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.