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Moving from dream to reality

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Dear Families,
As a teacher, you plan a lesson or story and “think” you know where the children (or adults) will go with it.
Telling about Jacob’s dream about the ladder and the angels, I was sure we would talk about angels but the kids wanted to talk about dreams! So we talked about dreams and whether they are real and what we can learn from them. This led me (and the class) back to the Torah, which led me to a bit more research helped by a d’var Torah by Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco.
You can always fact check me and let me know where I went wrong, but there are only 10 dreams recorded in the Torah and they all are in the Book of Genesis. Here they are but you have to go to the book for the details:

  • Genesis 20:3-7
  • Genesis 28:12-15
  • Genesis 31:10- 13
  • Genesis 31:22-24
  • 5 & 6: Genesis 37:5-11
  • 7 & 8: Genesis 40:7-19
  • 9 & 10: Genesis 41:1-7

Each of us has recounted dreams to others asking for help to understand the meaning. It would be great if we saw what happened next as in the Book of Genesis. However, there are also those dreams that are hopes and wishes for things to happen. The Jewish New Year is past and the secular New Year is almost here. I would guess that most of us will celebrate in some fashion and we will think about making those resolutions that are joked about.
However, is a New Year’s resolution a dream … a hope … a wish? Or is it a promise … a commitment? How can we make those resolutions, dreams, wishes and commitments come true?
Hanukkah may be over but the lessons from the holiday continue. Rabbi Pearce writes in his d’var Torah: “This season of Hanukkah provides an opportunity to take a page from the Book of Genesis and recognize that there may be more than luck to having dreams turn out as anticipated … It takes awareness that personal intervention rather than passive waiting for an outcome may, at times, turn dreams into reality. The Maccabees … took up the challenge of forcefully turning their dreams into reality.”
And let us remember Theodor Herzl’s words: “If you will it, it is no dream.”
Laura Seymour is director of camping services and Jewish life and learning at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.

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After 18 years, I’m finally home in Israel

After 18 years, I’m finally home in Israel

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a monthly column describing Rosie Bernstein’s experience in Israel.

Rosie Bernstein (center, back row) celebrates with her Israeli and Dallas friends, on the day she became an Israeli citizen.

Rosie Bernstein (center, back row) celebrates with her Israeli and Dallas friends, on the day she became an Israeli citizen.

 

Dec. 6, 2017 — Jerusalem was in every headline on the front page of every news source around the world. And I was in Jerusalem. All eyes were on the little, cobblestone city. But the city felt empty.

Rosie Bernstein

Rosie Bernstein

Rain poured down in buckets, flowing down the sloped streets like rushing rivers. And I walked, hands jammed in my pockets, my warm breath making little clouds in the biting winter air, toward the Western Wall.
The last time I visited the Kotel was at sunrise during Sukkot alongside thousands of other Jews. But this time, as I neared the Kotel plaza, I saw that it was nearly empty.
I planned to stand at the Wall for several hours that day, and have a long conversation with God before I made my way to do the most important thing I have ever done in my life. But when I arrived at the Kotel, and felt the rain beating down on my back, I said to myself, I’ll just go down and say a quick hello to the Kotel, and then I’ll go pray somewhere covered. However, the second my hand hit that familiar cool stone, I could feel my soul being pulled in by an unbreakable magnetic force as my feet rooted themselves into the ground. I wasn’t going anywhere.
So there I stood, my hair dripping wet, raindrops splashing down constantly on my siddur, my glasses foggy. And before I began to pray, I glanced to my left and to my right, and realized that I was, in fact, the only living soul on the women’s side of the Western Wall.
And while you might say that’s because it was pouring rain and freezing cold, and anyone with half a brain was inside during the torrential downpour that spilled over Jerusalem, I say that it was Hashem reaching out His hand to me, telling me that I may be doing something incredibly scary, but I should not be scared. Because not only was He right by my side that day, but those raindrops were His tears of joy that another one of His children was coming home.
On Dec. 6, 2017, I made Aliyah and received a Teudat Zehut, an Israeli ID, proof that I’m a citizen of the State of Israel. And life since then, has been both incredibly normal and the craziest whirlwind.
I returned the next day to my regular school schedule, but I have not walked into a single classroom the past two weeks without being sung to and danced with the moment I stepped through the door.
And while I really don’t look that different on the outside, I feel an intense amount of pride that I walk around with my Teudat Zehut in my wallet just like every other Israeli in this country.
Yesterday, I opened up a bank account. And in many ways, that experience perfectly summarizes the dichotomy I feel right now. A bank account is a most basic staple of life. I waited in line behind normal Israelis going about their respective days stopping for an errand at the bank just as I was. Normal life, nothing out of the ordinary. But it is specifically because of that mundaneness that it was so special.
I am a citizen of this country. Israel is where I run my day-to-day errands. And when I stand in lines, it’s behind Israelis — Israelis just like me. That’s why as I sat in that waiting room next to chairs full of people sighing and rolling their eyes as they waited, I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear.

Rosie Bernstein, surrounded by her friends, holds her Teudat Zehut (Israeli identification) that she received Dec. 6.

Rosie Bernstein, surrounded by her friends, holds her Teudat Zehut (Israeli identification) that she received Dec. 6.

I am an olah chadashah, a new citizen of the State of Israel. I have no permanent address, and my family is 5,000 miles away from me. But as hard as that is, I couldn’t help but chuckle with pure joy when I said to the bank clerk that I have zero dollars in my new bank account, and he corrected me, “No, you have zero shekels!”
Rosie Bernstein, daughter of Jordana and Josh Bernstein of Dallas and Yavneh Academy graduate, is studying at the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women–Migdal Oz. She made aliyah Dec. 6.

 

*****

Hanukkah in Israel

The TJP asked Rosie Bernstein what it was like to celebrate Hanukkah in Israel, and how it was different from Dallas:
Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel is equally magical as Christmas feels in Dallas, and that is a feeling I never expected. Everywhere you walk on the streets, especially in Jerusalem, you see hanukkiyah after hanukkiyah outside of literally every single home. Hanukkah music blasts all over the streets, and there is just a collective feeling of the Hanukkah season. Every bakery on every corner is lined with sufganiyot of every color and flavor.
It’s just impossible not to feel the Hanukkah spirit. The best part for me was being in random coffee shops and restaurants at the time to light candles, and they get everyone quiet and say “We’re going to light candles now,” and the whole restaurant participates and sings together.
Got a question for Rosie about Israel? Send it to sharon@tjpnews.com.

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Like democracy, AJC Process tiring, important work

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Editor’s note: Alan Greenspan received the AJC’s Milton I. Tobian Community Relations Award Nov. 27. These are his remarks, following his greetings, acknowledgments and thank-yous.

By Alan Greenspan

As important as the mission of the AJC is the commitment to a process, which I creatively call the “AJC Process.” It is a process of dialogue and coalition building with a diverse and inclusive group of people. Then we focus on understanding the facts, because there is factual truth and it is identifiable. Finally, we bring to bear all of the substantial resources the community has to understand the context, the nuance and the perspectives.
We prioritize reaching consensus through compromise. Some organizations file lawsuits. Some agencies organize protests. And these are all valid approaches, but at AJC, if there’s a problem or a challenge, we apply the AJC Process to fix it.
I learned the AJC Process from mentors like Marlene Gorin, Darrel Strelitz, Larry Ginsburg, Maddy Unterberg and Andrea Weinstein.
The people in this room understand the AJC Process. In strong companies and healthy families, it’s the process used to resolve conflict and solve problems. But I’m afraid many others in our community don’t get it.
Community has always been under threat. And I mean community in the broadest sense — the Jewish community, the Dallas community, the national community and the world community.
Charlottesville was not the first Nazi march in America. Steve Bannon is not the first white supremacist to wield national political power. Colin Kapernick is not the first African-American athlete to protest racial injustice, or to be ostracized for it. There has always been intolerance on the right, on the left, in the middle, in every religion and in every political party. Otherwise, groups like the AJC would not have existed for over 100 years. But good people have always stood up for truth, for tolerance, for freedom of speech, for finding common ground, and for building coalitions.
Something seems to be different now. I’m worried that, as a community, we’ve lost the ability to talk to each other. Our conversations have become shouting matches. Or worse, we don’t have the conversation because “you can’t talk to those people.”
I sat in silent sadness last spring at the Pete Sessions town hall. Some in the audience screamed vulgarities at Congressman Sessions. And the congressman responded by insulting the crowd. It was a disgrace to our political process. There are ways to disagree and protest respectfully. We need to encourage that in our community and teach it to our children. We are taking the easy way out by pretending that complex problems can be solved by slogans and tweets. We have to embrace the AJC Process.
I’ll give you an example of the AJC Process: Israel and India are currently very close allies. How did that happen? About 20 years ago, AJC Executive Director David Harris recognized that Israel and India had a lot in common, and so building that relationship became a priority of the AJC. It organized exchanges between the two countries on every level, from cultural, to political, to academic, to military. And over the course of years, a bridge was built based on shared values. Now there is a true friendship between the countries.
We did this in Dallas, too. In the early 2000s, a group of us became concerned that the Dallas Morning News editorial board was prejudiced against Israel. So, we reached out to them and spent years cultivating personal relationships with them. We started to see some moderation in their editorials about Israel, and our op-eds and letters to the editor were regularly published. We made progress not by threatening or boycotting, but by building a relationship and a basis for understanding.
We are facing some very difficult challenges locally and nationally. Immigration, health care, gun control and racial injustice are all really complicated. I guarantee you that there is not a single problem in this country that can be solved in 140 or even 280 characters. We must engage in a legitimate process. And we must demand it from our political and religious leaders.
I want to tell you one more AJC story. Many years ago, I attended a national board of governors meeting in New York. A surprise guest was Shimon Peres, who was the Israeli foreign minister. This was after the Oslo Accords but before the Second Intifada. It was a small group and we were able to have a real conversation. I asked Peres whether he thought Arafat was committed to a democratic Palestinian Authority. Peres was optimistic — as he always was — and he quoted Arafat saying: “Shimon, this democracy. Who invented it? It’s so exhausting!”
We know what happened. Peres’ optimism was misplaced. Arafat rejected democracy, embraced terrorism and became one of the most infamous mass murderers in human history. But Arafat was right about one thing. Democracy, or regular order, as John McCain calls it, is exhausting. But we need to do it. I hope you will all join me in committing to embracing the AJC Process.
Alan Greenspan lives in Dallas and is a former president of the Dallas chapter of the AJC and a former chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

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Sar-El allows volunteers to see, help IDF

Sar-El allows volunteers to see, help IDF

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Editor’s note: Dallas resident Allyn Kramer spent one week in November volunteering with Sar-El. For security, assignments are made after arrival in Israel.

Submitted photo Allyn Kramer spent a week in November as part of a 20-person group volunteering for the IDF through a program known as Sar-El.

Submitted photo
Allyn Kramer spent a week in November as part of a 20-person group volunteering for the IDF through a program known as Sar-El.

When he arrived on a Sunday morning, about 100 people were at Ben-Gurion Airport waiting to be bused off to their bases. This included a group of 25 Christians from Finland. Kramer was sent to a logistics base in the South.

The best gift you can give Israel is … yourself.

Why would anyone on vacation rise at 6 a.m., work all day on an IDF base, endure Spartan accommodations and army food — and pay to do it?
Sar-El volunteers strengthen American ties to Israel and her people through hands-on, civilian volunteer service, and show Israel that she doesn’t stand alone. Volunteers make it possible for IDF soldiers to remain at their jobs and continue their education, saving Israel millions of dollars in salaries. Their willingness to go anywhere in Israel and carry out whatever duties they might be assigned, is a powerful demonstration of commitment.
One of the most gratifying feelings you’ll ever experience is the sense of pride and purpose that comes with knowing you’re making a personal difference for a country and people you care deeply about.
A volunteer’s day resembles regular army life. Uniforms and boots are issued to all volunteers and are required to be worn through the evening meal. Each day starts with a flag-raising ceremony, followed by breakfast in the mess hall with IDF soldiers and then off to work.
For me, work consisted of sorting and recycling ammunition supplies. Although the job was routine, knowing that a soldier would spend time doing more critical work made it worthwhile.
My group of 20 was composed of Americans, Canadians and Brits. It included both men and women who ranged in age from about 50 into their 70s. They were business people, professionals, retirees and even a rabbi. Everyone slept in regular soldiers’ bunks and ate regular mess hall food. An IDF soldier accompanied the volunteers at all times and coordinated all activities.
Was the experience worth it? It made me feel proud to serve our Jewish homeland. Volunteering with Sar-El is an interesting and exciting way to see everyday life in the IDF.
For more information about Sar-El, contact Volunteers for Israel national headquarters at 866-514-1948. Approximately 1,200 Americans volunteer every year for the program.

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How to satisfy your nonkosher cravings

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi:
I have recently begun keeping kosher, and had a philosophical debate with a friend who doesn’t. I use soybean sausages and bacon, like Morning Star Farms products that have kosher symbols, because as long as they’re kosher, why not?
But my friend argues that if I’m going to keep kosher, to eat “kosher treif” is just a loophole and not in the spirit of what I’m trying to do. Do you feel this contradicts the spirit of the law?
L.P Arlington.
Dear L.P.
Mazal tov on keeping kosher, and great question!
The 12th century sage R’ Moses Maimonides discusses the prohibition of consuming nonkosher foods. He quotes the Talmud, which states, “One should not say, ‘I don’t want to eat nonkosher food’; rather one should say, ‘I would like to, but what can I do, my Father in Heaven has decreed upon me not to.”
Maimonides explains that this is a global statement which sums up much of the Jewish worldview, and specifically adds an important insight into the laws of kosher. We should not refrain from consuming nonkosher food because it is disgusting or nauseating to us. To abstain from nonkosher items for that reason would not constitute a mitzvah. It would rather be a personal preference. (I, personally, am challenged to fulfill this dictum concerning the abstention from consuming certain items, such as lobster, by saying I want to eat it but just can’t. When I see them crawling around in their tank, to say the least, I have trouble having any yearning whatsoever to …eat one of those!)
The Talmud cites many stories of a pious and scholarly woman by the name of Yalsa. She would often seek out kosher foods that tasted like forbidden foods. Yalsa once asked her husband, the renowned Talmudic sage Rav Nachman, to find her something which tastes like blood which the Torah forbids us to partake. He cooked for her a piece of liver, which is permitted, but has a blood-like taste. The commentaries are bewildered: Why would Yalsa often be looking for foods which tasted like forbidden ones?
One classical commentary, Maharsh’a, offers an explanation based on the above discussion of Maimonides. One should desire to eat the nonkosher but refrain from doing so because of the decree of the Torah. Yalsa, in her great piety, aspired to fulfill the mitzvah of kosher only to perform the will of God. She therefore purposely created a yearning to consume forbidden foods by partaking of permitted items which tasted like them, so she could refrain from the real thing for the right reason!
My family and I once took a tour of a nonkosher chocolate factory and at the end they offered a free taste of all the chocolates you could eat. I felt that we truly fulfilled the mitzvah by refraining when that chocolate looked and smelled so good! (Needless to say, we were sure to make it up to the kids for their willpower by rewarding them afterward with other treats.)
In summary, you are correct that there is nothing negative about eating imitation nonkosher food. By doing so, besides enjoying the taste, you have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Yalsa and enhance your fulfillment of the mitzvah of kashruth. Not only is this not contradictory to the spirit of the law, it’s a chance to augment your performance of the mitzvah.
(Halacha suggests, when there’s room for an observer’s error, to leave the package on the table so it is clear you are eating soy and not sow!)
I fondly remember your exact question as one of the first questions I asked my mentor when beginning yeshiva studies in Israel, precisely about Morning Star bacon and sausage, and what I have written to you was the answer I received (albeit in greatly shortened form!).
It’s important to mention one caveat to this concept. Maimonides points out that the desire to eat the “forbidden fruit” is considered a positive thing for certain mitzvos, like kosher, but not for all. There is a category of mitzvos for which God has inculcated their self-evident nature into the creation, such as murder. It is definitely not praiseworthy to say: “I would truly love to murder that guy, but, alas, I must fulfill the command of God!” (Even though we all might feel that way sometimes.) Murder, theft, and other such mitzvos are called “mitzvos sichlios,” planted in our sechel or psyche, that they should be abhorred and not desired.

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Don’t let Joseph’s mistakes blind you to God’s message

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

By Rabbi Ben Sternman

We are almost at the end of Bereisheet, the Book of Genesis, in Parashat Vayigash, and in this week’s Torah portion we witness the climactic reunion between Joseph and his entire family. This should be a heartwarming section, but somehow I’m always disturbed by parts of it, so much so that on balance I’m left uneasy.
Toward the beginning, Joseph is unrecognizable to his brothers as Pharaoh’s highest official and it seems as if he’s almost taunting them with the way that he treats them. Finally, he loses control and reveals his identity to his brothers, who stand dumbstruck and in fear before him. Joseph comforts them and reassures them that their selling him into slavery was all part of God’s plan. Genesis 45:7-8 states in part: “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God…” It was God’s plan and not their fault.
I have a hard time accepting this explanation because it ignores human free will. Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and fake his death to the deep distress of their father, but they’re not to blame because it was all part of God’s plan? Are we to accept all the bad choices that human beings make, dismissing them as “all part of God’s plan”? Perhaps what happened to Joseph was not God’s plan, but God salvaging the best outcome possible after the hash his brothers made of the situation. I have difficulty dismissing the evil that we humans do, the poor choices that we make, as necessary to bring about God’s plan.
I am also disturbed at the end of the Torah portion by how Joseph treats the Egyptians. Joseph, on behalf of Pharaoh, has cornered the market on grain over the previous seven years of plenty and is now selling that grain during the terrible famine Egypt and the world was experiencing. In order to survive, the Egyptian people use all their money to buy food from Joseph and then sell all their livestock to Joseph too. Finally they declare to Joseph (Genesis 47:19 in part), “Let us not perish before your eyes, both we and our land. Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh…” Joseph is using a natural disaster to gouge the Egyptians and turn them into slaves.
I remember hearing news reports in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, that some people decided to price-gouge bottled water, food, and gasoline to profit from the storm. The Texas Attorney General’s office investigated those reports and took appropriate actions to prevent this type of profiteering. Isn’t what Joseph did just as bad if not worse, forcing free people into slavery just to survive?
The real question is what do we do with sacred texts that leave us disturbed. One might be tempted to just throw it out and ignore it, dismissing the text as corrupted over time by fallible human beings. But I resist that temptation because I believe that God is speaking to us through the text. Rather, I prefer to reinterpret the text, seeking God’s message within it, as Ben Bag Bag urges us in Pirkei Avot 5:22, “turn it and turn it, since everything is in it.”
No matter how I turn it, though, I can’t seem to reinterpret Joseph’s price-gouging in a positive way. In those cases I must satisfy myself with learning what not to do from Joseph’s poor choices. But whether I reinterpret the text or learn what not to do, I can never bring myself to dismiss the text and close myself off from listening for God’s message.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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We teens will build strong Jewish future

We teens will build strong Jewish future

Posted on 21 December 2017 by admin

Editor’s note: Ben Levkovich was selected by BBYO to serve as an ambassador for the 2017 Active Jewish Teens (AJT) Conference.

The conference, which is an annual gathering of Jewish teens from the former Soviet Union, was held in Ukraine last month. This was the first time that U.S. Jews participated in this conference, and Ben was one of two BBYO ambassadors on the trip who was a child of a Ukrainian refugee. His mother Svetlana Levkovich, of Plano, immigrated to the U.S. from Soviet Ukraine as a direct result of the policies put in place following the 1987 March on Washington allowing Soviet Jews to emigrate.
Her family never returned.

BBYO’s American delegation at opening ceremonies of the AJT Conference. Ben Levkovich is third from left in the front row.

BBYO’s American delegation at opening ceremonies of the AJT Conference. Ben Levkovich is third from left in the front row.

Today, a resurgence of Jewish life is taking place in the land of our heritage. After centuries of destruction and hatred for Jews in Europe, we have a glimmer of hope. The past has set the foundation for our future, and today things couldn’t be more different.
Growing up I heard stories from my parents of the time when they were kids. They were treated differently because they were Jewish; it’s what I’ve heard all my life. As a proud Jewish teenager in America, I felt a responsibility to travel to Ukraine when BBYO presented the opportunity to me. I learned about our people’s past firsthand. I put on my tefillin and wore my kippah proudly in a land in which my parents could not.
I saw the fields and memorials of Babi Yar, the trenches of terror, the memory of the horrid moments of my ancestors — thousands of hopes and dreams crushed and broken. Bodies that held much more than a bundle of bones were trashed and burned.
But we stood. The once seemingly invincible empires are gone, but we remain. The great powers of Greece or Rome no longer threaten the face of this earth, but we are still here, stronger than ever. The curtain fell but we still stand.

(Left to right) Lev Feitman, Ben Levkovich, Jake Bush and Jacob Ioffe pose for pictures before Shabbat at the AJT Conference.

(Left to right) Lev Feitman, Ben Levkovich, Jake Bush and Jacob Ioffe pose for pictures before Shabbat at the AJT Conference.

I left Babi Yar and watched 400 Jewish teens from 10 countries gather from all corners of the former Soviet Union to celebrate their Judaism and to pronounce their love for their heritage. These are teens whose Jewish lives were reignited by their youth group, Active Jewish Teens. It’s the place they can truly express themselves and their outlet to Judaism.
Resurgence is celebrating Shabbat with these 400 teens, whose parents weren’t allowed to do so during their childhoods. Singing Havdalah with them, arm in arm, as one circle formed by representatives of countries once associated with the oppression of Jews showed the world that we are still here and stronger than ever.
These are our brothers and sisters; they are our leaders. Being connected to the global Jewish community isn’t about speaking the same language or sharing the same culture, it’s much more than that. We share the bond of Judaism. Our communal tradition has survived for millennia through trials and tribulations. We share music and prayer, and so much more. To sit together on Shabbat, singing songs that we all knew despite the oceans that separate us — this is only the start of a new bond between Jews from all over the world fostered by BBYO.
I have never seen or felt the pride of Jews around me like I did this weekend. Jewish life in the former Soviet Union is flourishing like never before. The community supports one another and takes care of each other’s needs, and now, I support them too. These teens are the ones who will build a strong Jewish future — mark my words.

Ben Levkovich and other American teens stand at the edge of Babi Yar looking into the trenches.

Ben Levkovich and other American teens stand at the edge of Babi Yar looking into the trenches.

Ben Levkovich, son of Svetlana and Alex Levkovich of Plano, is a Yavneh Academy junior and a member of Morton Lewis AZA.

*****

Did You Know?

The March on Washington for Soviet Jewry was a massive rally — more than 250,000 Jews participated from across the country — held on the eve of the December 1987 Washington Summit between President Reagan and Soviet Premier Gorbachev demanding that Reagan put pressure on Gorbachev to put an end to the forced assimilation of Jews and allowing their emigration from the USSR. The Metroplex sent a large contingent to the March led by then JCRC Chair Janice Sweet.
See the original TJP coverage in the Dec. 10, 1987, issue at  http://bit.ly/2AYnkp8 (use the right arrow above the TJP  masthead to scroll through the issue).

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How precious are the lights of Hanukkah

Posted on 14 December 2017 by admin

The worlds of halachah, Jewish law, and hashkafah, Jewish philosophy, are generally perceived as two independent courses of study: the studying of halachah being the dry, detailed examination of legal texts, and the study of hashkafah being the edifying investigation into the beliefs and perspectives of the Torah. In reality, though, the Torah, in all of its many branches, is a unified living organism, each course of study part of a bigger, interconnected web. Personally, I derive great satisfaction when I discover or learn of examples of the interconnectedness of halachah and hashkafah. I’d like to share with you two marvelous examples of this sort below that happen to share a common, instructive theme.
One of the most well-known mitzvot in the Torah is the Biblical command to recite the Shema morning and night. Less known to the masses is the halachah (the law) that dictates that these daily recitations must be recited during precise blocks of times in the day and in the night. Recite the Shema before or after these blocks of time and you unfortunately lose out on the opportunity to fulfill this sacred task.
So, where do these precise guidelines come from? The Mishnah derives them from the Shema itself. “Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you arise” (Devarim 6:7). “When you lie down” is interpreted broadly as including the entire nighttime, for people lie down and sleep throughout the entirety of the night (Berachot 1:1). “When you arise,” on the other hand, is limitedly understood as only including the first three hours of the day, as these are the times that people generally wake up — the early risers waking up at the crack of dawn and the royal princes contentedly napping in their beds until the third hour of the day (ibid. 1:2).
Although I must have learned these mishnayot dozens of times over the years, it was only recently that I found myself perplexed by the Mishnah’s scriptural deductions. You see, the connective language of the verse “when you lie down and when you arise” implies a grouping together of these two halachically significant phrases. You would assume, then, that the time allotment for the morning Shema and the evening Shema would be parallel to each other as well. And, yet, as we have seen above, that is decidedly not the case, the nighttime Shema being alotted a whopping nine extra hours of precious time!
What, I wondered, was the deeper significance in this unusual time variance? I searched and searched for sources that might address this issue, but to no avail. Like so many times before, I turned to Rabbi Sharon Cohen, a colleague of mine and a scholar known for his knowledge of the more mystical elements of the Torah for an answer.
Rabbi Cohen voiced his appreciation for my question, one he had never heard before, and just as quickly launched into an interpretation of his own. He explained that the nighttime represents the parts of our lives when God’s presence feels hidden, when darkness and confusion reign and when faith is acquired with great difficulty. The daytime represents the polar opposite, the points in our life when we most clearly feel God’s presence and when faith comes to us with incredible ease.
The nature of this physical world, Rabbi Cohen explained, is that the “dark” periods of confusion and doubt will always greatly outnumber the “sunny” stretches of clarity and enlightenment. The time allotments for the Shema, our eternal expression of commitment to faith and service of God, mirror this earthly reality and illustrate that we will need to serve God through many long nights during the course of our existence, if only to anticipate brief periods of soulful enlightenment and spiritual clarity.
Just as the day has its daytime and its nighttime, so too does the year. The sunny months of the spring and summer are as the daytime, whereas the colder, darker months of fall and winter represent the nighttime. You’ll notice that all of the Biblical holidays fall out during the six-month stretch of spring and summer. This is because the period of Biblical times was a time of great enlightenment, when God’s hand was made visible in both nature and history through the many open miracles of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the Jewish people’s travels throughout the wilderness. The rabbinic holidays (Hanukkah and Purim), on the other hand, fall during the dark, cold months of fall and winter. This is because both the Hanukkah and Purim stories occurred during times of great darkness and peril for the Jewish people. In both instances the Jewish people wondered if God had abandoned them in the post-Biblical Exile, only to leave them at the mercy of other nations who bid them harm.
The miraculous salvations that materialized during the Hanukkah and Purim stories revealed to the Jewish people then, as it still does for each and every subsequent Jewish generation, that God is still with us, that He had never left our side. It should come as no surprise to us that unlike the seasonal Biblical commandments of shofar and the four species which must be performed during the day, the mitzvah of the Hanukkah lights must be done specifically at night.
(The Pesach Seder, another seasonal Biblical command, is, in fact, performed at night, but that is because the night of the Exodus shone with the light of day from the revelation of the Shechina, God’s essence. Upon Seder night, the commentators apply the verse from Tehillim (139:12), “layla kayom ya’ir,” “The night will be as bright as day.”)
The lights of Hanukkah, then, serve as much-needed torches for the many “nights” of our life, bringing even the darkest moments of our life into the light, replacing doubt with faith and confusion with clarity. How precious are the lights of Hanukkah!
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.

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Extra meaning in Torah’s ‘extra’ words

Posted on 14 December 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was studying this week’s Torah portion, and was bothered by a question. The Torah says, when relating the story of Joseph and his brothers, that they threw him into a pit; “…the pit was empty, no water was in it” (Genesis 37:24).
I have always been taught that the Torah doesn’t use extra words; if the pit was empty, obviously there was no water in it. Isn’t this statement redundant?
Joseph P.
Dear Joseph,
Congratulations! You have asked the precise question raised by the sages of the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 22a). The Talmud reconciles this redundancy — the Torah is hinting that water was not in it, but snakes and scorpions were in it!
This elusive comment of the Talmud begs explanation. There’s a further question: This comment of the sages falls in the midst of the laws of kindling the Hanukkah lights. The rabbis of the Talmud digress from their Hanukkah discussion for a moment, explain this verse, then resume their discussion of Hanukkah. Very strange!
Furthermore, this verse appears in that Torah portion which is always read the Shabbat preceding Hanukkah. What is this hidden link to Hanukkah?
I believe that the explanation goes to the very core of the Hanukkah holiday. Many years ago, in my youth, I heard the following explanation of the above verse from my late mentor, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik ob’m. There’s a law in physics which states “nature abhors a vacuum.” No space in the physical universe truly remains empty. This concept holds true in the spiritual realm as well. One cannot be bereft of spirituality and remain wholesome. If one does not fill him- or herself with positive spiritual energy, the vacuum will be filled with negative energy. There’s no middle ground.
This is the meaning of the cryptic statement of the rabbis: “Water was not there, but snakes and scorpions were there.” “Water” refers to the study of Torah, which is the water we drink, quenching our thirst and slaking our tired souls. If we do not fill “the pit,” our empty selves, with the “water,” then other, negative influences will creep in, the “snakes and scorpions” of foreign cultures.
The battle fought by the Maccabees was principally a spiritual one, a battle over the mind, soul and heart of the Jewish people. The Greeks were attempting, quite successfully, to inculcate Greek culture, values and ideology into the Jewish minds. One of their most vehemently enforced decrees was the complete cessation of Torah study. They realized that as long as the Jews were filled with the wellsprings of Torah, there was no room to force in their “snakes and scorpions.” The Maccabees fought valiantly to preserve the holiness of the Torah and the Jewish heart, mind and soul.
The Maccabees were rewarded by finding one remaining flask of pure oil amongst the many flasks contaminated by the Greeks. That pure oil lit the Menorah, the light of which signifies the light of the Torah — which illuminates the Jewish people. That was the greatest miracle of all — despite the decrees of the world’s mightiest power the Jews were able to preserve the holiness of the Torah, its teachings, its messages intact.
This is the deeper message in the verse you mentioned. This lesson was taught in the Talmud in the midst of the laws of Hanukkah to impart the core message of those laws. It is the portion read immediately before Hanukkah to prepare the Jewish people for what Hanukkah represents throughout the generations: the preservation of the teachings of Torah in the face of foreign, often hostile, cultures.
This is the underlying message of our mission at DATA, as we proudly celebrate this week our silver anniversary, a quarter-century of exposing Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations to the beauty, depth and joy of the timeless messages of Torah and its wisdom.
Best wishes to you and all the readers for a joyous, meaningful Hanukkah!

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Activating free power of choice enables growth, renewal

Posted on 14 December 2017 by admin

We all have regrets — past actions that we wish we could undo. Some relate to small decisions; others concern monumental mistakes. But we naturally move on and attempt to bury bitter memories. Then, in a moment of crisis, we can suddenly be reminded of a past shortcoming.
More than any biblical account, the story of Yosef and his brothers speaks to feelings of needing to repair past wrongdoings. In this week’s portion, Yosef’s 10 brothers travel to Egypt to purchase grain during the years of famine. The youngest, Binyamin, stays home, because his father fears for his safety. Yosef recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. To test them, he accuses them of being spies and insists that they bring Binyamin to prove that they are who they say. He then imprisons Shimon as a hostage.
In the midst of this pending crisis, the brothers flash back to their past sin, remarking to each other, “Indeed, we are guilty (for how we treated our brother Yosef, years ago), that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, yet we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.”
(Their statement expresses a common thought. Some spiritual systems may refer to it as “bad karma” — like energy from negative actions returning in retribution — or as natural consequences. From a Jewish perspective, these dire situations are not simply pay-back or punishment, but a heavenly communication, an aid or a trigger to promote introspection and repair.)
Seeing his brother’s distress, Reuven, the oldest, answers: “Didn’t I warn you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen…”
The commentaries ask: What’s the intention and benefit behind his reprimand? Seeing someone in distress, broken because of past mistakes, the appropriate response is surely to comfort — not to add pain and increase their burden. This advice especially applies to Reuven, the firstborn and leader. (Furthermore, his language — “Didn’t I warn you…” — appears as if Reuven stresses his own merit.) Why, when the brothers already feel guilt and admit their mistake, would he contrast his virtue with their sin?
Choice and change
In order to answer this, let’s depart from this scene to examine an intriguing (and instructive) path taken by Maimonides when organizing his famous Mishneh Torah, a masterpiece of a thousand chapters which categorize and outline the entire body of mitzvahs: His opening volume — the Book of Knowledge — discusses those fundamental principles of our tradition, such the first of the Ten Commandments, understanding the unity of God, etc.
At the conclusion of this volume, he deals with the pervading mitzvah of teshuvah. After explaining many details — the obligation of correcting transgressions, the parameters of repentance, the window in time, possible barriers — the fifth chapter continues by stating that “Free will is granted to all people…From the Most High, neither evil nor good come forth. Accordingly, it is the wrongdoer alone who causes his loss…”
An obvious query arises in Maimonides’ positioning: Free choice is a giant tenet in Torah, central to all mitzvahs, and should seemingly be expounded at the onset of the volume — not at the end, during the subject of teshuvah (only one of the many mitzvahs). But his order provides us with an underlying lesson. More than any command, teshuvah is inherently linked to free choice: In the absence of free will, the notion of “commandments” (and any corresponding reward and punishment) is meaningless.
Theoretically, a world without true free will could exist, where humans function like animals, bound to follow their nature, unable to bend or transform it. In this scenario, the internal mechanism of choice would be missing, yet the external mitzvah (the deed) may still be accomplished — like a well-trained dog following his master’s whistle with instinctive fidelity, or an angel executing a divine mission to aid or destroy.
Teshuvah, which primarily rests within the heart, is different: The existence and exercise of free choice directly concerns its accomplishment; looking back, if a person does not feel accountable, there’s no space for sincere regret. Moving forward, if someone is unable to change, there’s no room for growth — no teshuvah.
Healthy regret that leads to change (teshuvah) can be prompted in two general ways: a) through external circumstances where, for example, suffering softens the heart and pushes a person to change, or b) through firm resolution stemming from one’s own initiative. Complete teshuvah, the purest form, is when that inner resolve is free, untied to any outside influence such as fear, or lesser temptation to go astray — since there’s no substantial assurance of how one will respond if the original scenario arises again.

Free choice in both directions

On a deeper level, not only are teshuvah and free choice interdependent regarding the ability to act differently in the future, but it also becomes necessary to recognize that past mistakes were performed with free choice.
Wholehearted change comes through careful self-reflection of previous choices, sifting through the layers of thoughts and feelings the behavior. During that process, it is easy to acknowledge the outcome — that you erred in action. Nevertheless, you may reason that circumstances subtly led to the slip — based on your character at the time, or what you were going through, or how certain internal and external conditions pushed you in one direction — that it was unavoidable. While true on one level, this mentality prevents you from fully recognizing it, owning it and leaving it. So notwithstanding improved behavior, the internal repair is incomplete.
A complete rectification comes from acknowledging that even if, at first glance, it appears that we were not completely at fault, we still possessed the strength to overcome all obstacles to choosing the good path.

A different dialogue

Returning to our story, the brothers’ initial expression of regret seemed to result from their stressful circumstance and anguish — “therefore this has come upon us.” And when regret results from a side reason, such as suffering, the compulsion to change may not stem from the deepest force inside the person, from the person’s own effort to change their ways, where the intent is truly to reconnect and come closer.
In order to instruct his brothers how to remove all obstacles, to wash away any remnants of their mistreatment, Reuven reminded them of the original context: “Didn’t I tell you…” He was not chastising, but communicating the best path of teshuva: to travel back to your original mindset, get to the root cause and examine why, when “I told you… you didn’t listen.” As for the anguish that has come your way, that’s only the superficial layer.

Takeaway

The unlimited power of choice (wherein nothing can hold you back) that is gifted to each soul expresses itself in the effort of teshuvah — when someone feels distant from their true potential, estranged from anything holy, stuck in a space where according to all natural tendencies it seems impossible to connect. Nevertheless, the widespread message from above is that activating the power of free choice enables a person to overcome any internal barriers to growth and to renew themselves by moving closer to God — the direct opposite movement which dominated them at the time of their fall.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the non-profit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit www.maayanchai.org.

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