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Marco Polo was not the first world traveler

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

By Jerry Kasten
Every summer, children splash the pools trying to evade capture in a game called “Marco Polo.” The game is simple: A blinded tagger roams the pool shouting, “Marco!” while others respond, “Polo!” driving the tagger in the direction of his or her victim by sound.
I assume these children were taught that the game is named after Marco Polo, an early overland traveler merchant who helped the East meet the West.
Marco Polo crossed into Asia by a combined land and sea journey from southern Europe to India and China. His journey established trade routes and fostered the exchange of European and Asian knowledge.
However, Marco Polo was not the first to conquer this task.
Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jewish scholar, made a similar journey 100 years before Marco Polo. His observations provided a more scholarly insight and perspective and might have served as a foundation for Marco Polo’s journey.
Since knowledge of life outside of Western Europe was limited, any eyewitness accounts by travelers helped contribute to the knowledge of the world. Benjamin’s travels took him from Europe to Asia and Africa.
We know that Benjamin left Tudelo, Spain, around 1160 and returned in 1172.
Places he visited included Barcelona, Marseilles, Rome, Naples, Rome, Salonica, Constantinople, Corico, Jerusalem, Damascus, Mosul, Bagdad, Cairo and Palermo.
He visited both Jewish and non-Jewish communities, keeping a travel diary titled “The Travels of Benjamin,” during his journey of a dozen or more years.
Benjamin’s observations describe each area’s sociological and geographical features, in addition to its Jewish community.
Originally written in Hebrew, his book was deemed important enough to be translated into the major European languages for all to read, including future travelers such as Marco Polo.
World history publishers need to credit Benjamin of Tudela (Spain) in addition to Marco Polo (Italy) with helping to provide significant geographic knowledge of our early world.

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Making vows involves ongoing dialogue with God

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we find three spectacular images tied to the three towering personalities: the clouds of glory attributed to the merit of Aaron, the “Well of Water” to the merit of Miriam, and the manna to the merit of Moses. The “Clouds of Glory” and the “Well” disappeared with the passing of Aaron and Miriam, but they were later restored in the merit of Moses (who broadened his leadership role).
One of the distinguishing qualities of Aaron, recounted in Pirkei Avot, was that he loved beriyot (creatures) — even those people who had no other apparent virtue other than being “creatures [of God].” Thus, it is said of Aaron alone that “the entire house of Israel mourned Aaron for 30 days.” (Numbers 20:29) That is also the deeper reason why the “Clouds of Glory” came by virtue of Aaron — for, as the Talmud explains, everything follows the principle of “measure for measure.” Just as he loved all beings without distinction, so he elicited the “Clouds of Glory” which encompassed each member of the community equally.
But these clouds of glory, which had surrounded and protected the Jewish people, temporarily disappeared with Aaron’s passing. It was then that the nations who had been observing what was happening within the camp of Israel smelled opportunity — they figured that the Israelites were now vulnerable. One nation, located closest to the south of the land, decided that it was an appropriate time to attack.
Picking up on a detail in the verse, the biblical commentaries relate that this nation was, in fact, Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, who approached them in disguise: “The Amalekites changed their language and spoke in the language of Canaan, so that the Israelites would pray to God to deliver the Canaanites into their hands, and [since] they were not, in fact, Canaanites [the prayers of Israel would have no effect]. Nevertheless, Israel noticed that they were dressed like Amalekites…”
Amalek first took a Jewish maidservant captive. One child seized from the Jewish community was enough to prompt the entire Jewish people to wage war. And before setting out to battle, they made a vow to God, saying, “Vayeedar Yisrael neder … if I’m able to be victorious over this people” — it said “this people,” instead of specifying, because the identity wasn’t yet clear — “then I will consecrate their cities.” The Torah continues that “God listened to the voice (i.e., the vow) of Israel,” accepted the prayer, and delivered the Amalek people into the hands of Israel. And after the people were destroyed, the possessions in the cities were all dedicated to God, given to the Temple.
The power of speech
In Judaism, making a vow to God is a solemn act. This power that a person has in his or her mouth is more intense than many may realize. There is a type of neder, vow, that is unilateral — things that a person verbally resolves to do or refrain from doing. In Jewish law, such a vow can even make certain items holy, or off-limits, for an individual. Then there’s the type of vow mentioned in the above verse, which is more like “making a deal” with God. It usually arises in a dangerous situation, when a person is feeling helpless and pleads that “if You, God, will help me, then I’ll do such-and-such for You.”
This phrase “he made a vow” appears only three times in scriptural narratives: The first mention is with our forefather Jacob while he was traveling down a precarious and dangerous path to Haran, where he would find his soulmate and build his home. After the mysterious dream where he saw the ladder reaching up to heaven, he made a vow and said “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way…and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house…this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will tithe to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
The second place this phrase, “Vayeedar neder,” occurs is in this week’s portion, when Israel (Jacob’s proper name, now used for the Jewish people) made a vow. The third and final time appears in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11. But in the story of this final mention, making a vow degenerated into a tragic situation wherein the general, Yiftach (Jephthah), didn’t take into consideration what could possibly evolve from his deal with God.
Should we make deals with God?
The subject of making vows is a complex topic to consider, including whether such promises are recommended or discouraged. On one hand, we see from the verses of Jacob and Israel’s vow that there is a precedent for making deals. On the other hand, the concept of making vows to God can be dangerous. There are those who argue that, as a rule, all decisions and promises should be kept in one’s heart rather than expressed in words. The most basic reason is that we lack foresight and cannot consider all factors — a person never knows whether they will be able to follow through with the vow. (In the spiritual realm, just as in the financial, it’s always preferable to receive a gift or an investment in your venture than to take a loan, even an interest-free loan.)
The mystical teachings point out that whenever the story of a vow appears, the Torah uses the words, “Vayeedar neder.” This phrase possesses the same numerical equivalent, 474, as daat — ”knowledge” or “consciousness.” Perhaps the deeper message here is that the ability to make a vow, in the optimal sense, requires a high level of knowledge. In other words, if a person has higher consciousness, the ongoing awareness that God is the only true reality guiding the outcome while everything in this world, “below,” is relatively naught — then his or her vow will be solid. If, however, the vow is made from desperation, a lower-level consciousness, it is unwise.
This does not mean, however, that in one’s private communion with God, one should refrain from declaring positive resolutions. After all, the effectiveness and fruits of prayer are largely about effort and personal change. When you change, so does your judgment and fate. Likewise, to make room for blessings, it is always helpful to express a firm commitment for the future — but without promising (in Hebrew, “bli neder”). The ideal approach is to make the commitments regardless of any outcome.
The theme from all the above is internalizing how improving our relationship with God is more than refining our attitude toward the events in our lives — it involves an ongoing dialogue. Sometimes, the impetus to get closer stems from “an initiative from above.” For example, because something good happened to us, we feel inspired to make a positive change as a way to show gratitude. Other times, we make the change first — do a mitzvah, or pray — and then look for reciprocation. And there are times when, under pressure, we feel compelled to call out for help and we lay out the terms — “If You do this for me, then I’ll…”
Either way, we learn from the Torah that our words make an impression.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org

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Free to live in a better world

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

This summer we study mitzvot through “mitzvah heroes.” Each week we remember — “We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us!”
Herut is the mitzvah of seeking freedom, which began with the Israelite’s escape from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. Since that time, we have been told to remember and tell the story.
Judaism understands that freedom does not mean the chance to do whatever you want — it means the chance to live and work for a better world.
A special mitzvah that goes along with Herut is Pidyon Sh’vuyim or freeing of captives. It is our responsibility to help Jews who are held captive whether from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia or other places of oppression.
Mitzvah hero of today’s world —
Natan Sharansky
Anatoly Sharansky was born in Russia where Jews could not practice Judaism, nor could they leave the country. Sharansky became active in the movement to gain freedom for Jews and for all those suffering under the Communist regime.
Due to his work, he was denied an exit visa, harassed by the KGB and imprisoned. He became the best-known Jewish dissident.
Sharansky’s wife, who changed her name to Avital when she arrived in Israel, worked for his release. In November 1985, President Reagan convinced Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev to let Sharansky go to Israel.
When Sharansky arrived in Israel, he kissed the Western Wall and said, “Baruch matir asurim. Blessed is the One who liberates the imprisoned.” He changed his name to Natan — a gift from God.
In our ancestors’ footsteps — Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935) was a Jewish army officer in France who was accused of passing military secrets to the Germans in 1894. In spite of all kinds of errors in his trial, he was found guilty and sent to Devil’s Island Prison. Finally, in 1904, a new court re-examined the case and declared that the evidence was unsubstantiated and that Dreyfus was innocent.
Theodor Herzl was a journalist covering the case. He was so upset by the anti-Semitism that had caused this that the “Dreyfus Affair” prompted Herzl, the Father of Zionism, to begin his quest for a Jewish state.
Finish these statements
Natan Sharansky fulfilled the mitzvah of Herut by:
Alfred Dreyfus fulfilled the mitzvah of Herut by:
I can fulfill this mitzvah by:
Family talk time
• We all know the story of the Israelites in Egypt who were slaves until Moses came along. The people came to Mt. Sinai and received the Torah — a book filled with rules. Did that mean we were no longer free? How can you be free if you have to follow rules?
• Find out about one of your camp friends who is from Russia. Why did their family come to Dallas? What does freedom mean to them?
• The mitzvah called “Pidyon Sh’vuyim — freeing of captives” is about a responsibility we have to help others gain their freedom. What are some ways we can do this mitzvah today?
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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What we mean by ‘Next year in Jerusalem’

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
We, in the Diaspora, end the Passover Seder with “Next year in Jerusalem!” What do people in Jerusalem say?
Mark J.
Dear Mark,
People in Jerusalem say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
This should not come as a shock because as part of the daily silent Amidah prayer we also ask God to return us to Zion and Jerusalem. That prayer is recited by Jews living in Jerusalem.
Now, you’ll ask, “Why is that so? They have already returned to Jerusalem.”
The Jerusalem we have today is not quite the same Jerusalem we have been praying for the last 2000 years.
We are more than thrilled to presently have possession of the Wall, the Old City and the surrounding new cities of Jerusalem. It affords us the opportunity to connect to Jewish history, the Jewish people and God. It offers many Jewish young men and women the opportunity to study for short- or long-term periods of time in yeshivos and seminaries on very high levels of Jewish scholarship.
However, the Jerusalem of today is still a far cry from the Jerusalem we are still waiting and praying for. Jerusalem is not just a place, even a holy place, but a concept. It is the composite of two words, “yirah,” meaning the awe of the Almighty, and “shalem,” meaning perfection and inner peace. Shalem is also the root word of shalom. The combination of the two spells out “Yerushalayim,” or as we know, “Jerusalem.”
The way we arrive at the real Jerusalem is with the Divine Presence, the Shechinah which dwells within it. This took place in the Holy Temple which stood above what we know today as the Western Wall. That wall, with all its holiness and power, is merely a retaining wall, below the Second Temple courtyard. The Temple itself, known as the Beit Hamikdash, or House of Holiness, was a place that Jews and Gentiles could visit and bring their offerings to God. Many of those who entered that hallowed place felt they entered a different dimension, a kind of twilight zone which could not be described. Even Gentile visitors knew they were in a completely different space and were left changed forever. That feeling was not limited, however, to the Temple alone. Its light shone upon the entire city of Jerusalem. The entire city was a place where its visitors had the potential of being transformed by its granting of inner peace and the awe of God exhibited by many of its citizens. The light of the Temple illuminated courtyards throughout Jerusalem.
This is the meaning of the verse we sing with the removal of the Torah from the Ark each week: “Ki Mitzion Teitzei Torah u’dvar Hashem M’Yerushalayim,” “From Zion will emanate the Torah and the Word of God from Jerusalem.” When Jews from throughout Israel came to Jerusalem three times a year on each holiday as the Torah commands, something special happened. They saw the holiness on the faces and in the lives of the Jerusalemites, and observed the hallowed existence of the Kohanim, a group of priests performing the Temple worship in their unique garb. They noticed the shining face of the Kohein Gadol, the high priest, in his eight royal vestments, surrounded by holiness, and felt the aura of the Shechinah. All this they took back with them after the holidays to their respective towns and villages, serving as an inspiration to diligently study Torah and aspire to newer and higher heights of observance and spirituality.
That is the Jerusalem we, together with the citizens of the present Jerusalem, are waiting and praying for. Next year in Jerusalem!

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We are losing a generation of giving people

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

My last uncle, Irwin, has died. His seven sisters — my mother and my aunts — are long gone, as are his four brothers.
It is sad, frightening and humbling to lose the last survivor of a whole generation, the generation of those rocks upon which I have built a whole life.
Today, people worry about the Millennials and, now, the so-called Z Generation already following them — the “Z” signifying the last. Maybe our society has run out of names for those who will be born later. But for me, my uncle’s generation was the true last generation of Americans who were willing to put their lives on the line, quite literally, to save the world.
And my uncle was one of them.
As you read this, I am in Pittsburgh. Uncle Irwin’s funeral was yesterday. I now know the answer to the question I asked myself, but no other: “Who will wear the black ribbon for him?” I wrote his obituary for the local daily and the Jewish weekly, and, in doing so, compiled two long lists: first, all those who preceded him in death; second, all of us who have followed him in the family.
The first list was long; the second was much longer. I named only direct descendants of his own first-degree relatives, for all of whom are dead. But their progeny totaled more than 40, and, with him, numbered five generations. To lose him, our only link with a whole part of our past, is to say goodbye to an irreplaceable part of our history.
I love Dallas, my adopted city. But Pittsburgh, my birth city, is forever the home of my heart. If you can look past last year’s Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, because something like that could have happened anywhere, you will agree with me that it’s an excellent place for Jews to live.
There are many synagogues and places to buy and eat kosher. There is a Jewish Federation, a community center, a Holocaust Memorial and Jewish schools. While Pittsburgh doesn’t have many Jewish schools, I’d argue that less is more.
Because Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is smaller, those who are part of it recognize how important such Jewish institutions are. People who do not keep kosher at home support the kosher businesses, because they know that without them, their city would not be somewhere that all Jews could live comfortably.
It’s even a good place to die: There is only one full-service Jewish funeral home, where everyone Jewish is memorialized and buried from. It’s consistent in its services and provides comfort in closeness with its community.
My uncle, age 96, was a product of this community. A self-made wealthy man, he gave generously to charities and to his own family. He anticipated needs and met them without being asked. Until his death, he was putting others before himself.
We will always laugh through tears at the experience one of my cousins had when visiting Uncle “Srol,” a nickname derived from his Hebrew name, “Yisroel.”)
Just two days before his death, David, just wanted to hold his hands and talk to him, no expectations, nothing more.
And the response he got was, “Why are you here? Don’t you have some errands to run?” How many who are literally on their deathbeds could make a comment like that?
So, as I write this, looking back and moving forward, I am full of tears, but not crying. Not yet.
Because I’m sure that, by the time you are reading this, many would already have cried with me yesterday.

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A July 4th reflection: the American in me

A July 4th reflection: the American in me

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

By Matan Rudner

I have a complicated relationship with America. It’s the place where I was born and raised, where as an impressionable youth I first began to understand the world, and it’s the country I left for good just months after graduating high school. Since making aliyah, I’ve worked hard to become a full-fledged Israeli and to leave the United States behind.
As a result of my purist Zionism, I tend to operate in a binary system. I live proudly as a Jew in the Land of Israel, and I’ve always believed that Hebrew culture and American culture are mutually exclusive. I adopted my Hebrew name as my legal name and listen to nothing but Hebrew music, all in an attempt to counteract the impact that 2,000 years of exile have had on our people.
My remaining ties to the United States felt even more thoroughly severed after the 2016 presidential election: The country chose hatred and regression over compassion and progress, it rejected the values I hold dear and it felt like the final nail in the coffin of my identity as an American. I was horrified, and still am, by the direction the United States has taken these past three years, so when I left my country of birth for the country of my destiny I was content to leave everything behind.
But despite my best efforts, nearly two years have passed since my aliyah, and like the faint hints of English in my Israeli accent, vestiges of my American past remain. So I’ve decided, this July 4th, to face the facts and try, albeit begrudgingly, to make peace with the American in me.
At first glance, America stays with me most in the memories (and the Whataburger number) that I brought with me over the ocean. America is my constant craving for Tex-Mex and it’s the endless sky on the drive between Dallas and Austin. It’s the walk between my home and my grandparents’ house down the street and watching “Saturday Night Live” with my parents.
The American in me sees diversity of race, religion and nationality as something to be cherished. Though I deeply love Israel’s variety of Jewish experience that I lacked growing up, nothing can compare to the diversity of the checkout lines at Walmart, where you can hear any language at any time of the day. Only in America could I laugh with peers from six continents, and learn from them to be more open, more compassionate and more in touch with who I am and where I come from. On days when Israeli society devolves into sectarian conflict between Arab and Jew, secular and religious, I’m grateful to be have been born in a country where diversity is not a weakness to be overcome but a strength to be celebrated.
Before the re-establishment of our state, our people relied on others to protect us. In the decades before the Holocaust, as pogroms swept Eastern Europe, millions of Jews fled the continent for the safety of America, the goldene medina, before the gates were closed. My family was lucky enough to be let in.
And in the century that’s passed since my great-grandparents got their first glimpse of Lady Liberty, this country has given us everything.
In three generations, America has provided my family with stellar opportunities for education and employment. It’s given us the chance to participate fully in a triumphant democracy, through the ballot box and through protest. It’s embraced us in every sense of the word and granted us the liberty to express our Jewish identity, a liberty that we had been denied for centuries in Europe. It was here in the New World that I attended Jewish summer camps and Jewish day school, that I first learned of my own heritage and of the State of Israel, a country reborn across the sea.
It’s hard for me to admit that I’m not a native Israeli, that I spent 19 years being shaped by the culture and values of the United States. But I am the Jew that I am, the Zionist that I am, the diversity-loving, democracy-defending, Tex-Mex-eating man that I am, because I was born an American. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Jealousy: natural emotion that Jews must control

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
You once explained the commandment to “not covet” as a path to control jealousy. You also said that you can’t be expected to not be jealous to begin with; the mitzvah gives guidelines to deal with that jealousy. However, if you are already jealous, have you transgressed the commandment? Also, how can jealousy, a normal human emotion, be forbidden?
Mel J.
Dear Mel,
One of the classical commentaries, R’ Avraham Ibn Ezra, provides insight on this subject. He explains that we are only jealous of, or covet, something we believe could actually become ours. For example, when we see a friend, colleague or co-worker achieve financial success, we might be overcome by jealousy. When we observe, however, a king basking in the splendor of his riches, we don’t feel envious. Why this discrepancy?
The difference is clear. We recognize we are not kings. We were not born into royal families, and do not yearn for things that could not possibly become ours. We might, however, be envious of our neighbor, who we believe is no more capable than ourselves. “Lo Sachmod,’’ “Do not covet…,’’ teaches us a profound lesson regarding God’s involvement in our lives and livelihoods. The Almighty has provided each person with enough to meet his or her needs. What is appropriate for one is not necessarily fitting for another. What belongs to another is as much out of reach as if your friend was royalty.
I think this explanation is inherent within the verse itself. The commandment to not covet our friend’s ox and donkey is uttered in the same breath in which we may not covet his wife — “Lo Sachmod.” This is hinting to us that, just as my friend’s wife is completely off limits to me (that’s his royalty), so too the rest of his possessions are to be viewed as completely out of reach. Consequently, you will not covet those belongings.
This mitzvah doesn’t command us to quash our emotions. Rather, it gives us a direction in life, which enables us to control our emotions. Natural emotions have a place, otherwise they would not have been created within us. Our job, as Jews, is to control our emotions, utilizing them when appropriate, remaining above them when inappropriate. At times, you and I will be faced with the natural emotional challenge of jealousy. During those times, we need to regain control over that jealousy.
In general, prohibitions in the Torah apply only to actions, not emotions or feelings. Although the spirit of the law may be to control and properly direct our emotions, the letter of the law only applies to actions.
Additionally, Lo Sachmod is a related prohibition. When a person takes action and pressures an owner to give or sell the item he desires, he violates “do not covet.’’ Though the seller ultimately agrees to sell the item, if he was coerced or pressured into making the sale, Lo Sachmod has been violated.
The prohibition applies both when the buyer pressures the owner directly, or has other people apply the pressure on his behalf. Items for sale generally don’t fall into this category. Asking once or twice to purchase an item not for sale is also acceptable, without applying pressure.
Imagine a situation in which a developer requires a particular parcel of land to complete a development. If the owner indicates he is not interested in selling and the developer pressures him to sell, the developer has violated the prohibition of Lo Sachmod.
This is an example of a mitzvah, which is to ultimately refine our emotions and feelings but has concrete guidelines in Jewish law to make this mitzvah actionable.
Taking this a step further, to not covet is the ultimate purpose of all Ten Commandments. This we learn from the fact that it is the last of the commandments, and the sages have taught us that “sof maaseh b’machshava techila,” the last of actions manifests the original thought. Like the creation of man after all other creations, plague of the first born after all other plagues, the creation of the Jewish people after all other core nations. But why?
If one truly believes in “I am the Lord your God,” than one will trust in that God to provide his or her every need, and to be sure he/she has exactly what is deemed appropriate.
This is why the parallel of not coveting in the Ten Commandments is honoring one’s father and mother. As one trusts his or her loving and caring parents to anticipate and arrange specific needs, so, too, he or she extrapolates that trust to G-d. This commandment is, more than any other, relevant to our lives, day by day, hour by hour, situation by situation.
To conclude, I was always amazed by my father, ob’m, at the way he expressed joy at the financial successes of others, although he earned a modest income. My understanding was that my father, as a Holocaust survivor, maintained his joy by simply being alive and enjoying the simple pleasures he was blessed with. This enabled him to not covet what others had, and to fully join in the joy of others in their successes, a joy untainted by the desire of it coming to himself. This is a lesson we can all understand and learn from.

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The burdens of intergenerational Jewish trauma

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

There’s a new book, just coming out that I hope every Jew, everywhere, will read. It’s that important.
The author is Tirzah Firestone, a psychotherapist who’s also among the newest and sometimes controversial breed of our spiritual leaders: a Jewish Renewal rabbi. Her book is entitled “Wounds into Wisdom,” subtitled “Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma.”
When I see “trauma” in a Jewish book title, I immediately think “Holocaust.” And in this case, I was right. But also, very wrong. Let me explain.
When Firestone was 25, she had a nightmare that foreshadowed her learning of its truth — that a full 15 years later, her Austro-Hungarian grandmother and all her family, had died in the Shoah. Such silence can subtly transmit that untold burden to its younger generations.
But before the knowing came the trauma’s after-effects. Firestone was one of six children, each of whom went off in a different direction, breaking away by various means to escape the home life structured by something they knew nothing about. Basically, all ran from the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle of their parents, who tried to re-create for them Jewish lives of earlier times: marriage with homemaking and motherhood for the girls, yeshiva study and scholarship for the boys. Rabbi Firestone calls this “the paradox of survival.” They learned, firsthand, what is central to this book: “How often hardened hearts were the tragic byproduct of wounds incurred long ago and never healed.”
She connects and applies her learning to those who, having experienced other forms of trauma, consciously or unconsciously repeat or re-enact them. “Abuse victims tend to attract abusive situations,” she said. “Veterans of war re-deploy. And, entire ethnic groups can find themselves again and again under attack, fighting back endlessly.” This latter gave her new eyes, new understanding, when an Israeli friend did something to help him overcome the loss of his daughter to a suicide bomber. He joined a group of Jews and Palestinians who lost children in the ongoing conflicts, to fight their pain and grieve together.
There is hope along with great sadness throughout this affecting book. Firestone left the religion she knew, with its obedience-demanding practice in the home of her youth, then returned to it in a newer, more forgiving form, to become both a practitioner of psychotherapy and a rabbi in the most modern stream of today’s American Judaism. But she does not tell us the most important truth of all until the end of this book. I wonder if that telling — this most painful story of unresolved intergenerational Jewish trauma — is why she has written this volume.
The author’s brother Daniel, 10 years her elder, was their parents’ dream-come-true: a first-born brilliant boy, schooled from his earliest days in traditional Judaism, in its ancient wisdoms and revered texts, a pride-maker whose future in Jewish scholarship was assured. And then, he left. Not having ever known anything outside the world of Jewish scholarship, he wanted to explore that other life for himself. The head of his yeshiva tried to reason with him, but finally, angrily, gave a warning: “You will die by age 30.” And after tasting other appealing religions and finding them not quite so tasty, he died a suicide — just past his 30th birthday.
Tirza Firestone’s conclusion shocks me. She posits that all Jews suffer trauma just because of who we are, from the burdens we carry as God’s “chosen,” from the responsibility for survival inherent in our Judaism, from the inescapable knowledge that we are charged with that survival, because it is the reason for our existence, not as individuals, but as the people of which every Jew is a part. That the past, for each of us, in our families and in our faith, never really disappears.
What do you think about that?

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Justice helps repair the world

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

This summer, we study mitzvot through “mitzvah heroes.” Each week we remember — “We are standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us!”
Tzedek is the mitzvah of doing justice. The words tzedek and tzedakah appear almost 300 times in the Torah. Jewish tradition teaches that justice and compassion are two of the most important qualities for people to survive and live together peacefully.
Leviticus 19, also called the Holiness Code, says that being holy is being just.
Elie Wiesel told the following story: A man who saw injustice in his city protested against it every day. One day someone asked why he continued to protest since no one was paying attention. The man answered, “In the beginning I thought I would change people, but now I continue so people will not change me.”
Mitzvah hero of today’s world —
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated with honors from Columbia Law School, not one law firm in New York would hire her because she was a woman. She became a pioneer in the fight for women’s legal rights and argued six landmark cases on behalf of women before the Supreme Court.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court. Upon accepting the nomination, she spoke of her background. “I am very sensitized to discrimination. I grew up at the time of World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child … seeing a sign in front of a restaurant: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ I have a last thank-you … to my mother. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
In our ancestors’ footsteps —
Jewish Supreme Court Justices
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most recent Jewish justices and the first Jewish woman justice. However, many great American Jews have served the United States as lawyers and judges.
Louis Brandeis was the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, serving from 1916 to 1939. He was nicknamed “The People’s Attorney” because he was an advocate of social and economic reforms. He was also a leading Zionist and Brandeis University is named in his honor.
Benjamin Cardozo served on the Supreme Court from 1932 to 1938. The school of law at Yeshiva University is named after him. Felix Frankfurter served from 1939 to 1962 and helped create the American Civil Liberties Union. Arthur Goldberg and Abe Fortas served in the 1960s and Stephen Breyer was named to the Court in 1994.
Finish these statements
Ruth Bader Ginsburg fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedek by:
The U.S. Supreme Court Justices fulfill the mitzvah of tzedek by:
I can fulfill this mitzvah by:
Family talk time
• Sometimes kids say that something a parent, teacher or coach decides isn’t fair. What does it mean to be fair? Think of some examples and then think of a way to decide what is fair.
For example, when sharing a piece of cake, one person gets to cut and the other gets to choose the piece.
• Why is it so hard to be a judge? What does it mean to be “impartial”? What would make it difficult to judge someone? Can we judge ourselves? Why or why not?
• Making sure there is justice in the world is not the same as making sure there are judges. What is justice all about? Some people say that life isn’t always fair — is that fair?
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and director of Jewish life and learning at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Follow leaders who advocate for just causes

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

It is ironic that we read Parashat Korah this week, the week of July 4. On July 4 we celebrate a rebellion against unjust rule and our hard won independence. Parashat Korah details an unjust rebellion against legitimate leadership.
Korah, Moses’ cousin, organizes a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of self-aggrandizement: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) In reality, this is a plain and simple power grab from people who feel slighted, that feel they should have top leadership positions.
Moses defends himself to God in Numbers 16:15: “Moses was much aggrieved and he said to the Eternal, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’” Moses’ response implies that Korah also accused him of theft or misappropriation of wealth for himself, but none of the charges are legitimate.
There are three ways that God confirms that Moses and Aaron are the legitimate leaders of the Jewish people. First, God destroys Korah and the leaders of the rebellion through divine fire. Second, Aaron stops a divine plague from spreading throughout the Jewish people. Third, when representatives of every tribe put their staffs into the Tent of the Pact, only Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouted blossoms and almonds. After all of these miracles, God wants the rebellion to be put to rest (Numbers 17:25): “The Eternal said to Moses, ‘Put Aaron’s staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.’”
During the American Revolution, there were no divine miracles to confirm the justice of the Revolution, so in the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers enumerated the legitimate reasons for overthrowing English rule. “…let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” they declared. Korah had nothing more than vague accusations and personal grievances. I would like to think that it was the legitimacy of the Founding Fathers’ grievances that led to their ultimate success and the illegitimacy of Korah’s grievances that led to his failure, but that would be wrong. We see too often people with legitimate grievances lose their cases, while self-aggrandizing dissemblers succeed.
What we can see is that when we follow people like Korah, it ultimately leads to our own ruin. Good causes don’t always win, but bad causes inevitably lead to ruin. It was true at the time of Korah, it was true at the time of the American Revolution, and it continues to be true today. We must be careful, for our own sake, to follow only leaders who are true and advocate for just causes.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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