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Earlier today, I received a private message from a good friend of mine regarding my posting of Ezra Bessaroth's role in facilitating the first step in helping those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law.
First, I want to praise my friend on his choice to message me privately and not engage in a back-and-forth debate on Facebook over this issue; he felt that this would unnecessarily expose me to public criticism. Here’s what he wrote:
“Hi Rabbi. I didn't want to write this on your wall because I didn't want to even imply a public criticism of you, but I have to say I'm surprised given what I know about your attitude toward Eretz Yisrael to see you encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain. Do you need see nothing problematic about that? Isn't Spain the wrong country for Jews who want to add a second citizenship? Has Ezzy Bezzy made a similar promotional push (maybe you have) for its members becoming citizens of Israel (i.e. aliyah)?”
The point is well-taken.
Some background: When my good friends, Joe and Doreen Alhadeff, approached me with news of their involvement in promoting the new law – and having Ezra Bessaroth approved to attest to a person’s Sephardic ancestry – I asked myself whether I wanted at all to be party to encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain.
Over and above the issue of promoting this path (instead of encouraging Aliyah to Israel) there’s the question of whether we should align ourselves with a campaign that tries to redress the wrongs of the past – specifically, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and all that this tragedy entailed. In June of 2014, Rabbi Marc Angel, himself a native of Seattle and a student of Sephardic history posted a critical piece on his blog. In part, it read,
“How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors? Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?....It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages. Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.”
Why promote Spain at all without full teshuva?
Shouldn’t we first prioritize assisting Jews to become citizens of Israel?
My personal response to both questions: I, too, am troubled by the failure of nations – many of them European – to learn the lessons of the past. I too, feel that Spain should show its concern for Sephardim by supporting the State of Israel. For whatever it’s worth, though, I do feel that the public declaration of responsibility for the expulsion from Spain is of significance. Though it falls short of what we would like to see – in my view, it does have some incremental value. It may at least qualify as “Hirhurei Teshuva”….if not complete teshuva!
To my friend’s point: Last time I checked, there is strong basis for saying that we fulfill a Torah mitzvah by living in Eretz Yisrael…and not in Spain. As someone whose offspring and offspring’s offspring presently live in the Land of Israel, and who himself hopes one day to return even if the Mashiach has not yet arrived by that time….I personally spare no efforts in making it a priority to financially support pro-Israel causes as well as assist those who have been victims of Arab terror. I am also a proud trustee of the Samis Foundation, whose meaningful philanthropy works to address some of the core social issues in Israeli society. Our congregation stands at the forefront of the Seattle community in its Israel programming, even in the face of expressed disdain by so-called “progressive” elements in our community who would prefer to see us make room for organizations which overtly and covertly undermine the IDF and the Jewish state……
Our involvement in helping establish Sephardic identity for those interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship should not be seen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of what I’ve written above. The messages delivered in our local Orthodox Jewish day schools, in synagogue shiurim, from the pulpit, in yearly programming - including scholars-in-residence throughout our community – are unequivocal. Anyone wishing to make Aliyah knows exactly where to go and would not only be fully supported - but publicly applauded for making the commitment! (One of my mechutanim is even a Nefesh B’Nefesh counsellor….I have her phone number and email!)
But alas, we live in a very complex age. With all the good work of our Jewish schools, only 5% of Seattle’s Jewish children are enrolled in day-school Jewish education. Intermarriage rates across the country are soaring, and the Sephardim of Seattle and elsewhere are not immune.
I reflect on my own decision, 35 years ago, to become more Jewishly connected. It started with a bowl of chicken soup at the Shabbat table of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pritzker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It continued with Herman Wouk’s “This is My G-d” and Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions.” It could have stopped there, with the soup and the interesting reading…..
For the Sephardim of Seattle and around the world, Sephardic culture plays a huge role in the formation and maintenance of identity. Do I believe that bourekas and bulemas are the essence of Sephardic Jewish identity? Of course not! But do these foods play some role in maintaining even a tenuous link to tradition …. that could eventually blossom into a deeper connection?
Faced with the reality of the Spanish citizenship option for Sephardim, I think that the question for a community rabbi becomes: Is facilitating the Spanish citizenship process a potential portal of entry for less affiliated Jews to open their eyes to the past, to look at themselves anew as a link in the chain of Jewish history? Perhaps the applicants had not grappled with the devotion of those ancestors who resisted the Inquisitor’s threat of death and the commitment to living a Jewish life implicit in this sacrifice. How many unaffiliated Jews have truly meditated upon the evidence of a Divine hand guiding Jewish history both before and after the expulsion?
And so, I feel that the necessary research involved in uncovering the details of one’s Sephardic Jewish roots may well be an eye-opening experience that paves the way for some more profound introspection.
I'm comfortable being a partner in this process.
The situation in Eretz Yisrael over the past several weeks has become nothing short of intolerable. Anyone up-to-date on the news, and certainly those with friends and loved ones in Israel, understands how serious things are. The dilemma of what we, as Jews living in the Diaspora can and should do, seems to resurface on a yearly basis.
A friend of mine emailed me a couple of days ago with a very out-of-the box plan of action. In the course of a few exchanges, I hope I made it clear to him that, though his heart is in the right place, his ideas were unwise at best and counterproductive, even damaging, at worst.
Back in 2005, hundreds of individuals situated themselves at major intersections throughout Israel, handing out orange wrist bands. Why? An effort to prevent the disengagement from Gush Katif. Now, I too, was of the opinion that the expulsion of Jews from Gush Katif would lead to Gaza becoming an even more entrenched terror base, but I did not hand out wrist bands in support of the Jewish Gaza residents.
Unable to articulate why I did not demonstrate, I sought the counsel of a good friend of mine. He made the following observation: The Knesset had already much earlier decided to dismantle the Jewish communities; it was a done deal - and all the demonstrators were doing was participating in something that made them feel significant. In fact, he maintained, such demonstrations actually served the interests of the Sharon government at the time, helping distract citizens from potentially meaningful responses to the disengagement, once it happened: planning for the lack of housing for the displaced people, setting up the psychological and social service framework that the residents would have to draw on after the trauma of losing their homes and communities....
I am concerned that with the recent vicious, murderous stabbing war launched by the Palestinians over the past two weeks, we Diaspora Jews are, so to speak, putting ourselves at the proverbial intersections, handing out orange wrist bands.
What do I mean?
I have overheard many a conversation of "armchair' security experts who believe that they know how, once and for all, to solve Israel's security woes. If only Netanyahu would give each of us a seat on his security cabinet.....(!)
Friends, none of us have any real sense of the intricacy and scope of the security issues Israel faces! As in matters of medicine, Halacha mandates us to defer to the experts in the area, and to their evaluation of appropriate strategies given their indepth knowledge of both their professions and the context within which they find themselves.
If we take a "know-it-all" approach, we also risk mimicking (with the best interests of Israel in mind!) the strategy of groups like J-Street and the New Israel Fund, which work tirelessly - from the Diaspora - alongside radical left wing U.S. power brokers to force Israel's hand to make wildly irresponsible concessions in a region gone mad.
So it cuts both ways: Let's let Prime Minister Netanyahu and his team handle the security of the country that they lead!
Instead, let us focus on unequivocal support of Israel in the local and national media. Let us invest our efforts in garnering the unconditional support of Israel by our American political leaders, be they Democrat or Repubican. This part of the war against terrorism and hatred IS our responsibility! One example of a worthwhile cause is to call out the New York Times on its insidious piece this past week questioning the historicity of the two Batei Mikdash (Temples) on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The article was clearly timed to support the falsehoods uttered by the Palestinian establishment; these falsehoods in turn provide the moral basis for stabbing 70 year-old Jewish women at Jerusalem's Central Bus Station! As a result of the pressure by historians and readers throughout the Jewish world, the Times was forced to amend its article so that it could somewhat resemble an objective piece of journalism.
Secondly, as I suggested in a sermon two weeks ago, the way to combat Midat Hadin/strict judgment on a spiritual level - is to increase the presence of Hesed - kindness - in our personal lives. As Jews, we firmly believe that "Hashem Tzilcha Al Yad Yeminecha" - "Hashem is your shadow at your right hand." God relates to us as we relate to others. Since all Jews' fate is intertwined from a spiritual and historical perspective, when Jews in Seattle increase their level and intensity of Gemilut Hasadim, God responds by relating to us in a more compassionate way. This is the secret of stirring up the thirteen attributes of Mercy that are repeated over and over again during the High Holidays: Our sages tell us that God enwrapped Himself like a Shaliach Tzibbur - like a Hazzan - and demonstrated to Moshe Rabeinu how to recite these thirteen attributes of Mercy. Rabbi Nebenzhal explains that it is not the mere recital of these attributes, but the incorporation of them into our daily lives, that ultimately matters.
May the coming days, weeks and months see the eradication of evil, and may we merit to play even a small role in the transformation of our broken world.
This summer, I've had the unique opportunity of spending a little over three weeks in Eretz Yisrael. As I approach my final Shabbat here (the family returns to Seattle a week later), I wanted to share with you some of my observations.
The trip began with an intensive 10 day rabbinic "Metivta" seminar at the home of the Sephardic Educational Center in the Old City. We were privileged to learn with (amongst others) one of the brightest young minds in the Sephardic rabbinic world, Rav Yitzhak Chouraqui. Rav Chouraqui, originally from France, serves as a community Rabbi, Rosh Beit Midrash of Mimizrach Shemesh in downtown Jerusalem, and will be leading the new Sha'arei Uziel Beit Midrash program at the SEC. His classes were both challenging and inspiring. The gathering of Sephardic rabbis from around the Jewish world proved to be a most fruitful context within which to discuss both halachic and philosophical issues as presented by classical Sephardic sources.
Most mornings, Shahrit was at the Kotel; at the Wall, one finds a cross-section of Jewish society. It's really heartwarming seeing Jews, men and women respectively, from the various streams of Jewish society, pray together in the same minyanim. Israelis and tourists, often only loosely connected to Jewish tradition, approach the Wall to pour out their hearts to their Father in Heaven. Non-Jewish visitors from all over the world standing in awe of this landmark, are living proof of the verse כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים - "because My House is a House of Tefilah for all of the nations..." (Yeshaya Ch. 56) Tisha Be'av was truly something to behold, and gave me confidence that Jewish unity, crucial for the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash, may not be so unattainable after all...
One of the most astounding aspects of my trip directly connects to this week's Torah portion, Perashat Ekev. Birkat Hamazon, the mitzvah of Grace after Meals, is derived from the verse, "...and when you eat and are satisfied, you should bless Hashem your G-d for the good land that He has given you." In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we attribute the following qualities to the Land of Israel: "Eretz Hemda Tova U'rehava" - "a beautiful, good and wide land.."
Now, Eretz Yisrael is certainly beautiful. This past week we drove north to Haifa and then eastward to Karmiel. The weather was truly delightful, the Carmel mountains and Galil foliage a sight to behold. It's a good land; many natural resources previously unknown are being discovered and harnassed. But a "wide land"? Security experts often stress the narrowness of the Land of Israel and the security implications that flow from this issue!
Being here for several weeks offered me new insights into the concept of Israel as a "wide land."
When I first studied here back in 1983, driving to the north took 3 1/4 hours by car and close to four hours by bus. With the advent of Route 6, traveling from the Jerusalem area to Haifa takes about an hour and 50 minutes. The new multi-lane divided highway has revolutionized intercity travel. All through the ingenuity of the Israel Department of Infrastructures which has found space where none seemed to exist. Nowhere is this more evident than between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and within Jerusalem proper. The narrow highway that used to link the two cities has been expanded to a divided six-lane expressway! For the determined Israeli mind, the rocky hills of Jerusalem, once a formidable impediment to travel, CAN and WILL be overcome! The amazing Menachem Begin Expressway, searing through the hills of Jerusalem with overpasses and tunnels, has turned the once congested capital into a fast-moving, bustling tourist, commercial and religious center. These developments have not only made life far more convenient, but have fostered a unity between the disparate neighborhoods of Yerushalayim.
This, I think, is what our sages may have foreseen when they classified Eretz Yisrael as "a beautiful, good and WIDE land." It's the broad perspective of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael that's the hidden potential of Eretz Hakodesh, Eretz Yisrael.
The discussion around Spanish passports for Sephardic Jews is heating up. For Rabbi Marc Angel's blogpost on the topic click here:
This coming week's Perasha, Shelach deals with the theme of leadership, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It's June, 2015 and I find myself in a position of religious leadership in the Seattle Jewish community. As Jews, the fate of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel is always at the forefront of our minds. Yet, like the Children of Israel in Perashat Shelach, we, too, can be negatively swayed by our often well-intentioned leaders: rabbis, professors, intellectuals to sign on to ideas, philosophies and organizations that can easily mislead, misinform and demoralize us.
As someone concerned about the direction of our community, I've decided… to break my silence!
Last week, a number of members of the Jewish community were sent an invitation to "a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders, and clergy with Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence and Ben Murane of New Israel Fund". It was to be held at Herzl Ner-Tamid.
Strangely, this event has now been rescheduled: Instead of being a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders and clergy, it has morphed into a community-wide event. Instead of being hosted by Herzl Ner-Tamid, it's now at Temple Beth Am.
Others may be better-versed in the details, but suffice to say that there was a strong response within the rank-and-file and lay leadership of Herzl that insisted that the congregation cancel the event.
Those who brought their pressure to bear identified with the conclusions of Matti Friedman, who spoke eloquently at last week's Thursday night talk at Temple de Hirsch.
During his presentation, Friedman, who identifies as politically liberal, articulated why "Breaking the Silence's" mission and method falls outside the parameters of accepted "pro-Israel" activism.
His talk summarized the approach he's taken in the press; referring to BTS's "report" on last summer's Gaza War, Friedman writes: "Professional journalists looking at this report, and at similar reports, should be asking (but aren't, of course): Compared to what? IDF open-fire regulations are lax – compared to what? Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province? ... If Israel is being compared to other countries in similar situations, we need to know what the comparison is. Otherwise, beyond the details of individual instances the broad criticism is meaningless."
Particularly compelling is Friedman's observation that despite the fact that BTS describes itself as an organization of Israeli veterans trying to expose Israelis to the nature of service in the territories, so that it can have a political impact on Israeli society, ".. it's a group funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave. They are not speaking to Israelis, but are rather exploiting Israelis' uniquely talkative and transparent nature in order to defame them….. Any group genuinely fighting for the character of Israeli society should do so in Hebrew, which is the language that Israelis speak -- and only in Hebrew. If you're expending a great deal of energy and money translating your materials into English and speaking to foreign reporters, as we’re seeing Breaking the Silence do right now, I think it's fair to ask what, exactly, you're up to."
Introducing NGO Monitor
NGO Monitor is a Jerusalem-based organization that has as its mission "to generate and distribute critical analysis and reports on the output of the international NGO community for the benefit of government policy makers, journalists, philanthropic organizations and the general public." The express goal of NGO Monitor is "to end the practice used by certain self-declared 'humanitarian NGOs' of exploiting the label 'universal human rights values' to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas."
NGO Monitor's International Advisory Board includes, among others: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Col. Richard Kemp, Prof. Elie Wiesel, Dr. Einat Wilf, Prof. Ruth Wisse and R. James Woolsey.
NGO Monitor's Assessment of The New Israel Fund
This week's BTS-Temple Beth Am event is sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF). What does NGO Monitor have to say about the New Israel Fund?
"Founded in 1979, the Mission Statement of the New Israel Fund is to help 'Israel live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel'
"NIF's funding guidelines declare that it will not fund organizations that '[p]articipate in partisan political activity'; 'advocate human rights selectively for one group over another'; '[e]mploy racist or derogatory language or designations about any group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation'; or '[w]ork to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel.'"
Despite the above assertions, the NGO monitor has found that NIF "continues to fund political advocacy NGOs that are active in international and divisive campaigns that contribute to BDS and the demonization and delegitamization of Israel." (Italics mine)
As an example, notes the NGO Monitor, "a number of NIF-funded NGOs have been active in repeating unsupported allegations of 'deliberate, systematic, and widespread targeting of Palestinian civilians'; 'war crimes and crimes against humanity'; 'grave violations of international humanitarian law,' and similar claims regarding the 2014 Gaza war, as well as claiming that internal Israeli investigations fail to meet international standards. Such allegations are central in efforts to justify international intervention, including ICC prosecutions and unprofessional UN reports."
In light of this week's BTS event, it is relevant to cite the NGO Monitor observation "that NIF grantee 'Breaking the Silence'makes repeated allegations of 'war crimes' and 'violations of international law.' Despite claiming to address Israeli society, BtS’ lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including appearances in Europe and the United States. (Italics mine)
NGO monitor goes on to report that NIF funded NGOs were featured centrally in the discredited Goldstone report, which focused on alleged Israeli “war crimes” in the 2009 Gaza war. The report referenced B’Tselem more than 56 times; Adalah, 38 times; and Breaking the Silence, 27 times.
The advertisement for this week's event asserts:
Regardless of one's own perspectives on the Occupation, we are bound by Jewish values to hear these courageous young soldiers. And we must ask what we're doing to ourselves when we resist painful topics and respectful discourse.
There is of course a distinction between education and informed discourse, on the one hand - and propaganda on the other.
Matti Friedman writes:
"The activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. It’s propaganda. That’s fine if you understand what you’re reading, but I suspect most people don’t."
The EB Discretionary Fund has been making an impact both within our community and on Jewish communities elsewhere in the world. Recently, we had the opportunity to offer a modest donation to the
Comunidad Hebrea "Adath Israel" de Cuba. Today I received this email:
Dear Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers :
We are very grateful for the help that we received from you. The economic situation in Cuba is everyday worse and we try to give everyday breakfast, lunch and snack free for all the people. The best food that they get is what they eat here. Every thing that you can bring is important and we know that we are not alone in the world we have our brother in the entire world.
We are very grateful and we hope to see you in Cuba.
Yacob Berezniak H.
Dear Members and Friends of EB,
By now, you have surely heard about the terrible tragedy that struck a Jewish family in New York this past Shabbat. The Sassoon family of Brooklyn, who had just moved to the United States from Israel a year ago, lost seven of their eight children in a horrible fire that began in their kitchen with a Shabbat hotplate. The tragedy is unfathomable and it personally took me two days to begin to digest what has befallen the family. I was so numbed by the tragedy, I could not even begin writing this letter.
Aside from grieving alongside the parents and remaining daughter - identifying with the trauma of the family, it is incumbent upon us to learn some lessons from the incident and apply those lessons in our own lives. It is in that spirit that I write you today.
As we approach Passover, the issue of how to both run our kitchens in keeping with halacha and custom - and ensuring the safety of our families - demands our attention.
Let me restate the obvious: Pikuah Nefesh - the saving of a life - pushes aside the restrictions of both Yom Tov and Shabbat! Even a possible danger to life - "safek pikuah nefesh" - overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat and Yom Tov. Anything that must be done to save a person from danger is not only permissible to do, but is an unequivocal mitzvah to do!
That said, not every situation is considered a danger that pushes off Shabbat and Yom Tov; for less urgent situations, like a sprained ankle, or an upset stomach, there are different guidelines. Feel free to contact me for advice in such situations. Those who end up traveling on Shabbat or a Yom Tov to a hospital or clinic should also be aware of proper procedure once the urgent situation has been dealt with; I am also available to discuss these situations at your convenience.
A colleague of mine sent a list of recommendations out to his congregation. I have reprinted his recommendations following this letter.
Wishing you a Pesah Alegre and a Happy and Kosher Passover!
A partial list of recommendations by Rabbi Akiva Males
1) Each floor of our homes should have at least one smoke detector
2) Each home should have at least one carbon monoxide (CO) detector near the sleeping areas (please ensure all smoke / CO detectors are in working condition)
3) The batteries in those detectors should be tested / replaced whenever the clock is changed
4) Every home should have a simple-to-use and highly accessible fire extinguisher on each floor
5) Create and familiarize your family with a fire emergency plan
6) Shabbat / Yom Tov candles should be lit in a safe place (i.e. on a sturdy and non-flammable surface, away from curtains, out of reach of children / pets, etc.)
7) If gas stoves / ovens are left on, a kitchen window needs to be left open a few inches to provide ventilation (thereby avoiding potential CO poisoning)
8) Electrical appliances (i.e. hot water heaters, crock pots, hot plates, etc.) should be UL listed
9) Extension cords should not be used for kitchen appliances
10) Only 'heavy-duty' electrical timers should be used with kitchen appliances
11) In all emergencies, do not hesitate to call 911
Rabbinical Council of America Expresses Alarm at
Rhetoric Surrounding of US-Israel Relations
The Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of orthodox rabbis in North America, expresses alarm at the excessive criticism leveled at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for comments made in the closing days of the Israeli election.
While we commend the United States administration for its assurances of unwavering support for the security of Israel, we call upon it to desist from statements that are perceived as threats to the only democracy in the Middle East. Support of Israel is built on the rock solid foundation of our shared values of democracy and freedom. Israel is the only country in the region that preserves these values. In this election, Arabs voted freely and the chairman of the elections committee was the Arab Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran. The elections were not followed by violence and bloodshed, as other so-called "democratic" elections in the region have been. The United States and Israel share the values of western democracies, societies built upon open education, open opportunity, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression.
In the heat of a hard fought campaign, comments without context and explanation, were made by Prime Minister Netanyahu. In light of the context of these comments and their intent, excessive criticism of Mr. Netanyahu for these comments from Jewish groups is sorely misplaced. There are those who would have preferred different results. Democracy, however, grants privilege to the voters, who saw national survival as the most important election issue. Israel remains committed to a peaceful solution with its neighbors, arrived at by negotiation, and not imposed from without. Israelis will beat a quick path to the negotiating table when there is a partner with whom to negotiate, rather than a terrorist government in Gaza, and a weak, corrupt one in the Palestinian Authority whose imams call for the annihilation of all Jews.
We call on all Americans to renew their commitment to Israel, a commitment rooted in the prophetic visions of our Bible, visions of justice, kindness, peace and the dignity of all people. American support of Israel is predicated on our shared visions, a support that rises above occasional differences.
I would like to dedicate this devar Torah in memory of my mother, Simcha bat Victoria Varon
I would like to thank Chabad.org, Torah.org, and 70 Faces .com
Today is Rosh Chodesh Nissan, not only the first day of the month, but also the first month of the year. As Jews we take the concept of time very seriously, our Torah begins with the words “In the beginning…” and while studying the Talmud one traditionally starts with the question: “From what time may one recite the evening Shema?” So it perhaps should not be surprising that the first commandment given to the Nation of Israel was to create a calendar based on the cycles of the moon, and to sanctify the moon “And G-d said to Moses… in the land of Egypt… this month is for you, the head of the months. First it is for you among the months of the year (Shemot 12:1-2)
The process of sanctifying the new moon was a complicated one. Only a Beit Din composed of judges who are linked, student to teacher, directly to Moshe are permitted to sanctify the month. Those who have witnessed the new moon and come to the court to share their knowledge have to endure a thorough examination by the judges. The laws are complex and detailed, so why is this so important?
Sefer HaChinuch states that if it were not for the fact that we are assured that the months of the year occur at their proper time, the calendar would be in a constant state of flux. This would create many problems. For example we know that Passover is supposed to be in the spring and Sukkot is to be in the fall. If the months were not carefully calculated and an extra month not added when needed, the holidays would not occur in their proper time, and therein lies the importance of this commandment.
The Rambam echoes this reasoning. He explains that the sanctification of the new month is the foundation for all the holy days of the year. As I mentioned, if not for the proper reckoning of the months, all of the holidays would fall out in the improper seasons. We would then not have the holidays, their holiness, and their accompanying commandments, which would be a huge loss for Beni Israel. Therefore, in order to maintain the integrity of the calendar, and in some respects, our “religion”, we were given this commandment, the sanctifying of the new month, before any other commandment.
The Medrash, when speaking about this commandment, tells us that all who bless the new month in its proper time, it is as if they have seen the Holy Countenance of G-d. The Medrash learns this from a connection between the distinctive use of the word “this” in two places: the commandment about the sanctification of the new moon “THIS is to you…” and the praise of Hashem by the nation of Israel after the splitting of the Red Sea- “THIS is my G-d and I will glorify Him”. The Ksav Sofer explains why the blessing of the new moon is analogous to “seeing” Hashem. He explains that there are those who deny the divine providence of G-d by saying that the only time that G-d had input into the world was when he created the world, and that since then, it has been running on “cruise control” and continues to exist only according to “nature” without any divine direction. We believe that Hashem’s providence is with us daily and see Hashem’s hand in all we do and see around us. And what event in history is the most striking proof, and made it clear to all who witnessed it that indeed Hashem controls all aspects of the physical world, but the splitting of the Red Sea. By blessing the new month, we are acknowledging that it is because He is the one who causes the renewal of the new month and that all is under Hashem’s control. The meaning of the Medrash is now clearer. All who bless the new moon, and therefore indicate that they believe in the providence of G-d, and stand before Him always as if they were pointing and saying “This is my G-d!,” because of the closeness of the relationship that exist between G-d and man, it is as if they have seen the holy countenance of G-d.
The following was written by Rabbi Pini Dunner, of the Beverly Hills Synagogue. He has given permission for his words to be disseminated:
The controversy over Binyamin Netanyahu’s planned speech to Congress on the threat from Iran has been raging for weeks. On the face of it those who oppose his appearance on Capitol Hill seem to have some very valid arguments. In the first instance, everyone in Congress is already fully aware of the threat from Iran. Secondly, the United States and others are currently in the middle of tense and delicate negotiations with Iran – the speech therefore seems, at best, to be imprudently timed – or, at worst, well timed, if the intention is to ruin the talks. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, bipartisan support for Israel in Congress has endured for decades – why would Netanyahu be so reckless and irresponsible as to endanger this unanimous support just to give a speech?
On February 4th, British historian Sir Martin Gilbert died at the age of 78. I remember this gentle man well from my years at University College London, where he taught us a course on the history of the Holocaust. Although his contribution to Holocaust history was broad and deep, his greatest contribution to historical literature was certainly as Winston Churchill’s biographer. His incisive insights into Churchill’s personality and political genius are a testament to his prodigious research and profound understanding of his subject.
The curious thing about Winston Churchill is that our view of him is completely dominated by the focus in popular culture on his wartime leadership. It is therefore generally unknown that in 1929, after falling out with his party over British policy in India, Churchill commenced a decade of political obscurity that to even his greatest admirers appeared to represent a slow but inevitable disappearance from meaningful public life. Sir Martin wrote a book about this period that he called ‘The Wilderness Years.’
During those dreadful years Churchill decried the decline in British spending on the military, and he also repeatedly pointed out the growing threat from Hitler’s Germany. Everybody heard him, but no one was listening. Appeasement and isolationism dominated foreign policy, and Churchill’s prescient speeches and brilliantly written articles were dismissed as the rantings of an irrelevant has-been. But this only spurred him on. “Those Germans are not looking for equal status,” he told the House of Commons in 1933, “they are looking for weapons.” In 1934 he shocked his political colleagues by revealing the true extent of German military production, after foreign office friends fed him secret information. Rather than take him seriously, however, and address the threat posed by Germany, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin quipped: “the real danger to [Great Britain] is Winston - he is the warmonger, not Hitler.”
Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. Winston Churchill’s warnings are now seen only through the lens of his elevation to the leadership of Great Britain in 1940, and his incredible success as the man who took on and eventually beat the unbeatable Nazi war machine. But what was he thinking in the 1930s as he watched his political career disintegrate ever more with each speech he gave to the House of Commons? His detractors scoffed and derided him as they watched this once great political figure defy the popular political trend and talk about containment, and military action, in an era of conciliation and diplomacy. Churchill was no fool. He knew his message was falling on deaf ears, but he kept going. Why?
In Terumah we are informed for the first time about the Mishkan, the wilderness sanctuary, and how it was to be built. Each piece was constructed in such a way that it could be deconstructed for transportation purposes – except for the poles that held up the Ark of the Covenant: בְטַבְעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַדִים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶנּוּ - ‘the poles should remain in the rings of the Ark, they may never be removed.’ Ralbag explains that the Ark needed to demonstrate the completeness of the Torah, as it contained the Luchot. Even if everything else could come apart, the Ark could not, to show that the Torah can never be deconstructed. But the Ralbag’s suggestion seems ridiculous. Surely the generation that had encountered the Almighty at Mount Sinai would never question the integrity of the Torah? And if one of them did, why would this non-removal of the poles make the slightest difference?
Rabbi Alter Henoch Leibowitz z”l explains that keeping the Ark intact was decreed by G-d to confirm that which the Jews already knew, but for one reason or another was proving difficult to hold onto in their hearts. The faithful need to be reinforced, particularly when their faith is being challenged, and their world is falling apart. At such a time, seeing the Ark unchanged, unyielding, and undiminished, would reinvigorate the belief they already had, and give them the strength to go on.
Winston Churchill had no way of knowing that he would one day be Prime Minister of Great Britain, much less that he would spearhead the war against Hitler and his evil cohorts. But even though logic militated against this outcome, he knew with great clarity that his understanding of the dangers posed by fascism and expansionism needed to be heard by those who shared his views, but whose spirit was weakened by the appeasement zeitgeist. They needed to see the Ark of the Covenant unchanged, unyielding and undiminished, if there was to be any hope that Hitler would one day be vanquished.
For this same reason Netanyahu must stride into Congress with confidence and conviction, and tell the world what they all already know – that Iran is intent on becoming a nuclear power. Not because he will convince the appeasers, but because he needs to reenergize the spirits of those who are his fellow travelers, but who have all but given up hope in the face of those who insist on placing the world in grave danger, on the basis of skewed foreign policy and diplomatic incompetence. Let us listen to Prime Minister Netanyahu speak to Congress with pride, in the knowledge that when the time comes, he will be acknowledged as the person who, to his own detriment, called it out loud and clear long before anyone else, and who understands best how to deal with Iran’s evil regime.