Friday, March 14, 2008

Be a mentsch

This Shabbos we'll start reading the 3rd book of the Torah, Vayikra. It's opening message teaches: "Adam, A man who will bring from you a sacrifice to G-d".

Technically, this the intro to the laws of sacrifices. One level deeper, the Hebrew for "bring a sacrifice", yakriv, translates literally as "draw close". In other words, this section teaches us how to draw close to G-d.

Judaism uses four different words for humans. Adam refers to the most refined and developed of the four. You could probably say that Adam equates with what we'd call a mentsch.

Step one to draw close to G-d: Make sure that you are a mentsch.

Responding to terror

Hundreds of civilians were attacked in a terrorist ambush that targeted women, children and the infirm. The Jewish army responded swiftly and decisively, killing scores of insurgents and wounding hundreds of others.

This may sound like yesterday’s news, but it’s actually the Torah’s account of the first-ever terror attack against Jews- when Amalek ambushed our People soon after they left Egypt.

Every year, on the Shabbos before Purim, we are instructed to review this story and its lessons. It contains key aspects of how to deal with terror.

The nature of terror

Egypt was the World Superpower 3300 years ago. When miracle after miracle brought Egypt to its knees and the Jewish nation became the first slaves to ever leave Egypt alive, neighboring nations were concerned. After the world’s mightiest army disappeared underwater, Middle Eastern countries were shaken to their core.

40 years later, the nations of Canaan still shuddered as the Jews approached their borders. No thinking People would have dared to challenge the Children of Israel when G-d so patently destroyed their enemies.

Except one.

Amalek snickered at the jitters rumbling through the developed world. Laughing off the wild stories of Jewish miracles, Amalek ambushed the fledgling nation almost immediately after its miracle at the Red Sea.

Terror is insolent. It attacks indiscriminately, where sovereign armies would never strike, for no good reason.

The cause of terror

Jews are trained to look beyond what meets the eye. When evil grows in our world, we look inward to see how we may possibly be feeding it.

Only moments before Amalek attacked, the Jews had complained against G-d. With their own eyes, they had seen miracle after miracle in Egypt; they had crossed the sea on dry land; they were living in the climate-controlled environment of the Clouds of Glory, and G-d’s pillar of fire guided them at night. Yet, with G-d’s spectacular presence staring them in the face, when they ran out of water, they complained: “Is G-d with us or not?”
Rashi, the most important commentator on Torah, provides a telling metaphor for their attitude: “A man was walking with his son on his shoulders. When the son asked for a drink, his father got him water and when he was hungry, dad provided a snack.

“After some time, the pair passed a man on the road. The son turned to him and asked: ‘Have you seen my father anywhere?’

“Incensed, the father dropped his son to the ground and a dog came and bit him.”

“Likewise,” Rashi explain, “When the Jews became blasé about G-d’s constant care and protection, He allowed Amalek to attack- to remind them not to take His attention for granted.”

Terror breeds when we overlook Hashem’s miracles; when we believe in our military might or political prowess rather than in our G-d.

The response to terror

No sooner had the Amalekites attacked, Moshe sent Joshua and a crack army to repel them. Moshe climbed a mountain to oversee the battle.

From atop the hill, Moshe raised his hands. As long as his hands were raised, the Jews had the advantage. When he tired and dropped his arms, the battle turned in Amalek’s favour.

Obviously, Moshe’s hands didn’t make or break the Jewish victory. His extended arms reminded the people to look to G-d for victory, to entrust Him with their success. As long as they reinstated G-d’s control, their enemies stood no chance against them. If they slipped back into the “is G-d with us?” mindset, they quickly faltered on the battlefield.

“Zachor, remember!” The Torah instructs us never to forget the Amalek story. Of all the Torah readings of the year, this is the one every Jewish person is required to hear.

Its message is eternal: Fight terror by improving your relationship with G-d. Thinking that we can fend for ourselves without Him or doubting His absolute control place our nation in a perilous position.

Far from Israel, we can still all make a difference. We must fight the spiritual battle, like Moshe atop the hill, strengthening our faith in Hashem.

Hopefully, Israel’s leadership learns to do the same.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Eight empty chairs in Jerusalem

Joy itself was struck down last Thursday evening.

Blood-splattered Torah books littered the violent scene, as the wounded were taken away. Eight young men, caught in the act of studying Torah, lay dead. This wasn’t 1938 Berlin, but 2008 Jerusalem.

On the eve of the month that should be the most joyous on the Jewish calendar, evil stung at the soul of the Jewish People. London reverberated when its Underground was bombed and America shook as their Towers fell. A strike at a Yeshivah, in the heart of Jerusalem, is a blow to the heart of Jews everywhere.

We are left reeling. How could this happen?


Studying Torah!

In Jerusalem!!

There are those who will accuse the impotent Israeli government, while others will blame a society that glorifies death to its children. Some may even point a finger at the ever-apathetic world powers who don’t take a stand against terror.

Jews are taught to avoid blaming and rather look inward in troubled times. Our nation is smarting from a blow to our collective solar-plexus. Our nation needs to stop and think why something like this happens. More importantly, we need to reflect on what we can do about it.

Protests, letters to officials, coffee-table complaining are not going to change the situation. None of us is about to pack up and join the IDF. So, what can we do?

For a start, we can pay attention to the timing. We’re days away from Purim, another time in another place where they tried to kill us.

Persia’s Jewish community at that time was more politically connected than any other Jewish community in history. We had one of “ours” as queen, and the king owed a senior minister of his cabinet (who happened to be the Jewish spiritual leader) a serious favour. We could have pulled out all political stops and reversed Haman’s plot in a flash.

But, the Jews of Persia learned something critical: No political strategy will succeed without Divine backing. So, they went to Shul, fasted for three days and committed themselves to Judaism like no preceding generation had.

Then, Esther went to the King.

Jews approach life differently. We each hold the key- regardless of how far we are from the crisis- to make a difference. Every Jew can do something significant to help Israel.

After the Holocaust, people commonly left an empty seat at their Seder table to commemorate a Holocaust victim. The Rebbe was adamantly opposed to this practice, arguing that a better response to the Nazis is to fill every extra seat with a Jew who wouldn’t otherwise be at a Seder.

Today, eight seats sit empty at a Yeshivah in the heart of our Homeland.

It is up to us to fill them. If terrorists want to try and rob us of Torah, then our response must be more Torah. We need to fill the Torah-gap that was left last week at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav.

Let’s take the challenge. Let’s each commit to eight additional Torah study periods (they can be just 10 minutes long) between now and Pesach in memory Jerusalem’s eight young martyrs.

When Hashem sees that our Jewish spirit doesn’t wane in the face of terror, He will surely bless us with the Purim blessing “Venahafoch Hu”, the transformation of sadness to joy and of darkness to light.

A Torah response to terror

Friday, March 07, 2008

Aah! The quiet life!

I returned a few days ago from a weekend wedding in Oudtshoorn (a small town in the semi-desrt Karoo region of S.A.). What a wonderful experience!

We flew into the picturesque coastal town of George, drove through 40 minutes of lush countryside and breathtaking mountain passes, and arrived in the stillness that is Oudtshoorn.

Quaint old-style homes, stores and restaurants dot the lazy main road of this town. Chirping birds replace the roar of traffic and a crystal-blue sky illuminates the whole area.
Admittedly, people looked twice at the hat & beard, but were all genuinely friendly to us- at Pick ‘n Pay, our hotel and on the street.
What’s left of the 600 Jewish families is about two minyanim of warm, close-knit, salt-of-the-earth good people. Sitting in the same room as them is inspiring; a reminder of the humanness people should have.

Oudtshoorn’s sandstone Shul stands proud on the main road. A working mikveh, South Africa’s first ever Jewish day school (now rented to a local nursery school), rabbis’ house (pity there’s no rabbi) and a large tract of land- all well maintained- sit behind it.

Many, perhaps most, of the community eats only kosher meat. Rabbi Maisels of Cape Town treks through once a month to shecht. Hundreds of kilometers away from kosher delis and bakeries, some still keep strictly kosher homes.

Shabbos in Oudtshoorn is the real deal- quiet, peaceful, restful. The wedding we went to celebrate was a communal/ family affair, as simchas were intended.

I couldn’t help but wonder why all the Jews had left.

Why do we opt to live in the stress, pollution and noise of the globe’s great metropolises? Why are all major Jewish communities in the Londons, New Yorks and Joburgs of the world?

Wouldn’t you love to move to a crime-free, tranquil spot of ramrod-straight-farmer territory, less than an hour from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches?

I would.

But, that would miss the point.

Hashem placed us in this world to create “a home for Him in the lowest realm”. Now, as the spiritual universe goes, Earth is as low as it gets. On Earth, the dog-eats-dog madness of city-life is as low and dirty as possible.

Jews gravitate to those places, because we’re driven to make a difference. We’re naturally drawn to uplift and inspire a world that’s not naturally kosher.

Its’ nicer to live in Utopia; it’s more meaningful to radiate light into the coal-face.

Still, it’s good to visit rural spots once in a while- just to remind yourself what our world is supposed to look like.