Holy City Prayer

Thursday, November 30, 2006

MM: This is the Word of G^d coming to you!!!

I don't mean just the words below, but all the pieces that I write on the
Portion of the week and other Jewish issues of interest.

People that know me a little but haven't seen me for a while might be taken
aback a bit by this revelation, or even get slightly worried about my mental
state of health. Has he finally lost it? You don't need to worry - I'm fine,
thank G^d.

When G^d communicates with us, how does He do that if at all?

When G^d teaches us through our teachers, or directly by inserting thoughts
and associations into our brain, He doesn't say: My word is your command.
That is the way One speaks to Angels or robots. (Blind obedience is also the
goal of brainwashing.) But Humans (by His will) have a Free Will, emotions
and intelligence and therefore need a different approach.

He doesn't spell it all out when He communicates with us. He gives sparse
hints. And not just in our days. Already with all of the greatest of the
Prophets He worked like that. (Except for with Moses - He spelled it out to
him at least some of the time.)

Anyone who teaches Judaism with integrity teaches the word of G^d. No less.
That's what I claim about my teachings too. Ongoing Revelation. And the only
way to learn Judaism from this is to wonder about such a Jewish text, to
fight it or to let it work on our emotions. That's exactly what I want from
my readers. That we engage in the text. What we read, does it help us better
realize what He wants from us? Is it a good enough wrestling partner for us?
Des it speak to our hearts?

On the other hand, if writings are passively absorbed they have escaped the
chain of transmission of the Jewish Tradition. They need to challenge, sow
trouble, rock boats, slaughter sacred cows, disrupt the status quo, fight
indifference, raise eyebrows, make us uncomfortable. His words and ideas
need to make us suddenly aware, cry, shiver, growl, laugh, blush, sweat,
talk, yawn or feel unsettled (confused, scared, sad) or zestful (loved,
proud, connected, calm).

True wholehearted obedience only comes after understanding. Naaseh v'nishma
- We will do and understand. First we need to wrestle with it, argue it or
be touched by it. Only after that we can obey as full-fledged people. And
then we made the knowledge our own so that we can be a link in the chain of
the spreading of the ongoing Revelation. And then when we go teach we can
say "This is the Word of G^d coming to you!!!"

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bareich . bakol

>From Moshe Mordechai...

"Now Abraham was old, well on in years, and G^d had blessed (bareich)
Abraham with everything (bakol)" (Genesis 24:1).

The word bakol screams out for explanation. Why? Because it's kind of funny.
Your wife of decades, who was your companion in all you did, unexpectedly
dies; your only heir to your dynasty is well on in years himself and still
Holy but also a persistent wallflower. And G^d blessed Abraham bakol? He was
lacking nothing? C'mon! This passage seems out of place. Why is Abraham
described as blessed with "everything" after he buries his wife and before
he sends his servant out to find a partner for Isaac?

Rashi links this passage to Abraham's desire to find a wife for Isaac - this
would make the blessing truly complete. Others see it as an introduction to
is coming next, telling us Abraham's motivation to look for a daughter in
law: he has so much blessing, and soon his servant 'Eli'ezer, who is in
charge of everything, will want his daughter to marry Isaac. Many other
suggestions as to what this extra blessing of bakol could have been are

The numeric value of bakol is 52, the same as in ben, son. This alludes to
the ultimate blessing that Abraham received in his son Isaac. Rabbi Meir
says that Abraham was blessed by not having a daughter. In Abraham's time
and in his unique circumstances, who could she have married? The only
options would have been idle-worshippers. That would have detracted from
Abraham's blessing. But others object that Abraham's greatness meant that if
a daughter would have completed his fortunes, he would have had one and G^d
would have taken care of having a proper partner for her in reserve. Rabbi
Yehuda says that Abraham's extra blessing was that he did have a daughter.
Some add that his daughter's name was. Bakol!

The opinion of Rabbi Levi in Midrash Rabba and other places is that Abraham
was blessed with three things: 1) he ruled over his Evil Inclination. That
is to say that he was in mental control of every situation. This might seem
to be a boring lifestyle, but the real goodness of this is that if you are
in control of your emotions you can always be happy and satisfied. 2) His
son Ishmael repented during his life time. 3) His storehouse lacked nothing.
Also he had wife that respected him. (The Midrash says that four things
cause premature aging: living in fear; being angry at children; a bad wife;
and war.) Sarah respected Abraham and even called him "sir." It is very
important for a husband to respect his wife. It is no less important for a
woman to respect her husband. Some might argue that a wife calling her
husband sir can distance them. But too much respect is certainly better than
the screaming matches. Rabbi Levi said in the name of R. Hama: bakol means
that God did not test him again. Having calm and a peaceful time, without a
new crisis every day, is a complete blessing in and of itself!

The Jerusalem Talmud says that bakol means that Abraham lived in a town that
had a doctor, a bath house, and a court which has jurisdiction to
incarcerate and punish people. Some add that it must have a vegetable store.
>From here we see that the environment can be a blessing. In addition,
Abraham was world famous for his hospitality and was respected as a powerful
person. Rabbi Eli'ezer HaModai says that Abraham was blessed with an
understanding of astrology and that he was consulted by noblemen from far
and wide. Rabbi Shim'on bar Yochai says that Abraham had a precious stone
with curative powers that would heal all who gazed upon it. These two
opinions identify bakol as Abraham's prominent position in the world. This
fits with his role as "father of many nations". The Ibn Ezra in defining
bakol states that "G^d had given Abraham long life, wealth, honor,
children..." Abraham had reached the zenith of his life, able to reflect
upon a meaningful existence filled with the joys of both the spiritual and
the physical. The progenitor of Monotheism, his years on earth represented a
constant ascent.

On the word bakol the Midrash says that Abraham was blessed in both the
upper realms as well as down here in the physical domain. Okay, very nice,
but what exactly does that mean? The Chassidic Master the B'er Mayim Chayim
explains: We normally assume that there is no reward for our spiritual
accomplishments in this world. We must wait for the world to come for our
payment for services rendered to G^d. So, that raises the question, what is
then this bakol? The Rebbe feels this can be explained by the fact that
there are two categories of Commandments. One type is the performance of
mandated acts that only have an impact on High. However, there is another
brand, which makes an impression on this world - especially on other people,
and in that way makes this a better world. Category One sets up an account
in Heaven to be drawn on upon arrival after 120 years. Category Two
influences the nature of life down here, and so creates credit both here and
in the World to come. Abraham is Mr. Kindness. The nature of his activities
has a marvelous impact on people and his era. Therefore Abraham was both
making deposits in his celestial account and receiving earthly bliss. That
is truly being blessed in everything and in every way: bakol.

One commentator says that bakol means that Abraham's relationship with G^d
was complete, encompassing all of his heart, all of his soul, and all of his
might. Yet another says that Abraham lived in such a way that he shared
blessings with the collective, so that his own sense of blessing was
magnified. Finally, one writer says that Abraham was blessed with a sense of
the all, with a sense of abundance, so that whatever he had, he felt that he
had enough (Itturei Torah). Abraham's greatness derives in part from this
sense that he knew how to appreciate what he was given, even in the midst of
a lifetime that included more than its share of suffering and complexity.

Nice - he had a lot and he was pleased with all he had. But that is not
having everything - and most Commentators seem to explain that he did have
it all. Besides: it says then that G^d gave him all; if he was grateful
despite the fact that he didn't have all, it should say that Abraham was
making himself happy.

So we still need an answer how Abraham could have been so fulfilled despite
the fact that he suffered a lot, lost his dearest wife and had not seen his
principle son married. I would like to suggest that an answer may lie not in
possible meanings of the word bakol but rather in the word bareich ("He had
blessed"). We know that Baruch really means "a Source of blessing," because
it is related to the word b'reicha, meaning: spring, and not:
blessing/blessed. A Blessing that starts with Baruch Atta is a Declaration,
and translates: "You are [solely] a Source of Blessing", not: "You are
blessed" (whatever that's supposed to mean). Therefore I feel that it's not
too far-fetched to believe that what it really says in our verse is that G^d
had made Abraham a Source of all Blessings. As it says in Genesis 22:18,
26:4 and 28:14: that the Patriarchs will be the prototype for being a
source of blessing. The worst thing that can possible happen to anyone is
when we can only receive, be a beggar. The best state is to be a source of
blessing, a giver, a partner with G^d. The very best is to be termed a
Source of all blessing by the One Who is that Source. Bakol. Life is not
about what we can get but gets value by what we can give.


Parashat Chayei Sara: The Marriage of Mild & Strict

>From MM:

With the third word of the Hebrew Bible, G^d makes His first appearance with
one of his Holy Names. He uses the one that connotes Strict Justice (Din):
Elo-heem. Only in the forth verse of the second chapter do we see a change
in the Name(s) that G^d uses, to teach us how He started everything. There
He introduces, together with the former Name, the Name that implies Mildness
(Rachamim): Ado-nai, together emerging as: Ado-nai Elo-heem. This is what we
call: Mildness in Strict Justice (Rachamim baDin). The Rabbis teach us that
provides a lesson for us: G^d wants us to know that He would have liked to
have made a world in which all was sound and worked as it should have, but
such perfection cannot exist outside of Him. So G^d "had to" introduce
Mildness to make the whole thing kind of stable, able to survive long enough
to be worked on towards perfection - giving Man both a purpose to exist and
the space to fail, to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to repent, to
repair, to make up, to perfect and to be (good enough) as we are.

Similarly, in marriage both Strict Justice and Mildness are needed. So
Abraham, whose Loving Kindness for all was world famous, had to marry Sara
who could say about Hagar: out. Isaac, know for his dedication to Strictness
had to marry a girl who would not only quench the thirst of the stranger but
also of his camels. Eli'ezer left water in the bucket after drinking on
purpose. What could Rivkaleh do? Take the rest home - but who knows if this
guy wasn't sick? Throw it out - but that might insult the chap. She gave the
rest to his camels. (This doesn't mean, Heaven forbid, that Abraham and
Rivka were spineless pushovers and that Sara and Isaac were callous
bulldozers. They were each well balanced, wonderful people, but each with
their primal reaction and bias, for which it's great to have a counterweight
handy. As it says (Genesis 2:18): "Ado-nai Elo-heem said: It is not good
for Man to be alone with himself - I'll make him a helper opposite of him" -
in opposition of his Evil Inclination.)

And so is it till this day in marriage. Reb Shlomo Carlebach explains that
the Western idea of marriage seems to be to leave each other alone, while
the Jewish ideal about Marriage is to balance each other. Rav Eliyahu
Shlesinger says that if both parents have as their default mindset Strict
Justice the kids have no life. Everything is constantly judged and everyone
has to do their very best all the time. Vacations, free time, sleep and even
breaks are a waste of time. Mistakes have to be avoided at all costs and fun
is idleness. But if both parents are always mellow, their children have no
life either. All is OK, no limits are ever set and they grow up in total
insecurity of the workings of this world and even in doubt if anyone loves
them at all. The trick is to create a duo in which both spouses balance each
other. Both appreciate the amazingly fresh impute and vision of their soul
mate, and as a team they make life as great and human as it should be, and
help each other to become more balanced in themselves. Some people are
easily mild about one thing while tend to be more strict about another. It's
great if in each case one has a partner who will be there with you to create
a united and balanced approach.


Monday, November 13, 2006

The President and I

One does not need to read Jimmy Carter's latest book about the Middle East
to know what it says. The title says it all, "Palestine: Peace Not
Apartheid." Nobody will be surprised that this is his latest forum through
which to bash Israel. Carter has done so for the better part of the last
three decades.

I have heard all of Carter's arguments. I will not waste time challenging
his position. He is almost universally wrong and his theories and fantasies
are based on how life in the Middle East should be rather than considering
the reality of how it is.

When I was a student at Emory University, Jimmy Carter was a guest lecturer
in many classes. The insight and stories of a former president would be
interesting to any college student, and Carter's lectures were most

In the early 1980s Emory gained international attention with two events.
First was the donation to establish what was until then one of the largest
University endowments ever. Second was the decision by Jimmy Carter to
establish his Presidential Center at Emory. Both of these were good reasons
to pick Emory as an up and coming university with international acclaim.
Emory offered a great education, a vast network of organizations and social
causes, and opportunities to learn and grow in countless ways.

One of my early activities was with a new student newspaper, The Voice.
Early on, the editor published an article where he termed the Carter Center
as "Jimmy Carter's Presidency in exile." The editor questioned, after a
single term that was marked by double digit inflation, an increasing arms
race, and the Iran hostage crisis, what there was for Emory to celebrate by
having Carter make his home there. For expressing his views, the editor was
called to the dean's office and told not to embarrass the President like

After graduating, I participated in a series of alumni Assemblies. These
conferences explored Emory's role within different fields of interest. The
last of those which I attended was entitled "Emory in the World."

The keynote address was delivered by Jimmy Carter. His speech took place
just weeks after returning from a trip to the Middle East during which
Carter visited one Arab capitol after another. The news reports were
centered on his harsh criticism of Israel. Perhaps it would have been
impolite to visit Arab leaders and criticize them to their face, so Israel
became the punching bag. The sole obstacle to peace. Yet, in visiting
Jerusalem, Carter made no mention of successive Arab wars against Israel,
ongoing Arab terrorism, nor the Arabs' near universal rejection of the right
of Israel to exist at all. Instead, Carter used his presence in Israel to
criticize Israel.

His speech at Emory took place during the last week of March.

Despite the title of the Assembly being Emory in the World, Carter devoted a
huge portion of his speech to berating Israel. His rhetoric was most
unfitting a former President, and embarrassing to me and many other alumni
with whom I discussed his remarks.

Following his speech, there was time for one question. Instantly, my hand
was in the air and I was picked. Being well taught by both my parents and
professors, I knew that to challenge Carter on the substance of his
arguments would have been a mistake, and impolite.

There are some things a person never forgets. My question to Jimmy Carter is
one of them.

"President Carter, first I want to thank you for the wonderful memory that I
have from this week in 1979 when you, President Sadat and Prime Minister
Begin stood together to sign the Camp David Accords. That day that changed
my life." Carter's smile was wider than the caricatures of him with his face
on a peanut.

"But President Carter, as a representative of Emory, is it not disingenuous
from an academic perspective to travel throughout the world and suggest that
Israel is the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East?"

Carter's smile disappeared as fast as my hand had gone up. As much as I
remember my question, I have no idea what his answer was. Yet it was filled
with all sorts of anti Israel rhetoric, and delivered with such anger, that
I indeed felt that he had handed me my head. Yet not only did Carter not
answer my question, but he showed his true colors to a group of intelligent,
educated Emory alumni who saw Carter for what he is.

Today, the Carter Center exhibits President Carter's pride in what he views
as the accomplishments of his short presidency. Indeed there were
accomplishments, and the Camp David Peace Treaty is one of the biggest. Yet
even on the Carter Center's web site, while the rhetoric is not displayed,
the bias clearly is. Under "Israel and the Palestinian Territories," the
Center states that the intended Palestinian capitol is east Jerusalem. It
discusses the demographic and religious make-up of the three million plus
residents of these areas.

Yet under "Israel," there is no capitol, not even an intended capitol. There
is no reference to the fact that Israel is nearly 20% Arab, most of whom are
Moslem. Nor that all Israelis - Jews, Moslems, Christians, Druze, Bahai,
and others are equal under the law. Not a word about Israel's thriving

While Jimmy Carter is proud of his efforts to promote democracy, he makes
the irresponsible error to put the sole blame on Israel - the region's only
true democracy - for lack of peace. His angry rhetoric is misdirected and
imbalanced, and only strengthens Arab dictators and terrorists alike in
their fantasy that they will one day drive Israel into the sea.

It is fitting that Jimmy Carter moved the release of his book to the middle
of November. Of course he wouldn't want his hostility toward Israel to take
away votes from the Democrats. The book's release is also sandwiched between
two other relevant dates in the history of the Middle East. November 2 is
the anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the British
affirmed as their policy the establishment of a Jewish state. On November
29, 1947 the UN Partition vote made that a reality. Israel has been fighting
to defend itself from those who would challenge its existence ever since.

Jimmy Carter would do well to learn from these. It is not Israel that
rejected the 1947 UN Partition vote. It is not Israel that attacked its
Arab neighbors in successive wars seeking to destroy them. It is not
Israeli mothers who raise their children to be "martyrs" and murder
civilians. Carter neglects that Israel has the right to exist in peace,
whether as a right from the UN in 1947, or from God to Abraham. Carter's
rhetoric only serves to embolden those who fight against peace, who murder
democrats, and terrorize innocents.

I will not read Carter's new book. I know what it says. I heard it from the
horse's mouth.

Jonathan Feldstein

Living among the obstacles to peace

What I Did for My Summer Vacation By Jonathan Feldstein

The summer is over, school has started and vacations seem like a distant memory. Schools everywhere will have children recount what they did for their summer vacation. And in offices and other work settings, adults will compare notes about their respective vacation, literally or figuratively, around the water cooler.

For me, summer has always just been a hotter time of year. When the kids are off school, we do take a week or two of vacation, but summer has long ago ceased to be a season that is any more relaxing or less busy with work than any other. Yet it nevertheless has the attribute of being the vacation season.

This year I spent my summer in a way never before, and a way I never thought I would. I spent the summer in Israel, amidst a war with Arab terrorists, and not only did not flee, I took the opportunity to visit the war zone more than once. In fact, I was so inspired by the bravery and heroism that I witnessed, I looked for opportunities to visit northern Israel anywhere I could.

While many watched events of Israel’s latest war with Lebanon from the comfort of their living rooms on all the networks, my experience was quite different on the ground. Even the day I visited Haifa amid a barrage of Katyusha attacks, with three international news crews, the experience was different than that which they covered.


Haifa has a special place in my heart as my father was born and grew up there. Haifa is a microcosm of Israel in that people of all backgrounds blend and interact, if not harmoniously, then surely peacefully. In a briefing with the mayor, he stated what I long have felt – that Haifa is a model for the whole Middle East, living, breathing and breeding peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews every day. Haifa is Israel’s third largest city. I have spent much time there and still have relatives there, my grandfather for whom I am named is buried there.

But what I saw in Haifa was not the daily hustle and bustle of life as usual, I saw a city all but deserted. There are no words to describe the void, the lack of presence of people on the streets that day. Even on an average Shabbat, Haifa is busier than the day I visited.

Most of the day in Haifa was spent at the Magen David Adom (MDA) EMS Station. I followed the staff, interacted with them, and learned about the delicate balance of keeping Haifa’s residents safe and well protected, and also keeping the MDA staff safe as well. Literally as I arrived to the MDA Station, the first of several air raid sirens went off as I was getting out of the car. I had vowed not to panic and initially, for a few seconds, took my time organizing things in the car. Then out of nowhere, a dozen or more people went running toward the MDA Station, seeking safety in the public bomb shelter there. It was as if they were sprinting toward the end of a long race. The siren wailed. My demeanor changed and I ran after them to safety, no longer so calm or sure that nothing would happen. Inside the MDA station, the scene was similar. Dozens of MDA staff working in their offices, blood bank or elsewhere upstairs in the building would also descend to the shelter.

Four more times the siren wailed that morning. Each time the same scene was repeated. Local residents running for shelter and the entire MDA staff descended calmly yet briskly into the underground shelter. After waiting for the all clear, everyone returned to what they were doing before. I found it challenging to go about my business as usual because it just seemed that we’d be interrupted by more sirens and have to go down to the shelter again.

When Katyushas Happen

During the day, CNN, FOX and the AP all had full news crews on hand observing how MDA worked preparing for and responding to an emergency. Then it happened, the fifth siren and within minutes a confirmation of a Katyusha landing in a southern residential neighborhood. Within a minute, what seemed like endless ambulances pulled out of the station and were off to the scene. Roads were already blocked by police and the ambulances flew through town with literally no traffic.

The news crews jockeyed for position and to interview eyewitnesses. Some were on the air live. The scene was a nine story apartment building. It was clear that the rocket landed near the lower floors as a former tree and other shrubs were scattered about, and the lower portion of the building took the most direct hit. Yet pock marks from shrapnel went all the way up, and windows were blown out to the very top floor. About 75 yards away, across the street, car windows were blown out. So much for finding a good parking spot.

And in the courtyard of another building across the street, teens picked up and displayed the metal ball bearings that were packed into this rocket, per standard Hezbollah specification, as many as 40,000 per rocket, designed to cause the most amount of carnage and damage possible. Some 100 yards away, people stood in a courtyard where only minutes earlier they could have been killed by these rocket propelled ball bearings.

As all this was going on, MDA paramedics and volunteers treated and evacuated the injured while residents and neighbors looked on, thankful that they were not hurt, but knowing that there would be no rest from worry as long as the Katyushas continued to be fired on northern Israel.

Through the course of the rest of the day there were three or four more sirens. Each time the same scene would be repeated. Most of the Katyushas hit elsewhere, but another did strike a northern suburb creating damage worse than the first.

Alone in the Community

As the day ended, I left the MDA station and went to seek a minyan (religious quorum) in which to participate. This day marked the end of the first thirty days of mourning following my mother’s death and, as was customary, I went to recite the Kaddish prayer among a group of fellow Jews. I knew where to find synagogues so I just drove around to see where and when such a minyan would be assembled. As I drove, I was mindful of two things: 1. damage from other Katyushas that had hit in days prior was still evident. Haifa was definitely under siege. 2. It was still daylight, but the streets were deserted. What would I do if I heard another siren? Run out and abandon my car? But run to where? How would I take cover from the shrapnel even if I were 100 yards from a direct hit?

Eventually, I found a synagogue and waited until the posted time. As I waited, I found a few stores open nearby so I went to buy things, not so much because I needed them, but because they were open. I wanted to support them as, even if the streets were deserted, they were there to provide for the residents’ needs.

I waited and waited at the synagogue. Nobody showed up. A minyan requires ten people. I was the only one there. Nobody even walked by on the street. Part of the public mourning after the death of a close relative involves prayer and saying Kaddish with the community. Though I stood alone on a street in front of one of Haifa’s largest synagogues, I did not feel alone, I felt part of the community. As I drove home, I felt a mixture of relief in leaving Haifa knowing that I was out of harm’s way, but also a sense of regret. Those who stayed would have a sleepless night either running for cover each time a siren was heard, or lying around waiting anxiously for that to happen.

Kiryat Shmona

A neighbor of mine saw a news story of people in Kiryat Shmona complaining that they were forced to live in bomb shelters around the clock, but that supplies were very limited and there were virtually no comforts available. Of course, living in a shelter the notion of a comfort is relative. They were not looking for Jacuzzis and computers, merely TVs so they would know what was going on outside, fans to circulate the stagnant air, and supplies for babies and children – formula, diapers, toys, etc. In less than 24 hours, neighbors donated over 10,000 shekels in cash, and an equal amount in actual supplies. Stores, where over 60 fans and other supplies were purchased slashed even the sale prices and took inventory from other branches in order to be part of helping to deliver relief to the remaining residents there.

The next day, I was part of a caravan of four mini vans, filled to the ceiling, that was on its way to the north to deliver these needed materials. We were not looking for fame or glory, just to do our part helping out fellow Israelis who were living under siege.

As we drove north, the afternoon sun was setting to our left. We stopped along the way to meet up with another person who had filled his car up with more baby supplies. The further north we got, the less traffic there was. Open roads, beautiful sunset, and undertaking a great mission. Yet the closer we got to our destination, the more serious the tone turned.

Turn Up the Radio

Throughout the war, all major Israeli radio stations broadcast intermittent, sometimes frequent, emergency announcements as to when and where air raid sirens were heard. The announcement would come on quietly and peacefully, not like the test of the emergency broadcast system I grew up with in the US. Announcers would calmly interrupt their guests on the radio, or they would turn the music down, and broadcast where sirens were heard and that residents were instructed to go to their shelters or an interior room in the building, away from windows. After the announcement, they would return to the regular program, seamlessly, as if having just taken a long breath. This happened dozens of times a day as hundreds of Katyusha rockets were fired daily.

Our interest was to know if we were driving in an area where there was an incoming Katyusha. During the course of our drive, we reviewed the procedures of what to do when driving and facing a Katyusha attack.

Defensive Driving

Paying close attention to the emergency announcements on the radio, as if these were the program and the rest was just a commercial, we drove the last hour in relative silence. Home Front Command instructed Israelis driving while under attack to leave their cars and seek cover on the side of the road. As I drove, every turn brought with it a new set of scenarios to the “What if” question, what if a siren were heard as we were driving. Every 100-200 yards I was scouting out of my peripheral vision for places that we could take cover, what if. I played out in my mind how to stop the car suddenly and take cover so that if it happened, I would not be unprepared.

This new form of defensive driving pervaded the last hour to Kiryat Shmona, and the first hour leaving, many hours later, under a star covered night. Fortunately, we did not have to take cover ourselves, but I gained an appreciation both for what the residents in the north had to contend with many times a day, and for basic survival tactics so that people could live their lives, protect themselves as needed, and continue living as normal a life afterward once the immediate threat was behind them.

Anyone Home?

In Kiryat Shmona itself, the scene resembled an abandoned movie set. Papers and plastic bottles blew through the streets as one might imagine tumbleweed in the western United States from movies set 150 and 200 years ago. There was no telling if anyone was home anywhere because all the houses looked the same: dark, quiet and deserted. Only thanks to those who were curious to see who could be driving through their neighborhood – an almost non-occurrence – and popped their heads outside to see who these crazy people were, were we able to find our way to the hesder yeshiva which would become our home base.

As soon as people started hearing that we arrived, nearby residents walked over to see what we had that they could use. Others offered to take us to the shelters that needed the supplies the most. The scene reminded me of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy’s house lands on the wicked Witch of the East, crushing her, and arriving in Munchkinland which seems deserted, yet she is then descended upon by the curious Munchkins who want to know if she is a good witch or a bad witch. The difference, of course, was stark. These were not Munchkins, but fellow Israelis. Their houses were under attack, not from flying houses or from bad witches, but from the endless firing of rockets at their community, day and night, by Hezbollah terrorists.

We unloaded the vans at the yeshiva whose volunteers would help distribute the supplies, and directly to some of the shelters themselves. Sadly, whether people needed things or not, everyone wanted something. It was a hoarding mentality. Since they never knew what they’d have the next day, or what might be taken from them, people were hoarding whatever they could. Perhaps this is a normal human reaction, but it was sad nonetheless.

For that reason, we decided to give the rest of the supplies to the head of the local Magen David Adom EMS Station. Until that point, MDA had been centrally involved in providing humanitarian services and sending volunteers to shelters and distributing supplies. Because they were locals, they knew exactly where everyone was, the condition of the shelter and what the needs were. When we arrived to unload 50 fans, the MDA staff was speechless. We knew that MDA would have the credibility and integrity to make sure that the supplies got to those in need, and that was a great comfort to us.

We found that the Kiryat Shmona fire station had no TV, so we took a brand new 21 inch TV in the box to the fire station so that between fighting the many fires caused by Katyushas throughout the north, they could relax in comfort, or at least know what was going on.

We ended the night at a local high school that had been the scene two days earlier of a Katyusha attack. The damage was scary as only a short time earlier, people were playing ball on the very courtyard where the Katyusha landed. The halls of the school were lined with teens in sleeping bags. No these were not students of the school, but rather volunteers who came from the center of the country to help provide services to those left behind. When they heard that we now had four empty cars going back to the center of the country, our cargo that we came to the north with was replaced by teens going home to rest for the weekend.

Shabbat – the Day of Rest

Good friends from the US arrived to Israel during the war to celebrate their oldest son’s bar mitzvah. As part of the celebration, we went with them to Zichron Yaakov, a small city a little south of Haifa, to spend Shabbat as a day of rest, and celebrate together. Until that week, Zichron had not experienced any Katyushas, but that week, and in particular the Friday we arrived, sirens wailed sending residents to their bomb shelters for the first time.

This trip was different because unlike going to Haifa and to Kiryat Shmona, we went to Zichron as a family, with several kids in tow, most of whom were well aware of the war, and were well aware that we were not far from the action. On another day, we’d have first sought out the pool, dining room, or game room. After arriving at the hotel, the first stop was to see that each floor had its own bomb shelter, note where they were, and to instruct the kids to avoid standing beneath the glass covered atrium.

Just as we began to welcome Shabbat, the air raid siren wailed again. This time, with families and people of all ages, we calmly walked into the communal shelter, trying not to make a big deal of it, especially for the kids’ sake so they would not panic. One woman, whose son was serving in the IDF in Lebanon, was weeping the whole time. The whole situation was too much to bear and she broke down.

That night, we split the kids up and my wife and I slept in different rooms each with some of them. This way, should a siren go off again, we’d be there to wake them, calm them, and get them to the shelter as quickly and safely as possible.

The rest of Shabbat was uneventful, for us. Katyushas landed only 2 miles away during the day, and another apparently flew overhead and landed in Hadera some 5-10 miles to the south of where we were.


During the course of the war, I kept hearing about people going to the north to volunteer. Most of the volunteers were young people, college age and younger. Many of the organizers of local relief efforts were these very young people. Young Israelis went to the north in droves, lived there, slept there and worked day and night to bring supplies and support to the residents. Some painted the shelters bright colors so as to be less depressing. Others played with kids. Some distributed supplies directly to the shelters, including meals three times a day from places that would prepare and serve the food. Yet others volunteered with organizations like MDA and others to provide medical and other types of relief services.

I was amazed by the dedication and resilience of these young people. In many ways, they were doing what I’d have wanted to do did I not have obligations to my family and my work. There were many heroes in this war, little has been told about the youth. It’s extraordinary and something that we all have just cause to be proud, for this is the future of our country.

One Million Displaced

As much as there is pride in those who volunteered in the north, millions of Israelis also participated without leaving their homes. E-mail chats and actual newspaper columns were devoted to absorbing the million Israelis from the north who fled during the war. We offered to host dozens of friends and relatives who never took us up on it because they all decided to stay at home, in the north. This was inspiring, but we wanted to help.

Others opened their homes to complete strangers, making new life long friends. Whole communities participated collectively in absorbing hundreds of families, people who evacuated their homes together and were resettled together elsewhere as communities. Activities were planned to keep them busy and engaged in meaningful and enjoyable activities for the duration. Huge communal Shabbat meals were served. Laundry was done by volunteers. Throughout Israel, discounts were offered to residents of the north. Other attractions waived entrance fees entirely. Businesses paid for and relocated employees and their families from the north, and as tourists stopped coming to Israel from overseas, hotels filled with refugees from the north.

Refugee Camp on the Beach

One of the most spectacular sites I witnessed was the tent city set up on the beaches south of Ashdod by Russian Israeli philanthropist Arkedi Geydamak. Dubbed Geydamak City, when I visited, already 6000 refugees from the north had moved in, and they were preparing for another 1000. Geydamak paid for it all. Massive tents sleeping 200-300, activities for kids, endless supply of beverages, three meals a day, everything. Busses shuttled residents to different outings. He even built himself a home on the beach and also moved in for the duration of the war.

Nobody had much privacy, and families of all backgrounds were intermingled with one another, but people were grateful and it worked. Geydamak perceived a need, rented the space on one of Israel’s most beautiful beaches, and paid for it all. Basically, a city was built on the sands of the beach, missing only a zip code. A police station was set up, as was a Magen David Adom station to provide medical needs 24/7.

One could not visit Geydamak City without the conflicting emotions of sadness that so many people had to flee their homes and were living like this, yet with the pride in knowing that Israelis do take care of their own. As bad as it was, these people were indeed very lucky. Many people pay top dollar for a vacation at the beach, mush less on the beach. These people’s circumstances were far from perfect, and the City was not Five Star, but they were well cared for. And think about it, how many refugee camps have the sea less than 100 yards from their tent door and women strolling leisurely in bikinis as if it were, in fact, a vacation.

Another Era

Visiting Geydamak City also conjured images of Israelis living in massive tent cities in another era. During early hears of statehood, as Israel’s population doubles with refugees fleeing the ashes of Europe and the fear of pogroms in the Arab countries where Jews lived for centuries, tent cities like these were set up as well. The amenities were nowhere as nice or thought out, but Israel had millions of new immigrants to absorb fast, and tents were the quickest, easiest and least costly way to do so.

Let us hope that in the future, Israel will never have to use tents to house refugees from within its borders again.

Once More to the North

As the summer drew to a close, life returned to normal. We did take a vacation to the north, rafting on the Jordan River, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, and going to restaurants and outdoor activities that were closed until just a few days earlier. The hotel itself only contacted us on Thursday before our scheduled arrival on Sunday to say that they were open.

Tourism had yet to return to what it was, but people had started coming back. The highlight of the trip was driving as far north as we could. We stopped for lunch in Kiryat Shmona where our family alone filled the small restaurant. We paid the owner for an extra 25 Cokes so that when soldiers came by, he’d give them one for free. And then we continued further north. Driving in a valley which only a week earlier echoed of mortar fire, air raid sirens, emergency vehicles and the “boom” of Katyushas landing, we went to an area once called the Good Fence, literally on the border with Lebanon. We drove as far as we could until we were stopped by two soldiers manning a makeshift post, basically preventing people like us from going any farther.

What the soldiers must have thought as they approached this family heading north, only yards from the border, we could only guess. As one young red haired soldier approached, I pulled out from under the car seat a large bottle of Coke. I explained that we had come north to provide some refreshments to those on, and crossing, the border, and that we had six cases of Cokes to give them. They were without words. As I pulled to the side to unload the car, Cokes and boxes of cookies, the one soldier could not stop thanking us. The kids helped hand out the refreshments, and though we only encountered two soldiers that day, they understood what it meant to be Israeli more than ever before.

Back to School

As the summer ended and the school year approached, I was struck by radio and other news programs now geared to discussing the beginning of the school year as if the war never took place. Typically in Israel, there is always the fear of teachers going on strike and the school year starting late. School budgets are another hot topic, as is security which is part of the fabric of schools here on a day to day basis.

And then there’s always the compulsory interview with a child entering first grade. The interview I heard was with a little boy named Itai, who was starting school two days later. Typical questions were asked about riding the bus, can he write his name, who he’d sit with, etc.

But then the conversation took a turn that only would happen here. Itai’s father was one of the soldiers killed in the war. The radio announcer asked Itai where his father was.

“In Heaven.”

And you know that he’s watching over you in heaven, don’t you?


Itai, remember it’s very hard for your mother too, so you be good and help her.

“I know, I will.”

Itai, good luck in school and be strong.

“Thank you. Mom, I’m thirsty, can I have some water?”

May Itai grow up in peace and never know war anymore, and may all of Israel continue to shine as a light unto the nations, to work together in a myriad of ways that are unique to Israel as a thriving western democracy, the center of Judaism and monotheism, and where we work together to overcome our challenges and continue to build the homeland of the Jewish People according to the vision of the Prophets.

By Jonathan Feldstein

An Israeli Living Among Heroes

No1abba at gmail.com

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Moshe Mordechai: Parashat Lech-l'cha: Sacrificing Our Lives to G^d

Sacrificing Our Lives to G^dhen Abraham makes his way to sacrifice his 37 year old only heir, it is easy to see why this was his hardest trial. However, we must ask - why is it considered his trial - what about Isaac? Wasn't Isaac about to give up his very life for this Command? Having to kill the apple of your eye must be a disaster - but is dying not much more grave?

Many people understand "to sacrifice your life to G^d" to mean sanctifying His Name in death. However, there is another way: hallowing His Name in life! Giving up our lives, no matter how hard, is only a momentary service. Painful or painless, it's only an instant of greatness.

How much greater it would be to consecrate His Name for a lifetime!

In the first portion of the Sh'ma' we pledge to love G^d (and by extension His People), our personal G^d: with all our heart (meaning: thoughts), with all our souls (meaning: even if it would cost us our very life) and with all our might (meaning: money, says Rashi). This is a somewhat strange order of priorities. Our life is dearer than our money? The modern Biblical commentator, Jack Benny, explains in one of his most famous sketches: A street robber accosts Benny, demanding, "Your money or your life!" The studio audience - knowing his skinflint stage character - laughed loud and long. The robber then repeated his demand: "Look, pal! I said your money or your life!" And that's when Benny snapped back without a break, "Don't rush me, I'm thinking it over!" For some people, Rashi explains, it's harder to part with their money than with their lives.

I have an additional take on this. To be ready to give up our lives for our love of G^d is one thing. But, before we would rush to rise to such an occasion, let's consider if there are any options of doing G^d an even bigger favor: using all power we have to live our lives for G^d. Isaac was ready to bring the ultimate sacrifice. But Abraham got a chance to go even further. The ultimate people-lover that he was, he was not only ready to make a snap gesture but to live the whole rest of his life in the shadow of having killed his dearest child. That's why it's called Abraham's test rather than Isaac's. And as the followers of the great religious innovator Abraham, we are asked not only to be ready to die for G^d's Name rather than betray Him, but even to live for His sake as long as we can. It shall be ad mei'a v'esrim - long and well!


Sunday, November 05, 2006

From Moshe Mordechai - Parashat Lech-l'cha: Who's running this show?

So much and more can be said about just the two words lech l'cha. But urgently we need to look at a question that should arise immediately at the start of this Portion: why do we only meet Abra(ha)m at the age of 75? Did nothing happen before that that was worthwhile to report? We know from Rabbiner Hirsch that the Tora is the Note book of the lessons that Moses got, and can be better understood when consulting additional notes: from the Oral Law. But the fact that not all is mentioned in the Tora doesn't understand why this part is missing. We know from the Rabbis through Midrashim that he recognized G^d as a young child and upset everyone with his rejection of idolatry, from his father to the king. Not only upsetting them: standing up to them. He miraculously survived being thrown into a raging oven, greatly spreading G^d's Name. What a chance to say that G^d chose Abra(ha)m because of his excellence.

The Maharal of Prague says that that was the whole point. G^d did not want to do say that. He wants to convey here that He is running the show. It's so obvious that Abra(ha)m is outstanding that it even doesn't need to be said. Anyone can understand that therefore G^d handpicked him. No - the message He wants to get out is: know that I'm the Boss. Not even the greatest excellence can force My hand.

We hear a similar idea from the Lubavitcher Rebbi. Lubavitch has a special understanding of Free Will that I haven't see anywhere else in the Jewish sources. That Free Will is a choice between completely equal options, because as soon as one is better than another, the choice is not completely free anymore. In this framework the Rebbi said that G^d removed himself so far from this world, so to speak, that the difference between Abra(ha)m and other people became indiscernible, and then he chose him. Why? Because He wanted the choice to be completely free. I speculate that that may have been to enable Jews to have Free Will after Him. Or maybe to teach everyone that He runs the show.

We see a similar thing about No'ach. G^d sings the greatest praise of him
(Genesis 6:9) but the Rabbis teach in a Midrash that No'ach (Nun Chet) was saved from the Flood only because he found grace (Chet Nun-Sofit; Zohar) in the eyes of G^d (Genesis 6:8). Not because of his excellence! "Just, because I say so." No Portion of the week is named after Abra(ha)m, or even Moses; the latter's role is not even mentioned in the Haggada at Passover night. The most outstanding lives are mentioned throughout the texts, but from the headlines we need to learn that the best were just servants to the One we should pray to. Free Will needs to go together with knowing your place in the big scene and daring to be just a cog in the machine.

Some (billions of) people are so impressed with G^d's awesomeness that they deny their own Free Will. G^d is in complete control and that disables their picking, they assume. (They don't really deny Free Will - they just don't acknowledge it. Because when they are praised they beam and when someone slays their friend they get angry at the murderer, which shows that they believe in responsibility and so in Free Will.) We Jews are thoroughly educated in Free Will but we also need to remember that He's in charge. Free Will only works as a way to get more Moral. That contradicts to do as one pleases. It demands obedience.

Have a good week,

From MM - Parashat Lech-l'cha: The Work of the Heart

The Work of the Heart

Sometimes we understand something only because we've personally gone through it. I think I have such a case here. Let's look at Genesis 15:2 and 3. I don't know if you listened to the Tora reading, because when you hear it it's hard to miss. Both sentences start with "And Abra(ha)m said" and that's not how a dialogue normally goes. Normally a happening is retold as: A said, and then: B said, and then A again, etc.

Not that such repetitions are completely unusual in the Tora. We also find it in Genesis 30:27-8 and Exodus 1:15-6. But those cases are completely different from our case at hand. First of all in these two latter cases people talk to people, but in our Portion Abra(ha)m talks to G^d. Furthermore: in the first of the other cases two different things are said, and in the second case the first thing said is left out and not reported, while in our Reading Abra(ha)m's words are meticulously reported. Lastly: in those other cases a villain talks (Laban or the king of Egypt) explaining an evil plot. Contrary to popular belief you can't expect a natural dialogue from liars. This can obviously have nothing to do with Abra(ha)m speaking.

When you look at the two verses Abra(ha)m is saying, he's basically saying the same - only the second time it's more polite and calm. And he's talking to G^d - he's praying! In the first verse Abra(am) is pouring out his heart. Heart rendering what he says. That's what one does in prayer. The printed words of the Prayer book are just to facilitate this. What happens between these two verses is that the first one makes Abra(ha)m burst into tears. That's what happens when you speak your heart to our Father in Heaven - or anyone else who listens well, for that matter. (If it doesn't happen we haven't done it. Looking at our watch during prayers generally doesn't help with this.) After expressing genuine emotion and crying, people feel completely different. Our thoughts are different, our awareness has changed. If you then continue talking you talk differently. G^d doesn't always talk to us, not because He doesn't care, Heaven forbid, but so that He doesn't rob us from a good opportunity to cry. Often He doesn't say a word to let us cry and heal. So when Abra(ha)m rephrased his heartache he was surprised
(verse 4) to get an answer.

When we pray, our focus should be on sincerely speaking our mind - not on being answered. We are commanded to pray. He will only answer when it's best for us. By the way: an answer doesn't have to be a deafening, booming Heavenly voice. It wouldn't surprise me if in most cases it would just be what Abra(ha)m got here: "look at that: G^d's word came to him." And the whole thing was provoked by that G^d told him in the first verse not to worry. When we're in trouble and then told by a friend that all will be fine, that is the best invitation to pour out our heart. And that is one of the functions of our beautiful Prayers. Not to pacify us, but to provoke us into unburdening our heavy hearts, so that we after that can live our lives happily, calmly, easily and in zest. For that we need to really read what it says in the Prayers. It's worth the trouble, I tell you.

From MM - Parashat Lech-l'cha: When in doubt.

When in doubt.

We know that the Commandments that we are supposed to keep are a mere reflection of what G^d Himself does. So does He keep Shabbat and wear Phylacteries, etc?

This Portion we read about Abra(ha)m being commanded to the covenant of the circumcision. How would G^d do this? The excuse that He doesn't have a body doesn't help; He also doesn't get tired, but keeps Shabbat; He also doesn't have a head but wears Phylacteries anyway. So what about circumcision? Maybe thinking about it is more important than finding a certain answer.

One way is to say: this Holy circumcision has two goals: to perfect the man and as a sign of the Covenant. He made many other covenants with the Jews and He is already perfect. On the latter point: also a Jewish baby boy that is born without a foreskin or a prospective male convert without a foreskin get a symbolic needle prick - one drip of blood is drawn in parallel to the normal procedure. Does G^d do such a prick?

I'll give you a few possible, quick answers, but no doubt many are possible. The circumcision is perfecting by removal, and not just perfecting: making things Holy: setting aside for a higher purpose. So, we could say that the withdrawal (tzimtzum) that the omnipresent G^d did to allow for the world to exist was his circumcision, because that set Him aside. We could say that the generation of the Flood was the foreskin, and by removing that a better result came forth, but that sounds more as a circumcision of the world, which is not the same for non-pantheists.

We could think about when He would need to do this. Eight days after His birth is ridiculous since G^d was not born and always existed. Let me suggest that only after He created Man in His image He exists as G^d for man; like a baby also exists before birth but we only start counting after we see him. Eight days later He should then do it. But as we learn in Psalm
90:4: a day for us is a thousand years for Him. That means that after the world will come to perfection (in 6000 years) and rested (another 1000 years) the circumcision of G^d would take place, coinciding with the Revival of the dead.

Let's talk some more about this at that party.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

When the going gets tough.

From Moshe Mordechai

The words lech l'cha can be taken in many different ways, as reflected by a wealth of annotations by our Commentators. Each interpretation has a different message to us, so I think that the issue is not what it says but what it tells us.

Lech by itself just means go, though in a bit unfriendly way. L'cha doesn't make it any friendlier. I would even read in it impatience and curtness. Go, already!

The Rabbis discuss that Lamed Chaf Sofit Lamed Chaf Sofit can also be vocalized and read as: Lech, lech: go, go. This then could refer to two journeys he made from Charan, to two stages in his trek from there or even foreshadow the next lech l'cha (Genesis 22:2). The latter connection then comes to clarify that both expeditions were equally hard on him.

The Ramban, however, sees nothing special in this l'cha. He explains that normal movements in Hebrew can be reflexive, like in the Song of Songs 2:11 or Deuteronomy 2:13 whereby the personal pronoun might not get translated into another language because it's just a Hebrew idiom. Only when such a construction is not clearly idiomatic the Rabbis will give meaning to it, he explicates. The following is such a case.

The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Yoma folio 3 side b discusses that l'cha sometimes means mi-shell'cha: from what is yours: from your possessions, means. It argues that in Numbers 10:2 and Deuteronomy 10:1 the l'cha is not idiomatic because it's not used in a similar verse as in Exodus 26:1, so it must mean in these two verses something, and it suggests: from your own funds.

Mizrachi disagrees with the Ramban and shows that also when l'cha is used idiomatically, the Rabbis often still see all sorts of hints in it or try to develop from it all kinds of inferences. Examples of such discussions can be found in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate page of Suca 29b and 41b, of K'dushin 4b, P'sachin 24a, Baba M'tziya 31a, B'rachot 6b and Rosh haShana 16b.

On this last page our Chief-Commentator Rashi bases himself when he explains the l'cha here under discussion to mean: for you own gain, for your own good. On this I would say: gain refers to improvement, so if Abra(ha)m would say: I lack nothing: good is meant in an absolute way: even when completely pleased and satisfied you shouldn't forgo doing something that's good for you. This explanation by Rashi reminds me of what Moses says at the other end of the Tora scroll: all that G^d wants from us is only for our own good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

The ever relevant in our times of confusion Rabbiner Hirsch explains that the Hebrew go self usually means: go by yourself, to yourself, isolate yourself. We see this with Jethro in Exodus 18:27 (he went his way, leaving the Jews) and also in Joshua 22:4 (and now go your own way, leaving the nine and a half Tribes that stay on this side of the Jordan river). Detach yourself.

The Zohar takes this even one step further (pun not intended). Break away from your earthly shell. The body wants to take it easy and just wallow in good feelings. The Z'chuta d'Avraham reads it close to that, as: get out yourself, so that you will experience first hand the upsets of being on the road, so that in the future you will welcome travelers with the greatest understanding and empathy.

The numerical value of the words lech l'cha is one hundred. This reminds me of the one hundred Blessings that we should say every day. Abra(ha)m's blessing would be first of all to father a great, Holy Nation – according to many Commentators the main reason why he needed to get out of there. His first child for this gets born when he is a hundred years old (Yalkut). After his departure he would go on (live) for another hundred years (Baal haTurim).

It doesn't say: come – it says: go. Is G^d not there where he's supposed to go, Heaven forbid? Is He not going to walk with Abram? (There is another Portion of the week that is called Bo: come (to Pharaoh) (Exodus 10:1) and it's a good question there why G^d doesn't say instead to Moses: Go to Pharaoh.) Indeed, his servant Eliezer reports his master Abraham having said to him about this journey (Genesis 24:7) describing his relationship with Him that "…when I walked with G^d Himself, I preceded Him…" (Genesis 24:40). This is different from what G^d says at the start of the previous Portion about Noach: "Noach walks together with no One less than just G^d Himself" (end of Genesis 6:9). G^d never gives a test that we are unable to live up to. (It's the challenges that we seek out ourselves that don't have such a guarantee.) So G^d wanted to show here that Abraham could leave even if it meant that he would have to go the distance on his own.

It doesn't say where to go. So the issue here is not his going but rather his leaving. But when you leave you look back what you're leaving behind. Instead G^d wants him to only look forward. Forget about what was: go! Now, isn't that what you say to the horse of the carriage? What's then so commendable (previous paragraph) about walking ahead of G^d? Any well-trained horse can do that! An answer could be in the preceding piece about this Portion of the week. A harnessed horse gets constant instructions how to proceed. But Abra(ha)m is left greatly in the dark. Go, and figure it out while you're on your way. I trust you – you will get it. And then we can understand why G^d leaves things blank for His servants. Otherwise their virtues wouldn't rise above the level of a horse harnessed to a cart following his master. Great, those people who know exactly what G^d wants from them. But I don't and most people I know don't. That's not a handicap. It's a privilege that we get to figure it out on the way. And that He selected each of us for our own journey. And if that's not enough: He even trusts us that we can do it. Says Reb Shlomo: rather than teach young people to trust in G^d, teach them that He trusts in them.