Friday, April 30, 2010

Parshat Emor – פרשת אמור

"כי כל איש אשר בו מום, לֹא יקרב: איש עור או פסח, או חרם או שרוע - For any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach; a man who is blind, lame, one whose nose has no bridge, or one who has one limb longer than the other."
(ויקרא כא:יח)

Concerning the blemishes that animals might have, the Torah uses the word עורת, which Rashi renders as "a noun which is the name of a blemish: blindness." In essence, Rashi is translating the word as "blind." This seems a perfectly normal way of referring to an animal that cannot see - we call it blind. So what is the point of phrasing things in a different way in our pasuk?

The answer is given that an animal has only one faculty of vision - that of normal sight. When an animal cannot see, it truly is blind. Humans, though, are very different. As humans, we use our senses to guide us and allow us to perceive more than just what is in front of us.

We can say that man has two kinds of vision; a basic and physical vision and a spiritual vision. The essence of this inner vision is something which cannot be taken away, and it is something that can discern things that normal vision cannot.

Chazal, the Jewish sages, ask a question, "Who is wise?" Their answer is, "He who foresees the [events from their] infancy." The essence of foresight, and of wisdom in turn, is a deep and true understanding of an issue. Anyone with real vision understands that this world is just a trap, and that it is important not to get too involved with all that goes on - all that is required of a Jew is that he learns Torah and acts in accordance with Torah. The Chafetz Chaim famously had only a very few posessions, but when people mentioned this to him, he would explain that this world is nothing but a corridor leading to the world to come. The Chafetz Chaim understood the lack of real value in worldy possesions, demonstrating his clear perception of the value of this life.

With this in mind, we can understand why our pasuk above is phrased the way it is. Whereas most of us judge things by how good they look and place a tremendous amount of importance on "looking good," a true man will understand the superficiality of this kind of vision. True, a man who has lost the faculty of vision is blemished and as such is unfit to serve in the Bet Hamikdash, but the Torah does not refer to him as "blind," but as a "man who is blind", for he does not cease to be a man. A man who has lost his sight may feel very aware of his disabilty, but he does not allow this to overcome him, for he may still perceive things within his mind's eye - and this perceptiveness may even prove more useful than the vision offered by our eyes.

Adapted from the teachings of Rav Zalman Sorotzkin.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Parshiot Acharei Mot and Kedoshim – פרשיות אחרי מות וקדושים

"וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַיָּמֻתוּ. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל יָבֹא בְכָל עֵת אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ, מִבֵּית לַפָּרֹכֶת אֶל פְּנֵי הַכַּפֹּרֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל הָאָרֹן, וְלֹא יָמוּת, כִּי בֶּעָנָן אֵרָאֶה עַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת. - And Hashem spoke to Moshe, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they drew near before Hashem, and died. And Hashem said to Moshe: 'Speak to Aharon your brother, he may not come at all times into the Sanctuary within the curtain, before the cover which is upon the Ark, so that he shall not die; for with a cloud I appear upon the Ark-cover."
(ויקרא: טז:א-ב)

Whereas the death of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, is recalled in various other places in the Torah, in the passage above, their passing is mentioned here from a somewhat different angle. Although previously the reason that they merited the death penalty was explicitly mentioned, (making an unauthorized fire-offering) in this instance, the approach is more vague, and only mentions that they died when they approached God, which certainly doesn't seem such a terrible crime.

To understand, we may refer to one King David's psalms: "יְהוָה-מָה-אָדָם, וַתֵּדָעֵהוּ: בֶּן-אֱנוֹשׁ, וַתְּחַשְּׁבֵהוּ," he writes - God, what is man that You recognize him; the son of a frail human that You reckon with him? (Tehillim 144:3)

As limited, mortal creations of an eternal, all-powerful supernatural existence that we refer to as God, there is no meaningful way we can even begin to grasp our relationship to Him. We barely even exist on the same plane as Him... but at the same time, we know and recognise that we have to live our lives, make the best of them that we can. We are to try and communicate and connect to Hashem. Despite our limitations, inabilities to reach God and capacities to err, not only does Hashem give us tremendous slack, He even allows us to approach him. There is a tacit recognition of this contradiction, a knowing nod at our limits and yet a willingness to overlook them.

But even such flexibility has limits. The Torah sets out very well-defined and specific ways in which the service of God was to be performed in the Bet Hamikdash. That Nadav and Avihu crossed the threshold, even though it was in good character, was deemed impermissible and warranted immediate punishment.

Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch notes that in the passage above, Aharon is taught the lesson of his sons' mistake so that he may not repeat it. Intriguingly, Rav Hirsch points out that Aharon is instructed to avoid entering different zones. One of these zones is 'קדש', which may be rendered as 'holy.' This is another way of saying that Aharon was prohibited from entering the Sanctuary unless he fulfilled certain conditions.

This expression for Sanctuary has a synonymous word in Hebrew; היכל. Although typically translated as meaning "hall" or "containing space", the root of this word means ability. (Which actually makes a lot of sense; ability is that which is contained within something.) Rav Hirsch points out that this is just the outermost of the three zones. While this is defined as the one that represents the height of human ability, the other two zones are more elevated than this. It would seem that simply to be able to enter the Bet Hamikdash, one had to be on a level at least approaching the highest of his ability.

The fact that Nadav and Avihu entered not just this outside zone, but the two inner ones also, in a state of mind that was not entirely suitable for worship of God meant that despite their good intentions, they had crossed a red line. While mistakes are to be tolerated, their actions betrayed a certain type of insensitivity to the innate sanctity of the place.

I think we can learn a lot from the episode. We all make mistakes. Some big, some small. Some intentional, some without our even knowing about them. As humans, we all take certain liberties with our religion. No one can pretend that he acts perfectly. I could write a long, long list of my errors, many of which would quite probably surprise you. We tend to be strong in areas in which others are weak, and weak where others are strong. But, at the end of the day, all of us must obey the boundaries the Torah sets when it comes to serving God. The actions of Nadav and Avihu may not have seemed such a terrible sin to us, but because of their stature and their understanding of the Torah's law, their death was assured.

At the beginning, of this D'var Torah, I wrote that the reason for Nadav and Avihu's death sentence was warranted isn't mentioned here. Maybe this is because we should understand that although we are to learn from their mistake, we aren't to apply the lessons learned in a to-literal way. Judasim recognises that not all people are the same, that our challenges and tasks are different. While we may not reach the level of the inner chambers of the Bet Hamikdash, where an elevated holiness presided, each of us must strive to take him or herself to at least the level of the היכל; the level of our own ability. Maybe we would be "luckier" than Nadav and Avihu and not receive the death penalty had we commited their sin, but that does not mean to say that we can allow ourselves to relent in our pursuit of making ourselves better people and better observers of the Torah's laws.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Yom HaZikaron

Today is Yom Hazikaron; Israel's Remembrance day for Fallen Soldiers.

I haven't much to say other than to express my gratitude for their sacrifice and my hope that peace will come in our days, so that no more young men and women will need to lay down their lives to guarantee our security.

The best way I can summarise the mood of the day is a turbulent mix of sorrow, pride and hope. Israel's army is one rather different from most others; it is a people's army. There are not that many people in Israel and as an army is needed at all times, most soldiers are not career miltary men but normal people who are called upon once or more a year to do reserve duty. As such, the whole country feels bound in some sense to the military.

It is often remarked upon that the United States of America and Israel enjoy a special relationship. I believe that this can be sourced to a certain tenacity and keen sense of justice that the countries share. Americans are aware that their country is democratic and liberal, and they are proud to this day for having shaken off Britain's shackles. Israel, too, is proud of it's having broken free and it's incredible flourishing. The positive, never-say-die attitudes of these two countries is only soured by the lives that have been sacrificed along the wau to realising these ideals.

As such, I don't have the slightest hesitation in sharing the peom below. I stumbled across it online a while ago. Although it was written by a former United States serviceman, I think it's relevant and beautiful. I hope you appreciate it as least as much as I do.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who has given us freedom of religion.

It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.

It is the Soldier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.

It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.

It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.

It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.

It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

© Copyright 1970, 2005 by Charles M. Province

Friday, April 16, 2010

Parshiot Tazria Metzora – פרשיות תזריע ומצורע

This week we have a double-reading of the Torah, when both Parshat Tazria and Parshat Metzora shall be read. I subscribe to a D'var Torah group on Facebook called "Inspiring weekly parsha" which sometimes helps fuel me with and leads me to find a specific D'var Torah that speaks to me. In this week's D'var Torah, a question is brought from the Lubavitch Rebbe's teachings: How is it that the majority of these two readings deal with impurity and the supernatural disease we call "Tzara'at," but the name of the first Parsha, "Tazria", (meaning "when a woman conceives,") is connected to conception and childbirth. These would appear to be two rather distant topics; how are they related?

This question seems especially relevant given that we learn in Masechet Nedarim that one "who suffers from Tzara'at is akin to a dead person." While this may be true, it serves only to highlight the seeming gap between the two subjects.

The truth is though, that the Tzara'at is not a punishment in the way that we are used to punishments. One of my favourite lines I heard during my time in Yeshiva was "You hate God? You don't believe in God? Don't worry, I don't believe in the God you don't believe in, either!" I'm afraid to say that I can't remember who said it, but the point remains with me nonetheless; the Jewish concept of God is notably different to other conceptions of a supernatural power reigning over us mortals. Whereas others see their god's actions towards the wicked as damning and punishing, the Jewish perspective is that all punishments are part of a process of correction.

God is not vengeful. No vengeful God would allow transgressors to be "rewarded", but that seems precisely what happens when one whose Tzara'at affliction spread to his house found out. We learn from Rashi's commentary that the previous tenants of the land, the Emorites, often hid treasure in the walls of the houses. Once Jews moved into these houses, markings appeared on the walls. In complying with the directive to destroy their houses in order to be rid of this affliction, the Kohen would smash the walls down and the caches of money hidden within the walls were revealed.

It was only through the affliction of the Tzar'at that the Jews received an indication of the presence of such treasure. The understanding here must be clear; the completion of the healing process is what we are to concentrate on, not the process itself. The punishments of the Torah are not intended to harm a person in return for the harm they caused. The reason that these punishments are "inflicted" upon sinners is actually for the benefit of the transgressor themselves.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, in his work "Be'er Yosef", makes an important and highly relevant observation. Of all the creatures in this world, only humans have the capacity to transcend various spiritual realms. Whereas the beasts, birds, fish and insects of the world are pre-defined as either falling into the category of pure or into the category of impure, humans have the capability to change.

With all this in mind, we may now understand why it is that this first Parsha was called Tazria. The themes of conception and birth are extremely pertinent to the case of Tzara'at, and all the punishments in the Torah, as these punishments are only given so to help us start afresh and enjoy a spiritual rebirth.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

More willful distortion courtesy of the BBC

I've taken umbrage with BBC reporting before, but this time I'm really mad.

The story in question, Religious row holds up Israeli hospital", is one that I was actually rather glad to see being reported upon as it was a story that carried national significance within Israel and made for good material on Israeli life and local affairs, as opposed to yet another one of the BBC's identikit pieces on the ongoing conflict which serves to make the region look like nothing but a bleak war zone. True, this story stems from a conflict of interest between the religious and secular factions in Israel, but I welcomed the BBC's decision to examine some other aspect of Israeli life.

The article explains that "new unit was to be fortified against the rockets often fired into Israel by Palestinian militants" because the hospital is located only 12km from the Gaza strip, well within reach of the Kassam and Grad rockets fired from there.

I was happy that the BBC would write this, but my initial feelings gave way to one of disbelief when I read an outrageous following lie slipped in the next sentence: "Nearly three-quarters of the hospital's patients had to be evacuated during Israel's military operation in Gaza last year, as there was nowhere safe for them to stay as the rockets fell in response."

To say my eyes nearly popped out of my head would be an understatement. Really? I never knew that the rockets fired at Israeli cities and towns were a response to Israel's attack on Hamas... Oh, how thoughtless of us! If only we'd known that earlier, we would have stopped attacking those poor Hamasniks. What a terrrible misunderstanding!

Of course, the truth is that the rocket fire on Israel predated Operation Cast Lead by a mere eight years. Operation Cast Lead was a response to the rocket fire, not the other way round. If the BBC wants to spread muck it should be more careful. Israel's detractors have apparently decided that the best way to do this is to malign Israel's intentions, disparaging us as wayward war criminals who wantonly kill the defenceless. The tactic works; such claims are difficult in the extreme to disprove.

But this time it would seem that the BBC hacks were a little too excited to share their perspective with the world and allowed their excitedness to get the better of them. If I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, I can only imagine that they've come to the point that they believe their own distorted perception of reality that they've forgotten that the operation was initiated after Hamas repeatedly allowed a six-month ceasefire to be broken, with the last straw coming after Israel realised that Hamas were using the lull to build tunnels with the aim of capturing more Israeli soldiers.

So they've either bought their own claptrap or they've decided to dispense with their normal method of working with reality and then spinning it to fit their own anti-Israel agenda. Either way, I'm appalled that the BBC can rewrite history like this.

Hamas struck first? No. Sod that. If the facts are inconvenient, just change them to suit your own ends. Who cares about the truth, anyway?

Oh, and another thing; do these rockets look "crude" or "home-made" (as the BBC loves to describe them) to you? Thought not.

The price one has to pay for living downtown

Fortunate as I am to reside in a property adjacent to Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem's main market, I knew when I moved in that there would be certain complications with life in this particular area. Take for instance the noises issued by the street cleaners that only come by at 3am. Because this is part of the city centre, the workers do their job at the time that causes the least disruption to commerce and traffic; in the dead of the night. It's a pain in the backside sometimes, but I'm getting used the churning and swooshing of heavy cleaning vans driving up my road in the wee hours of the morning.

For a long time I also had to put up with almost constant noise from the construction of the Jerusalem light rail along Rehov Yafo, a road which forms a junction with mine and also happens to be Jerusalem's main artery. Again, the best time for work to go on seemed to be in the dead of the night, but I managed to acclimatise myself to the racket.

In short, I knew that there would be a price to pay for living in such a brilliant location. But I never thought I'd have anything like this:

Dear residents of Shuk Mahane Yehuda and the surrounding area,

On this Monday, the evening of Independence day, a party will take place in Mahane Yehuda market, on the open Mahane Yehuda street.

The party is the initiative of the Students Union of the Hebrew University and with the support of the Jerusalem municipality, the communal council and the board of the market sellers.

The party will start at 23:00 at night and continue till 4:00 in the morning.

During these hours a public address system will be in use and thousands of spectators are expected to gather in the area.

The event has been fully approved and secured through the Israeli police and various law enforcement [agencies].

Thank you for your cooperation, and please accept our prior apologies for all the inconvenience that is liable to be caused following the event, and thank you for your helping us to cause a young spirit to blossom in the city.

We'll be delighted to see you in the visiting crowd!

The Students Union and the Jerusalem Municpality.

My immediate thoughts are ones of wonder, hilarity and disgust. How on earth is it that the local residents find out about an event that is planned to run through the early hours of the night five days before it is actually due to occur? I've heard of chutzpah, but this beggars belief. While this certainly isn't the outskirts of the city, there's no real reason why a party should be held here. It's actually highly populated; many families and elderly people live in the area and I don't suppose that they are exactly thrilled by the prospect of thumping music and loud screams keeping them up till way past their bedtimes.

As a student of the Hebrew University, I find this richly amusing but am aware that a good many of my neighbours will not feel that way at all. What does "please accept our prior apologies for all the inconvenience that is liable to be caused following the event" mean? This sounds suspiciously like a vague and lame warning that drunken students are going to relieve themselves in your building entrances, smash your cars up and keep you awake till well past the event itself ends. It's actually pathetic and disgracefully disrespectful. I'm flabbergasted that this can happen.

If this is the price one has to pay for living in the area, I'm surprised that there aren't at least minor protests or demonstrations by the neighbours.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tel Aviv

As a religious Jew, I feel a deep connection to the land of Israel. It is the land where my forefathers lived, stretching back through the era of King David and Solomon, the time that Yehoshua bin Nun took the people of Israel into the land following the exodus from Egypt, all the way to the days when Avraham was challenged by God to "go for yourself," leave his father's home and head to this, his true home. While I grew up in England and will forever be grateful for the education and relative security I was afforded in my time there, Israel has always been my real home.

For hundreds of years, Jews around the world have dreamed of making Aliyah and moving back to this holy land. Only in recent years has this dream become a real possibility, what with the resurrection of a Jewish state coupled with such innovations as mass air travel. I am incredibly lucky in that I never really had to put much thought into my own Aliyah; when I was in my mid-teens I knew that I wanted to move here and once I finished my schooling there, that's exactly what I did. No fuss. Compare that to the quite literally life-threatening journeys some people made in order to arrive here in the Holy Land. In times gone by, people made real sacrifices in order to set up a home here.

Given this long-held affection and yearning for the land by generation after generation of Jews, I can understand why some feel so upset and detached from Tel Aviv. It is cliched to describe Tel Aviv as a city quite unlike the rest of Israel, but it really is hard not to note this; it's even earned itself the nickname "HaBuah", the bubble, for it seems to be relatively unaffected by the convulsions the rest of the country goes through. While wars have gone on and the rest of the country has been operating in a state of semi-shock, it has been observed that Tel Aviv continues as if nothing is happening. The lights of the White City, as it is known, are lit up all night, every night. While other parts of the country remain deeply connected to tradition and religion, Tel Aviv is proudly secular, modern and forward-looking. After all the years waiting for our return to the promised land, I can understand the dismay of many religious Jews that Tel Aviv seems less a Jewish city than an identikit, soul-free metropolis.

But I don't think that's the case. Just now I saw this wondeful street sign on Facebook. A quick google map search showed me that it's the only of it's kind in all of Israel.

Am Yisrael Chai - The People of Israel Live

True, Tel Aviv is no Jerusalem, but the overwhelming majority of the people of Tel Aviv don't for one second deny their Jewish identity. Many are indeed secular and practise next to nothing of the religious traditions that the dozens of generations that preceded them had so vigourously and attentively safeguarded. But these people do not despise Judaism. Far from it. They are proud of who they are. If there's one thing I've learned and am trying to pursue, it is that we have to look for the common ground between us. I subscribe to a Torah-guided way of life and, as a religious Orthodox Jew, would dearly love all other Jews to do the same. But I know that such a dream is far-fetched. Instead of becoming frustrated with reality, I have to learn to accept it for what it is and look for the positives. There are plenty, if only we look for them.

In case you're interested, the street is located here.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Living in Israel, sometimes I find myself in a situation where I just have to laugh, be amazed and be thankful all at once. Other people refer to these moments by the phrase, "Only in Israel", which although I don't like to use myself, is one I really do understand.

One such moment happened to me yesterday. Normally I cycle to and from university, but as I had participated in a ceremony to mark Yom HaShoah, I was dressed in smart clothes yesterday and had taken the bus instead. As I walked home from the bus stop, I took a quick glance at where my bicycle was in the morning. I looked away and then did a double-take; my bike was no longer there. I looked again, more intently this time, and told myself that maybe I had left it somewhere else. I had just bought a hefty, thick new lock and was convinced that there was no way someone could have stolen my wheels. Certainly not during daylight hours, anyway.

Coming closer, I saw another bike, about a meter away from where mine had been, but leaning awkwardly against a post that had not been there in the morning. See the pictures below...

And then I realised what had happened. The parking meter to which I locked my bike every day had, for reasons unknown, been deemed unfit for purposes by the authorities. A new pole had been erected a bit closer to the street and the meter itself lifted from the old pole and attached to the new one. Now this is the part that fills me with pride at my country. Instead of leaving my bike attached to a pole or leaving it on the street so that anybody could have stolen it, the workers evidently lifted it up over the old pole, put it over the new one and then attached the meter, thus keeping my bike safely locked up.

I don't want to slur other countries or say this for certain, but I highly doubt that this would have happened to me if I still lived in England. Sometimes, as I said, life in Israel throws up a situations where I just have to laugh, be amazed and be thankful all at once. I love it :)

Final thoughts on Yom HaShoah

Today was Holocaust Memorial Day. I don't think I need, or can, say much about the horrors of the Holocaust here; they are well documented and any attempt by me to compress such events into a short blog post would be futile. In any case, I'm sure you are well aware of what happened at that terrible time.

Instead, the point of this entry is to try to marshal and share some of my thoughts here. Over the last few years, I've done a lot of thinking about the way we relate to the Holocaust and think it would be nice to put them out into the open and hear what other people think of my beliefs. Please note that my views are far from finalised; there's plenty for me to absorb yet and if you have any input at all, I'd be only too glad to listen.

Although I've spent a few years in Israel now, I'd never really felt the spirit of the day. Holocaust Memorial day is marked all around the globe; but in Israel it takes on an entirely different meaning. Here, it is so much more personal, so much more relevant, so much more palpable.

For those of you who haven't experienced it; it's an unbelievable sight; the whole country shuts down in a way that happens on only one other date on the calendar -- Yom HaZikaron; the memorial day for fallen soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces. Not even Yom Kippur is this eerie; people stop in the street as the siren sounds and bow their heads in respect to the dead. Even cars cruising on motorways pull to a halt as the siren goes off. (Watch this video to see what I mean.) Like I said, the observance of the day is so deeply moving that it verges on the palpable.

The first year I was here I was in yeshiva and nobody actually heard the siren go off at 10am. I was dismayed that such a thing had been allowed to happen, but couldn't do much about it. The following two years I observed the day in the army, once with a relatively brief ceremony of about ten minutes. I can't remember what happened the following year. And the year after, last year, I was back in England. So this was my first real Yom HaShoah experience. I had volunteered to take part in one of the Hebrew University's ceremonies. At 11, the siren went off and the audience rose as one. We stood in total silence for two minutes and then quietly listened to the ceremony over the next hour or so.

Over the course of that two minute silence, my mind dwelt for some time on words that I often see and hear in connection with the Holocaust. Never again. At once, I feel both tremendously connected to that sentiment, but at the same time, I also feel that such a statement of defiance is whollry foolish. Of course such an evil must be stopped from ever occurring again, but how? We can call the Nazis the most despicable criminals to have ever existed on this blood-soaked world of ours, but I don't that we can do that. It is my belief that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were aided by the technological advances of the time. In an age where guns could be mass produced and where propaganda could be spread by radio and newspapers to turn an unsuspecting and trusting public into supporters of genocide, who's to say that the Nazis weren't simply anti-Semites in the mould of those who massacred Jews in the middle ages but with the crucial difference of having the right tools at their disposal to take their hatred for Jews to unprecedented proportions? Some say that they will "Never forgive, never forget", but isn't that irrational? Who hates the English or the French for their medieval brutalities to the Jews? The Germans just had the ability to transform their hatred for Jews into a genocide.

More importantly, why weren't the Nazis rejected internally and externally, by the people of Germany and by other countries, who should have realised well before the Holocaust started that the Nazis were up to no good? I don't know if there's a good or simple explanation for this, but I do know that this kind of situation could easily arrive again. We say "Never again", but who are we saying these words to? I only learned this year that the Hebrew name for the day is not merely Yom HaShoah, Holocaust day, but rather Yom HaZikaron laShoah v'laGvurah; Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. As I wrote above, in Israel, this day takes on an entirely different meaning. Here, an important part of the fabric of the day is to remember the heroism of those who saved lives and those who fought back. I must make clear that I completely respect and identify with this. Much as Israel is accused of "being caught up and stuck in the memory of the Holocaust", it should be entirely understandable that this is a country that will never, ever move on completely from such a horrendous tragedy. On this day, Israelis remind themselves that no longer will be weak or pushed around by other nations, and that from now on we will be the masters of our own fate.

If I may be slightly controversial, I disagree with this approach. In the time when countries had many dominions and rulers, and when villages and towns were isolated polities, the resident Jewish population were subject to the whims of the provincial authorities. As national governments began to form and replace local princes, knights or whoever else happened to be in charge, the Jews found themselves targeted on a wider scale, leading in numerous instances to Jews being ejected from their host country. As the age of statehood was being born, Theodore Herzl had a vision, a solution; the Jewish state. But now that we live in this age of statehood, we can see that the Jews are now being targeted on a national level. On each and every step of the journey, the persecution of the Jews has been accepted as logical and correct. With the benefit of hindsight though, we can see that every single time there was no justification at all for the atrocities that took place. Never again? I don't want to call it a silly, meaningless, cliched slogan because it clearly isn't. Not when it helps bring strength to a people who need unity and a community spirit to survive. But who can truly say that such a fate does not lie in wait for us in the future?

In an article published in today's Haaretz, Professor Robert Wistrich, who heads Hebrew University's International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, is quoted as saying: "Sixty-four years after Auschwitz, the politics of genocidal anti-Semitism and the indifference that made it possible are still with us." He later adds: "It is almost certainly unrealistic to imagine that we could eradicate anti-Semitism." Although there have been periods during which Jew-hatred has seemed to be relatively dormant, "it's always there beneath the surface."

As if to underline the point I'm trying to make, I just saw today's Dry Bones political cartoon. It hit the spot perfectly.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Parshat Shmini - פרשת שמיני

"וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-חַטָּאתְךָ וְאֶת-עֹלָתֶךָ, וְכַפֵּר בַּעַדְךָ, וּבְעַד הָעָם; וַעֲשֵׂה אֶת-קָרְבַּן הָעָם, וְכַפֵּר בַּעֲדָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר, צִוָּה יְהוָה - And Moshe said to Aharon: 'Draw near to the altar, and ryour sin-offering and your burnt-offering, and make atonement for yourself, and for the people; and make the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as Hashem commanded."
(ויקרא ט:ז)

Two parshiot ago, in the opening word of the book of Vayikra, we note how the letter א of the word ויקרא is written in superscript so as to make the word look likeויקר  and then have a small א next to it. The reason Rashi gives there is that Moshe felt that the word ויקרא, he called, which has warm and affectionate connotations, shouldn't be used so that he would not appear to be closer to God than any other person. From that episode we learn that the root letters of that word, קרא, which reappear here, are ones that betray a sense of warmth.

In his commentary on this pasuk, Rashi explains that Aharon was embarrassed and so, calling out affectionately, Moshe gently reminded  his brother that he had no need to feel embarrassed by the command as this was merely his job. The problem is, although this explanation serves us well enough to shed light on why there remains a slight difficulty; it is not entirely clear what it is that causes Aharon to feel so embarrassed.

Picking up on the same issue, Rav Moshe Feinstein writes in D'rash Moshe that the expression that Moshe Rabbeinu uses above, "קְרַב אֶל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ - Draw near to the altar," is an interesting one. Rav Feinstein explains that although Aharon, his sons and all their descendents obviously had no problem in obeying this directive and would surely fulfill this mitzvah, this particular command was quite unlike any other. Aharon and his children were aware that the mitzvot they were commanded to do in conjunction with the Avoda were given to them specifically because they were invested with a higher degree of sanctity that the rest of the Jewish people.

It is for this reason that before the Kohanim bless the congregants in synagogues around the world on Chagim, and daily in Israel, the words אשר קדשנו בקדשתו של אהרן, Who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon, are used; these words are not part of the formula of any other blessing, and with good reason. Although the firstborn sons of the Jewish people were originally given the honour of performing the sacrificial service before the Kohanim were formally appointed to fulfill that role, they did not have a similar blessing to recite. The reason is clear; the Kohanim have been invested with a special type of holiness, and that is something that is special and unique to them. The source of this holiness can be traced back to Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, the very first Kohen ever.

Because of his unique stature and role, Aharon felt ashamed. Not because of any trivial reason, but because it meant his assuming a superior sanctity; something which he did not feel totally at ease with. Seeing this, his brother, Moshe, attempted to both calm him and tell him that this was what God had chosen for him, and that he need not feel embarrassed.

I think we can learn a tremendous amount from this episode. As Jews, we believe that we have a special mission in this role. To that end, we are the recipients of a special type of sanctity; one that sets apart from the other nations of the world, in much the same manner as the Kohanim are set apart from the rest of the Jewish nation. But it is crucial to note that this special attribute is not to be used as a source of excess pride or something to brag about. Similarly, I note two brachot in the morning liturgy; one for males to thank God that they were not 'made' (to translate as accurately as I can) female, and a second one in which both male and female Jews thank God that they were not 'made' non-Jewish.

At first, one might think that these blessings are highly discriminatory and offensive, but that it absolutely not the case. The point in both blessings is that each and every person on this world has their own challenge and that the role that they are tasked with fulfilling is one that is suited to them. There is obviously nothing wrong with being a woman; in fact, we can all agree that a world without women would be a fairly miserable one! The real issue being highlighted is that the person reciting the prayer is referring to the role that he has to play and is thankful for not being given one that he would be entirely unsuited to. In many, many ways, it seems to be a lot harder to be woman than a man, and I only thank God that I was not made a woman. So too with the blessing of being non-Jewish. Just like Aharon was reminded by his brother that he need not be embarrassed by his being mentioned in the Kohanim's blessing, I must understand and readily fulfill my role as a Jew. All the same, it is crucial that I must not let myself become distracted and allow my ego to overtake me; my being a Jew merely means that I am equipped to do a specific job in this world.

Latma's modern take on Chad Gadya

I know it's a little late, but this pointed clip, produced by Latma, is slowly and painfully making the rounds here. If you are not Israeli you will miss a little of its meaning, sensitive and controversial as it is.

An English version of the clip is available too, but I suggest you try watching the Hebrew as well if you understand.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Saw this a while ago

I'd seen the map below a while back, but only ever thought of it as a useful educational resource. It seems highly accurate and very well put together, with good graphics to boot. Despite all this, I didn't think I'd need to look at it again. But having seen a recent blog entry by Daled Amos, I've realised that this map isn't simply a useful one-dimensional educational resource, but also an important one that quite clearly presents the history of the region and allows viewers to understand the scale of the territory being fought over today.

Often I have debates with people about the legitmacy of the Jewish claim to the land of Israel and I wonder whether these people have any idea about the size of the land of Israel relative to the surrounding states or the historic presence of the Jewish people. Assuming that this map is indeed accurate, I would highly recommend all to view it as it really is very enlightening.

Additionally, as Daled Amos (quoting Israellycool) challenges: "See if you can spot when a Palestinian state existed".