Friday, February 27, 2009

Parshat Terumah - פרשת תרומה

This week I don't have a single central D'var Torah, but I have two smaller ones.

In the first Aliyah, we read how the Aron Hakodesh was to be constructed. The materials used are specified, as are the embellishments and it's dimensions. It all seems very elaborate.

But if we think about it, something is very odd about the dimensions. Why are they not whole measures? The Aron haKodesh was to be one of the focal points of Judaism - surely there shouldn't be half-measures, quite literally, in it's dimensions. The pasuk (25:10) states, "A cubit and a half it's width, a cubit and a half it's height." Why not one cubit or two cubits?

Rav Zalman Zorotskin suggests that philospohically we may derive a lesson from the Aron. There is debate as to what the Aron housed exactly, but the consensus is that it held the Shnai Luchot - The Two Tablets. The Luchot (and the Sefer Torah that may have been contained there too,) were the ultimate representation of the Written Law. But the written law is nothing by itself - it truly is incomplete.

We learn from the dimensions of that which contained the Torah SheBichtav, that the written law alone is incomplete, and that the Oral law, the Torah Sh'Baal Peh is needed for us to fully understand, to properly appreciate its beauty and wisdom.


Something that was interesting me this week was that the Aron had three layers, one main Wooden box, and one inner and one outer layer of gold. The basic concept to be understood is that the gold is there so that there the Aron would have a pleasing appearance, both inside and out. But there was a word that was troubling me that was used to describe the outer layer, זר. This word has another meaning - stranger. What is the link between the two different meanings? And what has the concept of a stranger got to do with the Aron?

I tender the following answer: that the gold was not used to merely look nice. Nothing is for show in Judaism - everything has a deep meaning. We must understand that something that is good and serves a good purpose naturally will look good. Of course, after the sin of Adam HaRishon, our perception of this reality was changed, but the Bet Hamikdash still had to be perfect. Either way, the two layers of gold used, although seemingly separate from the "main" wooden box, were actually intrinsically connected to the function of the box. They were also important, after all they merited a mention in the Torah. On a similar level, we can see strangers as people who are separate from us, who are different and seemingly "irrelevant" to us, or we can choose to see things as they truly are. Just as they external layers of the Aron seemed different and apparently unconnected, but were really deeply connected to the essence of the Aron, so too we should perceive our relationship with strangers.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

For my brother and my uncle. And for my mother. The rest of you, enjoy this anwyway.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Parshat Mishpatim - פרשת משפטים

Unfortunately this week I flew back to England. Even worse, I have not had as much time as I would like to prepare a D'var Torah. It is now about an hour and a half before Shabbat comes in here in London, and though I tried to spend an hour in a local Bet Hamedrash last night to find something interesting for my weekly D'var Torah, my plans were dashed when my friends came over to me after Ma'ariv, happy to see me after a lengthy absence. After excusing myself, another friend attacked me, and once I finally got down to learning, I found my contact lenses were giving me real trouble. Oh well.

So I had a quick look around the internet for inspiration. I found lots of meaty Divrei Torah which I can't really split up so easily, but this D'var Torah on the website, particularly the last four paragraphs, really struck a chord with me. In fact, I strongly encourage practically everyone I know to read this "vort." R' Weisz's point is extremely well made - I feel that he has really hit the nail on the head here.

The D'var Torah got me thinking. Over the last year or two, I have heard an acronym emerge: "Fomo." Fomo stands for Fear of Missing Out, a condition that practically everyone I know suffers from. People are willing to stick around with a group of friends till 3 in the morning, even though all the fun conversation died out hours ago, just in case somebody comes out with a line that proves to be "unmissable." In today's society, sometimes the worst thing to hear is the dreaded line, "Oh, you had to be there..." The society we live in today can certainly be fun and addicting, but unfortunately is almost diametrically opposed to Torah values.

On Wednesday morning, I was concerned about a small halachic problem; I was unsure whether I had slept the minimum amount of time in order to say Birchat HaTorah, and didn't know what to do. After I landed at Heathrow, I walked past a charedi man and teenager learning Gemara together while waiting to head to the check in desk. I walked past them, but then checked myself and realised that I could ask them my problem.

It is easy to think of the stereotype of a typical Yeshiva Bochur passionately arguing with some hapless "normal" Jew over some arcane point in Halacha, delving into the relative merits of what in essence are minutiae, and essentially practically irrelevant details to the problem being faced with in real life. But if we take a close look at ourselves, are we really able to judge? Are our endless mundane conversations so much more worthy? We must be kidding ourselves to imagine that engaging in daily conversations about the weather, politics or sport are an effective and honest use of our time. For all the hours I can talk about politics, it is most unlikely I will change a thing. Take a ride with a London taxi driver, and he will most likely soon start mouthing off to you about the state of London's roads, or the transport system, or the Olympics cost and how the public will have to fund it, but ultimately he will not effect any change whatsoever.

When I turned back to the two Charedi men at Heathrow, I might well have been encountering strangers, but we were familiar with each other in a very special way. Within seconds we were debating the case in question, and anybody walking by would have though we'd known each other for years. I have been fortunate over the last few years to have lived in the Old City of Jerusalem, and I saw many tzadikim in the Shul I davenned at. The Chief Rabbi of the Old City got to know me a little and as we walked in to shul together from time to time, he would ask me how I was. I would respond, enquire after his health, and then he would go his way, and I would go mine. He is a rather quiet man, as are a lot of these tzadikim I met, but as soon as he is engaged in Torah, he transforms into another person entirely. It's not that Yeshiva Bochurim and Talmidei Chachamim are one-dimensional and have no character to them, rather they are the way they are because they see the essence of what this life is about, and direct their energies almost exclusively towards the service of Hashem.

Living in London, I have learned that one must keep a "stiff upper lip," that it is not quite normal to approach strangers and that we don't discuss anything of any value or importance with anyone until you have come to know them rather well. Instead we prefer to talk about neutral topics. We employ small talk and touch on things that we can all smirk about. And if we want to break the ice, we can always gossip a little. I can't tell you how many people I have encountered and after a rather lengthy chat, I have walked away having gained absolutely nothing from our conversation. How many times do friends meet up for a cozy evening together and talk about nothing of value together, but have a great time together?

The contrast between this lifestyle and the way in which Jews can engage one another in meaningful and practical conversation could not be greater. A thought has gone through my mind for a while now that the Torah, if followed correctly, is the greatest tool to help a man find happiness. If one follows the Torah honestly, then he can face the greatest pain and understand that Hashem's hand is behind all that happens. He can live life till the very end and never be bored because he will always have his mission busying himself with learning Torah. And here we can understand how living a Torah lifestyle can build fundamentally healthier human relationships. We can chose to indulge ourselves in temporarily fulfilling idle chatter, or alternatively we can be careful with our words and realise their power by utilising them for debating and exploring something so much more relevant than what really are "mere details." If we follow the Torah carefully, we may learn how to act correctly and how to talk correctly. By moulding ourselves to the requirements of Torah law, we are able to build our characters and become people of real value.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Parshat Yitro - פרשת יתרו

Twice we read the ten commandments in the Torah, once here in Parshat Yitro, and once when Moshe recounts Matan Torah, in Parshat V’etchanan in Dvarim. There is a question that begs to be asked: of all the characters in the Torah, how come Yitro deserves this honour ahead of such personalities as Moshe and Aharon? Surely Moshe, the man who received the Torah deserved this honour more?

If we look at the end of the first Aliyah of this week’s Parsha, we read the sentence, "עתה ידעתי כי גדול ה' מכל האלהים כי בדבר אשר זדו עליהם". Now I know that Hashem is greater than the gods for the matter which they did to them [the Jews].

The classic understanding is that Yitro saw the awesome miracle of the splitting of the Yam Suf, saw that Hashem exerted total control over the natural forces of the world, and as such recognised Hashem as the one true God. This is certainly true, but the Ramban opens up another dimension to Yitro’s perspective on what turned out to be a watershed moment in his life.

If we analyse the words closely, we notice the word זדו, Zadu. This comes from the same root as the word מיזד, Maizid – Hebrew for intentional. There is a famous question – were the Mitzri’im really responsible for their fulfilling of the ancient and well known prophesy that the Jewish people were to be sold into slavery and oppressed? After all, they were merely messengers of God, enacting the prophesy? The Mitzri’im surely couldn’t be held accountable for that?!

The answer that the Ramban gives is illuminating. He explains that the Mitzri’im correctly state that they were fulfilling the prophesy by enslaving and subjugating the Jews, but they went above and beyond the prophesy by killing Jews by throwing them into the Nile. This was the Zadu, this was their malicious intent that they were being punished for.

So now, back to our point. Yitro sees Am Yisrael make their miraculous getaway through the sea, and moments later, the same sea closes in on the Egyptians and condemns them to their deaths. He sees how those who were the nastiest and most despicable to the Jews tossed about like corks and endured a very slow and painful demise, whereas those who were less spiteful died faster deaths, some sinking straight to the seabed.

What impressed Yitro was not that Hashem’s display of control over nature; any old “god” would dictate and direct nature’s forces. What impressed Yitro was Hashem’s way of Middah-K’neged-Midah, that despite waiting over one hundred years and tolerating all the unnecessary suffering imposed on the Jewish people, Hashem exacted a fitting punishment on every last Egyptian. Yitro wasn’t impressed by Hashem’s dominance over nature; any pretender to Hashem’s crown would claim a certain level of authority and supremacy over the natural world. No, what Yitro was impressed by was that this God, the true God, was one who clearly played a role in history and continued to oversee events to the present day. Yitro understood then that all that Hashem had done, and was continuing to do was part of the master plan.

Incidentally, later in our Sidra, we read of Matan Torah – the giving of the Torah. There are many interesting things that we can talk about there, but one thing I would like to focus on is the use of synaesthesia, when the Pasuk there famously says that the people saw the thunder. Interestingly enough, of all the two senses to cross over, Hashem caused our hearing to cross with our vision, and only in one way. What is the meaning of this?

We often say the words “Sh’ma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem echad?” Unfortunately, we all too often seem to accept the wording blindly, without thinking to question the wording. The concept of the entire sentence is clear enough, but the wording is a little odd. What indeed is so special about the word Sh’ma that it merits to be included in the single most important line in Judaism? What is it about the faculty of hearing that it deserves a mention in Judaism’s cardinal prayer and statement of faith?

The answer, in short, can be stated that as long as we live in this “Alma d’Sfaika,” this World of Doubt, this world that is known as an “Alma D’shikra,” a World of Lies, we cannot rely on our sense of vision to perceive things as they truly are. When was the last time a man could look at a woman and tell that she was a good person just by “checking her out?” Such a concept is laughable in this world. We can’t presume to know anything about anything by looking at it. The only way to know for sure is by listening to something, by slowly and closely analysing it. But at Har Sinai, when we were in such close proximity to Hashem, we experienced a return to the state of Adam HaRishon whereby our senses all told us the same thing, whereby they all told us the absolute truth. In this context we can understand the concept of Am Yisrael seeing the Kolot, because their hearing and their seeing were no different from one another. We can now understand that which normally has to be heard, (as in Sh’ma Yisrael – the knowledge of Hashem,) was so obvious and clear that Am Yisrael could clearly perceive through even the most deceiving of the senses.

Now if we return to Yitro, we understand that Yitro had his own revelation *before* that of Am Yisrael’s. Whereas many marvelled at Hashem’s spectacular rule over nature, Yitro understood what the miracles truly signified – Hashem’s eternal reign. Yitro, the former priest correctly perceived Hashem and correctly understood what a real God, THE real God is. It may well be for this reason that Yitro deserved the merit of having the portion of Matan Torah allotted to the Parsha with his name.

This D’var Torah is adapted from the words of R’ Raphael Katz of Netanya and R’ Daniel Katz of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah.

This week’s D’var Torah is in the zchut of the memory of R’ Noach Weinberg זצ"ל, a Tzaddik whose tremendous vision has brought about, and continues to bring about the return of many hundreds if not thousands of Jews to their religion. Zecher Tzadik livracha.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach!

Friday, February 06, 2009

Parshat B’Shalach – פרשת בשלח

I have a quick D’var Torah this week. There’s a lot going on in Parshat B’Shalach, but I would like to focus on three main events; the miraculous splitting of the sea, the famine and the bleak possibility of starvation that thereafter threatened Bnei Yisrael, and the equally miraculous Man that descended from heaven.

R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch mentions a fairly well-known phrase, “It is more difficult to provide man’s daily sustenance than it is to split the Red Sea.” Nowhere was this more obvious to us than immediately after the splitting of the Red Sea. Having been delivered from the wrath of Par’oh and his mighty army, Bnei Yisrael soon found themselves desperately thirsty in the desert.

Judaism dictates that all that we see as the natural world is actually only an expression of Hashem and his power. Indeed, one of Hashem’s names, “Elokeinu,” is equal to HaTeva, Hebrew for “the natural.” The concept of a nes, a miracle, is something I have discussed on this blog before. (I refer you to my Chanukah post.) In short, the word nes in Hebrew has two meanings; one means a “banner,” and the other is miracle. The underlying idea is that a miracle is merely a banner to publicise something. A shop is clearly identified as such by the banner, a company will identify themselves on their letterheads. But even without these public signs, an entity still exists. A banner is a signal for others so that they may recognise the existence of that which the banner signifies.

So too with a miracle. Hashem took Am Yisrael out of Egypt with numerous miracles. There was no way that we could deny His existence; the signs were just too plain to see. The splitting of the Yam Suf was one last miracle and then Bnei Yisrael were faced with a grim reality. After all that spirituality, the natural world attacked hard – through our stomachs.

As Rav Hirsch says, “The threat of starvation, real or imagined, can cause man to waver in his principles, silence his better resolves, and as long as the individual is not freed, not from his cares about his material existence but from the crushing impact of these cares, there will be no chance for a complete realisation of the law of God.”

Hashem presented Bnei Yisrael with quite a poser; here was the spectre of starvation in the desert. Was it not right to worry about the dire need for water, was it really so bad that we complained to Moshe? The answer is for us to correctly perceive how Hashem acts. Hashem’s control over the “natural world” is not limited to acts on a grand scale. To imagine that would be to think of Hashem as restricted, (l’havdil). It can be argued however that Hashem set Am Yisrael the challenge of having seen incredible Nisim, and then being faced with darkness. What would they do? Would they continue to believe, or would they complain?

If we look forward to the next major event, Am Yisrael received the man, the divine nourishment that descended from above. If we look at the chain of events, we see the pattern: Miracle, Natural, Miracle. This model runs throughout Torah. Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov. Chochmah, Bina, Da’at. And First Bet Hamikdash, Second Bet Hamikdash, Third Bet Hamikdash.

The concept we see here is a demonstration of a vitally important lesson that Am Yisrael needed, and needs, to learn. There are times when Hashem’s presence is obvious, never more so than when He performs miracles for us. And there are times when Hashem is hidden. It is our task to hold on to the memory of the knowledge of that first state. When it comes to physical concerns, such as food, it is our task, as Rav Hirsch says, to “realise that to this end, also, man can and should only do his part; namely that which God expects him to contribute toward the achievement of this objective. As for the success of his endeavours, he must leave that to God, Who has made every single human soul and every household with all its hungry members, great and small, the object of His ever-watchful, almighty, caring love. Man must understand that, in general, he must regard his work for his sustenance not as a right, but as a duty.”

If we can do that, then we can “machzik ma’amad,” hold our ground, and arrive at the third stage, the stage where the miraculous becomes the natural, that final stage of the Third Bet Hamikdash.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A viral you might appreciate

I don't normally do internet virals, but this video was sent to me by my dad, and for once, I found myself amused by something other than the usual mundane drivel I'm used to being sent. This video had my roommates and I gobsmacked and left us in fits of laughter!

Funnily enough, a friend on the other side of the world posted the link to this video in her facebook status a few hours after I watched it, and I thought to myself, "Yeah honey, I'm sure your video's interesting and all, but the one I saw last night totally beats whatever you just posted. In fact, I'll send you the link to my video now..." But when I clicked the link, I got the same video. I first saw the video when it had been viewed only about 1,700 times. At the time of "going to blog" there have been upwards of 11,00 hits. Just goes to show how fast things move in this internet-enabled world of ours...

A word of warning - you must be Jewish to appreciate this.


And then I found this!

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Power of A Letter

A letter that was printed in the Israeli daily, Ma'ariv, has been circulating on the internet recently; on facebook, emails and blogs. The letter in question had apparently been written by an Israeli soldier, a reservist who was called up by the IDF and who consequently found himself in Gaza. The letter was purportedly left to the owners of a property held by the IDF in which the soldier spent an unspecified period of time during Operation Cast Lead.

The letter provoked some heated debate. Many doubted its veracity; some voiced their scepticism loudly, dubbing the letter shameless "propaganda," while others like myself were more passive and took the letter at face value. In the end, (and I suppose that it is a shame that more people don't know this,) the letter was proved to be a fake; a friend of mine who is currently serving in Golani stated quite clearly that no reserve soldiers actually entered Gaza and so this letter cannot have been authentic.

I still feel however that there is something very telling about this letter. While it transpires that it was not really written by an Israeli soldier who entered Gaza, I still find it deeply revealing of Israeli culture and Israelis' attitude to the Palestinian people. The "JBlogosphere," (a term coined for the worldwide network of jewish blogs,) seized upon this letter and quickly republished it. Arutz Sheva, a 'parallel' media outlet that leans very much to the right-wing, did too. All over the world, dedicated Zionists and Jews read this letter and felt connected to the letter's compassion for the Palestinian people. The letter is in no way apologetic for Israeli actions; it makes very clear that the writer believes that Israel's actions were just and neccessitated by Hamas' callous terrorism, but it nevertheless does reach out to the Palestinians, and attempts to empathise and sympathise with their pain.

What made this letter so believable is that its tone is very much in line with the norm in Israel. After terror attacks people often are polarised and given to repeating mindless mantras like "Kill all the Arabs," or "Carpet-bomb Gaza, that'll teach Hamas," but to be honest that is not the way most people think most of the time. The average Israeli, while proud of his country, also recognises the effect that this operation, and ones like it before, have had on the people "on the other side."

Yes, it is most likely that this letter is cleverly crafted propaganda, but that somebody who aligns themselves with the Israeli side of this conflict would so much as dream of writing a letter like this to people on the other side is already rather telling.

Any Palestinian who goes out of their way to make peace with Israelis is immediately dismissed as an apologist or is slurred and termed a "puppet" of the evil Zionists. Note how Hamas accuse Mahmoud Abbas (leader of Fatah and self-proclaimed Holocaust denier) of being exactly that.

The Israeli peace lobby, on the other hand, has a very real place in Israeli society. Dissenting voices are not demonised, they are respected, and ultimately have a very real (and, take note Hamas, *truly democratic*,) effect on the military's actions. Organisations such as B'Tselem, Yesh Din and Machsom Watch all place a tremendous amount of value on Palestinian human rights, often to the detriment of Jewish and Israeli human rights.

The reason why the letter touched so many people is because it was a perfect reflection of Israeli and Jewish attitudes to the people of our enemy. Though we might be engaged in a bloody war with Hamas (and even with a great number of other Palestinians, too) we never celebrate the spilling of blood, even of our enemies. Though Israel is locked in a painful war of attrition with Hamas, we do not wish our enemies dead; we would much rather that they prosper. There is very rarely an absolute proof for anything in this world, but while the so-called "civilised" countries in the West might well accuse us of war crimes, the best proof I can think of is that such atrocities are completely out of character with the genuine compassion that is so innate within the Jewish people.

This letter may well be propaganda, but for it to flourish it required another crucial ingredient; that it would be well received by Israelis and Jews around the world. The letter has spread around the world like wildfire, and it is no surprise to me why that is so. The point of this letter is one that resonates profoundly within Jews around the world. The point of the letter is that beyond the politics and the posturing, many of us Jews and Israelis are acutely uncomfortable with the effects of this (and any other) military operation on the people of "the other side." We are not apportioning blame, though we might make it exceedingly clear where we feel the blame lies for this needless and tragic loss of life, rather we are lamenting the hideous suffering that we have been compelled to impose upon another people.