O Daddy … Where Art Thou?

Parshas Zachor-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you [lit: cooled you off] on the way, you were tired and exhausted … they did not fear Elokim.

–Devarim 25:17,18

When they encountered: Heb. קָרְךָ, an expression denoting a chance occurrence (מִקְרֶה) … Yet another explanation: an expression denoting heat and cold (קוֹר). He “cooled you off” and made you [appear] lukewarm, after you were boiling hot, for the nations were afraid to fight you, [just as people are afraid to touch something boiling hot]. But Amalek came forward and started [waging war with you] and showed the way to others. This can be compared to a bathtub of boiling water into which no one could immerse himself. Along came a reckless man and jumped headlong into it! Although he scalded himself, he [succeeded in] making others think that it was cooler [than it really was]. [Tanchuma 9]

–Rashi ibid

Our Rabbis taught: [vis a vis parents] What is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘fear’ and what is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘honor’? ‘Fear’ means that he [the son] must not stand nor sit in his [the father’s] place, לא יסתור דבריו, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. ‘Honor” means that he must feed and hydrate him, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

–Kiddushin 31B

The relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem, and even between individual Jews and HaShem, is multifaceted.  Two familiar facets are those of our being subjects in G-ds Kingdom and of our being His children.  On every public fast day, most recently on Taanis Esther, we beseeched Avinu Malkenu– our Father/ our King.  To our detriment, true kings are very hard to find in contemporary society and, as such, we lack one of the primary role models for our relationship with HaShem.

Thankfully, at least fathers are ubiquitous and our relationships with our fathers can serve as ready metaphors from which we can draw relevant lessons in how to relate to HaShem.  And while, for many of us, the child-father relationship falls short of the ideal, if not being utterly dysfunctional, at least we have concrete, black on white parameters for what the ideal relationship ought to be as set down in Shas and in Shulchan Aruch in Hichos kibud av v’eim-the laws of honoring and being in awe of parents.

We are not permitted it to be soser the words/ matters of our fathers’.  This word, soser, is conventionally translated as “contradict.” But Rav Laibeleh Eiger reveals another layer of meaning in this word that impacts our understanding of the eternal war that we wage against Amalek:

Moshe Rabeinu was instructed to deliver this message at his first meeting with the Egyptian pharaoh as HaShem’s ambassador and as His agent to redeem His people from slavery: “this is what HaShem says: ‘Israel is My son — my firstborn. I’ve told you to send My son away [out of Egypt] to serve Me. If you refuse to let him leave I will ultimately kill your own firstborn son.’”(Shemos 4:22,23) As a result of the Exodus from Egypt HaShems Paternal relationship with the K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, became manifest and obvious for all the world to see.  Moreover, it revealed the fact that HaShem was a very involved Parent; a “helicopter Dad” kivyachol -if you will, who was very concerned about his son’s welfare and insinuated himself directly into the sons affairs in order to relieve the sons suffering and to liberate him.

After the Exodus from Egypt K’lal Yisrael was cognizant of the special relationship that they enjoyed with HaShem.  However, around the time of their being attacked by Amalek, perceptions began to change.  For the nations of the world who were awestruck by the plagues of Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn and the utter destruction of the Egyptian military at the Sea of Reeds, it was not merely that the bloom was off the rose; it was that K’lal Yisrael had lost their air of invincibility.  Although Amalek had gotten its collective nose bloodied and had been “weakened” by Yehoshua; in launching their unprovoked attack on K’lal Yisrael they had blazed a trail and set the precedent for all future attacks, wars, ethnic-cleansings and genocides perpetrated by all future Jew-haters.

But, more significantly, doubts began creeping into the collective consciousness of K’lal Yisrael.  The Jews themselves internalized the implied message of Amalek’s attack. “If this could happen” the reasoning went “perhaps we are not really the apple of HaShem’s eye, maybe we are not so much different from the balance of humanity.  Who can still claim with confidence that we are His son and that He is our Father?” While the facts on the ground such as the manna bread from heaven and the miraculous cloud pillar should have eased these anxieties, nagging doubts remained.  They reasoned that HaShem must have some “hidden” agenda, something that is characterized by hester Panim-a concealment of the Divine Countenance.

Even before encountering Amalek the seeds of doubt had been planted in the national consciousness.  When K’lal Yisrael arrived at Rephidim there was no water readily available for them to drink.  Although Moshe Rabeinu worked the miracle producing the nomadic wellspring that would travel with K’lal Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the wilderness until death of Miriam; the upshot of that particular episode was this: “Moshe named the place Testing-and-Argument because the people had argued and had tested HaShem. They had asked ‘is HaShem within us or not?’” (Shemos 17:7).

Chaza”l provide a biting, acerbic characterization of  K’lal Yisrael’s ambivalence and under-confidence. “This can be compared to a man who carried his son on his shoulders and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, ‘Father, take it and give it to me,’ and he [the father] would do so. They met a man, and the son said to the man, ‘Have you seen my father?’ So his father said to the boy, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him [his son] down off him, and a dog came and bit him [the son]. (Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 3; Shemos Rabbah 26:2).  The boy in question never doubted whether or not he had a father.  He merely asked “do you see him … because I can’t!” The boy thinks that his father is out of sight — concealed.

The episode of Rephidim is the immediate preamble to the preemptive, unprovoked, initial attack of Amalek.  Amalek’s “chilling effect” did not merely cool down K’lal Yisrael in the court of public opinion but in their own self-perception and in their perception of HaShem as well.  While they still believed that they had a heavenly Father in the abstract, they were no longer able to “see” Him.  His administration of their affairs was now being orchestrated long-distance from behind a curtain, as it were.

In Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue, there are many words synonymous with a contradiction; listor-to demolish/deconstruct, l’chalek-to argue/separate, l’hakchish-to deny/thin-out, l’hitnaged-to oppose.  Yet the verb that our sages chose to impart the lesson of not contradicting ones father is the verb in that is etymologically related to hiddenness and concealment; לא יסתור דבריו.  Rav Laibeleh Eiger maintains that one of the subtextual messages of this halachah is that a son is prohibited from characterizing his father’s words/deeds as being covert and clandestine.  The prohibition can be translated “he should not hide his father’s words/matters.” On a national level as a result of the chilling effect of Amalek’s onslaught, this is precisely the prohibition that K’lal Yisrael contravened in their relationship with their Father in heaven.

Rav Laibeleh teaches that part and parcel of our mitzvos to remember and to wage war against Amalek is to fight and suppress our own internal Amalek; the self-sabotaging a voice within our individual and collective psyches that mitigates and that dilutes the unique son-Father relationship that we enjoy with HaShem.  We need to scrap and claw to move beyond an abstract philosophical recognition of HaShems Administration of our affairs.  Knowing that we have a Father in heaven is insufficient.  We must fight the good fight to achieve a visceral awareness that we are riding on His shoulders and that He is always carrying us.  We need to develop the vision to see that our merciful father is directly and intimately dealing with us;  His firstborn son.  As the prophet thunders “O Why Yaakov do you say, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from HaShem, and my justice is passed over by my G-d’”? (Yeshaya 40:27)

We must always remember and never forget that while our King may be remote and inaccessible and may be conducting a clandestine foreign policy or waging a covert military operation our Father is loving, merciful, intimate and directly involved in our affairs. Parshas Zachor would be a great time to start remembering this and, while listening to Megillas Esther is something that we do with our ears, in order to truly vanquish Amalek we needed to sharpen our eyes to abide by the halachah of  לא יסתור דבריו, do right by our Father in heaven and do our own personal Megillas Hester-revealing of the concealment.

~adapted from Toras Emes Zachor/ Tetzaveh 5628/1868 D”H Amru

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

The ‘ABCD’ of Young American Jews

Notes from a talk given by Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, UK, December 2 2009.

Young people are distancing themselves from aspects of the Judaism of their elders, and responding to what they see as its shortcomings. Embodied within the endeavors outlined above is both a widely held, albeit unevenly shared, critique of conventional Jewish life. The Jewishly engaged but institutionally unaffiliated harbor four objections to the commonly available opportunities for affiliation, objections that may be encapsulated in the mnemonic “ABCD.”:

A = Alienating: The young people leading these initiatives feel alienated from the more conventional Jewish world, and wish to challenge many of its perceived norms by offering far more independence of thought and action.

B = Bland and Boring: This is how they view the Jewish lifestyle choices of the older generation. They see conventional leaders as too homogeneous, and disturbingly closed to diversity in social class and family status. The Judaism they seek is stimulating, upbeat, passionate and happy.

C = Coercive: The younger Jews find established Jewish institutions implicitly coercive – aiming to induce younger Jews to marry each other, to conceive Jewish babies and to support Israeli government policies of which they are ambivalent. By contrast, the initiatives they are creating are characterized by an emphasis on autonomy and the respect for individual growth.

D = Divisive: They find conventional Jewish institutions divisive, in that they are seen as dividing Jews from non-Jews, Jews from each other, Jewish turf from non-Jewish turf, and Jewish culture from putatively (and artificially defined) non-Jewish culture. In contrast, they seek diversity in people, culture, and geography. They tend toward the post-denominational. Similarly, they like to open up the boundaries between Jewish and non-Jewish, borrowing freely from non-Jewish culture to create new forms of Jewish culture, and demonstrating clear preferences for activities that happen in non-Jewish spaces, rather than exclusively Jewish ones.

Posted on Synablog

Of One Thing You Can Be Certain

You may have seen this story:

In the mid-nineties, a Jewish advertising executive wondered: what if the New York Times – the “Paper of Record” – printed the Shabbos candle lighting time each week? Imagine the Jewish awareness and pride that might result from such a prominent mention of Shabbos each week. He contacted a Jewish philanthropist and sold him on the idea. It cost nearly two thousand dollars a week but he agreed to fund it. For the next five years, every Friday, Jews around the world would see ‘Jewish Women: Shabbat candle lighting time this Friday is _____”

Eventually the philanthropist had to reduce the number of projects he had been funding. And, so, in June 1999, the little Shabbos candle lighting notice made its last appearance in the New York Times. At least that’s what people thought.

On January 1, 2000, the NY Times ran a Millennium edition commemorating the paper’s 100th anniversary. It was a special issue that featured three front pages. One contained the news from January 1, 1900. The second contained the actual news of the day, January 1, 2000. And the third front page, featured projected headlines of January 1, 2100. It included such stories as a welcome to the fifty-first state: Cuba and a debate over the issue of whether robots should be allowed to vote. And so on. And, in addition to the creative articles, there was one extra piece. Down on the bottom of the Year 2100 front page, was the candle lighting time in New York for January 1, 2100. Nobody asked for it. Nobody paid for it. It was just put in by the Times. The production manager of the New York Times – an Irish Catholic – was asked about this curious entry. His answer speaks to the eternity of our people and to the power of Jewish ritual.”We don’t know what will happen in the year 2100. It is impossible to predict the future. But of one thing you can be certain. That in the year 2100 Jewish women will be lighting Shabbos candles.”

What lessons can be learned from such a story?

We Are Here

We talk about doing mitzvos lishmo and lo lishmo. But what do we say about mitzvos done out of spite?

In my mind I have seriously considered the possibility that even if there were no Discovery Seminar, no Jerusalem Fellowships, no Partners in Torah, no spoon-fed Judaism for restless quasi-intellectual Jewish Ivy Leaguers – that if I just knew how to be as Jewish as possible, as assertively unassimilated, talking- with- my- hands, black- hat- wearing, walking- across- your- town- with- my- talis- on Jewish, I would do it just to spit in the eye of the world that tried to liquidate us all.

That is the blackness that takes up part of my soul as a result of growing up in a Holocaust family — mine and yours. If I G-d forbid did not believe in Torah mi-Sinai (Revelation), in Torah she-ba’al peh and emunas chachomim (the Oral Law and faith in the sages) I just might go through all the motions anyway just to shtokh (poke) the rest of the world. Mir zaynen doh: Here we are. Gag on it!

The more I pore into the reality of what happened then, the darker the black gets. Yes, the spots of light, the edifying Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s Name) moments are compelling, and in relief against the nadir of human history they should shine as brightly as suns. But in the deep blackness of darkest space, and from so far away, they are but little light dots. What there is mostly is the dark, and the cold, and the death. There could be no inspiration for me in the Kiddush Hashem of the Holocaust. “We” were already yotzei Kiddush Hashem mehadrin min-hamehadrin (we had fulfilled it in its highest form).

Did this ebony anger make me “frum”? Did this jolt of bitterness rip me from the fast track in a promising legal career to two years in three yeshivos and a different path?

It may not have been. There were more mundane factors. But I am hard pressed to identify what among them made me any more conscious of my Jewishness, and more determined to resolve my own Jewish Question, than the myriads and thousands situated the same.

I was not the only one from a survivor family in my time and place – and my parents were not survivors, not in the direct sense (of course when the crime is genocide, any member of the targeted people who lives is a survivor). One small branch of our family had left Europe in the ’30’s. But the rest were made dust and ash, and the remnants carried this pain from Poland to Cuba to America. It was soldered to my soul for six years at a summer camp (Camp Hemshekh — “Camp Continuity”) run by remnants of the old anti-religious Jewish Labor Bund, who had incorporated as Survivors of Nazi Persecution — what a name for a group formed to operate a summer camp! — and rebuilt their fantasy of a Yiddish secular culture paradise, where we sang the songs, read the poetry, acted the plays of Gebirtig and Peretz and Gelbart, celebrating a culture and a conception of a people that were no more.

But unlike the murdered children on whose lives our summers were to be modeled, we had another chapter in our repertoire. We learned the songs sung by the orphaned children and the mourning parents of the Warsaw Ghetto whose names we bear, the poetry of the partisans of the Vilna forests who were the gedolim of my youth, the literature of the rebels of Sobibor and Treblinka who were our models of techias hameisim (revival of the dead).

I thank the Ribbono shel Olam that I didn’t know enough Yiddish at that age to understand more than a few words of what I was saying, or who knows how bent I would be today! But that intense exposure to this tragic slice of Jewish life obviously affected me deeply. I am astonished when people from the “outside world” tell me that I must see this or that Holocaust movie –- don’t they know what I know already, the children’s Holocaust I playacted as a child? Did you ever hear of anyone who went to a summer camp that had its own simulated Warsaw Ghetto Wall, complete with cemented-in broken glass and barbed wire? No, I did not survive the Pit; I lived a soft and easy suburban life and merely spent my languid Catskill summers in Holocaust Camp, where for some reason in August we marched by torchlight at night to the Wall, humming a song we knew was called Ani Maamin but whose words they had never taught us… thought its meaning, somehow, they had. And you want me to watch in Technicolor the hopeless martyrdom that I already “lived” in my formative years?

This was the yesod of my emunah and of my bitachon (this is the foundation of my belief and my trust).

I knew there must be a reason. When the complete possibilities of assimilation were presented to me, I knew I carried around something that must have meaning and which needed resolution. To ignore this was to live in a world devoid of meaning and infinitely harsh.

Yet I saw so much good around me — so much love, so many outlets for creativity, for intellection and expression, for humane achievement; so much capacity for greatness. Still none of these things could outweigh an existential pain. What did I feel in the world that told me there was more, beneath what I knew — some profound good to answer that ultimate evil? Could existence really just be a dark vacuum punctuated with distraction and temporal pleasure?

This did not add up.

Will you believe me when I say that I was not in any other respect a candidate for the Baal Teshuvah “movement,” as popularly perceived? I actually had a pretty good thing going. I didn’t know where it was going, but I was looking pretty good getting there.

But … where was there? Where is here? After the City spat us out with most of the rest of the middle class, I spent the second half of my childhood in a place called Twin Rivers in New Jersey. Ten years before it had been a potato farm. So you will excuse me for not feeling particularly deeply rooted in the “here” of there.

One of the songs they taught us was the Partisan’s Hymn. Its refrain was, mir zaynen doh – “We are here.” The last verse is this, the famous one:

So never say you now go on your last way,
Through darkened skies may now conceal the blue of day,
Because the hour for which we’ve hungered is so near,
Beneath our feet the earth shall thunder, “We are here!”

These Yiddish guys got almost everything wrong. But this they got right. We are here. They may not be, now, and regrettably their offspring may not be, either. But we, their people, are here. And there must be a reason we are here. Does God (of course there is a God, this is not a serious question) want me to charm my way through life, through fancy college and fancy law school, through ballgames and politics and dating and “entertainment” and pizza pies — is that why, after all that, we are here?

This is an absurd proposition. A life infused with such vacuity is little removed from the nihilism that makes holocausts possible. How anyone, any Jew, can argue on behalf of such an existence, given what we know now, is as cold as any existential night I have ever pondered.

If I am here, despite it all, that I had some sort of duty that followed from being here. This meaning must be real, must be achievable. It took little for me to realize that I am here, despite a world’s best efforts to prevent it, for a reason; that without we, I am not here at all; and that without Torah and mitzvos, we are not… quite… really here.