Friday, January 30, 2009

Parshat Bo – פרשת בא

It’s been a month or so since my last D’var Torah, but now that my SAT exam is out of the way, my weekly Parsha thoughts have made a triumphant return!

This week I read something very interesting written by Rav Hirsch. Parshat Bo deals primarily with the last three of the ten plagues, but is also noted for the Parsha in which the Jewish nation receives their first mitzvah – that of Rosh Chodesh as it says, “החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם חדשי השנה – This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons; it shall be for you the first among the months of the year.”

Many have wondered why this was chosen as the first mitzvah to be commanded to Am Yisrael. Surely there were other, more significant, (or at least more symbolic,) Mitzvot that could have been chosen instead of this seemingly trivial commandment? What is so important about Rosh Chodesh?

There is a famous Pasuk that refers to the Chagim, “אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם – These are God’s appointed times for meeting, convocations to the sanctuary which you must proclaim at the time appointed for them.” To understand the concept of Mo’ed, normally translated as a time or meeting, one must refer to our Pasuk here.

Rav Hirsch says that it seems that all the Chagim are based on a concept of מועד, of coming together. But wheat is the connection between Rosh Chodesh and the מועדים? Rosh Chodesh isn't a מועד, it has no specific historic or seasonal associations. Indeed what is מועד? Is it a simple reference to time, to meeting, is it to both?

מועד denotes a place or a time designated for meeting, that much is true. In our Pasuk, the word has the latter connotation. מועדים are times or seasons designated for our meeting with Hashem. (Note that during Chagim we confirm our religion; Shabbat is considered a testimony, as are the Chagim. The root of the word for testimony is עד. It should therefore be unsurprising that these two letters appear in the word מועד.) Explained in human terms, this meeting is to be a voluntary act for both parties. It is not to be a matter of a master summoning his servants into his presence.

For this reason only general terms are specified regarding the time of Am Yisrael’s coming to Hashem; He allows us a certain leeway in setting the conditions, as it were, for meeting up with him, so that the meeting may be of mutual choice. If it were that Rosh Chodesh were fixed, then all the chagim would be fixed too, and then it would be that we would have no input in arranging the time of our meeting with Hashem, and that we would be effectively tied down to a fixed schedule. In fact, it could be somewhat perversely argued that if the beginnings of months and hence also the festivals with them were to be tied inextricably to the astronomical phases of the planets so that the lunar calendar automatically determined the מועד and the מועדים, then we and Hashem would (l’havdil) appear bound to the blind, unchanging cycle of nature. That is absolutely not the case.

Now we can understand the importance of this mitzvah. In a way, we can say that this mitzvah is parallel in function to the first letter of the Torah. Whereas the Torah could easily have started with the letter Aleph, it commences with a Bet to signify our entering into a holy partnership with Hashem. In a similar manner, the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh is exactly the same.

Post Shabbat Addendum: I forgot to mention that I heard a lovely D'var Torah in a shiur this week by the current Rav of the Old City of Jerusalem, Rav Chizkiyahu Neventzahl, in the name of his father, ex-Rav of the Old City, Rav Avigdor Neventzhal.

Rav Neventzhal said that in Parshat Bo we read the pasuk, "היום אתם יוצאים בחודש האביב - Today you leave in the month of spring" in reference to the Jews leaving Egypt in the springtime. It is for this reason that Pesach is also called Chag Ha'Aviv - The Spring Festival.

That seems reasonable enough, but when we consider that the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years, the fact that they left in the spring seems irrelevant. If they had left Egypt in the spring and arrived in the spring, then the title would be fitting, but if Am Yisrael were in the desert for all that time, they traveled through many yearly cycles of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. What's the big deal about the fact that "Today... the month of spring?"

The Jews traveled in the Ananei HaKavod, the Clouds of Glory, and ate man, the divine food that descended from heaven. Spiritually speaking, they traveled first class. In fact, their physical needs were taken care of, too. The man was exactly enough for each person's need and taste; all that the Jews had to do was indulge their Neshamot and study Torah. Rav Neventzhal senior's chiddush (insight) is that our Pasuk means that for the duration of the forty years in the desert the Jews traveled, in the Ananei HaKavod, in just the right conditions - those of spring. It is said that before the sin of Adam HaRishon that the world had only one season - spring. Spring is the most pleasant of all season; neither too hot nor too cold, just right. The pasuk is teaching us not only that Am Yisrael left Egypt while it was spring, but that it stayed that way for the length of their desert wanderings.

When I said this D'var Torah on Shabbat, my Aunt made commented, backing up the argument, that while the Jews may have complained of many things while wandering in the desert, the food for example, not once did they grumble of the most obvious of complaints. The first complaint should have been that it was too hot at day in the summer, or too cold with the freezing desert nights, but not once did they so much as mention the weather - testament to Rav Neventzhal's chiddush.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom U'Mevorach!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A bitter pill to swallow

So the policy is now out in the open. Two years ago when I was in the army, I was doing guard duty near Ariel with another soldier. We had a fixed position and once an hour or so, one of us was to walk about 25 meters down the road from us and back to check the area. My colleague asked me if I understood the instructions we received earlier in the day. I replied to the negative; I hadn't a clue as I was still getting a feel for Ivrit at the time. He told me that if, while he was on his short patrol, I were to hear yelling from his direction I should shoot in the air to ward off any potential attackers. If I could see that we were getting into a kidnap situation, then I would have to do my best to neutralise the threat.

He went on to say that if the situation was that the terrorists looked to be succeeding in their struggle to kidnap him, and that I could not discern between his outline and the terrorists', I should shoot to kill all parties involved.

My friend explained that after the shenanigan that was the Second Lebanon War, the army is aware that terrorists are seeking to capture IDF soldiers to use as bargaining chips. He continued, saying that while this was not official army policy, it certainly has been unnoffically encouraged practise.

Yesterday, the cat was let out of the bag when a briefing given by the Magad (Battalion Commander) to Golani's 51st Battalion before they entered Gaza was was aired on Channel 10. The recording captures the Commander telling his soldiers that "Hamas' strategic weapon is to kidnap another soldier and I don't have to tell you, but no soldier from Battalion 51 gets kidnapped at any price and under any situation even if it means that he has to blow up his grenade together with those who are trying to kidnap him."

The IDF has furiously denied that these words were meant literally, and claims that this was motivational rhetoric in the commander's pep talk to his soldiers. The truth is somewhat different. Unfortunately, the IDF is all too familiar with the ramifications of a succesful soldier kidnap attempt. However, instructing a soldier to commit suicide grates with the IDF's ethos of leaving no man behind, and while it may be the best option available, it remains a bitter pill to swallow, and as such, has not been formally approved as policy. Additionally, as such a suicide (even under circumstances as extenuating these,) could well be against Halacha, the IDF has decided to adopt an informal apprach to this policy, opting to allow it spread via word-of-mouth. It would seem that this specific Battalion Commander inadvertently crossed the line by mentioning it to his soldiers formally, but the policy is equally effective when officially prescribed as when it is advisory practise.

Unsurprisingly, Jewish and Israeli blogs have seen a furious debate erupt over this policy. For a more in-depth look, read this page on VosIzNeias. Make sure to scroll down to read the comments people have left in response to the main article.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Here we go...

And a little over a week after the one-week ceasefire was announced, what passed for peace here in Israel might be crumbling. I desperately hope not, but after events this morning, we'll have to wait and see. In case you didn't know, an Israeli soldier was killed and three were wounded this morning when the jeep they were in hit a mine during a standard patrol on part of the Gaza strip perimeter. Consequently Israel was drawn into a relatively low-key gun battle with terrorists and an Arab farmer caught in the crossfire was killed. A number of drones and helicopters were deployed on aerial patrols and one caused a sonic boom over Gaza by way of a statement from the IDF. (EDIT: Later on in the afternooon, 20 tanks and 7 armoured bulldozers backed up by air support entered Gaza but did not engage in heavy fighting. An air strike targeted a terrorist on a motorbike, causing him and a bystander severe injuries, but other than that nobody was reported injured.)

People have asked me whether the ceasefire will hold and I have told them that I am very pessimistic. Hamas undoubtedly want to attack Israel, and have never seen a ceasefire as a reason to actually cease their fire. During the six month period between June and December last year when an uneasy calm existed between Israel and Gaza, there were still over 300 rockets and mortars fired into Israeli terrirtory in defiance of the supposed "Hudna." If Olmert, Livni and Peres were serious when they said Israel had to change the status quo and that it will no longer tolerate such a threat and will respond to each and every rocket, then all Hamas has to do to grab the initiative is to fire a high volume of rockets into Israel. If we do not respond, we will be externally perceived as weak and internally perceived as unable to back up our assurances to the residents of Sderot and Ashkelon, and if we respond then the ceasefire will disappear and we will back in a war-like situation. I fully expect Hamas will most likely wait till closer to the elections and then step up rocket attacks once again to test this theory out. Either way, the Israeli government made a terrible mistake in withdrawing from Gaza as it did - it undermined a huge amount of progress. Hamas can now rebuild it's tunnels, (it already is, and furiously so,) and wait till the right time to attack again.

When will we learn?

I'm back!

Sorry about my lack of posts recently, but I did warn you.

I sat my SAT examination on Sunday, and I remain confident that it went rather well, but I don't know just yet. My results should be posted online on the 10th of February, so for those who are close with me, call me that evening and I'll let you know how I did...

Unfortunately, without sounding too morbid, because I was so busy I missed Israel's most newsworthy event since the Second Lebanon War. My brother, a machine-gunner in Golani's 51st Battalion was thankfully considered too inexperienced to see heavy fighting and was assigned the job of providing cover fire from outside of Gaza city. Baruch Hashem he had a relatively uneventful time in Gaza, but he did have some intense moments. The stories are his to tell, but I can say that I was mightily relieved to see him back home in the Old City this past weekend, alive and well.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A quick entry

I'm just posting a quick blog entry to say that you should expect a reduction in the amount of blog posts I make as I have a big examination in just under two weeks. Regular readers have no doubt realised that my weekly D'var Torah has not made its usual appearance late on Friday afternoon - it's just too time-demanding. Similarly, I'm warning you that entries of a political nature are unlikely to be posted frequently until after the 25th. Thank you!

In the meantime... Is it just me, or is there something all too familiar about the outcome of this "peace" demonstration, reported in the Jerusalem Post? (There are a few events reported, so look for where the small paragraph at the bottom starting, "A demonstration outside the Prime Minister's residence...")

The only surprise is that, given the increasing number of Peace Now rallies held in Israel by "anti-occupationist" (self-hating) Jews against the IDF's actions in Gaza, ironically it was not a socialist-leaning Jewish sympathiser who decided to violently suppress opposition to his cause, but that it was an Arab. And what did he do? He threw a rock. Talk about reverting to type! Please note that I do recognise that the passing pro-Israel supporter was indeed abusive, but I also appreciate the difference between verbal abuse and what amounts to physical intimidation.