Thursday, June 30, 2016

Up - Reflections on Parashat Shelach 5776

Note: Just hours after I uploaded this blog post, news reached us of Hallel Ariel, a 13 year-old girl murdered in her bed in Kiryat Arba as she slept, Daniella Shefi style. I dedicate this blog post to her memory. השם יקום דמה

(Numbers 13:1-15:41)

Our parasha this week deals in large part with the treachery of the infamous spies whom Moshe dispatched to scout out the Land of Israel. 

Their mission was to collect military intelligence prior to the Israelite conquest of [what was then known as] Canaan. Instead, they twisted every good thing they saw into something negative. They talked trash about the Land of Israel. They wildly overestimated the strength and fortifications of the enemy. They talked smack about Moshe's leadership. And for the coup de grace, they had the temerity to question Gcd's judgement in urging a conquest that was [in their grasshopper-ish eyes] clearly doomed to failure.

By the time they were done proffering their august opinions, the Jewish People were in a lather, wailing and moaning about how Gcd had led them into a death trap. With murder on their mind, they resolved to appoint a Quisling or a Petain  - a new, more suggestible leader that would lead them back to Egypt to resume their lives as slaves, with heads bowed and hands held high in submission and surrender.

We know the rest of the story - instead of a speedy and miraculous conquest of the Holy Land, the Jews are condemned to wander in the desert for forty years, until every Crabby Appleton who had mouthed off to Gcd and his servant Moshe had died in the desert.

The laundry list of what the spies did wrong, and the broader lessons of Parashat Shelach, are so transparent to even the casual reader that they require no elaboration by Your Humble Servant. 

I will only mention one teeny tiny point which must be made. It must be made by someone like me because you probably won't hear this from your local congregational rabbi...because synagogue boards don't take kindly to rabbis who encourage members to leave town. 

I am referring to the "A" word - aliyah, variously translated as moving to Israel/elevating one's spiritual status/going up. 

If you love Israel and are a passionate Zionist, the single most important thing you can do for Israel is to relocate and transplant your life there. 

Today, in fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy and Divine Promise, Gcd has restored Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. Ponder the historical, theological and philosophical implications of that reality for a minute.

As foretold by the prophets of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles from the corners of the world is underway. Any Jew who does not understand the mystical symbiosis between the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel has a deeply flawed conception of Judaism.
V’Ata Kadosh, Yoshev Tehilot Yisrael./And You are Holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel. - Psalms 22:4
Yoshev - Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, residing in the Land of Israel
Tehilot - Torah
Yisrael - the People of Israel

The living interconnection between the Land, the Torah and the People is the great end game of human history, for it is through Geulat Yisrael, the redemption of Israel, that the redemption of the entire world will occur, bringing peace and blessing to all mankind.

They are the tripod of Gcd’s throne, as it were, and a stool with only two legs is no stool at all. American Jewry is self-destructing because we have attempted to base Jewish identity on any two, or sometimes only one of them. 

Our liberal Jewish brethren who have discarded both Torah and the Land find it difficult to understand why their adherents can’t find much use for the People, either. Our Haredi brethren emphasize Torah and Klal (peoplehood), but attach almost no significance to Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. And our secular Zionist brethren have demonstrated the abject failure of the People and the Land without Torah; their children opt out, winding up in New York or L.A. or South Florida.

We point to our impressive institutions, our Federations and JCCs and synagogues, built out of necessity, with such painstaking effort and at such staggering cost; and they are indeed impressive. But we are like the proverbial castaway who, when offered the chance of rescue, is reluctant to return to civilization; reluctant to leave the crude instruments of survival he engineered and so lovingly built with almost superhuman effort. We are reluctant to abandon our desert island for a life in Israel where being Jewish is normative, where Jewish continuity is taken for granted, where the ground, the air, the water is suffused with the Spirit of Gcd.

What does it mean to purposely stay behind in North America, to not make aliyah? It is as if Gcd Himself threw a party for you and you didn't show up. Ouch.

As events on the world stage spiral out of control, towards ever-increasing instability, we can scant afford to ignore the historical imperatives that drive us towards our destiny: the People of Israel, loyal to Gcd and His Torah, living on the Land forsworn to our ancestors, fulfilling the mission of bringing Gcd’s holiness to a weary world in desperate need of it. The nations of the world are waiting for us to ACT. What are we waiting for?

This is the enduring lesson of the failure of the spies, ten tayarim/tourists, who made a pilot trip to Israel but preferred their life in chutz l’aretz/the diaspora. 

Make aliyah and ensure the Jewish future of your family. Get excited about moving to Israel. The future of our People is not being decided in Monsey or Borough Park or Lakewood - it's being decided in Hevron and peaks of Judea and the rolling hills and valleys of Samaria. 

If you truly want to put an end to terrorism and radical Islam, make aliyah. The most eloquent answer to the BDS movement is to make aliyah. The authentic Jewish answer to these problems is to build - build another house, another neighborhood. 

Make aliyah. The Ingathering of Exiles is at hand. Take a stand and live where being Jewish matters. Rectify the sin of the spies. Go up to the Land.
Alo Na'aleh v'yirashnu oto/Let us ascend to the Land of Israel and take possession of it. - Numbers 13:30
Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Wedding Vows - Reflections on Shavuot 5776

Bea & Sam Gisser, August 1985
On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, our Bubbe and Zayde renewed their wedding vows under a stunning gold lame chuppah, and then, in their inimitable style, threw a party to end all parties. Every family member and friend they could think of was invited. People dressed to the nines (fahrpitzed in Yiddish), the five-star food rocked, Ruby Melnick's orchestra wailed, and the wine flowed. And people talked about that party for years.

Zayde always said: make the effort to attend the simchahs (celebrations), because on the sad occasions you have to go.

What ingredients go into a successful marriage, one that makes it to the 50 year milestone and beyond? 

First are the open and effusive expressions of love between the partners; second are the daily acts, little and large, that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and third is the inherent good character and trustworthiness of the partners themselves. 

With those three ingredients, any marriage will go the distance. Two out of three and the marriage will endure for a while; but with only one out of the three, the prospects for long-term success are not brilliant.

This weekend, Jews have a simchah to attend. Sunday (and Monday in the Diaspora) are Shavuot, the annual holiday when we renew our wedding vows with the A-lmighty. For Shavuot is the anniversary of receiving the Torah - our ketubah (marriage contract) - at Mount Sinai, a mere 3,328 years ago. (My! How the time flies.)

Like Bubbe's and Zayde's marriage, the marriage between the Jewish People and Gcd rests on the same three pillars: our expressions of faith in the One True Gcd; our performance of His mitzvot that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and finally, our inherent good character as embodied in our Jewish lineage, as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of old.

Pop quiz: which of those three components is the most important: Jewish pedigree, keeping the mitzvot, or belief in Gcd?

Most people would probably answer Jewish pedigree, because almost everyone knows Jews who are non-observant. Also, most people are familiar with the Halachah (Jewish law) that if a Jewish woman "marries out", i.e., to a non-Jew, her children will still be considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish Law.

And yet they would be very wrong. [Your surprised face here.]

That rule was a concession to the fact that in olden days, it was not uncommon for young Jewish women to be taken captive by foreigners, conquerors and rapists. (In fact, in Israel today it is estimated that over 3,000 Jewish women have been seduced or kidnapped and are held against their will by abusive Moslem husbands in Arab villages, which, thanks to the Oslo Accords, are out of the reach of Israeli authorities.) The Sages of Israel, understanding the holy nature of Jewish women, assumed that such women would inculcate Jewish values and a sense of Jewish identity in their children, even in situations of extreme abuse and duress. 

And those who understand this Halachah as giving license to marry out are probably not aware that after four successive generations of intermarriage, the children are no longer considered Jewish. (Sad to say, we bear witness in our times that it doesn't usually take that long.)

The correct answer, at least according to the Rambam and other prominent authorities, is belief in the One True Gcd. Why? Because from our clear understanding of the Ikarei HaDat, the Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith, everything else follows. People who understand the Unity and Indivisibility of Gcd; who understand that Gcd actively runs the Universe and and takes a personal interest in the minutest details of every human life; people who acknowledge the authority of Torah - Gcd's Law - in their life; such people will perform the mitzvot enthusiastically, and convey that enthusiasm to their children, continuing the 4,000 year chain of pedigree which we can trace back to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

And what of converts, you may ask? After all, they lack that chain of pedigree. If, as I argue, to be Jewish is to possess not just one or two, but fully all three of these ingredients, how can converts ever be truly Jewish?

This not a question, because sincere converts have a better pedigree than natural-born Jews. 

People who grew up working on the Sabbath, and who grew up eating cheeseburgers, who grew up with the norms of a secular or idolatrous society; such people, who abandon everything they recognize as normal and familiar, to attach themselves to the destiny of the Jewish People and follow the path of Judaism, most especially including the specifics of Jewish Law, are considered to be the direct, first generation descendants of the Patriarchs Abraham and Sarah themselves:
Take yourselves from everything that is familiar to you - your land, your culture, your father's house, to the unknown land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
And thus will the generations that follow the righteous convert merit to have all three components.
Where you go I will go, and where you live I will live. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16)
To be a Jew is to embody all three components, for a three stranded rope does not easily break (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Until the Enlightenment, such a statement would hardly have merited comment. However today, broad swaths of Jews no longer recognize the authority of Torah Law in their lives, and the liberal streams of Judaism give religious sanction to agnosticism in the name of intellectual integrity.

Because we are no longer a community bound together by a set of common axioms and postulates, all that remains to unite the Jewish world is our common ancestry. We are no longer a faith community, rather we are most tenuously connected one to another by our lowest common denominator. And that, in my humble opinion, is a tremendous poverty. Because when one's Jewish identity is based upon ethnicity alone, it speaks more to who your grandparents were than to who your grandchildren will be. 

And this sad state of affairs is the precipitating cause of the modern crises of who is defined as a Jew and whose conversions are to be considered valid.

Somehow, we must once again become a community united by a common faith and a shared belief system. 

So my challenge to you this Shavuot is to renew your wedding vows with the A-lmighty. Take a few minutes to reflect on the basics of your relationship with Gcd. 

Here's your homework:

1.) Curl up in a comfy chair.
2.) Pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of soothing jasmine tea.
3.) Read through and reflect upon each one of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith, which can be found in any reputable prayer book. 
4.) After the holiday, hit me up with your questions.

May Gcd bless the Jewish People with Unity rooted in Belief, Unity rooted in Torah, and lastly, with the bonds of Brotherhood and Family.

Chag Sameach.

(To read an earlier post on the holiday of Shavuot, please click HERE.)