Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Salvation Cycle - Reflections on Parashat Shemot 5776

(Exodus 1:1-6:1)

What would you say is the defining event of the Book of Shemot/Exodus? The Ten Plagues? The Parting of the Red Sea? The Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai? The building of the Tabernacle/Mishkan?

The Sforno (16th Century, Italy) says "None of the Above." He has a radically different perspective on this Book, which he sees as a cautionary tale on the future of the Jewish People. From his introduction to the Book of Shemot:
And it is related in Gcd's Second Book, that the Seed of Israel then began to violate the covenant of their forefathers in Egypt, as the prophet Ezekiel attests when he says, "...and they rebelled against me, and no longer desired to listen to Me, no one throwing away the abominations of his eyes, no one abandoning the Egyptian idolatries...[and I/Gcd resolved] pour out My wrath upon them, and to vent My anger on them in the Land of Egypt to work them with rigor." Until a small portion of them did teshuvah and prayed, and a messenger [Moses] came before them and saved them. 
The Sforno sees all the events we mentioned above in this context. Divine salvation from the ruinous famine led to relief for the clan of Jacob and relocation to Goshen; the Israelites became numerous and comfortable in Egypt, and once the generation of the twelve sons died, the old ways were quickly forgotten; punishment came in the form of enslavement to the Egyptians, until a core group did teshuvah and triggered Divine mercy and salvation, aka the Exodus from Egypt.

We can call it the Salvation Cycle:
Divine Salvation Leads to
Relief Leads to
Affluence/Complacency Leads to
Backsliding Leads to
Punishment/Enslavement/Exile Leads to
Teshuvah Leads to
Divine Salvation.
This is the grand leitmotif of all of Jewish History. Ma'aseh Avot Siman L'Banim: The events in the lives of our ancestors create precedents which we see played out in our own lives.

Fast forward to America, 2015: Hundreds of thousands of Jewish families left Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1920, thus being spared the fate of European Jewry in the flames of the crematoria. After relocating to America, the Jews became numerous and comfortable in their new land, and once the generation of religious Bubbies and Zaydes died out, the old Jewish ways were quickly forgotten. 

In this, the final spin of the Salvation Cycle, punishment now comes in the form of suicide-by-happy-pills. Judaism in America is dying out, but not because of murder or enslavement by Roman Legionnaires or Czars or Hitlers or any other external oppressor. This go 'round we are more like opium addicts, buzzed out and in a really good place, too high to realize that the opium is really poison: shutting down our organs, destroying our minds, and deadening our spirits. 

But those who are wise enough to learn the lessons of Jewish history recognize the pattern. It is said that a problem identified is a problem half solved, and we certainly know how to solve this one - we've done it over and over again for well on 4,000 years.

Indeed, there is hope for American Jewry:  Teshuvah - a return to what the Sforno calls the Brit Avot, the Covenant of Our Ancestors: Deepening our connection to Gcd through Torah study and performing mitzvot. Keeping the Shabbat. Keeping Kosher. Keeping the Laws of Family Purity. Educating our children in Torah.

But how to get there from here?

I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer, for bringing to my attention an recent newspaper article by Dr. Steven Cohen entitled, Lessons Learned from Orthodoxy's Dramatic Growth (New York Jewish Week, November 29, 2015). In it, he examines the root causes for the imperviousness of the Orthodox to what I have described above as the "Happy Pills":
The “secret” of Orthodox retention and expansion can be summarized by a five-letter acronym: PRICE. That is, they exhibit extraordinary Passion about Jewish norms and purpose. They perform numerous religious Rituals. They maintain high rates of Informal association (more spouses, friends, and neighbors who are Jewish). They engaged in Community — be it in synagogues, organizations, charities, or political-like activity. And they undertake Educational activities, be it learning groups for themselves or sending their children to day school, overnight camps or to Israel for a very influential gap year.
Similarly, non-Orthodox Jews who follow the same path exhibit extraordinary success in raising their children as committed and active Jews. [emphasis mine]
The Salvation Cycle doesn't care if you call yourself Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Teshuvah applies to everybody, because despite these divisive labels, despite what the High Priests of Pluralism would have you believe, there is but One Gcd, One Torah, and One Jewish People.

As far back as 1933 Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook wrote:
The Jewish people have become divided into two camps, through the categorization of Jews as Charedi (religious) and Chofshi (secular). These are new terms, which were not used in the past. Of course, not everyone is identical, especially in spiritual matters; but there was never a specific term to describe each faction. In this respect, we can certainly say that previous generations were superior to ours.

By emphasizing this categorization, we obstruct the path toward improvement and growth in both camps. Those who feel that they belong to the religious camp look down upon the secular camp. If they think about teshuvah and improvement, they immediately cast their eyes in the direction of the secularists, devoid of Torah and mitzvot. They are confident that full repentance is required by the irreligious, not by them.

The secular Jews, on the other hand, are convinced that any notion of penitence is a religious concept, completely irrelevant to their lives.

It would be better if we would all concentrate on examining our own defects, and judge others generously. It could very well be that others have treasure-troves of merits, hidden from sight. We should recognize that there exists in each camp a latent force leading toward goodness. Each camp has much to improve upon, and could learn much from the positive traits of the other camp.

Let us be known to each other by one name — Klal Yisrael. 
I call upon every single congregational rabbi of every "denomination"; I call upon every local Jewish Federation, in this community and in every American community, to take a principled stand for Teshuvah.

To survive we must shake off our spiritual torpor, we must push harder, reach for a new goal. It's OK to sweat a little; to raise the bar in performing mitzvot, to stretch and struggle to reach the next milestone in Torah study. 

It is a matter of simple self-preservation that we must return to the standards of normative halachah in a way that is compatible with modernity, and in a way that preserves intellectual integrity and joie de vivre. It can be done and it must be done.

Are you willing to get out of your comfort zone and pay the "PRICE" necessary to ensure the perpetuation of Judaism as an organic and living faith system in your family? Or do we just continue passing around the opium bowl?

Shabbat Shalom.

[For an earlier blog post on this Parasha, click HERE.]

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Airplane Nuts - Reflections on Parashat Miketz 5776

[Genesis 41:1-45:17]

In this week's Torah portion, we read of a small gift Father Jacob sends to the Viceroy of Egypt:
If that's the way it has to be, then take clippings from the Land of Israel down to Egypt in your pack, a gift for the great man: some balm, some honey, spices and lotus flower, peanuts and almonds. [Genesis 43:11]
OK, so let's get this straight: Ancient Israel is in the middle of a record-breaking, devastating famine. The only place with food is Egypt, and Jacob is sending the Viceroy of Egypt, the guy who controls the food supply for the entire planet, a gift

And why specifically those foods?

With those gifts, Jacob is sending a message to the Viceroy of Egypt. If the clippings of the Land of Israel could talk, this is what they might say:
It is true that at this moment in time you appear to hold all the cards. You have food where others have none; you are prosperous, you are powerful, you are influential. But your power is like the food you control, once it is consumed, it is gone forever.
Not so the Land of Israel and her gifts. Balm, honey, spices, perfumes, nuts - all are used in small amounts, yet endure for long periods of time. Israel is a land of enduring gifts, minute in quantity, but priceless in quality. 
So Mr. High-and-Mighty Viceroy: don't be so sure that you hold all the cards, we in Israel have a few of our own.
All over the United States, Jews are gathering to say extra chapters of Psalms and to pray for peace, troubled by the latest rampaging paroxysm of Islamo-fascist murder in Israel and other locales around the world. And that is laudatory as far as it goes. 

But as we focus on the latest terror attacks in Israel, as our rabbis sermonize about the crisis-of-the-week in the Israeli headlines, the impression begins to solidify in the American Jewish psyche that Israel is a dangerous place for Jews to live; certainly much more dangerous than the affluent American suburbs that most American Jews call home.

Jacob's clippings gently remind us that nothing could be farther from the truth: Jews and Judaism in Israel are actually thriving, while Jews and Judaism in America are rapidly disappearing. 

Don't believe me? Read the Guttman/Israel Democracy Institute Study of Israeli Jewry, then contrast those results with the Pew Research Center's 2013 Study of American Judaism. 

It's a little like two jet planes passing in the sky: jet "A" is ascending, but is passing through some turbulence to attain altitude, while jet "B" is enjoying a glass smooth descent - straight into the ocean. And...the passengers of jet "B" are fervently praying for jet "A" to have less turbulence.

Which plane would you rather be on? And who should be praying for whom? 

Maybe the nuts on the plane aren't only the in-flight snack.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

True Dat - Reflections on Parashat VaYeishev 5776

(Genesis 37:1 - 40:23)

We read this week of the confrontation between Tamar and Judah. You will recall that Tamar entraps an unsuspecting Judah into impregnating her, unwittingly fulfilling his obligation of levirate marriage (which he had been procrastinating about.)

In a scene reminiscent of the Montel Williams show, it comes down to the paternity test, aka, who da baby daddy? 

Tamar alone knows. She states that the father of her unborn child left her with three personal items.  She says to Judah, in front of the live TV audience: "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring, this strand, and this staff belong."

When confronted with the evidence, Judah says simply, "She is right, the baby is mine." [Collective audience gasp.]

On this verse, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that buried in the Hebrew words for "Identify, if you will, to whom this signet ring belongs..." is encoded the Hebrew word Tireh, revere Gcd. In other words, Tamar is implying that Judah should show reverence for Gcd and admit to the truth.

Because reverence for Gcd equates to an unwavering commitment to uphold the Truth.

Many moons ago, back when I was an undergrad at Georgetown University, I had the privilege and good fortune of being counseled by Dr. Hubert J. Cloke, an English professor and Dean in the Georgetown College. More than anyone else in my academic career, he impressed upon me the value and meaning of a liberal arts education.

He understood scholarship to be a passionate quest to reveal Objective Truth, of working to build the collective body of knowledge about ourselves and the universe we inhabit. 

The academic disciplines - mathematics, the sciences, literature, history, languages, music, art, theology, philosophy - although perhaps speaking different languages, all are different approaches towards understanding the same Grand Truth. Like the many facets of a single large diamond, each discipline contributes a piece to the broader understanding of that Truth.

The purpose of a liberal arts education, then, is to cultivate and sharpen the critical thinking skills indispensable in making reasoned assessments of that which fits in to the Greater Truth and that which does not. 

Like pieces of an infinitely complex puzzle, new nuggets of data are constantly analyzed and placed into the context of that which we already know to be True. When a conflict arises, the nuggets must be either reconciled or rejected, because the classic holistic epistemological approach allows for no internal inconsistencies in Truth.

Dr. Cloke would say repeatedly, "It's all one big ball of wax." And as we constantly see in the Talmud when conflicting views arise: "Lo kashya,"  it's not a difficulty, the opinions can be reconciled as follows...

Post-modern society wants us to believe that classical religious faith is the refuge of the ignorant; that religion is the opiate of masses who require the anaesthetic to escape their empty lives, to imagine meaning where there is nothingness, to flee from the terrifying reality that there is no existence beyond what we experience in the moment.

But is that True?

I contend that the authentic religious personality is motivated, not to hide from the truth, but to aggressively seek it out, because reverence for Gcd is defined as an unwavering commitment to Truth.

Belief in Gcd and His Torah is not at the periphery of the quest for truth, it is at its very heart: "The Seal of Gcd is Truth." (Yoma 69b) Or, stated, differently: Gcd is the Greater Truth to which we all seek, and the sciences and the humanities attempt to apprehend Gcd through His created universe.

Revealed Truth is no less valid than empirical truth, and we see great symbioses between the two. Our knowledge of the sciences and the humanities constantly informs our understanding of Torah, and conversely, our understanding of Torah helps provide context for understanding the world around us.

It's all one big ball of wax, internally consistent; unrelated disciplines coming together to create to a greater, unified whole. 

Over the years, Modern Orthodoxy has struggled to distinguish itself from Chareidut (oy! do I hate those labels). About 25 years ago, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm wrote an important book called Torah U'Madda, Torah & Science, in which he justifies the pursuit of worldly knowledge through sources in the Torah.

I would go one step farther and suggest that Modern Orthodoxy can be very succinctly defined as follows: the Torah-based philosophical approach that is open to Truth no matter what discipline it derives from, because the Seal of Gcd is Truth. By contrast, the Chareidi view is generally closed to any approach to Truth outside of Torah; it rejects and views antagonistically any notion of Chochma BaGoyim Ta'amin, that there is any wisdom outside of Torah.  

Four thousand years ago, our ancestor Judah compromised his personal prestige, his social standing and his narrow self-interest to admit to a Truth greater than himself. It was his unwavering commitment to the Grand Truth that made him and his descendants fit for the mantle of Jewish leadership throughout the generations.

May we all rise to his noble example.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Color of Evil - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5776

(Genesis 28:10 - 32:3)

If you had to pick a color to represent evil, what would you pick?

Let's see, something really menacing; maybe black, like the SS uniform, or black and red, like the Nazi Swastika, or just blood red, like the flag of the USSR.

In this week's Torah portion, we discover that the color of evil - is white. 

That's curious, because white is generally associated with purity, goodness and holiness:
Come, let us struggle together; though your sins are red as scarlet, I will purify you to become as white as snow. (Isaiah 1:18)
In our parashah, though, the archenemy of Jacob the Patriarch is his Uncle Laban, and in Hebrew, Laban means white. What gives?

First of all, let's be clear that Laban was one bad dude. He was an idol worshipper; he was a cheat, a thief, and a sexual predator; he was a tyrannical and domineering force in his household and was a master manipulator, akin to Mrs. Boynton in Christie's Appointment with Death. For example, Laban coerced Rachel to allow Leah to sneak into her marital bed on her wedding night, thus forfeiting her own happiness to acquiesce to her father's twisted subterfuges.

He is known as Laban the Aramean; but the Midrash points out that the Hebrew letters of "Aramean" also spell out "treachery" or "deceiver"; the kind of guy who changes the rules mid-game in his favor when he is starting to lose. In other words, he was a deceiver, head of a clan of liars, comfortable in a society of treachery. 

So distrustful of each other were they, that the shepherds had to lock the wells to prevent people stealing water. They only drew water once a day when everyone was present to unlock the well together. Distrust and verify.

According to the Midrash, Laban was the grandfather of Bilaam the Wicked Sorcerer, who was cut from the same malevolent cloth.

So why is his name "White as the Driven Snow?"

The Torah is coming to teach us a very important lesson.

Except in comic books, evil rarely self-identifies. It doesn't run it's banner up a flagpole like Darth Vader or Lex Luthor or Loki or even Doofenschmirtz Evil, Incorporated.

Image result for doofenshmirtz evil incorporated

Unlike the bad guys in the movies, real evil prefers to lurk in the shadows; concealed and free to destroy without attracting attention or drawing much scrutiny. Real-life villains smile to your face while furtively sabotaging your work. In the real world, evil almost always cloaks itself in white; like Laban, it wraps itself in the white tallit, looking to all appearances like goodness itself. 

The thief is only taking what he is entitled to because he is under-appreciated and underpaid.

Violent men beat women because "they had it coming."

Drug dealers need money for baby's new shoes.

Sexual predators think only of their own need, and are utterly unconcerned with their victims.

Laban is the face of modern evil; he is the archetypal narcissist; of people who navigate their way through life according to the dictum of "what is good for me is ethical." 

Towards the end of the parashah, Jacob makes a deal with Laban, in which Jacob gets the garbage animals of the flock as his wages, while continuing to manage Laban's flocks. Laban agrees because it's a deal strongly stacked in his favor. But Jacob deftly turns the seconds, the irregulars, the throw-away animals of the flock into a small fortune. Laban becomes angry and jealous; not because he lost money on the deal, but because Jacob also prospered in a deal where only Laban was supposed to come out on top. 

Jacob skedaddles, and Laban pursues and overtakes Jacob and his slow-moving caravan, laden down as it was with a dozen children and thousands of animals. There is a confrontation, and in a white-hot rage, Laban sputters: "The women belong to me, your children belong to me, your flocks belong to me; everything you have built for yourself is mine!" (Genesis 31:23)

For a moment, Laban lets the white veil slip, revealing the real Laban underneath, the ugliness and perversity of his thoughts and actions. As the verse states: "He who says: what is yours is mine and what is mine is mine, that person is an evildoer." (Avot 5:13) 

Had the A-lmighty not stayed his hand, Laban would have massacred Jacob and his clan right then and there. In his all-consuming jealousy and hate, he would have gleefully murdered his own daughters and grandchildren; a regrettable expedient, but necessary to grab the wealth that Laban rationalized belonged to him. 

Does this sound at all familiar? Hitler justified his monstrous behavior convinced that 'Providence' favored him. Stalin had excellent justifications in his own mind to murder 40 million people during the Red Purges of the 1930's. 

Modern Jew-hatred, manifest in the BDS movement and Code Pink, cloaks itself in the sanctimonious and hypocritical shroud of "Justice for Palestine."

Islamic crazy people who behead infidels, blow up discotheques and soccer stadiums and turn children into sex slaves are convinced that they are justified in doing the will of their diety.

Evil always tries to claim the moral high ground.

That is why Judaism rarely addresses evil as a thing, as some external, independent force in the world which we must enjoin in combat. Because guess what? When we objectify evil, we give ourselves a pass for the evil we do in our own lives. Freddy Kruger? Jeffrey Dahmer? That's bad. But my water cooler gossip? Nah...

Instead, Judaism almost always speaks of chet, of sin; of the individual decision to choose good or evil, right or wrong, mitzvah or chet. We speak not of evil, but of the evildoer.

The decision-making algorithm we employ on a day-to-day basis cannot be based on human intellect and twisted rationalizations, but on an absolute moral code that remains unchanged over time. 

We live in a world that has discarded the notions of absolute truth, of good and of evil. We are now taught everyone that has their own truth; that we all have a 'narrative', each one equally valid as the next. The task of the modern ethicist is narrative management, i.e., in the absence of absolute right or wrong, of developing rules to keep the contradictory and competitive narratives out of conflict. 

Take a look at progressive Western societies today and the world at large and let me know how that's working out.

To the contrary, the true nature of evil is manifest (or absent) in the hundreds of micro-choices we make each and every day. Evil is not some far-off disembodied force; it is all too close at hand, if we choose to give it power.

Because that's the dirty little secret about Uncle Laban: evil is not incorporated - it's a member of the family.

Shabbat Shalom.

- To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

- Please join us for Torah Study Tuesday evenings at 8:00 pm at the Starbucks on Schoenersville Road in Bethlehem, PA. Every week, we discuss the parasha, current events and the relevance of the weekly Torah reading to real life. Just bring your sense of humor and love of coffee (or tea?) [smile]

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Transcendent Hum - Reflections on Parashat Toldot 5776

(Genesis 25:19-28:9)

This week's parasha opens with a famous riddle.

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Skreech, skid to stop. Back up a little. What?

When the verse opens with, "And these are the generation of Isaac" we expect to hear all about the descendants of Isaac, not his forbears. It's like saying, "let me show you some pictures of my kids" and then pulling out faded pictures of your grandpappy. What gives?

Rashi comes to our rescue, as usual. He fills in the blanks and explains the correct way to read the verse:

"And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham [whom we'll get to in a minute in great detail, but for all you naysayers out there who doubt that Abraham and Sarah had a miracle baby in their dotage, I'm here to tell ya that] Abraham fathered Isaac."

But let's torque down on the unique structure of this verse, because it's not at all random:

"And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham fathered Isaac."

Isaac son of Abraham Abraham fathered Isaac.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac 

The architecture of the verse creates a sine wave:

And a sine wave that repeats continuously creates the infinity symbol:

This makes perfect sense: as my distinguished mentor, daily study partner and dear friend Rabbi Mordechai Eskovitz points out, the birth of Isaac reinvigorated Abraham, giving him a new sense of purpose, clarity, and direction in his life. Finally, at the ripe old age of 100, he could begin to see the glimmer of hope in the fulfillment of Gcd's promises to him. Taken in this way, it is fair to say that Isaac fathered Abraham just as much as Abraham fathered Isaac. 

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac.

A sine wave is a signal; a hum, a sound that reverberates through the cosmos. The Torah is transmitting a message through the Abraham/Isaac sine wave, one that transcends time, one that goes on forever. What is the nature of this message?

To decode it, we must understand Abraham and Isaac: who they were, what they stood for, what values they embodied.

Abraham was the paragon of Gemilut Hasadim, of kindness to others. We are taught that his tent had openings north, south, east and west, ever open to welcome friends, guests, strangers, sojourners. He delighted in making people feel welcome, wanted, and important. He embodied the character trait of the highest service to his fellowman. Through his living example of a kindly, dignified, devoted life, his guests came to discard their narcissistic paganisms and adopt Abraham's compassionate, ethical monotheism.

Isaac embodied the character trait of Avodah, of service to the A-lmighty. Having willingly exposed his own neck to be offered on the altar (Genesis 22), he was forever sanctified, a living symbol of the need to subordinate our capricious human will to the benevolent, enduring will of Gcd.

All the mitzvot of the Torah can be categorized as being either mitzvot between people, and those between Man and his Maker.

Examples of the former: caring for the poor; refraining from gossip; always giving the next guy the benefit of the doubt; never embarrassing anyone; hospitality; greeting everyone with a smile; visiting the sick. These are mitzvot of Gemilut Hasadim, the mitzvot symbolized by Abraham.

Examples of the latter: keeping kosher; keeping the Shabbat and festivals; wearing tefillin and tzitzit; prayer. These are mitzvot of Avodah, the mitzvot symbolized by Isaac.

The message of the sine wave is: Gemilut Hasadim combined with Avodah is the infinity secret of Jewish survival.

Isaac Abraham Abraham Isaac - Avodah Gemilut Hasadim Gemilut Hasadim Avodah.

The verse states:
On three things does the world stand: on Torah study, on Avodah, and on Gemilut Hasadim. [Avot 1:2]
These are the "ABC"s of Judaism: Torah study, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim. They cannot be teased apart; they are an integrated whole. 

As long as the Jewish People are committed to the "ABC"s: studying the Torah; acting compassionately towards our fellow humans; and deepening our dveykut Hashem, our "Gcd consciousness"; then passionate, transformative Judaism will survive forever. The transcendental sine wave will successfully transmit from Abraham to Isaac to the next Abraham to the next Isaac.

Sad to say, 9 out of 10 of American Jews no longer have much use for the fundamentals of the Jewish faith. We have discarded the "ABC"s in favor of the "EFG"s: Environmentalism, Feminism and Gay Rights.

Behold the pillars of the New Judaism, the gods we have fashioned in our own image.

Parents and grandparents burst with pride as their little Einsteins boldly tell us in their Bar and Bat Mitzvah speeches how they doubt the existence of Gcd, and how the Torah is pretty much irrelevant to their lives. What a tour de force of intellectual integrity and post-rational skepticism!

We can give ourselves a grand pat on the back: these [very expensive] Bar Mitzvah mills have produced, not another committed Jew, but a dedicated trash recycler and future Prius owner. 

Gcd is out, Gaia is in. Toyota will be so pleased.

Dissociated as we are from the ABCs, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly disappearing? How did we so lose our way? 

And while we're pushing our brains together to make one good one, wonder you this: what might suggest itself to you as a solution to our collective hari kiri? 


Shabbat Shalom.

FYI: To read an earlier insight on this parasha, click HERE.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Eliezer's Excellent Adventure - Reflections on Parashat Chayei Sarah 5776

(Genesis 23:1 - 25:18)

A big chunk of this week's Torah portion describes Eliezer's quest to find the perfect bride for Isaac, his master Abraham's son. 

Eliezer reluctantly accepts Abraham's commission to travel to far-away Chaldea, the region of Abraham's kinsmen, to select the lucky girl. It's a high stakes adventure; a tricky business, with grave consequences for the Abrahamitic mission if he should fail.

But Abraham trusted him, having already appointed him major domo of his household and manager of all his worldy affairs. In turn, Eliezer repaid that trust with a fierce loyalty to Abraham, a sort of ancient Gurka. He is so loyal that when he prays, he prays not to his own god, but to the Gcd of his master Abraham.

There are two things that stand out about Eliezer's quest.

First, the Torah spends an extravagant number of verses on Eliezer's excellent adventure. The first block of verses (24:1-24:33) describe the events as they unfold. The second block of verses (24:34-24:60) describe Eliezer's (almost verbatim) retelling of these events to Rebeccah's family. Sixty verses in all. 

And yet, upon returning home, it takes but one verse to bring Isaac up to speed. "And the servant recounted to Isaac everything that had transpired." (24:66) So why is Eliezer so loquacious before Rebeccah's family, yet is the essence of brevity with Isaac? (If anything, we might expect the opposite to be true, i.e., that he would reserve the detailed report for his boss.)

Second, although Eliezer is identified earlier (15:2), he is described throughout this narrative not by his proper name, but as "the servant" or "the man." Why not just call the guy by his real name?

Eliezer is initially very reluctant to undertake this mission. There are so many variables: Chaldea is a big place; where to start looking? How do you even begin to find a wife for some other person? What if he can't find a suitable girl for Isaac? What if he finds someone, but she refuses to return to Canaan with him? And define suitable please? And how is he to gauge the girl's character, her inner beauty? And what if, after bringing the girl back to Canaan, she and Isaac are incompatible? 

I hear stories from people who are seriously looking these days, and trust me, it's hard enough to find your own soul mate, let alone someone else's.

From Eliezer's perspective, the entire undertaking is a lose-lose proposition: if he succeeds, his private aspirations to wed his own daughter to Isaac are dashed; and if he strikes out, he fails his master and jeopardizes Abraham's entire life's work.

In overcoming these objections, Abraham basically says, "I trust you to do the right thing." Moreover, he tells Eliezer that he will not be going it alone; indeed, he will have extraordinary help for this extraordinary mission: 
The Lcrd, Gcd of the Heavens; He who took me out of my father's house and my ancestral homeland; He who has spoken to me; He who swore to give this land to my offspring; He will send his angel before you and you will indeed find a wife for my son there. (24:7)
So despite his severe reservations, the reluctant servant heads out reluctantly.

And then the events unfold. Luckily, he finds himself approaching the city of Nahor, Abraham's brother. Luckily, Nachor's grand-daughter is the first one out of the gate to draw water. Luckily, she is beautiful, gracious and kind-hearted. Luckily she passes the little test he devises to test her character.

The verse states that Eliezer is dumbstruck when he begins to realize that the very first young maiden he encounters could be the potential wife for Isaac. 

It would be a little like you or me picking up a bat and going up against a Major League pitcher like Nolan Ryan or Sandy Koufax, and with the very first swing, hitting the ball out of the park. The odds are laughably, ridiculously small.

By verbalizing the story in front of Rebeccah's family, Eliezer has the opportunity to sort it all out, put the events in their proper context, and make sense of it in his own mind. 

He comes to realize that what happened back there was no coincidence or kismet or blind luck. Events unfolded exactly as they were supposed to...just as Master Abraham had promised him they would. Abraham's words echoed in Eliezer's head: "...The Lcrd will send his angel before you and you will indeed find there a wife for my son."

In other words, as much as Eliezer was retelling the story to convince Rebeccah's family to allow her to accompany him home, he was talking just as much to himself; developing the emerging awareness that there was a Divine plan at work here, and that he had a key role to play in it.

What role? Roles, actually: both as "the servant" and as "the man."

A servant is one who faithfully does his master's bidding with unswerving loyalty. In the execution of the master's wishes, the servant subordinates his own will to that of his master. The servant is utterly dependent upon the master, and could not survive without his beneficence. 

By contrast, Man is a moral agent, independent, and able to apply judgement and common sense in the application of his free will.

In relation to Abraham, Eliezer is referred to as the servant. In the house of Bethuel, far away from his master's direct guidance, he must exercise his best judgement. That is why Abraham trusted him to do the right thing in the first place; that is why in Chaldea he is referred to as the Man.

We are all Eliezer. We are all both servants of Gcd and moral agents, struggling to find the perfect balance between subservience to Gcd and initiative in the crafting of our own lives. Like Eliezer, we are all on a quest, a long, hazardous journey, the consequences of which are enormous and the outcome of which is unknown. 

But if we serve our Master well, fulfilling our obligations to Him and our to our fellow man; if we faithfully apply our talents and our intellect to the study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot, Gcd will no doubt send an angel before us as well, that we may find success on the unique trail that each one of us must blaze on our own. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Loshon Koydesh - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5776

(Genesis 12:1 - 17:27)

This week, I am re-posting one of my blogs from 2002 entitled "Loshon Koydesh", Yiddish for 'The Holy Tongue', i.e., Hebrew. 

Two reasons: in this week's parasha, the Patriarch Abraham is first described as "ha'Ivri", the Hebrew. In the context of the verse, it also denotes otherness. 

4,000 years down the pike, we are still Hebrews, our language is still Hebrew, and we are still the archetypal outsiders.

Second, we find ourselves (once again) in the midst of an Arab murder spree, a paroxysm of injury and blood and death, engineered to cause dismay and despair; one tactic in the broader, coordinated international strategy to dislodge the People of Israel from the Land of Israel.

I wrote Loshon Koydesh when we first made aliyah, smack in the middle of the second Arab uprising; it was but one in a series weekly missives I sent back to the US and around the world, sharing our colorful experiences as an American family replanting our lives in the Land of Israel. 

The ultimate, enduring response to this wave of terror is Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, the continued return of the Jewish People to our ancestral homeland. The authentic Jewish response to every attack is to build another Jewish home, build another Jewish neighborhood, build another Jewish business. 

Therefore, I dedicate this blog to those who were murdered at the hands of Arab terrorists in recent weeks, and to those recovering from their wounds. May Gcd give strength to the healing victims and to the bereaved families.

Shabbat Shalom.


I could not believe my ears. Straining from behind my closed office door, I listened to what seemed to be the voices of my three older daughters speaking among themselves in Hebrew. In life’s grand scheme, this is perhaps a small milestone, but their halting, pidgin Hebrew was the most beautiful sound I had heard since our arrival. In only four months, the girls were making themselves understood in Hebrew. As the wave of pride crested within me, I was taken back to thoughts Bubbe.

Bubbe? Yes, my Bubbe. Let me tell you why.

Born to Russian immigrants in Brooklyn in 1911, she grew up in a house where Yiddish was the spoken language, and the high priest of their faith was Leon Trotsky. One might say they were more Yiddish than Jewish; the Yiddish theatre, the Yiddish press, Yiddish literature and Yiddish music were the stars in their constellation.

Bubbe was a luminary in her own right - Beatrice (Bessie to her friends) was ebullient, bright and beautiful. Despite her elegant, mellifluous Yiddish, her future father-in-law was convinced she was a shikseh (a gentile girl) - she didn’t have the demure ta’am (style) of a Yiddishe maidel (Jewish girl). For her part, she was more than a little afraid to marry such a religious boy, but they married anyway; she eventually grew to be profoundly religious in her own right. In the end, my great-grandfather described her as the most precious of all his daughters-in-law.

She had a sanguine determination that she brought to everything she did, whether it was her 40-year-long nursing career or her work for the synagogue Sisterhood. She once nursed a gravely ill infant boy through the night when the doctors had given up all hope and had gone home, expecting the child to be dead by morning. But thanks to her round-the-clock care, the baby cheated death, and went on to eventually recover. Thirteen years later, out of the blue, Bubbe & Zayde received an invitation to his Bar Mitzvah.

One day, in her mid-sixties, this indomitable woman decided to begin learning Hebrew.

She signed up for the weekly “ulpan” offered by the synagogue, girded with notebooks, pencils, books and notes. She must have attended that beginner’s ulpan class 6 years running, but she never quite managed to matriculate to the next book. This never dismayed her, and with her signature resolve, she kept plodding along towards her goal. For example, she insisted that we sing the Birkat HaMazon (Grace after Meals) aloud on Shabbat, and at a slow enough pace that she could sound out every syllable - a 45 minute ordeal. This went on for the rest of her life. But Bubbe was a force of nature, and there was no denying her this accommodation.

She never quite acquired the language, but she ardently believed in it. She saw the majesty of speaking the language in which Gcd created the heavens and earth, in which the prophets spoke, and which, with only slight modifications, has been the living language of the Jewish people for 4,000 years. She intuitively understood the organic connection between the Land of Israel and the Language of Israel, how Hebrew was the glue that binds the Jew to the Land.

How is your spoken Hebrew? Over a hundred years ago, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (one of my heroes!) led a spirited campaign to make Hebrew the language of instruction in all Zionist schools in Europe. I will probably meet with the same howls of derision from the Jewish Establishment that he did when I suggest that the same should be true in every Jewish day school, yeshivah, and Talmud Torah in America today. Hebrew should be the language of instruction in every course of study - math, science, literature, and of course limudei kodesh (religious studies).

The sad truth is that many Jews today can sound out Hebrew letters, but have no earthly clue what the words mean. Fluency in Hebrew is the portal into the collective consciousness of the Jewish people, the intuitive stream of experience that connects us to all Jewish generations before and after. Perush Hamilim (The meaning of the Hebrew words) brings focus and direction to the passion of our prayer. Unfortunately, for most Jews, Hebrew is acknowledged as our common language more in the breach than in the speech.

When Bubbe died of a heart attack at the age of 76, we lost the moral beacon of our family. Rabbi Levovitz wept openly for this endearing, insouciant woman who for 45 years dared speak up to him when she was convinced he was wrong. So dear was she to him that he permitted no other hesped (eulogy) but his own.

Despite the passage of the years, our family has never completely recovered from her loss. My daughters never met my Bubbe, were never smothered in one of her legendary hugs. But they know her through the stories and teachings that keep her memory alive. And if, as the gemara in Berachot says, the dead observe the events in our world, then Bubbe is surely kvelling that her great-granddaughters are ascending the path that she paved for them with the bulky bricks of her Aleph-Bet.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Getting a Handle on the Messiah - Reflections on Sukkot 5776

Symbolically speaking, Sukkot is one of the most richly textured holidays on the Jewish calendar. 

On one level, Sukkot is Chag HaAsif, the autumn harvest holiday, a opportunity to rejoice in Gcd's benevolence for the bountiful crop. A related theme is that of water/rain, and how we pray for sweet rains and (thus) prosperity for the coming season.

It is also Chag HaSukkot, the holiday of the temporary booths. The sukkah (booth) itself contains many layers of meaning: according to Rabbi Akiva, it represents the temporary physical dwellings the Jewish people inhabited during their desert trek from Egypt to Israel. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the booths represent the spiritual Clouds of Divine Glory which enveloped and protected the Jewish People during that trek.

But the holiday of Sukkot is also deeply imbued with imagery of the coming messianic age. 

If Pesach/Passover is all about the birth of the Jewish Nation and the beginning of our historical journey; if Shavuot/Pentecost is all about accepting the Torah at Mount Sinai and receiving our Divine Charge - to perform the mitzvot and bring the ennobling Light of the One True Gcd to the world; then Sukkot is all about the end of that historical process and the beginning of a new, post-historical epoch for humankind.

The English word "messiah" comes from the Hebrew word Moshiach which means "anointed one." Moses was a moshiach, one anointed by Gcd to leadership; so was King David. (One idea posits that in every generation there is a person, anointed by Gcd, ready to step forward as the messiah and begin the Redemption of the Jewish People - if only we demonstrate our readiness for it.)

But for all of the discussion in the Talmud and later sources, we have only a fuzzy idea about the messiah and the messianic age. Here's what we do know: 

- The Messiah will be a human being, a direct descendant of King David;
- He will teach Torah to the masses;
- He will lead all the wayward Jews back into the fold of the Divine Covenant;
- He will restore the Davidic dynasty, and restore the Jewish People to our ancestral homeland in Israel, tribe by tribe, clan by clan;
- He will build the Third (and final) Temple on Mount Moriah, the site currently occupied by the interloping Golden Mosque, and the Divine Presence will return to it as in the days of the First Temple;
- In ways which are poorly understood, the righteous of all past generations will come back to life and we will be able to interact with our ancestors - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, our grandparents and great-grandparents, and (who knows?) maybe even Bach and Handel;
- He will lead all the gentile nations to abandon their sophisticated idolatries and embrace the simple belief in, and the sovereignty of, the One True Gcd;
- Once the Immanence of Gcd floods the world, nations will make war no more; the forces of hatred, avarice and evil will be destroyed; and the Messiah will usher in an era when the family of man will finally - finally! -  live together in peace, in liberty, in prosperity and in brotherhood.

Quite the job description.

The holiday of Sukkot is all about the Messianic Age. The public Torah readings on Sukkot from Zechariah and Ezekiel are all about messianic times and prophecies. The sukkah itself represents the rebuilt Temple. The Ushpizin, the spiritual visitors whom we welcome into our sukkah, are the righteous souls who will be resurrected.

Unique to Sukkot, the Temple sacrifices for this holiday include 70 bulls as olot, elevation offerings: these bulls represent the 70 Gentile Nations of the world, on whose behalf we pray. In the messianic future, representatives of the 70 Gentile Nations will send emissaries to the Temple to pay homage to Gcd and celebrate Sukkot with Jewish People.

The four species - palm, myrtle, willow and citron - which we hold together and wave during Sukkot prayers, are deeply symbolic of messianic times. The bundling together of this disparate group represents unity among the disparate groups of Jews; it also represents the Unification of Gcd's name in the world, in contrast to our current state, in which the knowledge of Gcd is fractured, twisted, corrupted. And the image of dozens upon dozens of palms being held aloft and waved recalls the prophecy that, "then (in the messianic times) the trees of the forest will rejoice and dance; Before Gcd who comes, who comes to judge the world."  (Psalm 96)

All of the foregoing explains why Sukkot is also called Zman Simchateinu, our Rejoiceful Time. Sure, we have a mitzvah to rejoice on all of our festivals, but there is a special measure of simchah, joy, on Sukkot - it is the Jew's most cherished dream to see the return of the Shechinah, the indwelling presence of Gcd, return to the world. Then, the veils of self-doubt and confusion will be removed; then, the meaning of the historical process will become clear; then, the love of Gcd and our fellow man will flood the world.

There is no greater joy than contemplating and celebrating the delicious prospect of that imminent reality.

But Sukkot suggests something more, coming on the heels (as it does) of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. I would like to suggest that the message of Sukkot is that we must all behave as though each one of us is the Messiah.

After all, Sukkot belongs to us all: Every Jew has an obligation to wave the four species; every Jew has an obligation to sit, eat and dwell in the sukkah. In other words, every one of us has a role to play in the fulfillment of the messianic future that Sukkot represents.

The Rambam says that every Jew has the potential to be a Moses. So it follows that every Jew has the potential to be a messiah, an Anointed One. 

How so? Through rigorous introspection and spiritual/moral development; through an all-permeating "Gcd-Consciousness" that the deeply pious cultivate; through a personal recognition of the sovereignty of Gcd and the authority of His Torah in our lives; through a burning passion for goodness, kindness and justice; and through acting as a catalyst for spiritual growth in others.

What if the fate of the world rested on your ethical choices? On the intensity of your tefillah/prayer? On whether you keep kosher or not? On whether you keep the Shabbat or not? On whether you bite your tongue and avoid that juicy tidbit of gossip - or not?

Because I've got news for you - in a very real sense, it does.

The great paradox of Sukkot is that the rickety sukkah, with its leaky roof and shaky walls, represents the mighty, unwavering hand of Providence as it has protected the Jewish People throughout our turbulent history. Similarly, it is through turning inward to cultivate our deepest spiritual gifts that we can begin to transform the external world around us.

May we all merit to see the coming of the Messianic era in our life times, Amen.

Chag Sameach/Happy Sukkot.

PS: To see an earlier blog post on Sukkot, click HERE.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New Year's Revolutions - Reflections on Parashat VaYeilech 5776

(Deuteronomy 31:1 - 31:30)

Jewish Education. From the earliest age, our daughters came to expect one question at our weekly Shabbat dinner table, and woe unto the unfortunate lass who did not have a ready answer.

The question was always the same: "What are you reading?" Any answer was acceptable, so long as it wasn't 'nothing'. 

Over time, the kids were so excited about sharing their latest book that they began reading them aloud to the table. So it was that a simple pedagogical question developed into a charming element of our Shabbat feast that continues to this day. 

After we take turns sharing with the table the good things that have transpired in the course of the previous week, after the words of Torah, after the singing and the eating (and the ritual walking of Guinness the dog), we settle down to hear a chapter or two in the latest saga.

I have now been plugged in to The Sisters Grimm (ALL nine volumes), The 39 Clues (15+ volumes), The Mysterious Benedict Society (three), The Heroes' Guide to Saving Your Kingdom (three), Dear Dumb Diary (dozens), and many, many more. The giggles and smiles that fill our house from these stories have become an integral part of our Oneg Shabbat, the transcendental joy of the Shabbat experience.

This week's parashah is all about Jewish Education. Hashem commands Moses to assemble the Jewish People once every seven years to hear the Reading of the entire Torah. No one was exempt: every man, woman and child was required to attend. This mitzvah is called Hak-Hel, the Gathering.

But Moses quickly grasped that once every seven years wasn't nearly enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Moses ordained that we read the Torah, not once every seven years, but once every seven days. That is why about 1/50 of the Torah is read every Shabbat, completing the entire Five Books of Moses, from Bereishit/Genesis through Devarim/Deuteronomy, once every year.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that Ezra decreed that even three days shouldn't pass without reading the Torah. So every Monday and Thursday, on the ancient market days when Jews would gather, we read a few verses from the weekly Torah portion as well.

But even that wasn't enough. Such was our love for Gcd's Torah that anytime Jews assemble, a word of Torah, a nugget of Truth, a clever insight, is shared.
Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion said: when even two people gather and a word of Torah is shared between them, the Divine Spirit rests upon them. (Avot 3:3)
Jews are perpetual learners, permanent students, and Jewish Education is at the heart of the secret of Jewish Survival. Show me a Jew who sets aside time to study Torah every day, and I'll show you a Jew whose children, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be identifiable Jews decades from now.

Tragically, some forms of Jewish Education left a bad taste in the mouths of many people. Cheders and Talmud Torahs tried to give a sprinkling of Judaism to public school students, but multiple studies over several decades have shown that the Talmud Torah model of Jewish Education is worthless. In fact, Talmud Torah accomplished the opposite: this negative experience left many (otherwise) highly educated people with the impression that Torah study and Judaism were not worthy of their time and attention. 

There's a great clip from Woody Allen's movie Radio Days that captures the geist of supplementary Jewish Education:

Yet studying the Torah, is, as we say in our daily prayers, our very lives and length of our days. If we have abandoned our commitment to the daily study of Torah, is it any wonder that Judaism in America is rapidly dying?

As I have written elsewhere, I believe we are entering a period of great economic, political and social instability. The Talmud tells us the secret of surviving this turmoil:
The students of Rabbi Elazar asked him: What should a person do to save themselves from the birth pangs of the Messianic Age? He responded: be engaged in the study of Torah and do great acts of kindness to your fellowman. (Sanhedrin 98B)
In order to survive the coming maelstrom, we must do outrageous and unrequited acts of goodness for each other, and we must study Torah. Like two medicines, the effect is only achieved by taking both; one without the other won't work. 

Commit to sticking your nose in a book of the Torah for ten minutes every day. It doesn't matter what you study, find or discover an area of interest: the choices are endless and almost the entire 3,500 year-old treasury of Jewish thought and literature is available in English.

If the ossified Jewish Establishment was genuinely interested in Jewish survival, it would re-prioritize allocations to ensure a free, quality Hebrew Day School education to every single Jewish child in North America. The goal should be: not a single Jewish kid in public school. But since your feckless Federation leadership won't do it, earmark your Federation dollars exclusively for that goal. Or better yet, completely bypass the Federation and their scandalously high overhead, and donate directly to the Scholarship Fund of the Hebrew Day School of your choice.

Let's start a revolution, you and me, right here and now between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Whatever you lose sleep over - injustice, hunger, sovereign debt, Iranian Nukes, ISIS, crumbling social morays, galloping inflation, police brutality - if you want to change the world, begin by changing yourself, begin by committing to a regime of daily Torah study. 

Rabbi Elazar had it going on. Get Jewishly educated, particularly (especially) if you think you know all there is to know Jewish-wise. Because as the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don't know.

He speaks the truth, my faithful Indian companion.

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah!