Monday, May 31, 2010

The Dual Tragedy of The Flotilla

The events off the coast of Gaza in the early hours of Monday morning were a significant moment in the history of the State of Israel. More than that, they were a dual tragedy.

Before we go any further, it must be made abundantly clear that neither I nor anyone I know rejoices in the deaths of these activists. It is not in our nature to celebrate the deaths of anyone, not even those who were part of a group that had earlier chanted “Khaybar Khaybar ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad saya'ud," meaning "Jews remember Khaybar, the army of Mohammed is returning," a reference to a seventh-century Muslim massacre and expulsion of Jews from Khaybar, which is in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Despite this despicable loathsomeness, with the benefit of hindsight, I'd much rather that the ships had safely docked in Gaza than lives being needlessly wasted.

At the time of going to press, 15 people have died as a result of the IDF’s boarding the flotilla as it approached Gaza, but this does not mean that I criticize the actions of the IDF. Neither do I reserve criticism of the actions of these "human rights" activists. Taking a glance at some of the headlines from the world media, one would be forgiven that Israel had stormed aid ships for no particular reason. "Deadly clashes at sea as Israel intercepts Gaza-bound aid ships," reports the Times of London. "10 Reported Killed as Israel Raids Boats Headed to Gaza" announces the New York Times.

Even reading the headline on the Jerusalem Post, "At least 15 activists dead, dozens hurt in flotilla clashes", it is hard to get away from the pervading sense of injustice felt from that now all too familiar of situations; Israeli troops acting heavy-handedly and killing unarmed civilians. Irrespective of whether their actions were right or wrong, the balance appears so lop-sided, peace activists on the one hand and soldiers on the other, that most people's minds are made up well before they read the articles themselves.

But a serious question lies at the heart of the affair. How and why did a supposedly passive peace demonstration turn rowdy to the degree for the military forces who had boarded the boat to feel threatened enough to open fire? The answer has been stated repeatedly of the last few days and stares us in the face: these were no peace activists. These were no human rights activists, these people had a very clear agenda in mind: the delegitimization of Israel.

Much has been said of this deligitimization of Israel, but what is it? What is being delegitimized, exactly? Well, Israel's right to defense, for one. When every single defense operation is questioned, criticized and consequently condemned, we would do well to realize that we are witnessing the systematic denial of Israel’s right to defend herself.

Similarly, when events like the death of Mohammed Al-Dura in 2000, the so-called “Massacre in Jenin” in 2002, the bombing of Hezballah forces in Qana, Lebanon in 2006, and the “disproportional” Israeli offensive on Hamas in Operation Cast Lead are spun out of all proportion, we must understand that the damage done to Israel’s image is long lasting and its ability to strike out at terrorists is being methodically wiped out.

There’s one question I’ve asked myself repeatedly over the last few years: “And how would you handle it?” I’ve imagined this question being asked of Kofi Annan, Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and now I ask it of these activists and their supporters. Maybe Israel’s actions aren’t always correct, but Israel has the sovereign right to act in the way it deems fit. If you don’t like the way we deal with terrorists, how about proposing an alternative solution to prevent Hamas proliferating its stockpile of military grade weaponry? If you don’t like human shields, and you shouldn’t if you care about human rights, how do you propose that the IDF tackles Hamas, an extremist group bent on Israel’s destruction that also happens to make extensive use of this tactic?

News agencies worldwide reported that the Israeli Navy stormed a flotilla carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists and tons of supplies for Gaza on Monday morning. But they didn’t give more than passing mention to the fact that these pro-Palestinian activists had intentionally and deliberately provoked the IDF into acting. Amid reports from the IDF which claims that soldiers were met by well-planned lynch involving concealed handguns, knives, bats and metal pipes, we would do well to note that prior to boarding the flotilla, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Marom, Commander of the Israeli Navy, briefed the forces who participated in the interception of these protest boats, and called on them not be dragged into provocations with the passengers of the ship.

Referring to previous experience with such protesters, Marom explained that no matter what “provocation that they may create, and there are here a number of soldiers that participated in past events, for example to throw cigarettes, spitting, cursing, and so forth; we do not respond to these types of actions.” While Marom correctly identified these “peace activists” as paradoxically unpleasant to deal with, even he could not have predicted that there would be those amongst their number who would attempt to steal the soldiers’ guns, let alone stab them. But that is precisely what occurred. For us to regard these people as genuine peace activists would be a real tragedy.

Gen. Maj. Marom explained that “we have no intention of harming any of these people”, but that was sadly not the case with the activists. Beyond physically hurting the soldiers, their intention to give Israel’s image a good hiding could not be clearer. We may call them pro-Palestinian activists, but that would be a fib, for they had plenty of other options available to them, but instead went for the cheap PR stunt. And yet the PR stunt is the one way that wins. Israel yet again emerges as the loser, it’s entitlement to protect its population damaged. Worse still, this affair sets a dangerous precedent. Even after the criticism has faded and the media move on to the next big story, Israel will be left as many as 15 “Rachel Corries” to explain, 15 more images of Israeli brutality, injustice, violent excess. No matter whether the deceased foolishly tried to provoke soldiers in their last moments, they will become icons for the anti-Israel movement for an eternity.

The events off the coast of Gaza in the early hours of Monday morning were a dual tragedy. People died, and for that I grieve. But if Israel’s right to defend itself continues to be eroded, and if a precedent has been set here, more people will die. And that would be an even greater tragedy.

The Terrorists Speak of Morality

This is a guest post by a friend, Channah Barkhordari.

I read an article in The Jerusalem Post tonight that has made me more sickened than perhaps any other I have read this year.

As many of you may know, there is a bill pending ratification in the Knesset that is meant to take away some of the supreme benefits being afforded to the Hamas terrorists in Israel's prisons. The logic behind the bill is that since Gilad Schalit has been held captive by Hamas for over four years, (the terrorist group refusing to reveal one iota of information regarding his whereabouts and living conditions, and continually breaking international law by restricting access to him by even the Red Cross,) it seems quite superfluous to provide amenities to Hamas terrorist prisoners that stretch over and above the legal requirements. Removing them is meant to provide some pressure on Hamas to return Gilad. (Jerusalem Post Editorial, 25/5/10)

At first I was relieved that Gilad was once again being focussed upon and that we are doing something. But if you asked me yesterday whether I thought the move would affect any serious progress, I would have said no — not because, as I discovered tonight, I should have known the sickening depth with which the leaders of Hamas deal in unconditional terror, but because the bill is simply not enough.

For one thing, I was unaware that Hamas terrorists were receiving such a range of stimulating benefits in Israel's prisons, from the option of pursuing higher education at Israel's Open University, to multi-channel cable TV. Yes, this is horribly ironic. Hamas restricts these basic rights, objective higher education and free press, from the Palestinians under their control on a consistent basis. What could make the situation clearer when the best place for a Hamas terrorist to go, or any Palestinian of Gaza for that matter, is an Israeli prison?

Do you think that maybe, just maybe, it makes sense that when your own soldiers (yes, soldiers plural—for Gilad we have the most hope, but there are more of our brothers missing—) are hidden behind circumstances so precarious we daily wonder at their life or death, that perhaps we shouldn’t make our enemies so comfortable?

But I digress. The source of my disgust was not that article, but this one. As I read, it became clear that Hamas’ reaction to the bill was an immediate threat against Gilad. And this does not mean taking away his books, TV, or visitation rights. He, of course, has none of these, and as we may guess has suffered far worse than we know. Though Israel has considered quarantine for Hamas prisoners, Gilad is already in the remotest of isolation. The exact wording of Hamas representatives is that he will “suffer,” that they will not stop those guarding him from “retaliating,” and that they would treat Schalit “according to what its religion tells it and in a way that satisfies its God.” We know what this implies; the Hamas charter spells it out clearly. This is their desire for the destruction of our people in the symbol of one IDF soldier. This may well be, G-d forbid, a threat to torture him, possibly maintaining the vitals of his physical life so they can continue to use him as a bargaining chip for freeing over a thousand Israel-kept prisoners…or possibly eventually returning him to us, G-d forbid, as they did Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser...

Yet I would expect that from Hamas. I would expect the threat, in its all-too-well-understood gravity, as they have continually called for our destruction and total annihilation, continually attempted to make it a reality. But what made me sick, though I can’t explain why, was what Jamal Nassar, Hamas legislator in Gaza, then proceeded to say. And I quote The Jerusalem Post, “The ‘Gilad Schalit Bill’ reflected the ‘moral decline’ of the Israeli government and signaled the beginning of its collapse, Nassar said” (Khaled Abu Toameh, The Jerusalem Post, 26/5/10). The “moral decline” of the Israeli government…

Many people this year have told me that things bother me too much; that I ought not let them bother me. That I’m too sensitive, that I allow things get to me, that if I learned how to let go I would be happier. "What do I care if he says it?" they say. "Let him say it." And perhaps they are right. But something so unjust, so inverted, so absolutely evil is embodied in that one statement that the word “hypocrite” is like a weak and trite pebble in the mountain of what is being invoked here. Something indescribably black and foul is hiding in the soul of its message, something that goes against humanity itself.

I will acknowledge, but not concede to those who say I have wasted my time in writing this. Perhaps I felt it simply needed to be said, or that I needed to say it. Perhaps in truth I believe that it is our sensitivity that makes us human, and that it is specifically the G-d given sensitivity of עם ישראל that defines being a “light unto the nations.” But one thing I know for sure — what happens to Gilad will be so much more than the life of a single soldier. What happens to Gilad will serve as the emotional and political barometer of a nation who has had enough of terror, a nation that seeks peace and pursues it. There can be no other outcome, because like Jerusalem, we will never forget Gilad.

Awaiting the speedy return of our brother in safety and peace.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Steven Spielberg on the Sh'ma

I saw this video clip last week on the Muqata blog and had to share it. Hope you enjoy :)

Evil Zionists At It Again

My brother just posted the following link to his Facebook page. The title, "Palestinian Fatah Fighters Rehabilitate in Israel", only hints at the many hours of effort and the masses of resources that the Israeli government has invested in nursing these fighters; men committed to a cause that yearns for Israel's destruction.

It makes me wonder how Israel time and again is portrayed in such a negative light when things like this are routine in Israel. Yes, Israel engages in scary, dangerous and often lethal military operations, but it does not embark on these missions lightly; we care passionately about life and our fighting is to protect it, not to endanger it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Parshat Beha'alotcha - פרשת בהעלותך

וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר. "דבר אל אהרון ואמרת אליו: 'בהעלותך את הנרות אל-מול פני המנורה יאירו שבעת הנרות.' " -Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, "Speak to Aharon, and say to him: 'When you light the lights towards the face of the Menorah, the seven lamps shall cast light.' "
(במדבר ח:א-ב)

I have two short thoughts on this week's Parsha. I don't normally like writing my own thoughts in case my own understanding happens to (inadvertently) clash with that posited by those with far greater perception and wisdom in Torah knowledge than me. But this week I feel fairly safe, given that neither are controversial and after having thought of the second one, I read a D'var Torah by a friend (Eitan Rapps) and discovered that it had been written about by a well-known Rabbi.

The first section of this D'var Torah deals with the very first words of the Parsha, written above. As you can see, Hashem speaks to Moshe to speak to Aharon, the Head Cohen, and instruct him to light the Menorah. Although I'd read this, and similar passages numerous times, I was struck by the seeming redundancy of Hashem speaking to Aharon through an intermediary. We know that Moshe was a prophet and merited to have Hashem speak to him, but why couldn't Aharon have heard this instruction directly from Hashem himself? After all, wasn't Aharon a great prophet in his own right?

The answer that I suggest is that we can see here how a dual leadership is prevented. If Aharon had been given a route to circumvent the need to go through his brother, Moshe's authority would have been eroded to some extent. There would have been the leader of the people, all the people but for one exception. I can imagine no easier way to stoke discontent than to provide people with a public example of someone who's authority is publicly disregarded. So, despite Aharon and Moshe being brothers, and despite Aharon's own monumental spiritual level, Hashem still made sure that Moshe's role as a leader was not compromised.

I think we may learn another, more practical, thing from this, too. Twice in the first chapter in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers,) we read the much-discussed imperative: "עשה לך רב - Make yourself a Rabbi." Each and every single one of us must find for ourselves a spiritual leader. The decision rests with us; we must find someone we are comfortable with, but ultimately we all are commanded to find someone more learned than ourselves in order to learn from them. And here too, we see that even someone who reaches the towering spiritual heights achieved by Aharon is not exempt from this.


The second thought I had is also based on the two verse quoted above, but this time the focus is on the word 'בהעלותך', which we may loosely translate as 'When you light.' In Rashi's commentary on the Torah, a well-known explanation of this term is given. The normal term for lighting candles is להדליק; it could just as easily have been written בהדלקתך above. Rashi notes that the word used, 'בהעלותך', is "לשון עלייה, שצריך להדליק עד שתהא השלהבת עולה מאליה," which may be loosely translated as meaning that "the terms is one associated with 'going up', and that one needs to kindle [a light] until the flame rise by itself." Rashi's point is that there was a special manner in which Aharon had to light the flames of the Menorah, and therefore the unusual term בהעלותך is employed.

Rav Avigdor Neventzahl, the former Chief Rabbi of the Old City of Jerusalem, explains however, that this isn't actually any different from the way we light any candle. Anyone who's tried taking a flame way from a candle before it's risen by itself knows that the candle will not light; of course you wait for the candle to catch the first flame and rise by itself; that's just the normal procedure.

When I was pondering the matter myself, an old Oxfam advert came to my mind. The voiceover explains that if you "give a child some corn" she won't be hungry for a short while. But if you "give her family the chance to grow their own corn," they will be independent of handouts, and will be able to provide food for themselves, earn money and send their children to school. I see a parallel between the advert and Rashi's point on the meaning of the word בהעלותך; the word teaches us how to give to people. Rather than simply giving people to stop-gap solutions, we must aim to find the root cause of the problem, fix that, and enable people to provide for themselves.

In a similar fashion, Rav Neventzahl points out that the phrase refers to the optimal way in which to teach and learn Torah. If a teacher feeds his students Torah so that they are not excited by what is being said, but listen nevertheless, then the moment he departs from their presence, their Torah learning will cease. Instead the teacher is charged with the task of igniting their students' souls. One of the greatest satisfactions in this world is creativity. Humans are markedly different from other creations in that they are able to change the conditions around them as well as express thoughts and feelings. If we give to someone, we are depriving them of their ability to be human. Rather we must allow them to rise up (as Rashi says, לשון עלייה) with their own creative energy so that they may give themselves.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Help the poor people of Gaza!

Supported by trendy-lefties*, hippies and anarchists, a new flotilla has set sail from Western Europe with the aim of "breaching the Israeli blockade" of Gaza and providing much needed supplies to the residents of the Gaza Strip.

Of course, this now well-established PR stunt will serve to stoke the anti-Israel rhetoric and will most likely give people whose moral compasses are somewhat wonky a chance to holler their crazed beliefs and consipracy theories into the microphones of the world's press.

Unfortunately for them, their efforts are unlikely to help the average Gazan on the street, as it were. Aside from relentlessly shooting rockets at Israeli villages and cities and public executions of anyone who publicly disagrees with its extreme religious or political stance, Hamas should also be known for its repeated stealing of supplies intended for the very citizens it is supposed to be governing and looking after.

But this does not concern the jolly group of solidarity activists; this is more about decrying Israel as a despicable country that perpetrates war crimes than it is about supporting and caring for their fellow human beings. No, if they really cared, they would go to countries where real abuses of human rights take place, where no one is permitted to strike a balance for minorities, where there is no journalistic freedom, where there is no judicial review. They could go to Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe but that none of these are a real cause celebre is telling.

Meanwhile, 97 trucks laden with building materials were permitted into the Gaza Strip earlier today. And this is no one-off. So much aid has been entering Gaza, that MFA Spokesman Yigal Palmor announced earlier today that, "Since the ceasefire in January 2009, well over a million tons of humanitarian supplies entered Gaza from Israel - that is almost a ton of aid for each man, woman and child in the Strip." (Source: here)

If this is a siege, Israel's mighty and imperious evil war machine isn't exactly doing its job efficiently, is it? The truth is that there is no seige of Gaza, there is no blockade, there is no illegal collective punishment being wreaked upon the Palestinian people. There undoubtedly are shortages of many goods, but none to the point where people are desperate for them. In any case, for as long as the tunnel industry is able to smuggle in items as large as cars, (in addition to augmenting Hamas's massive stockpile of rifles, rockets and other weaponry) it is quite clear that Gazans are not in a dire need for anything. The unfortunate truth is that the blockade is a lie; something these activists are unwilling to admit.

So it seems to me like these "pro-Palestinian" activists are no more than a rowdy bunch of hate-filled nuts who need to mouth off about the "despotism" of the Israeli government. I would say that they would be better served by reading the news, but no doubt they'd find some way to twist what they read to their agenda, too.

In the meantime, I post this video below. It makes for highly recommended viewing and serves to set the record straight about the people these activists plan to meet with.

* You know the type; the kind who invariably have immense trouble placing Israel on a map, let alone answering correctly questions about its size relative to the countries surrounding it. Or indeed those who posit that Israel has a population of over 100 million or some such exorbitant figure, that it's national language is Jewish and that it practices apartheid. You can spot them a mile away; they like to wear designer spectacle, T shirts bearing slogans such as "End Poverty Now!" (any suggestions on how to overthrow corrupt African regimes without sparking a war, sweethearts?) and with that most sickeningly omnipresent of fashion statements — the keffiyeh — carefully draped around their necks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Parshat Naso - פרשת נשא

With 176 verses, Parshat Naso, is noted for being the longest in the Torah. I'd like to share with you two interesting insights I just read. The first is very short: The Chiddushei HaRim (who happened to be the grandfather of the Sfat Emet), observed that not only is the length of the parsha itself noteworthy, but also the number of column inches relating to this Parsha in the Midrashim and in the Zohar, too. Noting that this week's parsha almost always falls the weekend after the festival of Shavuot (the festival on which we celebrate receiving the Torah), the Chidushei HaRim suggests that Chazal were given the merit to plumb the depths of this parsha to unparalleled levels.

The second thought on the parsha is one that many people observe for themselves; that the reading this week is very long mainly due to the full account of the gifts that the Nesi'im (the heads of the tribes) brought to the temple. It would seem to us that there is an endless repetition here of the gifts brought. We might be excused for thinking that it would have been enough for the Torah to give a brief summary, but clearly Hashem saw fit to write this episode in full, without skipping even the smallest of details.

There are a number of reasons for the Torah's meticulous recording of the gift offerings being brough here. I wrote about one reason ealier this year in Parshat Vayakhel: there, the Nesi'im resolved to wait until the rest of the nation had brought whatever they could for the temple, and when the rest of the people had brought all that they could, the Nesi'im planned to provide all that which had not yet been supplied. Unfortunately for them, they did not anticipate that the people would be so generous, and only managed to make a donation at the last minute when they saw that everything was going to be provided without their help. There, the Torah writes their name והנשיאים, "(And the) Nesi'im" without the letter י, so that it appears as והנשאם. This removal of a letter associated with God's name was a form of rebuke for the princes' seeming lack of eagerness.

Fast forward to this week's parsha, and we read of the princes' willing and abundant procession of gifts. Having first rebuked their behaviour, the Torah ensures that when the princes make good on their ealier error, they are afforded a full account of their deeds. The message is clear: when someone corrects his ways, it is only proper to give that person recognition for having made the effort.

An alternative reason as to why this event is written in full is given by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Rabbi Krohn tells a story about Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, the Kovno Rav, who lived in Russia. Back in those days, the Jewish population lived in fear that their young men would get drafted into the Russian Army; something that was very hard to get out of. One who did enter the Russian military had a tough time in store; quite apart from the usual problems of serving in an army, the Russian army made it especially hard for people to remain religiously observant. The only hope was to acquire a military exemption.

In this story, one student, Yaakov, had applied for an exemption and was waiting for Moscow to respond to his request. Knowing that obtaining such an exemption was a tricky matter, Yaakov and his friends nervously anticipated the authorities' reply. One day, while Yaakov's cherished Rabbi, Rav Yitzchak Elchonon, was engaged with other Rabbis in resolving a complex and thorny affair through Jewish law, a young man interrupted proceedings to tell his Rabbi that he had just received the wondeful news that Yaakov ahd been given an exemption from military service. The Rabbi smiled, thanked the student, and blessed him for bringing the news.

The boy left happy and the Rabbis resumed their deliberations. But not long afterwards, another student burst into the room. Again, he told the Rabbi that he had very important news to convey; that Yaakov, one of the Rabbi's most beloved students, had managed to get out of serving in the army. Again, the Rabbi was thankful and proceeded to bless him for having brought such good news. A little while later, yet another boy entered the room. Yet again, the Rabbi was careful to smile and thank the "intruder", making sure to bless him for having been considerate and letting the Rabbi know of this development.

This chain of events repeated itself a number of times over the course of the afternoon, and each time the Rabbi was careful to treat each visitor in the exact same manner.

The lesson here is perfectly clear; despite the news being "old", the Rabbi made sure to receive each and every guest in the same manner as the first person who came to tell him. Unaware that their Rabbi had already heard the news, they were eager to share it with him and were each clearly anticipating seeing him take pleasure and relief. Although he could have explained gently that he already knew, the Rabbi understood that it was more important to allow each of them to express their feelings and therefore acted as he did. In much the same way, the seemingly inordinate length of this week's Parsha is neccesitated; each and every gift brought by the princes may have been no more than a repeitition of that which was brought previously, but Hashem wanted to show them that their intentions and desires were very much appreciated.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shavuot - שבועות

Shavuot is a festival that goes by many names. Known variously as Atzeret, Chag Habikkurim, Zman Matan Torateinu, Chag Kaztzir and Shavuot, it has many dimensions which can be explored and interpreted in differing ways. Previously, I have looked at the relevance of the name Chag Habikkurim, (a highly recommended read if you have an extra five minutes,) and this year I plan on exploring the connection between the names Zman Matan Torateinu and Shavuot.

The underlying question behind this D'var Torah is simple: the festival of Shavuot is known primarily for one thing – the giving of the Torah. But the name that refers to this, Zman Matan Torateinu, is not actually to be found anywhere in the Torah. We only refer to this festival that way in our prayers. Nowhere can we find a biblical source for this name. On the other hand, we routinely call this festival by the name Shavuot, which means 'weeks'. Problem is, the weeks that we are referring to are the previous 7 weeks during which religious orthodox Jews are careful to count the Omer. Why are we referring to something in the past?

In the Yalkiut Lekach Tov, it is written that Rav Elyah Lopian poses the first part to this question in his sefer, Lev Eliyahu. There, he asks how is it that the Torah doesn't refer to this festival as Zman Matan Torateinu, but rather as Shavuot?

The answer may be drawn from a famous teaching in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). In the sixth chapter, we read, "שהתורה נקנית בארבעים ושמונה דברים/ That the Torah is acquired in 48 qualities." The text there then goes on to outline each one of these 48 qualities. Rav Lopian explains that the terminology "the Torah is acquired" teaches us that Torah isn't simply something that is ours – we must be active in our pursuit of it. We must acquire Torah, it is not ours by right.

An intriguing aspect to the two names Zman Matan Torateinu and Shavuot is that while one is that both are defined by time [1]. Zman Matan Torateinu literally means "The time of the giving of our Torah," and Shavuot means "Weeks". But there's a major difference between the two names; while the former is less subject to time (Torah is an eternal blessing, one that is unaffected by the passage of time,) the latter refers to seven very specific weeks.

To answer the question above, we must refer to the historical chain of events that led up to the giving of the Torah. As we know, the Jews were living in exile in Egypt prior to the giving of the Torah. They had sunk to the 49th level of impurity and, by the grace of God, were whisked out of Egypt in the nick of time. But although the Jews were then on course to receive the Torah, they could not do so straight away. 50 days elapsed between the date of the exodus itself and the giving of the Torah. Why was this? The answer is simple and fits in perfectly with the quote from Pirkei Avot, above: they had to acquire the Torah so that when it was "given" to them on Shavuot, they had already earned it to some extent. The Jews took each day as a step in building up, ascending 48 levels. On the 49th day, they went over their work in the biggest revision session the world had ever seen, and then on the 50th day, we received the Torah. (We failed the exam, but that's another story!)

Having connected the two names, it could well be that the reason why the Torah doesn't refer to Shavuot by the name of Zman Matan Torateinu is because we could only call it that after having been through the essential cleansing and rebuilding period of the seven weeks (Shavuot) before it. When the Torah refers to Shavuot, it also refers to the giving of the Torah at the same time. Only through the preceding Shavuot could we reach that final goal of receiving the Torah

Wishing you a Chag Sameach

[1] Idea found here:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Parshat Bamidbar - פרשת במדבר

This Shabbat we commence reading the fourth book of the Torah - Sefer Bamidbar. In fact, there are actually two names for this Parsha and Sefer - it is also known by the name Sefer Pekudim, the "Book of Numbers" as the book opens with the census of Bnei Yisrael. The other name, Bamidbar, might be perceived as somewhat irrelevant, though - how can we relate to Am Yisrael's trek across the desert to reach Israel? We can say plenty about the need for census and how we may learn a lesson in equality from it (each man would be counted equally; each bringing exactly half a shekel no matter what his social standing was,) but how much can we derive from the fact that the Jews traversed the wilderness?

There is a concept in Torah thought that nothing in the world is completely by chance. Everything is by design, right down to the smallest details. Hashem created the world with precision, so that everything would serve a higher purpose. We believe that even the way the earth has been shaped reflects a higher purpose. Therefore, if Hashem wanted mainland Egypt to be next to Israel, he would have arranged the world to be that way. The fact that He designed the world with a desert between Egypt and Israel clearly is significant and not without meaning and intention. When the Jews left Egypyt in the great Exodus, there was no way for them to get to Israel other than passing through the desert. (They happened to take a long way round, but the desert still presented an unavoidable obstacle.)

So, if Hashem wanted the Jewish people to travel through the desert in order to enter the land of Israel, there has to be something we may learn. The Sfas Emet teaches something which will hopefully prove relevant in understanding this problem better. He focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word for desert, מדבר, and suggests that we may learn how to improve our character traits by understanding the nature of the desert. The Sfat Emet explains that the root of the word for speech (dibbur) is דבר. Clearly there is a connection between the concept of speech and the concept of a desert - a place devoid of all extraneous details.

Some roots have multiple meanings and the root דבר also has another meaning - "to lead". The Sfat Emet then explains that the word Midbar could be interpreted as having a passive meaning, "to be led." The link between these two meanings seems unclear, though.

The Sfat Emet may be suggesting a number of things. I would like to suggest that once the Jews had left Egypt, they were in a state, both physically and mentally, where they were unfit to enter the land of Israel. First they needed the solitary environment of the desert in which they were rid of all distractions and in which they would have the chance to first accept the Torah, and then start to build their lives around it. The metaphor of a child going to school serves as a good example for this; children are sent to school at a young age. Most schools are run according to a very tightly controlled syllabus and timetable. Everything is ordered in such a way so that the students do not need to worry about anything other than their studies. Only after completing their studies do children enter the world of work and adulthood. But that does not mean to say that school was irrelevant and was merely a part of their past. On the contrary, it was an essential building block to progressing further in life.

So too with the desert; the Jewish people had to be taken through a preparatory stage before it was possible for them to enter the land of Israel. Returning to another one of the meanings for those root letters, דבר, "speech", I'd like to repeat something taught by Rav Yitzcak Ginsurgh of Kfar Chabad. He teaches that if we think picture the desert in our mind's eye, we see a vast expanse of land and absolute silence. How paradoxical it is that the Hebrew root for desert is connected with the root for speech!

There is a famous story told in Sefer Malachim of Eliyahu Hanavi encountering Hashem in a cave in the desert. Several natural phenomena accompanied Hashem's presence: first an earth-shattering wind passed him by, but the verse states that Hashem was "not in the wind." Then a tremendous earthquake shook him, but again, the verse states that Hashem was not in this phenomena, either. Following the earthquake, Eliyahu saw a great fire, but once again, Hashem was not in the fire. But the next verse reads, "And after the fire — a still silent voice."

Many things can be learned from this cryptic passage, but most relevant to us is the concept of a voice. Eliyahu heard a quiet voice and through that voice recognised Hashem. Moreover, Eliyahu experienced the still, silent voice of God in the desert. The word used to describe this still voice is Chashmal, a word that means electricity in modern Hebrew, is a compound of two other words; חש - silence, and מל - speaking. We can understand the concept of the "chashmal," having read this passage, as a kind of electrifying charge that can be experienced only in the atmosphere of neutrality and calm.

The lesson seems abundantly clear; before we can ever achieve whatever it is that we need to do in life, it is essential to withdraw to a degree and ready oneself for the forthcoming challenge. We must dispense with all the distractions and be prepared to listen to that quiet voice inside ourselves that serves as our moral compass. It is only when we take the time to listen to ourselves and what we really want, that we can ever hope to achieve our goals. Speech can be used in many ways, but all too often people are full of bluster and haughtiness. Once we take time for ourselves, we find ourselves imbued with a powerful energy borne of our sense of responsibility and a belonging to a higher cause. In turn, we learn how to speak properly; not to talk ourselves up and brag. Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the midbar and will work towards the spiritual level that Eliyahu attained in the verse above and attain our own connection with God.

Wishing you all a שבת שלום ומבורך.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Some thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim

Last night, about an hour before the commencement of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), I updated my Facebook status to: "Elan Miller has changed his profile picture to the Jerusalem flag in support of the Jewish people's eternal right to live in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people. To deny Jews the right to live in their home on the basis of their religion and ethnicity alone is wrong."

Soon after, somebody I met last summer commented. The person in question is someone I don't know too well, save to say that they were working for Haaretz on a summer internship. Their response seemed somewhat disapproving of my original statement: "To deny Palestinians the right to live in their home on the basis of their religion and ethnicity alone is (also) wrong."

Immediately, a number of my friends and acquaintances jumped at this oppositional perspective. Concerned that the person who left the comment would feel besieged, I got in touch right away to explain my own personal position. The remainder of this blog entry is comprised of the subsequent conversation we had. I hope you find it thought-provoking. Feel free to comment below; I'd be interested to hear what you have to say, too.
Hey :)

Thanks for your comment. Excuse the quick protest put up by my friends and associates, please don't take their comments personally.

You should know that I'm not an extremist at all, and I actually agree with your sentiment to a large extent, if not fully. Your point is heard loud and clear, and bothers me too.

I am conflicted and torn when it comes to the Palestinians' rights. First and foremost, I am a human being and a Jew; one who wishes no evil or discomfort on any other caring, living, loving human being. Let there be no doubt that I wish the Palestinians any suffering. But at the same time, I cannot countenaence Israel giving up control over Jerusalem. For over 3,000 years Jerusalem has been a united, undivided city. For 19 years, however, it was a divided city with a wall down the middle, dividing Jews from Arab. That time was when the Jordanians annexed East Jerusalem and put up a wall to prevent the Jews of Israel from entering. It pains me to think that Jerusalem should ever be divided again.

As to the rights of the Palestinians, I consider two things as crucial to fully understanding the matter. Firstly, that the Palestinians' claim to the land it's historically sketchy, but second, that it doesn't make a lot of a difference; they have nowhere else to go now that Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have made it abundantly clear that they won't accept the Palestinians living amongst them. If they have lived in their present location for three generations already, my thinking is that Israel should try to ensure their safety and afford them defensible and contiguous borders. There need be no reason to stop Palestinians from living in Jerusalem; plenty already live in Haifa, Jaffa and Acre; Palestinian access to (, and land ownership in,) Jerusalem should be no barrier to peace.

Hope all's well with you.

Best regards,

Soon after, my friend responded:

Hi Elan,

Thanks for your response, it means a lot to me. I will not bother in entering into a discussion with those people, as such a difference in basic moral, will not lead to a fulfilling conclusion.

I do not want to lecture you on my views, but I believe that when human beings (no matter their ethnicity or religion) are evicted, either through force or verbal discrimination from their houses, it should be considered a crime. My time at Haaretz showed me that there were two prevalent standards in Israel, one for Jews and one for Muslims, but one day I hope we can move past that and qualify each other first and foremost as human beings. That is exactly what my comment referred too. Racism and discrimination towards either Jews or Palestinians must end. As Jews have suffered throughout history at the hand of others, one would hope that they hold some sort of moral superiority or even conscience.

It is because of people like your friends and associates that the process towards peace will be elongated.

I hope all is well with you too.

The strength of this last statement stunned me somewhat. While the views expressed by some of my friends are firmly held, I honestly don't consider them a threat to peace talks. In essence, they pointed out that the overwhelming proportion of the lands of the Middle East are Arab-owned, and that Israel deserves its own patch. I consider this argument is overly simple as it does not take into account the myriad other factors involved, but I also don't consider such a point to be one that strikes a lethal blow to the peace process.

Having said that, I understood my friend; people with such strongly held convictions certainly seem to be opposed to listening to other views. I immediately set about penning my response in turn, copied below.


Thank you. It's a shame that you don't enter into a discussion with them. Although I know that two of them will almost certainly not change their minds, it is entirely possible that one really will consider what you have to say.

I agree with you that evictions without due documentation and/or reason constitute a heinous crime and assure you that the overwhelming majority of Israelis agree with you, too.

I disagree with you about double-standards, however. Although there are most certainly double-standards vis-a-vis state relationships to Jews and Muslims, it should be noted that Muslim women living in Israel are afforded more rights than anywhere else in Middle East. There are many positive aspects for both Muslims living in Israel and Palestinian Muslims whose lives are essentially regulated by the Israeli occupation*.

Jews have indeed suffered throughout history and your point bothers me, too - Jews should hold themselves to a higher standard. I note with pride organisations like B'Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights who make a point of protecting equality and human rights in Israel and the territories. While Israel is not yet perfect, I believe that we should take a long-term view. We must not forgive its errors and inadequacies, but neither should we condemn them without consideration for all the positive work being done. I really do believe that peace will eventually come to the region, but for that to happen, it is essential not to appropriate blame. Two reasons as to why; firstly, there is no such thing as a single reason for something going wrong here, and secondly, because no-one likes being blamed and pointing the finger only serves to embitter and entrench people's positions.

Feel free to let me know if you agree/disagree with what I say. I live and learn from everyone.


*See, I'm no blind rightist, I acknowledge the occupation and deplore it, too. I'm actually more or less dead centre of the political spectrum.

That, at least thus far, is the end of our conversation. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Why I love living in Israel

Wandering through some back-streets in downtown Jerusalem yesterday, I stumbled across a small alley (below) which had been furnished with a few benches and trees. Although it wasn't exactly pretty, this little passage had certainly been made less drab.

As I walked along the passage, I saw two notices, captured in the picture above, on one of the walls. I didn't pay too much attention to them at first, but as I approached I noticed that the one on the left was rather different to your average street sign. As I came over to read it, I noticed that something else came, too... a big smile over my face :) Here's the sign from closer up.

For those of you who don't read Hebrew proficiently, the sign reads:
In the month of Nissan, Jews customarily recite a blessing upon seeing two blossoming fruit trees: "Blessed are You, Hashem, Lord of the universe, that subtracts nothing from his world, and created in it good creations and good trees, so that mankind may enjoy of them."

It delighted me to see this ancient Jewish tradition being practiced and honoured. But more than that, in this most tumultuous of cities, it was nothing less than lovely to see this simple plaque.

While there can be intense friction between the Haredi sector and the more liberal end of Israeli society, and while Jews and Arabs remain locked in bitter conflict, it was beautiful to see how faith need not be thrust upon others forcefully.

It's such a simple thing, but yet something that makes me so incredibly happy and thankful. To be able to live in a place where Jewish traditions, preserved over centuries of persecution and near-extinction, are now flourishing once again really is an incredible thing. For me, this is the essence of the Jewish state; it's what separates us from all the other countries on earth. For all over the religious struggle between the different streams of Judaism, from the Haredi to the reform, we can all agree on the beauty of blessings such as this and be grateful for seeing our ages-old traditions being brought to the fore in our home city of Jerusalem.

For moments such as this, I truly do thank God.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Parshiot Behar and Bechukotai – פרשיות בהר ובחוקתי

"וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ, גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ. אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְחֵי אָחִיךָ, עִמָּךְ. אֶת-כַּסְפְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לוֹ, בְּנֶשֶׁךְ; וּבְמַרְבִּית, לֹא תִתֵּן אָכְלֶךָ. אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם לָתֵת לָכֶם אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים. – And if your brother becomes impoverished, and his means fail in your proximity; then you shall hold on to him: as a stranger and a settler shall he live with you. Do not take from him interest and increase; and you shall have fear of your God; and let your brother live with you. Do not give him your money for interest, nor you food shall you give him for increase. I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you."
(ויקרא כה:לה-לח.)

In the verses above, the Torah delineates the imperative not to charge interest of one's fellow. At the end of this particular passage, Hashem points out that He is the same God who took the Jewish nation out of Egypt. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much of a link between the two issues. Rashi, in his classic commentary on the Torah, presents a brilliant insight as to why this commandment is related to the exodus.

Rashi's understanding is that during the exodus, God caused ten plagues to be wreaked upon the Egyptians. One of these was the death of the first-born sons of the Egyptian households. Rashi explains that God "distinguished between he who was a firstborn and he who was not a firstborn," before going on to point out therefore that he is very capable of "knowing and exacting punishment from one who lends money to a Jew with interest, while saying that [the money] belongs to a non-Jew." Rashi's point is that the Jews should understand that the God who is telling them not to levy interest on their loans to one another is the same God as the One who took them out of Egypt, and that they would be foolish to try and hide things from a God who has already previously demonstrated His ability to decisively distinguish between things that may not seem immediately clear to us mortals.

While this understanding of the verse is perfectly valid, it is entirely possible that it was meant to serve as a severe warning to the Jews to be entirely truthful in their dealings, there is another way of interpreting this verse's function. In Ma'ayanei HaTorah, the following thoughts, attributed to HaDrash v'HaIyun, are mentioned. Loosely translated:

The early generations of commentators found it hard to understand why it was that the Egyptians were punished for that which they did to the Jews. After all, didn't God's decree that the Jews should be "enslaved and oppressed"? The Ravad, Rav Avraham Ben David, explains, however, that their guilt lay not in the fact that they fulfilled this decree, but in their overly-zealous attitude, one that resulted in them going above and beyond "merely" oppressing the Jews; the Egyptians fairly tortured the Jews. Even though there was indeed a directive for the Jews to be oppressed to some level, there was no need to have them tortured, certainly not to the extent that they were. It turns out that the Egyptians not only collected exorbitant taxes from the Jews, they also added on interest and taxes needlessly, thus going beyond that which had been decreed by God.

As such, anyone who charges interest of his fellow is deemed a heretic, for he thereby legitimates the actions of the Egyptians towards his forebears. It would seem that one of the reasons for the incongruous mentioning of the exodus from Egypt is that we are to prove ourselves worthy of this exodus; that if we are commanded not to levy interest on one another, we need only take a look back at those who had previously taken interest from Jews. The Ravad explains that one who charges interest is deemed as having heretical views about the exodus; our understanding must be that one who charges interest of his fellow Jew is to be considered as no better than the pepetrators of the torturous conditions to which Jews were subjected. It is my fervent wish that we may all turn away from the path of making life hard for one's fellow, and that we may all become better and more considerate people.

לעלוי נשמת הנדה בת חיים ולעלוי נשמת יעקב בן מאיר - For the merit of the souls of Hinda bat Chaim and for Yaakov ben Meir, who both passed away last Thursday. May they be remembered only for the good.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Aluf Benn: "I really can't understand" Obama not coming to Israel.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a StandWithUs organised panel at the Hebrew University on the challenges of reporting in Israel.. Chaired by Michael Dickson of Stand With Us, foreign reporters Daphne Algom (a former CNN producer), Reena Ninan (FOX News) and Daniella Brick (EFE Spain) were joined Aluf Benn, editor-at-large of Ha'aretz.

Because I worked as an intern for the Jerusalem Post last summer, I was interested to see if anything particularly news-worthy would come from the panel. Although I’ve left, I have since written a couple of articles, and decided that if I found any gold, I would file a report and let the editors review it. I realised that I had a good opportunity to ask Mr. Benn a question or two and see if he had anything controversial to say. To this end, I got in touch with a friend/contact of mine, prominent Jewish blogger "Carl in Jerusalem" from the Israel Matzav blog.

I was originally thinking of asking Benn about Ha'retz's actions and overall policy with regards the recent Anat Kamm scandal. My friend suggested, however, that I ask a different question. Instead of focusing on a relatively transient issue, he chose a more far-reaching one. I adapted the question slightly, but it is essentially his suggestion:

"Aluf, you wrote an op-ed in the New York Times on July 27th last year. I imagine that a sizeable number of the people present haven't read it; so to summarise, you called on Barrack Obama for greater communication between the US and Israel. (Unless you'd like to correct me there...)

"After what's close to a year and a half in his term, it would seem that the problem is not one of communication, but one of policy. In your words, if "Israel is part of the problem, it's also part of the solution." But Obama doesn't appear to see things that way; he is still yet to make a visit to Israel as the president and chooses to focus on issues that are not immediately concerning. How are we to respond and regard such relations? How can we effectively deal when in such a position, and how may we defend our position when our greatest ally doesn't seem to want to hear?

"Seeing as you're talking to a number of potential foreign reporters... How can we, as potential foreign reporters, sell this side of the story when it's not something people are overly concerned about?"

Aluf Benn's response: “It’s great that you mentioned the date. It’s been 9 months, but I could still print it today or tomorrow. He [Obama] missed one point. Israel. He went all around the world, speaking to different leaders, but not here. Yes, I stand by it.

"I was sitting in Tel Aviv one Saturday morning in coffee shop a couple of weeks ago. I was surrounded by secular Israelis, the most open-minded types. But when the conversation turns to him, they say "We can't trust him." Even the most secular. In Tel Aviv. If he can't gain their support, how is he to gain the Israeli public's support? I really can't understand it."

Later on, Benn mentioned how he’d met with an ambassador from a European country recently. The ambassador reportedly told Benn that "If the people of my country could experience what I experience living here, they would have a completely different image... I expected it to be far more conservative - far more religious than it is." Benn’s point was that people are not out to get Israel; they just don’t know what life here is like. Then again, they don’t really care.

What intrigued me was that over the course of the panel's question and answer session, all present said that they believed that there was no deliberate bias against Israel by the international media and that though Israel finds it hard to sell its side of the story, people are willing to listen. But this stands in stark contrast to Obama's unwillingness to travel to the Jewish state. If after a year and a half in office he doesn't want to come here and work with us, it would seem that Israel will have not merely a hard sell, but a nearly impossible sell to make.

While we should remain optimistic, I’m concerned that we are remaining steadfast in our positive approach, even though the facts betray the truth that we don’t have real friends in Washington. I can’t say that Benn studiously avoided this issue, but he didn’t seem to want to consider it too seriously. He preferred to say that he “couldn’t understand it”.

Although I've only posted entry this after midday on Thursday, I sent my notes on the panel to the IsraelMatzav blog last night. In the blog entry on Benn’s comments there, I read that "a prominent Jewish leader cautioned Obama against going to Israel, because the trip would be a disaster and he would be walking into the lions' den." But wouldn't that be foolish? If Obama is even half-serious about bringing peace to the region, why on earth would he avoid the issue? For as long as he postpones this inconvenient visit, Israelis will become increasingly disgruntled at being shunned. It's a vicious cycle that has to be broken before peace spirals out of reach during his presidency. And I'm not convinced that Obama is a strong enough man for that.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Met a "minor" celebrity

I shook Benjamin Netanyahu's hand this evening. That is all!