Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rosh Hashanah and Parshat Ha'azinu - ראש השנה ופרשת האזינו

This year, as you probably know by now, Rosh Hashanah occurs the two days prior to Shabbat. Due to this phenomenon, I will not be able to post my weekly Parsha thought on Thursday or Friday, and am making a dual entry. In many ways, however, this is actually a positive thing; due to the workings of the Jewish calendar system, Parshat Ha'azinu is always in the weeks around Rosh Hashanah. As such, there are many links between the two - one of which I hope to explore in this D'var Torah.

In a much discussed passage in the Talmud, the Gemara in Eiruvin (13b) declares that, "נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא." Translated (somewhat liberally): "It would have been better for man to have not been created." The reason? The number of 'positive' commandments - those that require action in order to be performed - are outnumbered by 'negative' commandments (which require inactivity and abstinence from specific actions). Therefore, if man had not been created, he would have been able to "fulfill" over half of the Torah's laws just by doing nothing; he would still be able to "perform" all the negative-based commandments.

However, positive commandments have something over negative commandments. Negative commandments merely require inactivity and withdrawal; for example, one who sleeps for the entire duration of Shabbat is considered as having observed Shabbat to some degree, even though s/he didn't consciously do anything in order to commemorate the day. By way of contrast, positive commandments require physical (and often deliberate) actions - it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which they can be performed without explicitly knowing that they are being done.

What does all this mean for us? The result of all this is the rabbinic dictum: עשה דוחה לא תעשה - Positive commandments are given preference over negative ones. If we don't take care to do them, they will never get done. Over and over again in Judaism, we hear of the two opposing forces that are love of God and fear of God. We are taught that we supposed to both love and fear God, but it is very hard to do both in equal measure. Hopefully here we can shed some light on their relationship and learn something useful for this Rosh Hashanah.

The Ramban attempts to demystify the rule mentioned above by explaining that positive commandments stem from the trait of love for God, while negative commandments are a result of fear of G-d. The difference between love and fear is best understood by considering the relationship children experience with their parents. While a child is young, they only know how to fear their parents. Infants and little children never obey their parents out of love; they obey because they know that they must, or else! But as children grow up, they relationship with their parents change completely. They learn to love their parents, as well. But in order to get to that stage, children need to pass through the first stage; they must fear their parents.

So too, we must realise that while love is a very beautiful thing, it needs to have a firm base in reality. It is only when we consider the might and the astonishing, infinite power of God, that we can truly love Him. Without a proper appreciation for God, our love for Him is severely limited. It is clear that the optimal state of affairs for us is to act out of love for God.

With this in mind, we can now return to our relationship with God. It is clear that acting and relating to God with love is very important. But no less important is understanding how important it is for us to treat God with proper respect; for us to realise that His might and power are more than we can ever hope to comprehend. The Torah says at the end of Parshat Ha'azinu:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם: אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת. כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם--כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ. - He said to them: 'Set your hearts upon all the words that I testify against you this day; and with which you may command your children to guard; to do all the words of this law. For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land; you pass over the Jordan to there, to possess it.' (Deuteronomy 32: 46-47)

Note that the Torah describes our acceptance and observance of Torah law as the essence of our life. We have heard this kind of language before, notably last week, when it is claimed in Parshat Nitzavim, "וּבָחַרְתָּ, בַּחַיִּים--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה, אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ. לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ... - You choose life, that you may live; you and your seed. To love Hashem your God..." (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Here, the call to chose life is deliberately placed next to the command to love God. Clearly, love for God is very important... but how can we resolve this with the seemingly greater importance attributed to fear of God?

I think that the answer can be drawn from the puzzle posed at the beginning of the D'var Torah. The Talmud concludes that it would have been better for man to have not been created at all. But that was not all that was concluded. Chazal went on to say that seeing as God did see fit to bring mankind into existence, we now are best served by following the rules of the Torah. As such, although we most certainly do need to aspire to the heights of love for Hashem, we must first learn how to fear Him properly. Over Rosh Hashanah, a lot of our energy goes into expressing realisation of our own lowly status. We spend much of our time concentrating on building up our Yirat Shamayim, our fear of God. But we should remember that this is part of a two-step process. God does not want us to act purely out of fear. Then we would be automatons. Instead, over Rosh Hashanah, we are to draw a direct line between these two seemingly competing aspects of our relationship to God. Only by connecting them together can we then achieve the right attitude and relationship.

Adapted from an essay by Rav Elazar Hager.

Wishing you all a very happy Rosh Hashanah and a restful Shabbat.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Parshiot Nitzavim and Vayelech / פרשיות נצבים-וילך

ושב ה' אלוקיך את שבותך ורחמך ושב וקבצך מכל העמים אשר הפיצך ה' אלוקיך שמה.
(Deuteronomy 30:6)

In addition to its simple meaning, this pasuk, so the Chafetz Chaim writes, speaks of the Geulah. Here the Torah assures us that the day of redemption will surely come, and we must expect it to arrive at any time. And even though this long-awaited day is perpetually delayed, continues the Chaftez Chaim, we are obliged to wait because it will come.

One of the biggest problems with faith is that all the time we wait in exile, it is very hard to keep on "doing the right thing" without any sign to encourage us. If anything, all we have is discouragement; the once mighty Jewish kingdom might not be destroyed, but it certainly seems to be at the will of its foes. Given our glorious history, it doesn't seem inaccurate to describe the Jewish people as distressed and even disgraced - in such a low, maybe all we can do is hope!

The Rambam, in his seminal work, "Mishnah Torah," calls on the pasuk above when outlining the obligation for each and every Jew to wait and expect Moshiach's arrival. He explains that anyone who doesn't believe in him, or in his imminent coming, is not only going against the words of the jewish prophets, but also against this very verse from the Torah. (Hilchot Malachim 11:1)

I don't want to make this a slur on other religions, (I clearly believe in Judaism and I have no need to knock other people's beliefs, even if I hugely disagree with them,) but I really do like how in Judaism we don't merely cry out "I believe!" in the manner of one who doesn't know quite what he believes in. One of the most famous songs we Jews sings is that of "Ani Ma'amin," and the last few words we sing demonstrate the point I want to make beautifully. We say, "I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Moshiach. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for at any day he will arrive." These last few words are a perfect example of some of the defining qualities needed of a Jew - persistence, tenacity and patience. We don't merely believe, but we await something that will happen; something that we must prepare ourselves for.

The opening words of Parshat Nitzavim, "ואתם נצבים היום," are ones that have been commented on a lot - there is a much to be learned from the idea of the nation of Israel standing together. And yet, at the same time, there are many divisions - Am Yisrael is split into various groups following these words.

It often taught that when the Torah mentions standing, we are to understand that those who are standing are evaluating; taking stock of themselves. I would like to suggest that it is no coincidence that as Parshat Nitzavim always falls in Elul, in close proximity to Rosh Hashanah, that it should be obvious to all of us that at this time of year we engage in a little "Cheshbon Hanefesh" and refine our characters before we stand before Hashem on the Yamim Neraim.

For this reason, מרן רי"ז הלוי points out, we read the words, "כי לישועתך קוינו כל היום" in the Shmonah Esrei. These words translate as "For we have hoped for your redemption all day," which doesn't seem to flow all too well. A more natural choice of words would be to say that "we have hoped for your redemption every day, but the point is made better by expressing how we are constantly waiting.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov mentions a comment by the Chafetz Chaim on another pasuk further along in Parshat Nitzavim. To summarise briefly, the Chafetz Chaim explains that if one were to be approached by an angel and told that his judgement would be a negative one, that person would do all he could to change his ways. So, the Chafetz Chaim continues, why doesn't this person stop of his own accord? This question is one that challenges each and every one of us, and as I mentioned above, is at the essence of what it is to be a Jew. For when a person stops and takes account of himself, he realises that the activities he engages in are all too often pointless and a waste of time. Coming back to the original pasuk, can we truly say that we believe in the Geulah? If we do then we wouldn't just believe - we would wait anxiously, checking ourselves again and again to ensure that we are ready.

From Jerusalem, wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"It's All Netanyahu's Fault," They Say. But Is It Really?

Over the last few weeks and months, a spurious lie has been spreading. Nothing new, perhaps, lies are told the whole time. But this one is a particularly important lie, and it needs quashing with immediate effect.

The lie goes as follows. The Palestinian people want to live in peace. They want to live in peace, alongside Israel. They want to live in peace, alongside Israel, the Jewish state. They want to live in peace, alongside Israel, the Jewish state, but Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is an extremist and prevents them from doing so. Benjamin Netanyahu and his cohorts, the lie goes, are the sole reason why the peace process appears to be dead in the water.

To understand the claim better, we must go back some time. Earlier this year, Wikileaks collaborated with the Guardian to reveal hundreds of secret documents online. The Guardian went through the archives and found an astonishing incident. In an article entitled, "Israel spurned Palestinian offer of 'biggest Yerushalayim in history'", we are told that "Leaked papers reveal [Palestinian] negotiators proposed concessions on East Jerusalem settlements, Sheikh Jarrah and Old City holy sites" and that Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat said the following: "It is no secret that … we are offering you the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew word for Jerusalem] in history." The Guardian had a field day with this quote, using it as proof that the Palestinians were ready to make mass concessions. What was not mentioned in the headline, or in the analysis articles, was that Erekat went on to say, "But we must talk about the concept of al-Quds [Jerusalem in Arabic]."

The Guardian is quick to inform us that an "unprecedented offer” was made “on the East Jerusalem settlements”, carefully picking and mixing quotes that painted a story of Palestinian negotiators adopting a conciliatory approach, going so far as to propose "that Israel annex all Jewish settlements in Jerusalem except Har Homa." Put like this, it sounded very much like the Israelis were acting unreasonably, wantonly even.

In the ensuing debacle, Israel was roundly criticised for deliberately missing an opportunity to forge a real, lasting peace with the Palestinians. Had this been the end of the story, I would no doubt have not been writing about Palestinian lies, but about Israeli ones.

But the story does not end there. There is much that the Guardian neglected tell us in its editorials or headlines. For while Israel was indeed offered concessions by Palestinian negotiators, they were rendered obsolete and utterly invalidated when placed in the context of the greater plan put forward. Deep in the article, toward the end, we are told that Israel's negotiator was "recorded as dismissing the offer out of hand because the Palestinians had refused to concede Har Homa, as well as the settlements at Ma'ale Adumim, near Jerusalem, and Ariel, deeper in the West Bank." As this crucial fact was not afforded anywhere near the same level of prominence, Israel's reaction appears totally unreasonable.

Intriguingly, we are told that "Israel's position was fully supported by the Bush administration." Whatever one might say about the Bush administration, is worthy of note that the Israeli position was fully supported. No reservations were expressed. It was clear as day to the Americans that an offer on Jerusalem offset by a situation in which Ma'ale Adumim and Ariel would have to be ceded by the Israelis to Palestinian control was wholly unacceptable.

Not only this, but we might bear in mind recent statements made by Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization's ambassador to the U.S., who said that the future Palestine should be free of Jews. After the firestorm that followed, Areikat then incriminated himself further when reiterating his position to the left-leaning Huffington Post stating that "Israeli soldiers and settlers -- 'persons who are amid an occupation, who are in my land illegally' -- would be rejected from the new Palestinian state." So, not only would Israel have to give Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim over to the Palestinians, but in excess of 56,000 people would be forcibly ejected from their homes and compelled to find a new place to live. Is it any wonder that Israel rejected such a proposition? The peace process is dead in the water, but not for lack of Israel trying. It is dead in the water because the Palestinian leadership has led us so far up a futile and fruitless path that there is nowhere else to turn but to yet more ridiculous measures. By acting like a petulant child, not only is the Palestinian leadership dismissing Israel's concerns and requirements, but it is effectively sabotaging the demands and needs of its own people, too.

For almost two decades now, there has been an implicit understanding that negotiations will take place based on the cease-fire line of 1949 commonly known as the "1967 borders". This line was never intended to constitute a border. How it came to be regarded as sacred has been one of the greatest deceptions of our time. So when President Obama states that Israel will need to find a solution based on this line, this is a massive break with previous agreements and understandings. Instead of focusing on the abominable racial incitement and insidious accusations of land theft being propagated by the Palestinians, a blind eye is turn to such indiscretions and the heat is turned on Israel for having the gall to demand that tens of thousands of people not be uprooted from their homes.

It is revealing that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas saw fit to select Latifa Abu Hmeid, the mother of several terrorists involved in multiple attacks on Israeli civilians, to be the ambassador for the Palestinian independence bid. Abbas might be a moderate relative to his predecessor Yassir Arafat, but there can be no doubt that he is absolutely not moderate. In choosing such a person to endorse the bid, we are told everything we need to know about his vision and aspirations.

It would be bad enough if this was an aberration from the norm. But it’s not. Previously, Abbas has overseen the dedication of a town square near Ramallah to another Palestinian national icon, Dalal Al Mughrabi, the terrorist who killed 37 people, including 13 children, after hijacking an Israeli bus in 1979. At least two schools and numerous summer camps are amongst the recipients of having the dubious honour of being named after this murderer. Such are the heroes of the Palestinian people.

Even more disturbingly, you might have missed such enthralling television as this, in which little children are shown dressing up as suicide bombers and clutching mock AK-47 rifles. Similarly, another odious clip depicts a little girl facing the screen telling viewers that Israel “stole” all the land, and “changed the names”. It’s bad enough that the current generation make unreasonable demands of Israel. Much, much worse is that the current generation are being indoctrinated before our eyes, being led to believe that Israel – in its totality – has no right to exist at all.

So. Do the Palestinian people want to live in peace? To be fair, I imagine the answer is that many do. Most people in the world do. But do the Palestinian people want to live peace alongside Israel? Well, no, not if repeated attempts to portray the residents of Tel Aviv, Haifa, west Jerusalem and other internationally undisputed Israel-controlled areas as land thieves and aliens are anything to go by. As long as the entire Jewish state is repeatedly deemed illegal and a travesty of justice, then it follows that the Palestinians are not prepared to accept an Israeli state alongside it. As long as such agitation reigns unchecked, what hope is there for peace?

It would take someone with all the vision of a Cyclops to believe that Netanyahu is responsible for Abbas’s endorsement and glorification of terror and his subsequent refusal to engage in negotiations. Benjamin Netanyahu's fault? Israel wilfully spurning opportunities to make peace? Palestinians forced to a final resort? Hardly. Don’t believe the lie, no matter how many times you hear it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Parshat Ki Tavo - פרשת כי תבוא

"וענית ואמרת לפני ה' אלקיך ארמי אבד אבי וירד מצרימה / And you shall respond and say before Hashem your God, 'An Aramean [tried to] destroy my [fore]father and he went down into Egypt..."

(דברים כו:ה)

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, we read of the mitzva of Bikkurim. The Torah explains that one who settles the land of Israel and grows one of the "Shivat haMinim" is obligated to take a ribbon around the first fruit that grows from the land, mark it off as property of the Bet Hamikdash, and once the fruit has ripened fully, the person is to take this fruit to Jerusalem and hand it over to a Kohen.

Part of the process of giving Bikkurim over to the Kohen is a statement, which opens above. At first, the choice of the opening few lines seems rather surprising; what has the old story of Am Yisrael's descent into Egypt got to do with the bringing of fruit to the Bet Hamikdash?

To understand our situation better, we have to examine Jewish behaviour during the Egyptian exile. Famously, we learn that B'nei Yisrael were on the forty-ninth level of impurity and were only moments away from descending into the 50th level; a level from which there could be no return. There can be no doubt about it - Am Yisrael were in a very bad place.

Or can we doubt that? For Am Yisrael warranted to be saved by Hashem on the premise that they insulated themselves from Egyptian society, and Shmot Rabbah (א:א) says that "they were redeemed because they did not change their names, their language and their dress." So now it would seem that Am Yisrael were very careful to protect their religion and culture and did not integrate and assimilate into a foreign society. How can resolve this apparent contradiction?

The Netivot Shalom on Parshat Ki Teitze explains that these Jews were actually almost completely cut off from Hashem. These Jews constantly indulged themselves in pleasures and desires that were not expressly disallowed by Torah law. So needy of material pleasure, these people were indeed culturally assimilated and had started to believe in the Egyptian way of life. Because these Jews maintained their outer appearances but indulged themselves in whatever was technically permissible, their connection with Hashem was almost entirely lacking.

Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffman of Project Genesis suggests that maybe the reason why we read this passage when we bring Bikkurim is to do with the concept of "קדש עצמך במותר לך" (Sanctify yourself with that which is permissible to you). The generation that lived in the Egyptian exile didn't actually break any laws, but certainly weren't too eager too apply the concept of being holy in that which is permissible. Fast forward to the person standing before the Kohen with Bikkurim in his hand, and we may now understand why it is appropriate for him to make reference to his forebears in Egypt. Whereas they fulfilled their obligations to a minimal extent, the Jew who brings Bikurrim is eager to subjugate his pride and ego before God.

Later in the Parsha, a long list of punishments is attached to the statement, "תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלוקיך בשמחה / Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy." The Torah is very clear that the measurement of real observance of it's laws is when a Jew confirms his actions with desire. Whereas food is something that Jews are permitted to grow and eat, the Jew who brings Bikkurim is careful not to give in to his desires and controls his behaviour in the right way and before eating first makes sure to take the Reishit to Hashem.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Parshat Ki Tetzei - פרשת כי תצא

"כִּי-יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ, בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה-אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ, בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ; וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ, וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם. If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, that will not hearken to the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and though they chasten him, will not hearken unto them" (Deuteronomy 21:18).

In this week's parsha, we read of the strange episode of the ben sorer u'moreh. Although there never was a case in reality that fulfilled the exact conditions in order for a child to be classified as such, there are still many lessons which we may learn. I'd like to share a fascinating insight I read by the Ba'al Haturim.

Two P'sukim after the one above, we read of how the the parents go to the city elders to declare their son a Ben Sorer u'Moreh: "וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא / And they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.'"

The Ba'al HaTurim notes two discrepancies in this Pasuk. Firstly, there is a yud missing in the word בְּנֵנוּ, and then the word וּמֹרֶה is missing a letter too; this time a vav.

Fortunately for us, we receive a good explanation as to why these words are spelled as they are. In the first case, the missing yud in the word בְּנֵנוּ, our son, is a deliberate reference to the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. The Ba'al HaTurim briefly explains that that this son was wayward to the extent that he didn't care about the most basic tenets of Judaism, wayward to the extent that he even disregarded the ten commandments.

The next missing letter, the (missing) vav in the word מרה, stubborn, is explained as a reference to the bitter end of this situation. The word מרה in Hebrew means bitter. By dropping the vav, the Torah hints that this stubborn and gluttonous boy will only experience bitterness.

If we break up the verse and digest it in pieces, we see that the son doesn't listen to "the voice of his father". Then, separately, his mother's voice is mentioned: "and the voice of his mother." The pasuk uses discrete clauses for each of the parents, and only groups them together when the son hears them speaking in unison. And the one thing that the parents agree upon is negative, as it says "they turned him away."

It is very clear that the lesson to be grasped here is that parents must always act as a unit, and not just when it comes to condemning a child. A child who hears disparate voices from his parents hardly has a chance at growing up to become a decent person, something for which we cannot blame him or her. The real lesson of the episode, it would seem, is to show us just how much responsibility we have for one another, and for each others' actions.

Wishing you a שבת שלום ומבורך from Yerushalayim Ir Hakodesh.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Parshat Shoftim - פרשת שופטים

"...ואמר אלהם שמע ישראל אתם קרבים היום למלחמה על-איביכם"

(דברים, כ: ג)

One of the many things set out in Parshat Shoftim are the rules of war. Famously later we learn that a Jewish army is not permitted to destroy trees, although this is normal military behaviour, and we also learn that a man who desires a captive woman must adhere to a strict set of rules before he may take her as a partner.

Here, at the beginning of this particluar chapter, we learn that Am Yisrael are instructed to gather and listen to the words of the Kohen Gadol, who served to act as the Army's Chief of Staff and prepared the warrior for battle. In "Ma'ayanah shel HaTorah" a small paragraph attributed to "Sefarim" points out that the word Sh'ma, (hear,) is crucial. As I have mentioned in my Divrei Torah a number of times, when the Hebrew word for hearing is used, it also means something that is accepted. Another aspect of hearing is that it is intriniscally linked to collecting. You might ask yourself at this point what do listening and collecting have to do with one another, so I'll try to pass over something I've learned about the faculty of hearing.

When a person sees something, he sees the entire entity at once, and there can be no doubt as to what it is that the person is perceiving. But when that person hears something, they only hear that thing in stages; a piece at a time. If we take music for an example, one never hears a song, but rather hears a note at a time. If you ask someone to pick their favourite song and then ask them whether they like an individual note, they'll look at you as if you're mad - a person likes the song as an entity - not for it's constituent parts! Similarly, when one listens to another person talking, one only hears one word at a time, and by the time one hears one word, the previous word is only a memory. Hearing, by its very definition, is a process of memory, collection, and most importantly, unification.

It is no coincidence that "Sh'ma" is the opening word used in the most famous sentence in Judaism, for when we talk of oneness, of achdut, we talk of listening and bring back together that which is seemingly separate. And here too, when the nation of Israel enters into a war, all the constituent parts must come together, else failure beckons (God forbid).

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!