Purim, the BT and Unity

I still remember my first Purim as a BT. I didn’t drink, reasoning that I didn’t come to Torah observance to party. However I did get to witness a few unbelievable Purim Shpiels at Ohr Somayach in Monsey as Rabbi Lam was a central participant.

After many years I have a much greater appreciation of Purim and its connection to the BT. Purim at its core is about Jewish Unity and Teshuva. Faced with annihilation that entire Jewish people banded together to rediscover their true purpose and reconnect with Hashem and His Torah. As Baalei Teshuva we certainly have first hand experience of the intense Teshuva experience and the power it creates.

On the Unity side, the mitzvos of the day, illustrate this theme. The reading of the Megillah is a public proclamation of Hashem’s guidance over the affairs of the Jewish People. It is often noted that Purim night is the most crowded event at Shul, with the possible exception of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The Purim Seudah is a unifying experience as are all Shabbos and Yom Tov meals. Shaloch Manos and Matanos L’Evyonim are both mitzvos designed to created closer bonds between Jews. Some Poskim hold that the drinking on Purim at the Seudah serves to bring us together, as sometimes it is necessary to loosen up to make closer connections.

Baalei Teshuva long for authentic Jewish connections, which is why communal integration is one of our major issues. And as Jews who have been on both sides of the observant/non-observant divide, we have the potential to spur the community to further unification. But first we need to feel in the depths of our hearts that we are all part of one Jewish People. If we can feel that deep connection, many of the divisions caused by judgementalism would fade, as we tend to judge ourselves favorably. Deeper connections would also spur us to collectively work on the crisis’s of Jewish Assimilation, Financial Pressures, Kids at Risk and Shidduchim. Often we see these as somebody else’s problem, but as integral parts of the Jewish people we need to view them as all of our problem.

Today as we engage in the very communal act of a public fast heading into Purim, perhaps we can focus on the essential mitzvos of these days, working on caring deeply about our fellow Jews and collectively returning to Hashem.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 7 – Asher Tries Some Alternative Medicine

Chapter 7

The night before his appointment Asher’s body passed a new shade—dark brown as if his bladder had turned into a cola machine. Lying awake on his dormitory mattress,he looked around at his roommates, all of them asleep. Why wasn’t he? Why was G-d torturing him? Where he’d gone wrong? He tried his best to stay away from girls. He rarely watched movies and never looked at porn. So why him?” G-d please show me what I need to fix and I’ll fix it. But please make me better.”

Towards morning he fell into a deep dreamless sleep and he woke up still feeling tired. In taxi to the hospital he felt so drowsy that he asked the driver to wake him when they arrived.

Dr. Sadeh was hardly the imaged of the distinguished professor of medicine. He wore jeans and a rumpled blue chambray shirt that hung tight over his oversized belly. His white hair was long and uncombed but diplomas on his wall said Hebrew, University, Harvard and Sloan Kettering.

“So,” the doctor tilted toward him, his pince-nez.dropping to the tip of his bulbous nose “You are still passing blood?”

Asher nodded.

“Then we must do a cystoscopy.”

“A cystoko what?” Asher could scarcely wrap his tongue around the word. He had readier grasp on thousand year old Aramaic phrases.

“A tiny probe inserted inside the organ determine if you have a growth.”

“Like cancer.”

“Well there are many types of growths but we have to rule that out. That’s why I’d like to do this quickly..”

Asher’s heart went into a rapid flutter. “Does it hurt?”

“No, I wouldn’t say. We do it under general.”

“General???” Asher’s heartbeat grew even quicker. Grandpa Fred, his father’s dad died under general during a routine procedure. Asher barely remembered him; Grandpa Fred lived in Minnesota where his Dad had grown up. He always remembered birthdays and every winter he sent each of Tumim children a bright red greeting card emblazoned with the words “season’s greetings.” When Asher asked his father to explain the phrase he said that it was like the greetings for a good week or a good month or a good year .It wasn’t until years later, when Fred died and his father didn’t sit shiva that Asher learned that Grandpa Fred was a goy. That didn’t bother him ; he liked the guy. How could he dislike a grandfather who mailed him a $100 bill twice each year?

“Call the office to schedule it but don’t wait too long.”

Asher paused to think There were still three weeks left to the zeman. It would certainly be easier for him to do this when he wasn’t at yeshiva. . Then no one would notice his absence but if something was growing he didn’t want to take any chances.

“Can I wait three weeks?”

“Yes but not a day more.”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 7 – Asher Tries Some Alternative Medicine

Coercion, Acceptance and the Spiritual Inputs of Purim

Rabbi Noson Weisz explains the spiritual input that God offers on Purim:

There is much more to Judaism than the outer trappings of observance. Observance is the body of Judaism, but its soul requires the Jews to place their relationship with God at the very center of life. The observance of the commandments is only meaningful when it is the outer manifestation of this inner reality. One cannot be truly Jewish without dreaming of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Jews who manage to find a good life in the absence of this dream are on their way to annihilation as a distinct people no matter what their level of observance may be.

There is a famous saying in Yiddish, S’is shver zu zein a Yid! “It’s hard to be a Jew.” Israel has lost far many more Jews through its history to this statement than to the persuasive power of foreign ideologies.

The spiritual input of the Purim holiday is provided to counter this tendency. In essence, it comes to counter the protest of coercion. We see the Torah as coercion as long as we feel that strict observance is impractical and burdensome in the context of the realities within which we are forced to live. But Jews in exile must be able to find joy in the practice of Judaism to be able to maintain their commitment to Judaism as the focus of their existence. They must still feel that despite all the hardships of exile, their commitment to the Torah is the force that gives them life.

When they were faced with Haman’s edict, the Jewish people found the strength to reach deep into their collective soul. Israel realized that the physical annihilation which threatened them was an indication of the spiritual level to which they had sunk. They were threatened with outward physical annihilation only because they were close to dying as a people spiritually on the inside. They reexamined their attitude to their own commitment to Judaism, located the protest of coercion in their collective Jewish soul, and gave it up for good. As a result, the physical edict was rescinded and the Jews were blessed with “light, happiness, joy and honor.”

The joy that comes from Torah observance under seemingly unfavorable circumstances is the spiritual input that God offers on Purim. May we all merit receiving a powerful dose of it.

Read the whole thing here

Achdus on Purim

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato writes in “The Way of G-d”:

…Purim involved Israel being saved from destruction during the Babylonian exile. As a result of this they reconfirmed their acceptance of the Torah, this time taking it upon themselves forever. Our Sages teach us that “they accepted the Torah once again in the days of Achashverosh”. The details of the observance of both these festivals are related to the particular rectification associated with them.

To accept the Torah on Sinai we needed to be united as if the entire nation was “One Man with One Heart”. On Purim, when we re-accept the Torah, we once again achieved that unity in the face of annihilation.

The mitzvos of the day, charity to the poor, giving gifts of food, a meal with family and friends give us actions leading to achdus.

Adding achdus in thought and emotion is also important. Here are three ideas:

– Focus on the successes of our local institutions who are there to serve us.
– Support those dedicated to teaching and spreading Torah.
– Try to emotionally connect to our family, friends and community members who share our common spiritual purpose.

Musical Chairs – Chapter 6 – Asher Seeks a Second Opinion

Chapter 6

By March, winter had ceded to spring. At the edge of the Jerusalem forest, the almond trees had burst into lacy white blossoms. Soon, it would be Purim. A day for masquerading, feasting, joyous drunken reverie, and intense prayer. Molly loved this holiday’s license to cut loose creatively. Without work or shidduchim to distract her she’d thrown herself into Purim inviting thirty-five guests to a Persian-themed Purim banquet: Persian meatballs, Persian rice, Persian vegetable fritters, Persian décor (photographs of Persian carpets), and, of course, Persian costumes. She and Bella dressed as very modest belly dancers and Nahum and the boys as ayatollahs.

Then just as her preparations were in full swing she got a shidduch call from Rabbi Ganz a teacher at Asher’s yeshiva. It was the first shidduch she’d heard about since Genia tried to push Michal Farber on her many weeks before.

“I don’t want to get too excited, but this one sounds almost too good to be true,” Molly told Nahum, as she pried a batch of freshly baked Persian walnut cookies off the parchment paper.

“So, who is she?”

“Hindy Lipsky…”

“Oh that’s a big name. ” The Lipsky’s were a fabled clan of rabbis, one of whom, Rabbi Akiva Lipsky had been the subject of a very popular biography.

“Yes, and according to the shadchan, she’s everything Asher could have ever dreamed of.”

“Money?”

“Yup. She’s got that too,” Molly handed Nahum a cookie.

“Good.”

“The shidduch or the cookie?”

“Both.”

“She’s becoming a psychotherapist. She’ll help Asher grow up.”

“You think Asher needs therapy to grow up?”

Molly actually wondered about that. Why Asher so stuck in his desire to marry a beauty queen? Was it an insecurity or a deep seated fear of marriage? She would have liked for him to see a therapist but she knew that he’d wouldn’t so didn’t offer. Molly had seen many therapists, her first when she was twenty two, Asher’s age. Had they really helped? Of the seven four were bad, two mediocre and one, the gem in the haystack who’d made all the difference but who was to say that Asher would find a gem and yet this girl appealed to her.

“She may have insight, self awareness,” she told Nahum.

“Ask for a picture first,” said Nahum.

After she put the cookies away Molly phoned Rabbi Ganzi . His wife answered. Though her English was heavily accented it was grammatically correct English and she impressed Molly as he sort of woman who shopped for groceries in a freshly set wig.

“I suggest that you take a look in person. Hindy will be at the Strauss Spiegel wedding at Binyanei Hauma on Wednesday night.”

“But, I’m not invited.”

“You’re not going to sit down to eat. You go, have a peek and then you leave.”

When she hung up, Molly looked glum.

“What’s wrong hon?” Nahum asked.

“Yes. The matchmaker just told me to crash a wedding.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. She wasn’t kidding. No invite. Just show up. I can’t believe this.”

“Do you think the bouncer will throw you out?”

“Probably not.”

“And you’re not going to eat so you won’t be stealing their food right?”

“Yes but it just feels wrong.”

“Ask them to send a picture.”

Molly called Rebetzin Ganz back. “Sorry,” she said. “I don’t approve of pictures. You never know where they will end up but everybody does this. Don’t worry. I’m sure there will be others doing the same.”

Asher’s ultrasound report came back quickly . His kidneys were normal. So was his liver, bladder and spleen. . His bloodwork was fine, even his urinalysis was fine – but, if he was so healthy, why was he still passing blood?

Dr. G had no answer. “It happens sometimes. It’s one of those quirky things and it might just disappear as mysteriously as it arrived,” he said.

But Asher wasn’t satisfied. How could he live this way and even more pressing how could he date.

Then one day over lunch, Asher overheard Ezi. It was one of those synchronistic moments his mother had taught him to look out for, when he knew that G-d had heard his prayers.

“…and my father called Tuli Roth and he got my Savta into some big professor from the medical school…”

As Asher swallowed down his breaded chicken cutlet, the proverbial alarm bell went off in his head.

Everyone used Tully Roth, the “medical matchmaker,” who steered patients to the best doctors.

Why hadn’t he? How could he have been dumb enough to entrust his body to socialized medicine?

Right after he bensched, Asher ran outside to a nearby park to make the call. This wasn’t a call he wanted anyone to listen into.
“Phone back at five,” he was told. That was right in the middle of his next study session. No problem. He’d simply tell his afternoon study partner that he had to make an urgent call. And his partner would assume that the call had something to do with a girl…if only that were true.

At ten to five, Asher returned to the park only to find that it now contained with dozens of neighborhood children their tiny voices merging into a deafening cacophony. He left sprinting down the block until he landed at one of the older apartment buildings built on stilt like pillars cars parked in the hollow space. The perfect place to call. Standing behind a pillar he phoned. The secretary answered right away, he was thankful for that but then she placed him on hold for many long minutes as Asher looked out onto the street. He knew too many people in this neighborhood, his teachers, friends, local men who frequented the study hall. He didn’t want was to be spotted hiding out in a private parking area . Finally Tully Roth answered barking out his orders in a low nasal voice.

“Go to Hadassah hospital Ein Karem and see Dr. Gil Sadeh privately.”

Dr. Sadeh was a department head, a medical school professor and he charged 1100 shequels for an office visit – a fortune for a yeshiva student. Where would he find that kind of cash?

He could ask his parents, but his father’s work load had been cut .. Even his mother wasn’t teaching anymore, not that that earned much. He didn’t want to burden them and more than that he didn’t want to worry them. They had enough problems with his siblings, Elazar, and Bella giving them all kinds of trouble. The week before Bella had been suspended again, caught wearing a denim skirt and Elazar was still talking about going into the army.

As he paced up and down in front of the yeshiva, he thought about ways to raise the money.

He could sell his stuff, but what did he own? A dozen white shirts. Five neckties, only two of which were silk. One genuine Borsalino hat and one copy. One good suit and two not so good suits. But if he sold them, what would he wear? He also owned four pairs of cheap cufflinks, a Casio wrist-watch, an alarm clock, an old fashioned cellphone, an MP3 player, and lots of holy books – the same ones that everyone else owned. His most expensive possessions were his titanium framed glasses and the custom made orthotics he slipped into his black sneakers to counteract his fallen arches, but neither of these items were of value to anyone but him.One of the guys gave interest free loans of up to 350 shequels. But that wasn’t nearly enough.

“Can you close this?” Molly handed Nahum the enormous pearl choker he’d given her during his gravy days back in New York.

“So, you’re going to be a well-dressed gatecrasher.”

“I still don’t feel right about it.”

“Don’t – I bet half of the women there are for the same reason.”

“That’s what Rebetzin Ganz said but I find it hard to believe.”

“Why not ask?”

Molly grimaced. “Oh come on.”

She walked in the hall briskly her eyes trained on the carpet to avoid eye contact. Under her breath, she muttered a prayer: “Please G-d make sure that I don’t meet anyone I know.”

Binyanei Hauma was Jerusalem’s largest and priciest hall. There were hundreds of guests but so far, she didn’t recognize anyone and no one recognized her. A miracle. Molly wended through the crowd until she arrived at the dance floor where dozens of girls were jumping and gliding to the latest hip-hop inspired hassidic line dance.

The matchmaker’s wife had described Hindy as a slim long strawberry blonde who wore her hair in ringlets. As the girls passed she watched them. She saw brunettes, red heads, blondes, even one beautiful black girl who danced with striking grace, but no one with strawberry blonde ringlets.

Then, as the band segued into a Breslov trance number, Miss Strawberry Blonde Ringlets floated past. Dressed in hunter green and gold, this season’s latest colors (a welcome break from black), she was well-proportioned and uncommonly pretty and she danced nicely. Molly discretely raised her phone into the air and pressed the camera button. There – she’d gotten the goods. For a millisecond, she smiled in self-satisfaction. A tsunami-sized wave of shame poured over her. By attending the wedding without an invitation and then photographing Hindy without her knowledge or consent, she’d invaded the poor girl’s privacy and probably even broken the law. This couldn’t really be the way that the eternal building blocks of the Jewish nation were formed.

At home, she reexamined the picture. Yes Hindy was certainly pretty but she didn’t have a good feeling about the match. “Why would the Lipsky’s with all of their social connections want their daughter to marry our son. There must be son ulterior motive,” she told Nahum.

“You researched this well.”

“I think so.”

“Can you give a reason why Asher shouldn’t meet this girl?”

“No.”

“Then let’s give them a heads up. Boys get right of first refusal.”

It was late now. In the morning Molly phoned the Ganz’s but before she could deliver her news the Rebetzin preempted her. “Hindy Lipsky is busy right now. I’ll let you know if the situation changes.” Her tone was crisp and business-like. “Why did she suggest a girl who was busy,” Molly wondered.

Maybe something came up. You know how it is especially for a girl like that.. I bet the matchmakers are banging down her door.”

Molly nodded. “I can’t help but feeling that Asher didn’t make the cut. ”

Just then Molly removed Hindy’s resume and photograph from her file and tore them both up. She felt an odd delight as she as she ripped the paper into large jagged pieces and tossed them into the garbage can.

“Honey isn’t a little dramatic,” said Nahum.

“Come on. I don’t have to get to work right away. Let’s go for a walk in the forest.”

Outside the whole world was in bloom: the bright red poppies, pale purple cyclamen, even the Queen Anne’s lace, which, by summer’s end, would turn into a nasty weed, appeared pretty and delicate. How could she feel so blue when the world was so beautiful?

“Hon. Take my word. These Lipskys don’t know what they’re missing.out on.”

When they came home from their walk, Asher was in the kitchen sipping cocoa.

“Mom, Dad. I’ve got a problem.”

“Are you all right?” His eyes were uncharacteristically dull.

“Well, yeah, kind of. I need to see a private doctor. I’ve got blood in my pish.”

Molly gasped and then she reached for Asher’s hand.

What kind of tortures had her son been experiencing? Then Nahum reached into his wallet.

“Here. He handed Asher his credit card.

Go to whichever doctor you need and where happy to come with you”

” No. I’m okay going by myself but just one more thing ”

“What is it Asher,” said Molly. Her voice oozed with concern.

“Please , Mom, Dad this is secret. Don’t tell anyone.”

Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read
Chapter 1 here,
Chapter 2a here,
Chapter 2b here,
Chapter 3a here,
Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here
Chapter 3d here
Chapter 3e here

Chapter 3f here
Chapter 4a here
Chapter 4b here
Chapter 4c here
Chapter 4d here
Chapter 5 here

Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Why do the episodes of the war with Amalek and Yisro’s arrival serve as lead-ins to the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue?
Is it better to be shrewd or gullible?
Is there any room for skepticism in the hearts and minds of believers in the 13 Articles of Faith?

And [thus] Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his allies by the sword

— Shemos 17:13

And Yisro priest of Midyan , Moshe’s father-in-law heard about all that Elokim had done for Moshe and His people Yisrael, when He extricated Yisrael from Egypt … And, along with Moshe’s wife and sons, Yisro came to the desert where Moshe was camped near Elokims mountain.

— Shemos 18:1,5

And Yisro … heard: What news did he hear that [motivated him enough] to come? The splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the war with Amalek. —(from Zevachim 116A, and Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all the deities, for [He came] upon them [the Egyptians] with the very thing that they plotted.

 — Shemos 18:11

Of all the deities: This teaches us that he [Yisro] was familiar with every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he had not worshipped. (from Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Destroy all the places, where the nations that you are driving out served their gods, [whether] upon the high mountains, the hills, or under every verdant tree.

— Devarim 12;2

For your gods were as numerous as the number of your cities, O Judah …

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

… yet upon every high hill and under every leafy tree[traditional places of idols and their worship] you recline, playing the role of a harlot.

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

The naïf believes everything; but the incredulous understands the correct footsteps to tread.

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

“Strike the scorner” this refers to Amalek “and the naïf grows shrewd” this refers to Yisro

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

I am HaShem your Elokim who extricated you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery

— Shemos 20:2

And he [Bilaam] gazed at Amalek, and took up his allegory, and said: “Amalek is the first among the nations; but his end shall come to eternal destruction.”

— BeMidbar 24:20

Like fire and atomic energy; faith can be a tremendously positive and constructive or a negative and destructive force. When one has faith in HaShem, true prophets and chachmei haTorah-authentic Torah sages; it sustains and nurtures the life of the faithful, as the pasuk teaches v’tzadik b’emunaso yichyeh-and the just will live in/through his faith (Chavakuk 2:4). However, when faith is invested in false gods, false prophets and/or assorted charlatans, there is nothing more corrosive, detrimental to society and self-destructive. To carry the simile further, just as nations are better served by building safe and secure nuclear power plants than in stockpiling surplus nuclear warheads, one must be extremely judicious and discriminating in deciding what and/or whom to invest their faith in.

So, while faith can potentially be the greatest of virtues, it is not to be confused with gullibility and naïveté. Faith unleavened by healthy doses of discernment and skepticism is folly and, as Yirmiyahu the prophet implies by describing the idolatrous Jews of his era as “playing the harlot” and having as many deities as cities, a kind of promiscuity of the heart and mind.  The emunah-faith; of one who has “complete and perfect faith” in the thirteen fundamental articles of Jewish belief is of diminished value if he also believes in every outlandish hoax ever publicized or if he can be swindled into buying the Brooklyn Bridge because he is convinced of the seller’s integrity.  For faith in truth and belief in reality to be commendable one must first stop suspending his disbelief in mirages and repudiate the bill-of-goods that he had formerly been convinced of for the lies that they are.

At one time or another Yisro believed in every possible manner of fabrication. Chazal teach us that there was not a single pagan deity that Yisro did not worship. To buy in to so much and such varied deception means that Yisro was possessed of an extremely credulous and gullible nature.  The lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word that defines this kind of folly is pessi-a naïf who’ll believe anything.

At the extreme opposite pole of human nature stands the letz-scorner/scoffer who believes in nothing and no one. Such people wear their incredulous disbelief as badges of honor marking them as wiser and as sharper than the credulous. They scoff at believers, first and foremost by mocking all that they believe in. Such skeptics scorn across the board and no target is safe from their sneering, scathing “appraisals.” Such letzim are the Wildean cynics who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Amalek is identified by Chazal as the letz incarnate.  The national character of Amalek is wired to scoff and mock everything, up to and including all that is real, true and holy. How else can we understand that while all other nations were awestruck by the events of the Exodus from Egypt and the Parting of the Sea of Reeds, so much so that they had come to some level of belief in the invincibility-borne-of-chosen-ness of the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish people; and the Infinite Power of the G-d of Israel, Amalek remained unimpressed?  The preemptive attack launched by Amalek was their über-skeptical “I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me” moment.

The Izhbitzer explains that once letzim are inevitably set in evil ways they become irredeemable. All exhortations to tikkun-repairing ones evil; depend on getting the perpetrator to believe in the value of change and improvement. But the scoffing, scornful, skeptical letz does not recognize or tolerate chashivus-value and significance. One can try to rehabilitate the letz with both high-minded arguments and/or corporal-punishment “convincing” and both will be wasted on those who know the value of nothing. On the other hand, when dealing with a pessi there is someone to talk to and something to work with.  The ethical challenge of the pessi is that he believes in the value of too many things.  Discernment and a healthy dose of skepticism come with experience and education, sometimes even from education gleaned from the lessons and exhortations wasted on the letz.

 

Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

The Myth of Self-Actualization

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

Beshalach-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

Musical Chairs – Chapter 5 – Asher Develops a Medical Condition

Chapter 5

One cold winter morning, Asher up well before dawn. As he’d been doing since he was a small child, he started his day mumbling the modeh ani prayer thanking G-d for his life .Then he poured water onto his hands using a plastic cup and bowl he stored under his bed. The water would rinse off the evil spirits lingering on his fingertips following sleep. And then he went to the bathroom, ordinary enough except this morning he saw something that made his heart bang inside his chest:something that made his heart bang inside his chest; On the cracked urinal wall, a tiny squiggle of red merged into the pale yellow stream. He squeezed his eyes closed and flushed. The Talmud said that women bled from those places, not men. Maybe what he’d seen hadn’t come from his body. The bathrooms weren’t all that clean; maybe it had been left there by the previous user.

He went back to bed pulling his blanket over himself like tent as if he were a small boy – alone and afraid of the dark. and soon he fell asleep. By the time the meorrer, the student in charge of waking the guys for prayer, called his name, he was certain that whatever it he’d seen was just a bad dream.

The morning began normally; first prayers breakfast, and then Asher and his study partner Ezi together in the study hall slogging through a complicated piece of Talmud about an ox goring a cow neither of them moving from their seats until eleven when they broke for coffee. This morning Asher poured too much milk and sugar into his. The sweet milky drink soothed him.

Just before lunch he returned to the bathroom. He was calm; the morning’s intense study had pushed the fears out of his brain . It shocked him to see that the red squiggle had returned and like the frogs in Egypt it had multiplied. He counted three squiggles no four , no five.

His entire body vibrated as if he’d swallowed a pneumatic drill. As he made his way to the sink he felt himself growing increasingly dizzy and then a murky yellow light flashed before his eyes. The next thing he knew, someone was holding him up.

Had the angel of death arrived to take him ? He was only twenty too. He didn’t expect to be leaving this world so quickly, not before he’d married, become a father, really lived. No, the one holding him was Naftali Eisen – a huge ruddy faced guy who could have been a linebacker, Eisen’s enormous hands digging into Asher’s armpits.

“Thanks, but you can let go now.”

“Just a minute. I want to see that you’re steady. That’s the way I learned it in my first aid course. You know, people often pass out in bath—”

“I’m okay now, really,”Asher tried to wriggle himself lose but Eisen wouldn’t let him go.

Eisen tapped on his cellphone “I’m going to call an ambulance,”

“Please don’t. I’m fine. Let me free….”

“You were this close to hitting your head and bleeding in the brain,” Eisen released one hand and pressed his thumb and forefinger together to demonstrate.

“I get it…” Asher resented being talked down by a dolt. Everyone knew that Eisen had gotten into the yeshiva only because his grandfather had paid for the building.

“I’m calling ,” Eisen pressed his forefinger on his phone.

“No…please don’t. I’m in shidduchim now…” Asher’s voice had a desperate edge.

“Okay…..But promise me you’ll get yourself to a doctor ASAP.”

Asher nodded, but once he got out of the bathroom he realized that getting help was more complicated that he’d imagined. His family GP, Dr. Kramer was out. She was female and a friend of his mom’s.. The other option was Dr.G, Dr. Gartenberg who practiced across the street from the yeshiva. His phone number was posted on the bulletin board outside the study hall. He was controversial. He certainly had his fans but many of the, yeshiva students believed that his medical knowledge came from the days of leeches and cupping. Asher stepped outside the yeshiva to phone. He didn’t want anyone to overhear this conversation. Instead of Dr. G. he reached a female sounding electronic voice announcing extra long waiting times and then a shrill one key rendition of frere Jacques.which played over and over until a human picked up “Come quickly. The doctor can fit you in between patients.” She sounded like a child.

Asher ran across the street to the clinic. The waiting room teemed with people. Every type of person who lived in Jerusalem’; plaid shirted heder boys with runny noses, a Bais Yaacov girl in her light blue dark blue uniform, her hand in a splint ,several hassidim, a stout middle aged woman wearing a hijab, and an elderly couple chatting softly in Russian.

Instead of magazines or a television, Dr. G had a sagging wicker bookshelf stocked with holy books. Asher pulled down a Chumash opening it to the weekly Torah reading; but he couldn’t focus. He closed the Chumash, planted a kiss on its cover, and returned it to the shelf.

He’d been to doctors before always for routine matters, strep throat, a sprained ankle, a checkup, nothing like this. Was that ominous squiggle the calling card of some terrible illness?

He’d heard stories about young people dying this way. He’d even prayed for them but he never thought he’d be one of them, not now. The Talmud said that a man without a wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness. How could his life be over before it really began?

Just then, the secretary called his name and Dr. Gartenberg opened his office door. He was a old, Asher guessed that he was at least eighty possibly more, short, and slightly bent, his leathery face heavily creased and covered with brown liver spots.

“Now tell me, what can I do for you?” Covered by a pair of rimless glasses, Dr. G’s eyes were rheumy and blue.

Asher opened his mouth to answer but no sound emerged . It was as if his throat had collapsed.

“Maybe you want to write it down.” The doctor handed him a pad and a pen and Asher scribbled away.

“Hmm, now I understand.” said Dr. G.

Asher began unbuttoning his sweater.

“No need for that. ” The doctor swiped Asher’s health fund card. and printed out a orders for blood and urine tests and a kidney ultrasound . Above all of them he wrote “dahuf” – urgent.

By the time Asher left the clinic it was dusk. Instead of returning to yeshiva, he took the train downtown and he got off near the shuk, heading to an internet café where the ancient desktop computers were kept in locked cubicles and he could study his condition in privacy. From a site called drugs.com, he discovered this.

Large blood clots can signal a medical emergency. So can blood in the urine that’s accompanied by pain in the back, sides, lower abdomen, or groin. This type of pain may be caused by
• kidney stones
• injury to the kidneys or bladder
• urinary tract infections
• tumors of the kidney, prostate or bladder.

As he read the words his heart beat wildly. Dr. G hadn’t used the word but here it was… yeinah machla, that disease , the Big C? With surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation, he had a fighting chance; but the side effects were devastating: hair loss –Asher ran his fingers through his thick black hair, impotence, infertility, and those were only if he survived.

From the internet café he headed to the Western Wall, his feet racing through the cold empty streets. The sky was dark; the moon and stars concealed beneath a swathe of rainclouds. The Wall plaza was unusually empty. That afternoon, a high school girl had been stabbed near the spot on which Asher now stood. During morning prayers at the yeshiva, he’d said psalms for her – but that prevent him from coming to the Wall. After all what did he have to lose?

As he approached the wall a tiny droplets of rain covered his head and face. As a child, he thought raindrops were G-ds tears. Standing alone in front of the Wall, he felt G-d crying with him.

Back in his room, Asher lay awake in his bed thinking about tomorrow. Would the ultra sound hurt? Dr. G had given him almost no guidance. The other thing wondered about was the requirement to drink eight cups of water. Would that cause his bladder to explode and would that release a torrent of blood?

From outside of his window he heard a sound truck announcing a funeral. That was nothing new; those trucks came around all the time but now he imagined his funeral being announcing “The funeral for the beloved yeshiva student Asher Tumim….

Two years earlier, Yoni Cohen broke his rope while rappelling and plunged to his death. Yoni Cohen. A nice guy, bright too – but hardly a regular in the study hall. At the funeral, the rabbis made him sound like the best student the yeshiva ever had known. What kinds of stuff would they make up about him?

At least Yoni had gone quickly, probably losing consciousness the instant his head hit the rock, but he wouldn’t go like that . He’d suffer the tortures the medical establishment could inflict and only after that would his spirit be free to depart. Would it be better to go fast? Maybe but he really didn’t want to die at all. Not now. “G-d,” he whispered. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but please, give me another chance…”

The ultrasound proved to be quick and painless. A young married woman, he knew that from her turban like headscarf, instructed him to pull up his shirt and pull down his pants. Then, she handed him a plastic bottle.

“Smear this on. I know you wouldn’t want me to do it for you.”

Asher giggled.

On the monitor, his kidneys looked like celestial bodies – white orbs floating in a black sky.The rabbis taught that each person was a whole world. Now he could see that it went farther; that his insides contained an entire galaxy. But then his reverie broke and he remember why he was here lying on his side in the darkened room, his midsection smeared with cold slimey gel.

“Am I okay?” he asked.

She nodded. “Seems fine.”

But, when he visited the men’s room, Asher passed another clot, this one the size of an olive.

Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read
Chapter 1 here,
Chapter 2a here,
Chapter 2b here,
Chapter 3a here,
Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here
Chapter 3d here
Chapter 3e here

Chapter 3f here
Chapter 4a here
Chapter 4b here
Chapter 4c here
Chapter 4d here

The Most Famous Ramban in Chumash – The End of Parshas Bo

The Ramban at the end of Bo is a classic work on Jewish philosophy and probably the most quoted Ramban in Chumash. It’s well worth seeing inside. Art Scroll has published the Ramban on Torah, so if you won’t (or can’t) read it in Hebrew, consider picking up the English translation.

Here is a summary:

Reason for the Plagues

The Ramban says that from the time of Enosh there were three types of heretics: 1) Those that didn’t believe in G-d at all; 2) Those that believed in a G-d, but didn’t believe He knew what was happening in the world; 3) Those that believed in G-d’s knowledge, but didn’t believe that He oversees the world or that there is reward and punishments.

By favoring the Jews and altering nature through the plagues, the falsity of the heretical views became clear to all. The supernatural wonders indicate the world has a G-d who created it, knows all, oversees all and is all powerful. And when that wonder is publicly declared beforehand through a prophet, the truth of prophecy is made clear as well, namely that G-d will speak to a person and reveal His secrets to His servants, the prophets, and with acknowledgement of this principle the entire Torah is sustained. (The Ramban brings down a number of pesukim supporting this.)

Reason for so many Mitzvos regarding the Exodus

Now, because G-d does not perform a sign or wonder in every generation in sight of every evil person and disbeliever, He commanded that we should have constant reminders and signs of what we saw in Egypt and we should transmit it to our children thoughout the generations. G-d was stringent in this matter as we see from the strict penalties regarding eating Chometz on Pesach and neglecting the Pesach offering. Other mitzvos regarding the Exodus are tefillin, mezuzos, remembering the Exodus in the morning and evening, Succos.

There are also many other commandments that serve as a reminder of the Exodus (Shabbos, the festivals, redemption of the firstborn,…). And all these commandments serve as a testimony for us through the generations regarding the wonders performed in Egypt, that they not be forgotten and there will be no argument for a heretic to deny faith in G-d.

The Reason behind Mitzvos in General

When one does a simple mitzvah like mezuzah and thinks about its importance, he has already acknowledged G-d’s creation of the world, G-d’s knowledge and supervision of the world’s affairs, the truth of prophecy and all the foundations of Torah. In addition he has acknowledged G-d’s kindness towards those that perform His will, for He took us from bondage to freedom in great honor in the merit of our forefathers.

That is why Chazal say, be careful in performing a minor commandment as a major one, for all of them are major and beloved since through them a person is constantly acknowledging his G-d. For the objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in G-d and acknowledge to Him that He created us.

Purpose of Creation

In fact this is the purpose of creation itself, for we have no other explanation of creation. And G-d has no desire, except that man should know and acknowledge the G-d that created him. And the purpose of raising our voices in prayer and the purpose of Shuls and the merit of communal prayer is that people should have a place where they can gather and acknowledge that G-d created them and caused them to be and they can publicize this and declare before Him, “We are your creations”.

This is what the sages meant when they explained “And they shall call out mightily to G-d” as from here you learn that prayer requires a loud voice for boldness can overcome evil.

Everything is a Sign of Hashem

Through recalling the great revealed signs of Hashem of the Exodus, a person acknowledges the hidden signs of everyday life which are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a person has no share in the Torah of Moshe unless he believes that all our affairs and experiences are signs from Hashem, that there is no independent force of nature regarding either the community or the individual.

Reward and Punishment

Rather if one observes the commandments his reward will bring him success and if he transgresses them his punishment will destroy him. Hidden signs of Hashem can be more clearly recognized as regards the affairs of a community as in the predictions in the Torah in the matter of the blessings and the curses as it says – And the nations will say, “For what reason did Hashem do so to this land…?” And they will say, “Because they forsook the covenant of Hashem, the G-d of their forefathers”. This matter will become known to the nations, that this is from G-d as their (the Jews) punishment. And it is stated regarding the fulfillment of the commandments, “Then all the people of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.”

First published in January, 2008. Last 2 paragraphs updated January 2012

Being a BT and a Ger

When you meet someone who has become observant, they are usually either a Ba’al Teshuva or a Ger. I am both.

I grew up, like much of the current generation, in a relatively assimilated family. It is said that the majority of the Jewish community, outside of orthodoxy, are marrying non-Jews. Some of the non-Jewish spouses convert to Judaism, but since those conversions are generally not done under halachic auspices, the non-Jewish spouses continue not to be considered Jewish. So what has become of the children of these marriages. Obviously, the children of those couples, where the husband is Jewish, are not halachicly Jewish, yet many of them were raised as Jews and believe that they are Jewish.

While doing “kiruv” work on college campuses, I developed several rules of thumb about how to tell whether a student was halachicly Jewish or not, through experience. One of them was by the student’s last name. If the student had a name like Goldberg or Rosenfeld, they were not Jewish. And if the student had a name like Diaz or O’Brian, they were probably Jewish. Intermarriage is so rampant out there that the likelihood is that almost every student has one non-Jewish parent. If they have a Jewish last name, then it is more likely that their father is the Jewish parent, and their mother is not Jewish. Whereas if the student had a non-Jewish last name, then in all likelihood the Jewish parent is probably their mother. Such are the ironies in a world of rampant assimilation.

Growing up, I was of the Goldberg/Rosenfeld variety. My father grew up in a reform Jewish household and my mother grew up belonging to the “Church of Christ” denomination. She married my father and converted to Judaism in their local reform temple. They brought me up Jewish in their reform temple. I was relatively involved in Jewish life as a reform Jew who was not halachicly Jewish. Later in life when I became interested in becoming observant, I learned that I was not considered Jewish according to the Orthodox standards I was learning about. I think that most other Jews, upon learning such news, would be turned off and reject that highly unpleasant message. However, my parents and community taught me to be open-minded towards others’ views, so I accepted that there were differing opinions about my Jewishness.

In addition to the normal hurdles faced by Ba’alei Teshuva, I also had to go through much of the same gauntlet that other Gerim go through because I had to go through a conversion to become Jewish, even though I had always considered myself Jewish until that point. There certainly were some interesting and amusing events that took place during that period when I was getting ready to be megayer, as I was living in all other ways as a frum teenager. One interesting fact, that I only found out about years later, was that there had been a meeting in NCSY’s national administration about whether to let this Shomer Shabbos/Negia/Kol Isha, tzitzis laiden kid who wasn’t Jewish on one of their trips to Israel.

Over the years, I have only met a handful of other Ba’alei Teshuva who had to go through Gerus because of the Jewish status of their mother. Most people are “regular” Ba’alei Teshuva who were always Jewish but became observant. It seems that it must be difficult for people in my situation to find their way back, which is a bit disappointing to me. If there are any of you out there, please comment! Hashem should help all of His children come back to him!

-Dixie Yid (http://dixieyid.blogspot.com)
Originally Posted July 2007

In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Pharaoh asked Moshe to pray to end the plagues in a particular way. Why didn’t he?
Various plagues were wrought by HaShem, Moshe and Ahron.  Why was barad, in particular, brought about by Moshe?

“Try and test me” Moshe replied. “At precisely what time shall I pray אעתיר for you, your servants and your people … ridding you and your homes of the frogs so that they will only remain in the canal [i.e. the Nile]?”

— Shemos 8:5

Moshe and Ahron left the Pharaoh. Moshe cried out ויצעק to HaShem concerning the frogs that He’d brought upon the Pharaoh

— Shemos 8:8

Moshe replied “Behold I am leaving your presence. Tomorrow I will pray  אעתיר to HaShem, the mixed wild beasts will go away from the Pharaoh,  his servants and his people … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and prayed ויעתר   to HaShem.

— Shemos 8:25,26

[The Pharaoh asked them] “pray העתירו to Hashem. There’s been too much of this Elokim-induced thunder and hail. I will send you/ your nation away; you will not have to stay.” … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and exited the city. As soon as he spread his palms up ויפרוש כפיו to HaShem the thunder and din ceased and the hail and rain no longer fell to the ground.

— Shemos 9:28,33

There are six things which HaShem hates, seven which His Soul abominates: 1. stuck-up eyes, 2. a lying tongue, 3. and hands that shed innocent blood; 4. A heart that works out malicious thoughts, 5. feet that are quick in running to evil; 6. A false witness who exhales lies, 7. and one who causes conflict among brothers.

— Mishlei 6:16-19

Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say … One whose deeds surpass his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

— Pirkei Avos 3:9

There are 10 different expressions [in Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue;] for prayer …

— Sifri on Devarim 3:23

In an abstract way we are aware of the Chazal that teaches that there are 10 near-synonymous expressions in Lashon Kodesh to describe humans communicating with HaShem. On a theoretical level we are also cognizant of the fact that diverse words carry assorted shades of meaning and that, as such, there must be 10 different ways to pray, 10 distinct media for prayer.

Yet, we are accustomed to congregational prayer during which everyone must be on the same page, both figuratively and literally. We also pray using a liturgy fixed by the anshei k’nesses hagedolah-the men of the great assembly; with later accretions canonized by tradition. And so on a practical level for us there is only one way to pray.  Gradations in the quality of our prayer vary according to levels of ones understanding of the liturgy and ones sincerity and depth of kavvanah-directing his heart and attention towards G-d. To us, the notion that varying circumstances require a different substance or even style of prayer seems utterly foreign.

In Parshas VaEra the Izhbitzer school teaches that the style and substance of prayer must react and respond to the particular needs being addressed and to the root causes of the distress that one is praying to resolve. Just as no two crises are exactly alike so too no two prayers can be clones of one another.

In each of the makkos-plagues; of frogs, mixed wild-beasts and hail we find the Pharaoh of Egypt beseeching Moshe to pray for the cessation of the makkah.  The Pharaoh is consistent. Every time he requests Divine intercession of Moshe he employs a conjugation of the word עתירה atirah-pleading. Yet only in requesting the end of the makkah of the arov– mixed wild-beasts; does Moshe actually plead with HaShem. In order to get the frogs back into the Nile Moshe employs tzeakah-shouting or screaming;  and to stop the makkah of barad-hail composed of fire and ice; Moshe prays with perishas kapayim-spreading his palms outwards and upwards.  The second Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Bais Yaakov, offers insight into the three crises and why the three different prayers were appropriate for each one.

Observing that both the makkos of tzefardea-frogs; and arov were incursions of wild animals into human habitats, the Bais Yaakov asserts that all creatures, both domesticated and wild, yearn for the proximity of human beings for they have a deep-seated, instinctive consciousness that their own actualization and fulfillment can only be brought about by human beings.  But for the vast majority of baalei chaim-animals; hobnobbing with human beings is not the proper means through which man might perfect and fulfill them. Among the Creator’s creatures Man alone is endowed with free-will and thus, with the capacity to exercise free-will to serve G-d.  These acts of avodah-serving HaShem; distinguish man from beast and are what drive away undomesticated animals from human habitats. The power inherent in various types of avodah is what make the different baalei chaim maintain their distance.

The croaking frogs and toads are distinguished by their ability to give voice to wordless cries, groans and screams. They have voices, but their voices cannot inform words.  Correspondingly, the type of prayer-based avodah that keeps frogs separate and distinct from human society is human tzeakah which is similarly inarticulate and wordless. When tzeakah is wielded by a human being it is a non-verbal, yet voice-based, form of communication.  This is why, when the time came to end the makkah of tzefardea, Moshe prayed with tzeakah.

Read more In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Musical Chairs – Chapter 4d – A Meeting with Yerushalayim’s Top Shadchan

Chapter 4d

February marked three months since Asher’s last date. During that time, he’d attended six engagement parties, four weddings, a bris and a pidyon haben (both of them for Feigie and Yidy’s first born son Elhanan). In the past he’d savored the thrill of piling into a borrowed car with his yeshiva buddies and singing all the way to the hall but lately his buddies had been disappearing, everyone dating some more seriously than others. Lately he’d been spending long hours in the study hall by himself as his partners were out on dates.

Tonight his roommate and study partner Shmulik Refaeli would be getting engaged and Asher sat on his dorm bed, immobilized..

“Come on,Get your tie on. Our ride is coming,” said Itamar Levi.

Levi reached out to pull Asher’s arm.

“Do you think Refaeli’s kallah knows about his feet?”

At the hall Asher peeked through a hole in the makeshift of tablecloths held tight with clothes pins separating the women from the men to catch a glimpse of Refaeli’s bride. He had no valid reason to gaze at her but his curiosity overwhelmed him.

“So,” Levi lifted his brows.

“She’s wearing one of those mermaid gowns and the makeup is glopped on but she’s good looking.”

“Glad to hear,” Levi smiled.

“How do you do it? I mean, how do you stand these things? Don’t you feel like life is passing you by?”

“Oh come on. I can’t let Refaeli down.”

“Well, I feel like I’m going insane.” Asher began walking toward the door Levi following behind.

“I know it’s tough. It’s tough for me too. Last night I met girl number forty-seven – and she ain’t it.”

“So what do we do?”

Levi pointed a finger toward the dark starry sky. “I know that there’s someone there for me and Hashem will reveal her when the time is right, Meanwhile I’ve got an idea for us. The Zviller Rebbe. That’s what Refaeli did.”

Asher knotted his brow. “But I’m not a Zviller hassid and no way I’m becoming one.”

“And neither am I and neither is Refaeli, if you haven’t noticed. It’s a grave. You go three times, say some psalms, and then the tzaddik pulls strings in heaven.”

“Isn’t that like putting one over on G-d?”

Levi tilted his head and winked. “Don’t worry. G-d can handle it.”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 4d – A Meeting with Yerushalayim’s Top Shadchan

Norman

It was my third month at Ohr Somayach, and I had only recently come around to acknowledging the truth of the Torah and recognizing my obligation to keep the mitzvos.

Shabbos was easy; after all, eating, singing, and sleeping didn’t put too much strain on my impulse-control mechanism. Kashrus was easy; I had little money and ate exclusively in the yeshiva cafeteria and by my Shabbos hosts. Mincha and maariv weren’t too challenging, although I still davened in English.

Shacharis was a different story. After four years of college, my body clock had long been set for 9:00 wakeup, and rousing myself for 6:45 seemed downright fanatical. At that point in my Torah observance, I wasn’t even motivated to try.

My new roommate was motivated, but his body clock wasn’t any more cooperative than mine. He dealt with his problem by placing a smoke-alarm style alarm clock on the other side of the room. It took about 15 minutes of ear-splitting buzzing for him to get himself out of bed to turn it off. It took me about three weeks to move out.

I was just settling into my new room when Norman arrived. He didn’t want to be there, and he had no interest in Torah. In fact, he seemed to have little interest in anything at all … except girls. But his grandmother had offered to pay him a thousand dollars (or was it two thousand?) if he attended yeshiva for six weeks. So there he was, serving his time and sharing my room.

It was one of the most exciting periods in my life, challenging Rav Dovid Gottleib as he articulated the fundamentals of Torah philosophy, trying to pick apart his arguments and proofs, struggling to integrate my past into my present, and vexing over how much of my former life could be salvaged and how much would have to be discarded.

Norman wasn’t vexing over anything. He was just doing time.

Which is not to say that he was not engaged. He argued, he debated, he listened to our rabbeim present their ideas and their proofs and tried to rebut them. But never for an instant did he seem to seriously consider the possibility that he might some day become Torah observant himself.

I remember the day he packed up to leave. I asked him what impression six weeks in yeshiva had made on him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his answer.

“The rabbis are right,” he said. “They’ve answered all my questions. Their proofs are all sound. I can’t refute anything they’ve said.”

“So what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Nothing. I like chasing girls.”

I still can’t understand his answer. He could have said that the concept of an infinite G-d is too grand and abstract for him to accept. He could have said that he believed that rabbinic logic was polished sophistry, and that the rabbis’ arguments were smoke and mirrors. He could have said a lot of things that I might have understood. But his essential rejection of mitzvah observance boiled down to this:

“The Torah is true. But I don’t care.”

How is it possible not to care? Perhaps this question is particularly poignant for ba’alei tshuva. Why else would we have recast our entire lives and worldviews, except because of the compelling magnetism of Torah? We can’t help but take the indifference of others personally, for it seems to negate everything we have done and everything we have come to believe.

After many years in chinuch, I’ve become adept at explaining answers to the same questions I posed to my rabbeim half a lifetime ago. I can teach ideas. I can teach information. I can teach skills. Sometimes I manage to inspire my students, and occasionally I can even get them to think. But the question that still haunts me the most, the one I still haven’t begun to answer, is this:

How do you teach someone else to care?

Maybe there is no answer. Maybe the only answer is that those of us who do care have to push ourselves to care even more.

Originally Published 02/13/2008

I’m Not on That Level

There are five words that really hamper our Avodas Hashem and they are: “I’m not on that level”. The first problem with that statement is that it’s true. We’re not on that level!

We’re certainly not on the level of Chassidus (Saintliness), always looking to go beyond what the halacha requires because we have an always present deep love and connection to Hashem. We’re not on the level of Nekiyus (Cleanliness), which involves meticulous observance of all mitzvos, all the time, including such tough ones as wasting time, getting angry and being careful in all our speech. We’re probably not even at the lower level of Zehirus (Watchfulness), being careful not to sin, since we’re probably not in the habit of always thinking before we act, nor reviewing our actions on a daily basis. If we were to honestly rate our overall performance, “I’m not on that level” is quite accurate.

The major problem with “I’m not on the level” is that it can be used as a justification to remain at our current level. Hashem wants us to continually advance in our observance. The Mesillas Yesharim makes it quite clear in the introduction that low levels of service are not acceptable. We need to continually up our game. That’s why we were created and it is a doable achievement.

Improving our Service of Hashem goes much further than obligation. A life driven by spirituality is the most fulfilling life possible because: 1) we are controlling and leveraging our bodily drives like eating and using them to stay healthy and have God commanded pleasure on Shabbos and Yom Tov, 2) we have the opportunity to connect to people in every interaction, 3) we can connect to God in all that we do and thereby fulfill our purpose in this world with our every action.

Yes, we’re not on that level. But whatever level we are on, we can take it to the next level and continually strive to live a life of more purpose, meaning, happiness and purposeful pleasure. We are quite fortunate that the Mesillas Yesharim speaks out everything mentioned here and he gives us an extremely practical playbook on how to keep on increasing our level.

Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

What are we to make of the teaching of our sages that “Yaakov our Patriarch never died,” in light of his remains being embalmed and interred?

Yisrael is the name usually associated with this person’s most exalted state.  Why is  immortality attributed to Yaakov rather than Yisrael?

… and Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years … and the days grew near for Yisrael to die ….

Bereishis 47:28,29

Yaakov completed his directives to his sons, he withdrew his feet onto the bed, breathed his last and was gathered in to his nation.

Bereishis 49:33

… the physicians embalmed Yisrael … Egypt wept over him for seventy days

Bereishis 50:2,3

They came to Goren Ha’Atad on the east bank of the Jordan. There they conducted a eulogy of exceeding vastness and gravitas and [Yoseph] observed a seven-day mourning for his father … His sons carried him to Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpeilah field bordering Mamre …     

Bereishis 50:10,13

“And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear” Says HaShem; “neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity … “

— Yirmiyahui 30:10

 … Thus said Rav Yochanan, “Yaakov our patriarch never died.” Rav Nachman objected: “Did those who eulogized him, embalm him and inter him do so for naught?” — Rav Yochanan replied: “I derive this from a scriptural verse, as it is said, ‘And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear’ says HaShem; ‘neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity.’ The verse connects him [Yaakov] to his offspring [Yisrael]; as his offspring will then be alive so he too will be alive.”
Rav Yitzchak said, “Whoever repeats [the name] Rachav, Rachav, immediately becomes a baal keri-one who is impure due to an emission.” Rav Nachman said to him: “I have repeated it and was not affected in any way.” Rav Yitzchak replied: “I speak only of one who knew her and was familiar with her likeness.”

— Taanis 5B

“Today” [the here-and-now world] is for doing them [the mitzvos] while tomorrow [the world to come] is for reaping the rewards [of their fulfillment.]

                       — Eruvin 22A

אָז יִבָּקַע -Then your light will burst forth as the Morningstar, and your cure will spring forth swiftly; and your righteousness will precede you, the glory of HaShem will gather you in.

— Yeshaya 58:8

Your dead will live, my remains will stand up. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust—for your dew is as the dew of light …  

— Yeshaya 26:19

The very name of our weekly sidra can be translated as “and Yaakov lived” and seems to echo the incredible contention of our sages that Yaakov never died. Another of the sages expressed his skepticism and incredulity over this, alluding to the various pesukim-verses; quoted in the gray oval above indicating that Yaakov was embalmed, bewailed, eulogized, mourned and interred; hardly the way to relate to a person still very much alive. Rashi ad locum explains that the embalmers et al merely imagined that Yaakov had died but he was in truth, still living. The Izhbitzer School offers several approaches to understand the non-death of Yaakov.

It is essential to remember that the soul is eternal … that it never dies.  The Mei HaShiloach explains that as such, what we refer to as “death” is not so much a termination of life as it is a radical, jarring — even harrowing — transition. In death, man must emigrate from olam hazeh-the temporal world of “this;” to olam haba-the world to come or the world that is continually “coming.” Even when one can transfer all of their assets, relocating to a faraway country can be a very intimidating change.  With a foreign language, new currency, radically dissimilar climate, a different form of government and unfamiliar art, social mores and architecture the new country may require years, if not decades or generations, of assimilation and acclimation before the new immigrant achieves a true sense of comfort, integration and belonging.  If most of the assets must be left behind in a forced expulsion or in fleeing from war or persecution the challenges of emigration become even more daunting.

These scenarios of emigration are poor allegories for the unimaginable yisurei kelitah– agonies of acclimation; that the soul must undergo when emigrating from olam hazeh to olam haba. A large portion of the first perek-chapter; of Mesilas Yesharim is preoccupied with the numerous metaphors of Chazal that describe the qualitative differences between the two worlds and their respective organizations of reality.

The Mei HaShiloach teaches that death, far from being the end of life, is instead the souls “transoceanic” voyage. Dying becomes the Ellis Island, the quarantining, the issuing-of-the-green-card, the ulpan, the immigrant absorption center, the blue-collar-to-Ivy-League-educated-professional and the tenement-to-suburbia upward social mobility; all rolled into one. Add to that the element that unlike immigrants, the soul, once adjusted to olam haba, has not one wit of nostalgia for the “old Country” and it is no wonder that we associate the emigration that is death with the idea of the past being dead, buried and forgotten.

Read more Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

Musical Chairs – Chapter 4c – The Frustrating Dating Dry Spell

Chapter 4c

When she heard Bella’s voice on the phone they both burst into tears. At times like these that Molly wished she’d lived in an era when communications weren’t quite so instantaneous. Why couldn’t she spend the waiting time idly paging through food and shelter magazines blithely ignorant of her daughters woes? Why did Bella break the rules by going to school? And the polish? Ugh. Not even a subtle delicate pink but garish dark red! As Bella was classified as repeat offender the principle ordered her to remove it ASAP or find another school.

“The principal hates me,” Bella wailed into the phone “Naama and everyone else does gel but I’m the only who takes the rap,”

“I can’t deal with this, “Molly handed the phone to Nahum.

“Okay honey, it will be fine.” he cooed. And then he solved the problem with a quid pro quo. A month’s worth of horseback riding lessons—Bella’s longtime dream —in exchange for a fingernail cleanup.

“So it pays to break the rules, “said Molly

“Shh.. She’s agreeing”

Bribery had long been an important part of their parenting arsenal? When the kids were tiny both Molly and Nahum traded lollipops and bisli for momentary quiet. They didn’t know better—Molly had been an only child. Nahum had one sister. Neither of them knew the first thing about parenting especially in a family in which the kids outnumbered the parents and bribes worked, at least in the short run.

When the plane landed there was more bad news– a call from Elazar. “I’m kicked out. the dorm counsellor, a jerk came in to my room and found my iphone”

“You have a phone.”

“Mom, you didn’t know. I bought one during the summer and I took it to yeshiva and put it in my mattress and the jerk comes in at dawn wakes me up and confiscates it and now I’m kicked out.”

“Oy.” Molly was suddenly struck speechless. What could she say. In exactly one month , Elazar would turn eighteen. If he was not registered in a yeshiva he’d be drafted.

“Nahum,” She clutched his hand reaching for comfort in his warm grip.

“What are we going to do about this?”

“He’s not doing much in that yeshiva. Maybe the army will make a man out of him.”
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 4c – The Frustrating Dating Dry Spell

Musical Chairs – Chapter 4b – Asher Goes Out With Elisheva

Chapter 4b
All through the long plane ride, Molly thought about Asher’s date. Maybe it had to happen with her off the stage. She daydreamed about coming home to a celebration and it excited her; it distracted her from her other preeminent emotion; fear. . How could her father the former Partisan who’d battled the Nazis in the Polish forests have turned into a wobbly old man? As a child he’d been her hero; she spent hours retelling his stories to her dolls.

Religion that drove a wedge between them. Years ago when she was making her initial steps into religion she made the mistake of visiting him on a fast day. Oblivious to the significance of the date he offered her a coke.

“It’s Tisha B’Av Dad. I’m fasting over the destruction of the Temple”

Molly thought he might be pleased to know that she was doing something Jewish; for years he’d been terrified that she’d leave the fold completely, even marry out, but instead he went ballistic.

“You don’t’ need to bother. I already fasted for both of us. ”

After that Molly shared little of her spiritual journey. In fact she shared little of herself at all. Once she moved to Israel they spoke only at birthdays or before holidays, inquiring after each other’s health as if they were casual acquaintances. Ironically that mirrored the relationship she now had with her own kids. Bella and Elazar for sure. Moshe was still young enough to be friendly. Until recently she’d felt close to Asher but ever since he’d started dating he’d also grown distant. But maybe. Maybe he’d meet the girl of his dreams and then he’d be happier and he’d go back to being the sweet son she missed so much. Right now her Dad needed her. Maybe this trip could draw them closer. She still missed the days when she loved her Dad more than anyone in the world Now he needed her—how long would he be here, in this world anyway? Maybe this would be their chance.

She had a plan. She’d go to an agency, hire an aide. Make her father safe.

From behind a window framing the skyline of Third Avenue her father stared into his computer. His skin tone matched the cigarette ashes cooling at the bottom of his cardboard coffee cup. His brow was with an elaborate lattice of intersecting of band aids.

“Why did you come maydaleh,You shouldn’t have left the kinderlach. Mrs. Goodman exagerates I’m fine.”

But he wasn’t fine. As he moved about he cupped his palms to the wall to steady himself.

The apartment was so cramped that she couldn’t find a place to sit. Every inch was full of tools and documents, thousands of them crammed into folders; an archive of her father’s life. He even kept them inside of the fridge which he’d disconnnected. He used a tiny office fridge for his, milk and cottage cheese.

From a nearby Starbucks she picked up her email including a message from Nahum. “Shadchan called. The date is scheduled for Saturday night.” Her heart fluttered a bit. She got a vicarious thrill from this, as if it was she and no her son who had the date. Five more days and then please G-d she’d hear some really good news.

She shifted back to her father phoning an adult care agency recommended by a Jerusalem friend. “yes I think we can help but you’d do best letting your father help to select his aide,” said the agency rep.

Molly agreed but how? Whenever she introduced the matter, her father refused to continue the conversation. The following day she interviewed potential helpers, men and women of various ages and colors from all corners of the globe; a dizzying veritable UN, all of them ready to care for her father. She was afraid to hire anyone. Afraid that her father would throw the aide out. In a way the process reminded her of shidduchim; how she could make dozens of phone calls , lose sleep agonizing and then have the girls parents or Asher give her a thumbs down..
Read more Musical Chairs – Chapter 4b – Asher Goes Out With Elisheva

Chanukah Then and Now

By Azriela Jaffe

The Judaism of my youth was defined by what I was not able to do. Is that not what characterizes any observant Jew? I may not eat non-kosher food, as G-d commanded. I may not work on Shabbat, as G-d commanded. I may not eat on Yom Kippur – as G-d commanded. I may not eat chometz on Passover – as G-d commanded.

True, but these Jewish ideals were alien to me as a child. We didn’t know from kosher, I had no awareness of even the concept of Shabbat, and although as dutiful – and perhaps superstitious- secular Jews, we always attended synagogue on Yom Kippur morning, we ate lunch that day, too. Our Passover celebration did include a rather abbreviated seder, but I had no understanding of chometz, or the avoidance of it – we bought a singular box of matzohs for the seder table, and enjoyed our bagels the next morning, (with no guilt, mind-you, as my uneducated family had no idea that this was a problem).

So what then, do I mean by this notion that my Jewish identity formed around what I could not do – when in fact, our family was so assimilated, it would have been difficult to differentiate us in any way from our goyish neighbors, and there were seemingly no restrictions on our life?

You knew our Judaism in December. Although my parents worked extremely hard to assimilate our family in every way imaginable – and they succeeded – there was only one time a year when they took a firm stand, and we children knew that we were Jewish, and different from non-Jews. Our family did not have Xmas trees and wreaths of holly on the door. Our family did not go to church on X-mas day, we went to the local Chinese restaurant and to the movies afterwards, where the parking lot was littered with hundreds of other Jewish-owned vehicles. We were Jewish, and therefore, we didn’t celebrate X-mas.

As a child, I saw this as a problem. The rest of the world got to have fun, and we were deprived. When we lit the menorah and eagerly awaited our presents, the complete absence of spirituality around the holiday made it only a competition we were sure to lose – which kids got the most presents – the Jews, or the non-Jews? We would comfort ourselves with the thought: Our holiday lasts 8 days, and the Christians only get one day, so we’re actually luckier. But I distinctly remember as a child that lucky is not how I felt. I was a Jew and therefore, I was not allowed to do the holiday that the rest of the world celebrated. We were different, and deprived.

With the perspective of adulthood, I now see my Chanukah “celebrations” with gratitude. It was my parents’ last hold-out, and through it, they formed my identity, albeit uneducated, as a Jew, different from my Christian neighbors. They had given up all other semblance of separation between us and the non-Jewish world, yet somehow, they hung on to this one. Thankfully, as an Orthodox Jew of many years now, I do not have memories as a child of singing Xmas carols, even if M ’aoz Tzur was not in our family’s vocabulary.

The Judaism of my children’s youth is also defined in part by what they cannot do, according to Jewish law, but now, their heads, hearts, and souls are filled with so much they can, and do, look forward to about Chanukah, there isn’t a glimmer of deprivation. The excitement of Chanukah starts early in school with Chanukah chagigas, lessons from their Morahs and Rebbeim about the true spiritual meaning behind Chanukah, and the exciting story of the Macabees, and of course – what would Chanukah be without homemade menorahs brought out of their storage bags year after year? The house smells of latkes, Tatty comes home early from work so he can light the menorah with us, and as we sing M ’aoz Tzur by the window, we thank G-d not only for the miracles that the Macabbees experienced so long ago, but also, the miracle that we are frum, and despite our secular lineage, we have returned.

The Macabees waged a war against assimilation, and with Hashem’s help, they won. We waged our own fight, and also, with plenty of help from Hashem, we’ve won, too. Thank you, G-d.

Syndicated newspaper advice columnist and author of twelve books, Azriela Jaffe is an international expert on entrepreneurial couples, business partnerships, handling rejection and criticism, balancing work and family, breadwinner wife and dual career issues, creating more luck and prosperity in your life, and resolving marital conflict. Her mission: “To be a catalyst for spiritual growth and comfort. Visit her web site here.

First published Dec 22, 2008

Chanukah – G-d Fights Our Wars

By Rabbi B. Shafier

Gemara Shabbos 21b: The miracle of the oil

Why do we celebrate Chanukah?
The Gemara tells us the reason that we celebrate Chanukah is that when the Yivanim entered the Bais HaMikdash, they defiled all the oil set aside for lighting the Menorah. When the Chashmonoim were victorious, they searched and were able to find only one small jug of oil with the Cohain Gadol’s seal intact. It had sufficient oil to last only one day, but miraculously it lasted eight days. In honor of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, Chazal inaugurated these days for Hallel and thanksgiving.

Al Ha’Nisim: the miracle of the battle

The Maharal states that this Gemarah seems to contradict what we say in Al Ha’Nisim, a Tefilah written by Taanim hundreds of years before. In the Al Ha’Nisim, we proclaim thanks to HASHEM for the miracle of the war. We thank HASHEM for delivering the Yivanim armies into our hands: “You fought their battles, judged their judgments, took their revenge. You put the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” According to the Al Ha’Nisim, the miracle of Chanukah was that HASHEM delivered us from the armies of the Yivanim. Yet the Gemara in Shabbos says that we celebrate Chanukah because of the miracle of the oil lasting eight days. The Maharal asks, “Which one is correct?”

The miracle of the oil revealed the miracle of the war.

The Maharal answers that both are true, and both are consistent. The actual event for which we give thanksgiving and sing Hallel is the salvation of the Jewish people. We won a war against all odds. However, it wasn’t clear that the victory was a miracle. To people living in those times, military success seemed to be natural. It was attributed to Jewish resilience and bravery. It didn’t appear that HASHEM had delivered us from the hands of the Yivanim; rather, it appeared as “their might, and the strength of their arms.” It was only through the miracle of the oil that they came to understand the miracle of the battle. Once people saw the oil last eight days – an overt miracle from HASHEM — they then came to see that their success on the battlefield was from HASHEM as well. The miracle of the oil revealed to them the miracle of the war.

Israel didn’t have a standing army

This Maharal becomes difficult to understand when we take into account a basic historical overview.

The events of Chanukah take place around the middle of the era of the Second Bais Hamikdash. From the time that Bavel destroyed the first Bais Hamikdash until that point; the Jewish People lived under the reign of gentile monarchies. Our right to exist and our form of government was decided by the ruling parties. We were a vassal state under foreign rule, and when the Yivanim entered Yerushalayim, the Jewish people did not even have a standing army.

This wasn’t a war of a stronger army against a weaker opponent. It was a war in which the most powerful empire in the world was pitted against a band of unorganized, unarmed, private citizens.

While the war itself lasted 3 years, during the entire first year of fighting, there were no formal battles. Two armies were not squaring off against each other; there was no Jewish army. The fighting consisted of guerrilla skirmishes. Some Jews would sneak up on a lone detail of Yivamim soldiers, kill them and take their arms. Bit by bit, more Jews would join Yehudah Ha’Macabi, but at every point during the wars, the Jews were far outnumbered, outgunned and preposterously less battle-ready than their enemies.

The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim

Even more startling is that almost all of the original fighters had no battle experience. The leaders of the rebellion were Kohanim. A Kohain is a Torah teacher, one who serves in the Bais Hamikdash, one who guides the Klal Yisroel in Ruchnius. He isn’t a soldier. So this was a war led and fought not by soldiers, but by Roshei Yeshiva. It was akin to Reb Shmuel Kaminetsky leading the Lakewood Yeshiva in battle against the US Marine Corps.

How could anyone not see the miracle of the war?

No intelligent assessment of the situation would have predicted a Jewish victory. How then is it possible that the Jews at the time saw these events as anything other than the miracles that they clearly were?

This seems to be natural to the human

The answer to this question seems to be that when one is many years away and far removed, he gains a historical vantage point. He is able to see an event in context and can easily recognize it as a miracle. But to those living in the day-to-day heat of the battle, it is much more difficult to see the event from that perspective.

To those involved, it seemed to be a natural course of events. Granted the odds were slim, but the Jews won. Skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, the Macabis came out victorious. There is no question that they did well, which is why it seemed that it was their skill, their cunning, our wisdom in battle that won those wars. And as such, to people living in those times, the miracle was hidden. And then a single event focused their sight.

When the Kohanim returned to the Bais Ha’Mikdash and took out that little bit of oil that couldn’t possibly last for eight days, and saw it remain aglow night after night, everyone knew this was miraculous. When they experienced the miracle of the oil, it reshaped the previous three years in their minds, and they then saw the battles themselves as the miracles that they were.

We see the same phenomena in our times

In our own times we witness an eerie parallel to these events and to the same mistaken interpretation.

For almost 2,000 years we have existed as a lone sheep amongst 70 wolves. Universally hated and oppressed, the Jewish People have survived. And now, after almost 1900 years of wandering, we find ourselves back in our own land.

Since 1948, the Jewish Nation has witnessed profound miracles in the repopulation and development of the land of Israel. But it is the survival of our people that is the greatest miracle.

In 1948, the population in the Middle East numbered roughly 650,000 Jews, surrounded by some 50 million Arabs. On May 15th, 1948, one day after the State of Israel was declared, five nations attacked, each with well-trained armies and air forces, each alone capable of annihilating the small band of Holocaust survivors. At the time there was no Jewish Army, Navy or Air force. Yet, against all odds, we won that war, and against all odds we continued to win war after war – until now, ironically, the Jews are considered the super power in the region.

To most people, Jew and Gentile alike, it seems that this is just the way of the world. To the average witness to these events, it isn’t a demonstration of the hand of HASHEM — It is just the ebb and flow of history.

The lesson of Chanukah is to see behind the veil of nature – to tune our sight into the true cause of events, and to see that it is HASHEM who runs the world, and HASHEM Who fights our wars– then as now.

For more on this topic please listen to Shmuz #15 – G-d Fights Our Wars
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