Monday, December 30, 2013

On the Plains of Moav

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life
William Blake

Like most observant English-speaking households across Israel, every Friday evening we pick up a copy of ‘Torah Tidbits’ from shul. Most weeks, when the kids were younger, we used to go over the ‘ParshaPix on the second page, but now I usually skip directly to the divrei Torah and the ads.

(ParshaPix, for those not in the groove, are a collection of pictures that, somehow, have to do with the weekly Torah reading.)

This week, however, for some reason, we did look at the ParshaPix, and I laughed out loud at this one.

The Torah readings at this time of year relate to the slavery in and exodus from Egypt, i.e., the Pesach story. The stupid frog represents two of the ten plagues.  I'll let you figure it out, if you haven't already seen the ParshaPix.

What is slightly disconcerting is that the exodus and the beginning of the desert experience, which occurred in the spring, is read in the winter, while the winter events – those occurring 40 years later at the end of the desert experience – are related in the heat of the summer.

It was on the first day of the month of Shvat (which falls this week) that the children of Israel came to the plains of Moav[1], their last stop before they entered the Land of Israel after 40 years in the desert. Rosh Chodesh Shvat has been compared by our sages to a mini-Shavuot, because between Rosh Chodesh Shvat and his death on 7 Adar (almost six weeks), Moshe Rabeinu taught the Nation of Israel the book of  Devarim (Deuteronomy) (which is read in the summer), a book that is basically about the mitzvot of the Land, the importance of living in the Land and keeping the mitzvot, and remembering G-d and the rewards and punishments that follow.

The Plains of Moav
Living in Eretz Yisrael, as we know, is no simple matter, not now, and not then either.

Life in Egypt – even a life of slavery – was very simple. Egypt was a rich land, independent of outside forces. The Nile River supplied water, the land was fertile, and people were well off. At a time when the whole region suffered from famine, Egypt always had not just enough food for its own people but enough to sell to other nations. Bnei Yisrael benefited from that abundance. Recall that in the desert, Bnei Yisrael missed the cucumbers and garlic and fish of Egypt). Egypt was one big fleshpot. 
An Egyptian fleshpot???
The Egyptians lived an entirely materialistic life, and Bnei Yisrael were completely dependent on the Egyptians for everything they needed. If they worked hard, they got food; if they didn't work, they were punished. No choice was given to them. 

After leaving Egypt (which we will read about this coming Shabbat) and an initial period of doubt and fear – which is natural, few people like change even when it’s for the better – Bnei Yisrael switched from a 100% material lifestyle – of work in order to get food and water – to a 100% spiritual lifestyle. They no longer had to work. Food came to them from the sky in the form of manna. Water was provided by a well that traveled with them until the death of Miriam 40 years later. Their clothes never wore out. They were protected by the Clouds of Glory by day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. They spent their days learning Torah. Indeed, our sages say that that one reason the spies did not want to go to Eretz Yisrael was because they loved learning all day. Instead of being completely dependent on the Egyptians for their every need, they were now completely dependent on G-d for their every need. Instead of living a life of 100% materialistic (גשמיות), they were living a life of 100% spiritualism (רוחניות).

Which brings us to Rosh Chodesh Shvat on the Plains of Moav. The people have wandered in the desert for 40 years. In that time, they have received the Torah, and turned into a nation. They are no longer called the Children of Israel (Bnei Yisrael) but the Nation of Israel (Am Yisrael). Now it was time to enter the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael), the Land that G-d had promised them.

Moshe tells them that living in the Land will not be simple. Living in the Land will be different than living in the fleshpots of Egypt, and different than living in the barrenness of the desert.

You will have to work, Moshe tells his new nation. You will have to fight. You will have to settle the Land; plant trees; build cities; educate your children. But above all, while you are working and fighting and planting and building, you have to remember G-d and that it is G-d who is giving you the Land, and the bounties. You will have to educate your children in the ways of G-d. If you remember G-d and do His mitzvot, you will be blessed, and the rains will fall, and your days in the Land will be long. But if you forget G-d, Moshe tells his people, if you forget that it is G-d who is giving your enemies to you, that it is G-d who is giving you your Land and your food and your wealth, then the rain won’t fall, and the Land will expel you.

G-d does not want us to live a life of total materialism like in Egypt. But neither does He want us to live a life of total spiritualism like in the desert. Living in Eretz Yisrael is supposed to be a combination of two. We are required to work. But our work must be such that we remember that it is G-d who is responsible for our well-being. We have to work. But every chore that we do encompasses mitzvot. We plant trees, and we have the mitzvoth of orla, truma and maasser, shmita. We open a business, and we have the social mitzvot of payments, benefits, securities. We build a society and we must care for the poor, the orphans and widows. We have children; we are obligated to educate them in Torah. Our simplest tasks are surrounded by mitzvot. We eat, we say a bracha; we wash our hands, another bracha; we see the ocean or a rainbow, yet another bracha. There is no aspect of our lives – no matter how mundane – that is not suffused in holiness. According to the Vilna Gaon – there are two mitzvot (not including mikvah) which are done with the whole body. One is living in the succah and the other is living in Eretz Yisrael.

We are living holy lives.

May this month begin in goodness and with blessings, may we be blessed with long life, a life of peace and a life of goodness, a life of blessings and a life of sustenance, a life of health and a life in which there is an awe of Heaven and a fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame or humiliation, a life of wealth and honor, a life in which we love Torah and are in awe of G-d, and a life in which our requests of G-d are fulfilled for the good.  

Translated and paraphrased from the Hebrew blessing of the month

The new moon

[1] Today the eastern edge of the Dead Sea in Jordan. Moav was inhabited by the descendants of Lot.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What's all the Fast about?

And it came to pass in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, in the tenth day of the month that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and encamped against it; and they built forts against it round about.
2 Kings 25:1

This coming Friday is the 13th of month, or in the vernacular, Friday the 13th. For some reason, this date is considered bad luck, but I don’t know why. I suppose I could Wikipedia it, like I do almost everything else (e.g., what is Nelson Mandela’s middle name and what were the names of the Dionne quintuplets. But I’m actually not that interested.

This Friday is also the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, also known as Asarah B’Tevet (the 10th of Tevet) and is, in Jewish tradition, a fast day.

This one I did Wikipedia, even though I actually do know what it’s about.

For those who can’t be bothered to follow the link (and I don’t blame you), Asarah B’Tevet is considered to me a ‘minor fast’ in that it is not a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur, but merely a dawn to dusk one. This being winter, dawn to dusk is a relatively short time span.

The day (one of five associated with the destruction of our two Holy Temples) commemorates the beginning of the siege of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, on Jerusalem, which started, according to tradition, on this day.
King Nebuchadnezzar of Bablyon
It also commemorates other events that occurred around this date. On the 8th of Tevet, during second Temple times, Ptolemy, king of Egypt, ordered the translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek. This seemingly progressive move was considered a tragedy by believing Jews, as one is not supposed to learn the Torah in any language but the holy Hebrew as, in a different language, many of the deeper meanings and connotations might be lost or misconstrued. 70 Torah giants were ordered to translate the books, generating fear that different translations would be made, creating even greater misunderstandings and criticisms. But a miracle occurred, and all 70 translations were, word for word, identical. Still, a tragedy for the Jews, as learning Torah in a different language other than Hebrew ensures loss of meaning on many levels. It also makes assimilation that much easier.

On the 9th day of Tevet, the leader Ezra the Scribe is said to have died. Ezra brought a significant amount of Jews out of the Babylonian exile to return to the Land and build the Second Temple. The dates of death (yartzheit) of many of our great leaders are marked as special dates and as optional fast dates (e.g., Aaron the priest on the 1st of Av, Moshe Rabbenu on the 7th of Adar, and Rachel Imenu on the 11th of Cheshvan).

Our sages, wisely (they aren’t called sages for nothing) decided that instead of implementing three fast days in a row, one day would commemorate all the tragedies.

In addition, in recent times, the Israeli Rabbinate declared the 10th of Tevet as the ‘Day of Kaddish’ for those who died in the Holocaust and the dates of their death are unknown (almost all of them…).

The 10th of Tevet is in direct contrast to that old joke of Jewish holidays being ‘they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat’.
Here, it’s they tried to kill us, they almost succeeded, I can’t eat anything at all.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a very difficult time fasting. I get hungry, I get thirsty, I get a headache, and I get grouchy. And that’s on a regular day of eating. Imagine what I’m like fasting.
But even if I fasted like certain members of the family whose names will not be mentioned who feel GREAT! and ENERGIZED! – for pity’s sake – after a fast, I would like to think that I would still have a hard time fasting on this date (and the other ‘minor fasts’).

I was blessed to be born in a generation in which Israel has always existed; in a time when Jews from all over the world have been streaming back to the Land; in an age when the Land has blossomed and prospered and grown ever more beautiful.

I have been blessed to have lived in Israel since I was old enough to vote.

I have been blessed to have been witness to countless miracles.
It’s hard to mourn a loss, when all around you is a rebirth.

My generation spends a great deal of time remembering, commemorating, memorializing, and learning about the Holocaust. We lost a third of our people, whole communities, and an entire way of life. We teach our children and our grandchildren about that loss. The victims’ grandchildren are now teaching their children and grandchildren. According the Pew Report, 73% of American Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is essential to their sense of Jewishness.

Despite the passage of years, we still mourn the loss.

Both the Babylonian and Roman sieges of Jerusalem led directly the death of hundreds of thousands of people and to the destruction of Jerusalem and our Holy Temple. It led to the loss of our Land and to our exile.
We lost over a third of our people, whole communities, and an entire way of life.
Despite the passage of years, we still mourn the loss of our people, of our Temple, of our Land, of our peoplehood.

The siege of Jerusalem 

Wishing all of Am Yisrael a meaningful fast and praying that the words of the prophet Zechariah are fulfilled quickly and in our time:

Thus say the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth (Tammuz), and the fast of the fifth (Av), and the fast of the seventh (Tishrei), and the fast of the tenth (Tevet) shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love truth and peace. (Zechariah 8:19)

quickly and in our time

Thursday, December 5, 2013

V'Zot Chanuka

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart

Hannah Senesh

My friend Esther wrote on Facebook that on the eighth night of Chanuka there is a special segula for miracles. You are supposed to light the candles, tell your children/family about a miracle that once happened to you, and then immediately pray for another miracle. The Zohar says that on the eighth night, G-d gathers the angels around Him and says to them “Do you see that woman? She is publicizing a miracle, and publicizing My deeds. Therefore she, and those who are listening to her, deserve another miracle.”

It’s a lovely thought.

But as it happened, this year on the eighth night of Chanuka only one daughter was around for candle-lighting and she wasn't feeling well; certainly NOT in the mood for her mother’s bubba meisas.

And to be perfectly honest, we are a staunchly Ashkenazic family who don’t go in for segulot very much.
And anyway, I never experienced a miracle. They only happen to other people.
But, nonetheless, I tried to think of something.

I never had the sea part in front of me.
Never ate manna.
Never survived a fiery furnace.
Never was rescued from any river.

didn't happen to me

But I suppose all that’s true of most people.

What else?

Once, I was in a terrorist attack but wasn't hurt. (Well, not really in, more like near. Like across the street. I could hear it, but not see it. Does that even count?)
But this is Israel, and there are 1000s of terrorist attacks. Everyone has been near to a terrorist attack.

A couple of times, missiles landed pretty close to me, but I came out unscathed. But this is Israel, and 1000s of missiles land all the time……

This was going nowhere, so I began to think of the entire nature of a miracle. It was, after all, Chanuka, and Chanuka is famous for miracles.

The most famous question concerning Chanukah is, if there was enough oil found in the Holy Temple to last one day and it lasted eight days, why do we celebrate eight days of miracles, when actually the miracle itself only appeared on the second day? In reality, there were only seven days of miracles.
There are many answers to this question. One of the more known ones is that we celebrate the miracle of the victory of the many over the few (the Jews over the Hellenists) on the first day, and on the next seven days we mark the miracle of the oil. Others say that the small vial of oil was divided into eight portions, knowing that it would take 8 days to make more. This way, the menorah in the Temple would be alight at least a small part of each day, until more oil could be procured. However, the small amount of oil lasted all day until it was time to light the menorah again the next day with its own day's portion. Therefore, each day, for all eight days, a miracle did occur. Over the centuries, more and more answers have been given to this question, and there is a book called Ner L’Meah (A Candle for One Hundred) that gives one hundred separate answers.
I found this answer, based on the teachings of Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv – known as the Alter (or elder) of Chelm – very moving and relevant to today.
Rav Simcha Zissel begins by explaining Rambam. This 10th century Rabbi/philosopher/doctor/commentator explains that there are two kinds of miracles; ‘open miracles’ (galui), which are those that obviously go against the rules of nature. An example would be the parting of the Red Sea. Other miracles are ‘hidden’ (nistar). These are occurrences which happen regularly and within a pattern, and are not necessarily seen immediately as a miracle. Intrinsically, however, there is no difference between an open and a hidden miracle.

Rav Simcha Zissel explains that the only difference between the two kinds of miracles is one's perspective. He brings this example:

For forty years manna fell from heaven for the Children of Israel as they wandered in the desert. We, today, consider this a great miracle. However, let's look at it from the perspective of a person of that generation, born in the desert. Every day of his life, he sees the manna fall from the sky. To him this is a natural, regular occurrence. He knows no difference.

And then, one day, along with his people, all of whom were born in the desert, he enters the Land of Israel. Suddenly, the manna stops falling. For this person, there is no food. Where does he find food? Growing inside the earth, growing from the trees!! He has never seen anything like it. For him, this is a great miracle. An even greater miracle is that when he plants a tiny seed, it grows into a large plant! For this desert born man, these are open miracles.
A miraculous everyday pomegranate tree

So now we understand that the only difference between an open and hidden miracle is one of perspective.

The Gemara in Masechet Ta'anit tells a story of Rav Chanina ben Dosa's daughter, who one Friday evening accidentally filled her candelabrum with vinegar instead of oil. She became distraught, but her father comforted her by telling her "He, who says that oil should burn, will say that vinegar should burn!" She lit the vinegar and it burned throughout the Shabbat.
Rav Simcha Zissel of Chelm explains that the miracle which occurred in this Talmudic episode is not that the vinegar burned, but that oil burns at all!
Explaining the eight days of Chanukah, the open miracle is that the small amount of oil 'unnaturally' lasted for eight days. But the first miracle (which we mark by lighting a candle on the first day of Chanuka) is that oil burns at all!
The Greeks and the Hellenists tried to forbid all those mitzvot which did not seem to have a practical purpose. Circumcision? Why scar a perfect body? Shabbat? Why sit in the dark when you can just reach and put on the lights?
There is absolutely no practical use to the chanukiya. We are not allowed to use its lights for any purpose. The only function of the chanukiya is its function as a mitzvah. Therefore lighting it is our way of proclaiming – all these years – that we recognize G-d's miracles – open and hidden. We recognize His domination over us, and that we are blessed and sanctified by doing His mitzvot.
The relevance of this story to today’s generation – or anyone under the age of 65 – is this:

Like the desert-born man who was born into a world where manna was an every day occurrence, we were born into a world where the state of Israel had always existed. We have never lived in a world without Israel being here, protecting us. Those who were on earth before Israel became a state recognized, then, the open miracle that had occurred. But we, whose perspective is different, might not recognize or appreciate how great a miracle we are living every day.
So here are eight (of the many) miracles in my life; one for each night.

1. After ten years of waiting, our lemon tree just grew two lemons.
2. I make the best lemon meringue pie I've ever tasted.
3. I live in a place that not only has lemon trees in the yards, but also has palm trees in the boulevards in the middle of the streets (this to someone who grew up in the old country is quite neat).
4. I have five amazing wonderful sabra children.
5. I was blessed to marry off my son, so now I have six amazing wonderful sabra children.
6. I also have an enormously gorgeous sabra grandson, which means that my husband and I have grown even deeper roots in the Land.
7. I watched my grandson celebrate his very first Chanuka
8. It rained last night.
9. (One more for good luck) 2500 years later, we're still lighting Chanuka candles.

Chanuka is over. May we all be blessed with many more miracles.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Maccagrims

What we're really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets. I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?
Erma Bombeck

Each year, American's and Canadians in Israel (AACI) hosts a Thanksgiving meal for whomever wants to come: new Olim, veteran Olim, Americans, and not Americans. We team up with Beer Sheva's 'soup kitchen" (but it's really so much more!) Beer Sova and cook up a complete and sumptuous Thanksgiving meal complete with turkey, stuffing, and sweet potato pie.

Due to family circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to attend this year’s AACI Thanksgiving dinner, which was held last night.

But not to worry. Here is what I was going to say:

When I was asked to give a short speech this year, one obvious subject immediately sprung to mind; the convergence of Thanksgiving and Chanuka. It’s the first time in about 7830 years that this is happened, and it won’t happen again for another 25,897 years or something like that. And obviously, a name has been made up, T-shirts have been designed, and little action figures of Yehuda HaMaccabi in a hat with a buckle killing turkeys are being sold around the country. I thought that, really, there wasn't a whole lot I could say that hasn't already been said.
As I googled Thanksgiving on Chanuka, most of what I came up with were deeps thoughts such as: ‘Wow! that is truly amazing!’ ‘Won’t happen again even in the lifetimes of our great great times 10 grandchildren!’ ‘And G-d works in mysterious ways!’

Here’s the thing. As I’ve said in years past, both AACI and Beer Sova are a-political, a-religious organizations serving everyone, regardless of race, religion, or political opinion.
In my capacity as Chairperson of AACI south, I also try and help everyone regardless of race, religion, or political opinion (even when they person is wrong!), but I have definite opinions and religious beliefs of my own. So, when the choice has to be made whether to speak about Chanuka or Thanksgiving, the decision was clear.

I don’t know why Miriam asks me to speak each year.
Also, I’m not American.
And so:
Thanksgiving and Chanuka are both based on a search for religious freedom.

Pilgrims – who were apparently different from the Puritans – fled England because it was then illegal to attend any church other than the Church of England and if you missed services on any Sunday or holy day you were fined. The Pilgrims even held secret services knowing that they could be executed for sedition. (I hope this is sounding somewhat familiar.) They went to Amsterdam and from their to Leiden, but found that life in Holland wasn't so great either. Their kids started to speak Dutch and not the Holy English, so they had to leave.

(A quick word about Jewish Leiden. There wasn't one. Leiden was one of the few places in Europe that was Jew-free. The artist Rembrandt was born and raised in Leiden, and when folks would accuse him of being Jewish, the proof that he wasn't was that he was from Leiden.)

A non-Jew

From Leiden, the Pilgrims eventually sailed to America, must to the distress of turkeys everywhere. (and I googled all this so I know I’m right).

Going back to ancient Judea, the Maccabim – and the Jews in general - were also faced with religious persecution. Under the rule of Antiochus, many Jewish rituals became illegal – brit milah, marking the new moon, and learning Torah. In fact, it was probably the first time in recorded history that a person’s religious practices were made illegal. But not the last. Indeed, throughout the ages these same Jewish practices have been made illegal over and over in various places around the world, up until and including today, where even brit milah is now becoming a hot ‘issue’ in many places in Europe. And in certain countries, it is now also dangerous, once again, to be a Christian.

This brings me to the difference between the Pilgrims and the Maccabim. The pilgrims fled and founded a haven of religious freedom. The Maccabim had nowhere to which to flee. Their only choice was to stand and fight in their Holy Land. And so they fought. For a short time, the Jews won national independence from Greek authority.


But for a MUCH longer period – more than 2000 years and still counting – the Maccabim were able to preserve our culture, our rituals, and our beliefs. And while we have been continually persecuted around the world; though brit milah and shechitah have become more and more ‘politically incorrect’, while anti-semitism is boldly going to places it’s never gone before; while assimilation is clearing vast areas of its Jews; it’s only here in Israel that we can be a free People in our Land. We are free to give thanks to G-d for all we have and all that keep us here; our families, our friends, our community, our own calendar, our own rituals, our own army, our own flag, our own People – right or wrong.

And our own soofganiyot!

A free People it their own Land

Chag Urim Sameach!!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A different kind of anniversary

“Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”
Hamas, November 14, 2012

“No Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, (should) show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”
IDF, November 15, 2012

Tonight marks 364 days since the official start of Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel’s 8-day attempt to end rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli territory.

Today, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, announced that rocket fire decreased 98% over the last year! Only 35 rockets were fired into Israel in 12 months! This has been the quietest year in decades in terms of terrorist attacks in Israel!

Yessiree bob!!

This is certainly a decrease over the 40 rockets that were fired onto Beer Sheva in one hour on November 14, 2012.

Only 35 rockets!!! That’s an average of less than three a month!! Who can complain??

Well, me for one.

Despite the fact that NOT EVEN ONE of those 35 little rockets was directed at Beer Sheva, and really some of them were only mortars (!) and not real rockets, and everyone knows that kassams are harmless, I’m complaining.
This kind of mortar?

or this kind??

I’m complaining because I still jump when I hear a sudden loud noise and my heart registers an incoming missile before my brain registers a car horn.
I’m complaining because my son has to take his wife and his 10-month old son downstairs (only one flight! yay!) to a safe room in their apartment building when the alarms go off. But first they have to get dressed. They have one minute.
I’m complaining because my other two sons (one post- and one pre-army service) who are living in two different cities in Israel don’t have access to a safe room but have lots of access to Kassamim.
I’m complaining because I still occasionally have nightmares.
I’m complaining because I still keep my ears open when I’m in the shower, hoping I get out in time.
I’m complaining because I still need to check out where the safe room is in any building I enter.
I’m complaining because all this passes as normal life.
harmless kassamim
I’m complaining because there are still terrorist attacks almost every day; because rockets are still falling (yeh, right only 35, I forgot, though Wikipedia counts more than 50 ); and because Hamas has rearmed to the proverbial teeth.

(Just as I finished typing the last sentence, the news was released that the boy sleeping on the bus who was stabbed this morning died of his wounds. He was killed because he was alive, and that couldn't be tolerated. Does John Kerry know about that?)

I'm complaining because the lives of so many families are being torn apart, daily, and we're supposed to be thrilled that only 35 rockets have been shot into Israel, only five people (as of today, six) have been killed this year in attacks.

I’m complaining because the world has no idea. Apartheid, ethnic cleansing, oppression, illegitimate, fascism, racism, are only some of the lovely words that the world is increasingly using and are reserved only for Israel. These words have been substituted for blood drinking baby killers, and god killers, and even Bolsheviks or capitalists (depending on the mood) but are just as vicious and libelous, and are down and out lies.
Even US Secretary of State John Kerry got into the act, recently stating that the settlements in the ‘West Bank’ are ‘illegitimate’. Wrong. See former-ambassador to Canada, Alan Baker’s answer to that one.

Rather, the words West Bank are illegitimate. Unless you’re talking about Banks in West Fargo, or the west side of the Rhine river.
For more true information about the West Bank, follow the link.

How about the House of Lords in Britain demanding an apology for the original Balfour Declaration. What a hoot.
So yeh, I’m complaining.

Just for the record, 35 rockets fired into Israeli territory is 35 rockets too many.
Please take a moment tonight to say a prayer for the family of Eden Attias, murdered today as he was sleeping.

And a prayer for the safety of our soldiers who guard us day and night and a prayer that, one day, we won't need them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Footloose and Shoe Free

It's easier to put on slippers than to carpet the whole world
Al Franken

Growing up in the Old Country, I never ever wore slippers. Despite the fact that winter was 9.5 months long, and the average temperature was about minus 102 (Celsius!), and there was 25 meters of snow outside the doors, the house was always toasty warm. I wore socks indoors, without shoes. We all did. When we entered the house, we would take off our boots (and for 2.5 months our shoes/sandals/sneakers), leave them in the coat closet, and remain only in socks, and for a few days a year – in the heat (everything is relative) of summer – we would go barefoot. My parents, who apparently were mature, wore slippers sometimes; but not always. There was also the issue of the wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the house – my mother didn't want our muddy/snowy/generally-dirty shoes making a mess. Socks were cleaner (well, maybe not my socks…).

Here in Israel, things are only slightly different. I still never wear shoes/sandals/sneakers in the house (I even take my off shoes at work. People stare, but who says freedom doesn't have a price?) But here, I don’t wear socks very often either. For the first few years I lived in Israel, I NEVER wore socks. I remember being outside in sandals on a beautiful sunny December day and thinking ‘take that, Old Country!’

An average winter day in Israel

As a pointless aside, my kids wear socks more often than I do. They wear socks for sport classes at school, when they go hiking, in the army, and even (the boys) on Shabbat. Once every three months or so, we play the sock game where the kids not only have to match all the clean socks that had been living in a laundry basket for three months, but they have to claim ownership. Not an easy task when all the socks are of identical pattern and the size. I dump out the socks from the basket onto the floor and nobody is allowed to move until the socks are gone. As the washing machine also claims a few (and obviously not pairs), this game has been known to last weeks. I've had to buy new socks, throw away one, and match the other to a washing-machine-created orphan sock just so the kids can stop playing.

So, while socks are out, slippers are a whole other ball game.
I wear slippers during the 2.5 months of Beer Sheva winter for the following reasons:
  1. Houses in Israel, especially in Beer Sheva, are constructed to withstand the heat. They are usually made of stone, with flat, white roofs so as to remain as cool as possible during the long, hot summer. 
  2. Because of #1, the temperature inside my house is cooler than the temperature outside my house. 
  3. We don’t have wall-to-wall carpeting. That would make the rooms warmer, and our goal is to make the rooms cooler. We won’t talk about the dust issue involved in w2w carpets. 
  4. What we have on the floor are ceramic tiles, and keep the floor, ergo the house, cool(er). 
  5. In the winter, the temperature inside the house – remember, it’s cooler inside the house than outside – can drop to 10 deg. Really. 
  6. The floor tiles, in winter, can freeze your feet off. 
  7. As I still occasionally use them, I dislike having my feet frozen off. 
Hence, the need for slippers.

Socks are for kids, and barefoot is cool (in the hippie sense, not in the ‘my feet are freezing off’ sense). But slippers are for grown-ups. So this leaves me in a quandary; do I grow-up and save my feet or do I remain true to my childlike (some would say immature, but I prefer childlike) self and forgo any trappings of adulthood?
And so, to solve this dilemma, we invented the annual “Ugly Slipper Contest” (we being me and my vastly more mature daughters).

The idea is that you have to find the ugliest slippers possible and wear them.
I always win.
This is because, as I've said, both my daughters are vastly more mature than I am and, after the initial giggles, they don’t really want to wear blue sparkly slippers with feathers.

But I do.
It’s amazing how many really ugly slippers there are out there. (I'm putting this in as a link, because even I can't stand the look of these slippers.)

We started out with Kippi slippers (named after the Israeli Sesame Street character Kippy Ben Kipod, who is a hedgehog [kipod in Hebrew – so his name is Kippi the son of a Hedgehog] and is roughly equivalent to Big Bird. Kippy is a boy, but is played by a girl).

Kippi Ben Kipod

Kippi wears ‘na’alei bayit’ (slippers), but of a particularly Israeli kind. In the olden days (up until about 10 years ago) Kippi slippers were available everywhere, and people wore them everywhere; shopping, to take the kids to school, to get your hair done, to work, to weddings…
Na'ali Bayit aka Kippi slippers
We've had blue slippers, and purple slippers, and pink slippers, and even all three colours at once. We've had fluffy slippers, scratchy slippers, and slippers that looked like rabbits. We've had slippers adorned with beads, glitter, feathers, and one pair, I could swear, was decorated with hardened humous.

Once, while visiting Jerusalem, I spotted the ugliest slippers ever. They cost a fortune, but nonetheless, I had to be torn away from the shop by my niece so that I wouldn't pollute Beer Sheva with them. But I so would have won. For years.

The nighttime temperature went down to 15°C a few days ago. This means that winter in on its way. It’s not actually here yet, because the daytime temperature is 31°C. (I heard there was snow already in the Old Country. Take that Old Country!!)

I therefore declare the Ugly Slipper Contest officially opened. The contest is open to one and all and there will be no prejudice regarding race, religion, colour, sex, nationality, or politics. The only requirement is the contestant needs to be immature childlike.
A few Previous Years' Winners - the ones we didn't throw out

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Weather We Like It or Not

Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet. 
Bob Marley

“I’m cold”.
“Excuse me?”
“I’m cold.”
I understood each word individually, but I didn’t understand them together. I asked my sweater-clad daughter to repeat herself one more time, slowly.
"I’m cold”.

I shook my head. Where I come from, the Old Country, cold was when we went indoors and our glasses fogged up. Cold was when we put the extra bread and milk outdoors to freeze when we ran out of room in the fridge. Cold was when we had to plug in the car. Cold was NOT 25 degrees Celsius.

Plugging in your car in the winter
Nonetheless, my daughter was persistent. “I’m cold” she insisted. I continued to scratch my head in perplexity.

Winter in Beer Sheva does not resemble winter in the Old Country, to put it mildly. Of course, summer in Beer Sheva does not resemble summer in the Old Country either, so I suppose it all comes out even.

I’m not really familiar with being cold. Or at least, I’m at the age when I can’t remember being cold. The last I remember was about three years ago when I had to take my then-teen-age son out one evening. It was December, and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. “Put on a sweater,” I told him, “it’s cold outside”. He obligingly put on a thin sweater and together we plunged into the dark. As we were walking, I noticed that he hugged his sweater around himself tighter and tighter.
“I told you it was cold,” I said. “You didn’t believe me.”
“I believed you,” he answered. “I just forgot what cold was”.
It was 15 degrees Celsius, with a wind.
That’s Beer Sheva in deep winter.
Not cold enough to plug in your car.

Last week was Rosh Chodesh MarCheshvan (the beginning of the new month of Cheshvan).

The prefix ‘mar’ has been affixed to the name of the month – mar meaning bitter – in reference to the fact that it is the only month of the Jewish year without any official celebrations or holy days. However, our sages say that Cheshvan will be paid back for this slight by having the third Holy Temple inaugurated during this special month (quickly and in our days).

In addition, MarCheshvan has the added significance of being regarded as the start of winter and associated with the first precious drops of rain; a sign – in the Land of Israel – of G-d’s blessings to His People.

Though ‘mar’ is widely held to mean bitter, it has another meaning. Mar also means a drop of water and refers to the first rains that fall in Cheshvan.

The Book of Kings 1 the month refers to Cheshvan as the month of Bool.

וּבַשָּׁנָה הָאַחַת עֶשְׂרֵה בְּיֶרַח בּוּל הוּא הַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁמִינִי כָּלָה הַבַּיִת לְכָל דְּבָרָיו וּלְכָל מִשְׁפָּטָו, וַיִּבְנֵהוּ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים. מלכים א 6:38

And in the eleventh year, in the month Bool, which is the eighth month (counting from Nissan [ed note]), was the house finished throughout all the parts thereof, and according to all the fashion of it. So was he (Solomon) seven years in building it. (Kings 1 6:38)

There are different interpretations for the name of Bool. It might refer to the withering or dying summer grasses (baleh) or come from the word yevul (produce) because Cheshvan is the month for reaping the final crop of the summer and beginning the plowing and planting of the winter crop. Most commentaries, however, maintain that the name Bool comes from the fact that Noah’s flood – mabool – (which we read about this Shabbat) started and ended in Cheshvan. Our sages say that the rains started on the 17th of the month and a year later on the 27th Noah and crew docked on Har Arrarat, and on the morrow brought a sacrifice to G-d. And for the first time in recorded history, a rainbow was seen in the sky.

And since Noah’s time, rain features heavily in Cheshvan. On the 7th of the month an important line is added to our prayers requesting rain – “ותן טל ומטר לברכה” “…and grant dew and rain for a blessing”. If no rain has fallen by the 17th of the month, special prayers and fasting begin.

The saying ‘everyone complains about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it’ is not applicable to Judaism.
Not only do we pray for rain, but every day, we say in the shma prayer: And it will come to pass that if you listen to my commandments…. To love your G-d with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you many gather in your grains… Beware that your heart is not seduced and you turn astray and will serve the gods of others…. The wrath of G-d will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. (Deuteronomy 11-13:21)

What does this mean? It means that if we live our lives in a certain way, then rain will fall and our crops will flourish and we’ll have enough to eat, and we don’t they won’t and we will starve.

According to the Torah, rainfall in Israel and the resulting crops are directly dependent on our living a Torah life.

Of course, there are plenty who scoff at such ideas and give statistics of cyclical rainfall, of geographic patterns, fault lines and yada yada yada. They maintain that weather just is.

However, if we take a closer look at the words in Deuteronomy, and if we understand what living a Torah life means, we might see that our actions very much affect the weather.

To love your G-d with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul – then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time If we love G-d and believe Him to be the source of life, we will have rain. This meaning is simple enough.

Beware that your heart is not seduced and you turn astray and will serve the gods of others…. What are the gods of others? Well, yes, this could mean Zeus and Apollo, but it could also mean: money, power, self-gratification—anything that prevents you from worshiping G-d as He commands. If earning money is more important than keeping Shabbat, or if enjoying a cheeseburger is more urgent than keeping kosher, then we are worshiping other gods.

And so: He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce. If we waste His gifts (the commandments, i.e., Shabbat, kashrut, etc.) and seek self-gratification over love of G-d, then rain won’t fall and the fields won’t yield their bounty.

However, before you ridicule this theory, you must remember that G-d’s gifts to us are not only the commandments. He has also gifted us with an exquisite Land—a holy Land. But if we live a life of waste and are uncaring of G-d’s gifts to us – the environment, the water, natural resources – the weather will change. We know that in the last half century, less rain has fallen, rivers that flowed for millennia have dried up, our lakes have shrunk, and the temperatures have significantly risen. None of those things ‘just happened.’ The causes of all these are man-made; excess use of carbons, pollutions, over-use of water and other resources.
Israel does not have the worst environmental record in the Western world; we are the only country to have ended the 20th century with more trees than at the beginning (1000s more!). Nonetheless, we have a long way to go.

During the month of Tishrei, we look inward and tried to correct the faults in ourselves. Now, in the month of MarCheshvan, it is a good time to look outward – to the outside world and try to do a literal tikkun olam.

On Rosh HaShana, we learn that each mitzvah we undertake has the potential of swinging the balance of the world towards good or evil. So too, each of our small environmental actions has a great impact. Use less water, walk instead of drive. Recycle. Pick up your trash.
We are told over and over the importance of teaching our children mitzvot and passing on our heritage. We should take the same care in passing on our Land – G-d’s greatest gift to us – in the same condition as we received it, or even better.

Use Cheshvan to show a love of G-d’s gifts to us, and therefore of G-d himself, and maybe Cheshvan will be the month of our redemption b’mhera be’hamenu.

Satellite image of the Land of Israel 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Time to Rejoice

“My favorite animal is steak.” 

One of my all-time favorite Disney movie scenes is from Jungle Book, where the four buzzards are discussing what they want to do. 
It used to be my favorite scene because the vultures were supposed to be the Beatles and the Beatles were my all-time favorite band, but now it’s because they (the vultures, not the Beatles who are actually half dead) so closely resemble my kids. It’s not just the long hair, or the funny accent (supposedly Liverpudlian, which my kids decidedly do NOT have – just an accent in which most words are indistinguishable one from the other). It’s not even that the kids, like vultures, eat anything that’s dead. It’s the “Whatcha wanna do?? “I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” and then one of them comes up with an outlandish idea, which the others ignore, and they all go back to the “Whatcha wanna do?? “I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” which so closely resemble my kids.  
My kids can have this conversation 14 times a day on subjects as diverse as what to have for supper, (Kid 1: whaddya want for supper?” “Kid 2: I dunno, whadda YOU want for supper?” Kid 3: “Steaks!!!” me: “We’re not having steaks.” Kid 1: So whaddaya want for supper?” Kid 2: “I dunno, whadda YOU want for supper?” etc.); who is going to wash the dishes/hang up the laundry/sweep the floor (Kid 1: You wanna wash the dishes or the floor? Kid 2: I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” Kid 3: “I wanna eat steaks!” Kid 4: I washed the dishes last week!” Kid 1: “So, whatcha wanna do?? etc.); what movie to watch (Kid 1: “whatcha wanna watch? Kid 2: “I dunno, what do YOU wanna watch? Kid 3: “Dictator!!!” But let’s get some steaks first.” Kid 4: Seen it. Whatcha wanna watch? etc.). I could go on, but I hope you get the general idea.

Most of the time, I don’t hear any of it. I’m busy eating supper (usually not steak), doing the dishes, or watching a movie (with no steak). However, at times, this excess verbiage gets frustrating, especially when we are planning to take a trip for the day. “Where ya wanna go?” I dunno, where do YOU wanna go? “Let’s go eat steaks!” Etc.

During Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Pesach, the State of Israel is awash with places to go, things to see, and festivals to partake in. It seems that every town, moshav, village, park, zoo, library, mall, movie theatre, and laundromat has some sort of festival or special 'happening' going on. We've been to a potato festival, a tomato festival, several other vegetable festivals, a fruit and vegetable festival, wine festival, beer festival, a vegetable shuk, a flower shuk, a Nabatean shuk, dances, animal shows, finger puppet theatres, a butterfly display, and a garbage festival. We've been to archaeological digs, art galleries, museums, and memorials. We've had picnics at the beach, in national parks, and next to rivers and lakes that were full of camel pee and probably the polio virus. You would think that after so many years in Israel, we’d have about covered just about everything there is to do here. 

But this is Israel, and miracles happen. Just as there was always room for all of the People of Israel in the courtyard of our Holy Temple during the holidays, so there is always something to do during Chol HaMoed in a place we've not been to in the State of Israel today.

30 minutes south of Beer Sheva is the town of Yeruham. The best directions to get to Yeruham are: drive south and just when you begin thinking “who in their right mind would live out here”, turn left.

One of Israel’s first development towns, Yeruham was founded in 1951 near the site of what is said to be the well from which Hagar (Abraham’s second wife) drew water to save the life of her son Ishmael. The town’s first residents were Romanian immigrants, closely followed by immigrants from North Africa, India, and Persia (Iran). Today, the population numbers close to 10,000 with more immigrants from the former USSR and Ethiopia.
There are no traffic lights in the town, and rumor has it that there is only one elevator, which is situated in the health clinic. I think they charge money for kids to ride up and down. Notwithstanding traffic lights and elevators, Yeruham has some of the best high schools in the south. In addition, every year during Sukkot, the town hosts both a Music and Poetry Festival and an Ecology Festival.

Who can pass up an Ecology Festival? Officially named Green by the Lake, the festival is held next to Yeruham’s lake – an impressive body of water, considering its location deep in the Negev desert. To sweeten the deal, neither my daughter nor I had ever been to Lake Yeruham.
Lake Yeruham with a desert view
There were several hundred people in the park by the lake when we arrived. The festival was in full swing. There was a bird watching corner, and a guy selling magnets, a tent with dozens of drums where dozens of kids banged away with delight, bike riding, arts and crafts made from recycled garbage, and the other such entertainment. In addition, there were performances by various entertainers. We went to hear the group Tararam, which turned out to be a lot of fun.
Afterwards, we strolled near the lake and watched the fishermen standing just down from this sign:
No fishing
 The book Kohelet, which we read on the Shabbat of Sukkot, says that there is “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; (Kohelet 3:4). Sukkot is called the Holiday of Rejoicing – a time to laugh and dance. What better way than at Israel’s myriad festivals, where we celebrate G-d’s gifts to us whether they be animal, vegetable, or mineral (steaks, cakes, and lakes).
 The Jewish holidays are meant to be celebrated in the Land of Israel. Here, one generally doesn't have to worry about the weather, or vacation from work and school, or the availability of kosher food. The last thing we have to worry about is finding something to do. The only problem is deciding which festival to attend. Oh, and where the best steaks are. May our year be full of such dilemmas!

Chag Sameach!!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Happy Holidays!!

אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת ה' אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה' כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה' וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ:
“One thing I asked of Gd, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of Gd all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of Gd and to contemplate in His sanctuary.”  (Psalms. 27:4)
I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up. They have no holidays
Henny Youngman

It is the holiday season in Israel. Every year, for a month, the usual hectic pace of life slows down. The motto here in the HolyLand at this time of year is “Acharei HaChagim” – after the holidays. Nothing happens until after the holidays.
The school year has started, but, until acharei hachagim, serious studying does not truly begin.
Extra-curricular activities, evening classes, and University studies only begin acharei hachagim.
Home projects, redecorations, and many major purchases are postponed until acharei hachagim.
At work, when I asked for a new black pen, I was told that office supplies would come in only acharei hachagim. I used a yellow marker to write a memo and received a lovely reply in Crayola Periwinkle.
In recent years, this trend of postponing events until after the holidays has gained momentum.
I even heard that the IDF has requested that Syria refrain from attacking till the beginning of October. I cannot confirm this, but it seems reasonable.
So what is everyone doing if everything is pushed off until acharei hachagim?
Stores are full of holiday shoppers buying essentials for the holidays: pomegranates, sheep heads, and Christmas decorations.
613 mitzvot

Pomegranates are one of the seven fruits of Land of Israel that are mentioned in the Torah. [The other six, just for edification are: wheat, barley, grapes (for wine), figs, olives (for oil) and dates (for honey. And yes, I know, the first two aren’t really fruits, don’t be pedantic.] Pomegranates ripen in the early autumn, and it is customary to eat them on Rosh HaShana. It is said that the pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number as there are mitzvot, and we eat of the fruit as a symbol of our desire to have the ability to perform the mitzvot.
There are a million different recipes for pomegranates; salads, chicken, juice, even liqueur. This is what I do with pomegranates: I wash them off my clothes. Hence, I also have the need for stain remover as pomegranates stain something terrible. As a matter of fact, pomegranate juice can be used instead of a Crayola when you can’t find a real pen though pomegranate is not actually a Crayola name.
It ought to be.

Sheep heads
The Rosh in Rosh HaShana means head, therefore it is logical that there is a custom to eat a head of an animal on Rosh HaShana. We ask to be the like the head and not the tail (שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב) i.e., thinking not wagging…The majority of families who keep this quaint custom usually suffice with a fish head. That, in my opinion, is gross enough. As an avid and religious non-eater of fish, I refuse to have the stuff in my house. Instead, my family eats gummy sharks (see last year’s blog). This year, however, my son decided he really needed help in not being a tail (believe me, he doesn’t wag nearly enough to be mistaken for a tail) and he went out and bought and prepared a big fat salmon head, and then surprised me with it. I surprised him by vomiting all over the kitchen floor. Well, not really, but it was close.

A ram complete with Shofar
Fish head
There are some families for whom partaking of a fish head is for sissys. These heroic households will partake of nothing less than a sheep or – more accurately – a ram’s head.  This is to symbolize the shofar, which is made from a ram’s horn. But full-grown rams are apparently hard to find, so a male lamb’s head is used instead.

I mean really, a lamb’s head?  Images of Bo-Peep arise
And where does one procure a lamb head? Perhaps more importantly, who is the grisly executioner who beheads the little lambs?
Sheep are not widely raised in Israel, and it is for milk products rather than meat, so I don’t have a clue where the heads come from. I do know that, right before the holiday, I was unhappily jolted to find boxed heads of lamb in the supermarket – next to cow’s tongue, appropriately enough. The boxes were surprisingly small – certainly the shofar doesn’t fit in there – and seemingly smaller than a salmon head (which is a quite large fish. How does it fit into one of those little cans?).
I’m sticking with gummy sharks.
Christmas Decorations
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are by far the most famous of the Jewish holidays, followed at a bit of a distance by Pesach/Passover. I contend that this is because of the part food plays in the celebrations, or lack of food in the case of Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, the festival of Sukkot, which comes five days after Yom Kippur, is every bit as important as Pesach (despite being told in my youth by a car-pooling mother who resented having to pick us up early from school on Erev Sukkot that it’s not a real holiday. People don’t go to shul. “Well”, I replied then, “you can”). The emphasis of Sukkot is the Sukkah, a small temporary structure built outside the home made of, well, whatever you want; wood, cloth, bricks, cement, fiberglass. Once, we were out on a tiyul with another family and built a sukkah by lining up the two cars and throwing some branches on top of them because it’s the roof that’s the important part. Called schach, the roof must be made from anything that grew from the ground, but is now detached. Branches and large leaves can be woven together to make a roof or you can simply buy a bamboo covering. Live branches still attached to a tree are not allowed. See here for more info from Chabad on how to build a Sukkah.
However you made your sukkah, one is required to dwell in it for the seven days (eight days outside of Israel HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) of the holiday. Dwell means eat and sleep, but, being Jewish, really it means eating. Unlike every single other Jewish holiday, there are no customary foods to eat on Sukkot, though we try and eat some of in-season fruits of Israel. We also are able to ingest dust that falls from the schach (and in the years that it rains during Sukkot – not often thankfully, here in the Land – we get to eat actual mud), ditto bits of branches and leaves, the odd insect or two (more serious, as insects aren’t kosher), and tinsel.   
An integral part of the Sukkah is the decorations. And this is where tinsel comes in. In the last few decades, Israeli culture has become more and more global. Where once the family Sukkah was decorated by the children of the family with handmade crooked chains made by cutting out bits of paper and pictures draw in nursery school and lovingly kept from year to year, now it seems to be mandatory to decorate your sukkah with commercial (imported) decorations. Booths selling sukkah decorations spring up all over town in the week before the holiday. Tinsel if by far and away the most popular, with a close second being blinking multi-colored lights. I’ve also seen candy canes, green and red miniature trees and angels, but these are not particular popular, only amongst the population who really don’t have a clue.
On sale
It is a might disconcerting to enter a sukkah and see tinsel and blinking lights hanging from the roof and walls of the sukkah. But it does make it sparkle! I find that most Israelis associate tinsel with Sukkot rather than a different religion’s holidays so there is nothing not kosher about it. It just takes time to get used to the idea. Our family, instead, decorates our sukkah with flowers, pictures of different places in Israel and dishtowels with funny pictures—a recipe for rabbit stew, marmite, and different recipe for haggis, which, I suppose, is made up of the leftovers after you’ve had the sheep’s head.
There are other things that one needs to shop for during the festival season; white clothes for prayer services on Yom Kippur, the Four Species needed for Sukkot, and, of course, ever more food.
There’s enough to keep us occupied till acharei hachagim, when things get back to what passes for normal around here.
Then we’ll worry about gas masks.
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a joyous, meaningful, healthy, holiday season!