Saturday, 21 July 2018

Tisha B'Av, Mourning the Loss of Our People and of Our Family

Dear Friends and Family,

This Shabbat, 9th of Av on the Jewish calendar (7/20-7/21) marks the saddest day in Jewish history as well as the saddest day in my family's history. For those unfamiliar with the general and personal stories behind Tisha B'Av, please take a moment to read further.

Tisha B'Av, the "9th of Av," marks the saddest day in Jewish history. Each year, we Jews observe the Fast of Tisha B'Av (this year it falls on Sunday since it is not observed on Shabbos), as a culmination of a three-week period of mourning starting from 17 of Tammuz. It was instituted as a national Jewish fast day nearly as stringent and significant as Yom Kippur that all Jews are incumbent to observe through fasting and mourning. The greatest calamities in Jewish history are remembered on this sad day, many of which happened on or around Tisha B'Av itself. This is a rare occasion that I recommend reading Wikipedia for something Jewish, but they have a helpful article worth reading. Courtesy of Wikipedia, here is a list of some of the calamities mentioned:

"According to the Mishnah (Taanis 4:6), five specific events occurred on the ninth of Av that warrant fasting:
  1. The Twelve Spies sent by Moses to observe the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, brought a positive report, while the others spoke disparagingly about the land. The majority report caused the Children of Israel to cry, panic and despair of ever entering the "Promised Land". For this, they were punished by G-d that their generation would not enter the land. The midrash quotes G-d as saying about this event, "You cried before me pointlessly, I will fix for you this day as a day of crying for the generations", alluding to the future misfortunes which occurred on the same date.
  2. The First Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE, and the population of the Kingdom of Judah was sent into the Babylonian exile. The First Temple's destruction began on the 7th of Av (2 Kings 25:8) and continued until the 10th (Jeremiah 52:12). According to the Talmud, the actual destruction of the Temple began on the Ninth of Av, and it continued to burn throughout the Tenth of Av.
  3. The Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, scattering the people of Judea and commencing the Jewish exile from the Holy Land that continues to this day.
  4. The Romans subsequently crushed Bar Kokhba's revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 500,000 Jewish civilians (approximately 580,000) on August 4, 135 CE.
  5. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, in 135 CE.
Over time, Tisha B'Av has come to be a Jewish day of mourning, not only for these events, but also for later tragedies which occurred on or near the 9th of Av. References to some of these events appear in liturgy composed for Tisha B'Av
  1. The First Crusade officially commenced on August 15, 1096 (Av 24, AM 4856), killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.
  2. The Jews were expelled from England on July 18, 1290 (Av 9, AM 5050).
  3. The Jews were expelled from France on July 22, 1306 (Av 10, AM 5066).
  4. The Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 (Av 7, AM 5252).
  5. Germany entered World War I on August 1–2, 1914 (Av 9–10, AM 5674), which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.
  6. On August 2, 1941 (Av 9, AM 5701), SS commander Heinrich Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for "The Final Solution." As a result, the Holocaust began during which almost one third of the world's Jewish population perished.
  7. On July 23, 1942 (Av 9, AM 5702), began the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, en route to Treblinka.
  8. The AMIA bombing, of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killed 85 and injuring 300 on 18 July 1994 (10 Av, AM 5754).
  9. The Israeli disengagement from Gaza began in the Gaza Strip, expelling 8000 Jews who lived in Gush Katif; 15 August 2005; 10 Av, 5765."

For our family, Tisha B'Av marks a particularly sad day because it was on the 9th of Av 5776 (2016) that my sister Julie suddenly passed away.

While Tisha B'Av represents the many, many tragic events that scar our People's past and present, the central theme focuses on mourning the loss of our First and Second Temple. Why do we single-out the loss of these two "brick and mortar" buildings as the focus of our loss when the same day relates to the loss of millions of Jews throughout history? How can we relate to such an abstract and distant event in 2018?

I believe one answer is the fact that our Temples represented G-d's Divine Presence in our world. It is utterly impossible for a Jew in 2018 to relate to life during the Temple era and the abundance of open miracles and overflow of Divine Presence that was "every-day life" at that time. So too, it would be impossible for someone 2,000 years ago to relate to (or even believe) the idea that one brother on one continent could hear another brother on another continent whisper (ie via a telephone); or that one could fly like a bird from country to country in a matter of hours. What we can relate to, however, is having Divine Presence in our every day lives; whether through the little and big "coincidences" and miracles--for those that wish to open their eyes and see them. Our Talmud (Yoma 9b) states that the First Temple was destroyed due to Jews sinning through idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed, the three cardinal sins that are so grave that a Jew must sacrifice his life rather than transgress any one of them (which is not the case with other commandments). The Talmud then asks a perplexing question: "during the Second Temple, the Jews occupied themselves with the Torah (observing and learning), mitzvos, and acts of kindness; why was it destroyed? Because of baseless hatred that existed [between Jews]."

Our Holy Temples were a microcosm of the Universe. The intricate, beautiful, and profound service, customs, and life that encompassed our Temple set an example of how we should shape our lives and model society. It is indisputable that the one intrinsic thing that all Jews have in common over the past 3,000+ years is our embracing of the Torah as a guide to life, which continues as the center and focus of our continued existence and purpose as a People. The common fault that the Jews of both the First and Second Temple eras share is that they did not appreciate the important role that the Torah played in their everyday life. As such, they were not able to recognize the importance of their personal role in society nor did they appreciate the importance of others and their roles in society. How could Jews, the Holy People, in the First Temple era fall victim to idolatry, immorality, bloodshed? Because they did not value the morality and ethics that the Torah brings into the world, they did not recognize their own responsibilities in morality and ethics and would never achieve the greatness that connection to the Torah brings. When one has no value or sense of purpose in life, one is capable of committing the worst acts, even idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed.  

The generation of the Second Temple, however, recognized this divine spark and kept Torah and mitzvos in as much as it served their daily lives. However, they did not fully-embrace the profound depths of the ethic and moral teachings of the Torah and they saw only purpose and value in their own lives, not the lives of others. As such, "holy" Jews hated other Jews for no reason at all. The crimes committed during that generation were not coming from a lack of purpose in their lives; the source was a lack of love, respect, and appreciation for their fellow Jews and their unique role in this world. When one has no value for another, one will hate and sometimes even harm the other.
This theme of "baseless hatred" or gratuitous hatred is perhaps the most common theme each Tisha B'Av because as a people we realize that our Third Temple cannot be rebuilt until we have gratuitous love for our fellow Jews--to fix the fault of our forefathers many years ago.

My sister Julie was someone who had gratuitous love for others. She had a big heart full of love. Being Jewish meant a lot to her and she did not look at her fellow Jews as orthodox, conservative, or reform, despite the differences. As such she harbored no baseless hatred as others might harbor by stereotyping and judging based on affiliation. She was Jewish and she practiced what she knew; and whenever she learned about new Jewish ideas or practices she was eager to listen and learn.

The Talmud teaches us that each generation that does not merit to rebuild the Temple is considered as if it destroyed it. How can we merit to rebuild the Temple in our generation? By learning and bringing the depth and wisdom of the morality and ethics of our Torah into our daily lives, by recognizing and building a connection with the Divine spark in all of us, and by seeking and valuing the greatness in ourselves and in our fellows.

As my family remembers Julie (Hebrew name: Feyga bas Chaim) on her second yarhzeit this Shabbos, 9th of Av, I call on my friends and family to do something lasting and meaningful in Julie's memory. Connect, even just once a week, to the rich heritage of our people. Learn one new Torah lesson in ethics and morality; do one mitzvah; take one minute to connect with your Creator. Do something to reconnect with our eternal heritage and perhaps we will feel a closer connection to those who are no longer with us, but whose memory and souls will live on eternally.

Good Shabbos,

Andrew (Efrayim) and family

Please feel free to forward this to friends and family.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Is Freedom Really Free? What's Passover to you?

The Pesach (Passover) preparation has been over a month in the making. My entire life I have not learned as much about Pesach as I have in the past month. I understood it on a simple level: freedom from slavery.

As impossible as it is to get Jews to agree on the same thing, one thing that all Jews would agree to is that Pesach is a holiday of freedom.

I should also point out the interesting phenomenon that, no matter how much of our Jewish identity we “lose”, reject, or forget, nearly every Jew in the world is always sure to partake in a Pesach sedar.

Most of us don’t even know what a sedar is—I didn’t either. Even the dictionary erroneously defines ‘seder’ as a Passover ritual that commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Sedar is the Hebrew word for ‘order’ or ‘arrangement;’ which is often referred to as a learning schedule.

The combination of freedom and strict order seems like a bit of a paradox.

Having grown up a Reform Jew and spending the past 6 months learning in a baal teshuva Orthodox Yeshiva, I now realize how very different the definition of “freedom” is between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox world. In the non-Orthodox world, particularly among reform/liberal Jews, the freedom of Passover is our freedom from bondage and persecution and a newfound liberty to do whatever we like without anyone in control of us or telling us what to do. At face value, it seems like a nice idea, but that’s not what true freedom is, and it certainly does not do justice to the freedom we experience on Pesach.

When we are free to do whatever we want, we are not free. We might appear free, we might even think we’re free, but in truth we become slaves to our desires. A drug addict might think he’s free because he is free to do as many drugs as he likes, but his addiction binds him to the drug like shackles on a prisoner. While this example might seem extreme, the same can be said for us in our everyday lives. How many times have we heard, “I’ll eat this chocolate tonight but I’ll hate myself tomorrow.” So don’t eat it!

The other side of this supposed freedom is that we have no direction whatsoever. Someone who has all the money in the world is technically free to do whatever she wants, but with no direction in life she’ll never be happy. How frustrating was it in college when your professor told you to write a 40 page paper on “whatever you feel like.” Sure, you have the freedom to pick your subject, but then you have no idea what to expect for a grade; you have no idea what the professor is looking for and therefore no idea what the end product is supposed to be like. The same can be said for life. If we are free and have no constraints, how are we supposed to understand our purpose and “end product?”

The true freedom of Pesach, as defined in the original, “Orthodox” teachings, is not at all this idea of freedom from all constraints.

First, we have the freedom from Mitzrayim (Egypt). Mitzrayim represents the purely physical world and the complete absence of spirituality. By contrast, we learn in every narrative where Jews are in Israel, the Jews have to pray, work the land, and establish a relationship with G-d in order to bring rain and produce. In Mitzrayim we see there is no need for this; the Nile, the world’s longest river, is the source of water and “provider of life.” For what would Egyptians need G-d?

Egyptians had gods and idols for everything, and even deified the Pharaoh. The word פרעה (Pharaoh) itself means ‘without boundaries’. If you are without boundaries, you are ownerless and you can do “whatever you want.” But as we just learned, doing whatever you want doesn’t make you free, on the contrary, it makes you a slave to your desires. You become imprisoned, and what is really kept out is spirituality and the essence of who you really are.

The word מצריים - Mitzrayim itself comes from צר (tzar), which means ‘narrow’ in Hebrew. In Mitzrayim, you are confined to live in a completely physical life; life is narrowed to physicality, the essence of Mitzrayim. Therefore, during Pesach we celebrate the coming out of narrowness. After the 10 plagues, G-d took us out of this jail to escape the narrowness of physicality. G-d took us to the desert, which is the complete opposite of Mitzrayim; there’s an absence of water (there’s no Nile), and an absence of all physicality; and this is when we truly become a nation.

One of my Rabbis brought in this idea of narrowness to explain that, in a tangible world that functions with 5 senses, everything we see can be explained within the 5 senses. This is a façade; to assume that something can only exist if I see, hear, touch, smell, or taste it narrows us to a world of finitude and completely leaves out the 6th sense: the perception of something spiritual. Our challenge is to live outside of this narrowness and see something that is infinite. Everything physical expires, dissolves, or dies, but that which is spiritual is eternal and lasting.

Pesach is a reminder to us that we can’t find lasting meaning in the physical. While physicalities can enhance our lives, they ultimately bring only instant-gratification. If it’s something lasting we are searching, we have to look beyond the physical and be open to the spiritual.


Besides being finite and short-lasting, much of physicality is fake. This is why we clean our houses out of chametz (leavened products) and why we eat matzos instead during Pesach. What is bread made of? –flour, water, yeast, and sugar or fruit juice. Our sages teach us that the flour represents our body, water our soul, sugar/fruit juice our physical desires, and yeast our arrogance. Why is yeast our arrogance? Yeast is a fake, superficial additive, which takes just a little bit of bread and blows it up to make it look bigger than it truly is.

How often are we slaves to our physicalites, investing in everything which will make us look and seem bigger, better, richer, more attractive, and more successful than we really are?

The idea of eating matzo is the realization that we don’t need any of these superficialities to sustain us. It is in fact these superficialities that hold us back from truly being free.

The Wise Child

Out of the 4 children who ask questions (the ma nishtana), one child is deemed the “wise one.” Why is he wise? As my Rabbi notes, he is wise because he asks questions about actions—why do we do this and that? It shows an effort to understand something, versus making assumptions or ignorant statements.

How often do we ask and explore about the many intricacies of Judaism or life in general? How often do we make assumptions that block us from pursuing the answer?

My Rabbi added the point that asking questions is a way of completing oneself. If we are able to ask what is lacking, we get an idea of how to complete it. Wherever we decide we are lacking can indicate where we are headed. If we realize we are lacking spirituality and deep-meaning in life, then we can figure out the steps to fill the lack and make our life more complete. If we really feel a lack for a BMW, then it’s the BMW and materialism that will be more definitive of our future path. The problem is that most of us feel we are lacking in the most superficial of areas and we don’t allow ourselves to pursue anything of value and lasting-meaning.

We should all ask ourselves what we’re truly lacking, that is the real us.

Finally, unlike the ‘non-Orthodox’ understanding of the freedom we experience during Pesach, freedom is a means to an end, it is not an end in and of itself. G-d didn’t bring us out of Egypt so we could go party in the desert. He brought us out of Egypt so we could stand at Mt Sinai and commit to a certain amount of responsibility, so we could become a strong, united nation and receive the Torah.

We can call ourselves as free as we want, but if we don’t have order and direction, if we don’t have the 613 commandments on how to lead a better life, then we’re not free at all, and it’s just as much of an illusion as the yeast in our bread.

This Pesach I hope we can all relive this freedom in its purest form. Let’s think about what is truly meaningful to us, what is lacking, how we can obtain it, and what is superficial; so we can get to the essence of who we truly are and begin to understand our purpose for being here.

While this happened over 3,000 years ago, we are all in Mitzrayim right now. The only way out is not to ignore the physical world, but to recognize the spirituality within it and overcome being a slave to our desires for the sake of using that physicality for a higher purpose.

Kasher Pesach Sameach!

Next year in Jerusalem!

Friday, 5 March 2010

A Half-Shekel Jew & the 12 Golden Calves

In this week’s Parshas, Ki Tisa, the two most prominent teachings are of the half-shekel redemption and the sin of the golden calves.

The people of Israel are told to each contribute exactly half a shekel of silver to the Sanctuary. There are many deep insights we can gain from this; I’d like to relay a couple thoughts. Why do we have to use a half-shekel to count Jews? Why is it only a half shekel?

One reason why we can’t count Jews as numbers is because only physical things are counted with numbers (one person, two people, three people). But Jews are not physical beings. Jews are spiritual beings who are meant to see past the physical and can see something deeper. For this reason, we can’t be counted by whole numbers.

Why a half shekel? Wealthy and poor alike contributed this half-shekel in equal measure. A poor man couldn’t contribute less, a rich man couldn’t contribute more. This shows that we Jews are all working together towards the same higher purpose. Additionally, no one Jew is complete by himself. He needs his fellow Jews in order to be complete and to be completely accounted for.
The second major teaching in these Parshas is related to the golden calves. While the King James Bible’s mis-translation might lead you to believe there was only one golden calf, there were in fact 12 golden calves made for each tribe of the Israelites.

When Moses did not return when expected from Mount Sinai, the people felt lost and said to Aaron (the brother of Moses):
“Rise up, make for us judges/gods who will go before us, for this Moses (…) we do not know what became of him!” {Shemos/Exodus 32:1}
While the sin of the golden calves was certainly a grave sin that would haunt us for generations, it did not come from malicious intent. How could the Jews drop so quickly from the intense spirituality and devotion of Mount Sinai to idol worship?
Great Torah scholars hold that’s not what happened. The sage Maimonides wrote that the Jews were just looking for a way to concretize G-d. G-d was such an imminently spiritual being and it was too hard for Man to grasp.

As we can all admit, it is much easier to believe something when it is concrete. It’s difficult to put our minds in a position to accept something on a spiritual level. And thus, the Jews made the golden calves.

There are four faces of G-d, the “neshar” (eagle), “ari” (lion), “adam” (man), and “par” (cow). Each face is an expression of G-d’s imminence, and at the same time, each one reflects a trait that Man carries. Naturally, people are more inclined to one trait—it is Torah that balances them out. That’s why we see when Moses was absent from the people, and they were not learning Torah, they resorted to a meaningless physical expression with the intention of “doing the right thing.”

But why did the people resort to making a calf?

Adam/man represents growing and reaching one’s potential. Eagle/neshar represents keballah, having a birds-eye-view of the world, being omnipotent, spiritual, and above everything. Ari/lion is king of the jungle and represents building society, building civilization; taking charge and bringing G-d out into the world. The word for Cow/par comes from fruit and being fruitful. Cow is the gift that keeps on giving, you can eat its meat, have its milk, use its leather, use it to plow the ground. A cow represents satisfaction and good times.
After being enslaved for 400 years, after wandering through the desert, after being attacked by the Amaleks, all the Jews wanted was to have a good time and have something physical to relate their praise to—they didn’t want to try to connect with some spiritual being that they couldn’t touch.

I find it interesting that while every generation since the generation at Sinai we have known the “sin of the golden calf” to be the worst sin committed by the Jewish people, the Jewish people, at the time of the sin thought they were doing the right thing and for the most part had “good intentions.”

It’s clear how even with good intentions we can be completely lost in life. Whether it’s with work, relationships, family, or whatever we spend our time and energy doing; if we can’t relate it to a higher purpose, there is no deep, lasting meaning behind it. And if it’s not for the sake of a higher purpose, we might put all our efforts into something, while having good intentions and thinking we’re doing the “right thing” or we’re being a “good person” but in reality what we are doing could be completely damaging spiritually and bring us farther and farther from our true higher purpose in life.

The Jews made the golden calves while Moses was on Mount Sinai preparing to receive the stone tablets from G-d. It was G-d who related to Moses what the people had done. And though Moses was on a higher spiritual level than any other human in history, G-d told Moses to “descend” from Mount Sinai, and therefore descend from that high spiritual level. Why should Moses descend because of the sin of his People?

Just like we learned with the half-shekel redemption, us Jews have a combined purpose. When one person descends, we all descend. When one Jew around the world (such as the Bernie Madoff scandal) acts immorally, we feel it in Jewish communities all over the world. On a spiritual level, when one Jew leaves the community, we also descend as a people as it means there is one less Jewish home to help rebuild the Jewish people.
Similarly, when one Jew succeeds, we feel their success around the world as well—even more so with learning Torah, when one Jew learns Torah he elevates the entire Jewish people.

May we all explore the deep, rich birthright of our People. May we find deep, lasting meaning in everything we do. May we look past just the physical and try to connect with the spiritual. May we permit ourselves to search for that higher purpose. And may we all see the true merit in the depths and beauty of the Torah, as we elevate our entire people with each verse we learn.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The 14 Commandments & Being Punished for Our Father's Sins...

In the end part of this week’s Torah parsha (parshas Yithro), G-d proclaims the Ten Commandments, commanding the people of Israel to believe in G-d, not to worship idols or take G-d's name in vain, to keep the Shabbat, honor their parents, and not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet another's property. The people cry out to Moses that the revelation is too intense for them to bear, begging him to receive the Torah from G-d and convey it to them.

Interesting side note, all the Christian Bible translations of the Torah are erred in saying the “10 commandments.” There were no 10 commandments. What it says in Hebrew, in the Torah, is that there were עשרת הדברים (aseret ha-dibrot), which means 10 Sayings, 10 Utterances, or 10 Statements. In fact, within the 10 Utterances, if you read it, you will see there are really 14 main commandments (which are later separated into 613 mitzvos). It’s hard to believe something so clear could have been so poorly translated and misrepresented. But that’s neither here nor there.

Within the 14 commandments lies one in particular that I would like to discuss more in-depth, as I find it particularly meaningful.

From Shemos (Exodus), 20:5

{“You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them [idols], for I, the L-rd, your G-d, am a jealous G-d, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me”}

Rashi, the “father” of Talmud/Torah commentary takes issue with the wording, לשנאי [lisonay - those who hate Me (meaning G-d)] and is bothered by the idea of a son being punished for his father’s sins. This is a great question for us to think about. When a father sins, why should the next four generations be punished?

Rashi says this is to be understood that G-d remembers the sin of the fathers against the children only “when they hold the deed of the fathers in their hands” meaning that they maintain their fathers’ sinful behavior.

I found it interesting that the word the Torah uses for לשנאי (lisonay) can also mean “to repeat.” This shows that he who is punished most is the person who repeats the sin of his father; because, as Rashi explains it, he will be punished for his sin and the sin of his father.

Another great sage, Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the MaHaRaL of Prague asks the question, “Why should a son pay for his father’s sin even if he himself is guilty of the same sin?” In his masterpiece the Gur Aryeh al HaTorah, the MaHaRaL brings a proof from another part in the Torah that supports his concern: “A man in his sin shall he die.” If a man sins, let him be punished for his own sin; don’t let him be punished for his father’s sin as well.

The MaHaRaL goes on to explain that the son is part of the father, just like an ענף (anef) “branch” is part of a tree. He also explains that a son is the foot of his father. He comes to understand that a son and his father are one in the same, and is therefore punished for his father’s sin on top of his sin because they are made of the same fiber. The only exception, he notes, is when the branch breaks off from the tree, when the son does not follow the sins of his father.

In his other masterpiece, Tif'ereth Yisrael, the MaHaRaL delves deeper in his explanation. He teaches us that a tree can grow straight, like a righteous person, or it can go off the derech (the ‘way’ or ‘path’). And when it goes astray (ie when a father sins), the branches go out in four directions. He adds that when a son follows his father’s evil, he remains part of the tree.

What we learn from this is that if the tree grows straight, it can grow high, it can reach the heavens. If it does not, the branches go in four directions, symbolic of the four directions of the world (North, South, East, and West); meaning that once Man goes “off the derech” and starts sinning, he will sin in every direction, in every way. If a man starts lying, it could easily lead him to cheating and stealing, for example.

The The MaHaRaL also teaches us that the seed, or zera, of a man is like the zera of a fruit. We can interpret that by saying if a fruit is spoiled, it will spoil the seed. And if that seed is spoiled, it will grow into an entire tree that is spoiled, producing more spoiled fruits with more spoiled seeds. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

When learning this from the Torah and the sages I had two additional thoughts.

On a simple level, Rashi and the MaHaRaL comment that the son is not punished if he does not follow his father. On a deeper level, I would disagree (and so would Rashi and MaHaRaL). If the sin the father commits is so terrible and scarring, it punishes his sons and every generation to follow. The father might find relief that his sons and subsequent generations won’t be punished for his sins, but what he doesn’t realize that the consequences of his actions have a lasting effect on everyone in his family. What he does not realize is that just by having to live with what their father has done, all the sons and subsequent generations will suffer more than the father himself could ever suffer.

Another question that has been bothering me is, “What happens to the father if the son doesn’t follow?”

We have seen from all the great commentators that if the son does not follow in his father’s sins and poor decisions, the son is not punished. But wasn’t hurting the son one of the father’s biggest punishments? Wasn’t that how G-d promised to punish the father? By making his sons suffer for four generations?

So how is the father punished if the son doesn’t follow the father’s ways and thus incur the punishment?

There are a couple of thoughts that come to mind. As we learned from the MaHaRaL, the son is the leg of his father. So if the leg breaks away and separates from the father, what happens? If you take a man’s leg from him, he can no longer walk. We also learned that a son is a branch from the tree which is the father. And if you break the branches from the tree, there will be nothing left on the tree to bear fruit. The branch will form its own tree, separate from the infected tree. And if a seed somehow remains pure even when surrounded by a poisoned fruit, the purity of the seed will prevail and will allow for a new, pure fruit tree to grow, leaving the genetics of the poisoned fruit behind.

In the next verse, 20:6, the Torah continues:

{“and [I] perform loving kindness to thousands [of generations], to those who love Me and to those who keep My commandments.”}

Rashi comments that G-d “guards the kindness that a person does to pay reward to the descendants of the one who did the kindness for thousands of generations, because G-d’s aspect of mida tovah (goodness and loving-kindess) is greater than his mida pooranoot (punishment).” While the ratio of punishing evil to remembering kindness is 1 to 500, we learn from the text that G-d infinitely rewards chesed (loving-kindness).

This reminds me of what happened when Cain killed his brother Abel, when G-d promised to punish Cain as well as his descendent seven generations later. On the other end, we see that Avram Avinu (Avram our Father), the Patriarch of the Jewish People, who himself was mida chesed (loving-kindess) was protected by G-d and promised that his descendents would flourish and be protected for the emunah (faith) and chesed that he had. And we see thousands of years later we, the Jewish People, sons of Avraham are still protected by G-d and the chesed of our Father. This must surely be related to the verse in the first prayer of the Amidah (Shmoneh-esrei), in which we thank G-d for being “magen Avraham” (the shield of Avraham). G-d has shielded and protected the Jewish people for all these years because of the chesed he performed.

To Conclude:

If the seed of a poison fruit were to keep the poison of the fruit, every subsequent generation of tree, seed, and fruit would be bad. But if that seed can somehow change and become pure and good, even though it is surrounded by a bad fruit, and not allow the poison to turn it bad, it can start a new tree, a good tree, which will produce new seeds, good seeds, and new fruits which will remain pure and good forever. Without any bad seeds to keep its cycle, the bad fruit will rot and perish while the cycle of the good seed will last forever.

May we all plant good seeds, seeds of chesed (loving-kindness) and watch them grow to continue the chesed, forming good trees that will forever bring good fruit, for generations and generations.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Why Should We Celebrate Chanukah?

What Is Our Chanukah?

Why did I celebrate Chanukah as a reform Jew for 25 years? Why do non-Orthodox Jews, celebrate Chanukah at all? It completely undermines everything they stand for.

Chanukah was about some classic, good versus evil fight. We were outnumbered, and miraculously enough, we won. Somehow, that was tied to some amount of oil that was only supposed to last one day and miraculously enough lasted eight days.

But that’s not what it’s about. Chanukah is about being with your family, spinning dreidel, eating potato latkes, singing new-age Chanukah music with tunes comparable to Christmas carols, and of course giving and receiving just enough presents to out-do the Christmas shoppers. Right? Isn’t this why Chanukah is the most-anticipated holiday in modern Judaism? Isn’t this why so many Jewish kids in the US grow up wishing the oil had lasted even more days—so they could get even more presents?

As I got older I tried to block out the commercialization of the holiday and focus on what it meant to me—being with my family.

Do we really need a holiday to be with our family? Do we really need an excuse to be together? What about Chanukah made it so special? If you look at every official US holiday, including Chanukah and Christmas, Valentine’s Day, etc. you will notice a pattern. They all share the same basic foundation: being with friends, family, and loved ones. That’s besides all the gift exchange, commercialization at the root of all the holidays. So isn’t Chanukah the same? Isn’t the whole point to have a holiday near Christmas so Jews wouldn’t feel left out?

Ironically enough, it couldn’t be more the opposite. Now, for my first time ever, I have celebrated Chanukah in Israel, in Jerusalem. And after 25 years of celebrating Chanukah in a reform Jewish household, in a secular environment, I am finally beginning to understand and appreciate what the holiday is truly about.

Our Story

The name "Chanukah" derives from the Hebrew verb "חנך", meaning "to dedicate" or “to consecrate.” On Chanukah, the Jews regained control of Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. So what? What’s the significance? As Rabbi Meir Kahane explains (in one of his less-controversial articles):

What happened in that era more than 2000 years ago? What led a handful
of Jews to rise up in violence against the enemy? And precisely who
was the enemy? What were they fighting for and who were they fighting

For years the people of Judea had been the vassals of Greece. True
independence as a state had been unknown for all those decades and,
yet, the Jews did not rise in revolt. It was only when the Greek
policy shifted from mere political control to one that attempted to
suppress the Jewish religion that the revolt erupted in all its

When the Temple, the Holiest of Holies, in Jerusalem was looted and desecrated, and the services stopped, Judaism was effectively outlawed. To make matters worse, in 167 BCE Greek leader Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus be erected in the Temple—an idol to be erected in the heart of the Jews’ Holiest site. He banned circumcision and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple.

In the book, “A History of the Jewish People” authors Max Margolis and Alexander Marx outline the chain of events:

[The Greeks] entered [Jerusalem] on a Sabbath. The unresisting inhabitants were butchered; the soldiers pillaged at will and carried off women and children to be sold as slaves.

They add that the Greeks demolished the walls of Jerusalem. They then found favor in the “apostate Jews,” who supported the Greek’s destruction and outlaw of Judaism, and assimilated them, moving them to live with non-Jewish residents so they would inter-marry and lose, piece by piece, their Jewish heritage.

A royal edict was proclaimed suspending the practice of the Jewish religion on pain of death. […The Greeks commanded] the fusion of all nationalities in the realm into one people and the acceptance of the Greek religion by all. […] It was unlawful for anyone to keep the Sabbath and festivals ordained in the Torah, or to profess himself at all to be a Jew. Torah scrolls were [torn] in pieces and burned; their owners were put to death. Women, who had their children circumcised, were led publicly round about the city and then cast headlong from the walls. Eleazar, an aged teacher, who refused to eat swine’s flesh, was tortured to death. A group of pious people who had fled to a cave near Jerusalem in order to keep Sabbath secretly were surprised and committed to the flames; they chose to die rather than to desecrate the Sabbath by offering resistance.

[The Greek leaders’] idea had been to liberalize [and reform] Judaism and to meet Greek culture half way.

Antiochus' actions proved to be a grave mistake as they were massively disobeyed, provoking a large-scale revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi ("Judah the Hammer"). By 166 BCE Mattathias had died, and Judah took his place as leader. Starting with small victories and a company of 1,150 men, Judah grew support and beat the 47,000 enemy troops with only 3,000 men. By 165 BCE the Jewish revolt was successful. The Temple was liberated and rededicated.

[Rabbi Meir Kahane continues] It was not mere liberty that led to the Maccabean uprising
that we so passionately applaud. What we are really cheering is a
brave group of Jews who fought and plunged Judea into a bloodbath for
the right to observe the Sabbath, to follow the laws of kashrut, to
obey the laws of the Torah. In a world where everything about Hanukah
that we commemorate, and teach our children to commemorate, are things
we consider to be outmoded, medieval and childish!

["Down with Hanukah," Rabbi Meir Kahane, 12/15/1972.]

According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil. The eternal flame kept burning.

Why did the miracle of the oil last us eight days? One thought is that the number eight has special significance in Judaism. It represents transcendence and the Jewish People's special role in human history. Seven is the number of days that Hashem created the universe. Eight, being one step beyond seven, represents the Infinite. Bris milah brings a Jewish male into the sacred Covenant and is performed on the eighth day after birth.

What do we make of all this? How is Chanukah relevant to us today?

Our Lesson

Greek society at the time was the epitome of Hedonism. Greeks lived for the physical. Their deities, sacrifices, and subsequent lifestyle were surrounded by self-indulgence, sensuality, and physical pleasures. As such, Greek way of life clashed on a fundamental level with Jewish life. While Judaism does not ignore the physical world, it recognizes that physical things have their place; but they can only exist in relation to the spiritual world, not in place of it. Furthermore, our role as Jews is to “mkadesh” the physical world; to sanctify and make holy the physical world and to bring out the holiness that is already within the physical world. By sanctifying the physical world, we are able to connect with its source, our Creator.

The Greeks were rational people and we have all certainly benefited a great deal from their wisdom. But the Greeks also were a people who believed only in what they could see, touch, and feel. They had no concept of a spiritual world because they denied anything existing beyond the physical world. They were so closed-minded that they refused to accept anything that was not physically there. They could not comprehend the intangible. How did they know love, sorrow, and happiness, which are also intangible?

If we take the same approach and deny spirituality, and if we cannot connect the physical with the spiritual, we become completely cut-off from our spiritual source. And if we are completely cut-off from our source due to this self-indulgence, what becomes of us? We disappear.

The Jews who revolted against the Greek oppression knew this. They knew that if they gave into Hedonistic pleasures, they would lose their connection with spirituality. When a Jew loses his spiritual connection, he loses his identity as a Jew and becomes nothing more than a physical being with no purpose.

Our Identity

When the Greeks came to rule over the Jews, they had a vision of liberalizing Judaism. They began creating reforms to Judaism. The assimilation began with forcing Jews to learn Greek and continued with trying to instill Greek philosophies and cultural practices. The Greeks saw the strength of the Jewish identity, and while Jews were a small minority, our unique identity and spiritual connection posed a threat to the Greek concept of assimilation. The Greeks brought reforms to Judaism, and little by little they tried to take away the Jewish heritage and kill the Jewish identity. The Greeks were clever. They were aware that the way to eliminate a people is not to wage war—that only bonds the people together—rather they knew that if they could disconnect the Jews from the spiritual world, and gradually take away our religion, our ethics, our laws, our practices, our Torah, and our identity, there would be nothing left.

Is this not what is happening today, particularly in the US? There are clearly no forced reforms to Judaism—certainly not as there were with the Greeks. We are reforming on our own volition, and that is even worse. There is no oppressor threatening us to eat pig meat or die, no tyrannical laws forcing us to marry non-Jews, no army burning our Torah, no militia murdering us for observing Shabbat. And yet we are willing to give this up voluntarily. Is this not our identity?

We have survived as a people from generation to generation. We have survived the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Nazis, and endless terrorist attacks. Israel’s mere existence is a miracle considering that it is surrounded by 21 Arab countries, with a total land mass 800 times the size of the Land of Israel, all of which live for the day they can wipe us off the map.

The only saving grace that has kept us from falling at the hands of the generations of oppressors has been our strong “emunah” (faith) and our allegiance to ourselves, to our People, and to our Jewish identity. The moment we stray off our destined path, we lose a part of ourselves. And for how long will we keep straying, until we reach the point of no return?

Our Dedication

Chanukah comes from the verb “to dedicate” because we recognized that our only way to survive as a people is to dedicate ourselves to our destiny, our Divine purpose. Our only chance of survival as a people is to maintain our identity; to perform the mitzvot, learn Torah, keep Kosher, keep Shabbat, and pass this on to our children.

For whatever reason, we are losing our identity, little by little, every day. We aren’t keeping Kosher because it’s “too expensive.” We aren’t keeping Shabbat because we’re “too busy.” We aren’t learning Torah because “it’s not practical.” We aren’t marrying fellow Jews because “it’s not a big deal.” Put simply, it’s just too hard.

Of course it’s hard! We’re Jewish! If being Jewish were easy it wouldn’t take several years just to prepare to convert. But that is what is unique about us as a people. We have such strong “emunah” (faith) that we push ourselves to do the impossible (like defeat 47,000 troops with only 3,000 men). We know that if we try our hardest, and give every ounce of our being, everything else will work out. Jews have made major contributions in every industry of every society we have ever lived in. We have overcome generations of persecution with a positive outlook. Instead of using oppression of our people as an excuse for failure, or preaching against those who discriminate against us, we use it to look at our own failures introspectively, find what we can improve upon, and use it as a fire to push our People further, to achieve more for ourselves and for all of humanity. Is it a coincidence that Jews comprise of less than half a percent of the world population and yet one fifth of all Nobel Prize Laureates are Jews?

It is statistically impossible and historically improbable that such a minute minority of the world population could not only survive but thrive for several thousand years, as we have done. We have outlived all the great empires. How is it, that such an insignificant population has been capable of such significant milestones? It all goes back to our identity as a people, our service to Hashem, and our divine purpose.

We are different from all people. And we can’t deny that. Denying our identity and our uniqueness is what has caused us all our troubles. The only thing that has preserved our heritage to this point has been when righteous Jews who stood up for what we believe in. Look at the miracle of Chanukah. Those who studied Torah were put to death, those who performed Bris Millah were put to death; there were even those who fled the city to observe Shabbat in caves, and, when confronted by Greeks, preferred to be slaughtered rather than break Shabbat by fighting back in defense. They showed the rest of “Am Israel” (the Jewish People) how important our heritage is and how nobody can take it from us but ourselves.

The amount of courage and devotion of our People is unfathomable. Jews have sacrificed their lives, l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) all for the sake of keeping our Jewish faith and identity intact—so that we could one day inherit this rich blessing of a Birthright, and all the challenges that follow, in its pure form, its true form; as it was meant to be. For only through this will we remain bonded and intact in the face of oppression.

Our Purpose

The same verb, "חנך", also means “to educate.” It is our duty to educate our children about who we are and our purpose in life. That means marrying Jews, raising our children as Jews, and most importantly, teaching them what it means to be a true Jew. What we are experiencing today is a watered-down version of something really amazing, and the more we water it down with each generation, the more we lose; and once we lose it completely we won’t be able to get it back.

We can’t be liberal with our identity and our duty; especially not for the sake of assimilation. We can’t be like everyone else and we shouldn’t try to be—because we’re not. We have to be a light unto the nations. We have an incredibly profound key to understanding the universe, called Torah, which teaches much more than “halacha” (law), “mussar” (ethics), and “middot” (character development). The Torah’s legal system not only guides proper outward behavior, it also sets standards for emotional and psychological behavior. We have a duty to teach these values to our children, and our children’s children. How can we help the rest of the world if we can’t first help ourselves?

Our Soul

We have a Jewish neshama (soul), and it begs truth. The idea of “Jewish guilt” has nothing to do with guilt. It is a reflection of our “mussar” (ethics). When we do something we know is wrong, the feeling of guilt is just our neshama wanting truth, begging us to do what we know in our heart is right.

We want to act like everyone else, even though our neshama wants something greater. Do we really want to glorify, with blind adoration, cars, houses, musicians, Hollywood, athletes, and sports teams, like everyone else? Do we really want life to be about money, work, and “living large,” like everyone else? Do we really want to celebrate the same holidays as everyone else? Do we really want to feel fine with the same loose morals as everyone else? Do we really want to deny ourselves spirituality, like everyone else? Do we avoid talking about G-d, like everyone else, for the fear of sounding overzealous or evangelical? Do we really want to believe in only the tangible, like everyone else? Do we really want to be satisfied with the status quo like everyone else? Do we want what’s normal and accepted, for the sake of seeming normal and accepted? Do we really want to be satisfied with superficial relationships and friendships?

Why do we subject ourselves to emotionally scarring relationships and friendships, and morally damaging movies, television, music, and video games, for the sake of joining everyone else? Do we really want to believe that “doing the right thing” is good enough for being a good person? Why do we settle for less when we know we should be constantly searching for deeper meaning in every aspect of our lives? Do we really want to throw-out age-old traditions for new-age “innovations?”

We can’t assimilate into this kind of life because it’s not healthy, it’s not meaningful, and it’s not true to who we are. We have something much deeper than these superficial behaviors. We have a Jewish neshama, soul. We’re not made of the same essence as everyone else. Essence also means fuel. If we speak of essence and fuel as oil, it can be described as a slimy liquid that creates more mess and hassle than benefit. Oil by itself, as a physical entity, amounts to nothing. Just like the Hedonistic society of the Greeks, where the only purpose for life was for physical pleasure, oil too in a pure physical form on its own amounts to nothing. But when we place a wick in the oil and light the wick, we create a beautiful flame. When we connect the physical world with the spiritual world, we can create something beautiful through a relationship with its source. The entire nature of fire is creating something from nothing, and furthermore, creating something that is constantly connected to its source.

And even in the coldest, darkest nights of winter we light the menorah and sing hopeful songs that lift our spirits. Each night of Chanukah I spent here in Jerusalem waseye-opening and life-altering. Why should we assimilate? Why should we settle for a culture that promotes lust, violence, commercialization, and greed far more often than love, happiness, ethics, morals, dignity, honesty, righteousness, education, and spirituality? We have a rich heritage that provides deep meaning in every aspect of life. Why take a watered-down version of life when we can connect straight to the source?

Our Essence

When the Greeks tried to assimilate the Jews, it wouldn’t have worked because we are not of the same essence. We knew we were made of a unique essence when we had oil that was only meant to last one night and yet it lasted eight nights. Just when we thought hope was lost, in the midst of Greek assimilation, Jewish apostates, and the desecration of our holy Temple; just when we thought our people would be wiped off the map, erased from the Book of Life; just when we thought our eternal flame would be extinguished forever; the faithful few rallied, with trust in G-d and strength, courage and strong resolve in what it meant to be a Jew, they fought for their right to survive. They fought for our right to continue our rich tradition of creating a better world for ourselves and for everyone. The miracle of Chanukah showed what just a little Jewish essence can do. And we saw that oil burn for eight days instead of one, giving us time for a renewal of essence before the eternal flame went out.

It is time that we each renew our essence before our People’s eternal flame burns out. Chanukah isn’t about the latkes, the dreidels, or the presents. In the absence of a volatile oppressor we have been oppressing ourselves by assimilating in a Hedonistic society and forgetting about the spiritual essence that helps connect us to our source. We Jews represent more than that simple oil; we represent the wick and the flame as well.

Our Chanukah

Chanukah is about seeing past the self-indulgences and instant gratifications of the physical world. It is about finding something more lasting. Realize that everything physical expires at some point or another, but that which is spiritual is eternal.

This Chanukah let’s forget the commercialization and shallowness of pop-culture. Let’s focus on doing at least one thing to strengthen our Jewish identity; maybe it’s keeping Shabbat, maybe it’s keeping Kosher, maybe it’s keeping up with the weekly Torah portion and letting it enrich our life. Though we have assimilated more than the Greeks could have ever dreamed, we can nevertheless maintain a strong, true Jewish identity (by observing the mitzvahs) without removing ourselves from society.

Chanukah is about transcending. It is about dedicating ourselves to our true purpose in life. It is about educating each generation and following something much more valuable and meaningful than society’s status quo. It is about having strong emunah and being loyal to our Jewish neshama. It is about keeping an eternal light, even in the darkest, coldest days of winter. No matter how hard it is for us to be who we are, to keep the mitzvahs, to keep Shabbat, to keep Kosher, to be ethical, righteous, and have faith in G-d and in ourselves. We have to, because otherwise what is the purpose of being Jewish?