Category Archives: Holidays

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The King and Us

One of the findings of a recent Pew Research Center report about Orthodox Jews was that for the vast majority of them – are you sitting down? – “religion is very important in their lives.”

Well, yes.

The study contrasts that with the situation in the non-Orthodox community, where only 20% of its members make a similar claim about themselves.

It’s all too easy for many of us to look down our noses at fellow Jews who express their Jewishness only on occasion, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It is an all-encompassing way of life and needs to inform all the choices we make.

And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward.  Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

There are, unfortunately, Jews who, while they wouldn’t ever dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher or of davening without a proper head-covering, seem in some ways to be less conscious of Hashem at other times.

How else to explain an otherwise observant Jew who acts in his business dealings, or home life, or behind the wheel, or the way he speaks to others, in ways not in consonance with what he knows is proper?

When we experience such dissonance, it’s not, chalilah, that we don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that we tend to compartmentalize; we feel HaKodosh Baruch Hu’s presence in our religious lives, but less so in our mundane ones.

Some of us struggle to maintain a keen awareness of Hashem not only out of shul but even in it. We don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly and distinctly).  We allow our observances, even our davening, to sometimes fade into rote.  I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Many of us – certainly I – must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing in our lives, there really isn’t really any clear “us” and “them,” the Pew report notwithstanding.  There is a continuum here, with some of us some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-presence of the Divine, and some less so.

Obviously, Jews who are entirely nonchalant about religious observance are at one extreme of the scale.  And those who are not only observant but think of Hashem and His will even when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are at the other end. But many even in that latter category can still fall short of the ideal of Hashem-consciousness, can compartmentalize their lives.

This is a thought that leads directly to Rosh Hashanah.  The first day of a new Jewish year, the start of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.”  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah.  We might well wonder: What has kingship to do with repentance?  The answer is: much.

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules.  There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to ponder that thought and internalize it, to try to bring our lives more in line with it.  To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, cooking or sending kids off to school as he is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will all be collectively focused on “de-compartmentalizing” our lives, on coronating Hashem over all Creation.  May the zechus of that effort bear fruit not only in our personal lives, but in history – may it lead, in other words, and soon, to the day when v’hayah Hashem l’melech al kol ha’aretz.

© 2015 Hamodia

Govrov Selichos, 1939

This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia

Be Alarmed

Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia

A Worthy, Timely Truth

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.

Evtach V’lo Efchad

The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over.  Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone.  Questions were asked and responses recounted.  Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read.  Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel.  Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a sudden downfall, as the Navi foretold, suddenly and miraculously smitten by Hashem’s malach, as recounted in Melachim II (18-19).

Yeshayahu then moves to his vision of a more distant future, when Moshiach will appear, Klal Yisroel will be rescued from all who wish them harm and “the land will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.”

Yirmiyahu Hanavi also speaks of that era, giving voice to Hashem’s promise that one day “It will no longer be said, ‘Chai Hashem, Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of Mitzrayim,’ but rather ‘Chai Hashem Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them, and returned them onto their [own] land’.” (16:14)

In other words, despite the miracles and wonders of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the germinal event in Klal Yisroel’s formation, that geulah will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though? Didn’t our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, as we recalled on the Seder nights, and wouldn’t its continuation have spelled the very undermining of the Jewish nation?

The makkos and Krias Yam Suf , though, as powerful expressions of Hashem’s love of His people as they were, were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things.  What the Neviim presage, though, is a permanent transformation of nature itself.

It has forever been the case that animals are both food and prey; it has always been so.  A world where the lamb will be able to invite the wolf for a visit is a world radically altered in its essence.  As is a world where Klal Yisrael has been gathered from the corners of the earth back to their promised home.  And a world where, instead of the “normative” hatred of Jews, all the nations will unite in humble servitude to Hashem and in reverence for His people.

There are already individuals among the umos haolam, in some very unlikely places, who have already embraced the truths of history, and who, from their distances, venerate Hashem and revere Klal Yisrael.  I personally have corresponded with one such a family, in a Muslim land, for more than a decade.  The day will come, the neviim assure us, that such recognition of truth will, as we might say today, “go viral,” and fill the world “with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.” A striking simile in this, our world, enveloped as it is by an ocean of information.

The Navi’s vision of the future should intrude on our present.  All the threats against Klal Yisrael these days should remind us of Sancheriv and Ravshaka’s boastful rantings – and of their downfall.

And they should remind us, too, that it is Hashem alone, Who, as in Mitzrayim, will usher in the metamorphosis of the world the Neviim envisioned.  When we knit our brows and announce our confident convictions about whether this or that is the savviest geopolitical course; this or that a leader to be trusted; this or that a wise pundit or a fool, we are really just entertaining ourselves.

The only truth is, as Yeshayahu proclaims: “Behold, Hashem is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid… for great in your midst is the Holy One of Yisrael.”

 © 2015 Hamodia

Persian Diversion

It was a tad early for “Purim Torah,” but on Taanis Esther, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zari responded to a question from an NBC correspondent by insisting that Iran cares deeply for and is entirely protective of its Jews.

Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent assertion in his speech before the U.S. Congress that “Iran’s regime is not merely a Jewish problem, any more than the Nazis were a Jewish problem,” Mr. Zarif bristled and changed the topic to the Israeli leader’s citation in his speech to Megillas Esther.

“He even distorts his own scripture,” said the Iranian about the Israeli. “If – if you read the book of Esther, you will see that it was the Iranian king who saved the Jews.”  We needn’t engage Mr. Zarif on the finer points of the Purim story, but the question in the end, of course, isn’t what Achashverosh was or did, but what Iran is and does (and wants to do).

(Mr. Zarif, incidentally, also proudly cited Koresh, as having granted the Jews of his time permission to rebuild the Beis Hamikdash – apparently oblivious to the irony of the fact that the aforementioned edifice was to be built, and in time was built, in Yerushalayim.)

The Iranian foreign minister animatedly explained how “We have a history of tolerance and cooperation and living together in coexistence with our own Jewish people, and with – with Jews everywhere in the world.”  And he added, “If we wanted to annihilate Jews, we have a large number of Jewish population in Iran” who presumably could provide a convenient first stage opportunity.  But, Mr. Zarif went on to proudly state, Jews “have a representative in Iranian parliament allocated to them, disproportionately to their number.”

A recent CNN article happily swallowed that sunny Iranian party line, describing the Iranian Jewish community of Esfahan in warm and delicate tones.  It characterized the community’s members as happy, and interviewed several.  Not one of them had anything negative to say about the current Iranian regime, clear proof of its benevolence (or, perhaps, of the very opposite).

Esfahan Jewish community leader Sion Mahgrefte, the article noted, while he “declined to comment directly on political matters, especially in the current heated environment,” did assert that the members of his community felt very much at home in Iran.”  Puts one in mind of James Baldwin’s line about home being “not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.”

The NBC interviewer was, thankfully, less meek.  She presented Mr. Zarif with a statement made by Iran’s “supreme leader,” Sayyid Ali Khamenei, in which he declared: “This barbaric wolf-like and infanticidal regime of Israel which spares no crime [and which] has no cure but to be annihilated.”  “Can you understand,” the interviewer asked, “why Jews and others would take umbrage at that kind of language?”

He could not, of course, and insisted that “annihilating” a country of six million Jews (evocative number, that) is one thing; hating Jews elsewhere, something entirely another.  Slippery fish, that distinction between Jews and a country of Jews.

Iran’s Jews may not be overtly persecuted these days, but there are subtle sorts of repression too.  No Iranian Jew can dare speak up in defense of Israel in any way, for fear of his life.  And not long after the inception of the current “Islamic Republic,” the Jewish community’s leader at the time was arrested on charges of “corruption” and “friendship with the enemies of G-d” and executed.  Other Iranian Jews have likewise been executed over ensuing years for being “spies.”  (One wonders how thin the line is between being a Jew in Iran and a spy.)  Criticism of the Iranian policy of appointing Muslims to oversee Jewish schools, moreover, resulted in the shutting down of the last remaining Iranian Jewish newspaper, in 1991.

And so, Iran’s claim of love for its Jews, and some Iranian Jews’ claim to feel safe and protected, has to be taken with a grain, or perhaps a nuclear missile silo, worth of salt.  It is belied not only by Iran’s execution of Jews and its declared wish to annihilate a country with arguably more Jews than any other, but by the less guarded words of Iran’s allies and proxies.

Like Hassan Nasrallah, a leader of Hezbollah, the group conceived in 1982 by Iranian clerics and still funded by Iran.  “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel,” he said in 2002, “it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.”

Thank you, Hassan, for your candor.

© 2015 Hamodia

 

 

 

In Praise of Brainwashing

A reference to a Shabbos seudah as “brainwashing.”  An attempt by a flag-draped man to enter a Montreal Jewish day school.  And a pre-school morah’s report.  All took place recently and, together, helped me better understand something fundamental about life.

The cynical reference to Shabbos was from a woman quoted in a book.  Sadly, she had left the Jewish observance of her childhood behind.

“My father was always tired and so was my mother,” she explained to the author. “They were fighting. We were fighting. And so there was not that kind of love and joy that makes the brainwashing really stick.”

The brainwashing.

On the very day that quote appeared in a book review, a man draped in a flag of Quebec

tried to enter a chareidi Jewish day school, Yeshiva Gedola, in Montreal, claiming that he wanted to “liberate” its students.

Wisely, the school’s staff did not allow the fellow into the building.  One staff member said “When I answered through the intercom, the man told me: ‘I want to talk to the children because they are imprisoned in this school… I want to liberate the children’.”

Liberate the children.

Two people with a similar perspective, that Jewish children who are raised in their ancestral faith are essentially being psychologically abused, their minds imprisoned, their brains, well, washed.

It’s not an uncommon way of looking at things, unfortunately, these days.  But it’s an ignorant one – quite literally: It ignores the most fundamental mission of any thinking, caring human being.

Does any loving parent – leave aside a Jewish one – allow a child to develop entirely on his own?  Un-“brainwashed” and “unimprisoned”?  Do any parents, no matter how “liberal” or “open-minded” they may be, leave their progeny to their own devices, always?  Children are, understandably, self-centered and, inevitably, somewhat uncivil and rudderless about how to interact with others and with the world.  A parent’s most important role, after providing a child physical nourishment and shelter, is to provide him what might be called ethical nourishment.

On, now, to the preschool morah.  The caregiver was reporting to the mother of a not-yet-3-year-old how her little girl was behaving within her group of pint-sized peers.  The morah recounted how some other toddlers in the group were “negotiating” which of them would occupy the only seat left around an activity table.  Little “Aviva” looked on at the commotion, assessed things, quietly walked across the room, retrieved another kiddie chair and brought it over, upending the need for any further “negotiations.”

To be sure, there are children, like Aviva, who are naturally good-natured.  But even they, and certainly less finely endowed kids, don’t just naturally develop concern for others, or for peace.  The pacifist and empathy muscles, so to speak, are there in all of us, but they need nurturing to develop and grow.  I know the little girl’s parents well, and that they invest much energy in raising their children to be decent human beings.  That’s the only way one has a shot, with Hashem’s help, at such results.

And Aviva’s parents, like most Jewish parents, are raising their children to be not just good people but good Jews, too.  They “brainwash” them by teaching them not only about middos tovos but about the timeless tradition that was handed down through the ages since Har Sinai, to their ancestors, then to those ancestors’ children, and then by those children, once grown, to their own.

In only a matter of weeks (forgive me for spilling the secret!), Jewish families around the world will be engaging in what is the year’s most potent “brainwashing,” as parents and children sit around their seder tables and recount their received testimony about Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The parents will, with the aid of the Haggadah, fulfill the mitzvah to recount that seminal event in Jewish history, and the children, kept awake (with candies and nuts and stunts, granted, not torture) will be brainwashed – that is to say, imprinted with information that will prove not only vital to their lives as strong and knowledgeable Jews, but vital to the entire world, whether that world knows it or not.

Surely the disillusioned authoress who had, nebbich, so deficient a Jewish upbringing, and the Fleurdelisé-draped crusader would not approve.  I won’t likely approve either of how they will raise their own children, presumably to follow in their “independent” footsteps.  Hopefully, those children will be independent enough to realize something their parents don’t: “Brainwashing” is just a hostile way of referring to education one doesn’t like.

© 2015 Hamodia