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American Jews must stop living in exile

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

I spent a lot of my time over the past several years explaining to friends, family and strangers why I made aliyah and why I encourage others to do the same. Usually my well-rehearsed elevator pitch on the richness of Jewish life in our homeland is accepted warmly by American Jews who are quick to recount to me their trips to Israel and affection for the country. But what I don’t mention — for the vast majority of interlocutors would either disagree, take offense or both — is that not only did I move to Israel because I believe in Jewish life here, but because I do not believe in Jewish life in America.
I’m an ardent believer in shlilat hagalut, the negation of the exile, or “the Diaspora” as most TJP readers prefer to call it. This concept, one in which most of my fellow Israelis themselves do not believe, is that life in exile is unsustainable, hypocritical and and irresponsible. It’s not a popular opinion, but it’s key component of my Zionism.
Before I explain the multiple reasons that I am against Jewish life in America — for there are many — it’s important to say that my beliefs in no way diminish the respect that I have for my community, friends and family who feel differently and who have every intention of living proud Jewish lives in the United States. The following reasons that I believe in shlilat hagalut are shared not out of animus but out of love.
First, Jewish life is religiously and culturally designed to be lived in the land of Israel. Our festivals reflect the seasonal progression of Levantine agricultural life, synagogues worldwide are built to face Jerusalem, and many of our commandments can be fulfilled only in Israel. Rav Kook, the founder of modern Religious Zionism, said, “A Jew cannot be as faithful to his ideas, feelings, and imagination in the exile as he can in the Land of Israel.”
In fact the thousands of Texan Jews who have never questioned their identities as Americans have themselves prayed to make aliyah every time they’ve participated in services. “Sound the great shofar for our freedom,” we say during the Amidah prayer, “raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land. Blessed are You Lord, who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel.” And every year at the Seder we pray to be swiftly returned to our land, to be “Next year in Jerusalem.”
In the past these prayers were the expression of our people’s yearning to see our commonwealth reestablished, to be free once more. Now, in an era in which the State of Israel exists, with its arms stretching outward to the Jews of the world, ready to accept us with love and with thousands of shekels in cash on arrival at the airport, these prayers are said in vain. These pleas to be brought back to our homeland are completely void of meaning, for the American Jews who utter them have no real intention of carrying them out.
Second, Jewish life in the exile is dangerous. One of the most beloved pastimes of the nations of the world is to torment us, to expel us from our homes, to take advantage of our minds and then kill us for the fun of it. And America, with its synagogue shootings, swastika graffiti, and daily harassment, is no different from Europe, the cursed continent of our past. For though its crimes are fewer and certainly less fatal, the principle remains the same: In the exile, we depend on others for our rights and safety. Only in Israel do Jews take arms in our protection, only here are we the guarantors of our destinies.
Third, Jewish life in the exile is unsustainable. According to sound data, the majority of American Jews, who lack significant knowledge of Hebrew, Jewish literature and practice, are marrying goyim and raising their children to be either “half Jewish” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) or not Jewish at all. The only group of American Jews that is actually growing is the ultra-Orthodox population. But living such an insulated life, one in which women are second-class citizens, men don’t participate in the workforce, math and science are taboo, and intellectualism is seen as an enemy, is no way to preserve our people.
Last, aliyah is a responsibility. In Israel we sacrifice for the sake of our people, we fight on land, in the air and on the sea against the enemies of our people so that every Jew in the world can live without fear. And why is it that Israelis are the ones burdened with securing the Jewish future? Because they had the misfortune of not being born in America, the golden medina? Because their grandparents chose our people and Zionism over American materialistic opportunism?
Make no mistake — there are millions of Jews in America and around the world who live Jewish lives, at day schools and youth groups and college campuses, who are more committed to our people than the average Israeli may ever be. My love for our people was fostered at Levine Academy and Shearith Israel, at Camp Ramah and in BBYO and AIPAC. These communities are strong and they love our heritage and our God.
And I am in fact grateful for the 2000 years we spent in exile, for it transformed the Jewish people. The humanism and the ethics that we developed as a hunted minority have helped shape our people’s modern value system. Our experience in the exile is our greatest weapon in the fight against the elements of nationalistic chauvinism and anti-Arab racism that are spreading throughout Israeli society.
But the fact of the matter is that the next chapter of the Jewish story is being written where it all began, in the land from which we came. The problems are our problems, the triumphs our triumphs! To those Jews who care deeply about living Jewish lives, who see themselves first and foremost as Jews — the time has come to return home. To “go forth from the land of your birthplace to the land that God will show us.” To a land of milk and honey, a land that is ours.
Dallas native Matan Rudner made aliyah in August 2017 and serves as a Lone Soldier in the IDF.

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Transitioning into a harsh life in Egypt

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

This week, we begin the second book of the Torah, Shemot (Exodus). Moving on from Bereisheet — the rich and vibrant verses relating the mysteries of creation, the human portraits of our patriarchs and matriarchs, through Joseph’s majestic triumph in a foreign land — is a rough transition. We shift from a mood of fruitful accomplishments into scenes of cruelty, blood, sweat and tears.
This opening parasha is heavy and dark, detailing the rise of an evil ruler who enslaved the Children of Israel and caused them unthinkable suffering. When 30 years of harsh labor could not break the Jewish spirit and they continued to grow, Pharaoh intensified their workload. But in the middle of this bitter exile comes a beam of light. Moses, the redeemer of Israel, is born.
This idea emerges as a pattern through the generations. Whenever a period of terrible hardship and persecution arises for the Jewish people, the soul of a special leader descends into this world to counteract the darkness. Furthermore, there is a principle in Judaism that “God creates the cure before the illness” — it’s already there but needs to be discovered.
In this story, Pharaoh’s astrologers discerned that the Jews’ future savior had arrived, and so to prevent this event, Pharaoh “charged his people, saying: Every son that is born shall be cast into the river…” Describing Moses’ birth, the Torah mentions that after the delivery, his mother Yocheved looked at her newborn baby and “she saw that he was good.” (Exodus 2:1) Then she hid him away for three months.
The commentaries wonder what this seemingly extraneous phrase — “she saw that he was good” — tells us. After all, it’s natural for any mother, upon seeing her newborn baby, to immediately be overcome with an intense feeling of love, joy and gratitude and to embrace the child — so, of course, he was good in her eyes. But because every word is precise and relevant (how much more so concerning the focal figure in the Torah), there must have been some unique goodness that she noticed.
One interpretation, brought by the Aramaic translation of Targum Yonatan, is that Moses was born in the seventh month of pregnancy, an early birth that could have resulted in death. Nevertheless, he was complete and strong. Another explanation, cited by the most literal commentary of Rashi, is that this additional comment of “she saw he was good” is reminiscent of (and linked to) the very first time the Hebrew word “good” is used in the Torah:
God’s first creation was light, whereupon the verse in Bereisheet (1:4) states: “God saw that the light was good.” Just as God created light, then saw that the light was good, so too Yocheved gave birth and saw that he was good. This remarkable similarity, therefore, hints at some connection between the birth of Moses and the appearance of newly created light.
The Talmud explains that the moment Moses emerged from the womb, the entire room was suddenly filled with light, a sign that a special soul had entered the world.
The heroine
The backstory of Moses’ birth involves a discussion with Moses’ sister, Miriam. Jewish tradition recounts that when Amram, Moses’ father, first learned of Pharaoh’s decree, he reasoned (and likewise persuaded others) that any procreation would be in vain — their children would be killed anyway. After hearing this, Miriam, his daughter, strongly opposed his reasoning. She argued that the fundamental mitzvah “to be fruitful and multiply” is a definite reality that must be heeded without any calculations of future outcomes, which are merely possibilities. As a result, Amram and other men reunited with their wives, providing the impetus for the Exodus.
The Jewish Sages declare: “By virtue of the righteous women of that generation our ancestors were freed from Egypt.” And a key characteristic is reflected in this story. Imagine the strength that it took for a mother to make such a dreadful decision, knowing that her newborn son would immediately be killed. Yet, the cosmic effect of such faith — inspired by Miriam — brought about the redeemer and most famous spiritual leader in history.
One simple message is clear: Each child is an entire universe, unlocking channels of blessing for its family and the world at large.
A double decree
Like the abovementioned hint at the light that entered the room, there is another revealing subtlety in a famous verse, quoted in the Passover Haggadah, regarding the attempt to prevent the Jewish redemption. “Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born you shall cast into the river; and every daughter techayun (you shall sustain, keep them alive).’” The precise wording sparks an inquiry: If Pharaoh’s sole concern was for all Jewish boys to be drowned in the river, why bother adding the obvious ending — “and every daughter you shall sustain”?
The superficial understanding of this phrase is that the fate of the girls did not interest Pharaoh; “just leave them alone.” Yet the juxtaposition — two instructions within the same verse — suggests the concluding phrase, too, involved some harsh decree. Picking up this nuance, the commentaries point to the meaning of the word techayun — “you shall sustain them, keep them alive.” They explain that the additional wording — “to sustain” — connotes a more active expression, an instruction to raise every daughter in the ways and practices of Egyptian culture.
Thus, Pharaoh gave two messages, one related to killing the bodies and the other to the souls: Pharaoh ordered his people drown the Jewish boys in the river in order to bring about physical death. Those same Egyptians were commanded to actively “sustain” (i.e., raise) the girls as Egyptians, by immersing them in the prevalent culture, and thereby causing them to forget their roots.
Egyptian traps
Since Egyptian exile is mentioned as the root of all subsequent exiles, its harsh decrees — as well as its recipes for persevering — apply (in some form) to all periods in our history. In this regard, we may encounter a prevailing attitude and pressure to immerse children in the popular way of life, even if it runs contrary to essential Jewish values. More specifically, Jewish children are often taught more about the modern political figures and heroes, before they can explore their own roots. In this week’s parasha, we have two heroes to celebrate and educate about: Moses and Miriam.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Fitting into Judaism’s continuous chain

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

Dear Families,
I have another new book to recommend although I haven’t finished it, which may be a good recommendation or not! Sarah Hurwitz, former speechwriter for Michelle Obama, wrote a book titled “Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life — in Judaism (After FINALLY Choosing to Look There).” She has described herself as the quintessential lapsed Jew and after beginning her journey back, she is amazed at what was there all the time!
It is something many of us have struggled with as being “forced” to go to Hebrew school and attend services did not leave a good taste in many Jews’ discerning palate. To be honest, although I admit my Jewish learning consisted of an amazing time for many, many years at Jewish camp, I never strayed but I never learned enough until I got older and have learned more and more as I continue to teach (learning to teach something is a very good way to really learn something).
Although I haven’t made it through the book yet, the introduction is worth buying the book! Let me share the story she shared from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. He invites us into a library filled with books with many values you could choose to embrace and many lifestyle options. You can take any book, read it, and then choose more on that topic or put it back and pick another. But what if you find a book with your family’s name on it? Here is what he says:
“Intrigued, you open it and see many pages written by different hands in many languages. You start reading it, and gradually you begin to understand what it is. It is the story each generation of your ancestors has told for the sake of the next, so that everyone born into this family can learn where they came from, what happened to them. What they lived for and why. As you turn the page, you reach the last, which carries no entry but a heading. It bears your name.”
Wow! That’s Judaism! And your name will always be there waiting for you to write the next pages. Our Jewish journey is each of our story and how we fit into the continuing chain. Each time I am reminded of our Jewish story, I remember the marketing campaign many years ago of Chase Manhattan. They said to all: “You’ve got a friend at Chase Manhattan!” Sounds great! But then Bank Leumi, the bank of Israel, next door created their own marketing campaign: “You may have a friend at Chase Manhattan but at Bank Leumi, we’re mishpacha — we’re family!” That’s what makes Judaism so special and so unique. You may define your practice in myriad ways from being a gastronomic Jew (it’s all about the food) to being a cardiac Jew (I don’t do anything but I feel Jewish in my heart) to being observant of the commandments. You are part of the family!
I will update you as I move through the book, but it is filled with lots of information and written in a way that we can understand. Enjoy!
Laura Seymour is director of camping services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center.

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Ketubah’s aim is to protect the bride

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

Firstly, I thank you for your weekly article which enriches our weekend, and we look forward to it all week! Could you please explain what exactly is a ketubah; is it a document of sorts or is it part of the actual act of the Jewish wedding? Why do some people hang it on their wall?
Barbara L.

Dear Barbara,
During the early stages of the wedding ceremony, the first order of business is the completion, signing and witnessing of the ketubah, or marriage contract. This contract is required by rabbinic law and, according to some Talmudic authorities, actually dates back to Biblical times.
The ketubah, which is traditionally read out loud under the chuppah, is written in Aramaic, which was the spoken language of the Jews during Talmudic times when the wording was institutionalized. This document details the husband’s obligations to his wife, including food, clothing, dwelling and intimacy mandated by the Torah. The ketubah, which is a legally binding document, also creates a lien on all his property and his estate to pay his wife a sum of money should he divorce her or predecease her.
The document is signed by two witnesses, who have observed the groom’s acceptance of all the obligations within the ketubah by way of a kinyan, a type of acquisition effected by lifting up an object given to him by the rabbi officiating. The ketubah, once signed, has the status of a legally binding agreement in Jewish law, which in some countries is also enforceable by civil law.
The ketubah is not part of the actual betrothal or the wedding per se, but is a prerequisite for the wedding to take place once the financial agreements, enacted by the Talmudic sages, are in place. The Ketubah was enacted as a protection of the rights of the bride, and the sages did not allow the wedding to commence until that protection is in place. (Some, today, have the practice to enact a halachic prenuptial agreement as well.)
The ketubah is the wife’s possession and it remains in her care. It must remain in a safe place throughout the couple’s married life, such as in a safe or safety deposit box, as it serves as a sort of standing license in Jewish law for the couple to live as man and wife.
Because the ketubah is the tangible evidence of this momentous occasion in their new life together, it is sometimes decorated or written as an illuminated manuscript. Some couples frame it and display it in their home as a meaningful work of art, one which testifies to their home being built upon the timeless foundation of the chuppah and meaningful concepts of the Jewish wedding.

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We are still the ‘People of the Book’

Posted on 20 January 2020 by admin

“Have You a Jewish Book Shelf in Your Home?” What a good question! I have it in print: the title of a small pamphlet from the Jewish Publication Society. It’s double-good: full of good words and good advice, starting with this: “A love of books and learning has always been a distinguishing characteristic of our people. Today, perhaps more than ever before, we need the spiritual stimulation of our own rich tradition and eternal faith…”
I’m happy to say — or maybe embarrassed to admit — that I have more than one Jewish book “shelf” in my home. The entire house has become something of a Jewish library, with piles of books of all kinds to be found just about everywhere. The shelves and desktop in my office have long-since been filled; the “overrun” is stacked on and under tables, and on several chairs and one ottoman dedicated to that purpose. Books also surface in living and dining rooms and on a kitchen shelf that holds several cookbooks — not well used, I admit, except for the two I will never part with: Sara Kasdan’s “Love and Knishes” from 1969, which taught me how to make the easiest and best chicken soup ever, and a 1941 gem by Mildred Grosberg Bellin called, quite simply, “The Jewish Cookbook — According to the Jewish Dietary Laws.”
My father started me off as a serious book collector when I moved from grade school into junior high. I‘d been reading for years, even before I started school, but he put the necessity into what he wrote in my “slam book,” that personal autograph-type album we students passed around so we’d always remember our classmates as we moved up and out of one educational setting into another. In contrast to the usual lighthearted remarks on its pages, Dad offered this: “Education is not a mere means to life; education is life itself.” And so I read on…and on…
I can’t stop adding to my ever-growing collection, but I’ve stopped worrying about it: I give many books that relate in any way to the Holocaust to the Ackerman Center at UT-Dallas, to be used by students of the Shoah. And I will give all the rest to the new Legacy Midtown Park, now under construction, whenever it opens for occupancy. Because I hope to move there myself at that time, I’ll know that in its library — one of the promised residents’ amenities — I can find any book I would want to reread. Good planning, yes?
JPS is quite specific about how every family should begin taking part in its “Jewish Books in Every Jewish Home” effort. The first essential volume must of course be a Bible. Second is “History of the Jews: From the Earliest Time to the Present,” a six-volume set that could fill up most people’s shelves all by itself! The author, Heinrich Graetz, is credited with being first ever to tell our people’s story from a Jewish perspective.
But now, time for “true confessions”: This is not a recent pamphlet I’m referencing. It’s dated 1936 (when I was 2 years old!) and offers an array of books for sale to JPS members at special reduced prices, so that almost everyone would be able to stock a family shelf even so soon after the Great Depression: $1 for most adult titles, 75 cents for children’s. Yellowed and with crumbling edges, my treasure recently surfaced as I looked into an accordion folder I hadn’t even looked at for many years. But a quick peek on Google shows me I can still buy Graetz’ six-volume history of Judaism from earliest times to the author’s “present” (which was more than 120 years ago), published between 1891 and ‘96 and still in good condition, for $75 to $100.
I’m sure today’s Jewish Publication Society would deem this collection a worthy addition to my own overflowing, space-consuming “Jewish Book Shelf.” And maybe my ancient pamphlet would be welcomed into its own collection…?
Harriet Gross can be reached at harrietgross@sbcglobal.net.

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The ethics of our fathers and uncles

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

Words to live by

When I was 24, my father died and I inherited some money. It wasn’t a lot because, really, everything went to my mother, as was appropriate. And the money I inherited is long, long gone, having been spent on my many, many years of graduate school. What is not gone, what I still have from my father, what I can never lose from my father, are the values that he instilled within me.
There is actually a tradition within Judaism of leaving ethical wills to our heirs. The money and property, if there was any, was taken care of separately, but we have a tradition of trying to summarize and pass down the ethical wisdom we have learned through our lives and want our heirs to follow. The tradition of ethical wills stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the last Torah portion in the Book of Genesis. At the very end of the portion, Jacob is lying on his deathbed and we read: “Jacob called his sons and said, ‘Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father.’” Jacob then proceeds to tell his children what will befall them based on their past behavior. This final farewell is seen as an attempt to get them to act better in the future.
When my nephew started college, I began writing down some of my wisdom for him and I would like to share some of it with you as an ethical will of sorts.
To my dear nephew,
Now that you have gone away to college and no longer have the benefit of your parents’ constant advice, I would like to give you the benefit of my own wisdom and experience. In no particular order:
God willing, you too will eventually have children or nieces or nephews. Never underestimate the pleasure one can have in embarrassing them. Remember, however, that the embarrassment should be of the variety: “I cannot believe I am related to this person.” Embarrassing someone for their own traits or foibles is just mean. Also, be careful not to cross over from teasing to bullying. Teasing someone you love can be a way to show how fond you are of them. But teasing someone you don’t love or like is really just bullying and you should never be a bully.
When you mess up — and you will — be an adult about it. Apologize and try to make up for what you did. It only makes you look small when you can’t admit that you’re in the wrong.
Live your life generously. Show your love and affection generously because the ones you love should never be in doubt that you love them. Too often when we’re angry with people we are tempted to withhold our love and affection as a way of punishing them. Rather, express honestly “I love you, but I’m really angry over x, y or z that you’ve done.”
Live your life generously. Give freely and share what you have with those who are in need. Other people — your parents, me, your friends, your teachers, even random strangers — have all helped you for no other reason than you’ve needed the help and they have been in the position to help you. Pay it forward and help others in return. Human beings are social creatures and we all need each other, so help when you can.
Cultivate a sense of gratitude and don’t take things for granted. When I look around the world and I see how other people are living, I realize how fortunate I am. Even when I had very little in my life, at my lowest points, I did have things I was grateful for and when I focused on what I had, I didn’t mind as much what I didn’t have. In the words of the Sages: “Who is the one who is rich? The one who is happy with their portion.” Don’t get me wrong. I like having stuff that is important to me and being able to eat what I like rather than ramen, again, is really terrific. Being grateful doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to achieve that which we want for ourselves and our families. But be grateful for what you do have in the moment.
Remember to do laundry, especially your sheets. Smells that you no longer notice are highly noticeable to others, even if they’re too polite to say anything. Similarly, don’t become blind to the poverty, need and injustice that surrounds us every day. True, we can’t live in a state of constant agitation over what we see, but neither should we become so thick skinned that we no longer notice it. Again in the words of our Sages: “You are not required to finish the work, but neither are your free to leave off from it.”
There are two ways to go touring. One way is to see everything possible, rushing from sight to sight, taking snapshots to prove that we were there, even if we only spent 15 minutes. Another is take a more limited view and take the time to truly experience the few sights that we do go to see. In my experience, there are more sights to see, more foods to taste, more books to read, more plays to go to than I ever could in my lifetime. Our lives are inherently limited, not infinite. So in my mind, enjoy what you do to its fullest, don’t just rush from one thing to another, because there will always be more that we leave undone.
Your loving Uncle Ben.

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Emma Lazarus: Jewish experience, golden words

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

It was first named “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a gift of friendship, celebrating the successful struggles for independence achieved by the United States and its alliance with France.
We commonly refer to her as the Statue of Liberty.
The French were to supply the Lady of Liberty Statue as a gift of friendship, while the Americans were to supply her base, the pedestal, at a cost of $250,000.
One of the many ways that money was to be raised to help pay for the pedestal was the donation of works of art, including new poetry by invited poets, such as Emma Lazarus.
Emma was one of a number of grandchildren of a wealthy Jewish merchant with original ties to Portugal and the American colonies before the American Revolution.
Emma Lazarus, in her early writings while still in her teens, was recognized and encouraged by the poet William Cullen Bryant and the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who became a close friend.
She worked hard at her craft, poetry, and had gained professional recognition by the time the Statue of Liberty pedestal money-raiser had been announced.
Originally written in 1883, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Recently at a news conference, discussing proposed immigration policy changes, one of President Trump’s immigration administrators Ken Cuccinelli, off-handedly altered part of this famous poem by Emma Lazarus, his view negating the beautiful welcome in Lazarus’ words.
Here are the two views of whom the United States welcomes into their country as immigrants.
The traditional way, embracing those who flee from poverty, war, and fear, seeking opportunities for a better life (E. Lazarus); or only those who are able to fend for themselves without any government assistance (K. Cuccinelli).
Emma Lazarus’ words are just as meaningful today, given the conditions and hardships facing those seeking hope and humanity in the United States.
On the other hand, there is little hope and humanity in Mr. Cuccinelli’s misreading of “your tired, your poor.”
If there is one part of Emma Lazarus’ poem that people remember the most, it is, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”
…And so may it remain.

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Stick with your healthy resolutions

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

Dear Families,
It is the New Year and by the time you read this, many people will have already broken their resolutions. Studies from Forbes (2013) say that nearly half of Americans make resolutions and only 8% actually keep them. A reason given is that people tend to set overly ambitious goals. At the J, we see a big push of people coming to exercise but it does drop off. Keeping up with exercising is a real commitment. Many people believe they have “more important” things to do than to keep up with healthy ways of living however, even in ancient times, our sages had something to say about taking care of our bodies — it is indeed a Jewish value of great importance. Here are some thoughts and background from our ancient rabbis (from
myjewishlearning.com):
“Because our bodies are receptacles of our souls, and vessels of God’s light, we must keep them healthy and consider carefully what we put into them. Traditional Jewish thought suggests that we must keep our bodies well for the sake of spiritual pursuits and in order to fulfill mitzvot, commandments. Today however, a focus on fitness is often seen as vain or improperly secular.
“It is interesting to see how far back in our tradition concerns with our physical selves and the balancing of Torah and physical activity can be found. Already in the Talmud (Shabbat 82a), Rav Huna urges his son Rabbah to study with Rav Hisda. Rabbah resists, saying that Rav Hisda focuses only on secular matters: anatomy and hygiene. Rav Huna admonishes his son, saying, ‘He speaks of health matters, and you call that secular!’
“Indeed, one finds a reluctance to focus on exercise, in part because time is so limited and time spent on sport is time not spent on Torah study or chessed (good deeds). Although many of us are familiar with Maimonides’ long discussions in the Mishneh Torah about the importance of exercise and healthy, measured eating, we rarely take the details of his many recommendations to heart.”
I am not convinced that today’s Jews are not exercising due to their worry about it being too secular of a pursuit. We have heard the message before every time we fly: “Put your oxygen mask on first and then help children and others.” If we don’t take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others and if we don’t take care of our physical self, how can we possibly work to grow in other areas? Many of the J regulars know that I spend my time at the J Fitness Floor walking the track and during that time I am always reading on my phone — not social media but books! I feel that I am doing two things for my body and my mind at the same time! Try it — join me on the track but please don’t talk to me as I might lose my place in my book! Good luck with your resolutions and don’t be part of the 8% who drop off no matter what you are trying to achieve. Happy New Year!

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What does it mean to be holy?

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
What is the Jewish meaning of “holiness”?
D.M.


Dear D.,
There is an age-old custom for Jewish children to begin their learning of scripture with the difficult book of Vayikra (Leviticus). At first glance, this custom seems strange. The general topics include Temple offerings and spiritual purity. It isn’t an easy book. When choosing which book of the Torah to begin with, the obvious choice would seem be Genesis, the Beginning, the story of creation which also offers a plethora of entertaining narratives — or perhaps Exodus, which discusses the making of the Jewish nation.
Indeed, this question was asked, and answered, during the times of the early sages, “Why do young school children begin their Chumash learning with Vayikra and not with Bereishit (Genesis)? Because small children are innocent and pure, and Vayikra discusses the offerings, that are pure, unblemished, and which restore spiritual purity to a person. Therefore, it is fitting that the pure begin their education with the topic of purity.’” (Midrash, Leviticus Rabboh 7:3, Midrash Tanchuma Tzav #14)
Along the same lines, Vayikra is sometimes called “the book of holiness and sanctity,” for that is its theme. The English term for holy (and purity) brings with it a variety of connotations and imagery — much of which comes from other cultures. I have often asked people to tell me what images or words come to mind when they hear “holy” and the answer (“the search for the holy grail” or hearing “silent night, holy night” …) is infused with legends and foreign values and proves hard to qualify in any language.
The Jewish concept of holiness, kedushah, carries an entirely different flavor. While the theme is featured more prominently in this volume of the Five Books of Moses, the root word permeates the Hebrew language (which itself is called the “holy tongue”) from Scripture, the standard blessings for commandments, our prayers, the term for marriage, the name for the Temple, and so on — suggesting that the Jewish concept of holiness is not simply an abstract religious term but extends to our daily activities.
What does it mean for something to be “holy”?
On the one hand, to be holy is to be distinctly removed from the physical. This characteristic is reserved for the Creator, Who is entirely transcendent — separate from creation. Accordingly, one may uncover within the world, the good, the noble, the beautiful and the exceptional — but all is still worldly, distant from “holiness.” On the other hand, there are countless references to holiness within the world, implying some middle ground. And, it is the latter concept of levels within holiness that presents a most fascinating component to Judaism.
How does it work?
To begin with, the commentaries relate a type of holiness that comes only through human action. The holiness of the land of Israel is brought about through the observance of the commandments within it. Likewise, the Shabbat day is made holy through man’s sanctification as in “Remember the Shabbat day to make it holy…” The human being fulfills the command to “Be holy, for I your G-d, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) by refraining from certain activities, by mastering one’s natural tendencies, or through noble intent behind action.
Yet there are also references to an imminent holiness, one that is independent of our action either because it is inherited or inherent. In this vein, Maimonides writes (in his Laws of the Temple 6:16), “why do I say that the original consecration sanctified the Temple and Jerusalem for eternity… Because the sanctity of the Temple and Jerusalem stems from the Shechinah which can never be nullified… as the Talmud declares: (Megillah 28a) ‘Even though they have been devastated, their sanctity remains.’” It is holiness within the land that, once present, can never be nullified through one’s deeds.
The same idea holds true in time and with people: There is holiness inherent within the Shabbat and festive days, irrespective of human experience or embrace. During our prayer services, the Kohanim ascend the platform to bless the congregation and utter the famous blessing which states “who has sanctified us with the holiness of Aaron” — a quality that is inherited, not earned.
To be sure, to declare that something or someone has a quality of holiness certainly does not imply that it needs to be worshipped, and no commentary within the Jewish religion would ever say such a thing. We only worship G-d. Yet the Biblical, legal, philosophical, and mystical sources alike speak of the dissemination of holiness over creation, and even over this world of ours, in its abovementioned dimensions of time, space and the human being.
One of the further novelties in Jewish thought is the precise qualification of different levels and gradations of holiness. In the land of Israel, for example, the highest level was the site where the “Holy of Holies” stood. Providing the practical application in Jewish law, Maimonides writes: “the land of Israel has ten gradations of holiness, each higher than the preceding level.” Likewise, with objects, the Mishna states: “Objects used for the performance of a mitzvah may be thrown away, [since no sanctity attaches to the object after its use]. But objects which are accessory to sacred items cannot be discarded…”
The highest level within these objects is the sanctity of the Torah scroll.
The latter is a phenomenon in Jewish culture and law that we take for granted. The simple physical materials of ink and parchment, when combined to form a Torah scroll in the prescribed manner, are wondrously transformed into a “holy object” that has numerous implications in how it is handled and respected.
Indeed, this is the Jewish child’s first visual introduction to holiness.
As the Torah is carried through the aisles of the synagogue, he or she can watch as the people rise, extend their hand to kiss the Torah. The value placed on this object and the tender attention given to it is more than the wisdom than the words convey, and more than the skilled labor and materials. It is not a work of literature or art, but something mysteriously beyond. This awareness of holiness later develops into a more academic and sophisticated discussion, but the intuitive appreciation, one that defies logic and reaches to the core, never leaves. Indeed, there are moving stories of Jews rushing in to burning synagogues in Germany and Poland to save the Torah scroll.
In conclusion, even the most rational Jewish philosophers and codifiers of law devote attention to clarifying these levels of holiness, within a concrete and logical system. This combination of the legal and rational intertwined the ethereal and mystical is one of the beautiful aspects of Jewish thought. Finally, the complexity of the book in the Chumash sends this overriding message to the child and adult alike. The child, innocent and pure, initially takes the holiness for granted and then learns to develop the mind while the sophisticated adult must strip away the layers of complexity and foreign ideologies to revisit “the call” of Vayikra — to stay pure.

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Visualizing 2020: the grand scheme of things

Posted on 08 January 2020 by admin

At the start of every secular New Year, I think about Janus, the old Roman god who gives our January its name. Janus could look in two directions simultaneously, and see both backward to the year just past, and forward to the year to come. I’ve often wished we could do the same, which might help me solve what I’ve always found a Jewish mystery…
It’s this axiom attributed to our renowned scholar Akiba: “All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” I follow that statement with two questions: Who foresees? Who grants permission? And then I add my third question: Permission for what? An array of possibility follows!
First: it would seem logical that G-d would be the foreseer. (Remember Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof,” bemoaning the “heavenly plan” that rendered him poor rather than rich?) But then, would G-d also be the granter of permission for changing His own plan? Or maybe that power of change is granted to each of us! As our lives unfold and we learn today more than we knew yesterday, we may echo Robert Frost, whose poetry points us toward at least considering “the path not taken.”
Yet maybe it’s us ourselves who also hold the power to foresee! The results of some self-selected courses of action are clear before the actions start. For someone (and there have been far too many such “someones” lately) who sets out to attack people at prayer in their houses of worship or shopping in a supermarket, or who shoots a fellow driver in a fit of road rage — the outcomes of those actions should be clearly visible well in advance. The opportunity for advance change seems to be wide-open, doesn’t it?
Another poet — not so well known — once wrote something that makes a distinction between what he called “ordinary vision” and “clear sight.” Virtually everyone has the first; the second is the ability to look ahead, which is equivalent to visualizing the future. And those who see it can help shape it in their own directions. Is that foresight a G-d-given gift to just a chosen few? Or do all of us possess the power to make such changes in advance? Or maybe it’s possible that G-d has given us the power to change our own behavior so that it culminates in what He originally wanted?
These questions sound very philosophical, but they are actually grounded in everyday reality. And that last, biggest question may be the hardest to answer: If it’s G-d who foresees, but also grants us the power to look ahead and change our own courses of action, can the truth really be that whatever we finally change to is what was foreseen in the first place? This is a conundrum that I’ve been trying to resolve ever since, so many years ago, a good friend who was well schooled in Talmud and the art of “pilpul,” our distinctively Jewish method of discussion and debate, presented me with that little bit of Akiba written on a little bit of paper that I taped to a corner of my desk and have shaken my head over ever since. Do you think any of us really has much choice about anything?
But we are not a defeatist people. We have come through so much, for so long, always attributing our successes to the power G-d has given us to exert power of our own. We celebrate that power every Purim when we read the story of how Esther changed her own behavior in order to change the future of her people. Our people! And we sang about it so recently at Hanukkah: “Rock of Ages,” the story of the power of people — our people! — who changed ordinary behavior into super-ordinary achievement.
“All is foreseen, but permission is granted.” Every year, I conclude that G-d sees further ahead than we do, and powers our changes to His own ends. What do you think?

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