Spaced Out

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“Are we alone?” asked the oversized headline of a full page ad in the New York Times last Tuesday.  “Now is the time to find out,” it answered itself.

The open letter that followed was signed by Russian-Jewish entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and more than a score of astronomers and other scientists.  The gist of the missive was that humanity has an obligation to launch “a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe” – presumably life other than the sort we know here on earth.  “As a civilization,” it continued, “we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.”

Among the resources, as a news story in the same paper and many others that very day explained, will be $100 million dollars of Mr. Milner’s fortune over the next decade.

Parochial a person as I am, I couldn’t help but think about what greater good – at least in my scheme of things –  so large a bag of dollars could do, how many yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and kollelim it could pull back from fiscal cliffs, how many chessed groups it could fund, how many impoverished Jews it could rescue from hardship.

But even from the perspective of a less sectarian observer, wouldn’t a hundred million (yes, yes, I know, $100 million isn’t what it used to be, but still) be better put to terrestrial use?

After all, another Jewish boy who did well for himself, social network creator and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, has bankrolled schools and hospitals in the U.S. and technological advances in the developing world. And Tesla founder and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk (whose maternal ancestry is not clear) created a foundation dedicated to providing solar-power energy systems in disaster areas.

And Bill Gates (Jewish only in the eyes of some anti-Semites, but he looks Jewish) has had astonishing success battling river blindness and other infectious diseases that afflict the world’s poor.

And George Soros… – well, okay, scratch that one.

One has to acknowledge the good in some billionaires’ dedication to the alleviation of poverty, illiteracy and disease. Seeking to decrease human suffering is a noble goal.  Casting about in the cosmos in the hope of finding other species, though… not so much.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against making the effort, as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been doing (fruitlessly, it must be added) for decades.  But to the tune of $100 million dollars that could do so much actual good on this planet?  Mr. Milner shouldn’t expect a check from me.

What interests me here, though, isn’t the quest itself to seek intelligent life out there but rather just what it is that motivates accomplished men and women like Mr. Milner and those who signed on to his letter to pursue that quest.

On one level, I suspect that they, or at least some of them, may be whistling intellectually past the beis olam, so to speak, seeking reassurance that we humans are really not so special, and thus that we have no higher purpose than to serve ourselves (and, of course, explore the cosmos).

As Professor Stephen Hawking – one of the letter’s signatories and who in a 2011 interview asserted that the idea of an afterlife is a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” – confidently proclaimed: “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.”

(A number of which civilizations, it might be presumed, have developed technologically well beyond where we are today and have been searching for us too, although we haven’t gotten the call.  Oh, never mind.)

But something else occurs, too, a more generous thought.  Maybe the compulsion to find intelligence outside our world is an expression – well disguised but present all the same – of a desire to find ultimate meaning to life.

Maybe, in other words, some of the alien-searchers have done what they could to paint over the innate human sense of the Divine, but have found that even the several coats of paint haven’t entirely obscured the sense that there is something more than this world. So they pursue extraterrestrials they imagine to reside in some faraway galaxy.

If enough of the paint chips away, they may yet come to realize that they were wrong but they were right.  Wrong about the little green men, but right that we are not alone.

We have a Creator and a purpose.

© 2015 Hamodia

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A Worthy, Timely Truth

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It’s intriguing – to be truthful, depressing – that as we prepare to focus on our galus and its causes we in the Orthodox world are witnessing acrimony born of true chinom, nothingness.

The sort of sentiments and language that are regularly being employed by opponents of the Iran agreement against anyone who isn’t convinced that it is “evil” or “insane” or “dangerous” is deeply wrong.  (Maybe there is corresponding rashness from the deal’s supporters.  I just haven’t encountered any.)

What seems lost on some is the fact that the issue isn’t “Israel’s security” against (take your pick:) “America’s needs” or “Obama’s worldview” or “hopeless naiveté.”  It is “Israel’s security” against “Israel’s security.”

That is to say, whether Israel’s security, along with that of the rest of the free world, is better served by an imperfect agreement (as all agreements must be) or by no agreement.  Reasonable, sane, and not evil people can disagree with that.  But they cannot – or, at least, should not – heatedly denounce those who see things differently from themselves just because… they see things differently from themselves.  That is chinom.

The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their attitudes.”  The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: “Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn’t resemble yours?”

Think about that.  It contains a worthy, and timely, truth.

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Devils and Details

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Mere minutes after last Tuesday’s announcement of the nuclear deal struck with Iran – well before anyone could possibly have read its 159 dense pages of highly technical details – the usual suspects were busy weighing in.

Organizations, leaders and politicians with long-standing animus toward President Obama extended their hostility to the deal, which they characterized as a spineless capitulation to a rogue regime.  And knee-jerk defenders of Mr. Obama (a group that some imagine includes me, but doesn’t) heralded the agreement as the best thing since bagels.

Over ensuing days, open-minded observers waited patiently until experts had had a chance to carefully absorb the agreement’s terms and render their judgments. Alas, unanimity there wasn’t.

Some found the inspections regimen less than ideal, the sanctions phase-out too lenient, the preservation of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure too frightening, the term of the agreement too short.  They warned of how the economic impact of the sanctions’ lifting will allow Iran to finance its non-nuclear murderous mischief throughout the Middle East; and wondered how a nation whose leaders have never paid any homage to honesty can be trusted to not cheat on its pledges.

Others sang the praises of Iran’s agreement to convert its infamous and impervious Fordo uranium enrichment facility, buried deep underground, into a closely monitored research lab; the requirement that Iran dilute or convert its stockpile of near 20% uranium so that it cannot be enriched to the 90% level required for a nuclear weapon; its agreement to render inoperable over two-thirds of the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed; the requirement that the country’s stockpile of uranium gas be reduced from some 10,000 kilograms to 300; its commitment to not enrich any uranium above 3.67 percent; and the disabling of the Arak facility from producing plutonium.

Other elements of the agreement were less open to simple judgments of “good” or “bad.”  Happily, inspectors will be tracking Iran’s uranium from the time it is mined to ensure that it is not enriched beyond the agreement’s terms; and fiber-optic seals, sensors and cameras will be keeping constant tabs on every known nuclear facility; all such sites and their inventories will be closely monitored by inspectors.  The movements of scientists and nuclear workers, moreover, will be tracked.   And the deal also gives inspectors the right to visit any other suspicious sites “anywhere in the country.”  But it also gives Iran 24 days to comply with such special requests.

Iran, indeed, could cheat.  But doing so would require the building of a covert enrichment plant, the secret procurement of uranium and centrifuges and, even more improbably, the transfer of scientists from known facilities to the covert one, despite the ongoing monitoring of the personnel’s movements.

To some, that is reassurance enough.  Others, including Israeli leaders, are less sanguine, to put it mildly.

“You have a large country, with a significant military,” President Obama himself averred about Iran last Wednesday, “that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah.  There are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world…”

But, the President contends – and it is a contention worth pondering – that the alternative, namely no deal, would be worse.  Sanctions, after all, have not prevented Iran from increasing its 164 spinning centrifuges in 2006 to its current 19,000.  It doesn’t take a nuclear rocket scientist to imagine what the mullahs would choose to do in the absence of an agreement.

It was always a wishful fancy that a “good deal” would mean the end of all Iranian nuclear activity.  No country has ever been forced to forgo nuclear development for medical or energy purposes.  The notion that the current hubristic leadership of Iran would, even under continued sanctions pressure, ever accept that humiliating “first” status made for a lovely dream, but a dream it was.

By definition, a deal means a compromise.  The U.S and its allies would have loved to end Iran’s nuclear program altogether, entirely and forever.  Iran would have loved to maintain its headlong rush to develop, and use, nuclear weapons.  Those, though, were necessarily starting positions, not some goals in a zero-sum game.  In the end, the evil player saved some face and won a pile of money.  The good one got up to 10, 15 or 25 years (depending on the provision; and, for some provisions, even longer) of likely effective prevention of the malignant entity’s malevolent designs.

Bad deal?  Maybe, maybe not.  But, as the numerous tragedies associated with Tisha B’Av demonstrate, it’s certainly a bad world.

With our mitzvos, though, and our tefillos and our mourning of our galus, we can change that, and merit the Geulah Shleimah. May it arrive quickly.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Faigy Mayer, o”h

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The loss of Faigy Mayer, oleha hashalom, a precious soul, is a stab to the heart of every caring Jew.  Faigy will be on the minds of many of us this Tisha B’Av as a personal calamity to add to the national ones commemorated on the Jewish day of mourning.

By her own account, Faigy faced deep internal adversity from her early youth, and a letter she left, read carefully, only corroborates the clouded lens through which she viewed her environment.  To blame her death, as some seem anxious to do, on the community into which she was born and that sought to nurture her is as repugnant as would be blaming the community she subsequently joined.

Her psychological challenges were not the result of her leaving her home and community, but arguably a cause of it.

The only takeaway from this horrible loss is the need to de-stigmatize mental illness – in all communities – and to realize the tragedies that, if left untreated, it can bring about.

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A Stone’s Throw

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During the Islamic month of Ramadan, which is about to end, Muslims are to engage in introspection, fasting and spiritual improvement.  Which, according to some, includes doing whatever they can to kill innocent people.

ISIS, for instance, exhorted Muslims to use Ramadan as a time for violence, and, earlier in the Islamic holy month, in apparent response, Islamists launched attacks on three continents.  A deliveryman ISIS supporter crashed his truck into an American-owned chemical plant in France, in an attempt to blow it up, and then allegedly decapitated his boss at the scene and placed the murdered man’s head on on the plant’s gate. Mere hours later, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in a Kuwait City mosque, killing 27 worshippers and injuring more than two hundred.  A mere hour later came an attack on a Tunisian beach, where an Islamist gunman – may we call him a terrorist? – gunned down 39 people without warning.

It wasn’t just ISIS either.  A Hamas-affiliated website, for instance, published an article titled “Resistance During Ramadan – A New Beginning And A Different Flavor,” which explained that “Ever since the first intifada, martyrdom operations, stabbing and shooting attacks have had a special character during the month of Ramadan…” and that “During Ramadan, the Palestinians welcome resistance to the occupation and carry it out with a different flavor…”  Make ours vanilla, please.

Which was a likely contributor, of course, to the fact that Israel has also been a target of Ramadan violence, with rockets fired from Gaza landing in her territory, and six acts of terrorism in the month’s first 10 days, killing and maiming Israelis.  Some were shootings; one, a stabbing of a female IDF soldier in the neck; and several incidents of rock-throwing.

Later in the month, after Israeli forces shot and killed a 17-year-old Palestinian, Muhammad Hani al-Kasba, after  he had thrown rocks at their vehicle and ignored orders to stop, dozens of youths clashed with the soldiers near Yerushalayim.

Stone-throwing by Palestinians has been described by some as an essentially benign activity, a “rite of passage” or, as Thomas Friedman once infamously characterized it, as a form of “massive nonlethal civil disobedience.”  When Israeli police or soldiers shoot stone-throwers, the shootings are often presented by the Arab media as terrible overreactions; Western media tend to imply the same thing.

The headline over the recent story in the International Business Times read “Palestinian protester shot dead in West Bank,” as if the young man had been carrying a placard, not a rock.  The Boston Globe sought its readers’ eyeballs with “Palestinian teen killed by Israeli forces in West Bank.”  What the deceased was doing would seem to be more germane than his age.

Let’s move, though, now from the “West Bank” – or, better, Yehudah V’Shomron –  to the West Coast – of the United States.  Specifically to Pasco, Washington, a small city in the shadow of the Cascade Mountain range.  There, a 35-year-old man, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, was shot and killed in a hail of police bullets earlier this year, leading to an investigation into the circumstances of the killing.

Documents recently released by the Franklin County prosecutor’s office presented a detailed timeline of the happening, diagrams and the testimony of officers, all of whom said they had felt that their safety or the safety of others was in jeopardy.

Mr. Zambrano-Montes had been throwing rocks at cars before the police arrived, according to witnesses quoted.  A lawyer for the man’s family said that the central question of the case was whether the threat posed by his clients’ relative was genuine, or could reasonably be perceived as genuine.

The officers who fired at Mr. Zambrano-Montes maintain that their actions were justifiable.  One, Ryan Flanagan, said he had considered nonlethal options but did not see a way to safely get close enough to the stone thrower.

“Had he dropped the rock, then we would have been able to holster our firearms,” Officer Flanagan said in the report.  “He didn’t,” the officer continued, “give us that option, though.

An investigator then pressed further for an answer to the question of why lethal force was necessary, when there were three officers, one suspect and only one rock.”

His answer was brief and to the point – and something reporters and editorialists the world over might take time to think about. “Well,” Officer Flanagan, responded, “one rock can kill you.”

© 2015 Hamodia

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Supreme Court Vs. Supreme Being

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Typical of the “mainstream” Jewish organizational responses to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges was the American Jewish Committee’s tweet on the day of the ruling that “For 109 years AJC has stood for liberty and human rights. Today is a happy day for that proud tradition,” followed by the hashtag “#LoveWins.”

No less than 13 Jewish groups joined in an amicus brief filed in the case, arguing for the right to same-sex marriage.  (Only one group, Agudath Israel of America, filed a brief on the opposing side.)

And typical of the attitude of the groups that collectively call themselves the “Open Orthodox” movement was the reaction of the assistant rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Director of Recruitment and Admissions at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.  He posted on his Facebook page: “’It is not good for a person to be alone.’ Genesis 2:8. Mazel tov America.”  (It’s actually 2:18; and the fellow might wish to check out 2:24, where the solution to man’s lonely situation is described in no uncertain terms as a woman.)

The “Open Orthodoxy” movement’s misrepresentations of Torah in its rush to mindlessly embrace  all that the surrounding culture finds pleasing is a worthy topic in its own right.  I only mention the movement’s mangling of the Jewish religious tradition here because of how, by laying claim to “Orthodox” credentials, it intensified an already lamentable desecration of Hashem’s name.

The “Open Orthodox” movement, more accurately labeled “Neo-Conservatism,” insists that all people are created in God’s image; hence the recent ruling deserves celebration.

To be sure, none of Jewish tradition’s strong disapproval of homosexual activity means that people with homosexual tendencies are inherently evil or that even avowed homosexuals in any way forfeit their humanity, their Jewishness or their claim to others’ care and compassion.  And, particularly in these relativistic, nonjudgmental times, the Jewish response to those who are challenged with same-sex desires should be ten measures of concern for every measure of condemnation.

But that has nothing to do with the redefinition of marriage.  The Neo-Conservatives seem blissfully unbothered by the Talmudic statement that asserts that one of larger human society’s redeeming qualities has been its refusal to “write marriage documents for males [living together in homosexual relationships]” – a refusal now withdrawn in the United States.

Although the Obergefell decision was widely celebrated as a new, shiny and wondrous thing, it was hardly an unexpected development.  States were legalizing same-sex marriages already.  The truth is that when the American entertainment industry made the decision to depict same-sex couples as normative, the war to maintain American society’s traditional view of marriage was, for all purposes, already lost.  As went Hollywood, so went the led-by-the-nose American public, with five Supreme Court justices trotting along not far behind.

As a result, the demonization of those who hew to the timeless ideal of marriage being the joining of a man and woman will surely intensify.  “Bring on the opprobrium and break out the disparagement. These people deserve it,” writes Jeffrey L. Falick, the “Secular Humanistic Rabbi of The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Michigan.”

“Shaming them,” he continues, “helps to pave the path to progress.”

And so it is likely that those of us who feel no ill will whatsoever toward anyone for his or her sexual tendencies or behavior but who are branded bigots will experience negative consequences as a result of our religious convictions.  Not only in the way we are viewed by people of ill will like the humanistic Jeffrey L, Falick, but by government.  Is it alarmist to wonder if federal or state aid to religious schools might be made dependent on those schools hewing to the moral judgments of the Zeitgeist?  Is it unthinkable that the tax-exempt status of religious institutions might be assailed by some, drunk on the recent victory of their cause?

In my mind, though, those concerns, real though they are, pale beside one that has not received much attention.

It is conventional wisdom that human beings are bifurcated when it comes to sexuality.  There are heterosexuals and homosexuals.  That is a fable.

The existence of claimants to bisexuality should in itself explode the myth. And if that isn’t sufficient, then the example of people who have claimed at one point in their lives to be homosexual but at others heterosexual should do the job.  Among such people are public figures, like (for those who are culturally current) the late musician Lou Reed or the actress Anne Heche, along with countless unknown men and women.

Why is this important?  Because it means that sexuality isn’t an either/or proposition.  People, at least some people, can, through environment, change of circumstance or will, morph their sexualities.  And objective mental health professionals who have counseled people with unwanted same-sex attraction report success in many, although not all, cases.

What all of this leads me to believe is that there is a wide variety of “sexualities.”  There are people (most, I imagine) who do not experience same-sex attraction at all. And others who feel attracted exclusively to members of their own sex.  Then there are people with any of an array of balances between the two poles, and a degree of sexual “fluidity” among the population in that middle of the spectrum.

Which means that we can expect a rise with time in the number of young people coming of age and identifying as homosexual or bisexual.

Because, whereas once upon a time such boys and girls would have been guided by society’s general demeanor to develop normally (which adjective I use to mean heterosexually), they will now be inundated by the social environment and subtly pressured to consider developing differently.  And yes, there is a measure of consideration, of free will, that is operative here.

What’s more, it is now widely accepted that the human brain is not, as was assumed, a physiologically static organ; it is subject to changes born of experiences and environment – a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

Which means that the widespread acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual unions threatens the Orthodox Jewish world in an indirect but very real way.  Those of us who do not consider it a viable option to isolate ourselves and our families from the larger society will need to confront this unprecedented challenge.

Although I suspect that it may be wise to consider sensitively discussing such issues with younger children than we might wish to have such discussions with, I don’t offer any solutions for meeting that challenge, only a cry that we do all we can to meet it, head-on and soon.

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Musing: The Cluelessness of the Media

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The Associated Press reports that “Israel’s minister for religious affairs has criticized Reform Judaism, saying he doesn’t consider members of the denomination to be Jews.”

Fightin’ words, them.

The report goes on to explain that “David Azoulay of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party told Israel’s Army Radio Tuesday that these are ‘Jews who lost their way’ and he hoped they would “return to the midst of Judaism according to Jewish law.”

How can someone think that Reform Jews are both not Jews and “Jews who have lost their way”?

What was meant, clearly, was that the beliefs and practices of Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox movement does not comport with what is in fact the Jewish way of life.

So they’re not Jews.  At least in the limited understanding of a member of the Fourth Estate.

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A Magical Encounter

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Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting.  “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind.  As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry.  I laughed and said, “I wish!”  The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers.  What aptitude we have lies in our tefillos, not the hocus-pocus little Musa was eagerly imagining.

I don’t know if it had been his mother who informed the boy then that we Jews are sorcerers (she had walked ahead), or whether it was something he had been taught earlier.  But it’s unlikely that the characterization was intended to endear us to him.  Whether my friendly demeanor and denial of the charge will in any way prevent him from absorbing his “chinuch” is something I’ll not likely ever know.  But one can hope.

The view of Jews as sorcerers is an ancient one.  When half of Europe’s population perished in the 14th century’s Black Death, Jews were less affected than their neighbors (something commonly attributed to our regular hand-washing, an activity shunned by non-Jews at the time).  Jewish communities were massacred on the assumption that their members had poisoned wells or cast magical spells on their neighbors

Apparently the imagining of our sorcery, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, persists today.  Last year, Tehran University professor Valiollah Naghipourfar was asked by an interviewer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting whether jinns, or demons, can “be put to use in intelligence gathering.”

His response was: “The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews.”

And in 2013, Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Namir charged that evil Jewish (and Christian – the fellow’s an equal opportunity paranoiac) demons had possessed Palestinians, and were behind a Gazan mother’s attempt to murder her child.  She was, Mr. Namir explained, possessed by “sixty-seven Jewish jinn.”  Palestinian exorcist Sheikh Abu Khaled reported that “most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”

And so it goes.

It’s easy today to become oblivious to how some ignorant people among our neighbors see us. After all, we regularly come into contact with unbigoted, friendly non-Jews.  The morning of the day I’m writing this, a bus driver who could have ignored the bearded, black-hatted man walking up a hill instead signaled happily that I didn’t have to rush, that he’d wait for me. From my desk at Agudath Israel’s headquarters, I regularly see respectful public officials who have come to visit.

Sure, we all realize that there are third-world inhabitants with benighted attitudes toward Jews, who cling to dark fantasies about the Yahuds.  But we don’t often imagine that our neighbors might be sullied by such psychological slime. My post-Shacharis interaction was a little reminder, I suppose, a reality check.

And yet, it’s not hard to understand the assumption of our wizardry.

To be sure, divination and witchcraft are foreign to Jews and forbidden.  As Bilam will remind us this Shabbos, as he does each year, “There is no sorcerer in Yisrael.”

But isn’t the fact that, through millennia of persecution and attempts at our annihilation we Jews persist as a nation… if not magical, miraculous?  And aren’t the achievements of Jews, not only in the most meaningful realms like Torah and chessed, but even in fields more readily appreciated by “the world”… astonishing?

There is indeed magic here, though, of course, it’s not the right word.  We’re not sorcerers, chas v’shalom.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something supernatural – in the word’s most basic meaning, “beyond physical nature” – behind our survival, in our successes, and lying in our future.  As we prepare to enter Bein Hametzarim, our mourning should be tempered by that thought.

© 2015 Hamodia

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