. The real aim was to kill heathens, non-believers, anyone who disagreed with the terrorists' extreme Muslim beliefs. (I hope that is read correctly.) The fact remains that these two heinous attacks took place on American and English soil, and not in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Yes, Muslims were killed, but far more "infidel" Christians and atheists were killed. It seems almost too obvious, but we cannot overlook it. The random nature of the individual murders must not overshadow the precise intent behind it.

During the nadir of the second Intifada, terrorists detonated bombs in crowded malls in Israel, and suicide bombers detonated their belts on Jerusalem buses among children and OAP's. There were no specific people assassinated. Does that mean that those people were indiscriminately killed?

The answer is an irrefutable no. Just because individual targets are not specified, does not mean that there is no overall target. The demographic makeup of a Jerusalem bus is rather different from your average West Bank suicide bomber's hometown. Admittedly, a Filipino worker might get killed, and so too might a fellow Muslim or two, but if you look at the death of toll of the second intifada, the overwhelming majority of casualties were Israelis, were Jews.

When, as happens from time to time, an angst-ridden teenage American enters a shopping mall and kills people at random, he chooses the mall because there are people there. There are targets and he can make a tremendous spectacle of himself. Location is everything.

I cannot offer an explanation for the anomaly that was the random shooting at the train station, but then again these terrorist don't seem to do logic, do they? It's only speculation, but my guess is that they wanted to stretch the police and the army and thus create a diversion for the other, even more chilling, part of their plans.

The attacks in Bombay were an assault on all things that did not conform to the terrorists' beliefs, on all things they deemed "unIslamic." We know that at the Taj Palace Hotel, the terrorists' first move was to obtain a list of all guests holding an American or British passport. They then attempted to round these people up and execute them. The Chabad house was a specific target, namely because it is one of the only Jewish centres in the city and as such attracted Jews and Israelis. Incidentally Chabad are a Haredi organisation, but unlike many other Haredi organisations, they are relatively pro-Israel. This must not go unnoticed, either. We found out later that the bodies of the married couple that ran the Chabad house were found to be in a far worse condition than others - the result of horrific torturing by their evil tormentors.

I cannot deny the basic element of randomness involved, but I state one last time, there was nothing indiscriminate about the intent of these attacks. A quick thesaurus check on Microsoft Word gives the synonyms "arbitrary" and haphazard" for indiscriminate. These were absolutely not haphazard or arbitrary attacks. So, does anyone else believe these attacks to be "indiscriminate," or is it just that simpleton Cambridge chaplain?