Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Oh, for the Love of Esther

The Jews had light, and gladness, and joy, and honour.
The Book of Esther 8:16

As a person who hates being in the kitchen, I love Purim. It’s a short holiday with only one meal (as opposed to two on Shabbat or 4-6 on Rosh HaShana), you don’t have to turn the kitchen upsidedown (Pesach), or eat outside (Yom HaAzmaut). And mostly, it’s ok to eat junk ALL DAY LONG!! And the junk comes in present form. I don’t even have to buy it. 

The best part of Purim, of course, is that the story features women. No blurring names or faces here, 
no putting these women on the back of the bus, or behind a wall! The women in the story are front and center, named, described, and centuries later, dozens, if not hundreds, of little girls dress up as them (though there are more Queens of the Strawberries than Esthers). 

At first glance and first reading of Megillat Esther, the two women seem strikingly similar. Both are beautiful, both are of royal lineage, both stand up to a wicked drunken king.

The first of the two women to appear is Vashti. The Book of Esther opens at a party, and King Achashverosh orders his wife Vashti to appear and dance before the celebrants. It is understood that this is not just a simple dance, but that she is to appear in the nude. Vashti refuses. In what appears to be a noble and dignified gesture, Vashti refuses her husband's command to perform. She will not sacrifice her dignity on a stupid and drunken request. And so she sacrifices her life, as the king orders her executed[1].

But before we think of her as brave and tragic, let's take a quick but deeper look at Vashti.

We know that Vashti is the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar (of destruction of the Temple fame) and daughter of Belshazzar. Her father and family and household had been killed by Darius – father of Achashverosh. Vashti is the only survivor of the massacre (which is described in the Book of Daniel) and she was captured and given to the young Achashverosh as a prize.

The Talmud tells us that despite her capture and forced marriage, Vashti lives up to her grandfather's cruelty. She enslaves Jewish girls, stripping them and forcing them to work on Shabbat. When Achashverosh commands her to appear naked at his party, she was busy having a party of her own, probably with the Chippendales. She answered him "you were but a stable boy when my father was king of all Babylon!" (Esther Rabbah 3:14) It wasn't that Vashti wasn't willing to sacrifice her dignity and not dance; she was not willing to sacrifice her ego. She was a queen, and the daughter and granddaughter of conquerors. She didn't dance for some stable boy. 

The Midrash tells us that Vashti was stricken with one of two ailments. Either she had Tzora'at (badly translated as leprosy), which is a physical manifestation of Lashon Harah. Lashon Harah is committed when one thinks one is superior to others. Or, says the Midrash, Vashti had a tail. That would symbolize her bestiality, her inhumanity. Whatever the reason, Vashti refused to dance and was desposed, thus ending the line of Nebuchadnezzar and its wickedness.

We can now turn to Esther.

Esther is also of royal lineage. Her family was taken into captivity in the first exile (at the time of the above-mentioned Nebuchadnezzar)—that of the aristocracy.

However, unlike Vashti – who taunted Achashverosh at every opportunity at the difference in their status – Esther tells no one of her family, her heritage, or her history.

A question that has often come to my mind when I read the tragic story of Esther is why did she submit to her fate? Why did Esther allow herself to be so degraded by being imprisoned in the palace; being forced into a beauty contest, and ultimately being forced to marry an immoral, uncultured, drunken egomaniac? Wouldn't it have been better to have even killed herself rather than endure what must have been torture? Considering that the Holy Temple had just been destroyed because of rampant acts of murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality, Esther's rebellion would have been heralded as a small rectification for the destruction.

Yet, her cousin/uncle/guardian Mordecai does not allow her to take this course of action. Instead, he tells her to go with the king’s men when they come for her and submit, but to keep her identity a secret, both from the king and from her own people.

So, orphaned, separated from her people, Esther begins her lonely existence in the palace, forsaken it seems even by G-d, for no miracle comes to save her.

According to Jewish law, Mordecai is right in telling Esther to keep her origins a secret.

When Esther becomes queen, she becomes a public persona, a target of the press, a symbol to the people, a person always in the public eye. Everything she does is scrutinized. Every chair she buys is appraised, and every bottle she returns to the store is counted. Every move she makes is judged. 

If Esther's nationality and religion are known, then, as a public figure, any minor desecration would become a chilul HaShem – a desecration of the name of G-d. Publicly marrying a non-Jew – no matter the circumstances – would be a horrific desecration.

However, as a passive and unknown victim to the king's advances, Esther would not be considered guilty of sexual immorality.

It is for this reason that Mordecai insists that she keep her identity a secret. And so Esther, unlike Vashti, suppresses her own needs, her own ego, her own identity so that she should not ever be guilty of sexual immorality or any other sort of chilul HaShem.

Later in the story, when Haman's plan for the extermination of the Jews becomes known, Mordecai tells Esther to go to the king. At this point, she asks Mordecai to have the people fast and pray for her, thus having her identity disclosed. Why now? Why publicize her heritage now?

Because now, by going to the king of her accord, Esther is no longer a "passive victim" to the king's advances. By seducing the king, she will now be guilty of immorality. It doesn't matter anymore if she is a public figure or private citizen.

Sexual immorality is one of the three cardinal sins for which one loses his/her place in the next world.

When Esther hesitates before going to Achashverosh, when she asks her people to fast and pray for her, it was not because she was afraid for her physical life, but because she was about to sacrifice her soul.

What made Esther act in such a way? There was no need. No one knew who she was. She would have survived Haman's extermination program. She would not have to commit immorality and sacrifice her place in the next world. Mordecai even told her that if she didn't step up, deliverance would come from another place.

It is written that we must love G-d with all our hearts and all our souls and all our might. And this is what Esther does. Out of love for G-d and her people, Esther gives up all. Showing total chesed, total Ahavat Chinam (loving freely without judgment), Esther is willing to sacrifice her soul for her people. In the end, not only does Esther save her people, but her Ahavat Chinam paves the way for the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash.[2]
And therefore it's no wonder that the Beit HaMikdash, built on the basis of Ahavat Chinam cannot exist in a time of Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred)[3].

Unlike Vashti, Esther transcends her own personal tragedy – which continues on even after her people are saved – and gives her heart and her soul and her might to G-d and to the Jewish people.

May we be blessed this Purim and may our People be united with the Ahavat Chinam of Esther, that the way should be paved for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the coming of the Masiach, bimheray be'yamenuh.


[1] The text here is rather vague. The Megillah says ‘That Vashti come no more before King Ahasverosh’ and not ‘off with her head’ or anything like that. But it has been interpreted that she was, in fact, killed, the Hollywood movie with Patrick Dempsey notwithstanding.

[2] It is her grandson Koresh, King of Persia, who allows the Jews, under the leadership of Ezra and Nechemia, to return to the Land of Israel and rebuilt the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

[3] Our sages give the reason for the destruction of the Second Temple as baseless hatred. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Good of the Land

If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land
-Isaiah 1:19

The almond tree is blooming 
A golden sun is shining
Birds from every rooftop call
To tell us of the day for all
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
Tu b'Shvat is coming,
A festival for trees
-Yisrael Doshman

An almond tree in bloom is a beautiful sight. Here in Israel, it signals the beginning of the end of winter and the coming of the Tu B'Shvat—the Israeli festival of trees.

One of the highlights of the my work year is receiving our annual Tu B’Shvat gift of a box full of dried fruits and nuts. People talk about it for weeks before, discuss recipes, which fruits they like, which are the most fattening, and how quickly their kids can scarf them down. We are receiving our boxes tomorrow. People cancelled vacations to be sure to get them.

The truth is that these days, everywhere you look, there are piles and piles of dried fruits for sale.

Really. This is what it looks like
Apricots, prunes, and raisins are old news.
Old news
Today’s cool buys are dried kiwis, bananas, and papayas. How cool is that!!

Cool new fruit
Tu B’Shvat is mentioned exactly zero times in the Torah, and one time in the Mishnah. That one mention is in relation to the four new years in the Jewish calendar. The first of Tishrei is the new year for the calculation of the calendar, sabbatical (shmita) years and the Jubilee (yovel), for planting and sowing. The first of Nisan is to the new year for kings and festivals.

They all get a new year

The first of Elul is the new year for animal tithes. The fourth new year is the new year of trees: According to the House of Shamai, it was to be the first of Shvat, but according to Hillel it was to be the fifteenth of Shevat (Rosh Hashana:2a).
The rabbis of the time ruled according to Hillel, as by the 15th of the month of Shevat it was decided that the majority of the winter rains had fallen, and the new agricultural season had begun.

And that is the only time we hear of Tu B’Shvat in Jewish Law.

There are three mitzvot that are indirectly associated with Tu B’Shvat:

  • Orlah is the prohibition on eating the fruit produced during the first three years after the tree is planted. 
  • Neta Reva'i refers to the biblical commandment to bring fourth-year fruit crops to Jerusalem as a tithe. 
  • Maaser Sheni and Maaser Ani were tithes, which was eaten in Jerusalem or given to the poor.  These tithes (or taxes if you will) were calculated by the amount of fruit that ripened from oner Tu B’Shvat to the next.

In simplest terms, Tu B’Shvat was, during Temple times, the end of the tax year. 10% of whatever fruit was grown (or the monetary value of it) was required to be given to the poor or to the Beit HaMikdash.
The only mitzvah of those three that is still relevant to us today is the mitzvah of Orla; to count three Tu B’Shvats before we are allowed to eat the fruit from a young tree. And even this mitzvah is relevant only here in Israel.

How then, did all these other customs - planting trees, eating dried fruit, having a ‘seder’ Tu B’Shvat - come about?

Well, I’ll tell you.

They were all made up.

Which isn't to say that it’s a bad thing.

After the destruction of our Holy Temple, and the exile and dispersal of our people, Tu B’Shvat ceased to have any meaning because the mitzvot associated with the date were  kept only in the Land.

Once the Jews were dispersed, all the festivals of the year took on different meanings, and all acquired new customs to take the place of the mitzvot that were kept in the Temple.

The festivals, which were originally agricultural in nature, took on more of a historical and religious nature in exile. Therefore, Pesach became the festival of freedom and celebrates our peoplehood; Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah; Succot is when we remember the miracles of G-d, and the hardships we suffered in the desert until we reached our Land.

Because the Land of Israel is an integral part of Judaism, and, while for the 2000 years of exile we remembered the Land in a myriad of ways, Tu B’Shvat slowly became THE day to remember the glory and the goodness of the Land.

It was in the Middle Ages that Tu B’Shvat began to be celebrated by eating the fruits of Eretz Yisrael. In the 16th century, the Kabbalists of Tsfat (who themselves were exiles from Spain) initiated the ‘Seder’ Tu B’Shvat where one eats several specific fruits and drinks four cups of wine. It was thought that this would bring the world closer to perfection.

(drinking four cups of wine can make anything seem pretty close to perfect).
The custom of eating dried fruits began only about 100-150 years ago, with the beginning of the return of the Jews to their Land. The Jews of Europe wished to partake of the bounty of the Land also, and asked the Jews who had returned to please send them fruit of the Land. Because it took so long to arrive by boat, the fruit was first dried and then sent. The Jews of Europe could eat the dried dates and figs and carobs of Israel.

I, myself, do not care for carobs.
As more Jews returned to the Land, they brought their old country customs with them, and the custom of eating dried fruits on Tu B’Shvat was one of those. But, here in Israel, most fruits are eaten fresh. Therefore, to meet demand, the National Importers Guild[1] decided to import dried fruit from abroad. Money is money.
As a consequence, today, to celebrate Tu B’Shvat, which is a celebration of the bounty of the Land, we import apricots from Belgium, pistachios from Greece, pecans from China, and raisins from California. In the Old Country, we ate dried fruit to remember the Land of Israel, and here in the Land of Israel we eat dried fruit to remember the Old Country. [2]

A bit of a slap in the face, if you ask me.

On the other hand, if you are going to make up customs, the custom of planting trees in Eretz Yisrael is certainly an excellent one. It is a great mitzva to plant trees (especially fruit trees) in the Land, any day. Setting aside Tu B’Shvat as a special day to plant is a lovely idea, and because of it, Israel was the only country in the world to end the 20th century with more trees than it had at the start of the century.

But this year is a shmittah year, when we do not plant and the Land lies fallow. So what should we do on Tu B’Shvat this year?

We should glory in the beauty and the bounty of the Land.

These flowers are Anemones, and grow in fields in the late winter 25 minutes from my house.

This is just a fun picture

dried fruit

the bounty of the Land!

Cool fruit


Baby tomatoes

An arial view of even more food

This is also the bounty of the Land!

[1] I don’t think that the National Importers Guild is actually a thing. I made it up, but you get the point.

[2] And yes, you can get Israeli produced dried fruit. I know. But two things: a) you have to look hard for it – about 90% of the dried fruits in the supermarkets are imported, and b) what’s wrong with fresh fruit??

Sunday, December 28, 2014


Untold suffering seldom is.
Franklin P. Jones

I met my friend E just one time, and despite the fact that I’m not 100% sure she would recognize me in the street, I consider her a good friend. She lifts me up when I am down, she gives me strength when I am weak, she entertains me when I am bored, and all without realizing it. And best of all, she laughs at my jokes.

E is a Facebook friend, and I read her posts avidly. She posts divrei Torah, uplifting stories, and, most importantly, different segulot.

Just over a month ago, E posted that Kislev, the month in which the holiday of Chanuka falls, is an especially propitious time for miracles.

E told us she had learned that to nudge a miracle into coming, on the Shabbat before the first day of Kislev, at candle lighting time, we should pray for something we seriously needed (i.e., not a mink coat or that pair of boots you've been ogling, but rather a job, health, or a partner) and then for the whole month – from the first day of Kislev to the last day of Chanuka – if we manage not to complain out loud, to not show ungratefulness, we will be a witness to the needed miracle.

Now, to be very very honest, I’m not one for segulot. To me, they smack – just a bit – of superstition. But I’ve followed some of E’s other segulot—most notably when I read a certain part of the Torah as a segula for a job, and lo and behold, extra hours were added on to my job, a mere hour after. Honest. (of course, I don't really like my job, but that's another story.)

But this one, well, I liked it. It would be a fun thing to see if I could go a whole month without complaining. I was quite confident, actually. I’m not a complainer. I never complain if I’m hot or cold like my colleagues at work do Every. Five. Minutes. I’m not a picky eater, I don’t complain if there are tomatoes in the salad, or onions in the kugel like my kids do Every. Single. Meal.

So what if I have nothing to wear, that there’s never anything good on TV, that Israeli politics are poison (I might not even vote this time round, they’re all a bunch of losers!).

I don’t get upset when someone puts a carton of milk back into the fridge with exactly one drop in it (can’t they just finish it, for heaven sakes!) or one noodle is left in a huge container (what does that mean, you’re too stuffed to eat one more noodle. Do me a favor). I don’t care mud is tracked all over my just-washed floor (oh, for heaven sakes), or the lights are left on (that wouldn't happen if they paid the bills).

Really. I don’t.

And so, I entered the month certain I would get my much needed miracle at the end.

I’ll put you out of your suspense now.
It turns out that I’m quite bad at not complaining.
In fact, I might become a professional complainer. I’m pretty darn good at it already.

Two separate things happened almost simultaneously and almost immediately, on that very first Shabbat.

The first was that I noticed how much other people complain:

“It’s hot in here, how can you stand it?”
“It’s cold in here, how can you stand it?”
“I don’t like tomatoes in the salad”
“Whoever left the lights on in their room can pay the electric bill!”
“Why is there an empty carton of milk in the fridge?”
Etc. etc.

It was a cacophony of noise. I stopped hearing words; all I heard was wah wah wah.

The second thing that happened was that I noticed that how much I complain.
I started out bravely. “How was work?” my husband would ask every day. I didn’t let out the five- and six-letter words (MUCH worse than four-letters) that were popping from my brain; lousy, yucky, crappy, icky (that’s only four).

“Just jim dandy”, I said the first day, even though it wasn’t. Great, fine, and ok followed on other days. I bit back the comments about the witchy boss, or how hot it was because everyone else was cold, or about the boring work, or the guy who yelled at me, or the stupid printer that ate my work, or, well, all the other things that make my day so super.

I bit my lips, then had to hold back complaining about how much my lips hurt.
Luckily, E never said anything about putting on a happy face.

Sometimes, I wasn’t all that successful at lip-biting. But I tried.

I came home from a colleague’s simcha one evening, and my daughter asked how it was. Without thinking, I said “food was ‘orrible”. (I’m Canadian, and there’s no earthly reason to drop my ‘aitches’, but I do it when I’m complaining). Then I stopped, and said ‘but it was lovely, really, it was a nice place and great people.’

Of course, I said the right words, but they sounded like wah wah wah.
After a few days of bleeding lips, I decided that if I didn't have anything nice to say, I would say nothing at all.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t say anything at all. I nodded a lot instead of answering 'NO!' (work ok?), 'yes, my favorite part of my day is unfolding your smelly socks!' (Did you wash my socks?) and 'yes, but make sure you eat the whole thing instead of throwing half away. Do you know how much apples cost these days and also there are children in Yemen who would die to have that apple, don’t tell me about it being bruised' (Can I have an apple?).

I shook my head instead of answering 'What, am I your secretary now?' (did anyone call), 'You think I have a cookie tree??' (anything I can menashnesh on?), 'it’s your friend, why do I have to spend my day running around looking for a present?' (did you buy a present for [fill in the blank]); sometimes I just pointed to the fridge instead of answering 'What, am I a restaurant?' (what’s for supper?).

The thing is, nobody noticed that I was only head shaking and pointing at the fridge and not talking.

That means that nobody ever listens to me. I work myself to the bone, and all they care about are their cookies and me doing errands for them. Ungrateful…
But I digress.
I live with several people of the male persuasion. I know that they have mouths and tongues because I’ve seen them eat, but otherwise one could be excused for thinking they had gills for all they use it to communicate. They only thing they say during the course of the day is to ask me for something (Can you fix my pants? Can I have the car? What’s for supper?). Is asking how I am too hard for them?? Or tell a funny story after an awful day of work? Is this too much to ask??

Anyway, meal time became pretty quiet. I was determined not to complain about anything. (Why can’t you use a knife??) I let someone else make conversation. (Who didn't put a serving spoon into the noodles?) Somebody else must have done something fun today, because if I mention anything about my day/job I’ll just complain (stop dropping crumbs on the floor, you have a plate RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU. Now I’m going to have to sweep AND wash dishes because nobody else sweeps in this house OR washes dishes. EVER), and I was desperately determined to stop complaining.

A week of the no-complaints experiment went by. I had lots of complaints, but most of them were left unsaid. Except in the car. I allowed myself to take out all the week’s complaints on unknowing drivers (aka jerks). “Why does this guy think he can take up THREE parking spaces, of all the nerve. Hey Jerk, don’t come crying to me if someone rams into you for going so slow. Whattasmatter with this jerk? He thinks he owns the whole road. AND he probably doesn’t use a KNIFE, and he puts back the milk WITH ONE DROP IN IT!! OR WORSE!!! he leaves it OUT!!!!!

After a week, I was feeling pretty miserable. Though I had thought that I didn't, half my life seemed to be made up of complaining, nobody noticed that I had stopped, and the kid still wasn't using his knife.
The second week was spent feeling pretty sorry for myself.
Why can’t anything ever go right for me?

It was only by the third week that I knew I had to do something. If you have nothing nice to say, don't say anything at all is a great axiom. I decided to take the first half of the sentence seriously. I would find nice things to say, instead of complaining. 

That's a nice shirt, I said to my son referring to the sweat shirt he has worn every day for two weeks.  He looked at me as if I had grown a beard. 
The table is set so nicely, I said of the mismatched cutlery and no glasses. My daughter thought I was talking in my sleep. 

It became a little easier as time went on. 
What a great supper! I said of the eggs and leftover challah that I had thrown on the table.  
Little by little, I began telling funny stories, reported on interesting articles I had read in the paper, and recommended the book I was reading.

The stories didn't always get a laugh, the articles weren't as interesting as I thought they were, and everyone had already seen the movie on their smartphone, but hey, nobody complained.

By the fourth week, Chanuka, I managed not to complain that the sufganiyot didn't have enough jam, that the latkes were too oily, and the candles made SUCH A MESS.  Because, y'know, who cares?

Instead, we sang songs, even though I'm completely tone-deaf, played with the grandkid, saw trains, and just had a good time.

Chanuka ended. I'm now allowed to complain again. 

But I'm going to see how it goes not complaining, at least not quite as much. Nobody listens anyway, it never changed anything (I guarantee that the carton of milk that is in my fridge has exactly one drop in it - I know this because I put it there myself, and the jerk driver still takes up three spots), and once in a while, somebody laughs at my jokes.

As for the needed miracle - well, I see miracles every day.
Can't complain.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Medic's Oath

"Save yourself" asked the wounded
"I'm staying here with you" replied the medic

From the Ballad of the Medic

I have lived in Israel for exactly two thirds of my life.
I have lived in four different areas of the country, had a dozen or so addresses and voted in way too many elections.
I have seen just about all there is to see.
But not everything, and last week, on the first day of Chanuka, I had the opportunity to visit a place in Israel that I have never been to, and probably will never see again.

The Yigal Yadin Army Training Base – better known as Tzrifin – was originally built by the British Army in 1917 during World War 1. Some of the original buildings are still there. Located between Rishon L’Zion and Ramle, and situated on prime real estate, Tzrifin is the largest army base in the country. It is what is known as a ‘container base’ in that it is actually made up of, amongst other things, about a dozen or so training bases known as Bahadim [sing. Bahad] (בה"דים), which is army slang for, well, training base (בסיס הדרכה). There is a Bahad for Logistics, one for Extraction and Rescue, a third for Computers and Telecommunications, a fourth for Medical Professions, and so on (i.e., NOT basic combat training). Each Bahad is an entity of its own, with its own hierarchy, chain of command, and all facilities. There are fast food places, banks, and even a small shopping area.
The largest military jail in the country is also in Tzrifin.
The place is, in essence, a small city.


Thousands of soldiers serve there, and just about everybody who has served in the army has been there at one time or another. But I never served in the army, so I've never been.

Bahad 10, aka the School for Medical Professions, trains army medics. These medics undergo a four-month intensive course on frontline first aid and trauma care. They learn how to put on tourniquets, how to stop bleeding, various bandaging methods, CPR, and more.
In the olden days, in far-away lands, medical personnel were not armed, and were labeled as non-combatants. They wore a distinguishing emblem on their uniforms (usually a red cross) so as not to be targeted by the enemy. However, in recent times, warfare has been waged against an enemy who does not respect – to put it mildly – the rules of the Geneva Convention, and targets - with absolutely no hesitation - combatants and non-combatants, women, children, and elderly alike. Israel medics are therefore armed and are also fully trained as combat soldiers. Besides a small pin they wear on their dress uniforms, they wear no distinguishing marks. That would make them a clear target to our illustrious enemies. 

At the end of the four-month course, Bahad 10 holds a graduation ceremony, swearing the newbies into their new duties. Last week, about 150 young men aged 18-20 were so sworn in. One of those young medics was my youngest son.

When A was chosen to do the Medic’s course, he was a bit anxious. He would leave his unit, one month into basic training, and be with people he had never met before. He knew he would have to later catch up with their training. It would be difficult, but off he went.

For the four months of training, every weekend A was home, he spent a goodly amount of time tying tourniquets on every stuffed animal in the house, the legs of the tables, and for laughs, the necks of his sisters. Once, I caught him bandaging the perfectly healthy turtles that live in our back yard. He gave infusions to the teletubbies doll.

He would come home with blue gloves, infusion tubes, empty vials, and bruises on his arms where he had been practiced on for taking blood. He looked like a junky. I hate to think what the other guy looked like.

He would tell us funny stories, recite new words that he’d learn (hypothermia was one he especially liked, must be the Canadian in him), and demonstrate new skills. He did his homework meticulously and with an enthusiasm he never had in 12 years of school

On the day of his graduation, I packed a truckload full of food, as is the custom of mothers of  IDF soldiers, and off we went.

We arrived, the soldier son met us and we had a picnic. We ate the hamper of food – or some of it at least – took pictures, kvelled with nachas, and walked him to the grounds where the ceremony was to take place.

We sat in the bleachers and watched 150 enormously handsome young soldiers from all the different brigades march in and form lines. A few short speeches, a little bit of marching, and then each soldier was given his medic’s pin while ‘The Ballad to the Medic’ was played.

The pin. A nachas.
It was the first day of Chanuka and a time of miracles, and, indeed, one occurred right there.
I didn't cry.
At least, not until the soldiers took their oath.

When Israeli soldiers join the IDF, they swear that they will give everything, including their life, for the State and its people. The medics’ oath, much longer and more elaborate than the regular oath, states that they will treat everyone, ‘friend or foe’, in all conditions, and that, most importantly, they will never leave anyone in the field.

The morality of the oath struck me full force.
We teach our sons to heal, not to hate.

I later googled around online, looking for the medic’s oath of different armies. I found nothing. That’s not to say that they don’t exist, I just couldn't find it. Yet, the Israeli oath was relatively easy to find, in both English and Hebrew.

Our enemies do not train medics. They do not treat enemy soldiers who have fallen. They leave their own in the field, knowing that we will care for them.
Yet, the disapprovals and accusations and condemnations and hatred are reserved for the army who thoroughly trains soldiers to treat, not only their own soldiers and civilians, but also any enemy soldier and civilians at the risk of their own lives.

We teach our sons to heal, not to hate. 
We teach our sons to love life, not seek death.

We are in the middle of Chanuka; the holiday of light.

May the light of the Jewish nation spread ever outward, and chase the ever encroaching darkness away.

שבועת החובש

נשבע היום הזה
להושיט יד עוזרת לכל פצוע ולכל חולה
אם נקלה ואם נכבד, אם אוהב ואם אויב
ולכל אדם באשר הוא אדם

אני נשבע להביא מרפא וצרי לגוף ולנפש
לשמור סוד, אמונים וכבוד, ולשקול את מעשי
בתבונה, בתושיה, ובאהבת אנוש
שומר אחי אהיה תמיד - אם בקרב, אם באלונקה
ואם ליד מיטת החולי

אני נשבע כי על ליבי יהיה חרוט לעד
הדיבר העליון של ההקרבה
לא להשאיר פצוע בשדה
בזאת אני נשבע

The IDF Medic's Oath

I, a soldier in the Medical Corps of the IDF
This day, swear
to extend a helping hand to any who is injured or ill, 
be he lowly or venerable, friend or foe - to any fellow man.

I swear to bring healing and balm to body and soul, 
to maintain discretion, loyalty and honor, 
and to consider our actions with intelligence, resourcefulness and love of humanity.
I will always be my brother's keeper
Whether in battle, on a stretcher
Or at their bedside

I swear that my heart will be forever engraved
With the highest Commandment of sacrifice -
To never leave the wounded in the field.
I hereby swear!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Wake Up Call

We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.
–Douglas Adams

According to legend, the 18th century Englishman Ned Ludd (aka Ned Ludlam aka Edward Ludlam) destroyed two modern knitting frames to protest the human price of progress. He was determined to keep to the ‘old ways’ and refused to accommodate ‘new-fangled contraptions’. Since that time, a Luddite has come to mean any opponent of industrial change or innovation

I can proudly say that I have never been a Luddite. My mother was the first of her friends to buy a microwave, and I was the one who read the manual and was able to warm up my own hot chocolate long before anyone else on the street.

I knew how to program a VCR, back in the days, to come on every day at the same time.

And today, I am especially proud that I can click and double click as fast and as accurately as anyone.

But cellular phones, for some mysterious reason, have eluded me.

In Israel, there are approximately 9,964,000 cell phone users. In a country of just over eight million, that’s…. well…. a lot. Everywhere you go, people are talking on their phones, watching movies, and playing Fruit Ninja. People seemingly talking to themselves, dancing to silent music, or just staring madly at their devices can be spotted in elevators, in supermarkets. in schools, on the roads, at clinics, at the supper table,

I was the last in my family (besides the then-3-year-old) to get a phone.

The first phone

At first I walked around with a MANGO.

The other kind of MANGO
It was as big as about 3 real mangoes and we had bought it when my husband started to do army reserve duty and I was pregnant. It received calls, but you could only dial out to one number. There was a feature that you could use a ‘calling card’ and by punching in about 72 numbers and then the phone number you wished to call, you could reach more people. The only problem was that by the time I punched in 135 digits, either a) I’d forgotten who I was calling, or b) it was the next day. When I was tired of being laughed at every time I hauled the MANGO out of my bag, I took an old discarded cell phone that didn’t have SMSs, or a SIM card. That one didn’t last very long either. I finally took ownership of my oldest kid’s cast-off model when she upgraded. (I got her phone number too, and to this day, I receive messages and calls from her friends around Rosh HaShana time, wishing me a Happy New Year. It’s lovely.)

That model did have a SIM and SMSs, though no camera. It had a memory that held about 10 phone numbers and six messages. It lasted a little while, until the buttons began to stick and I couldn’t punch in the number 5. Do you know how many phone numbers have a 5 in them? All of them, that’s how many.

I finally broke down and bought a little flip-open cell phone. I loved that phone. It was small and compact and fit in my pocket. It came with: a) a camera (though I couldn’t actually do anything with the pictures as there was no USB connection or, obviously, internet connection), b) a memory big enough to compensate my lack of one, c) a two click function to actually make a phone call, and most importantly d) the ability to make me feel like I was on Star Trek every time I flipped it open (unfortunately, my constant flipping and saying in my best Captain Kirk voice while holding the phone close to my mouth “Scotty, beam me up” was completely lost on my uneducated children. They would just say “Mom, don’t hold the phone so close, I can’t understand what you’re saying). The phone also made me feel technologically adequate enough to remain a non-Luddite. 
Sotty Beam Me Up
That phone lasted a long time. Though I spoke nicely to it and fed it and tucked it in at night, it finally gave up the ghost about six months ago and went to live in cell phone heaven, which is actually a drawer in the kitchen where small old non-usable gadgets congregate for some reason. At night, they probably exchange recipes and talk about the good old days. 

But I digress. 

As a stop gap, I used an old, but still usable, cell phone that used to be my son’s, daughter’s, mother-in-law’s and nephew’s. It wasn’t a good phone; it was all banged up, it took 5 buttons to make a phone call, and, most importantly, I emphatically DID NOT feel like James Kirk while using it.

I began, finally, to think of getting a smart phone.

I too would be able to take pictures and send them around the world to family and friends in real time.
I too would be able to listen to MY music while cleaning the kitchen and not anyone else’s (music, not kitchen).
I too would be able to watch movies while waiting at the post office.
I too would be able to walk down the street, deftly missing light poles while wildly texting and pretending to be important.
I too would be able to enjoy seeing the antics of cats on youtube videos anywhere and anytime. 

The first step was to do research: find out which phone was suitable to my needs. This involved asking family members “what phone should I get? I got the same answer from everybody: “take mine, I was going to upgrade anyway.”

But I stood fast, did not take anyone’s hand-me-downs, and went out (dragging the expert who actually knew what he was doing) and bought myself a brand new 2nd generation mini smartphone, which turned out to be not as smart as it looked.

In many places in our Holy Torah, the narrative suddenly shifts scenes and begins a completely different story, and then, that completed, returns to the original story. A classic example is the story of Yehuda and Tamar, which breaks off the story of the sale of Yosef, leaving Yosef to slavery in Egypt (about which we read  just a week or so ago). This is to teach us some relevant lesson of taking responsibility and manning up to mistakes and rectifying them.

So this is my scene shift, lesson learning story:

When I was a kid, about 10 or 11 years old, I wanted to go away to camp. All my friends went to camp, but I was unlucky enough to belong to a family that took car trips around the North American continent seeing such sites as Yellowstone National Park, Cape Kennedy, and Disneyland. Poor me. Every year, I would ask to go to camp crying why can’t we be more like other families and feeling very sorry for myself. One year, we weren’t able to go on a month-long car trip, so my parents sent me to camp. I was there for about 23 minutes, maybe less, when I realized that this really wasn’t for me and thought about walking the 100 miles home. (I didn't. I managed to stick out the three weeks and have a pretty lousy time.)

I’m sure you can guess where I’m going with this. 
In case you don't it's: Be careful what you wish for.

I’m not whining. I own a smartphone. What could be bad??

I joined the ranks of those glued to their phones, engaging in communications with people all over the world.

Nobody will pose for a picture.
I can’t seem to find any good music to download, and when I ask for help, they download their music (and I still have to clean the kitchen).
Who am I kidding? I can’t see movies on that itsy bitsy screen.
I find that, while I can wildly text and pretend to look important while walking down the street, I don’t actually miss the light poles.
I don’t like cats.

But the worst part of the phone (and it’s a LOVELY phone, really, I’m not whining) is that my fingers are apparently too burly/solid/hefty/fat. 

It takes me 45 minutes to type in “Im hpne”.

The first app (see, I know the lingo) I downloaded was whatsapp. Or, as I type it on the phone, wjatsioo.

This was my first message: Ho gyys. In pn wjatsioo tpp!

The hours my face glow in the reflected light of my 2x5 cm screen are spent typing out one message over and over until I get it right:

Arw ypi cpnunh Sgavvat?

Aee ypi vpmung Shannay?

Aew uoi xpmunf Sjabbar?

Are you coming Shabbat?

And then I send it to the wrong person.

I hope the electrician isn’t vegetarian.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Sameach!

There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see
Malcolm Muggeridge

For the past four or five years, the southern branch of the organization of the Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) holds a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner here in Beer Sheva.
This year's dinner was held on Erev Thanksgiving, i.e., the evening before Thanksgiving, Wednesday night. It was a huge success, with more people in attendance than ever. 
Last May, I stepped down from the position of chairperson of the Southern Branch of AACI. I nonetheless had the hono(u)r of giving a short speech to thank the people who made the evening possible. 
And this is (more or less) how it went. Commentary will be in red and in brackets.

My name is Reesa Stone. (I have lived in Beer Sheva for almost 30 years. I thought I knew just about all the English-speakers in town. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I didn't know about half of the over 70 people in attendance, and most had no idea who I was either. And here I thought I was infamous.) 

I am Canadian. (I said this with a sigh, and the correct response was supposed to be 'We love you Reesa', but no, nobody seemed to care.)

Nonetheless, I yam very happy be here. (geddit I yam – that’s my contribution to Thanksgiving). (I actually didn't say this - though it was written on the page. I forgot to say 'yam' and the joke didn't seem worth going back for.... so those who heard me speak last night get an extra joke. )

First, before anything, I want to thank the people who are responsible for tonight’s event:

1. Beer Sheva resident Chef Doron Degen, owner of the Yom Yom Grill and Sandwich Bar opposite the old location of Gong near City Hall. We urge you all to go and try it, if you haven’t already. (I'm leaving his name in because the food really was good, and he deserves the advertising. Go try him out. He opened his Grill and Sandwich Bar just before the summer's war and took a beating.)

2. T, who has stepped in to be de facto chairperson of the southern branch of AACI, after the previous person abandoned the post and disappeared. (Absolutely nobody laughed at this. I was the chairperson before T). T has been the liaison between AACI and Mishan, (the assisted living home in which we held the dinner) which brings me to the next thank you to Mishan for allowing us to use their beautiful premises on several occasions.

3. And finally, thanks to my good friends B and M for planning and organizing this evening. I know that a great deal of time was spent on the details of this evening. Their only mistake was allowing me to say a few words… (nobody laughed at this either. They just nodded their heads.)

(slight pause)

I write a blog. I try to keep it light. I try to write only good things about life in Israel, and what a hoot it is to live here.
But sometimes, it’s really hard to be funny. It’s hard to make jokes when all around you is burning. Since the war over the summer, it’s been difficult for me to write. I have felt that there is nothing for me to say.

I volunteered to speak tonight long ago, when I thought my head would be clearer, but that hasn't happened.

So when in doubt of what to say, I look to our sources. There is always something.

And sure enough:

In Parshat HaShavu of last week, Toldot, we read of Yitzchak Avinu’s move to Beer Sheva:

And he (Yitzchak Avinu) went up from there (Grar and Rechovot) to Beer Sheva. 
. וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם בְּאֵר שָׁבַע: 

And the Lord appeared to him on that night and said, "I am the God of Abraham, your father. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham, My servant.

. וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהֹוָה בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ אַל תִּירָא כִּי אִתְּךָ אָנֹכִי וּבֵרַכְתִּיךָ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ בַּעֲבוּר אַבְרָהָם עַבְדִּי: 
Genesis, 26:23-24

Well that’s promising. Beer Sheva, blessings, and fear not. All the things I need to hear.
But in this week’s Parsha, VaYeitzeh, we read:
 And Yaakov (Yitzchak's son) left Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran. 
. וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה: 
Genesis 28:10

Yaakov left Beer Sheva because he was afraid of Esav. So much for fear not. And he was afraid because he received Esav’s blessing. So much for blessings. And he left Beer Sheva.
So much for Beer Sheva.

The text says that Yaakov left Beer Sheva to go to Haran. Well, duh. To go somewhere, you have to leave somewhere. And we already knew where Yaakov lived, so why repeat it?  Rashi explains it says that he left Beer Sheva because when a great man leaves town the whole town is diminished. 

And indeed, from there on in, Beer Sheva is barely mentioned throughout the Bible.

The sons of the prophet Samuel were judges in Beersheba (I Samuel 8:2) but the thought is that they were banished here because they were not the best of judges. 
King Saul built a fort here for his campaign against the Amalekites (I Samuel 14:48 and 15:2–9) and then left after he killed them all. 
The prophet  Eliyahu took refuge in Beersheba when queen Jezebel ordered him killed (I Kings 19:3). Beer Sheva was a safe place to hide. Nobody was going to go ALL THE WAY to Beer Sheva to look for some prophet. Even then, it was much further from Jerusalem to Beer Sheva than from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem. (any true Beer Shevaite will understand the reference.)
And finally, the prophet Amos mentions the city; this is what he says: do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba. 
Which is what most of my friends said before we moved here.

Living in Israel and in the Negev is sometimes hard. Over the summer we had yet another war. In the last few months, we have suffered heinous piguim.

Canada, where I come from, on the other hand, has no natural enemies. Except maybe some Americans who can’t find Canada on a map. My siblings’ kids aren't in any army. No need for any iron dome.

I've been in Israel a long time and the only advice I ever give to new olim (immigrants) is to never  compare Israel to the Old Country. I take pride in the fact that I almost never said “we don’t do it that way in Canada.” Or “it’s not like this in Canada.” But sometimes, when I talk about the weather, and I’m wearing sandals during Chanuka, then I say “It’s not like this in Canada!” (here I waved my hands about, and gave a little smirk. Take that Old Country!)

Very recently, my nephew, who made Aliyah almost three years ago, got married. My brother and his family came to Israel – for the first time in many years – and I got to hang out with my brother.

We sat in the sun drinking coffee. In November. You can’t do that in Canada. (Smirk) And I said to him, “This. This never gets old. Sitting in the sun drinking coffee is good for the soul. Seeing palm trees in the streets, and jacarandas next to my house – well, you don’t have that in Canada. "

For years and years and years and years, Yaakov Avinu’s departure from Beer Sheva was felt. There was almost no Jewish settlement in Beer Sheva.

Until great men and great women began to return to their Land, to the Negev, and to Beer Sheva. And they, you, us, have made it, once again, a blessed and great Land, where miracles are a daily occurrence. Where, in Beer Sheva, we can drink coffee in the sun even on the rainiest day of the year like today. (It's been pouring all over the country for the past 48 hours. Here in Beer Sheva, I was able to dry my laundry outside.)
The days of November/December/Kislev are the shortest and the darkest days of the year. It is known that the order of the world is ברישא חשוכא והדר נהורא, first comes darkness then comes light. G-d created darkness and then light. In fact, light comes out of the darkness. And we know that the smallest light can dispel the darkness. The smallest act of goodness; drinking coffee in the sun, a hug, an evening out with friends, a meal with family, can make us realize how blessed we are to be living in our Land. 

G-d told Isaac not to fear and then blessed him. 

We must remember that blessing, and not fear.
Every morning we wake up is a blessing.
Every morning we wake up in Israel is a double blessing.
Every day in Israel, we are witness to miracles.
Every day in Israel is a gift.

So I’ll end with this.

Tonight is erev Thanksgiving . I ask you all that tonight – and any other night you want – take the time to count your blessings and not your calories.

Thanksgiving Sameach!!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Thanks for asking

Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day
Psalms 91:5

Since the official start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, I’ve received many emails, SMSs, Facebook chats, and even telephone calls asking me ‘how are you holding up’. We have received invitations for weekends, dinner, the whole summer if necessary!
So here’s my answer:

I’m fine.

Beer Sheva has been relatively calm during this go-around. We haven’t been able to figure out why. There have been days when we have had no sirens, no rockets. It’s eerily quiet. This leaves us time to watch the airplanes and helicopters overhead. Without the sirens, we can hear – 40 km from Gaza – the booms of artillery.

My house has a ‘safe room’; a room built of re-enforced concrete. It’s safe and we can get to it easily from anywhere on the property in less than the minute we have before the rockets fall. We also have Iron Dome, which we can both hear and see firing. Many of our friends don’t have safe rooms in their homes and have to crouch in a hallway, or hide under the stairs.

So, of course I’m fine.

My oldest son was called up on the first day of the operation. His reserves unit is always called up immediately when there is any sort of fighting in Gaza. They replace the regular army guys in their regular duties guarding on this side of the border.
He’s been doing guard duty more or less where they keep finding those pesky tunnels.
He’s been gone for three weeks.
His wife and baby are refugees in the center of the country.

I’m fine, thank you for asking

My second son learns in Ashdod. Ashdod, about 25 km from Gaza, has been pummeled by rockets – sometimes seven or eight times a day. His Yeshiva is not in a permanent building, but in mobile homes. There are no actual ‘safe rooms’, so the city brought in ‘migoonits’, which are basically hollow hunks of concrete. He has about 20 seconds. 

a migoonit
Honestly, I’m fine.

My third son was just drafted to the army. He’s in a combat unit and will undergo training for the next several months. If he survives, he will then be a full fledged soldier, ready to go to battle.

I’m fine.

My youngest daughter is too nervous to go down the street to buy milk. We've sent her to stay with family in the center of the country so she can remember what it’s like to be outside.

But I’m really fine.

My oldest (can’t leave her out) has been caught during a siren in the street, in the bus, in the car, in the supermarket, in the shower. It’s unnerving, to put it mildly.
Everything is fine.

Every day, I get up early. It’s too hot to sleep much. I check my email, watch the news, eat breakfast, and get to work by 7:30. I’ve missed a few days to stay with the youngest. She can stay by herself, but it’s unpleasant to be alone. (Work is also unpleasant, so it’s a good excuse.) I go shopping, I do the laundry, I wash dishes. Of course, I don’t remember what I’m supposed to buy, and I forget to wash the pan, and I mix the socks with the towels. But hey.

There are large swaths of time when I don’t cry.
There are no swaths of time when I’m not almost crying.

I find myself on the verge of tears at the darndest moments; talking to a friend on the phone, in the shower, at the supermarket.

My throat closes up, I suddenly can’t catch my breath, my hands shake.

The checkout person asks me if I’m a member of the supermarket club, and even though I am, I shake my head no because I can’t tell her my number (and my son on the border has my card) because if I open my mouth, the catch in my throat will unleash the tears that have been stored all day. I hold up one finger when she asks me how many payments I want.
I’m doing fine.

Spoke too soon, gotta dash, siren.

Iron dome to the rescue.

So, of course I’m fine.

Despite what it seems, I am not falling apart.
There is no falling apart going on.
Tears – in this case –are not a sign of despair.

I am filled by so many emotions that the overflow is manifested by tears. That’s all.

Love and pride, and hope and honor, and gratitude and awe, and grief and sorrow and – yes – fear and dread and rage.

But not despair. Nor gloom. Nor hopelessness nor helplessness.

We are so blessed.

Blessed to live in our Land, which has an army, and a flag, and an elected government; 
blessed to be surrounded a People who care so much that the soldiers are complaining they have too much food, and too many socks;
blessed to belong to a People who care, not only for the soldiers, but for the families of the wounded;
blessed to be a witness of countless miracles;
blessed to be checked up on at least once a day to see ‘how are you holding up’.

So yes, my voice trembles, and my hands shake, and my eyes – and heart – are full.

But that’s just me, being fine. 

Thanks for your concern. And please, keep thinking of me, and sending me hugs and strength. And chocolate wouldn't hurt either. 

But, hey, really, I'm fine. 

He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our Land and the cities of our God, from the border of the Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Aravah, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
May the Almighty cause the enemies who rise up against us to be struck down before them. May the Holy One, Blessed is He, preserve and rescue our fighters from every trouble and distress and from every plague and illness, and may He send blessing and success in their every endeavor.
May He lead our enemies under our soldiers' sway and may He grant them salvation and crown them with victory. And may there be fulfilled for the the verse: For it is the Lord your God, Who goes with you to battle your enemies for you to save you. 
Now let us respond: Amen.