Here is the press release issued by the Rabbinical Council of America in response to the Freundel scandal:Â http://rcarabbis.org/pdf/Freundel_release.pdf
By now, many of you have read the reports of a prominent Orthodox rabbi on the east coast who has just been arrested on voyeurism charges. Although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, these accusations are very grave, and our hearts and thoughts are with victims of such activity and with the rabbi's family and community.The Hilul Hashem/desecration of G-d's name brought about by the charges themselves is also very severe. All of us, as committed Jews, should feel the pain.
Despite the somber turn of events, I would like to wish the EB and entire Seattle Jewish community - Mo'adim Lesimha. Let us rejoice in Sukkot as it draws to a close and welcome in Shemini Atzeret and Simhat Torah!
Members of the Sephardic community greet one another with the expression תזכו לשנים רבות - "may you merit many years" from Rosh Hashana to Yom Hakippurim.
Rav Hayim David HaLevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, was asked to identify the original source of this greeting. In the course of his response in his book, "Aseh Leha Rav", Rav HaLevy cites Rav Hayim Palagi, who identifies the source as the verse in Devarim 16:13
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days.
The verse uses the future tense, "you shall celebrate"; and so we wish our fellow Jews, "If you celebrated Sukkot this year, may you merit doing so for many years to come…."
This source is perplexing: Even if we see the hint in the language, what is there about Sukkot that makes it fit to be the basis of this greeting? And why did Sephardic custom develop along different lines, namely, to greet others with תזכו לשנים רבות until the end of Yom Kippur, but "Moadim Lesimcha" –on Sukkot?
I would like to propose an answer based on an excerpt from Rav Shlomo Aviner's book, עם כלביא. Rav Aviner notes the odd phenomenon of two opposite themes during the month of Tishri: both the High Holydays, the "Days of Awe", and Sukkot, "Zeman Simhatenu - the time of our joy"! The Rishonim also note that there seems to be no intrinsic connection between Sukkot and the month of Tishri; after all, Sukkot recalls the divine protection afforded the Children of Israel the entire stretch of 40 years in the desert!
Rav Aviner quotes Peleh Yo'etz, who explains: "[Sukkot is right after the Days of Awe] to cause us to rejoice from our anguish and sadness of the days of repentance." Sefat Emet notes: "…After the Days of Awe, there is a special need for joy, because a person is not complete if he is only exposed to awe and fear."
In other words, we need to be emotionally "healed" from the impact of the High Holydays. During Elul, we gradually detach more and more from this world, and turn our attention to spiritual pursuits – with the climax – Yom Kippur. Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook says that, of necessity, this process triggers a "disconnect" with the sanctity of this world. "But, in truth, this world and the next hug each other; they are intertwined, and the cultivation of one serves as the basis for elevation in the next. True, during the days of repentance, we need to intensify our spiritual pursuits; that is why the days of joy arrive – to return ourselves to (normative) life."
Unfortunately, many American Jews, including our own congregations, make the most concerted effort to attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Often, their last Jewish religious experience for the year is the exhausting 25-hour Yom Kippur fast.
With this in mind, let us return to the source of תזכו לשנים רבות – may you merit many years, the verse in Devarim Ch. 16 mandating the observance of Sukkot:
ז,יג חַ֧ג הַסֻּכֹּ֛ת תַּֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים בְּאָ֨סְפְּךָ֔ מִֽגָּרְנְךָ֖ וּמִיִּקְבֶֽךָ׃
When you bring in the products of your threshing floor and wine vat, you shall celebrate the festival of Sukkot for seven days
When we wish someone תזכו לשנים רבות, we are not just wishing him a long life; quality of life is also important! We want our fellow Jews to live long, happy, fulfilled lives. As Sefat Emet notes, one whose relationship with G-d is built only on awe and fear, does not become spiritually whole. With the verse in Devarim as the backdrop, we can be understood as wishing another a long, quality life of joy and closeness to the Creator!
True, the custom is to issue תזכו לשנים רבות as a greeting between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, because that is when our lives are literally hanging in the balance; embedded in our good wishes is a beracha for a joyous fulfilling life, the kind of life we begin to taste from with the arrival of Sukkot, זמן שמחתינו.
(originally published in the Vaad of Seattle newsletter)
A few decades ago, Tradition Magazine published a wonderful article by Prof. Yehuda Gellman entitled “Teshuva and Authenticity”. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy giving a class using this article as a springboard for discussion.
Essentially, Prof. Gellman argues that doing “teshuva” is especially complex in our day and age. If a person were to be lost on a desert island, it would be challenging to respond authentically to the predicament – because of the many movies and books we have all read about people getting shipwrecked on desert islands. As human beings, we naturally refer to the models we’ve seen or read about – as we respond to our own personal predicaments.
Back in the 1980’s, at the height of the Ba’al Teshuva movement in Israel, it became suddenly possible for someone with little or no background in Torah learning to attend a yeshiva or seminary. No longer only the domain of great scholars, yeshivot opened up with the goal of teaching the religious novice the depths of Torah in an authentic and inspiring way. This had major impact on Jews the world over; in fact, many of us greatly benefited from this watershed development!
That said, it also became a greater challenge to forge one’s own religious personality. Having a role model is essential for religious growth; after all, who does one learn from if not from one’s rebbe and one’s peers? At the same time, we all have a tendency to cut corners, to adopt the form and approach of others – “copying and pasting” their experience and approach, and applying it to ourselves. This tendency can often lead to unintentionally negative results. For, since we are all individuals, each of us must confront, head-on, our own personal deficiencies. Although a religious framework – including Rambam’s laws of Teshuva – is helpful in that process, it cannot replace an honest reflection on one’s own particular challenges.
Prof. Gellman beautifully illustrates this in his closing passage:
“Several years ago, when I was in graduate school, the calendar of studies allowed a month's vacation to study at a famous yeshivah in the greater New York area. The intensity of the learning contributed to a mounting sense of the seriousness of the day of judgment. By the time Rosh Hashanah came this feeling was very strong. The experience of Rosh Hashanah increased it to the point where at Yom Kippur I was completely gripped by the awesomeness of the day of judgment. My davening on that day expanded the experience of being judged more and more; until I got to the words Yodea mahashavot be-yom din, "He knows my very thoughts on this day of judgment. " At that moment the utter simplicity of those words aroused within me the absolute conviction of their truth. For the first time in my life I actually believed that He knows my thoughts. As a result I couldn't continue to daven. I was paralyzed. All about me people were throwing themselves around, waving their hands in remorse and pleading. I couldn't go on. Since He knows my thoughts, He knows that what I am doing is a fake. He knows my true feelings, what I really believe and what really is important to me. The external signs mean nothing to Him. He knows the truth. It's no use. I sat down, paralyzed. Finally, I went out for a walk in the neighborhood. Gradually the feeling wore off. The absolute conviction that He sees through me faded away. Then, when I no longer believed it, only then was I able to return to the beit midrash and daven, shaking, waving my hands, contorting my face, with the rest of them. I had returned, from the “I” to the “they”. The disorientation of being torn out of context was replaced by the feeling of the beauty and the pleasure of castigating oneself in fellowship. The fear of being alone gave way to the strength of community.”
In other words, community is both a beautiful and helpful component in the teshuva process – but it cannot replace personal reflection and an internal “accounting.”
Let us all use the upcoming fast to experience a profound re-encounter with our true selves.
Gemar Hatima Tova & Tizku Leshanim Rabbot!
I hope everyone had a meaningful Rosh Hashana and I want to wish you all a Gemar Hatima Tova this Yom Kippur.
It has come to my attention that not everyone is clear on the proper, halachic way to purchase fish. I am writing this brief blog post to clarify the halacha.
As you know, a kosher fish must have fins and kaskeset, ie kosher scales. The test for kosher scales is if they can be removed without damaging the flesh of the fish.
Some may think that purchasing a fish fillet marked “cod” or “whitefish”, for example, from a grocery store is permissible, since the store has labelled the fish with a name that you know to be a kosher species. This is incorrect! The non-Jewish person in the fish department cannot be relied upon halachically to identify the species. The exception is salmon, which is identifiable as salmon even without a skin tab.
The other issue involved in purchasing fish involves the use of non-kosher knives and cutting boards. In such a case, residue from non-kosher species cut with the same knife and on the same cutting boards is problematic.
At our local stores under Va’ad hashgacha, the words of the hechsher are clear:
• Customer must verify at time of cutting that the fish is of a kosher species by seeing fish raw with skin on. Pre-cut fillets with a skin tab and salmon may be purchased without further supervision. A Vaad mashgiach is available upon request for supervision of cutting.
• Customer should request that fish cut to order be processed with kosher knives on the kosher boards.
• Fish should be weighed on clean paper (not touching the scale).
• Ground Fish: Ground fish is only available in Va’ad sealed packaging (each package must have two seals with the Va’ad symbol, or through special arrangement with the Va’ad.)
If you would like to read a helpful F & Q’s on this issue, see http://www.kashrut.com/articles/fishfaq/
In memoriam of Rabbi Avraham Shalem z”l, spiritual leader of Ezra Bessaroth 1959-1962. The following is a translation of an article published in the Iyar 5723  edition of the Sephardic Torah journal Kol Sinai. At the time, Rabbi Shalem had visited Eretz Yisrael to place his son in Yeshiva, and expressed his desire to return to the Holy Land during that visit. In an effort to help him find a new position, the editors of Kol Sinai decided to write-up and publish a short summary of his accomplishments up to that point.
[Avraham Shalem] was born in Jerusalem in the year 5688 (1928) to his father Rabbi David Shalem (may G-d protect him and grant him life), a beloved figure in Jerusalem who served as a soldier in the first Judean battalion in WWI, and who took an active part in the defense of Jerusalem during the riots of 5685. He was known as an active public advocate to promote Torah and its students. He was very active for Yeshivat Shaare Zion, which was founded by Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory. The Shalem family was well known for generations as a family of famous rabbis and lay leaders in the great Jewish community of Salonika, Greece.
After young Avram completed his studies in the Mizrahi (Zionist) Talmud Torah, his teachers recommended that he continue his studies at the “Seminar leMorim Mizrahi” (Zionist Teacher’s Seminary). But his father opposed this and brought him to Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory, and told him that his wish was that his son should continue in the rabbinic tradition of his family and fill the dwindling ranks of Sephardic rabbis.
The Chief Rabbi happily accepted the child and admitted him into Yeshivat Shaare Zion, at whose helm stood Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem.
With sacrifice and dedication he devoted himself to his studies, and was conferred rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Waldenberg, the chief rabbinate and Rabbi Uziel, and Rabbis Hizqiyah Shabbetai, Shalom Azulai and Yaakov Ades. After a year of exams and service at the Sephardic high court of Jerusalem, he was conferred as a judge by the Chief Rabbi. At that time he was also ordained at the institute of supplement for yeshiva graduates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization headed by Rabbi I. Berman. At the same time, he served as a teacher of Talmud and professional religious service at the Talmud Torah Or Hahayim in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the field corps and helped defend the Holy City [of Jerusalem].
The Sephardic congregations of Peru turned to the chief rabbinate and the Jewish agencies to send them a rabbi that would lead these congregations that stood at the verge of acculturation and assimilation. Chief Rabbi Uziel selected the young, dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem for this position and rescue mission. In those days, the Sephardic lay leaders in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv arose to choose a Sephardic rabbi for the emerging community of Ramat Gan. This choice fell upon Rabbi Avram Shalem, and a struggle ensued between Peru and Ramat Gan as to which would claim Rabbi Shalem. The primary advocate to bring Rabbi Shalem [to Ramat Gan] was Mr. Avraham Recanti, an MK of the first Kenesset and a leader of the Sephardic community. However, Chief Rabbi Uziel stressed the importance of mission work in the Diaspora and combatting assimilation over that of being a rabbi in Ramat Gan, and also that a Hillul Hashem should not be caused in the eyes of the community leaders in Peru, who chose the venerable Rabbi Avram Shalem.
And so the Chief Rabbi told him as follows, “You should embark on this mission for the sake of the Jews who cry out to be saved from acculturation. And when your contract ends in five years, you can return to Israel and choose any number of positions”.
At the end of the year 5710 , Rabbi Avram Shalem left to administer as the rabbi of the Sephardic community of Peru. In the capital city of Lima he accepted the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of all communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic. After some months, a unified community was organized for all matters of shehita, mikva’ot, burials, etc. The Rabbi [Shalem] was in constant contact with Chief Rabbis Herzog, Uziel and Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank to inquire about some of the more pressing questions that arose. As well, the Rabbi took the entire responsibility of Jewish education in the community schools, and his success was great, as many of his students were accepted to yeshivot, and many were sent to the large yeshivot in New York, among them Yeshivat Torah Vodaath, Yeshiva University, and others. He also brought back many families to Judaism and prevented intermarriage and assimilation and did much for the sake of Torah and Israel. For a number of years he served as an associate director of the World Zionist Organization, and traveled to the outer suburbs on behalf of the UJA. In those days, before there was an Israeli embassy in Lima but rather just an honorary consulate, the Rabbi contributed to diplomatic efforts and was in correspondence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
When he came to Lima, an epidemic of intermarriage plagued the community and it was in danger of acculturation and assimilation. The Rabbi succeeded in saving dozens of families from acculturation and brought them back to leading faithful lived of Torah and mitzvot. He led a forceful campaign for Torah education, mikva’ot and family purity and kashrut. There were a number of parnassim of the community who were angry about this. But the Rabbi, with his personality and skillful direction, succeeded in his efforts, and after seven years of work, he left the community on a solid and robust Jewish footing and he left his position to a graduate of Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Rabbi David Dayan, who continued with force and dedication to strengthen Torah and mitzvot in Peru.
In response to an offer from the great Sephardic synagogue “Yehuda Halevi” in Mexico, he left to lead that congregation. But because of differences of opinions involving fundamental Torah issues, as he saw that this congregation had strayed completely from Jewish law and tradition and was unwilling to correct its crooked ways, he resolved to leave them and went to Congreagtion Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle, WA in the US. There he joined the work of the rabbis of that place, and at his initiative, a Bet Din comprising the four Orthodox congregations was founded, a va’ad of kashrut, a special va’ad of education and others. In the year 1961, when a crisis [concerning the legality] of ritual slaughter arose throughout the US and it was in danger of being harmed, it was the State of Washington that scuttled this effort, thanks to the organized efforts of the rabbinate there, under the diligence of the dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem, who succeeded in influencing important politicians, chief of whom was the governor of Washington who granted Rabbi Shalem the privilege of presenting before the Senate an argument for the defense of Jewish law. This achievement also encouraged other communities and states to continue to fight this, and the proposal was abolished. Messages of encouragement came in from all rabbinic organizations, as well as from Rabbi Soloveitchik and others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the grand rabbi of all Chabad chassidim throughout the world, endeared him and one of his meetings with him lasted a number of hours. A rare thing that demonstrated the appreciation that the great leader of Chabad had for Rabbi Shalem was the fact that he continued his correspondence with him and advised him in congregational matters.
The Sephardic Jewry in Mexico previously was led by Rabbi Mordekhai Atiyah as head rabbi of the community, and he did much toward its Jewish education, but he returned to Israel after some years in the rabbinate. These communities were thus left without a spiritual pastor, so they searched for a prominent spiritual guide and they sought out Rabbi Shalem.
Some time passed and a request came from the prominent “Congregacion Monte Sinai” of Mexico to become their head rabbi. A pointed and difficult struggle erupted between Seattle, WA and Monte Sinai, Mexico. In this pitched battle, the Mexicans won the upper hand and they gained the privilege of Rabbi Shalem, and in the month of Shevat, 5722  he became the head rabbi of the Monte Sinai Sephardic congregation in Mexico. In short time, he worked in cooperation with the Ashkenazic community of the place and formed a central rabbinate in Latin America, under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Hershberg, and Rabbi Shalem was chosen as its Vice President. This organization joined and coordinated the services of the communities of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico. This center oversaw the rabbinic and educational efforts throughout Central America and Caribbean, and in the past year, they sent certified shohetim to Guatemala and Venezuela. In Mexico itself, the center took care of issues with kashrut and established a unified bet din for the three congregations that judged on matters of kashrut and marriage.
The school of the Monte Sinai congregation counts almost 600 students, and here too the rabbi assumed responsibility for educational matters, and he raised its Torah and educational grounding to a very high level. In addition to this, there is a Talmud Torah and Yeshiva in the evening where close to 30 students learn under the guidance of Rabbi Shalem.
Throughout the years of his rabbinic service in the Diaspora, he did much to aid the Torah and charitable institutions in Israel. Chief among them is our great Yeshiva, Midrash Porat Yosef, Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Chinuch Atzmai, Torah U’mlacha Shel Hamizrachi, orphanages, the educational network Chanoch Lena’ar, Torah Vodaath and tens of other institutions and yeshivot. In the past year, he became the president of Israel Bonds in Mexico, the rabbi’s house being the address for all emissaries.
The rabbi is proud that after years of hard work and toil, he merited helping his esteemed congregations to be free of intermarriage, to love Torah and its students, and whose generous hands are extended to strengthening and supporting the bastions of Torah in Israel. These are the congregations of Monte Sinai and Zedek Umarpe, where prominent men stand at their helm and greatly help in outreach efforts in their congregation, to teach them about Torah, their faith, and mitzvot.
Many stories abound of the deeds and efforts of this young and dynamic rabbi, and it has been 13 years that he has wandered throughout the streets of the Diaspora to save Jews from apostasy and assimilation. The time has come for the young rabbis of Eretz Yisrael to take the place of this great rabbi so that he could return to his home, his family and the land to which his soul is drawn, where last month he came to Israel to enroll his eldest son in yeshiva; at which time he strengthened his resolve to return to his heart’s desire – to the sacred air of our Holy Land. Is it not fitting that the Chief Rabbinate and Office of Religious Affairs and mayors of Israel, whose Sephardic congregations are vacant without a spiritual leader, should choose this dynamic and active rabbi that he should return to lead as a chief rabbi of one of the cities of Israel? Indeed it is proper that those who have power to decide should give precedence for these positions to those rabbis who fulfilled their service and missions in the Diaspora. By doing so, it would encourage and strengthen the will of our young rabbis to leave to the Diaspora and save our scattered, acculturated and assimilated [brethren].
There is not enough space to contain all the details of the deeds and qualities Rabbi Avram Shalem, who is an erudite speaker, whose audiences include speakers of a number of languages including, English, Spanish, Castilian [Ladino] and others. He is a man of learning and deed, of pleasant manner; a man of the people who knows how to chastise them and raise them upon the pedestal of faith Torah and mitzvot. Most of all, “his fear [of Heaven] precedes his wisdom”.
It is our hope for Rabbi Avream Shalem, that G-d should grant him health and long life to continue his wonderful work in the Diaspora, and soon he should return to Israel to assume the leadership as a rabbi of one of the cities in Israel. Well done!
Our sense of appreciation for the Jewish people has grown exponentially over the past month. The pure gevura, spiritual might, of the citizens of the State of Israel, the IDF soldiers, the bereaved families, is truly something to behold!
Both from a halachic and common sense perspective, it is clear that Israel had not only a right, but an obligation to defend its citizens from the cruel Hamas attacks and horrific plans. It is now well-known that Hamas was planning on releasing 200 terrorists to carry out a massacre of soldiers and civilians on Rosh Hashana, G-d forbid! A former colleague of mine, Ariel Kahane, broke that story on Maariv...
I found it particularly troubling how both American and British journalists pressed Israeli officials on the morality of IDF conduct during the height of the war. Naftali Bennett, among others, asked his interviewer how she would respond were she to be faced with a similar threat.
In a matter of weeks, the United States has been thrust into a parallel situation in its conflict with ISIS. President Obama spoke very articulately last night on the sheer moral necessity for America to act.
It is imperative that we, as a Jewish community, continue to unequivocally support the State of Israel. Sunday's "Standing Together" Solidarity Rally, coordinated by Keith at the Jewish Federation, is also co-sponsored by EB, along with a host of other important Jewish institutions. I implore you to attend the rally and show your support for Eretz Yisrael, Medinat Yisrael, and Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Benjy Owen delivered the following Derasha at Ezra Bessaroth last week, Perashat Pinchas; I want to thank him very much for his thoughtful and pertinent words:
This past week our community's children returned from Sephardic Adventure Camp – over 50 teenagers and children were led by an extraordinary cadre of counselors, directors, volunteer lay leaders and rabbis.
This past week war has broken out in Israel. The situation is the culmination of over one month of tension and anguish for the Jewish People and specifically our brothers and sisters on the front line in Eretz Yisrael. Earlier this week, I was on the phone with an Israeli who was in Gush Etzion. We were speaking and all of a sudden he said that the siren had gone off and that he had to go to take shelter. He later told me that the rocket that had been fired from Gaza had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system.
Many of us check the internet multiple times daily. We see pictures of Israeli children reading in bomb shelters. We read about layers upon layers of expensive technology to safeguard the Israeli citizens including our children. Israel’s concern for civilians extends to Gaza. As we know, Israel sends notification of upcoming attacks and takes extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties. But I have been so disturbed to read reports from Gaza, in some cases, civilians, including children, have run to the rooftops as human shields.
This week’s perasha recounts the incident of Zimri – a leader of the tribe of Shimon – and Cosbi – the daughter of a Midianite prince. Pinchas sees Zimri and Cosbi in flagrante delicto – in an immoral act in public – and executes them both on the spot. For his zealotry in defense of the integrity of the Torah community, Hashem rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and the Priesthood.
The Torah then outlines a Mitzvah that only relates to the nation of Midian.
צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם – Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them.
Normally, the Torah demands Bnei Yisrael to offer peace to an enemy that you are about to go to war with. Midian – no. Be hostile to the Midianim.
Normally, when besieging an enemy, allow an escape path. Midian – no. Besiege them on all four sides. Strike all of them.
Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
Malbim explains that the answer emerges from a close reading of this and last week’s Perasha. Cosbi, princess of Midian, was caught with Zimri the Shimonite leader. How did they get themselves into this situation? Malbim explains that there was a context to this entire episode. Bilam had unsuccessfully tried to curse the Jewish people. He knew that the Jewish people could only be cursed if they strayed from Hashem. He tried to convince Moav to entice the Jewish people to stray from Hashem. Moav was not interested in this plan. Bilam returned home. On his way home he travelled through Midian and shared with them his idea of how to successfully curse the Jewish people. With this knowledge, the leader of Midian hatched a plan. Use his daughter, Cosbi, to lure Zimri, the leader of Shimon, into an immoral act and bring down the Jewish People through the spreading of immorality.
Returning to the question: Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
One measure of a society is its philosophy. At the core of America’s philosophy is the primacy of the individual and his rights. The Jewish People are at a permanent state of war with Amalek because it glorifies a human-centered and violent philosophy. Canaan and the other six nations exemplified the philosophy of idolatry.
Another measure of a society is the value that it places in its children and in the diligence that it exercises in securing their well-being. The Torah commands us to educate our children to become Jewish adults. In most cases, we even prioritize our children’s learning over our own learning. We are responsible for our children like a lender is responsible to safeguard a pledged object. Sephardic Camp is so inspiring because through the camp we exercise this responsibility. At this unique camp, where, for two and a half weeks, a mini-Seattle Sephardic Community is created, we transmit our community’s minhagim and we foster relationships between campers, counselors and leaders that will last forever. The campers have fun together boating, swimming, being creative and playing sports all while praying three times a day, learning Torah and making berachot. We are ensuring a Jewish future for our community.
In Midian, children were possessions. The leader of Midian viewed his daughter as a pawn – an object through which to destroy the Jewish People, he offered his daughter as a tool to entrap the Jewish People. In this type of society, all tactics will be used. The society will even destroy its most prized possessions to beat the object of its hatred. Dealing with this type of society requires a high level of hostility. Therefore, the Torah commands us to be hostile to Midian and to strike them.
Needless to say, the situation in Israel is complicated and highly nuanced. The story of Midian teaches us that in going to war our leaders must first make a vital calculation about the enemy – how much value does that society place on its children? That calculation should guide the strategy that our leaders adopt. If the hatred of Israel is so deep as to contort the society’s responsibility to its children, it must be treated with great hostility. Prime Minister Golda Meir made the calculation in her generation. She said, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Our leaders must make this vital calculation for our generation.
May Hashem grant wise counsel to our leaders and true peace to Israel.
I received the following email from our good friend Eugene Normand after the publication of my article in the Va'ad newsletter (the previous post) Reprinted with Eugene's permission:
I just read your Dvar Torah on the Vaad page, “A Rededication is in Order” and want to complement you on it. I like the way you wove in some of the underlying ideas of the Pittsburgh Platform of the Reform Jewish movement in the US with parshat Hukat. I am familiar with the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, but didn’t know about the amended version of it that came out more than 110 years later.
At SBH I have made it a practice on the jahrzeit of one of my parents to give a biographical sketch of a prominent Jewish personality, one who most people may not know too much about. My father’s meldado is two days after Shavuot and this year, just a few weeks ago, I spoke on Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes, minister of Shearith Israel in New York from about 1878-1918.
Rev. Mendes was very much aware of the Pittsburgh Platform and the challenge it represented, which was one of the reasons that led him to found two important Jewish institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU). The JTS was established in 1888, and it opened up as an institution for training Orthodox rabbis, its first graduate was Rabbi Joseph Hertz. However, within ten years it veered off (especially after Solomon Schechter arrived) and so Rev. Mendes dropped his support of it. You might say the Yeshiva Universality was a more successful follow-on institution to JTS that got it right and kept to its original principles.
In about 1898 Rev. Mendes, along with his cousin, Rev. de Sola, the rabbi in Montreal, was instrumental in founding the OU and Rev. Mendes was the President of the OU for its first 10-15 years. Although born in the UK, he viewed the Pittsburgh Platform as a great threat to the continuity of Orthodox Judaism in the US, and so he sought ways of strengthening traditional Judaism through new but necessary institutions.
What this shows is that at least one rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue in the US, living through the era of the Pittsburgh Platform, recognized its dangers and did something about it. You use the philosophical side of the Platform to show how to avoid its rejection of traditional values and at the same time strengthen those traditional values.
For some time now, I have been outspoken about my aversion to the whole concept of "denominations" within the Jewish world. Opposition to the labels "Orthodox, Conservative and Reform" does not imply a monolithic view of the Jewish world. Far from it: Not only do differences in custom exist between Asheknazim and Sephardim, but the Jewish world is replete with different levels of observance, personal stringencies, and the like.
Perashat Hukat dwells at length on the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. Of all the laws of the Torah, the Red Heifer is the one that Shelomo Hamelech, King Solomon, could not totally wrap his mind around:"I said I will become wise, but it is beyond me." (Kohelet 7:23)
Para Aduma is a Hok, a law whose rational basis is unclear.
Rav Yosef Levinson writes that when a person observes a mitzva that he understands, as sincerely dedicated as that person is, the observance itself does not necessarily indicate that he has become an "Oved Hashem" - one who serves G-d. The litmus test of whether one is performing mitzvot as part of service of Hashem - is the Hok. When a practice lacks a degree of rational appeal, and we nevertheless commit ourselves to its observance, we exhibit faith in a source of wisdom beyond our understanding.
One of the first formal breeches in the Jewish people's national acceptance of Torah and mitzvot was the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Its drafters recognized "in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine." In other words, the Torah's laws had some value at the time. "....and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."
So the rule to determine what would remain binding Jewish practice was, "the views and habits of modern civilization."
The implications were clear: Kashrut - a classic Hok - was summarily erased with the fourth clause of the Platform, as were all laws governing the status of Kohanim: "We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation."
In 1999, a sequel to the original Platform was drafted. It was less radical, and represented a turn towards tradition, expressing more openness to learning: "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community."
The message was less direct than in 1885, but it clearly implied: We will learn all the mitzvot, but we will not fulfill those mitzvot that fail to fully "speak to us."
Instead of dwelling on the perasha of the Red Heifer and accepting the challenge of becoming an "Oved Hashem" - much of the Jewish world sadly bought into a new system in which mitzvah fulfillment became conditional upon the mitzvah's ability to strike either a spiritual or logical chord in the heart and mind of the Jew.
It is from this change of course that we have never fully recovered, and from which we plummeted into the fallacy of "denominations".
Let us all use Perashat Hukat 5774 as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the concept of a Hok, of a lofty Divine Mind that transcends our own.
It used to be that when someone presented himself to you as a Jew, there would be no reason to question it. Although I am more wary these days, for a number of reasons, this past week - I was duped.
A bearded gentlemen, donning Talleth and Tefilin, showed up at our “Power Minyan.” He was wearing a plastic hospital bracelet, and said that his wife just had a baby girl and he would like to name the girl during the Keriat haTorah.
The man read the berachot flawlessly and gave us his wife’s name and the name of the new baby in perfect Hebrew. We wished him a mazal tov.
After Tefilah, we asked him who he was, and where he’s from.
Tim Buckles, and he’s from Everett.
Now what would a modern “Hasidic” – looking Jew be doing in Everett? What kind of Jewish life is there up there?
You see, Seward Park is just too darn expensive….
A trusty minyan attendee was suspicious and started looking into this person’s background.Â Mr. Buckles, in the internet age, it’s pretty tough to be a practicing charlatan!
Tim Buckles is none other than Timothy Layne. He is not Jewish. He is one of the leaders of the Tzemakh David Messianic group in Everett WA.
That has not stopped Rabbi Tim from trying to get a foothold in the Orthodox community, including an attempt at infiltrating Chabad outside of Seattle.
Look, it’s a free country, and people can believe in whatever religion they want, even make up their own religion which somehow reconciles classical Judaism with the belief in Jesus as one’s personal savior.
It’s the deception that’s troubling. I’ve put a call into Matthew Steele, President of the Tzemakh David Messianic group, to request that his congregants, maybe even his rabbi (?) conduct their missionary work elsewhere.
You see, in an effort to “win souls”, Mr. Buckles, Layne, or whatever his name may be tomorrow….feels that God is on his side.
Below: Clockwise: Buckles-Layne in one of his Yeshivish moments...note the picture of the Hafetz Haim (!) in the background; Tzemakh David women, who embrace the divinity of Jesus, would not dare show a strand of their hair...Rabbi Tim on a brief break after some intense Tzemakh David davening!
Perashat Shelach is our annual opportunity to somehow rectify the transgression of the spies. Only Calev and Yehoshua resisted the peer pressure and refused to speak disparagingly about the land of Israel. Until we successfully rebuild the Bet Hamikdash, Tisha Be'av, the evening of the spies' sin, will remain a day of mourning.
On Shabbat, I suggested that we do our part in addressing the sin by speaking positively of the Land of Israel.
At the conclusion of Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud Bavli (112a-b), the Gemara records activites of various sages aimed at evoking a love and respect for Eretz Yisrael.
ר' אבא מנשק כיפי דעכו. ר' חנינא מתקן מתקליה. ר' אמי ורבי אסי
קיימי משמשא לטולא ומטולא לשמשא
R. Abba kissed the stones of Acco. R. Hanina fixed damaged roads. R. Ami and R. Asi moved (during their learning) from the sun to the shade and from the shade to the sun.
Rashi explains that R. Haninah had such love of the Land that he did not want any possible rumors to spread about the state of disrepair of its roads. R. Ami and R. Asi wanted to avoid complaining about uncomfortable weather in Eretz Yisrael, so they always moved their hevruta learning to a more comfortable venue.
Another example cited by the Gemara R. Hiyah Bar Gamda rolling in the dust of Eretz Yisrael, similarly conveys an intense love of the Land. So powerful is this value in our tradition, that Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 5:10 actually "codifies" these behaviors as exemplifying how the average Jew should relate to the Jewish homeland.
On Shabbat morning, Tosafot's commentary on this Gemara caught my eye.
רבי חנינא הוה מתקל מתקליה - פירוש שוקל אבנים ומוצאן קלות אמר עדיין לא נכנסתי לארץ ישראל כיון ששקלן ומצאן כבידות אמר כבר נכנסתי לארץ ישראל
R. Haninah used to weigh rocks and, when he would find them to be light, he would say, "I have not yet entered Eretz Yisrael."Once he weighed them and found them heavy, he would say, "I have entered Eretz Yisrael!"
Tosafot goes on to support his interpretation by citing a Midrash Tanhuma to this effect.We should first note that what prompts this interpretation is difference in the edition of Tosafot's text of the Talmud: our edition uses the expression מתקן מתקליה. Rashi, as do others, understands R. Haninah as engaging himself in repairs, as תקן, the root of מתקן indicates. Hence, Rashi's explanation that R. Haninah fixed the roads. Tosafot, in contrast, has an edition that uses a ל at the end of the first word of that phrase, such that it reads מתקל מתקליה. For Tosafot, the word מתקל is the Aramaic equivalent of שוקל, he weighed. What did he weigh? Rocks and stones, to determine if he had yet entered Israel.
At first blush, this understanding has little in common with the others cited by the Gemara; the others either display a sage's desire to praise Eretz Yisrael or to prevent its being disparaged; how does R. Haninah's rock-weighing fit in? How is it, too, a way of praising Eretz Yisrael?
Rocks are heavy; they provide a solid foundation on which to build. It was only recently that some Israelis have begun to tile their floors with ceramic tiles; the vast majority still use "Balatot" - heavy square stone slabs.
The mishna in Berachot (fifth chapter) says אין עומדים להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש - one should not begin his Amida until he has achieved כובד ראש, a serious attitude. The word כבד is associated with something important, serious.
Honoring parents is called כיבוד אב ואם. Your parents played a significant, "heavy" role in your life, and you should give weight to their contribution. When R. Haninah wished to determine whether he had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, he tested the rocks. Once he sensed that he was entering a land of great significance, he knew he had reached the Land of Israel. When one declares that he is entering a land in which everything has inherent signficance, is the greatest "praise" that Eretz Yisrael could ever hope to receive. It's this appreciation of Eretz's Yisrael's foundational role in Jewish identity that prompted R. Haninah in the Midrash Tanchuma's version of the story to kiss those stones.
I am delighted that EB is taking a lead and participating in the wide array of community programming as Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut approach. Programming kicks off on Shabbat after a NYHS-sponsored Kiddush @ Ezra Bessaroth on Shabbat day, May 3rd.
Following Musaf, NYHS Head of School Rabbi Bernie Fox will be delivering a class for a review and discussion of Rabbi Soleveitchik's seminal essay, The Voice of My Beloved Calls. In the course of his discussion, Rabbi Fox will deal with questions like: "What is the impact and meaning of the State of Israel? How have Diaspora communities been affected by the creation of the State of Israel? How might Jewish life been different had history taken an alternative course?"
Shabbat Afternoon @ 6:20 pm, I will lead a session on the question: "Was the Jewish State Born in Sin?" We will be looking at Torah sources that have been used to advance an anti-Zionist perspective and offer possible responses to those claims....
Women are invited to join the Midrasha - Seattle Torah Institute for Women for a special class on "The daughters of Tzelafchad & the Love of Eretz Yisrael, Sunday, May 4th at 10am. Followed at 11am by a class on the topic: "Is there a Halachic Obligation to make Aliyah?". To be held at the home of Rachel Sassoon 5505 S. Upland Road in Seward Park.
The next day, at Minyan Ohr Chadash - Monday May 5th, there’s a Yom HaZikaron memorial for Israel’s fallen soldiers followed by a festive Arvit service for Yom HaAzmaut. Mincha promptly @ 7:30 pm ~ The program begins @ 7:45 pm
On Tuesday May 6th EB will be joining the Shaharit @ SBH at 6:50am. This will be followed by Hallel for Yom HaAzmaut and light breakfast.
Then on Tuesday evening, join us for a community celebration of the miracle that is Israel. The festivities commence on Tuesday, May 6th at 5:30 pm with the Seattle premiere of "The Miracle of Israel", an exciting film that explores the amazing facts and incredible events that led to the rebirth of the Jewish state. This will be followed by a delicious dinner and an exciting program full of music and surprises. Registration is on the EB website or by calling Susan at 722 5500 - $15/person
One of the more perplexing sections of the Haggadah, is the “Dayenu,” A favorite of Jewish kids the world over (perhaps second only to “Ma Nishtana”) Dayenu traces the kindnesses bestowed upon us by Hashem from the early part of the Exodus until our entry into Eretz Yisrael. At one point we say,
אִלוּ נָתַן לָנוּ אֶת מָמונָם וְלא קָרַע לָנוּ אֶת הַיָּם, דַּיֵינוּ.
“If he had only given us their riches and not split the sea for us, it would have been enough for us.”
Now, whereas the previous stages of the Dayenu could be understood as a graduated “thank you”, this latest stage is somewhat difficult to grasp. After all, Had G-d not imposed such severe plagues on the Egyptians, their gods, nor kill their first born sons, or give us their money, we could have still exited Egypt. But had he given us their money and not split the sea…..we would never have escaped!
Can you imagine the following: A single inmate, with no heirs, on Death Row, wins the Mega Millions jackpot. What good is it to him? Had the Jews “hit the jackpot” but died at the sea, the gift of the Egyptian riches would have been pointless.
In fact, in the first display of sarcasm in the Torah, the Israelites, pinned in at the Sea by the Egyptians, say to Moshe:
יא …. הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר: מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם.
11 'Weren't there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die in the desert? How could you do such a thing to us, bringing us out of Egypt?
If I were to ask you which of the following three Hagim from the Torah is the most difficult, how would you rate them: Succot, Pesach, Shavuot?
Most people answer that the easiest Hag to observe is Shavuot. What’s involved? It’s a regular Yom Tov, but aside from staying up all night studying Torah (a custom and not an obligation per se), there are no specific mitzvot of the day! Succot is usually rated as #2: A significant amount of preparation is necessary for the holiday, building a Succah, and carefully selecting your four species. But once the Hag arrives, all one must do is have his meals (and sleep if possible!) in this makeshift house, and shake a few branches and a citrus fruit once a day. And you’re good to go!
Pesach, in contrast, is a very challenging holiday: Prior to Passover, we must launch a complete overhaul of our kitchen, purchase only (expensive!) Kosher for Passover products, stay up all night speaking about the Exodus (twice outside of Israel!) and consume vast quantities of somewhat tasteless wafers and Romaine Lettuce or horseradish…
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, reports on how he once asked a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews this very question. In a terrific article in YU’s latest “Pesach-to-Go” journal, Rav Sacks adds: “I then asked, which festivals are kept by the greatest number of Jews. Again, everyone agreed: Pesach was kept by most, Shavuot by the least, with Sukkot in between. There was a pause as the group slowly realised what it had just said. It was counterintuitive but undeniable: the harder a festival is, the more people will keep it.”
Rabbi Sacks notes that the same phenomenon exists outside of the Jewish world. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely invited a group of people to make origami shapes: “Their work was then demonstrated and participants and bystanders were asked how much they would pay for them. On average, the people who made the models were willing to pay five times as much as were the bystanders.”
Reflecting on the very troubling results of last fall’s Pew Report on American Jewry, the former Chief Rabbi continues:
“Throughout a century of reflection on how to sustain Jewish identity in an open, secular society, the case has often been made that we need to make Judaism easier. Why make the barriers so high, the demands so steep, the laws so rigorous and demanding? So, one by one, the demands were lowered. Shabbat, kashrut and conversion were all made easier. As for the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha, in many circles outside Orthodoxy they fell into abeyance altogether. The assumption was that the less demanding Judaism is to keep, the more Jews will stay Jewish.”
Of course, the fact that the more people are invested in a project, the more dedication, self-sacrifice and even love they have for the project, shows the fallacy of the assumption Rav Sacks cites above.
In my earlier post, “The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking” – I discussed the threat to Torah and mitzvot posed by Biblical Criticism and the ongoing need for an articulate “renewal” of our commitment to Torah. It is no secret that the handmaiden of reduced observance is the attack on the authority of Torah and the accompanying oral tradition, including both Torah and rabbinic law.
This all dovetails beautifully with Daniel Gordis’ fall essay in which he bemoans the decline of the Conservative movement in the United States. In a response to the Gordis piece, Torah scholar and historian Rabbi Berel Wein writes:
“Gordis rightly puts the blame for this failure on the spiritual leadership of the movement, which made few demands on its congregants and succumbed to every societal whim of the time. A religion, which in essence stands for nothing and allows everything, cannot in the long run remain viable and alive.
“Gordis emphasizes how the (in)famous decision of the Conservative movement in 1950 to allow its congregants to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat not only helped destroy the Shabbat but also contributed to the destruction of the movement itself. People instinctively saw through the sham and realized that if it was permissible to drive to the synagogue than it must also somehow be permissible on Shabbat to drive to the golf course.
“People have the ability to do as they please but nevertheless a religious movement must always remain an arbiter of right and wrong, of what is permissible and what should not be done. By blurring that line the Conservative movement lost its identity and its reason for existence.
“There are many Orthodox Jews who are not really halachicly observant in all forms of technical requirements. Nevertheless they realize that Orthodoxy stands for basic principles and historical beliefs that remain valid and uncompromising in its demands on its adherents. The Jew who drives his automobile to attend Shabbat services at an Orthodox synagogue is aware that he or she is not observing the Shabbat as it should be observed.
“One is entitled to behave as one wishes but the requiem for the Conservative movement was pretty much self-inflicted by its dumbing down of the core principles of Judaism and severing itself from the ideas of Jewish spirituality and historical continuity.
Now, here is where the Sephardic synagogues of Seattle can take a leadership role, by articulating the above to its membership: Sephardic Jews have generally not suffered from the same “denominationalization” (is that a word?) that has characterized the Ashkenazic Jewish community; there are obvious historical and sociological reasons for this. Sephardic congregations such as EB and SBH seek to serve the Sephardic community as a whole.
Observant Jews sit along less observant Jews in the same sanctuary and share Shabbatot and Hagim together. This all takes place within a scrupulously-observant atmosphere where Shabbat, Kashrut and appropriate separate seating with a Mehitza are the hallmarks of the synagogue. The synagogue as an institution is the beacon, the ideal of Jewish life. Congregants find their place along the continuum. This is an authentic Torah position; instead of “dumbing down” our standards, we maintain them and educate others to appreciate the depth and profundity of Torah.
At the sea, the Israelites were beneficiaries of the promise made to Avraham Avinu. It was Avraham who was initially told that his nation would be enslaved, but it would leave with great riches. At the moment of truth, however, we stood in front of a closed sea, before of a G-d implored by Egypt’s ministering angel: “These (Egyptians) are idolaters, and these (Israelites) are idolaters! Why save one group over the other?”
We are the beneficiaries of deposits into our spiritual bank accounts made by earlier generations. In the Dayenu, the message is not that it would have been enough had G-d awarded us the riches, but not split the sea. That is of course preposterous!
Instead, the Dayenu is a narrative that traces the graduated development of the nation. The turning point, and the justification of our continued existence as a people, hinges on how we, standing alone in this generation, answer the fateful questions of our own commitment to the Torah.
Here's my new blog entry, a version of which I delivered on the second day of Pesach:
Earlier this week, I am sure many of us were busy up until the last second making our final preparations for Pesach. Our own family was no exception; at about 5:30 pm on Monday afternoon, I found myself in the fruit department of the Ranier Valley Safeway store. A man in his late thirties looks me straight in the eye, and in a booming voice declares: "Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad!! This is how you say it, right?"
"Yes, I guess it is how we say it...who are you?... Are you... Jewish?"
Apparently, the Shema-reciter is a descendant of Spanish Jews; according to him, his great grandmother was Jewish, as was his grandmother, and apparently - his mother...
"Do you belong to one of the congregations in town?" I asked.
"Beth Shofar...In Tukwila.... We're a messianic congregation."
Now, I did not know if he was in fact Jewish, as he claimed.. I figured that the most I could (and should) do (!) was to explain that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally different religions.
He politely smiled, but was not particularly receptive to my words. I could see that he believed that being Jewish was consistent with a commitment to JC.
I posed the following question: "If you believe that the Torah is binding, will you be eating Matzah tonight?"
"No, I will not ...."
At this point, things become a bit of a blur; I didn't exactly understand what he said; something about JC eating the matzah for us, being our Paschal Lamb...You get the idea.....
As our mini-debate reached a crescendo, he assured me that I, along with the entire Jewish people, would ultimately “see the light” and embrace his belief in JC.
Incidentally, after the Hag, I checked and it seems that Beth Shofar had a Passover Seder. Not a lot of matzah or maror in this video, but a lot of bongos....Perhaps an echo of Miriam taking a drum in her hands after the sea split (!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVHA3HfiHTo#t=10
As my mentor and I we were about to declare a truce, a young woman with a bright cheery smile and pure wonderment in her eyes approached me and asked, "Are you Rabbi Meyers?"
I nodded. "How do you know who I am?"
"I saw your picture on the website."
To make a long story short, this woman had contacted me several weeks earlier inquiring about conversion. We had a brief exchange and agreed to be in touch following Pesach.
The scene was somewhat surreal: a man of Jewish lineage urging me to accept the Christian messiah and an inspired non-Jewish woman seeking to become part of the Seattle Jewish community. Both on Erev Pesach 5774.
On Seder night, prior to the main mitzvot of Matzah and Maror, we recite a Hallel. In the Sephardic Hagadah shel Pesach edited by Hazzan Azose, the Hallel is introduced by the words ונאמר לפניו הללויה - "...and we will recite before him, Hallelu-yah". In other editions, ונאמר לפניו שירה חדשה הללויה, " "...and we will recite before him a new song, Hallelu-yah". According to both versions, though, before the blessing of גאל ישראל - He who redeemed Israel - we say וְנודֶה לְךָ שִׁיר חָדָש עַל גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ ועַל פְּדוּת נַפְשֵׁנוּ – and we shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.
Now what is the new song we are referring to here in the Haggadah? It seems to be the same old Hallel: the verses from Tehilim, from Psalms, that we say every holiday, and customarily recite on Rosh Hodesh! According to the text that introduces the Hallel with the phrase שירה חדשה, we do hear an echo of the daily blessing following the Shema שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך הגדול על שפת הים – the redeemed ones praised Your great name with a new song at the edge of the sea…. And in keeping with the theme that in every generation – and especially on the seder night – each Jew must see himself as if he personally left Egypt, the שירה חדשה – the “new song” terminology strikes a familiar chord. The Hallel of the Seder becomes our “Song at the Sea”……
But the term שיר חדש does not recall that blessing….Maybe the song is a “new song” because on the night of the Seder, the Hallel is split in half, one portion read before the main mitzvot of the evening, the other after Birkat Hamazon….?
I would like to suggest an alternate explanation of the concept of a “new song” on Pesach.
Back in 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a sermon to his congregation, the Jewish Center in New York City. His words are as relevant today as they were then. Rabbi Lamm distinguishes between two concepts: novelty and renewal. Novelty, he explains, “is the misuse of the inclination for newness for things, for gadgets…” Renewal, in contrast, “comes about when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.” Whereas novelty is extrinsic, a question of packaging,’ Rabbi Lamm notes, “renewal is intrinsic; it is a matter of content. Novelty is the seeking of thrills; renewal is the thrill of seeking.”
We Jews seem to have an inner sense, a drive, towards renewal. Only, quite often we misdirect it. Take the Jewish world over the last two hundred years. With the advent of the Age of Reason and scientific inquiry, we Jews succeeded in unraveling three thousand years of Jewish tradition: Many of us bought into an approach, championed most notably by Wellhausen, that exchanged the awesome Sinaitic revelation recorded in the Torah for the four-editor theory. Modern Bible critics declared that the Torah does not record an immutable, Divinely-given Torah, but rather four different editors – the J, E, D and P editors, were responsible for the work’s final content and form. Many Jews subsequently traded in תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב- Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the House of Jacob - for a convoluted hodge-podge pastiche of sometimes redundant and contradictory passages. Instead of the profound depth and harmonizing approach of our trusted oral tradition - through our beloved Rishonim and Acharonim – we uncritically ingested the legal and moral anarchy of sundry academics for whom our tradition was never a Living Torah…..
To be sure, the numerous challenges raised by academic approaches to the Bible are serious and each deserves a thoughtful response. Great Torah luminaries such as R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_Raphael_Hirsch provided such responses. In our modern day, Rav Mordechai Breuer developed an innovative response to the Bible critics, although some Torah personalities, like R. Shlomo Aviner, have issues with his assumptions and methodology http://www.ravaviner.com/2012/09/what-would-rabbi-mordechai-breuer-have.html In an unconventional use of modern media to illustrate the depth of the Torah to a new generation, Rabbi David Fohrman has launched http://alephbeta.org/ These are all examples of renewal; they are models of what can transpire “when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.”
The theme of renewal permeates our classical sources. Rabbi Lamm cites the prophet Yehezkel, (Ezekiel) who “properly pleads for lev hadash ve-ruah hadashah (Ez. 36:26), ‘a new heart and a new spirit,’ not merely for new techniques and new objects. The halakhah declares that ger she-nitgayyer ke-katan she-nolad dami, ‘a proselyte has the status of a newborn child’ (Yevamot 22a). And, in the same spirit, Maimonides declares that the repentant person must experience the feeling of spiritual
rebirth; religiously he is a new individual (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:7).”
The “new song” of the Leil HaSeder is really the text of the “same old Hallel” that we have come to know and love. On the Seder night, and for that matter, throughout Pesach, each Jew is being challenged to discover new purpose in his or her life as a Jew; on the eve of the Exodus, “Why be Jewish?” warrants new consideration. Our task is to make the same old song …… a שיר חדש.
Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is in a unique position. Founded by Sephardic Jews from the island of Rhodes, EB provides the structure, the rootedness, the tradition.
In recent years, EB has welcomed in Jews from various backgrounds: Ashkenazic Jews, Ba’alei Teshuva/recently religious Jews, and Gerim, converts. The call of the day? Cross-fertilization! What does this practically mean? That newcomers should respect the Rhodesli synagogue customs, including the text of the Tefilot and the proper pronunciation of those Tefilot, to name just a couple of examples. On the flip-side, long-standing members should both admire and revel in the pure inspiration and idealism of our new additions. Together, this Pesach, we can generate a Hallel that is truly a שיר חדש, a new song.
While some seek novelty, we must pursue renewal.
The great sage Rabban Gamliel declares that one who has not mentioned three themes on the night of the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation. They are: Pesach, Matzah and Maror. Minimally, on the first and second nights of Passover, we must highlight the Korban Pesach – the Paschal sacrifice; secondly, we are mandated to discuss the origins of the mitzvah to consume Matzah; thirdly, we should reflect on the bitterness of the hundreds of years of Jewish enslavement in Egypt.
Question: How are we to inspire our children, grandchildren, families and friends with these themes?
In a nutshell, the evening’s foods remind us of how G-d killed their first-born, saved ours, how disorganized we were, how we left in hurry, and how rotten life was back in Egypt!
One would think that the most “educable moment” of the year – the Seder night – would be utilized to convey some lofty ideals, some sort of eternal message that would resonate for the 21st century Jew, young and old! What ultimate impact does Rabban Gamliel’s declaration make on us at a moment of heightened spiritual sensitivity, Leil HaSeder?
I would like to suggest re-examining Rabban Gamliel’s statement as a reflection of three core themes:
a) The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel;
b) The Jew as a model of frugality and simplicity;
c) The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences
The Jew as a member of Klal Yisrael
Rabban Gamliel first focuses on the Korban Pesach, the Paschal sacrifice. Let’s examine some of the laws associated with the sacrifice: The lamb is to be selected “according to their fathers’ houses”; if there are not enough people in one family to consume an entire lamb, “then he and his neighbor should take one….”; the meat must be roasted, and not boiled or cooked in another liquid; the lamb must be roasted whole and no bones should be broken; none of the meat must be taken outside the home in which it is being eaten.
Now, what one theme runs through the various halachot/laws of the Korban Pesach? I would like to suggest that it is the theme of family and community unity. Why else is there an insistence that the Pesach meat be consumed within the family or neighborhood, and that the meat not taken outside of the home in the course of the meal? The theme of unity is also evident in the requirement to roast the lamb whole. Commentaries have noted that roasted meat also retains the shape and form of the original animal, while boiling causes the meat to fragment and disperse within a given pot. The message: Jewish unity.
Let’s take this theme to the next level: On the night of the Exodus, G-d gave the Jewish people a directive to begin to view itself as a nation, and not as a mere collective of individuals. We are also not the tiny family that descended, seventy souls strong, into Egypt hundreds of years before. We have crystallized into a nation with all of the responsibility this entails. This idea is brought out best by the following verse: and you should keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter [the Pesach] at dusk.”
The Talmud states: “R. Nathan said: How do we know that all Israel can discharge [their obligation] with one Passover-offering? Because it is said, and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at dusk: does then the whole assembly slaughter the lamb? Surely only one does! But it teaches that all Israel can discharge [their duty] with one Passover-offering.”
In other words, it is not necessary that each one of us actually consumes the meat. It is sufficient that one lamb is taken for the entire nation. The Korban Pesach is an offering that unifies and defines our nation.
I think that this template, in which every Jew lives a life of responsibility for his fellow Jew, as a member of a unified nation – is reflected beautifully in an article by Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Atlanta. Rabbi Feldman writes of the need to create a “model community” rather than an “observant community”; in such a model community, Jewish law/halacha “is observed rigorously, and is seen as the means to fulfill the mission to reflect G-d in the world. Communities are models of the human capacity to connect to the Divine; the goal of observance is to give expression to that glorious spiritual nature of man. Torah is powerful, and secularism and materialism, while capable of attraction and spiritual destruction, are no match for the expressed of man. The vocabulary of such a community is one of connection, of inspiration, of inclusion, of confidence. Its language is that of purpose and mission. There is a sense of custodial responsibility for the Torah, and for other Jews. Non-observant Jews are essentially divine, even if masked by superficial secularism. In looking at other Jews, the goal is not to see how they measure up, but to discover their innate greatness.”
The Jew as a Model of Frugality and Simplicity
The great sage, Maharal, offers a fresh understanding of Matzah, referred to by the Torah as “lechem oni”. One interpretation of this concept is “Bread of Affliction”; another “The Poor Man’s Bread”. Maharal disagrees: Matzah is truly a bread of redemption simply because it is “poor” in terms of its ingredients: just flour and water. A poor person has little aside from himself and his body, the basic minimum for existence. His being is independent of anything outside of himself and his essence. Matzah, too, has nothing besides the basic minimum for making up the dough, flour and water. Matzah Ashira/egg matzah has additives that remove it from the category of “lechem oni.”
Redemption, Maharal explains, means to leave the state of being controlled by others, independent of any external attachments. Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky explains: “A slave is not independent, since he is attached to and controlled by his master. A wealthy person, too, is not independent, since his identity is the result of his attachment to his money and possessions, and can he be controlled by them... But a poor person, having nothing but himself, stands completely separate and independent from anything outside of himself, and he portrays redemption and freedom. Matzah doesn't represent a poor person. Rather it represents the process of going free from slavery, which is accomplished by removing any bonds or dependencies on things outside of oneself. Severing those bonds is exactly the process of redemption.”
Dr. Dale Archer recently wrote in “Psychology Today”: “With every passing day, technology is overtaking our daily lives. Regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, career or economic status, you're probably packing a smartphone right now. In fact, 56% of all Americans own one. The phone, computer, tablet and other high tech devices have become not just an object, but for many a best friend. Many suffer from anxiety if they lose their phone, even if only for a few minutes. We rely on it to do everything from saying I love you to breaking up, from checking bank balances to investing…”
Man’s technological prowess, then, has created a greater degree of dependency on forces outside of himself.
When we decide to purchase a home or a car, or plan a wedding, what percentage of our decisions are governed by that which is absolutely necessary vs. what is expected of us by our peers?
Matzah calls on the Jew to confront his inherent freedom and release himself from the bondage of excessive dependencies!
The Jew as one who sees the value in all of life’s experiences
Traditionally, Maror, the bitter herbs, are cited as the symbol of our embittered lives while slaves in Egypt. A comment by Rambam, Maimonedes, however, sheds new light on the nature of Maror: Rambam writes that whereas the mitzvot of the Pesach sacrifice and Matzah are stand-alone obligations, Maror is not. The verse that mandates the consumption of the bitter herbs, Rambam notes, views Maror as peripheral to the meat and Matzah. Rambam asserts: “If you ate Maror without the meat, you did not do anything halachically relevant, and we don’t say that you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of Maror.”
What is the symbolic message here?
Rabbi Arye Stern suggests that we are bidden never to view our lives as presenting anything “purely bitter”. We could easily look at the story of the Exodus as featuring two separate elements: the torturous years in Egypt followed by the sweetness of redemption. We could say that the enslavement was truly bitter.
The mitzvot of the Seder night (in their Torah formulation) are encouraging us to transcend this view: The Maror is only relevant to a Jew when consumed within a “wrap” of Matzah and the Pesach meat. Both the Matzah and the meat are symbolic of redemption; similarly, there are elements of our bitter years that are also redemptive.
In fact, any traumatic emotional, financial or health event in one’s personal, family or communal life, can be looked at as either as purely bitter or ultimately beneficial. Personal crises can often be the springboard for a reassessment of one’s values and a new direction in life; the necessities associated with financial hardship can help bring to the surface certain latent talents and inner strength.
Even the bitter herbs can be sweet: This is the message of the Maror!
A Jew who internalizes this message can begin to see the ultimate goodness and the value in ALL of life’s experiences.
In the past, we've spoken about the issue of yeshiva students and the IDF draft. At the time, we noted the changes that are coming about as a result of the socioeconomic situation of the Haredim, political changes (ie "Yesh Atid) etc. I firmly believe that if we publicize developments like the one in this video (that I have shared on Facebook) - see my facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ravronami.meyers...we will go a long way in integrating our "ultra Orthodox" (don't love that term) brothers into the IDF and thereby into Israeli society as a whole. What a Kiddush Hashem!
Members and newcomers to EB joined the Jewish Family Service today for its first “Families Fight Hunger” program. We packed dry goods: beans, rice, oatmeal, planted parsley to be used in a few months as “Karpas” in Passover gift baskets, and did “fight-hunger”-related arts and crafts…Looking forward to a continued partnership with JFS! For more information on JFS programming, visit http://www.jfsseattle.org/