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.