Hanukah: Time to ‘Speak Peaceably’ and ‘See the Light’

Hanukah is family time. It’s a time when most people in Israel enjoy a vacation, kids are off from school, and the air is filled with the waft of flavored doughnuts and festivity. There is also a sense of national pride as everyone regardless of observance, affiliation or lack of it thereof, recount the story of the Maccabi’s victory over the Greek armies in Israel. Fittingly, there are two vital statements which appear in this past week’s Torah portion which I believe are most significant both regarding our own families and on a grander scale regarding our nation.

Many of us are familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers; the jealousy and even hatred that existed between them and the catastrophic consequences that ensued as a result of that hatred. The Torah describes the brother’s hatred towards Yosef as,

“…they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably”.

Obviously if someone ‘hates’ someone else they will not be able to speak to them ‘peaceably’; in fact they would not speak to them at all. The Torah is coming to reveal to us the formula for success regarding any relationship; communication. There was a breakdown in communication within the family of Jacob; Jacob did not converse with his ten sons as much as he communicated with and favored Joseph. The brothers in turn, did not speak much with their father and certainly not with Joseph, and the outcome was Joseph being sold to slavery in Egypt which marked the beginning of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt as well. This entire episode not only conveys the importance of communication but it maintains that communicating is not only about talking, it’s about knowing how to ‘speak peaceably’. As an Orthodox rabbi who tries to remain current, I very often address why so many Orthodox youth in Israel leave the fold and opt for non-observance. While I do not think there is one answer regarding the source, there is one constant which should never be compromised between parents and their children regardless of their differences as stark as they might be; the ability to ‘speak peaceably’. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to conduct a tranquil tone and intonation. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to incorporate patience, understanding and consideration. Most importantly, to ‘speak peaceably’ means to listen attentively.

Perhaps Jacob did speak with his sons but he did not ‘speak peaceably’; he probably did not have heart to heart conversations with them to appreciate each one of their personalities and accentuate their strengths. In fact it appears he only does this when he is on his death bed and he offers each son a blessing in accordance with their unique personalities. What Jacob did immediately prior to his death, does not appear to be something he did while he was living. Perhaps the brothers and Joseph did speak to one another but they did not ‘speak peacebly’. They did not enjoy a camaraderie as many brothers do, they did not attempt to understand each other’s feelings, and they were uninterested in preserving a familial relationship.

Unfortunately our history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Approximately four years ago I started Makom Meshutaf, an organization which promotes Jewish programming without a religious agenda to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim throughout the country. Makom Meshutaf creates initiatives for the Jewish people in Israel to ‘speak peaceably’. A week ago we ran a panel in Kibbutz Tzora which consisted of a secular Israeli, religious Zionist and a Haredi woman. It was a fascinating program and something we are promoting in kibbutzim throughout the country to demonstrate that there are differences between all of us and we need to engage in dialogue (we hope to create the same structure panel with representatives from the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities as well). The only disappointing part of the program was that the secular Israeli panelist expressed anti-sentiment and was blatantly bitter towards the other panelists and their beliefs, so much so that even the audience which consisted mostly of secular Israelis from the kibbutz itself was disappointed.  While I understand that people enjoy a variety of perspectives, we have to at least be able to ‘speak peaceably’ and show respect towards other’s opinions. Interestingly, not only was the Haredi woman the best orator on the panel but she also appeared most confident in her position yet most tolerant of every participant as well and the secular audience were most considerate of her position simply because she ‘spoke peaceably’.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our daughter, Nechama who is a chayelet in the IDF and the only observant girl in her unit. She called me this past week and told me that as part of her course they have an exam every week and there is always a random bonus question on the exam. That week the bonus question was to transcribe the words to the song ‘Echad Mi Yodea – Who knows one?’ from the Passover Seder. Sadly, Nechama was the only one who got the bonus question correct, however, following the exam all the chayalot approached Nechama to ask her what the bonus question answer was; she ended up teaching them the entire song and ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ has become the ‘theme song’ of their unit.

This week Nechama’s sergeant, who is non-observant, had a heart to heart with each soldier privately. Nechama expressed to her that she was a bit disappointed in the lack of motivation at times by some of the girls to which her sergeant responded,

“Remember Nechama all the girls who are here are secular, which means that they have to serve in the army but they don’t necessarily want to be here. You on the other hand are observant, you had other options to choose from other than the army, but you chose to serve. Between you and me, as an observant girl you are motivated because you believe in something. It is this belief which provides you with resilience and a strength that other people don’t have”.

Only when we ‘speak peaceably’ can we learn to respect our diversities, unite for a common purpose, and begin to wonder, ‘who knows one?

Later in the same story Jacob sends Joseph to see his brothers by saying,

“Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers…”.

Jacob is not sending Joseph merely as a messenger; he is sending him as an ambassador of peace. He wants him to ‘speak peaceably’ to his brothers after all of the ill will that has festered between them. He asks Joseph to ‘look into the welfare’ of his brothers by seeing them in a more positive light; but by then it was too late hence the unfortunate outcomes that ensued.

Perhaps it is not too late for us. Perhaps this Hanukah we can put aside our differences and learn to ‘speak peaceably’ to one another. Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that our resilience and strength stems from our ability to ‘look into the welfare of our brothers’; and perhaps this Hanukah will mark the first time in history that we all begin to see the light.

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Isn’t it time we learned to ‘speak peaceably’

There are two vital statements in this week’s Parsha which are most significant for us as a people, nation, and on a smaller scale as a family.

We are all familiar with the story of Yosef and his brothers; the jealousy and even hatred that existed between them and the catastrophic consequences that ensued as a result of that hatred. The Torah describes the brother’s hatred towards Yosef as,
“…they hated him; and they could not speak to him peaceably”.

Obviously if someone ‘hates’ someone else they will not be able to speak to them peaceably; in fact they would not be able to speak to them at all. The Torah is coming to reveal to us the formula for success regarding any relationship; it all begins with communication. There was a breakdown in communication within the family of Yakov (which probably knew earlier roots); Yakov did not converse with his ten sons as much as he communicated with Yosef. The brothers in turn, did not speak that much with their father and certainly not with Yosef, and we all know the outcome. Communicating is not only about talking, it’s about knowing how to ‘speak peaceably’. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to conduct a proper tone and intonation. To ‘speak peaceably’ means to incorporate patience, understanding and consideration. Most importantly, to ‘speak peaceably’ means to listen attentively.

Perhaps Yakov did speak with his sons but he did not ‘speak peaceably’; he probably did not have heart to heart conversations with them to appreciate each one of their personalities and accentuate their strengths. In fact it appears he only does this when he is on his death bed and he offers each son a blessing in accordance with their unique personalities. What Yakov did immediately prior to his death, does not appear to be something he did while he was living. Perhaps the brothers and Yosef did speak to one another but they did not ‘speak peacebly’; they did not enjoy a comradery as many brothers do and they did not seek to understand each other’s feelings as they were uninterested in preserving a familial relationship.

Unfortunately our history has a nasty habit of repeating itself. The organization I started four years ago, Makom Meshutaf, offers Jewish programming without a religious agenda, to secular Kibbutzim and Moshavim throughout the country. I guess you could say that Makom Meshutaf bridges gaps and creates initiatives. A week ago we ran a panel in Kibutz Tzora which consisted of a secular Israeli, Religious Zionist (me) and a Haredi woman. It was a fascinating program and something we are promoting in kibbutzim throughout the country to demonstrate that there are differences between all of us, precisely why we need to engage in dialogue. The secular Israeli who we invited came with blatant anti-sentiment towards our beliefs and a bitter attitude, it was very upsetting. While I understand that everyone has varied perspectives, we have to at least be able to ‘speak peaceably’ and show respect towards other’s opinions.

Today I tried to speak with someone from a Kibbutz who is in charge of its culture. He would not even grant me the time of day and as I began my explanation of what we are trying to do, he stopped me abruptly, told me not to call him again and put down the phone; once again an obvious failure to ‘speak peaceably’ and listen.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our daughter, Nechama who is a chayelet in the army and the only religiously observant girl in her unit. She called me this past week and told me that as part of her course they have an exam every week and her commanding officer puts a random bonus question on the exam as well. That week the bonus question was to write down the words to the song “Echad Mi Yodea – Who knows one?” from the Pesach Hagadah. Sadly, Nechama was the only one who got the bonus question correct. Yet following the exam, naturally all the chayalot came to ask Nechama what the bonus question answer was and she ended up teaching them the entire “Echad Mi Yodea” song which has now become the ‘theme song’ of their unit. Only when we ‘speak peaceably’ can we hope to reveal to others that they too know the answer to “Who knows one?”.

This week Nechama’s sergeant had a heart to heart with each soldier privately. Nechama expressed to her that she was a bit disappointed in the lack of motivation at times by some of the girls. Her unobservant sergeant responded,

“Remember Nechama all the girls who are here are not observant which means that they have to serve in the army; they don’t necessarily want to be here. You on the other hand are observant, you had other options to choose from other than the army, but you chose to be here. Between you and me, as an observant girl you are more motivated because you have something to believe in. It is this belief which provides you with resilience and a strength that other people don’t have”.
Only those who ‘speak peaceably’ can reveal to others that they too know the answer to “Who knows one?”.

Later in the Parsha we come across the second vital statement as Yakov sends Yosef off to see his brothers and he does so by saying,

“Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers…”. Yakov is not sending Yosef merely as a messenger; he is sending Yosef as an ambassador of peace; he now sends him to ‘speak peaceably’ to his brothers after all of the ill will that festered between them. He asks Yosef to ‘look into the welfare’ of his brothers by seeing them in a more positive light, but it is too late.

Perhaps it would do us well to put aside our differences and learn to ‘speak peaceably’ to one another. Perhaps it is time for us to recognize that our resilience and strength stems from our ability to ‘look into the welfare of our brothers’; those brothers of our past did not do a very good job at it, but it seems that the sisters of our present are doing a fine job indeed.

Shabbat Shalom

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The entire Sefer Bereishit is full of stories regarding our Patriarchs and Matriarchs; the impact they had on the people around them and the Kiddush Hashem they achieved during the course of their productive and challenging lives. Yet as beautiful and inspiring as these stories are they are nonetheless stories of the past and it is difficult to imagine people around us in our midst who may fulfill similar callings.

Three weeks ago our daughter Nechama was drafted into TZAHAL. Nechama is an observant young lady and she knew she was going to be in a unit together with 25 non-observant young women. While she was eager to partake in her unit she was a bit anxious regarding how things would pan out for her being the only religiously observant person on her base. The first week after she was drafted was Sukot and the chayalot (women soldiers) were allowed home for the holiday but they were told that the first Shabbat back when they returned would be on base and so they were instructed to prepare accordingly as they would not be going home for two weeks. As such the chayalot began to compare notes on their “whats app” group, texting one another about what they should bring with them to base so that they could all make things a little more enjoyable for Shabbat together in the army. A number of girls suggested they bring a “boom box” so they could play music, dance together and make some noise. Immediately this suggestion was nixed as a number of chayalot reminded the group that Nechama was observant of Shabbat and it would be unfair that she could not partake and disrespectful of her way of keeping the Shabbat; and so it was agreed that everyone would bring board games so that Nechama could partake. When Nechama told us of this exchange I told her (tongue in cheek) that she had not even spent that much time with the other chayalot and she already was having a positive influence on her surroundings.

The week passed by and on Friday Nechama called us from base in an emotional state. She explained that she was nervous spending Shabbat on base as the only observant soldier and she explained that her secular officer sat the chayalot in a circle the day before and asked them what Shabbat meant to each of them. Some said that Shabbat was about going to the movies, some said going out to eat and some just welcomed the chance to sleep. Nechama responded that Shabbat for her was her mother’s Challa and chicken soup, and with that she was brought to tears and she left the room. A few of her comrades came over to her and told her that they understood that she was the only religious girl and they reassured her that they would be going to the Beit Kenesset with her on Shabbat. When I heard this, I reminded Nechama again of the impact she was having considering the short amount of time she was in the army and I told her that if she was lonely or sad over Shabbat she should remind herself of the Kiddush Hashem she was fulfilling through her service.

Motzaei Shabbat, Saturday night Nechama called and told us the following story. Shabbat morning she went to the Beit Kenesset and by the time she came back for Seudat Shabbat, all of the other chayalot were already in the middle of eating. Nechama found some grape juice and approached the table to make Kiddush in order to join her fellow soldiers. One of the girls motioned to her to sit down and join them to which she explained that her Abba makes Kiddush while standing and so she too would stand for Kiddush. Suddenly, all 25 chayalot stood up and respectfully remained standing in anticipation of Nechama’s Kiddush for Shabbat. Nechama was overwhelmed with emotion and she had to excuse herself and walked out of the dining hall. The non-observant officer approached her and told her as follows,

“Nechama, there are 25 chayalot inside who never heard Kiddush in their lives. They are now waiting for you to make Kiddush for Shabbat please take this opportunity and recite the Kiddush for our dining room”; and so she did.

Yes my friends, the stories of our forefathers and their lives may have happened long ago, but their memories and the lessons they leave us continue to resonate within us, presenting us with opportunities to fulfill Kiddush Hashem to this very day.

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Blessing Nechama on Draft day

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Nechama returning to Base after Sukot

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Walk with God…

To my dear son and daughter

“Lech Lecha – Go for yourself” is recorded as one of the first commands which Hashem gave to Avram to test his loyalty. Indeed it is rather difficult for a person to pick up all of his belongings and leave his home, family and possessions for a foreign land. Yet, Rashi comments on this command that Avram was told to “go” for his own benefit and his own good; and lets bear in mind that Avram wasn’t so keen on being around his idolatrous home and he must have certainly been ostracized by the people around him. How then could “Lech Lecha” really serve as a “test of loyalty”?

The Baal Haflaa offers an insightful answer. He says that two verses later the Torah asserts,

“So Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him…”.

Avram did not venture to Canaan for his own benefit, rather the Torah tells us that he went to Canaan because “Hashem had spoken to him” to do so; he went to fulfill the commandment of Hashem. Therefore the test was to see what Avram’s intent would be for going to Canaan; naturally one would think that Avram would go because it made sense, but the Torah testifies that Avram went because Hashem told him to go and he would obey Hashem’s command.

As a Chayal/Chayelet, there are many places you are commanded to “Go”, many of which are unpleasant and many are challenging, but if you remember that regardless of where you go and the difficulties you encounter, that you are going to help Am Yisrael and to secure Eretz Yisrael, “as Hashem had spoken to him…”, then you will overcome. You will find the inner strength to fulfill the commandment of Hashem as Avram did before you.

With love and admiration

Abba

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It all begins with our fellow man…

To my dear son and daughter,

Hashem destroyed the world by means of the mabul; but why did He decide to do so? The Torah provides us with one reason,

“…for all flesh corrupted its way upon the earth”; the world was filled with what the Torah calls, “Hamas”, which Rashi explains means thievery and plundering.

Nowhere does the Torah say that the world was destroyed because of a lack of belief in Hashem or even because of the idolatry which they practiced. The destruction of an entire world was caused by the disregard towards another person’s property, what we call a lack of “bein adam lechavero – man’s conduct and respect towards his fellow man”.

This is a pattern which repeats itself consistently throughout the Torah. Many people are enthralled by “God” and “spirituality” but pass on the basics of Derech Eretz, they are inconsiderate and insensitive towards their fellow. The Torah “says” that if one wants to get through to Hashem, they have to first learn how to deal with their fellow man (usually more challenging).

It is for this reason that prior to Yom Kippur one must ask forgiveness from the people around him and this is also why almost all the mitzvoth given to Bnei Yisrael following their receiving of the Torah at Sinai, have to do with “bein adam lechavero”.

There is no greater institution today in the Jewish world which demonstrates dedication and devotion to “bein adam lechavero” more than TZAHAL. Your service in TZAHAL and that of your comrades therefore represent the means of rebuilding a world that can only get closer to understanding God.

Shabbat Shalom

With love and admiration

Abba

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Russian Convert and the High Holidays: To Begin Again…

What are the Yomim Noraim/High Holidays and what should they mean to us? Pose that question to an observant Israeli Jew and I imagine they will sum it all up with one word, “Teshuva – Repentance”; but pose the same question to a secular Israeli and you are bound to hear something different such as festival, or apple and honey, or perhaps a new beginning. All the responses are correct but  there is a common thread which encompasses the meaning of the High Holidays and binds us all together.

I have mentioned in the past about my student Niko from Mechina Asher Ruach Bo; a pre military academy for young men who can be classified as juvenile delinquents but who are interested in turning their lives around, which is precisely what the Mechina offers.  Niko is not Jewish – and he opted to do the conversion course through the army called Netiv but he had no support from his parents and very limited connection with them. Through his connection with me at the Mechina, he called me and asked if I would serve as his adopted family and teach him about Judaism and Shabbat. During his conversion course Niko would meet me in shul on Friday night and join us in our home quite often for seudot Shabbat. Yet, towards the end of the course I began to hear less from Niko and, while I wondered why he became scarce, I did not want to confront him and cause him to feel uncomfortable, so I decided to give him the breathing space that he may have needed. Nonetheless, I wondered what had become of him and particularly of his quest to become a Jew.

A week ago I went to speak at the Tzanchanim/Paratroopers base. I was asked to speak twice but I was told that there would be an hour window between the two shiurim and if I wanted I could opt to leave after delivering the first Shiur. I told my wife, Gabi, that I would probably just stick around to deliver the one shiur to which she advised that I stay for both as I would find something to during the hour in between (I suspect she was weighing the advantage of having me out of the house for an extra hour). The first shiur was off base in the surrounding fields and when I returned to the base to wait for my second shiur I noticed that I received a message from none other than Niko who asked if I was still in the Tzanchanim base. He reminded me that he was serving in Tzanchanim and that he knew I was on base and wanted to come speak with me.

When I saw Niko we gave each other a warm greeting and he began to explain to me that he was forced to leave the Tzanchanim combat forces for various reasons. He was given a job to monitor who enters and leaves the base. When I arrived at the base the soldiers at the main gate radioed ahead to the monitoring station asking if a rabbi named Shalom had clearance to enter the base; Niko was the soldier on duty at the station and he explained to me that he was the one to give the ok for me to come on base because as far as he knew, there was only one rabbi named Shalom who went around speaking on bases. Niko then told me that he ran out of his station and started chasing my car because he wanted to talk to me, but I had not noticed and I drove on at which point he texted me. He explained that the reason he lost contact with me was because he was not sure now whether he wanted to go through with becoming a Jew and he did not want me to be disappointed. He said that all the obligations one has as a Jew are burdensome and too restricting and he was just not sure he could make such a commitment; besides he was unsure where God fit into the entire picture, if at all.

I thanked Niko for making the effort to find me in order to discuss the matter. I then told him that he was always welcome in our home regardless if he was Jewish or not; but then I told him of how Gabi convinced me to stay for both shiurim,  and were it not for her having done so, I may not have had the opportunity to meet up with him again. Happenstance? I think not. Was it a coincidence that Niko was in charge of monitoring the base that day and that he happened to be by his station at the very moment they radioed in about my arrival? I was given ample opportunity to explain to Niko that he should not be overwhelmed by the opportunities Judaism had to offer, and that sincere spiritual growth can only be accomplished one step at a time because at the end of the day all Hashem expects from us is to try to take the next step. While he wasn’t completely convinced, Niko was overcome with relief and willing to consider his affiliation with the Jewish people once again.

The Yomim Noraim are about  apples and honey, festivals and family, and they are also about recognizing that for reasons we usually don’t understand, we somehow are graced with the encouragement to take a deep breathe and start again .
As we concluded our conversation, I asked Niko if he would come join us again next Shabbat, and he said that he would but I was not convinced that he meant it and so towards the end of the week with admittedly a bit of skepticism, I texted him to find out if he was coming to join us for Shabbat. Without pause Niko texted me back,

“Are you kidding me? I’ve been looking forward to Shabbat at your house the entire week ”

Ahhhhhh…..to begin again

Shana Tova

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“…and He will Gather you in from all the peoples…”

To my dear son
Nitzavim is a script regarding the need for the Jewish people to remain committed and loyal to our covenant with Hashem to ensure a bright future. There is reference in the Parsha to the concept of “teshuva – repentance” and in fact the Ramban derives that there is a mitzvah of teshuva from these same pesukim. In the heart of this discourse Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael in the name of Hashem,

“Then Hashem , your God, will bring back your captivity and have mercy upon you, and He will gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your God, has scattered you”.

Why is it necessary to say that Hashem will bring them back from captivity and that He will gather them in from where they were scattered; are these two statements not one in the same?

The Meshech Chochma explains that the first statement, “Hashem will bring back your captivity”, refers to those Jewish people who have always longed to be in Eretz Yisrael and have taken measures and made sacrifice to do so; precisely why Hashem says that He “will have mercy upon (them)”. However there are parts of the Jewish people who do not yearn to be in Israel and have grown comfortable with the notion of remaining in the diaspora; to these people Hashem vows that “He will gather (them) in from all the peoples”, foreign nations and strange lands, where they are scattered and they too will dwell in Eretz Yisrael.

As a chayal in TZAHAL you have the opportunity to fulfill both promises of Hashem, you protect those Jews who long to live here and have taken initiative to do so, but you also secure the land upon which all of the Jewish nation will ultimately dwell; you secure the land upon which Hashem has promised to bring all His people and you thus merit as an active participant in ensuring the future of Am Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom

With love and admiration

Abba

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