Desert Ghosts

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Iran was Jimmy Carter’s Waterloo.

Just as Napoleon’s fate was sealed on that bloody Belgian battlefield, so was Mr. Carter’s by the metal and human carnage strewn across Desert One, the area south of Tehran where U.S. special operations forces attempted, and then were forced to abort, the rescue of American hostages held by the just-established Islamic Republic of Iran.

Too much information to process in that sentence? You must be a millennial.

Well, then, some ancient history: Back in 1979, the Shah of Iran, a friend of both the U.S. and Israel, was overthrown (while in the U.S. for medical treatment) by followers of a malevolent Islamist cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in what became known as the “Iranian Revolution.” What resulted was the Islamic Republic of Iran, which persists today.

During the turmoil, a group of Iranian students, acting in the name of the revolution, took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage. Anguished, like all Americans, by the situation, then-President Carter attempted and failed to negotiate the hostages’ release. Eventually, he authorized a military rescue operation. On April 2, 1980, the attempt, known as Operation Eagle Claw, failed, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian and the destruction of two aircraft – not to mention of any chance Mr. Carter may have had for re-election.

Ronald Reagan won that year’s presidential race, and, in a final insult to Mr. Carter, “Supreme Leader” Khomeini ordered the release of the hostages, who had been held for 444 days, the moment Mr. Reagan concluded his inauguration speech.

Why the history lesson? Because Mr. Carter, who engineered the 1978 Camp David Accords peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, has since become a relentless critic of Israel – and, last week, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times calling on President Obama to officially recognize an Arab state called “Palestine.” “I fear for the spirit of Camp David,” he pleads. “We must not squander this chance.”

The former president, as is his wont, grossly prevaricates, claiming that “most” Palestinians live “under Israeli military rule,” somehow glossing over the more than two million Arabs living under the Palestinian Authority – and the 1.7 million Arabs living under Hamas’ dirty thumb in Gaza. And Mr. Carter is revealing, too, by referring to “600,000 Israeli settlers in Palestine,” a number that can only make sense if one includes all of the Jewish residents of Yerushalayim.

The former president also claims that “Israel is building more and more settlements, displacing Palestinians.” Whatever one may think of the expansion of settlements in Yehudah and Shomron (and I think it is counterproductive), virtually all such communities have been built on fallow land. Palestinians may, legitimately or not, lay claim to some of that land. But “displaced,” like all words, has a meaning.

All in all, Mr. Carter would have done better to have instead written an op-ed for the Arabic daily Al-Quds, the largest circulation paper in the region (whose name is the Arabic one for Yerushalayim, and which once presented “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” as factual). He could have used some of the same language he employed in his New York Times offering – expressing his “fear for the spirit of Camp David” and declaring that “We must not squander this chance.” But the “chance” would rightly have referred to Israel’s longstanding offer to hold direct, unconditional talks with the P.A., which, to date, Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly rebuffed. Such talks, of course, would well embody the “spirit of Camp David.”

Most egregious, though, is not what Mr. Carter writes, but what he doesn’t. That would include the unfortunate but most pertinent fact that the “Palestine” whose recognition he urges would be comprised of a fractious populace with at least two mutually antagonistic governments, at least one of which is pledged to the destruction of Israel. No mention, either, in Mr. Carter’s nearly 900 words, of Palestinian terrorism or the declared goal of Islamist groups with enthusiastic adherents in “the territories” to not coexist with Israel but, chalilah, replace her.

Groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And therein lies the irony. Each of those gangs, whose hatred and violence are the true obstacles to peace in Israel and the pacific “Palestine” for which Mr. Carter pines, is generously supplied with weapons and political support by none other than his old nemesis, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Decades later, in its own way, it’s still making a fool of Jimmy Carter.

© 2016 Hamodia

 

Harassment, Hijabs and Hoaxes

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Widespread reports over the weeks since Election Day of harassment and hateful graffiti aimed at minorities reminded me of something the legendary Agudath Israel of America leader Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, taught me, the first time I had the honor of interacting with him.

I don’t doubt that some of the scrawled swastikas are just what they seem to be. All it takes, after all, to create one is a hateful mind and a broad-tipped marker, neither of which is usually in terribly short supply.

But no one can really even know whether a graffito in fact reflects the writer’s sentiments or was cynically intended to incite others. And, as to the accounts of intimidation by alleged pro-Trump hoodlums, many lack any corroboration or evidence.

Like the claim of an unnamed black girl on a city bus in Queens, that, the day after the election, several white girls from St. Francis Prep, a local Catholic high school, told her that, now that “Trump is president,” she belonged “in the back of the bus.”

A local newspaper called it a “shocking echo of the Jim Crow South.”

When asked for details that might help apprehend the harassers, though, the alleged victim declined to cooperate.

Then there was the University of Louisiana student who, that same week, told of how two white men, one wearing a Trump hat, stole her wallet and hijab. Confronted with contrary evidence, however, she admitted fabricating her tale.

Many of the recently reported episodes of hate crimes are vague, involve unidentified culprits and are unsupported by witnesses. Often the police aren’t even called, and often when they are, the stories don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Sometimes the alleged victim is even the perpetrator. Kean University student Kayla McKelvey pleaded guilty this past summer for having fabricated threats against black students like herself, sowing panic over the campus.

What has Rabbi Sherer to do with all this?

Well, my first encounter with the man who later hired and mentored me as Agudath Israel’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call.

It was the mid-1980s, and I was a high school rebbe in Providence, Rhode Island. Occasionally, though, I wrote opinion pieces, for the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.

One piece I penned was about bus stop burnings that had been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods displayed images that offended the sensibilities of the local residents. Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were vandalized or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a shul for every burned bus stop shelter. It was not a pretty time.

My article was an attempt to convey the motivation of the bus-stop burners, wrong though their actions were. Imagine, I suggested, a society where hard, addictive drugs were legal, freely marketed and advertised. And a billboard touting the drugs’ wonderful qualities was erected just outside a school. Most people might never think of defacing or destroying the ad, but would probably understand the feelings of someone who did take things into his own hands. For a chareidi Jew, I wrote, gross immodesty in advertising in his neighborhood is no less dangerous, in a spiritual sense, and no less deplorable.

Rabbi Sherer had somehow seen the article and he called to tell me how cogent and well-written he had found it. But, he added – and the “but,” I realized, was the main point of his call – “my dear Avi, you should never assume that the culprits were religious Jews. Never concede an unproven assertion.”

I was taken aback, since hotheads exist everywhere. But I thanked my esteemed caller greatly for both his kind words and his critical ones. I wasn’t convinced, though, that my assumption had really been unreasonable.

To my surprise, though, several weeks later, a group of non-religious youths were arrested for setting a bus stop aflame, in an effort to increase ill will against the religious community. How many of the burnings the members of the group, or others like them, may have perpetrated was and remains unknown. But Rabbi Sherer had proven himself (and not for the first or last time) a wise man.

To be sure, there may be, and probably are, haters out there who are harassing citizens they don’t like, or putting their lack of artistic talent and good will on public display. Their actions rightly evoke our outrage.

But it’s important to remember, even amid outrage, that accusations are easily made, but assumptions shouldn’t be.

© Hamodia 2016

The Boys Who Cried “Anti-Semite!”

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The sobbing of some political liberals, including, of course, many Jews, that ensued after the presidential election results were tallied has turned into wild wailing with the appointment of Stephen Bannon as senior counselor to the president-elect.

Those observers were shocked enough back in August, when Mr. Bannon, the executive chairman of the politically conservative Breitbart News, was put in charge of Donald Trump’s campaign.  Now, though, mouths are foaming.

Partisan condemnation of Mr. Bannon’s recent appointment was expected.  169 House Democrats signed a letter to Mr. Trump characterizing his new appointee as a purveyor of anti-Semitism, misogyny and racism.  Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called him “a champion of white supremacy.”

In the Jewish world, the Union for Reform Judaism accused Mr. Bannon of being “responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation, including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia.”

The Anti-Defamation League said that Bannon is “hostile to core American values.”

Forward editor Jane Eisner, asserted that with Bannon’s appointment, “the anti-Semitic sentiments of the far right are closer to the center of political power than they have been in recent memory.”

And the National Council of Jewish Women pronounced its verdict: “Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his [Trump] administration.”

The actual evidence for labeling Bannon an anti-Semite, or enabler of anti-Semites, or racist, or all-around monster is slim. No, actually, nonexistent.

Not that a yeoman’s effort hasn’t been expended to make the case.  The news organization that Mr. Bannon has headed since the death of its founder Andrew Breitbart in 2012 is certainly not to many people’s tastes (my own included).  It makes famously right-leaning Fox News seem like a liberal lamb.  And it has a penchant for putting provocative headlines on entirely reasonable (if arguable) opinion pieces.

Headlines like: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew.”  That Breitbart piece, written by political conservative David Horowitz, was an unremarkable gripe about the fact that Mr. Kristol, a dean of American conservatism, had written critically about Donald Trump.  Mr. Horowitz noted how “Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, ISIS, and Hamas” have “openly sworn to exterminate the Jews,” and shared his feeling that the Obama administration was not adequately facing that threat to Jews and to America. “To weaken the only party that stands between the Jews and their annihilation, and between America and the forces intent on destroying her,” Horowitz wrote, “is a political miscalculation so great and a betrayal so profound as to not be easily forgiven.”

Whatever one might feel about that article’s thesis, it was run-of-the-mill  intra-Republican kvetching and not, by any measure, anti-Semitic.

Another piece of “evidence” for Bannon’s malevolence is the claim of his former wife, in divorce documents, that, while seeking a private school for his children, he made a remark about “spoiled” Jewish children.  Needless to say, unsupported (and denied) accusations in divorce proceedings deserve no one’s attention.

The strongest charge against Mr. Bannon is his statement in an interview last summer that Breitbart News is “the platform for the alt-right.”

But, as has been noted before in this space, the “alt-right” means different things to different people, and includes widely disparate elements.

What those elements generally share is a dedication to family values; a reverence for Western civilization and rejection of multiculturalism.  The fringes of the movement, though, can include racism, opposition to all immigration and anti-Semitism. The fringes of the “progressive” wing of American politics, too, include Jew-haters (though they dress up their hatred as “anti-Israel” sentiment).

Imagining that Mr. Bannon meant to include the alt-right’s tattered fringes in his statement is ungenerous, and unsupported by the actual content of Breitbart offerings.  As far back as 2014, he explicitly predicted that racism would eventually get “washed out” of right-wing movements.

As it happens, not only was the late Mr. Breitbart Jewish, but the news service carrying his name was started by a Jewish lawyer and businessman, Larry Solov, who conceived it during a trip he made to Israel with Mr. Breitbart.  It was to be “a site,” Mr. Solov wrote, “that would be unapologetically pro-freedom and pro-Israel.”  Which it has been.

I don’t automatically accept the veracity of what I read at Breitbart, or in The New York Times.  Every news medium, whether it admits it or not, has its slant and partialities.  A semblance of accuracy can only be gained by reading, and balancing, a variety of media, fully aware of each one’s biases.

Racism and anti-Semitism are malign, to be sure.  So, though, is, carelessly and without evidence, casting labels like “racist” or “anti-Semite” about.

© Hamodia 2016

Glimmer of Light in a Dark Campaign

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Well, we’ve all had some time by now to recover from the year-and-a-half-long national convulsion that passed for a presidential campaign. Might there be something positive to point to in an experience most of us would prefer to somehow un-experience?

Well, there’s no way to make any sort of purse, much less a silk one, out of this particular sow’s ear. But still, in the campaign’s waning days, there was a flicker of civility to behold.

It came at a time of particular tension for the Clinton campaign – after FBI chief James Comey’s first statement revealing the discovery of a new trove of possibly problematic e-mails, and before his second one revealing that the trove was untainted.

It took place at a Clinton rally at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. As President Obama addressed the large crowd, a protester wearing a military uniform stood up at the front of the gathering, holding aloft a pro-Trump placard. Predictably, a wall of loud, sustained boos resulted.

In professorial tones, Mr. Obama told the crowd to calm down. When it didn’t, he raised his voice. “Everybody! Hey! I told you to be focused and you’re not focused right now. Sit down and be quiet for a second!” The boos faded to a muted murmur.

“You’ve got an older gentleman,” the president lectured his listeners, referring to the protester, “who is supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing… This is what I mean about folks not being focused. First of all, we live in a country that respects free speech. Second of all, it looks like maybe he might have served in our military and we ought to respect that. Third of all, he was elderly and we got to respect our elders.”

The incident was reminiscent of one in 2008, at a Republican town hall meeting in Minnesota, where Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s opponent at the time, also had to deal with supportive but misguided booing – and did so decisively.

A supporter had said he was “scared” of the prospect of an Obama presidency, and the crowd loudly vocalized its approval. But Mr. McCain refused to bask in the anger.

“I have to tell you,” he said. “Senator Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.”

“Come on, John!” someone shouted out. Others loudly labeled Mr. Obama “liar,” and “terrorist.”

Then a woman who had been handed a microphone said “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s not, he’s not, uh – he’s an Arab.” Mr. McCain retrieved the mike and replied: “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

Such moments of comity are all too rare in the tumult of of campaign-tornados, like the recent one, that swirl angrily with snide innuendo, malign spin and outright lies – all eagerly drunk in and spat out by partisan pundits. But those moments are the ones consonant with the concept of menschlichkeit.

Pleasing, too, if not unexpected, was hearing Mrs. Clinton, the day after the election, tell her supporters that “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”

As it was hearing Mr. Obama, that same day, declaring that “we are now all rooting for [Mr. Trump’s] success in uniting and leading the country.”

The president’s decency was all the greater for his citing that of his predecessor. “Eight years ago,” Mr. Obama recalled, “President Bush and I had some pretty significant differences. But President Bush’s team could not have been more professional or more gracious in making sure we had a smooth transition so that we could hit the ground running.”

It’s no secret that I have come to judge the current president much more favorably than many in the Orthodox Jewish world. But I came to that conclusion only after Mr. Obama, to my lights, demonstrated his commitment to the safety and security of Israel and Jews. Until then, like others, I feared what the punditocracy was preaching about the purported Muslim, chassid of unhinged hater Reverend Wright, husband of a black power radical and all-around evildoer who had somehow infiltrated the White House.

Like many, even among some of Mr. Trump’s supporters, I have concerns about the president-elect. Heeding Hillary’s admonition, though, I am keeping an open mind, and will let future facts lead me where they will. I am hoping that the new president, like his predecessor, will come to pleasantly surprise me.

© Hamodia 2016

Ripe Citrons and Ruby Slippers

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On the first day of Sukkos, after tens of thousands of Jews had paid princely sums for flawless specimens of a particular citrus fruit, payments were made by others, too, for a very different reason.

That day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History launched a public campaign to raise $300,000 in order to restore and preserve a pair of slippers, those that were worn by the main character in the 1939 film production of a children’s classic.

“The shoes,” explained the Smithsonian, “are fragile and actively deteriorating.”  Their color, appallingly, “has faded, and the slippers appear dull and washed-out. The coating on the sequins that give the shoes their hallmark ruby color is flaking off its gelatin base. Some threads that hold sequins in place have broken.”  Something had to be done.

The campaign, which aimed at repairing the footgear and constructing a special temperature-controlled and light-controlled enclosed environment to ensure that the slippers last into perpetuity, was intended to span three weeks.  By Shemini Atzeres, though, it had already exceeded its goal, and donations continue to pour in.  Support came from 41 countries, with the highest concentration of donors in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.  And likely the fictional town of Chelm.

To paraphrase the prayer recited by mesaymim, “We expend funds and they expend funds.”  And what an intriguing contrast the respective mass expenditures provide.

“Conserving an American Icon” is what the Smithsonian dubbed its save-our-slippers movement.  “Icon” is a word borrowed from the Greek, and can mean “idol.”  Whether the good-heartedly nostalgic donors to the Keren HaSlippers, for their adoration of physical objects,  can be categorized as idolaters is not something I am prepared to say, or qualified to judge.  But such simpleminded devotion can prove something of, if an irresistible pun can be forgiven… a slippery slope.

After Yom Tov, of course, many esrogim were either consumed fresh or, processed, as jelly.  Others were just put aside to petrify.  While the fruits were immensely valued for seven days, they had an expiration date, so to speak, one unrelated to their freshness.  And that speaks to the essential difference between how a Jew looks at an esrog and how a sentimental soul sees a theatrical relic.  The esrog is a means of performing a mitzvah, not an inherent object of adulation.  It is valuable for the opportunity it provides to serve Hashem, a means toward a goal, not something to be venerated.  And so, once its purpose as a path toward the performance of a mitzvah has been fulfilled, it reverts to a mere fruit.

To be sure, there are objects in our own world that possess inherent holiness, like kodoshim, meat or flour-offerings from korbanos brought in the Beis Hamikdash; or, today, a sefer Torah.  But kodoshim is, in the end, consumed or burned, and a sefer Torah’s holiness derives from the words it contains, not from ink and parchment themselves; and when it is no longer usable, it is buried.

There are, moreover, Jews who treasure objects that were once used by great tzaddikim. But only, at least properly, because of the objects’ connection to those tzaddikim, who were in fact worthy of veneration because of the lives they lived.  Rather different, to greatly understate things, from an artifact of a theatrical production.

Non-Jews, and Jews unfamiliar with their spiritual heritage, if aware of the prices paid by observant Jews for esrogim, must think us strange.  After all, the most beautiful, symmetrical, aromatic lemon in the Trader Joe’s bin commands at most fifty cents.  And it has a nice, smooth skin, too.

And if they knew of all the other substantial expenditures we make, for talmud Torah, for Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim (for Pesach alone!), for kosher meat, for tzeddaka… they would surely think us entirely unhinged. They, though, don’t comprehend what a mitzvah means to a heartfelt Jew.

If only they could truly appreciate the meaning of a mitzvah, they would perceive the deep contrast between cherishing a meaningless prop and valuing a precious objet d’mitzvah.  If they only, so to speak, had a bren.

This past Sukkos gave us an example how starkly divergent are our world and the one “out there.”

A set of footwear was confirmed in the status of an icon, and a large sum was dedicated to its preservation – at least in the hopes of curators and now grown-up children – for eternity.

And a mitzvah was, as every year, performed at considerable expense by Jews, affording them actual access to eternity.

© 2016 Hamodia

Kotel Krusade

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An op-ed of mine about the recent disruption at the Kotel engineered by non-Orthodox Jewish clergy and an Israeli feminist group appeared in Haaretz.

 

It can be read at:

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.750731?=&ts=_1478444374594

Vote-Buying, 2016

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For all but the most starry-eyed devotees, or family members, of an aspirant to public service, voting essentially boils down to deciding which evil is lesser.

Well, that’s a bit harsh.  What I mean is that it’s nearly impossible for any candidate to fit the full bill of any voter’s list of qualifications and preferred positions on all matters of importance.  One aspirant to public office may have a preferable economic plan but a dismal approach to immigration or security matters; another may be on the right page regarding social issues but on a very wrong one when it comes to geopolitical ones.  And then there are important other factors in play, like intelligence, honesty, gentility and likeability (or their absenses).

If polls and man-in-the-street interviews are any indication, in the presidential election that is rapidly (and blessedly) soon coming to an end, the “lesser evil” calculus seems particularly pertinent.  Both candidates’ negative ratings are, well, impressive.

Many factors might be blamed for that state of affairs, and for the general deterioration of American political campaigning.  A prominent one is money.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised to feed each of the current candidates’ cash-famished campaigns. And were a dollar equivalent to be assigned to the free airtime garnered by one candidate’s propensity to make attention-getting pronouncements, he (oh, shucks, I gave it away) has effectively either paid or received the equivalent of over a billion bucks.

Most complaints about the role of money in political campaigns revolve around the undue influence wielded by a relatively small group of very wealthy individuals.  And it’s a valid concern.  A mere 250 donors accounted for about $44 million in contributions to the Hillary Victory Fund during the last year.

The billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens has boasted that he “won the election in 2004 for Bush.”

In the 2012 election season, Charles and David Koch, who own the lion’s share of the second-largest privately held company in the United States, pledged $60 million to defeat Barack Obama.  Of $274 million in anonymous contributions that year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), at least $86 million came from “donor groups in the Koch network.”

In 1996, according to the CRP, the two major parties spent $448.9 million on the general election; in 2012, they spent $6.3 billion.

The republic’s founding fathers envisioned government as emerging from the consent of the governed, not the gvirim.

Then there is the toll taken by the fact that fundraising – in 2010, candidates for Congress spent $1.8 billion in their bids for office – has become a way of life for elected officials, swallowing up time and effort that could otherwise have been spent doing, well, what those legislators were elected to do.

Even more disturbing, at least to this decidedly apolitical observer, is what the money actually does.  How, in other words, does a mega-stuffed campaign chest translate into mega-votes?

The answer is that cash can capitalize on ignorance.

Most voters, unfortunately, are far from conversant with the intricacies of issues, even those that they may care about the most.  The average citizen finds calculations and thinking more than a step or two ahead to be boring endeavors, and more readily responds to appeals to emotions – good, bad and ugly ones alike.

A large chunk of political contributions goes to crafting and making those appeals.  And so, political ads and mail pitches– no different in any way from those that make people buy particular brands of shampoos, beer or automobiles based on imagery and fantasy rather than quality – have become proven tools for effectively translating dollars into votes.

“Buying votes” used to mean ward bosses offering cash to individuals for their pledge to cast their ballots a certain way.  Times have changed, though.  Today, vote-buying is accomplished less sleazily, though no less ignobly.

In a saner democracy, there would be no campaign ads at all, only the presentation of detailed positions on issues of importance.  Candidates would write manifestos, not lob accusations and insults.  Debates, if we had them at all, would be strictly limited to issues, with candidates arguing the virtues of their respective goals and policies.  Boasting, insulting, punching and counterpunching would be relegated to boxing rings, whence they came.  (Actually, boxing is another blood sport the world would be a better place without.)

Alas, the Shafran System of Democratic Electioneering has about as much a chance at being adopted as Gary Johnson has of being elected president this November.

Still, one can fantasize, no?

© 2016 Hamodia

The Sukkah Still Stands

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There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song, really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I – and surely others – invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

 

A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

 

In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”

 

Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

As we approach the yomtov of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the midbar, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our tefillos as zman simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days.  “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.  Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world.  Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot.  The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.

Under The Weather

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With hurricane season upon us, we might learn something from the models that meteorologists offer when a large sea-storm heads for land.  Something about Shemini Atzeres.

The maps created as a storm approaches often include colored lines indicating the projected paths of the hurricane as predicted by different models, each based on its own sets of data and methodology.  The combined yield looks suspiciously like, though not as appetizing as, spaghetti.  Only one model (if even that) will end up “winning” the prediction contest.  And, as likely as not, the next storm around, a different model, based on different calculations, will emerge as the retroactively prophetic one.

“Cause and effect” is a basic principle of modern science.  By observing what seems to make happenings happen, we can predict, at least theoretically and if in possession of sufficient information, almost anything.

Weather forecasting, despite mountains of data gleaned from satellites, weather stations and previous storms, cannot even generally predict a storm’s movement or intensity beyond a day or two.

That might be attributed to the sheer amount of information needed to make a weather forecast, and the complexity of combining all the necessary elements.  There is what has whimsically been called the “Butterfly Effect” (and more soberly, “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”) – the idea that even something like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Asia might have an effect on the course of a storm in the Carolinas.

But something deeper and more subtle is at work, too.  An accepted idea in modern physics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, has it that at the most fundamental strata of physical matter, there is a limit to what can be known.  The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.  So there is an inherent element of unknowableness (well, there should be such a word) in the matter comprising the universe.

What we call nature, in other words, isn’t truly predictable, or even “natural.”  Nature is just the word we use to describe miracles we’ve come to take for granted.

Consider the weird world Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zt”l, asks us to imagine, where the deceased routinely arise from their graves rejuvenated, but grain and vegetation do not exist.

In the thought experiment, a man appears holding a seed, something never seen before in this strange place.  He loosens some soil and places the tiny kernel into the ground.  The locals wonder at the oddity –why is he burying a pebble? – and are astonished when, several days later, a green sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned.  When it develops into a full-fledged plant, even – most shocking of all – bearing seeds of its own, the onlookers are flabbergasted.

Techiyas hameisim will be similarly amazing to those who will witness it, observes Rav Dessler.  What is more, in our world, a seed’s growth is itself no less a miracle, willed from above. The numerical equivalent of the word “hateva,” – “the [realm of] nature” –sefarim hakedoshim  note, equals Elokim.

Miracles we haven’t previously experienced impress us.  Miracles we live with daily are harder to appreciate.  “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years,” wrote the poet R. W. Emerson, “how would men believe and adore…!”

Or as famed physicist Paul Davies wrote a few years back, “The very notion of physical law is a theological one.”

The miraculous, in other words, is ubiquitous, even if the phantom of predictability lessens our appreciation of it.  Weather, though, with its fickleness, reminds us of what we easily forget: that uncertainty is the real rule, underlying even the very building blocks of matter.

In fact, the Hebrew word for “rain,” geshem, means “physical matter” as well.

There is a human entity, too, that eludes predictability.  Empires and nations rise and fall, never to rise again.  Populations are exiled from their lands and never return.  Those are “natural” rules of history.  You know the exception.

The number eight, the Maharal teaches, represents the miraculous, what lies beyond what we call nature.  Klal Yisrael, the Midrash says, is the partner of Shabbos, and hence, in a sense, the “eighth day.”

In the time of the Beis Hamikdash, on Shemini Atzeres, the “Eighth Day Festival,” after the Sukkos offerings of 70 parim representing the nations of the world, a single par, representing a singular nation, was offered.

That, on the day when we remind ourselves that there really isn’t any independent entity called “nature” – focusing on the wonder that is Klal Yisrael, and, in Tefillas Geshem, on the wonder that is rain.

© 2016 Hamodia