O Leaders Where Art Thou

This week’s Torah portion begins by instructing the Jewish people to appoint for themselves judges and lawmakers; spiritual mentors who would lead and guide the Jewish people as they settle in Israel. The appointment of these authoritative figures is, from the Torah’s perspective a formula for perpetual success or incessant failure if the leaders are inept or heaven forfend, corrupt. Those who believe in the Torah understand that its message is eternal; precisely why the Jewish community must continue to evaluate its religious leadership in Israel today as well, regardless of how discouraging such an experience can prove to be.

In one of his essays entitled Directions for American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein of blessed memory, bemoans the fact that although the quest for vigorous and sensitive spiritual leadership should retain high priority, there is a dearth of first rank great rabbinic leaders in America,
“one can think of no indigenous American rabbinic leader certain to be remembered with wistful awe a century hence and of no giant majestically bestriding the contemporary scene and securely moving American Orthodoxy into the future”. The only inaccuracy of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s article is that the same bleak forecast applies to Israel’s Religious Zionist leadership as well. Rabbi Lichtenstein does attempt to remain hopeful or at the very least practical suggesting that, “much can and should be done to stimulate Torah leadership. The key is educational…ours is the task of infusing commitment so critical for the persona of a Talmudic Scholar who can also serve as a mentor and a leader, we are challenged to strive for a proper balance in his development, between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. The bad news is that much of the Orthodox so called Religious Zionist leadership in Israel today are trending away from Rabbi Lichtenstein’s formula for success as they continue to demonstrate not only their inability to deal with but even more troubling, their lack of understanding of the world around them and of the broad Israeli society they are meant to serve, impact and presumably inspire.

The three flagship institutions of Religious Zionism today are the Hesder Yeshivas, Mechinot – Pre Military Torah Academies, and the Garinim Toranim – young religious families who move in to areas which are predominantly secular and attempt to introduce educational programs and informal events to the secular public. Over the past few weeks I have had a number of offsetting experiences with each one of these institutions which I believe is but a reflection of the problem described above and the challenges that are yet to come.
Recently I hosted a number of students from the States and South Africa who decided to leave their homes and make aliya. In preparation for the army they chose to attend a special program supposedly designed for them in one of the most popular and prestigious Mechinot. Although the young men were from traditional backgrounds they were not fully observant and they were hoping to find out more about Orthodoxy and perhaps become inspired by the Mechina and its unique blend of Torah study and its dedication to military service. The students expressed how deeply disappointed they were to find that the rabbis of the Mechina were unable to relate to them; they consistently criticized “western culture” and expressed what the students found to be a skewed perspective of the broader Jewish community and the secular world. This lack of understanding and close-mindedness created an atmosphere of dissention and discouraged the fellows from seeking rapport with their rabbis and proposed mentors. I am not suggesting that “western culture” is void of criticism but a religious Zionist rabbi who ostensibly affiliates himself with the Mizrachi philosophy, should be expected to be worldly enough to identify the positives of modernity and should certainly understand his clientele in order to nurture rapport and a trusting relationship with his impressionable pupils. After Shabbat I called the head of the Mechina and explained to him the difficulties that the young men in his program were encountering. He reacted by saying that he was not responsible for the program and that it was introduced into the Mechina by another organization which should bear the brunt of the responsibility; my concern fell on deaf ears.
The same week I was speaking to an Israeli young man from the neighborhood who attends a different Mechina and he too shared his discontent stating that the head of the Mechina incessantly denounced “western culture” and the modern world; pigheadedly insisting that his perspectives in life were correct and discouraging the boys from considering alternative points of view.

A few days later I was giving a lift to a student from a very prominent Hesder Yeshiva in my car. He began to relate how his rabbi in the yeshiva was charged with the task of offering a number of classes on the challenges he and his mates would confront while serving in the army. The first dilemma which the rabbi decided to address and devote his entire session to was whether it was permissible to share a bag of chips with secular soldiers in the army considering that the secular soldiers will not make a bracha (blessing on food) prior to their eating. This Hesder student was appalled not only by the fact that the rabbi could not think of a more important issue to deal with in the context of the army, but also by the lack of sensitivity the rabbi was showing towards secular Jews and his inability to “strive for a proper balance…between insular concentration and relatedness to his ambient society”. Yes I am aware that there is halachic discourse revolving around the said topic, but would it not be more beneficial for a yeshiva student to share his chips with his fellow secular soldier even if it means compromising on a bracha, for the long term benefits of unity, respect and brotherhood?

A friend of mine, who is a member of a secular kibbutz in the Jordan valley, told me that the kibbutz invited and hosted a Garin Torani to run a learning program for the members of the kibbutz one evening a few weeks back. He said that it was a great program and people would have enjoyed more were it not for the opening introduction to the program by none other than the rabbi and head of the Garin, who’s opening remarks were about how the only way to have a meaningful life was to adhere to the mitzvoth, laws of the Torah, and subscribe to a religiously observant lifestyle. Many people found the remarks elitist and offensive, in fact two people got up and left the program. To add insult to injury, following his remarks the rabbi left and did not remain for the learning program itself (which in the end may very well have been a blessing in itself).
The world is moving towards extremes and many Israeli religious Zionist rabbis, who we would expect would be a bit more understanding of and tolerant towards the world around them, are moving in the same direction. There is interest among many religious Zionist rabbis, organizations and rabbinic trainees, to be involved with secular Israelis, but without a proper sense of flexibility, training of diplomacy and development of self-security, their efforts will prove more destructive then productive. In fact, it is worth noting that some of the institutions which are interested in and have been starting to make impact on Israeli secular society and the broader public are ones which are either spearheaded by or have heavy involvement from American born rabbis living in Israel. Some of these include the Yachad program under Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (who has had such great impact in Israel at large that in typical Israeli rabbinic fashion, they attempted to force him into retirement), Itim under the direction of Rabbi Seth Farber, Rabbi Daniel Tropper founder of Gesher Institute, and Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein founder of Keren L’Yedidut just to name a few. This is largely because these rabbis are well rounded, educated, and have dealt with and know how to deal with people who are different then themselves. They know what it is like to disagree with but to engage in dialogue with Conservative and Reform Jews (something which the rabbinate in Israel will have to learn how to do lest it continue to become more irrelevant then it already is) and many have engaged in interfaith dialogue as well.

Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1964-1972 , a time when the office of the Chief Rabbinate was still revered, noted that the difference between rabbis in Israel and rabbis in the United States is that rabbis in the United States have no power but tremendous influence, and rabbis in Israel have tremendous power but no influence. It is time for more of the religious Zionist Israeli rabbis to read the writing on the wall and to recognize that there is much for them to learn. They must realize that the more obstinate and inflexible they become, the more they lose touch with the Israeli community and the less influence they will have on the Israeli scene.

Legend has it that the great Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, would pay homage once a year to the Magid of Dubnow seeking insight for self -improvement. The Magid would say to him that it was one thing to become the great Rabbi Elijah while you are inside the walls of the yeshiva, let’s see you be the great Rabbi Elijah when you are outside the walls of the yeshiva. I challenge my Israeli colleagues to step out of your insulated corners and come deal with the world around you; you may find it is quite invigorating to have positive influence upon people who are outside the four cubits of your current existence.

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Days of Remembrance are Days of Redemption

Yom Hashoa/Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikaron/ Day of Remembrance for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism, Yom Haatzmaut/Israel Independence Day, and Yom Yerushalayim/Jerusalem Day, all of which we are currently commemorating and/or celebrating, are collectively referred to by Religious Zionists as Ymei HaGeula/ The Days of Redemption. One can appreciate this application to Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim but it is very difficult to understand how Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron could be referred to as redeeming, when they are days which are marred by the ashes of destruction and engrossed with haunting memories of the deceased. This is a problem we grapple with every year and many answers have been proposed. This year I experienced something which I believe will enhance the appropriate response, which we may have grown accustomed to but always bears further consideration.

According to an opinion in the Talmud, we celebrate the holiday of Succoth because the Jewish people dwelled in temporary makeshift huts, called Succoth, after they were redeemed by God from Egyptian persecution; which begs the question; why does that warrant celebration? What was so exceptional about the fact that the Jewish nation dwelled in Succoth? Some commentaries suggest that after all of their sufferings, naturally the Jews should never have agreed to live in such exposed crude dwellings in the desert. We would have expected them to insist on more permanent structures where they could feel more secure; yet they agreed to live under such precarious and unstable conditions demonstrating their sincere faith in God and in His commitment to protect them. This act of faith is cause for celebration and the same can be said regarding survivors of the Holocaust.

The Jewish people should have lost all hope following the decimation of the Jewish communities throughout Europe by the Nazi regime, and yet, beaten and barely broken, they were determined and perhaps faithful enough to perpetuate their future. Survivors of the concentration camps arrived on the shores of Palestine willing to start a new life in what they believed would be their homeland. They were greeted and handed guns, and they were instructed to fight for the establishment of the state of Israel. Any other people would have raised their hands in defeat insisting that they are too weak and too frail to contemplate such action, and yet they seized the guns and fought for their nation and land. In the Sgula cemetery in Petach Tikva there are a number of graves marked anonymous; these are believed to be the graves of Holocaust survivors who had no time to submit their own names and left no survivors by which to immortalize their families and while this fact is gravely disheartening, it is precisely the reason why Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron are included in Yemei HaGeula.
Redemption is defined as the act of making something better or more acceptable; while there is no question the wounds of the Holocaust nor the wounds of the Jewish families who lost loved ones defending the borders of Israel, could ever be healed, bold and brazen survivors and settlers alike claimed that they could make things better. Their resilience and faithfulness to the furtherance of the Jewish people would signify that all of their losses were not for naught; I have been privileged to see their spirit survive and their message resonate. Part of redemption as defined above, is not only about making something better but making something more acceptable; recently I was privileged to see this part of redemption come to fruition.

A number of weeks ago, I went to speak at the Givati combat base. After addressing a Givati unit I was told to make my way to a base in Har Keren to address a group of soldiers from the Tomer Brigade which I had never heard of. I arrived in Har Keren and I was amazed to find aluminum walls surrounding a particular area in the middle of the base. The Tomer brigade, which was established a year ago consists of young men from completely Haredi homes, almost all of whom sport long sidelocks and beards, who have decided that they want to serve in the Israeli army under two conditions. The first condition is that they wish to preserve their Haredi lifestyle as much as possible even while serving in the army, hence, the fenced off area. Tomer brigade goes through all the maneuvers and training exercises as any other Givati soldier, but they do so privately within their own division and behind closed quarters. There are no women allowed in their area, they maintain their own kitchen and standards of Kashrut supervision and their commanding officers are observant without exception. Most impressive however, is their second condition and that is that they refuse to be pencil pushers, if they serve in the army they insist on being regular combat soldiers and serving in combat units. After my speech I conversed with many of the soldiers and I was astounded to find many of them were ostracized or on the verge of being excommunicated by their Haredi communities, some by their own families, for serving in the army, yet they maintained that they were doing the right thing and they were prepared to suffer the consequences at their private home for the sake of protecting the national home.

Last week on the evening of Yom Hashoah I was called to Yad La-Shiryon in Latrun to speak to the second group of new recruits from the Tomer division. When I walked in to address the soldiers , all of them without exception, stood up for me when I entered the room and then proceeded to take out their notebooks to write notes regarding the lecture and Torah class I was about to deliver. Here I was, a clean shaven religious Zionist rabbi, shown the utmost respect by Haredi young men who were reared in communities that never recognized the existence of the state of Israel, and this is what I told them.

The Jewish people were delivered from Egypt by God, but when they got to the Reed Sea, the sea did not part until a man called Nachshon Ben Aminadav jumped in and as more and more people took the plunge the sea continued to split in their merit. The message resounds loud and clear; God wanted the Jewish people to understand that He would not accommodate miracles on His own but He expected the Jewish people to initiate miracles together with Him. He expected that regardless of the obstructions we would encounter to our existence throughout our history, we would not fear following Him into the sea or onto the plains of the desert, we would not desist from taking arms for the future of Israel regardless of how downtrodden we are or how much personal aggravation it may cause. These are the truths and faiths that define redemption, they inspired Holocaust survivors to make something better and they encourage Haredi young men to make things more acceptable.

Perhaps redemption is not too far off after all.

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Israel is Home

The attacks on the Jewish community in Paris and Copenhagen transpired just a few short weeks ago as did the reaction to them by Prime Minster Netanyahu who after both attacks, reminded the Jews of Europe that, “Israel is waiting for you with open arms”, and that “Israel is not only a country in whose direction you pray, the state of Israel is your home”.

Following the Prime Minister’s reassuring remarks, he was lambasted by many representatives across the European Jewish community. European Jewish Association Rabbi Menachem Margolin said,

“Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are.”

While we would like to wish this were true regarding the Jewish people, Jewish history has proven repeatedly that this is not the case; we have been and always will be at best guests in foreign countries; precisely why the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was imperative and, in the opinion of some, a revelation of Divine Providence. Israel and its armed forces considers itself the protector of Jews worldwide, and it has proven itself as such many times over (Operation Magic Carpet to save the Jews of Yemen, Operation Ezra and Nehemia airlifting Iraqui Jews to safety, Operation Yachin bringing Moroccan Jews to Israel, and counter terror raids such as Operation Isotope and Operation Entebbe); as such it would be highly inappropriate if at a time of Jewish crisis our Prime Minister did not remind our people that Israel is a Jewish sanctuary.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, leader of the British movement for Reform Judaism, reacted to Netanyahu’s solicitation by saying,

“…it is unhelpful for Jews in Brittian and France. There is a difference between saying ‘Israel is here for you’ than saying ‘You ‘should’ be here, should is a problematic word’. There is this ‘oy vey’ the world is against us narrative, which thank god, is not true. It is certainly not true in Britain.”

Rabbi Janner-Klausner’s statement is almost as ludicrous as the one I heard from a number of Jews in the UK when I visited there the week after the Paris attack; Jews who reassured me that “the Muslims in England are different than the ones in France” and that the British Government knows how to deal with Muslims. Perhaps we should introduce Rabbi Janner-Klausner and her British compatriots to Anjem Choudary, one of the most popular Muslim clerics in the UK. Choudary blatantly rejects UK law and calls for all of Britian to accept Shariah. He broadcasts that the 9/11 bombers were magnificent people who were carrying out their Islamic responsibility, and he refers to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi as “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers”. Perhaps these Jews are unaware of the fact that following the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, British Prime Minister David Cameron raised his countries terror threat level to “severe” in response to the rise of militant Islamists in Iraq and Syria, some of whom come from Britain as he claimed that Britain was facing a “greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.”
Or perhaps, and more than likely, many of these Jewish people are afraid of their own shadow and unwilling to admit that regardless of the consistent challenges to its existence, Israel is the place where they are most secure because, as the Jewish Prime Minster stated so persuasively, Israel is the only place that they can call home.

Although highly predictable it never ceases to amaze that members of the Israeli government criticized Netanyahu as well. Tzipi Livni at the time said that Netanyahu’s words were a sign of his political weakness,
“Jews should not immigrate (to Israel) because it is a safe haven,” she said, which made me wonder, why not? What would Livni’s reaction have been to those Jews who narrowly escaped the catastrophic consequences of the Holocaust and journeyed to the shores of Palestine in hope of rejuvenating their spirits in a land they could call their own?

“The events in Paris do not only involve Jews and are not just their problem.”, Livni continued, “This is a global struggle against extremist Islamic terrorism and we need to enlist the world to fight against it too”. Livni is correct, the world must be aware of the global threat Radical Islam poses to it, but it would be foolish and neglectful of Jewish leadership to approach Islamic terrorism as anything other than an acute Jewish problem. Precisely why Prime Minister Netanyahu stood in front of the Congress of the United States and ended his speech boldly declaring,

“the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over. We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”

Netanyahu also referred in his speech to another event we commemorated but a week ago; the holiday of Purim. Purim should have reminded the Jewish people of their fate as strangers in a strange land. We are subject to the whims and notions of a foreign government which can precipitously choose to edict the annihilation of the Jewish people if it so chooses. Yet, even after miraculously escaping the perils of Haman and ultimately being granted an opportunity to return to Jerusalem and construct the second Temple, the majority of the Jewish nation stayed in Persia. Drowning in the comforts of their wealth and economic success they too proclaimed then that “Jews should not immigrate to (Israel) because it is a safe haven”. They attempted to confirm then that which Chief Rabbi Melchior of Denmark declared now, “terror is not a reason to move to Israel”. When will we learn that the only safe place for the Jewish people is a place they can call their own?

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s final assertion as he made reference to Moses who delivered us from Egypt was,
“Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand”.

In a few weeks we will mark Passover; a time when we reflect upon our exodus from Egypt and celebrate the creation of the Jewish nation and its return to Israel; a time when we should be proud that our nation is represented by a leader who affirms the value of a Jewish homeland; a time when we must identify that which distinguishes the Jewish nation from the rest of the world; a time when we can all join in unison and sing,
“Next year in Jerusalem”.

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The Voice of Jacob: What are our leaders really saying?

Our forefather Isaac described the incompatible nature of his two sons, Jacob and Esau, each of whom would evolve into two distinct nations, by proclaiming,

“the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau”.
This verse is classically referred to throughout rabbinic literature as the main means of identifying the Jewish nation vis-a-vis their father Jacob; a nation which would distinguish itself by its power of speech and would achieve prominence through its methodical elocution revealing soulfulness and deep contemplation. Unfortunately this does not appear to be the case regarding our political and religious leadership in Israel. Our politicians and Jewish leaders talk allot but they don’t seem to say much and even when they appear to be trying to say something of significance, their intentions are clouded with suspicion. And so in light of the many momentous decisions which have been made over the last few weeks in this country and in an effort to sustain the Jewish quality of articulation, I thought it would be helpful if I extrapolate the meaning of some of the statements which have been made by our esteemed legislators, distinguished politicians and spiritual leaders.

Prime Minister Netanyahu claims to have been held hostage within his now former coalition by his former finance minister Yair Lapid and his former justice minister Tzipi Livni. They apparently did not listen to the Prime Minister or to the instructions agreed upon by the cabinet to which they belonged; in fact the Prime Minister has accused them of trying to create a putsch to topple him. This may be true but by dissolving the Kenesset and calling early elections what the Prime Minister is really saying is that he cannot engage major players who were part of his cabinet and that, as we have witnessed in the past, he is incapable of diplomatically bridging gaps (gaping as they may be) between himself and opposing personalities who hold influential posts within his government.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu now says that, “the people of Israel deserve a better, more stable, more harmonious government,” what he is really saying is not only that he believes that he currently has a better chance of being elected and gaining more control over a cabinet which will not have to include those who may disagree with him, but that when he is reelected Prime Minister and he needs to form another coalition, chances are he will do so by entering an agreement with the Haredi parties as he has unfortunately done in the past. Considering that the Haredi parties are only interested in themselves they will not argue with Netanyahu over domestic or foreign policy; as long as they are provided with the money they demand for their institutions they won’t cause Netanyahu any problems and his adversities, for the moment, will have been tempered.

When Yair Lapid boldly declared at the beginning of his short spate as Finance minister that “old politics are dead and new politics are in”, he sounded like he would promote a new political vision and that he would cater to and serve as the voice of the political center. In fact, those with short term memories should recall how he and Bennett formed an alliance to force Netanyahu to take both of their parties into the government. Yet gradually Lapid began criticizing Netanyahu and the right and, after he failed to manage the budget and he realized that Netanyahu or the majority of the cabinet for that matter did not support his proposed budget which purported to weaken the IDF and security and contained no strategy with which to reduce housing prices, he blamed Netanyahu for
“leading Israel to a needless election”.
What Lapid was actually saying is that he was willing to call himself a centrist, even though in truth he was not, all for the sake of being elected and receiving a central portfolio in the past government.

Lapid continued by accusing Netanyahu of looking after “his personal interest and survival, over the public good”. Yet he and former justice minister Tzipi Livni stated that during Operation Protective Edge last summer Netanyahu’s cabinet “lost its faith in his ability to manage” the war. In actuality what Lapid and Livini were really saying is that they are hypocrites. After all, if indeed both of them lost faith in Prime Minister Netanyahu or witnessed the entire cabinet to which they belonged doing so, would it not have behooved them to say something at the time of the war itself? One can only infer that their positions of power in the government were more important to them than ensuring the safety of the country and its citizens. The only way to explain Lapid’s accusations and Livni’s reference to Netanyahu this past week as a “cowardly inept leader” in light of their own blatant negligence is hypocrisy. In fact it appears that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself understood this when he retorted,
“There’s no limit to Lapid’s hypocrisy…he relentlessly preaches new politics, yet practices the old politics of wheeling and dealing which he claims to despise”.
What Lapid and Livni were really saying is that they can insult the entire Israeli public’s intelligence by making accusatory statements without thinking that they would expose their own weaknesses at the same time.

When chief rabbis Lau and Yosef opposed the Tzohar bill, enabling Israelis to get married by the religious municipality of their choice as opposed to being restricted to their local municipality, what they were actually saying is that they are interested in continuing to monopolize religion within the confines of a money making institution. When the Tzohar law includes within it the illegality of rabbis who are unregistered with a municipality to officiate for weddings it strengthens the rabbinate’s monopoly on Jewish weddings by making it a criminal offense to conduct private wedding ceremonies in which the couple does not register the marriage, even if it meets all the standards of Orthodox weddings, and it confirms that Israelis will continue to be held hostage by a process and an office which will remain oppressively foreign to them.

Ultimately our rabbis and politicians are saying the same thing; that they both suffer from the same symptoms of insincere and incomprehensive communication.

Chanukah is a holiday which is meant to remind us of the value of quality as opposed to quantity. The small Jewish coup was victorious over the mighty Greek superpower as depicted by the small flask of oil which, because of its qualitative measures managed to stay alit for eight days as opposed to one. Chanukah is also a time when people show good will and distribute gifts to one another. It is time for our leaders to offer us the gift of qualitative leadership or at least leadership which embraces certain qualities. Perhaps they should begin by emulating the “voice of Jacob” and saying what they mean as opposed to forcing their constituents to figure out what they mean to say.

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Rosh Hashana Past Reflections and Future Awakenings

This year in Israel we have endured certain challenges and perceived certain dynamics which will no doubt leave an indelible impression on the landscape of Israeli society and on the Jewish world at large. Being that Rosh Hashana is a time to reflect upon the past year in anticipation of the year ahead, here are three thoughts worthy of contemplation which relate directly to the three sections of the Rosh Hashana service and reveal the three functions of the shofar.

The first segment of the Rosh Hashana service called malchuyot, from the Hebrew word malchut – kingdom, confirms that God is the master of a people and protector of a nation, a concept that secular Israelis are becoming more comfortable with in theory even if it does not translate to practice. Over the past year(s) we have seen a growth in Israelis who are interested in connecting with their traditions and learning about their history even through the observance of certain practices which they consider Jewish cultural experiences. Today statistics show that over 56% of Israelis light Shabbat candles, over 78% participate in a Passover Seder, 69% maintain kosher homes, 80% say that they believe in God, 65% confirm that the Torah is the divine book of the Jewish people, 98% of Israelis have mezuzot on their door posts and 92% circumcise their male children. Many Israeli Jews have an interest in the place that religion occupies in the State of Israel and in the meaning of a “Jewish state” and for the vast majority it is important to live in Israel as a means of identifying with the Jewish people.

The second section of the Rosh Hashana service is called zichronot which emphasizes zachor – to remember; we are encouraged to reflect upon the historical events which impacted our loyalty to God and to one another and inspired our development into a nation. Over these recent past few months we witnessed the abduction and cold blooded murder of three innocent young men by Hamas terrorists. We experienced the height of anxiety as we consistently fled to bomb shelters anticipating our safety and the safety of our communities under a barrage of rockets and missiles which were incessantly fired upon cities throughout Israel fuelling the beginnings of Operation Protective Edge, an operation whose sole objective was to disclose and destroy a vast networks of tunnels created by Hamas terrorists for the exclusive purpose of perpetrating heinous acts of terror upon innocent civilians in Israel. Yet Israel was continuously chastised as the aggressor and for its mistreatment of innocent civilians who were unfortunately harmed or killed during the operation. The world’s media referred to Israel as inhumane regardless of the extraordinary efforts made by the IDF to warn civilians ahead of their planned attacks in order to protect their safety, and regardless of the footage which showed Hamas terrorists harboring themselves in schools and hospitals and using innocent children as human shields in order to protect themselves. In comparison, mass murderers such as Syrian Prime Minister Bashar-al Assad was hardly scrutinized for killing thousands of people using chemical weapons and torturing and killing anyone who opposed his dictatorship. Vladimir Putin ‘s aggression on the Ukraine saw over 3,000 deaths as innocent civilians were abducted by both Russian and Ukrainian forces on each side but he was hardly condemned. The IS (formerly ISIS) seized territories throughout Syria and Iraq in an aggressive Jihadist war path to “conquer the Middle East”, butchering and beheading thousands of civilians and President Obama remained frighteningly unresponsive. Yet Obama was not hesitant to join Ban Ki-Moon of the UN who criticized Israel for failing to do all it can to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza during Israel’s missions against Hamas terrorists. The criticism of Israel from around the world was heard loud and clear and our supposed ally’s silence was just as deafening; this opened pandora’s box as anti-semitic acts ensued. Jews were attacked in France, Australia, England (where statistics show that anti-Semitism has risen an astonishing four hundred percent) and even in places that we would have normally considered secure havens for Jews such as New York and Miami. This year the section of zichronot on Rosh Hashana begs us to verify as we have done in the past, that the world does not see or interpret the events unfolding around our nation the same way that we do and that history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora regardless of how comfortable they feel and how at home they believe they are must take heed of the events unfolding in front of their eyes and recognize that they are strangers in a strange land; temporary guests whose stay will eventually wear thin as it has done consistently in the past, and that the only land where they can truly feel curiously but comfortably secure is in Israel.

Shofarot, the third and final unit of the prayer service makes reference to the shofar, the ram’s horn, which will be blown marking the day of our redemption. It is during this section that we are expected to think about how we can actively facilitate the redemption we eagerly anticipate, something which was made easier for us to envision over this past year as we have been privy to a legal process calling for all citizens in Israel to bear the burdens and responsibilities of the country and our nation. Consequently issues have been raised which were not addressed in the past and very slowly Haredim have begun not only to entertain but to enlist in the IDF and national service. Almost 2,000 haredim have enlisted in the IDF over the past year, most in combat units; an increase of 39% from past years. In addition the percentage of Haredim joining the work force continues to gradually rise which may explain the findings that with each progressive year the friction between the secular and the religious in Israel seems to be decreasing.

The first function of the shofar was to gather people and unify the nation such was the case at the foothold of Mount Sinai when the Jewish nation united for the purpose of accepting the Torah. This year we have witnessed a nation unite be it for the sake of praying for three innocent young souls or for the sake of consoling their families after the horrible truth of their misfortune was revealed following their abduction. Israelis of all walks of life traveled en masse to the towns bordering Gaza to offer relief and supplies to the residents in the Negev and our soldiers who were protecting them and thirty thousand people converged for the sake of escorting a lone soldier to his burial place in an effort to console his parents who no one ever met.

The shofar sounds in order to amass troops and prepare them for war as was the case with Joshua when he lead the Jewish people by the alarm of the shofar to conquer the land of Canaan. This year we have witnessed troops gather from all walks of Jewish life, secular and haredi alike, for the sake of protecting the same borders which were defended by King David before us.

With Rosh Hashana swiftly approaching we can proudly declare that we have been privileged to witness and benefit from the first two purposes of the shofar. When Rosh Hashana arrives, as we crown our king and recount our history, perhaps it is time for us to demand that we witness the third purpose of the shofar come to fruition in preparation for our redemptive future.

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IDF Protectors of a Nations Ideology

As a lecturer for Machane Meshutaf and the Jewish Identity Branch of the IDF I am often presented with a short window of time during which I am expected to transmit an inspirational message to the soldiers which will hopefully resonate with them after I leave; a message of Jewish unity and pride and the importance of wholeheartedly subscribing to their task at hand regardless of how menial or demoralizing it may seem. Often soldiers are weary and frustrated, least of all interested in hearing a speech or lecture from me and so I have to choose my words carefully and use my time proficiently. I welcome the challenge with reflection and preparation but when one is confronted with soldiers who are about to experience the danger of engaging in combat, one which I personally never experienced and therefore cannot realistically relate to, one can struggle to find the correct words which will empower and embolden the soldiers to confront their critical objective. In fact this past week I wrote to a friend of mine in the United States after I had just been on the border trying to help inspire the soldiers and he wrote back to me that he hoped that God put the right words in my mouth; indeed. I believe that I was able to impart a message to the soldiers, perhaps because God put the right words in my mouth; I share them with you because at this moment of truth for all of us, I believe they will help instill conviction in our hearts as well.

This past week’s Torah portion describes the Jewish war effort against the Midianites, sworn enemies of the Jewish nation during their travels through the desert to reach the land of Canaan (Israel). Interestingly enough the Torah describes not only the success of the Jewish army but goes at length to describe the booty, possessions and wealth which the Jewish people amassed as a result of their victory which begs the question; why does the Torah describe these spoils of war in such fine detail? Perhaps God wanted to transmit to His people that when one fights for his nation’s survival and is willing to sacrifice for his nation, particularly against a nation which threatens its very existence, indeed there are just rewards for doing so such as prosperity and fortune. In stark contrast when the Jewish people are preparing to conquer the land of Canaan they are clearly instructed that they are not to take from the silver, gold or any of the consecrated property and that it would all go to the treasury of Hashem; why with regards to the conquering of the land of Israel were the Jewish people forbidden from taking the spoils of their war effort?

Conquering and settling the land of Israel is a holy commandment from the Torah; one which is compared to fulfilling all of the commandments in the Torah itself. God wanted the Jewish nation to appreciate that the conquest of the land of Israel and the ability to secure those who wish to settle it, is itself the greatest possible reward one could ask for, in fact granting physical reward for such effort would belittle the significance and wholesomeness of this unique commandment in of itself.
Mivtza Tzuk Eitan – Operation Protective Edge as well as the last few IDF operations is not about territory but it is about ideology. Hamas are well aware that they cannot conquer the land of Israel from the people of Israel, but they are interested in disseminating a message of terror and perpetrating acts of chaos, destruction and murder throughout the land of Israel; doing so is rewarding for them. In stark contrast, the soldiers of the IDF recognize that their ability to protect the great nation of Israel and to ensure its safety, to restore order to a land with so many outstanding accomplishments and yet so much potential, is rewarding enough in of itself. Soldiers of the IDF do not fight for territory nor do they plunder the goods of war; they fight for an ideology which is committed to promoting productivity and encompassing life.

This week I was in an air force base which I frequent every week or so. As I exited my car and approached the shin-gimel (base entrance) a siren sounded. All the soldiers had already made their way to their shelters barring the two who were left guarding the shin-gimel, I quickly ducked into the guard station with them. Little did I know that part of my body was protruding out of the station when suddenly over the loud speaker one could hear the voice of the commander of the base saying,

“Rabbi please get back under the shelter and make sure you are entirely inside, after all you are very important and precious to us”.

Our soldiers are fighting for the distinct merit to be able to protect that which is most important and precious to us.

This week’s Torah portion completes the book of Numbers which describes the travels of the Jewish people in the desert and begins describing the preparations needed to conquer and make their way into the land of Israel. Upon completion of the book of Numbers all those in the Synagogue will proclaim,
“Be Strong! Be Strong! And may we be strengthened!”

I no longer struggle for words; to our soldiers I say be strong and to the Jewish nation who they are protecting I say, may we be strengthened by their service and their desire to perpetuate the ideology of this great people.

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We Choose the Blessing of Life

The Torah portion describes how Balak, king of the Moabites who were sworn enemies of the Jewish people, employed Balaam to curse the Jewish nation in order to seal their fate and how God transformed Balaam’s intended curse into blessing, foiling Balak’s plan. In the midst of the blessings bestowed upon the Jewish people, Balaam utters,

“…it is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the (other) nations”. What is the significant meaning of these words and how do they constitute a blessing?

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, a great scholars of the nineteenth century, explains that with these words Balaam prescribed a formula of success for the Jewish nation; so long as the nation would firmly commit to its principles of humanity and serve as a beacon of morality for all of humankind they would “dwell in solitude and never be reckoned among the (other) nations”, holding a par above all other nations. Rabbi Berlin explains that the greatest threat to the Jewish nation is the Jewish nation itself; for it is only when Jewish people assimilate and fail to maintain their identity that they are in danger of compromising their survival. Therefore a Jew must consistently probe the essence of his being and the rationale for his survival. He must distinguish himself from the rest of the world and from his enemies, particularly when he is confronted with tragic circumstances which can shake the foundations of his beliefs as is the case with the unfolding of the recent heart-rending events which have shocked the Jewish world. As we try to maintain our sanity amongst all the madness that is going on around us, here are some distinctions and introspective thoughts which we should seriously consider.

When one of our loved ones dies we do everything in our power to preserve their memory by enhancing the lives of those who are still with us. We establish big brother/sister programs, plant gardens, build memorials and create scholarship opportunities to encourage people to find ways to contribute constructively to society. This is why Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated these points in his eulogy for the boys, has consistently responded to terror attacks by approving more units for construction in Israeli settlements and neighborhoods. This is opposed to radical Islamists who teach and encourage their children to execute acts of terror and make their mark in this world by murdering the innocent and traumatizing families. We bury our departed with heavy hearts and in deep reflection wondering how the person who has passed on would have expected us to continue to live our lives, while they escort their deceased to burial spraying bullets in the air and contemplating their next harmful strike with which to exalt and enact devastation. We the people of Israel embrace life, while they the supporters of Hamas and perpetrators of terror glorify death.

One of the most striking and strangely reassuring aspects I noticed at the funeral of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, was the vast number of youth who attended. Here we are the first week of summer vacation and while youth throughout the diaspora were boarding buses en-route to summer camp our youth in Israel boarded buses to attend the funeral of three innocent children who had summer plans of their own just a few short weeks ago. While young people the world over were packing sunscreen into their duffle bags our youth were packing bottles of water in their nap sacks in order to avoid sun stroke and dehydration as they stood out in the sun for hours to pay their respect and to listen attentively to their President and Prime Minister administer speeches in the hope of ensuring them a secure future. The presence of our youth was not merely a show of support, it was a declaration; a declaration that that while they mourn the loss of their peers, they accept their role as future leaders who will secure the land, protect the people, and sustain the sacred institution called life.

My fifteen year old daughter and her friend were among the many youth who attended the funeral as well. When I drove them home after a long and intense day my daughter’s friend got out of the car and turned to my daughter saying,
“thank you for encouraging me to come and for giving me this opportunity to perform this mitzvah (positive commandment) on such a sad day”.

Indeed we will always be “a nation that dwells in solitude” but so long as we are privileged to hear our youth declare their gratitude and eagerness to perform, contribute and endure then perhaps we will be privileged to witness a curse transform into a blessing.

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