Thursday, 20 November 2014

Prophets & False Prophets: Just When You Thought Things Can't Get Worse

I’ve been learning Sefer Yechezkel - Ezekiel - this year, with R’ Menachem Leibtag. A few years ago, I learned the book of Yirmiyah - Jeremiah - with him. These two books of prophecies may never have been so relevant at any time since they were first received. And it makes me feel so sorely the lack of a prophet in our time.

Let me share an overview of the two books. Jeremiah & Ezekiel overlapped as prophets, prophesying shortly before, during and after the destruction of the first Temple. Their messages were similar, but slightly different in focus. Jeremiah prophesied first. His initial message was that if social justice abuses continued (oppression of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, and forms of business fraud), the Temple would be destroyed. He was not believed.

After the ba’al teshuva movement led by the king Josiah (known as the Josian Reformation), the Jewish people believed that they would be forgiven by G-d. Instead, they saw the death of Josiah, the invasion of Babylon, the exile of their political and religious leadership, and the sack of the Holy Temple. They witnessed the end of hundreds of years of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, to be replaced by Babylonian over-lordship with a puppet king on the throne of David. To their eyes, they had returned to G-d, turned away from their idols, and instead of being rewarded, they had been punished. Jeremiah’s mission was to teach them that G-d was not cruel or absent, but that what He desired was honesty, straight dealing, charity and concern for the vulnerable and disadvantaged, not sacrifices, fast days and prayer. His social justice message went unheeded.

Indeed, the Jewish people at the time believed that the worst was over. There had already been destruction in Israel. The ten tribes had been exiled by the bloodthirsty and terrifying Assyrian empire; the corrupt Jewish aristocracy (who had been responsible for much of the abuse of social justice) had been exiled to Babylon; the most precious vessels of the Temple had been hidden by Hezekiah, and the remaining golden vessels had been stolen by Nebuchadnezzar’s troops. Their leadership was gone. There was no longer Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel.

However, they had reason to hope. The Temple was still operating, but only on a shoe-string budget. Some of the ten tribes exiled by Assyria had already returned to Israel. Babylon was ruling Israel, true, but they were far less fearsome than the recently-toppled Assyrians. It seemed to the Jews that they were living a post-holocaust era. They had repented, destroyed their idols, fasted and prayed and brought sacrifices. Time was ripe for rebirth, and the political and religious leadership were determined to create one.

The puppet-king Tzidkiyahu - Zedekiyah - wanted to join an alliance with Egypt to rise up against the Babylonians, bring back the exiled Jews, restore the Temple to her former glory and reinstate Jewish rule over the Land of Israel. He and his advisers were sure that this was what G-d wanted. They were doing this for the sake of G-d, so that His Temple would no longer be left shamefully bare and His people would no longer be seen languishing in exile. Zedekiyah and his government decided that the time was right for a popular uprising - but it would have to be a popular one. Without the support of the whole nation, they couldn't succeed, and he was determined that they would. The religious leadership - priests and holy men -  preached false prophecies on every street-corner, telling the people that G-d had broken the yoke of Babylonian rule, and soon, very soon, the people would come home and the glorious golden vessels of the Temple would be brought back in triumph. They supported Zedekiyah almost to a man. Almost.

Jeremiah was the fly in the ointment. He warned the people that while they still committed social justice abuses, G-d would not hear their prayers. He told them that this punishment is a decree from G-d; that decades will pass before Babylon would fall and the exile would end; that G-d was not going to give them 'one more chance' any more. Like recalcitrant toddlers, the Jewish people believed that if only they said sorry, if only they fasted and prayed and brought sacrifices, G-d would forgive them like He had done so many times. They had fallen into a trap of believing that G-d was a cosmic vending machine, and having put in their money – fasts, prayer, sacrifices, repentance – they would be rewarded with good things. They did not believe that their continuing social justice fail could be fatal. Jeremiah's sorry mission was to pass on the divine message: no. No more second chances. Accept your punishment; suffer through 'in-house rehab' (in R' Leibtag's words). You have a Temple, you are in your Land, many of you still are alive. Accept the lack of autonomy and the diminishment of the Temple, because if you rise up, it will get a whole lot worse. 

Ezekiel's prophecies backed up Jeremiah all the way. His mystical vision of the Merkavah leaving the Temple was a graphic vision of G-d Himself handing over His house to be destroyed by the Babylonians. Ezekiel's message was that Jeremiah was right; that the coming destruction of the Temple wasn't a cruel backslap by a vicious G-d who refused to accept the prayers and sacrifices of a righteous nation, but a deserved punishment to a people who refused to learn their lesson.

I'm sure I don't need to spell out the similarities between the time immediately before the final destruction of the Temple, and our reality today. The story of destruction, escape, the beginnings of rebirth is one that we have lived through in the last 100 years. It would be so easy to say that the right-wingers, like Zedekiyah and his supporters, are bringing more destruction upon us by insisting on autonomy, on the restoration of the Temple, on behaving like post-Messianic conquerors in a messy, pre-Messianic world. But I don't know. I'm not a prophetess.

The part that I identify with the most is the plight of the ordinary Jews of the time of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. They were, of course, still treating each other badly while they professed religious observance by fasting and offering sacrifices. The book of Jeremiah describes hidden idol-worship (which the commentators explain to mean treating G-d like an idol, a vending machine that will pay out what you desire as long as you pay in a sacrifice); jealousy; two-faced behaviour in which a man would pretend friendship to his neighbour and then bad-mouth him behind his back; continued oppression of the widow, orphan and the Other. (Sadly, that is also reminiscent of our time.) But they were also poorly led. 

I wish for a prophet now, to tell us the right path to take, but the Jews of the time suffered from a surfeit of prophets. They were besieged by religious messages, with barely any way of distinguishing who was right from who was wrong. The Jewish religious leadership, in both Babylon and Israel, preached loudly and incessantly that redemption was coming; Babylon would fall; the Jews should rise up against Babylon and they would succeed, for G-d was on their side. And then on the other hand, Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesied that the people were still sinning, the exile would continue for many more years, and resistance would only make things worse.

The tragedy was that the people didn't know who to believe. All of the prophets who preached in the marketplace were religious. They all were holy men who feared G-d and believed they served Him. When they made up false prophecies and insisted they were the true word of G-d, they had the best of intentions. After all, if the people were not united, they wouldn't succeed in their battle against Babylon. These false prophets knew that they were lying, but they believed it was permitted. They permitted it to themselves. It was for a good cause, a holy cause, the best of all possible causes. Because they knew that they were lying, they thought that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were lying too. But sadly, tragically, they were wrong. How could the people know whom to believe? If they had listened to Jeremiah, if they had acted with justice towards each other, if they had accepted G-d’s punishment, then they would have spent seventy years of exile living in their own land – our own land – with a functioning Temple. Something that is still a dream for us today. Instead, they listened to the political religious leadership, and experienced savage bloodshed, final total exile, and the total destruction of the Temple.

Only after the destruction, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were proved correct. The destruction did happen. Far more Jews were killed, viciously, than had been before. More of the people were exiled. It was in order for later generations to see that there really was a reason for the destruction, says R’ Leibtag, that Jeremiah and Ezekiel were commanded to record that they predicted all of this. And for us to learn from it.

We’re in a similar state of chaos now. Whom do we listen to? We have no prophets and no direct line to G-d. Like the people at that time, we too are besieged by holy men, with holy intentions, who contradict each other with their predictions and solutions and permissions. Only this time, even they don't know who is lying. 

I don’t claim to tell you that we should be listening to the advice of the Jeremiah and Ezekiel figures and give land for peace, relinquish the Temple mount, sacrifice Jewish autonomy in parts of Israel in exchange for Jewish lives. That was the right advice for that time, but I do not know if it is the right advice for our times too. I just know that sometimes, submission is not defeat. I wish for a prophet to come along and tell us who is right and who is wrong, and I wish for us to recognise him when he comes. Because one thing I do learn from the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel is that just because you think things are bad, it doesn’t mean that man himself can’t make them a whole lot worse through a series of bad decisions, made for the sake of Heaven.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Simchat Torah For All - give or take a bit

Now, I remember that last year I posted a really quite irritated blog post about how marginalised I felt over simchat torah. So I thought that I would post a sort of postscript to that, this year.

This year, I'm feeling really frustrated at women. Let me backtrack - during chol hamoed, I tried hard to make sure that our shul's regular Simchat Beit Hashoevah would also have space for women to dance. And due respect to our shul President: he made sure that there really was adequate space for women to dance. However, of the 30+ women who came to the SBH, only 5 women actually came into the shul and danced at any time. The rest sat around outside and chatted and watched the men. Quite a few wandered in and out, moving the mechitsa aside as they did so so that I had to pause in my (really, really hard work in getting people to) dance to put it back again. Because I didn't want to be on show to all the men on the other side.

I was determined that, since I had made so much fuss about having space for the women to dance, I would dance. And so I did, regardless of who else was dancing with me. Which was mostly either no one, or my daughter. Eventually, after a lot of work, she/I had gathered a very sweet circle of very sweet little girls (aged about 8-12) who were really loving jumping up and down in a circle. I was really heartened to see that the next generation was eager to dance (in their own way, it doesn't need to be fancy!) and I didn't regret putting in the effort to dance with them and keep them going. Although I was totally exhausted the next day (let's face it, I'm just not 9 years old any more!). But after that, as well as my experiences last year at our shul on Simchat Torah, I was definitely, adamantly, not going to go there again for Simchat Torah this year. Friends of mine had told me that a different shul in my area (let's call it shul X) had agreed that there would be dancing for women this year. There were teenage girls who were really pushing for it, and my friends were excited to dance, so I was hopeful that there would be a good vibe there over the chag.

But then at the last minute, a different friend who goes to our shul called me. She'd heard that I was dancing with the girls at the SBH, and she herself wanted to dance on Simchat Torah. Please, would I come to our shul?
I said No. I'm not interested in dancing with other people's daughters so that they don't have to.
She said she'd make sure that there was space for women to dance; she'd dance with me; and a few other women would come this time who'd also dance, and we'd make our own wonderful Simchat Torah experience.
I said, No. I've done enough banging-my-head-against-a-brick-wall in my life. I don't want to try to convince women to dance, or to convince men to graciously permit women to dance, or to prove something to others.
She urged and encouraged me to do my bit for our community by coming to our shul.
Against my better judgement, and feeling like a really grumbley negative person, I agreed.

Well, the only enjoyment I got out of Simchat Torah in our shul was the dubious pleasure of being proved right. It didn't work. The space that was created for women to dance in was that of our usual ladies' section, which is fairly long and very narrow. As I pointed out at the time, we could just about do the Cancan, up and down, all in a line. It did not lend itself to dancing in a circle. A grand total of five of us did try to dance for the first hakafah. It should be mentioned that our shul is quite small and crowded, and the women's section divided from the men's by a thick, opaque, ceiling-to-floor curtain - and the men really wanted to have our three-by-ten feet of extra space. So it was necessary, every few steps, to jab an elbow into a body on the other side of the curtain that was jostling into our space. By the end of the first hakafah, 2 women sitting on chairs had materialised into the dancing space, and the curtain had been defiantly and definitely pushed open by both men wanting the space, and women wanting to sit around and watch the men.

My daughter said, 'This is useless. Let's just go to shul X. It's not working. Let's go'.

We went.

There was space for women to dance, and there were women and girls of all ages dancing with enthusiasm that was heart-warming. We slipped into the circle and felt soothed; we were with others who also wanted to serve Hashem actively and with joy. There was was dancing and celebration and excitement. At the end of the evening, my daughter and I (and my husband) agreed that the female half of our family would switch shuls. We are now a two-shul family, because sadly, what creates a positive male shul-going experience is not what creates a positive female shul-going experience, and it's important to us that our daughter feel that she belongs in shul, and that shul belongs to her.

As we marched to shul X, feeling aggrieved and frustrated, I was actually glad to hear my daughter complain about how awful that was. I was glad that she wanted more than just to watch her father and brothers, and to play with her friends. I was glad that she was bemoaning the women who kept opening the curtain, even after she asked them to stand at the other end where the curtain was open, instead of opening the curtain where we were trying to dance. And I was glad that she wished to dance with a sefer Torah.

There was no sefer Torah for the women to dance with in shul X. I knew that there would not be, and I understand, too, that the pressures in a shul can make it hard for a rabbi to permit it, even if he wishes to permit it. But this year, perhaps because of the failed dance experiment in our shul, I realised that my more feminist friends are right: without a sefer Torah, the dancing will always and only be but a pale shadow of the dancing on the men's side of the curtain. Without a sefer Torah, there is no focus to the dancing. We are nothing more than guests at a wedding with an absent bride. For whom do we dance, and why do we celebrate? Simchat Torah is not just a Jewish nightclub evening. It's a Torah celebration. It's hard to have a Torah celebration without a Torah.

It's really a lot easier to leave it to your husband, or son, or brother to connect with G-d on your behalf. It's so much less effort to sit around and shmooze with your friends, and watch the men dance and sing. To get up and dance, to sing, to celebrate your connection with the Torah and your connection with G-d is hard work. It's tiring. I felt glad that my daughter wants something more, and glad that I had shown her that she can want something more. And I felt sad for the daughters at our shul, who spent Simchat Torah absorbing the message that celebrating in shul is for their fathers and brothers; that their role is to talk and to play. The girls who overheard their mothers lamenting that the dancing goes on for so long, that davening takes forever, that the chag is so tiring and such hard work. It's not the men who are marginalising women and excluding them from the celebration. It's the women, brought up to expect nothing more, brought up to want nothing more, who are excluding themselves.

PS: There are women who really enjoy spending Simchat Torah learning Torah. They will arrange a shiur or sit somewhere quietly and learn. I respect this, and also enjoy doing so, and do not wish to sound like I think it's inadequate. But personally, I want Simchat Torah to be an experience of simchah, just as the men spend the time on this day celebrating their connection with the Torah, rather than sitting and learning. Which I do during the year (perhaps not as often as I could. Or should. But at least I wish I was doing it more).

I also see women who follow the hakafot, who watch the men dancing and get real, vicarious joy out of watching and listening. I don't at all understand how this one works - it never does anything for me - but to these women I say great. I'm glad they feel fulfilled by watching someone else dance and sing with the sefer Torah. But I don't understand it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Bullet Points - Mothering Through Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur

Mothering through the Yomim Noraim

You can download the audio shiur here

A: Reframing the Yomim Noraim:

Reframe #1: RH is not about teshuva, it’s about crowning G-d as King. Coronation Day.
How do we crown Hashem? By obeying Him.
RH is also Yom Hadin-Day of Judgement. Day of harsh judgement based on what will advance the kingdom.
RH is the day we crown G-d by obeying His commands, and demonstrate that we deserve His resources by carrying out His wishes.

Reframe #2: YK is not a sad day. YK is a CHAG - make it be one for your children.

Reframe #3: You ARE the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).

Reframe #4: You ARE a Malach (Angel)

Don’t think about the Yomim Noraim as an exercise in ‘how can i get rid of my children for the longest possible time so that I can serve Hashem?’

B: Davening:

  • Don’t think that you stand before G-d only when you hold a machzor in your hands. 
  • Important to daven something every day. 
  • Informal prayer.
  • Think about the essence of RH & YK tefillah at intervals during the day. RH: Acknowledge G-d as King, admit His right to judge us; recognise that as His children we are capable of greatness; use shofar to have relationship with Him. 

Practically speaking:
  • Don’t overlook maariv.
  • Make what arrangements you can for davening time.
  • Daven musaf &/or mincha later in the afternoon.
  • Resting is also avodas Hashem!

Don’t leave your children with a non-jewish babysitter
Don’t hijack a teenager’s chance to daven.

When you daven:
Tadir v’aino tadir tadir kodem = ‘Regular’ davening trumps ‘special’ davening, even on RH.

  1. Basic birkat hashachar
  2. Shemonah esreh 
  3. Sh’ma & Shemonah Esreh (including go’al yisrael on it’s own) 
  4. Birchot sh’ma, sh’ma, & sh’monah esreh 
  5. Baruch she’omar - Hodu - Ashrei (in that order)
  6. 2 hallelukahs (order of impce - 3 5 1 2 4) 
  7. Nishmas - Yishtabach (in that order)

C: Practical

  • Hefsed Merubah - will you lose more than you gain?
  • Shofar.
  • Do RH/YK stuff with your kids - Sing songs - Tell stories. 
  • Print out pictures from the internet (eg Kohen Gadel, Avodah in Beis Hamikdash, akeidah)
  • Make special kiddush after they daven.
  • Daven aloud
  • Sing tunes from RH/YK davening
  • More important to stay calm and not get angry than to daven.
  • Shout ‘baruch shem kavod malchuso l’olam va’ed’ - so exciting.
  • Plan ahead - treats, toys, etc. 
  • Remember that children need to make kiddush on YK. 
  • Begin seudah well in advance on erev YK. 

MOST IMPORTANT: Kids should enjoy yomtov. If RH/YK become days of terror for them, will colour whole approach to G-d & yomtov.

ט וַיֹּאמֶר נְחֶמְיָה הוּא הַתִּרְשָׁתָא וְעֶזְרָא הַכֹּהֵן ׀ הַסֹּפֵר וְהַלְוִיִּם הַמְּבִינִים אֶת־הָעָם לְכָל־הָעָם
 הַיּוֹם קָדֹֽשׁ־הוּא לַה' אֱלֹֽקיכֶם אַל־תִּֽתְאַבְּלוּ וְאַל־תִּבְכּוּ 
כִּי בוֹכִים כָּל־הָעָם כְּשָׁמְעָם אֶת־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָֽה: 
י וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם לְכוּ אִכְלוּ מַשְׁמַנִּים וּשְׁתוּ מַמְתַּקִּים וְשִׁלְחוּ מָנוֹת לְאֵין נָכוֹן לוֹ 
כִּֽי־קָדוֹשׁ הַיּוֹם לַֽאֲדֹנֵינוּ וְאַל־תֵּעָצֵבוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַת ה' הִיא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם: 
יא וְהַֽלְוִיִּם מַחְשִׁים לְכָל־הָעָם לֵאמֹר הַסּוּ כִּֽי־הַיּוֹם קָדֹשׁ וְאַל־תֵּֽעָצֵֽבוּ:
 יב וַיֵּֽלְכוּ כָל־הָעָם לֶֽאֱכֹל וְלִשְׁתּוֹת וּלְשַׁלַּח מָנוֹת וְלַֽעֲשׂוֹת שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה 
כִּי הֵבִינוּ בַּדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹדִיעוּ לָהֶֽם:

'This day is holy to Hashem your G-d; do not mourn and do not weep’; 
because all the people were crying when they heard the words of Torah. 
10 Then he said to them: 'Go on, eat luxurious foods and drink sweet drinks, 
and send portions to those who have nothing prepared; 
because this day is holy to our G-d, and do not be anxious, 
because Hashem’s joy is your strength.’ (Nechmya 8:5-14)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Channah: Getting Angry With G-d: Legitimate Responses To Pain

Channah: Getting Angry with G-d
Legitimate Responses to Pain

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the pain and the prayers of Channah (Hannah), the mother of Samuel the Prophet. It is a positive sign for us, since it describes Channah’s prayers being answered. Her story also gives us an insight into how to deal with the pain and anger that can result from living through a difficult situation.

The Rambam (Maimonides), in his great halachic work the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot De’ot 2:3) extols the benefits of the ‘golden mean’: every character trait is praiseworthy in moderation, but all extremes of behaviour should be avoided. About anger he abandons his praise of moderation:

“And there are some traits which are forbidden for a man to accustom himself to, even in moderation, but rather he must distance himself from even the slightest expression of them ... And thus anger (ka’as) is an exceedingly evil trait, and it is fitting for man to distance himself from it to the utmost extent, and to train himself to not get angry, even over a matter which is deserving of anger.”

The Talmud (Berachot 54a) gives us guidelines on how to respond to pain: 

“On good news one says: ‘Blessed is He Who is good and does good’. On bad news one says ‘Blessed be the True Judge’ must bless [G-d] for the bad as one blesses [Him] for the good, and for the good as one blesses [Him] for the bad.”

No matter what happens to us, we must respond to it by blessing G-d, since He is the Source of both our joy and our suffering.

Taking these sources together, what, according to Torah, is a legitimate response to pain? Must we only turn to G-d with acceptance and positivity, as the Talmud implies? Is it wrong to feel that we do not like what we are going through? May we express pain, bitterness, and negativity to G-d? What about anger: can we ever get angry? And can we ever get angry with G-d?

When the Haftorah opens, Channah is infertile. Her husband Elkanah has another wife, Peninah, who has many children and taunts Channah about her lack of offspring. Regularly each year, Elkanah and his family travel to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) at Shiloh for the festival offerings. Each time, Channah watches her husband serve a portion to each of Peninah’s children, while she receives only her own portion, albeit a double one out of her husband’s love for her. On one of their visits, Channah pours her heart out to G-d, promising that if she were given a son, she would dedicate that son to His service. Her prayers are answered: she gives birth to a son, Samuel, who became a great prophet and leader of the Jewish People.

The book of Samuel gives us unusual detail about Channah’s response to infertility: she becomes angry at G-d. The word ka’as כעס - angry - is used about her four times in these ten verses. Two further words for anger occur here, which are unusual synonyms. Rarely does the Tanach describe people as angry for personal reasons. Fury is frequently attributed to G-d, and many prophets and other leaders express their ire on G-d’s behalf. Only a rare few become outraged for personal reasons; those who do generally come to very sticky ends. The text never dwells on their anger; it is usually mentioned and dismissed with only one or two ‘anger’ words. Channah is actually the winner of the ‘most angry Tanach character’ award: the next ‘runner-up’ is Moses, who became angry five times over the course of four books and forty years in the desert. It is clear that Channah does not just feel a passing wave of fury at her situation. We are told that every time they went to Shiloh, Channah become angry, year after year after year.

In verse six, it is written:

And her rival angered her greatly, because of the re’imah, because G-d had closed her womb
וְכִעֲסַתָּה צָרָתָהּ גַּם־כַּעַס בַּעֲבוּר הַרְּעִמָהּ כִּי־סָגַר ה' בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ:

The word re’imah is very unusual. The word ra’am רעם means thunder, and it is almost always used to mean precisely that. Here, however, the commentators all translate it as relating to anger. We can picture the image they had in mind; someone with a black cloud over her head, always scowling and clanging the pots and pans. Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (the Malbim), comments that she was doubly angry: her rival provoked her anger, and she was always angry from within:

That she was always ‘thundering’ and complaining, because G-d had closed her womb.
שהיתה מרעמת תמיד ומתלוננת על כי סגר ה' בעד רחמה

This is not just a women who found it painful three times a year when they went to Shiloh. She was not only angry when provoked by her co-wife. This sounds like a woman who was constantly suffused with anger.

Perhaps it is unfair to draw attention to Channah’s anger. After all, she was in a very difficult situation. She lived with the pain of infertility, month after month of disappointment, for years. Her co-wife rubbed salt into the wound both intentionally and unintentionally. Channah’s husband Elkanah, while evidently meaning well, trivialises her pain:

...Why is your heart broken? Am I not better to you than 10 sons? (Sam I, 1:8)
...וְלָמֶה יֵרַע לְבָבֵךְ הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי טוֹב לָךְ מֵעֲשָׂרָה בָּנִים:

Channah’s pain, bitterness and suffering are made very clear.

However, we do not expect our biblical heroines to display such anger. Perhaps she should realise that G-d put her in this situation, and accept it as His Will; be grateful for what He has given her, channel her strengths into other areas. But Chanah does not do this. She does not follow the examples of our foremothers Sarah or Rachel, also infertile for many years, who turned to surrogate motherhood by asking their husbands to have a child with their handmaidens. But what she does do is pray.

At the height of her pain at Shiloh, after watching her co-wife accept portion after portion of the festival sacrifices to give to her many children, realising that her husband does not share her anguish, Channah quietly moves away to pray to G-d. She stands alone, praying silently with only her lips moving, focused on pouring her heart out to G-d. It is a powerful image, which our Sages took as the model when establishing formal prayer (Brachot 31a). Yet  according to the Midrash, even Channah’s prayers were not what we are used to.

The Midrashim pick up on the unusual language that Channah uses, and explain what lies behind her choice of words. One midrash describes Channah demanding a child from G-d:

“Creator of the Universe! There are creatures of the Upper world, and creatures of the Lower world. The creatures of the Upper world do not eat or drink or have children or die, but live forever. The creatures of the Lower world eat and drink and have children and die. I do not know which I am; if I am a creature of the Upper world, since I do not have children, then it must be that I also do not eat or drink or die, but will live forever. If I am a creature of the Lower world, who eats and drinks and dies, then I must also have children” (Midrash Pesikta Rabbati 43).

In effect, Channah is insisting that since G-d created her to be mortal, He is obligated to give her offspring. Another Midrash is even more surprising:

She said, “If You do not remember me [and give me a child], then I will seclude myself with another man, so that my husband will suspect me of adultery. He will bring me before the Priest to drink the Bitter Waters [for the Sotah ritual], but I will be found innocent of adultery. Then You will have to give me a son, as it says in Your Torah ‘And if she is not impure but is innocent, then she will have children’” (Ibid).

The Torah describes the procedure for a woman who is suspected, but not proven, to have committed adultery. Called the Sotah ritual, the suspected woman is brought before the Priest at the Mishkan (or Temple) and made to drink ‘bitter waters’. If she has committed adultery, she will die a nasty death. If the woman is innocent, she is promised a child (or increased fertility if she has children already). Channah threatens G-d; if He does not give her a child of His own free Will (as it were), then she will force Him to by making herself into a Sotah. Hardly the kind of prayer to which we are accustomed.

What is even more surprising about Channah’s prayers and her anger is that they worked. G-d did not punish her for showing a lack of faith in Him; on the contrary, He rewards her with a son, and a son who becomes a great leader as well! The commentators, who usually criticise biblical displays of personal anger, are entirely silent on the topic, not even raising the issue. According to mori v’rabbi Rabbi Ari Kahn, this lack of rabbinic response means they considered her anger to be so self-evidently valid that there was no need even to mention it. In the text itself, after Channah prays, we are told that Eli the High Priest confronted her and accused her of being drunk. She defended herself, saying “I’m not drunk; I’m angry”; to which Eli responded by giving her a blessing. Does anger towards G-d merit a blessing!?

So Channah’s anger is blessed by man, rewarded by G-d, and seen as self-evidently valid by the Rabbis. How can we reconcile this with the Talmud’s instructions to ‘bless the bad’, or with Maimonides’ clear injunction to avoid even a trace of anger? Can anger then be legitimate? Can it be a valid way to respond to pain?

To my mind, there was something special about Channah’s anger. Channah did not complain or wallow in bitterness. She took all her anger to G-d, and used it to power herself towards a positive outcome. The Malbim (Sam I 1:10-11) writes that there were four things which helped her prayers to be heard: G-d listens to the prayers of the broken-hearted; she prayed with total focus to G-d alone; her prayers were accompanied by tears, and the gates of tears are never sealed; she took upon herself a vow which would raise her up in her time of pain, as our sages recommend.

I think that these can be restated as four ways in which Channah’s anger was unique: It derived from her pain and despair, not from jealousy, selfishness, or some baser motive. Second, her emotions were directed solely and completely towards G-d. She did not get angry with her husband, or her co-wife, or her fertility doctor (as it were!); she recognised that only G-d can remedy her situation. Third, she used her anger as fuel to drive her prayers to Heaven. Finally, by making a vow, she took positive action to change her spiritual state. All of these transformed Channah’s anger into something worthy of Divine favour, something vastly different to the anger about which Maimonides writes. His warning concerns something that drives us away from G-d, but Channah used her anger to achieve the opposite result.

The Talmud quoted above is not really as harsh as it seems. It discusses the possibility of reciting an identical blessing over both our good and our bad experiences, but rejects this option. We say two different blessings, one for bad things and one for good things, because we are not expected to respond to them equally. What is required is that we articulate, through a blessing, our recognition that both the good and the bad come from G-d. Channah fulfilled this requirement by bringing all her pain to G-d. The Netziv writes that to respond equally to both the good and the bad is an extra-ordinary ideal, but not something expected of the average ‘man in the synagogue’. We do not have to pretend that we feel the bad is really something good.

The great kabbalist the Shlah Hakadosh tells us something very powerful. He writes that ‘blessing the bad’ means that one must serve G-d with all one’s heart, even when it is broken. This does not mean that we have to pretend that we are not broken-hearted at all. We may, and possibly should,  acknowledge the pain, anger and suffering we are feeling; but like Channah, we are obligated to serve G-d with those very emotions.

This, then, could be a deeper reason to read the story of Channah on Rosh Hashanah. If we are able to see the positive within our bad experiences, that is wonderful. But if, like Channah, we feel bitterness and rage at the situation we are experiencing, then we have her example before us: to bring our emotions to G-d and take positive action (however small that may be) to transform it into something that draws us closer to Him.

May we all merit to have our prayers heard and answered this year. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

"Illegal" Settlements - Guest Post

There was a furore in the media earlier this year when Scarlett Johanssen chose to continue to lend her name to Sodastream, a successful company which manufactures its products in the Israeli conurbation of Ma’aleh Adumim, on the West Bank. (They are, incidentally, an equal opportunities employer and are the means of support and sustenance of hundreds of Arab families there as well as Israeli ones.)

A phrase which kept coming up in connection with Ma’aleh Adumim was “illegal settlement” but nobody who used it gave any indication that he knew what it meant.

“Illegal” here means “contrary to International Law”. It is obviously not the same as “criminal”, though some acts contrary to International Law are criminal on any view, for example war crimes such as the massacres at Oradour, Lidice or the Ardeatine Caves, or the murders at Srebrenica. It is not a “crime” for Israelis to go and live on the West Bank, indeed it would be thought offensive to suggest that anywhere in the Holy Land should be judenrein.

The International Law we are concerned with is not like normal established law within a country that has a government, courts and a police force. It is work-in-progress – a system of law still trying to be born. In the aftermath of the Second World War, together with the establishment of the United Nations and its attempts to maintain the security of the world (hence the Security Council), a series of international Conventions was drafted at Geneva and signed by most of the states of the world. When you think about it, law is like that – a system of conventions. We consent – however grudgingly – to having laws made by our legislature, policed by our policemen and enforced by our judges.

If the laws were forced on us without our consent, it would be a tyranny. If there were no laws at all and one could do what one wanted, the strong would eternally oppress the weak and we would be in a Hobbesian state of nature: life would be nasty, brutish and short.

All in all, it is preferable to live under the rule of law.

There are no true policemen for International Law – it is still a matter of who is strong enough to enforce the laws they want to enforce – nor any universally effective international criminal court, despite the setting up of a tribunal which bears that name. Many states refuse to acknowledge its authority.

But there is this set of Geneva Conventions, and they are spoken of at state level as embodying International Law. The fourth one is entitled Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It has been in force since 1950 and the State of Israel has signed up to it – in other words, Israel is bound to observe the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention. To that extent, Israel must not break
International Law and has become equivalent to the “High Contracting Parties” who originally signed the Convention.

But what distinguishes the rule of law from the rule of arbitrary power is that laws have to be construed: interpreted to get at their legal meaning. If an act falls outside the scope of a law on its true construction, it is not an act contrary to that law.

That is what upsets people when someone is charged with an offence but his lawyer is able to show to the court that what he did was not covered by the law under which he was charged. They may object that “he is getting away with it” but that is how law works. Nobody wants tyranny or anarchy.

The Fourth Geneva Convention applies to a state of declared war or other armed conflict between contracting parties (even if the state of war is not recognised by one of them), and it applies to “all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the occupation meets with no armed resistance”.

Note the words I have underlined.

Articles 47 to 78 deal with “Occupied Territories”. Art 49, in general terms, forbids mass deportations and adds:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

It is that provision which those who call Ma’aleh Adumim an “illegal” settlement say has been disobeyed.

But the problem with this interpretation is history.

Until 1948, the whole of Palestine was just a piece of the old Ottoman Empire which Britain was administering under a mandate of the old League of Nations, pending a more permanent outcome. The United Nations resolved that it should be split between its Jewish and Arab communities and, when the Jewish side proclaimed that they had formed the State of Israel, it was overwhelmingly voted into the United Nations as a new state.

There was no equivalent from the Arabs of Palestine. Instead (with varying degrees of enthusiasm), the armies of all the surrounding Arab states entered Palestine and attempted to destroy the Jewish presence. The eventual ceasefire left Israel in existence, albeit with only armistice lines instead of established borders, but with Gaza under the control of Egypt and the West Bank and Old City of Jerusalem under that of Transjordan.

The King of Transjordan then annexed the land he controlled and changed his country’s name to Jordan. This annexation was not recognised by the vast majority of the other states of the world. Only Pakistan and the United Kingdom recognised it (the head of Jordan’s Arab Legion being the British Sir John Glubb).

The result was that, when in the Six-Day War of 1967 Israel found itself in possession of Gaza and the West Bank, it had no other state – no High Contracting Party – to whom it could be answerable under the Fourth Geneva Convention. The West Bank was never the territory of another party to the Convention.

To this day, Israel has maintained the position that Art 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention simply cannot apply to the West Bank.

Now, admittedly, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the bodies of the UN and the International Court of Justice have taken the opposite view. It is perfectly reasonable for anyone to argue that Art 49 does apply and that it is therefore contrary to International Law for Israel to build a town at Ma’aleh Adumim and put Israeli citizens there.

But that is not the only view. It is the majority view.

In today’s world, there is no way that the majority view of International Law can be enforced. That is just as well, given the number of times I have seen apparently intelligent people of all nations shouting that Israel is a “pariah state” or an “outlaw” or even (in the words of the current Prime Minister, and next President, of Turkey) “more barbaric than Hitler”, for Israel cannot expect justice or a fair hearing at their hands.

Those who appreciate irony will have noted that the United Kingdom, which had recognised the West Bank’s annexation by Jordan, is one of a minority of two states which can claim to be consistent when they say that Israeli settlements there are “illegal”.

Note: This was written by my father, Jeffrey Littman. He is a barrister (a kind of lawyer, for those of who aren;t sure) and annoyingly argumentative as they all are, but he's good at it, and when he talks about law, whatever the kind, he is usually right. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Waiting For The Other Shoe To Drop On Erev Tisha B'Av

As we stutter through the final few hours before tisha b'av, I feel like all of Israel, and all Jews everywhere, are holding their breath. I am nervous that the other shoe has not yet dropped.

There have been unprecedented levels of ahavat yisrael visible during the last few weeks. The whole country, when not in their bomb shelters, has been baking cookies, buying toiletries, ordering pizza, and doing any of a myriad other activities to support our soldiers, their families, and the residents of the south who have been displaced and traumatized by rocket fire and the fear of terror tunnel infiltrations. This followed 3 weeks of never-seen-before levels of prayer, tears, good deeds, pleading and hoping for the lives and well-being of Gil-ad, Naftali & Eyal. Many people have pointed out that our tears and prayers for our three boys were not wasted even though we later discovered that they had been killed soon after they were kidnapped. Miracles have happened again and again during Operation Tzok Eitan; the terror tunnels were discovered before they could be used for their diabolical purpose; a mysterious fog shrouded a group of soldiers during a mission, saving their lives; a missile headed for heavily populated Tel Aviv that could not be shot down suddenly and inexplicably turned aside and landed in an open area.

I see the hand of G-d in so many ways. I see it in the very beginning of this war. We now know about the miles of terror tunnels, and that Hamas had a chilling plan to use them in a coordinated attack on Rosh Hashanah that would have taken us entirely by surprise, during which they would kill or capture hundreds of men, women and children. And yet, despite knowing that this wonderful opportunity to destroy us was in their pocket, and that all they had to do was to wait, they chose to pull us into a ground invasion which we tried so hard to avoid, and through which we foiled their plot. How much this should remind us of Haman, who looked forward with glee to the seemingly inevitable destruction of every single Jew in all 127 lands of Achashverosh in just 11 months time, and yet who lost everything, everything, because he couldn't bear to wait that long to get just one Jew out of his way?

I have heard people who have lived in Israel for decades exclaiming that the morale and level of unity that is palpable here has not been experienced since the Six-Day War in 1967. At that time, there was a general feeling that Moshiach was on his way, that we were experiencing the ischalta d'geula, the birth pangs of Moshiach. And yet here we are, 47 years later, and he still isn't here. Now, again, I hear and see so many people pointing to the unity, the prayer, the Torah, the good deeds being done, and holding them up as a surety that Moshiach is nearly here. Surely, with new waves of anti-semitism sweeping the world, with the world media by and large swallowing falsehoods whole and refusing the sniff at the truth, Moshiach must be nearly here. I read this article, explaining in great detail why what was reported as a cruel Israeli strike on innocent civilians in a crowded market was really a Hamas-inflicted massacre, and was most chilled by this paragraph:

As I was looking for new corroboration that the market was closed, articles were changing between the moment I clicked the link and the page opened. It was like the Michael Douglas movie Disclosure, where he’s inside the virtual computer, and the files are disappearing before his eyes. The Telegraph’scached articles have been removed, so somebody thought it was really important to conceal the fact that the market was closed.

To me, this was scary. That news can be falsified today, in the era of mass information, that our enemies really do control the media - to the extent that they change previous news articles, so that only their version of events is reported and not the truth. It certainly seems to me that we live in a time of real sheker (falsehood).

And yet - Moshiach is not here.

And this is why I am nervous. Because clearly, we have not done enough. There is so much unity, so much kindness, so much prayer and so much Torah - but it's not enough. So much emunah that only G-d will save us, even from previously non-religious Israelis, who have seen miracles happen and recognize now that it is not 'our valour and the strength of our hands which have wrought this' but G-d alone.

It's all so good! But it's not good enough. 

What more can we do? What more mehafechah, what bigger upheaval do we need to experience to bring us to the point of Moshiach's arrival?

It is my wont to turn to Tanach for guidance. I look for pattern and correlation between our days and the days of the prophets, and take comfort from seeing that there is reason and control over what we are experiencing. I look to Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yirmiyah (Jeremiah), (sections of whom we read on the three Shabbatot preceding Tisha B'av, called the sheloshah d'poranuta, the three weeks of rebuke) and I think, perhaps herein lies our clue. Both these prophets follow a theme of social justice. In both books, you can read rebukes of the people who fasted on the fast days, brought their offerings to the Temple, ate the correct food and respected the holiness of holy things - but who oppressed the poor, the orphans and the widows. Both prophets warned the people that G-d does not want their sacrifices or their fasts, He wants their justice. And the Jewish people of the time just couldn't, couldn't understand this.

We, too, are not there yet. We fast, we pray, we say tehillim, we learn Torah, we bake cookies for soldiers and buy equipment to support them. But in Austria, there is a woman who is denied access to her neglected children by a man who is still supported by the rabbis of his town. In Israel, in America, in Europe, there are children who are sexually abused by teachers, rabbis, and family members, while the Torah establishment ignores their suffering and protects their tormentors. In America, when the IRS decides who to investigate for potential tax fraud, they use 'Torah' as one of their flag words, since people who claim their primary income from Torah sources are more likely to be evading taxes. In countries across the world, there is fraud, there is theft, there is injustice great and small committed by Jews, by 'frum' Jews and by irreligious ones, and we - the representatives of Torah - ignore it, avoid it, try to pretend it is not there.

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, Tanach educator, teaches that the Beit Hamikdash had to be destroyed because the Jewish people had come to believe that it was something akin to a magic potion. That whatever we do, however badly we behave, if we fast and bring korbanot, G-d will save us. And so, eventually, G-d had to destroy it, even though we brought so many offerings and cried so hard, because we weren't behaving in a way which followed in His Image. We were not emulating G-d; instead, we were creating a chillul Hashem, and the 'frummer' we were while ignoring social justice, the bigger the desecration of G-d's Name.

Perhaps we, too, haven't yet learned the lesson of the destruction of the Temple. We have tried crying, and fasting, and praying, and learning, and even yes, doing good deeds. But more people have come out to protest the injustice of the media's treatment of Israel than came out to protest the injustice of child abuse, or mothers deprived of their children, or fraud. I'm nervous, this tisha b'av, because we still haven't learned this lesson. I believe that, just like in 1967, we stand beneath a window of opportunity, but that that window is closing. What more suffering do we need to experience to bring us to the place we need to be? I don't want to have to find out.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Why My Diaspora Friends Think I Don't Care About Dead Palestinians

I have some friends, wonderful, committed Zionists and committed Jews, whom I love and who love me, who think that I might be in danger of turning into a monster, They think I am in danger of losing my humanity. They wonder why I, who they know to be so sensitive and sympathetic, seem to be losing that ability. They are alarmed that many of their other Israeli friends seem to be going the same way. They have wondered, complained, and expressed concern about the level of discourse that they perceive as coming out of Israel over this operation in Gaza. They have written on social media about their concern that Israel and Israelis are losing their humanity; that their friends in Israel are not showing enough/any sympathy for the innocent Palestinians who have been killed; and that every time they write about this, their friends in Israel respond quite negatively. 

You see, I agree with you. We need to grab tight hold of our humanity with both hands in this situation. But there is a difference between us that you don't get. I love you, and i'm glad for you that you don't get it, but you just don;t.

I know that some of you have downloaded the Code Red app to your phone, and because you get disturbed by it all the freaking time, you think that you are showing solidarity with us. You are, you are. I appreciate it. But don;t think that just because your phone wakes you up in the middle of the night, you can therefore understand what we are going through. Because when your phone wakes you up in the middle of the night, do you jump out of bed, grab your children out of their beds, shout at your husband to grab the other children, race down the stairs, or out the door, or round the corner to reach your mamad within the 15-30-45-60-90 seconds that you've been allotted? Do you then go to spend 10 minutes in your safe room while checking the radio or social media to find out where else is being bombed? And do tell me how long it takes you to return to normal activities after you come out of your safe room and return your children to their beds. 

Are your children grumpy every day because they are short of sleep, and jumpy every time a car revs up or an ambulance goes past? Are you exhausted because your children come into your bed at night, scared that there'll be another loud noise startling them awake? Does bedtime take you 2 hours because your children want you to stay in their rooms until they are asleep? Do you (And note, i'm talking about those of us in the 'quiet' areas. We're not even getting started about the Israelis who have just been told not to be further than 15 seconds away from their safe rooms.)

Those of us who live in Israel, our emotional hard drive is full. We have not even finished processing our sadness, mourning, and grief over the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer & Eyal Yifrach. We are still so full of frustration and anger and disgust at discovering that Jews were capable of causing the cruel death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and now we - your Israel friends and family - are up to our necks with protecting our own children and families, It uses up so, so, so much emotional energy to be worrying about when the next siren will come (even here in my neck of the woods in Beit Shemesh, where it has been relatively quiet), with wondering if the Iron Dome will take out the next one too, with putting on a calm front, with weighing up the risks of rocket alerts along the route of each trip you want to take, with thinking hard about ways to help our children deal with this situation and to lessen their emotional and psychological upset - it takes just so damn much of our working hard drive to get these tasks done, that like my smartphone we - Israel - might just not have enough emotional energy to spare to cry and mourn the dead Palestinian children. 

I can tell you that, speaking personally, it cuts me up to think that we have to kill so many civillians in order to protect our own people. I do not encourage indiscriminate killing, i do not applaud, laud, or desire the death or pain of innocents, of women and children. But we are fighting against an enemy which hides behind innocents, and so many people did and will die just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there's nothing we can do about that, because their own leadership makes sure that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have seen some of the pictures - the real ones - of the destruction and pain in Gaza and it chills me through. And yet, i confess that i cannot really feel that sadness and pain for the suffering of the innocents in Gaza, Because my emotional hard drive is full. 

So yes, we are broken again that we have to harm innocents. We feel for the suffering of innocent Palestinians. but WE have been put in a situation where we have no choice; their blood is on the hands of hamas, not us. 

My friends in the diaspora, I know that you mean well. You have the luxury of sharing the pain and suffering of the Palestinians, too. You have the luxury of coolly, rationally, and abstractly thinking about the situation here. You may have been influenced by the thinking that because we have the Iron Dome, things are pretty much ok. That because you also have the Code Red app on your phone, you are experiencing what we are experiencing. Perhaps you let our humour deceive you into believing that we really are all loving the opportunity to take more #bombshelterselfies. But let me be the one to tell you: Our emotional hard drive is full. We currently have so many emotional and psychological applications runnning that mourning and sighing for innocent Palestinians killed by their own leadership's cruelty is just that one more app that we do not have the space to run. 

Monday, 7 July 2014

The Murder Of Mohammed Abu Khdeir & A Failure Of Godliness

I find that i'm still trying ot come to terms with the information i heard yesterday evening, that a small group (3? 6? A number between 3 and 6?) of Jewish Israelis were the ones who kidnapped, beat, burnt and killed Mohammed Abu Khdeir. It is so shocking to me, and i'm sure to us all, that Jews could be capable of such cruelty.

As many people are saying, they are not the only ones culpable. Throughout our history as a nation, we have always been held responsible - by G-d - for the sins of a minority. In the book of Joshua, Achan is the only Jew who disobeys G-d's command to not touch any of the loot after the battle of Jericho. He takes some money and a cloak, secretly, with no one else knowing. As a result of his breach of conduct, the Jews lose their next battle and some 30,000 men die. I - and many others before and after me - ask myself, is this fair? Why should the whole nation be punished because one man couldn;t control his greed? The commentators answer that kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh - all of Israel is mixed up one in the other. If all of Israel had been united in serving G-d, Achan could not have even thought of stealing. All of Israel deserved punishment, because there was something lacking in all of Israel that made his act possible.

And the trend has continued. A few books later, King David is pursuing Shim'i ben Geira. Shim'i takes shelter in a city, and David's captain Yoav demands that the city hand over Shim'i or else he will destroy the city. One wise woman recommends that they hand over Shim'i, who is a traitor to the King and deserves the punishment of death, and they do. Generations of scholars endorse her decision - if he had not been handed over, then all the town would have been killed along with him, since their decision to hide him effectively expresses their support for him against King David.

What is my point? There must be something lacking in our whole nation if some of our own people can behave with such cruelty, vengefulness, and bloodthirstiness. My rav, Rabbi Ari Kahn, explains that we are not allowed to kill simply because each person is created b'tselem Elokim - in the image of G-d - and thus when we kill a person, we wipe out a small expression of godliness in this world. It is only when we lose sight of a person's tselem Elokim - when we fail to remember that the other is also created in the image of G-d, when we are incapable of seeing the godly in another human being - that we are able to kill that person.

Clearly, whoever the Jewish murderers were had become unable to see the tselem Elokim in Muhammed Abu Khdeir. Their incapability of viewing him as a person is what enabled them to treat him with such cruelty. My thought is that this is the fault-line which is running through us all, and which made it possible for them to behave in this way. We are not just failing to view the tselem Elokim in Palestinians, we are failing to see it even in our fellow Jews. Just in my own town of Beit Shemesh, just in the last few months, we have done a very good job of blinding ourselves to each other's tselem Elokim. And it stretches across the nation and around the world. Across the religious spectrum; across the political spectrum; across the ethnic spectrum, Jews blind themselves to the godliness inherent in those with whom they disagree. This is the fault-line that was always present within us.

Over 18 fraught, hopeful, fearful days, Naftali, Eyal and Gilad formed a bridge across the fault-line. Charedi, dati, chiloni, right, left, center, in Israel, out of Israel, chassidish, litvish, sephardi, ashkenazi, man, woman and child - we davened and hoped and feared together. Their tselem Elokim threw our own into greater relief. We united on their behalf in a way that - i think - we haven;t achieved since before the Romans arose, let alone fell. They became OUR boys. That the murderers who made it clear just how great is our failure to recognise the tselem Elokim in each other did so as 'revenge' for Eyal Gilad & Naftali's death is painfully ironic. The fault-line is split into a chasm.

I'm neither a talmid chacham nor the daughter of a talmid chacham, and feel free to disagree. But i see a clear connection between our long-running failure to see the tselem Elokim in our brothers next door, and the failure of 3/6/3-6 Jews to see the tselem Elokim in Muhammed Abu Khdeir. And I speak to myself as much as to anyone - and i don't think it's easy. We need to restore our ability to see the godliness inherent in each other. Someone's gotta do it.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Hashem took the best of us, and left only us

Today, along with all of am yisrael, i mourn the loss of 3 of our sons.

truly, i'm surprised by the depth of my pain and sadness. i had suspected for 18 days that it would end this way, as many of us did. but somehow, the loss of hope that maybe, just maybe, we'd get a message that they were found alive and ok, has been a harder blow than i expected.

i do not remember feeling such a sense of bereavement before. 18 days of praying, of tears, of my sons praying, of my daughter praying, of wondering, of hoping, has welded gilad, naftali and eyal onto my heart as though they were my own. Like so many of us, i looked each of my children in the eyes today and told them that i have sad news for them, that the 3 boys who were taken have been found dead. I told my 9 year old daughter that it's ok to be sad, that it's ok to cry, and hugged her while we both cried. I told my 6 year old son, who had just received his siddur a few days ago along with the heartening message that Hashem is our Father and our King, Who wants to give us everything and also can give us everything. I explained to him, in the words of Noam Wachsman, that like every father, sometimes Hashem says No.

it has not, really, been a good month. i heard the news about our sons' murder while i was attending a memorial marking the sheloshim of a friend who was also taken too young, too soon, too unjustly. Roughly equidistant between these two deaths was the death of my cousin, a man who had a lived a long, successful, and fruitful life, in which he achieved much, planted much, and left behind a long trail of good deeds, lives saved, and descendants who continue in his footsteps. Much as Eyal, Gilad & Naftali would have done, had they had the time. Much as Malka would have done, had she had the time.

Before each of these deaths i reel somewhat, stagger somewhat, set myself back on my feet with the reminder that 'yesh din v'yesh dayan' - there is justice and there is a Judge. But sometimes i stagger just that bit more, and it takes longer to regain my feet.

I read once about a teenage boy, just after the liberation of the camps after the holocaust. He came from a respected long line of rabbis and talmidei chachamim and used to be an ilui (child prodigy at talmud), but he had lost all his family and seen his father shot before his eyes, and was no longer interested in anything to do with G-d or Torah or Judaism. He was brought to the Klausenberger rebbe by someone, who hoped that the rebbe would be able to convince him to return to his roots. The rebbe talked to the boy for a few minutes, then he sat down next to the boy and began to cry. The rebbe cried and sobbed "G-d took the best ones, and left only us. He took the best, and left only us". The boy cried with him, and together they cried and repeated those same words for a long time. Eventually the rebbe put his arm around the boy, and said 'We are all that He left. We have to try our best.'.

These are the words i hear in my head, now: "He took the best of us, and left only ourselves. He took the best, and left only ourselves".

I find that i'm unable to join in calls for vengeance. I'm aware that i have no answers. i know that no amount of palestinian blood will bring back our boys or lessen my sadness, our sadness. I know that there is just one reason why they were killed: esav sonei et yaakov, esav hates jacob. Why does it have to be like this? Because.

Before my daughter went to school, i told her that it's ok to cry, and ok to be sad, and it's also ok to enjoy the swimming that she has today, and to enjoy being with her friends. Because Hashem took the best of us, and left only ourselves. We have to try our best.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Mindfulness ... l'ilui nishmas Malka Baila

L'ilui nishmas Malka Baila

When Malka was so, so sick, I felt that I should be davening for her. It was reiterated recently, to daven again, or more, or renew the tefillos for her. And i did not know what to daven for her. I found it hard to daven for her to get better, and impossible to daven for her to be ... out of pain.

So although I did daven, i felt more heart and more comfort and more doing something when i did something else. Since I heard about Malka's death sentence, I have been trying my hardest to live for her.

It seemed so unfair to me that she would never marry, would never have children, would never clean her own dirty floors or feel that fear that one day, some awful illness would swoop down out of the clear blue nothing and claim her children. That not just had she never experienced that, but that the hope of one day experiencing them had suddenly been snatched away. That suddenly, there wasn;t a future ahead.

So every time I put on a wash-load, or exasperatedly picked up my children's shoes for the umpteenth time, or slowly plodded home with heavy shopping, I thought, 'Malka, this is for you. Malka, you'll never be able to feel this pain, this frustration, this irritation, and so I dedicate it to you. Malka, I swallow this retort as the retort that you will never get to swallow, in your zechus'.

Actually, i do not feel sure that 'in your zechus' is the right phrase. Ok i suppose it is, but what i felt, and still feel, was that i give this whole act over to you, Malka.

Mindfulness is a buzzword, nowadays. I try to avoid cliches, but sometimes they may be true.

For me, when Malka's days were numbered, I began trying to make mine count. But not in the ways you might think. Perhaps it's because it was Malka i was thinking of, and so something grand and brash and flashy would not be appropriate. Because she was never one of those peacock people, the one you noticed straight away, making a splash, achieving great glories. she was one of the unsung heros who deserved to be sung. She made a difference by being Malka. So i did not - do not  - feel led to create some big and bright merit or memorial. I feel driven to just    be. Just to be me, alive.

Malka, i kiss the children you'll never have. Malka, I live the mundane life that was stolen from you. Malka, the quiet moments and the busy ones, the slices of unremarkable time that together carve out my life, i give those over to you by trying my hardest to be aware of them.

I could create a beautiful dvar torah about Malka dying during the time of sefirat haomer. I could tell you about the significance of counting our days to make our days count. I could tell you that, although Malka was very drugged and asleep much of the time, she made sure to be awake at 9.30 (give or take) every night so that she could count the omer b'zman, which is something that will always stay with me.

But instead, i shall do what we all do. I'll live my life. I'll wash my floors, keep my own temper, fight my small battles and win, or lose, but in the small still voice of the day and the night, i'll think, Malka, this one's for you.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Who Is Lost In The Land Of Ashur?

I have just finished reading a most moving, eye-opening book. I recommend it to you all. It is called 'My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search For His Jewish Roots In Kurdish Iraq'. A few words of review about it, so that you'll understand all the rest of the points i want to make.

The writer, Ariel Sabar, describes in beautiful detail his father's childhood growing up in Zakho, an isolated town in Northern, Kurdish, Iraq, where his father's family had lived in the same town since they were exiled there in about the year 720 BCE by the terrifying empire of Assyria (Ashur). Where the local language is still the Aramaic that the Gemara was written in. He charts what happened to the town when Zionism rose, the State of Israel was declared, and finally, in retaliation, even the Jews of remote Zakho were declared stateless, possessionless, and encouraged to flee the country, forced to leave all their possessions behind. His father, his father's family, and all their town had to start over in an Israel that treated them as primitive, backwards hillbillies, and did all it could to stamp out their distinct, devout traditions.

I want to share some realisations it brought to me. It's clear to me, from reading this book, that when Zionists point to the millions of sephardi/mizrachi Jews who were thrown out of Arab lands, and say that this is why we need the State of Israel, to be able to receive them, so that no Jew will have nowhere to go, they are being either disingenuous or, more likely, ignorant of why Jews were thrown out of Arab lands in the first place.

Jews lived in Arab lands for centuries - millennia - with general average happiness and tolerance, certainly more, on the whole, than that extended to Jews in Europe. Perhaps it particularly hard for us to believe now, so used to looking at Arabs as our worst enemy, but Jews in Arab lands had much better lives than Jews in Christian lands. It was only the rise of Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel which caused their Arab hosts to finally kick them out for good.

It was startling to me to realise for just how long Jews had lived in the one same town in Arab lands. In Europe, every couple of hundred years, Jews were thrown out of a neighbourhood, town, or whole country. If that. In Arab lands - and in particular in Kurdistan, the focus of the book - Jews lived in the same village for millennia, not just centuries. There was stability. Yes, there was intermittent friction with Arab neighbours, and certainly life was hard for most Jews, but the thought of leaving their country never crossed their minds. It was only Zionism that forced them to leave.

One of the side points that became clear in the book, which I was already aware of and sad and ashamed of, was the extent to which the Zionist leadership looked down on, derided and really failed Sephardi/Mizrahi Jewry. Zionism, it is clear, is an Ashkenazi solution to an Ashkenazi problem, the creation of Jews who have spent centuries being hounded from one town to another, one pogrom to another, who had seen one safe haven after another grow sour and reject them. They needed a State which would never throw them out. They needed a State of Israel. The Jews in Arab lands did not, really, need a State of Israel at all. In fact, Zionism and the creation of the State made life much worse for them. It was the direct cause of their having to leave their homes where they had lived for generations. much of their culture, language, folklore and traditions were lost and deliberately squashed by the arrogant and patronising Ashkenazi Zionist leadership. Sephardi Jews in Israel are really only just beginning to emerge from the trauma caused by the way that their mass aliyah was handled.

At first i though, how unfair. Sephardi/Mizrahi jews should not have had to leave their ancestral lands. they shouldn;t have had to be kicked out just because all these Ashkenazi Zionists had a nationalist dream. The State of Israel didn;t 'save' any Eastern Jew from being homeless and stateless - it made them be homeless and stateless in the first place. AND then the leadership in Israel deliberately disadvantaged, derided, and despised the very Jews whom they forced to come to Israel in the first place.

But then I thought again. I realise some people - many people - will think i've been very unfair on Zionists and Zionism. be that as it may. i do, though, consider the creation of the State of Israel to be a 'Good Thing'. I recognise that the creation of the State required far too many things to happen, in the right order, for it to be only the 'fault' of the Zionist movement. I do very much see the hand of G-d enabling the establishment of modern Israel. Zionism on its own, without divine approval, couldn;t have done this. Man could not have achieved this. So then, to my worldview, G-d wanted the State of Israel to be created. And while no one but the individuals in charge are responsible for the shameful, reprehensible way that Jews from Arab lands were treated when they made aliyah, the fact that they were kicked out of their land, caused directly by the creation of the State, must have been what G-d wanted too.

So i thought about this a bit more.

As i pondered the book, i thought about a verse which is quoted often in it, and which i have long loved and mused over.
ובאו אובדים מארץ אשור, והנדחים מארץ מצרים, והשתחוו לה' בהר קודש בירושלים"
and those lost in the land of Ashur (Assyria), and those detained in the land of Egypt, shall come and bow down to G-d in the holy mountain, in Jerusalem."
I've long been familiar with, and fond of, the explanation that there are 2 'types' of Jews who make aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Those lost in the land of Ashur are those who lost their way, forgot their destination as Jews, in the good lands, in the places of riches and success (ashur עשור means riches, while אשור, pronounced the same but spelt differently, means fortune, happiness). Those detained in the land of Egypt are those who were forcibly prevented, through hardship, suffering, physical detention, and the like, from returning to the Land (Egypt - mitzrayim מצרים in Bebrew - comes from the Hebrew root tzar- צר, meaning constricted, restricted, narrowed, hemmed in). Both those who forgot the desire to return home, and those who wished to come home but were unable to do so, will at the end of days come back to serve G-d in His temple in Jerusalem.

Rav Shlomo Carlebach used to quote this explanation, and add that those making aliyah from America are the ones lost in the land of Ashur, adrift in a sea of material success, who have managed to find their way out of the maze. And the refuseniks from Russia are the ones detained in Egypt-like hardship, restrictions and physical detention, but they have also managed to come back to the Land.

i still like his explanation. But having read about the jews of kurdistan, i realised another layer of meaning. The simple layer of meaning. Those lost in Ashur meant those who were lost in Ashur. The Jews of the Arab lands had stability. Only Zionism caused them to leave the homes they had lived in for millennia. It became v clear to me - G-d wanted the State of Israel to be created, not despite the hardship it would cause for these children of Israel, and not with their hardship being an un-foreseen side effect, but (in part) IN ORDER to cause them to be kicked out. Because nothing else was jolly well going to work! We are used, with our Western, patronising eyes, to looking at their often-primitive living conditions and thinking that they are the furthest you could get from people adrift in material success who had lost the desire to return home. Certainly the Jews of Zakho, as described in My Father's Paradise, were a very long way from material success, or even material average-ness. But remember, lost in Ashur actually is what and who they are. These are descendants of the Jews who didn;t return when Ezra led the first return to the Land to build the 2nd Temple. These are descendants of the original exiled Jews to Babylon and Assyria who just never came back home. Not when Ezra and Nehemia built the 2nd Temple. Not when the Maccabees rededicated it, or when Herod beautified it. The Ashkenazi Jews were detained in the land of Egypt, treated so harshly for generations across Europe, prevented by seas and deserts and hostile empires from returning to Israel. The journey was not quite so onerous for the Jews living already in Iran, Iraq, and the rest of the Arabian peninsula.

And i thought a bit more about the book. i thought about how Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews place so much emphasis on kabbalah and mysticism. It plays an integral role in their theology and dogma in a way that it just cannot in that of Ashkenazi thought. The Zohar, to a large extent, replaces the focus on the physical Jerusalem and temple with emphasis on a spiritual, mystical, conceptual one. The desire to return to the temple is not one of geography, but spirituality. For Jews in Arab lands, i wonder, which is cause and which is effect? Did their strong connection with the zohar cause them to assign their yearning for a return to Zion to a mystical 'yerushalayim shel maaleh', and thus cause their drive to return to the real Zion to wither? Or did their dwindling desire to return to the Land find in the mysticism of the Zohar a world-view and vocabulary that filled their need to replace a Land-centred dogma?

It was fascinating to me to realise that this is another - yet another - aspect of the pre-messianic era we live in, that even those lost in Ashur were finally dislodged. I wish their aliyah had played out differently. I wish they had been welcomed home positively. I wish so much that kibbutz galuyot - the ingathering of the exiles that was instigated as well as enabled by the creation of the State of Israel - could have happened/happen with more good feeling and acceptance of difference. But i'm glad they are here.