Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Chinuch Our Boys Deserve- Creating a better Torah curriculum for boy's yeshivas

[The following is about boy’s chinuch in more yeshivish type schools. I have written elsewhere about chinuch issues for girls, as well as chinuch in Modern-Orthodox schools.]

I have a great idea. Let’s have all of our boys start studying ancient Chinese legal theory, in Chinese. They’ll start in 5th grade. No, better yet, 4th grade. Within a few years we will add study of some of the basic ideas of Chinese legal theorists from the middle ages. Once they master that, by, let’s say 8th grade, we can throw in some later more complicated theorist’s works. The goal is that all of our children will ultimately get PHDs in ACLT. With enough effort and help from Heaven, we can do it.

Okay, maybe not, but how is it any more reasonable to suggest that all of our boys start learning gemara as young as 4th grade, without having mastered Tanach, mishna, or basic Hebrew? How can we put them in classrooms where they try to understand Tosefos, when it was written and intended for those who had mastered shas? Was Rebbe Akiva Eiger writing for 9th graders? Please don’t respond by citing tradition, as the idea of universal gemara learning for boys is less than 50 years old. The midrash talks of only one percent of boys who started off with Tanach moved onto gemara (Elef nichnas l’mikra...eser nichnas l’talmud). A mishna in Avos suggests that hascholas gemara should happen at age 15, and the gemara, later echoed by the Maharal and Meharsha, among others, suggests that the way to master gemara is to first cover ground without going into depth, and only then move on to sevara (ligmor v’hadar lisbor). How can we who so often take the words of Chazal so seriously ignore them when it comes to the chinuch of our sons?

Having spent more than 15 years in chinuch, I have seen too many of the korbanos of this system. Boys who think they can’t learn Torah when they haven’t been exposed to most areas of Torah, including Tanach, machshava, Jewish history and more. Boys who might have succeeded at learning Gemara had they started at an age when they were cognitively ready, instead of being turned off by their “failure” to understand at an age when they should have been learning something else. 4th graders who have already shown that they have learning issues including ones connected to a second language, who are pushed to learn a complex topic in a third language, with no other educational options until they reach high school. Grown men, including rabbis, who lack familiarity with basic works of Jewish philosophy, or a sophisticated approach to learning midrash.

So what do I suggest?

All boys should cover all of Chumash by the time they finish 8th grade. Initially, they will begin with Rashi, but by 6th or 7th grade other mephorshim should be introduced. This will introduce boys to the concept of machlokes and that there is more than one way to read a text. It will also introduce important concepts from Jewish thought. Nach should be taught as well, at least on the level of peshat, and, if we want to help boys become better at davening, Tehillim should be taught and analyzed.

Mishna should not be treated as gemara for dummies, but it can and should be used as an introduction to Torah She’B’al peh. In addition to introducing important concepts from the world of halacha, it is a good text for introducing gemara-type analysis in a language with which the boys are somewhat familiar. Additionally, it has nekudos, something that gemara does not, and does not have the challenge of being overly complex or analytical.

Yeshivas should start gemara later. Personally, I would suggest the beginning of high school as a good time to start, but I recognize that that will be too radical for most yeshivahs. At the very least, I would recommend holding off until 7th grade, and then, only for those who have shown mastery of the other parts of Torah. Even then, it should be recognized that truly understanding gemara and Rashi is no small thing, and might be the point where many boys will stop. An emphasis should be put on skills; both reading and analysis, and not just memorization. Additionally, aggadeta should not not be skipped, and should be taught with seriousness and rigor.

For those for whom gemara is too challenging for any of the possible reasons I mentioned above, there will be other options. In addition to continuing with, and mastering mishna, halacha can be taught as well. I do not mean by going through a text like the Kitzur (personally, I prefer the Chayei Adam), but by showing how halacha develops from passuk or gemara, to halacha l’maaseh. This would include the learning of some gemaras, but without the usual gemara-style learning.

Machshava should be introduced by high school. Age appropriate texts and concepts should be used with an emphasis on essential topics like tzaddik v’ra lo, schar v’onesh, teshuva, olam haba and so on. Jewish history should be taught as well. It is an interesting and important topic and can be used to emphasize the Yad HaShem that has allowed our people to live and thrive.

I do not suggest that the current system is not working for everyone. Boys who have the ability to sit for long periods of time, as well as interest and ability in complex and nuanced topics, but they are a minority. It is time to provide all of our boys with a Torah education that works for them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Justice for David Gordon z"l- Putting an end to sexual-abuse in the Jewish community

There’s a famous quote from Golda Meir that “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Perhaps we can paraphrase this quote in talking of sexual-abuse within our communities. Child abuse will end when we, as a community, love our children more than our institutions and those who work for, or run them.

Perhaps that sounds overly harsh to you, but if so, I challenge you to read this article by David Gordon z”l, the Israeli soldier whose life ended under circumstances that are being investigated. If your heart does not break, check yourself for a pulse. We rightfully cry over every soldier who is killed in war, and Gordon deserves no less. The fact that his enemies live among us and work at our institutions makes things even worse. “But what can we do?”, you might ask. It needs to be made clear to every person who works in our community that our number one concern is for the safety of our children, and that no institution, no matter how vital, and no individual, no matter how “choshuv” will be allowed to escape responsibility, both legally and financially. How can it be that there are heads of schools, shuls and institutions who ignored claims of abuse, who still hold their jobs? How can it be that money is donated to mosdos that covered up abuse within their midst? The fact that our community has, perhaps, gotten better at dealing with this, is not enough. The movement is too slow. Too often abusers hold onto their jobs, or are allowed to move on to another community, without facing criminal charges.

How many more boys and girls have to have their lives destroyed, unable to fight the demons and nightmares, while seeing their abusers walk around freely, before we get serious? How many more lives must be permanently altered before we take this issue of pikuach nefesh seriously? How many more families have to mourn for young people, who have so much to give and so much life to live, before we take this issue seriously?

Rosh Chodesh Elul begins (or has already begun) this evening. In less than six weeks we will be standing before HaShem confessing our sins, as individuals and as a collective. It is time to act so that we no longer have to say an “al-cheit” for standing idly by while lives were destroyed.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Children of HaShem- Seeing every Jew as family

There is a palpable sense of achdut in Israel, that has not been felt in many decades. While one might be tempted to suggest it is tied into the war, previous wars have not led to this kind of unity. What is the basis of our unity?

בָּנִים אַתֶּם לה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת 

You are children of HaShem. Do not make any cuts on yourself, and do make a bald spot between your eyes, because of the dead. (Loose translation of Devarim 14:1).

Let's examine this passuk, both in terms of drush and peshat.

On the words “ לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ", Chazal teach "לא תעשו אגודות אגודות " Do not split yourselves into separate groups, or cliques. (One place where this comes into play is when people within the same shul or community, have different practices with putting on tefillin on Chol HaMoed). Rashi explains that the reason for this prohibition is that if we split up our practice of Torah, it will appear, God forbid, as if there are two Torahs. Rambam, on the other hand suggests that the reason for the prohibition is to prevent fighting. What this understanding of the words לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ seems to lack is a connection to the beginning of the pasuk ָנִים אַתֶּם לה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. We will see that there is, in fact, a connection.

On the level of peshat, several explanations are given for the connection between the two parts of the passuk.

The Ibn Ezra explains that because we are children of HaShem, we should recognize that even when tragedy occurs, it from the same loving father who always take care of us. Even though death is difficult to accept, particularly when a person was murdered, our reaction should be tempered with the realization that our loving father rules the world, and that nothing happens unless He allows it.

The Ramban connects it to the concept of Olam HaBa. Do not respond to death as if it is the end, Recognize that, as children of God, there is another world, in which true reward will be given to the person who died.

I would suggest that the midrash, and the two explanations of it, do, in fact, tie into the beginning of the passuk.

The fact that we were given one Torah is an indication that we are all connected. Hashem asks us to live by the same rules. It is only as a nation can we observe all 613 mitzvos. As children of HaShem, we should be careful not to let supercial differences of appearance or approach of worship, lead to a sense that we do not share one Torah.

Similarly, a father is always pained where there is fighting and division among his children. He wants them to live together and realize that they are interconnected. We need to recognize that intra-religious fighting is an indication that we do not sufficiently see our fellow Jews as brothers and sisters.

The war started with the unbearable tragedy of the kidnapping and murder of three precious yeshiva boys. Although, we dare not claim to understand why, we follow in the lead of the Fraenkel, Yifrach and Shaar families and accept what happened as a decree from Above. We can derive at least a small amount of comfort knowing that these three precious boys, and those who have died during this war, are being treated as heroes in the world of Truth. Amongst ourselves, our reaction can only be that of unity, as we recognize that we are all truly children of HaShem, and that KOL Yisrael yeish lahem cheilek l'Olam Haba. After the end of the war, which should come soon, please God, let us remember this lesson and show that we do not need tragedy to bring us together as one.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth- Why critiques of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are off-base

I’m not a fan of slacktivism. I will not click “LIKE” to share awareness,  and Idoubt your meme is the secret to ending war everywhere. That said, I am at a loss to understand the negative reaction by some  to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Some complain about the waste of potable water, as if those doing the challenge would otherwise send their water to drought-starved locations. Others talk of bullying, implying that being tagged on Facebook, and not taking the challenge, is the equivalent of having someone steal your lunch money. I myself have passed the 24-hour mark on a challenge (don’t worry, it’s coming) and am still here to tell the tale. Most laughable is that people speak of the campaign as being ineffective, when the ALS Foundation has matched last year’s budget in less than a month.

As someone who has worked in the not-for-profit sector, allow me to explain why complaints like these and others are off-base. There are many important causes out there. I can’t tell you which one is the most important, by any type of scale or evaluation. Even if there was such a scale, people wouldn’t use it. For good and for bad, people give based on all sorts of non-intellectual reasons. Sometimes its the cause, how it effects them, or being asked to give by a friend.

Additionally, there are “name-brand” charities that have a name and attract more donors, and thus have a bigger budget to, you guessed it, attract more donors. With recent changes to GMail and Facebook, charities have an even harder time reaching potential donors with the message of the good that they accomplish. Throw in the fact that donors want their money to only go to the cause, and not overhead, as if the two can be separated, and you have the making of a disaster for the charities that are not already well-funded and on the map.

With this in mind, I hope you’ll be a little more forgiving of charities that make use of “shtick” to raise money. If you’ve never worked in the field, with the pressure of knowing that other people’s well-being is dependent on your efforts, than you just might be “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”.

Monday, August 18, 2014

If the Hat Doesn't Fit- Being real with myself

Throughout my time in Israel, I did various things to overcome fears that I thought were not good for me. I jumped from 15 feet into the water. I rappelled down the face of a cliff, and jumped from the upper deck of a boat into the water (that one didn't go so well, but still...). What I was really chipping away at was not a fear of heights, or even a fear of trying new things, but my fear of being authentic and real. Dancing freely to soulful music while in Tzfat, told me that I was on the right track.

For nearly 17 years, I wore a hat on Shabbos. It started as an attempt to fit into the yeshivish world, but at some point, that desire dissipated. I came up with various reasons for why I still wore it, including Kavod Shabbos, communal norm, and what my children might think if I stopped. Of course, none of these things kept me wearing it. Wearing the hat gave me a lot of things. I could walk into a shul and instantly be accepted as frum. I could tell myself that I was not changing religiously, even as I knew that to not be the case. I could fit in, which was strange, because I knew that I no longer fit in in my community.

It’s not that the people in Passaic are not nice. I have some wonderful, kind and generous friends. There is a tremendous amount of chessed and learning that goes on here, and there are many shuls where the davening is serious, if not joyous. Passaic hasn’t changed, but I have. Shuls in which I once felt engaged, and even inspired, no longer speak to me. Through taking risks and discussing certain controversial topics, I have been able to find others who also do not fully agree with the philosophical outlook of the community, but individuals do not make for a community.

Two years ago, when I started travelling for work, I started to leave my hat home when I was away for Shabbos. I told others that I was not bringing it because it was a pain to carry another piece of luggage, but in truth, I enjoyed the time off. Still, I once again wore it, the week I returned.

Being away for seven weeks this summer meant that I got used to not wearing my hat. I spent times in communities where wearing a hat was, at the very least, not the norm. I began to think about whether I would keep it on the shelf when I got home. What finally did it was when, during the last night activity of camp, which required dressing up, one of the counselors gave me his hat and jacket to wear as a costume. If it was so clear to everyone that I was not the kind of guy who wears a hat, why was I still pretending? I talked it over with my wife, and in her classic style, she told me that she was fine with whatever I decided and to do what made me comfortable. Shabbos morning, I left for shul without my hat.  If anyone noticed, they didn’t say anything (if only it was the same with my weight gain from this summer). My davening didn’t change. Neither did my learning. Still I felt more than the weight of the hat come off my shoulders. I had not outgrown my hat, but it most definitely no longer fit.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tzamah Nafshi- A second attempt at articulating my thoughts on mysticism for moderns

One could, if he so desired, break down the idea of love, to a combination of biological and physiological urge. Mix in some psychology and some evolutionary development, and love could be stripped of all of its romantic tendencies and notions. Thankfully, for those of us who are romantics, such reductionist thinking would be correctly understood to be missing the forest for the trees. I would contend that Modern Orthodoxy, in emphasizing rationalist approaches to Judaism, to the exclusion of mystical approaches, has made the same reductionist mistake.

Allow me to begin by making one thing clear. I do not believe in the metaphysical or theurgical claims of Kabbalah. I do not learn Torah to create heavenly worlds, and I do not see myself as a puppet whose strings can manipulate the Puppeteer. Still, I have come to believe that in rejecting the factual claims of mystical thought, Modern Orthodoxy has gone to far and thrown out the creative and passionate language of Jewish mystical thought.

Rambam describes the mitzvah of Ahavas HaShem as being analogous to a man who is in love with a woman and can’t keep her out of his mind. Echoing the words of Dovid HaMelech, he says that a person reaches the level of “taavah”- desire, to know HaShem. Even parts of the Moreh Nevuchim have language that can be called mystical, and Rambam’s son, Rav Avraham, certainly went in that direction.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg has gone so far as to suggest that the difference between rational and mystical notions of Ahavas Hashem, as being analogous to the difference between romantic and erotic love. While the latter term may seem, to some, to be out of place, in a religious discussion, the desire for ultimate closeness to God may be experienced and felt  through the singing of Lecha Dodi, Yedid Nefesh, or Tzamah Nafshi, the latter of which was written by Ibn Ezra (!).

I would suggest that, living in a post-modern era, the recognition that we can never objectively know Truth (with a capital T) frees us us up to use language that talks of God in ways to which we can better relate. Rav Solovitchik once noted, after it was made clear to him that his talmidim did not want to hear shiurim from him on Tanya, that his students only wanted his brain, as opposed to his soul. Since that time, for most of the Modern Orthodox world, things have moved even more in the overly-rational direction. One does not have to look to Kabbalah to find mystical language within our tradition as it can be found in parts of Tanach, and within some words of Chazal. To the degree that we keep such ideas and language out of the classroom, we cheat our students out of a possible way to engage passionately with God and his Torah.

Although much of Modern Orthodox thought speaks to me, too often I find it expressed in overly clinical ways, devoid of passion. By ignoring the mystical language that can be found in Tanach, Chazal, Rishonim and some of the greatest and most creative modern Jewish thinkers such as Rav Tzadok, Rav Kook and Rav Hutner, we run the risk of making Torah and mitzvot into a scientific and dispassionate pursuit. We have already seen the costs of such an approach, and it is time to turn things around before more damage is done.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Darchei Noam- Making the use of halachic pre-nups commonplace

I left Alon Shvut on a high. The Yom Iyun in Tanach had been everything I had hoped for. I had heard shiurim from, and met, some of the best teachers of Tanach in the world. I was sorry to be leaving, but the second part of my day was about to begin. I was heading for Bet Shemesh for a program about halachic pre-nuptial agreements sponsored by Beit Hillel. Among the speakers were Gush Rosh Yeshiva Rav Baruch Gigi, and Rav Meir Lichtenstein. The program promised to be thought-provoking and informative.

Soon, my mood dropped. The shiurim at Gush had been uplifting and powerful, but despite the high level of the speakers at the halachic pre-nup program, the topic started to get me down. Hearing stories of agunot and marriages that had broken up, was a real emotional letdown, particularly after the yom iyun. I began to wonder whether it had been a mistake to attend this program, and add additional time and travel onto an already exhausting day. I was tired and hungry and eating way too many mint brownies. Then I started thinking a bit, and everything changed.

The shiurim at Gush had been incredible, but they were entirely theoretical. On a theoretical level, it is easy for Torah to be uplifting and powerful. The words of the prophets can easily inspire, when they address people who lived over 2,000 years ago, but do they push us to address the major problems of our generation? What might the neviim have said had they witnessed the massive chilulei HaShem which take place every time a get is used to oppress?

I’m not a posek and I don’t want to get into the halachic particulars. I do want to share one idea that was the biggest takeaway for me from the program. The halachic details need to be properly addressed, and halachic pre-nups have to be done in a way that will be fair for both spouses, but at the end of the day, they will only work if signing them becomes common. Although rabbis can help by discussing pre-nups in shul, and urging couples for whom they are messadrei kiddushin to sign, that is not enough. Parents and educators need to teach about it and discuss it to the point that it becomes so normal as to not seem un-romantic or strange. I would draw a parallel to seat-belt use. When I was a kid, it was still common for people, including young children to sit without a seat-belt. Through education and discussion it has reached the point where buckling up is the norm. The same thing must happen with halachic pre-nups.

It is not enough for Torah to be inspiring and uplifting. It must leave an imprint on our everyday messy and imperfect lives. When halacha is used in an immoral way, we must step up to make it, once again a Torah whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Another Side of Your Talmid- A letter to menahalim and rabbeim

Dear Menahalim and Rabbeim,

I’d like to better introduce you to your talmid ________. What’s that you say? You already know him? I am not so sure. At most, you know a very small side of him. As the head counselor at Sdei Chemed, I saw a side of your precious talmid that he doesn’t get to show you in yeshiva. You know what kind of learner he is, or at least how he is at learning gemara, in the way that it is taught at your yeshiva. Do you know how much he likes singing at kumzitzes and during Shabbos zemiros? Did you ever see him close his eyes and put all of his neshoma into a song? What about chessed? Are you aware how much your talmid excels at chessed? How he packed care packages for Israeli soldiers and Israelis living under the threat of terror?

He’s probably not going to tell you about the carnival he helped put on along with his camp-mates in Bet Shemesh for children whose summer was disrupted due to rocket attacks from Gaza, so allow me to do so. With complete selflessness, he stood for hours manning a game booth, so that little kids could have fun for a few hours, and forget about the sound of the “tzeva adom” alerts. When, in fact, a siren went off at the end of the carnival, your wonderful talmid helped lead panicked parents and children to the shelters and sang with them to provide comfort. At the end, when everyone was exhausted, he cleaned up until the room where the carnival was held was spotless. Do you know what kind of a mess shaving cream, popcorn and chocolate spread can make?

I could go on and on. I could tell you about how your talmid bought pizza for an Israeli soldier, with his own money, how he visited and cheered up sick people and soldiers in the hospital, how he loves learning Torah on hikes, and about the time he helped start a moving experience of slow singing and tefillah for hundreds of Israelis at the Kotel on Tisha B’Av, but I think you get my point.

I guess my point is this. Now that you know this about him, what are you going to do differently? Will you provide more opportunities for him to continue to grow into the gadol of chessed that he might become? Will your yeshiva give him ways to connect with his neshoma that don’t involve a blatt gemara? At the very least, will you stop evaluating him purely based on how he reads a Tosafos? Please?


Pesach Sommer

Camp Sdei Chemed Boys Head Counselor 2014

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Achdus 2.0- My attempt to get real with achdut

It is difficult to admit that I have not been honest with myself. For a long time, I have spoken about achdus/achdut, Jewish unity. I have written about it, made efforts to pursue it and thought I was really living it, despite occasional objections from friends. When I read the op-ed by Rabbi Zev Shendalov, about his being menachem avel (making a shiva-call) to the Walles family, after the murder of Avraham Walles z”l H’YD by a terrorist, I realized I’d been lying to myself. I finally came to realize that my efforts at creating unity, and connecting with those from other worlds, only went in one direction. I was comfortable speaking at a Reform Temple, being part of a non-halachic (pre-Shabbos) Kabbalat Shabbat, and attending a non-denominational Beit Midrash, but I made no effort to connect with the charedi (yeshiva and chassidish) world.

As I thought about the Walles family, I was filled with shame. When Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Sheer z”l H’YD were murdered, I was devastated. I attended Eyal’s funeral, and was menachem avel at the Fraenkel home. These were my people. They lived in communities with which I identified, came from the “right” camp and lived in places where I could imagine living. I felt a visceral need to connect and offer at least some comfort.

When Avraham Walles was murdered, I felt sad, but had no thought of being menachem avel. After all, he was a Toldos Ahron chossid. Toldos Ahron are strongly anti-Zionist, and insular, even by the standards of Meah Shearim. Like Shendalov, I had very rarely been off the main street of that charedi neighborhood. Walles was different from me and had an approach to Judaism that made me very uncomfortable. More to the point, it’s not just Toldos Ahron that makes me uncomfortable. The charedi world with which I once felt a stronger connection, no longer speaks to me. More than that, some its values and approaches bother me greatly.

Shendalov’s op-ed hit me like a ton of bricks. I recognized that my disconnect from the charedi world had crossed from disagreement to something far more insidious. I realized how I had ignored the very real connection that Walles, his family and I, share. We are Jews. Period. Avraham was killed in an act of terror. End of story. A true attempt at achdut needs to go in both directions.

On Friday, I started to make things right. I left Rechov Meah Shearim, and went to the Walles home. I gave a small donation to help the orphans and widow, and sat with Walles’ father and brothers. I felt like crying. Just as I was pained when I heard Eyal Yifrach’s father sing “Tefillah L’Ani” at the funeral, and was filled with sadness when I met the Fraenkels, the thought of a father (and mother)  losing a son devastated me.

I don’t know whether my visit and meager words gave the Walles family any comfort. I know that I have finally begun to take achdus seriously. Friday was just the beginning.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Building a Common Home- a hopeful close to Tisha B'Av

About 15 of us sat in a circle listening to a thought-provoking presentation. Although I was the only non-Israeli, I was not the one who stood out the most in the group. That distinction would have to go Shmuel Pappenheim, a Toldos Ahron chassid. Toldos Ahron, for those who don't know, is staunchly anti-Zionist, and one of the more insular chassidic communities in Israel. Not only was Pappenheim a participant, but he was the one leading the session for a mixed group of dati, mesorati, and chiloni Jews, on the topic of building one's home into a mikdash mi'at, a figurative miniature version of the Beit HaMikdash. This session was part of a Tisha B'Av event sponsored by Reshut HaRabim, an Israeli organization which is trying to promote openness, dialogue and unity among the Jewish community of Jerusalem, as well as Gesher and the Hartman Institute.

After Pappenheim finished his presentation which included quotes from the Chasam Sofer, Seforno, Shelah and Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, a spirited but warm conversation ensued. Among the topics discussed were a film about a chiloni couple where the husband became a ba'al teshuva, that had been shown before the session, Pappenheim's personal background, the challenges faced by families when one member becomes more or less religious than the rest of the family, and the changes that are being faced by the charedi community. Throughout the discussion, Pappenheim was open, engaging, introspective and thought-provoking. Not once did he appear uncomfortable, whether speaking with women who were dressed in a decidedly non-chassidic matter, or being asked about how his Yekish family became chassidic. He discussed his non-chassidic grandmother, whose open-minded personality and home opened Pappenheim up to a more open approach to the world. He undid a lot of stereotypes, and taught us about a community that none of us had previously understood.

I can't think of a better way to have ended Tisha B'Av. It is one thing to speak of achdus and ahavat chinam, it is entirely something else to see it in action, and be a part of it. As I led maariv on a porch looking out onto the Old City, I was filled with hope. Hope that the unity that I and others witnessed this summer, was not just an aberration caused by the war, but was the beginning of something bigger. Hope that after too many years of divisiveness, we are finally beginning to join together as one.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Tears of Hope and Faith- Learning the lessons from Tisha B'Avs past

Although there have been years where I shed tears on Tisha B’Av, they were few and far between. I struggle to fully connect with the loss of the Beis Hamikdash, and even when I do, I feel it more in my head than in my heart. This Tisha B’Av is different in this regard and in many other ways as well.

It has been a summer of tears. Tears shed upon hearing sad and tragic news, tears shed at funerals, tears of pain and loss. Paradoxically it has also been a summer of hope, faith and achdut. In mourning “our” boys, we have joined together and connected over what unites us. Through Rachely Fraenkel’s powerful words, we have learned to have emunah, even as it is mixed with pain. Soldiers have been embraced, literally, and with words and gifts of love. Although there is still work to be done, Ahavat chinam, and not sinat chinam seems, for the first time in a while, to be winning. Those who are old enough to remember, say that they have not seen such unity since the Six-Day War.

Last night, after Maariv and Eichah, Sdei Chemed, the camp for which I am head counselor, went to the kotel. We sat down to sing slow songs in the plaza by the Kotel. Within moments, we were joined by others and the circle continued to grow. We sang songs (singing begins at 34 seconds and Meir and I can be seen later on) about Yerushalayim, song about Achdus, and songs asking HaShem to return to us and allow us to return to Him. Hundreds of Jews of every type sang with us, some in our circle, some in the circle that surrounded us, as if in embrace. I sat next to my son watching chassidim sing with soldiers, mothers embracing their daughters, and young and old singing in beautiful harmony.

I cried last night, but for the first time ever, there were tears of hope and faith, mixed in with tears of sadness. Perhaps we are beginning to learn the lesson of Tisha B'Avs past.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

As Shabbos Ebbs Away- Some thoughts heading into my last week in Israel

When I was a boy, I loved “short” Shabboses. Of course, they lasted 25 hours just like any Shabbos, but at least in the winter, Shabbos ended early enough to catch some college football. At some point I grew up a bit and came to enjoy Shabbos. Still, even then, I rarely felt sad when Shabbos was over. I had taken out of it what I could. As such, I never  really “got” the need for besamim at havdalah. This summer has changed that.

Reish Lakish teaches that on Shabbos we get a neshoma yeseira. Commonly mistranslated as an additional soul, it really means that on Shabbos we have a heightened awareness of, and connection to, our neshama. As Shabbos ends, we say a bracha on besamim, which is, somehow, supposed to comfort us at the loss of the neshoma yeseira.

Not for the first time this summer, those of us in Israel went into Shabbos with tremendous sadness. A soldier had been captured by Hamas. The rav at the minyan where I davened on Friday evening, gave a hauntingly poignant drasha during which, judging by his tone of voice, he was fighting back tears. Lecha Dodi sang to the tune of Eili Tzion only reinforced the sad mood. Even Yedid Nefesh could not, even slightly, lift my spirits.

Then Shabbos started to work its magic. The combination of good friends, good food, meaningful discussions, and lots of talmud Torah brought me to a different place. It was as if I had been magically relocated to a world of total joy. Before I knew it, it was time for mincha. As I noticed the sun beginning its descent, I snapped back to reality. I knew that soon it would be dark. Shabbos would end, and with it, the illusion that all was alright in the world. The radio and internet would be turned on, hoping against hope that there would be some good news. Of course, after Shabbos, these hopes were quickly crushed.

This summer has been for me a “yom shekulo Shabbos”. As I travelled through the land, met its people, touched its stones, and ate its fruit, I felt what I can only describe as a neshama yeseira. Each sunset moved me, every word of Torah was an encounter with the Divine. I have met great talmidei chachamim and scholars. Even through the terrible pain of the kidnappings and subsequent war, despite the many, many tears, or maybe, somewhat paradoxically because of them, I have felt more attached to Eretz Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael than ever before. The thought that it will soon be over, that tearing myself away from Israel, will feel like tearing a bandage from a wound, saddens me beyond words.

How can I comfort myself? What is the besamim that can restore my sense of equilibrium? It seems to me that besamim is used as part of havdalah because out of all of the senses, smell was seen by Chazal, in both nigleh and nistar, as the most spiritual of senses. The smell of the besamim reminds us, that even though we are about to lose the soulful connection that we have felt, that it is only a temporary loss. In less than a week’s time, we will again experience the fragrant beauty of Shabbos.

I take comfort in the thought that I am returning to my family, and that maybe, just maybe, in the not so distant future, not only will I be back where I belong, but we will be back, not temporarily, but permanently in the land that is “kulo Shabbos” and “kulo tov”.