Friday, July 20, 2018

Tisha B'Av in Jerusalem: A Ray of Hope

For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of the modern-day Israeli narrative. Many Israelis viewed the ancient fast day as an antiquated observance lacking contemporary relevance. Some argued that Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are the “new Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was reunited in 1967 – the on-going mourning over Jerusalem seemed outdated.
Despite these feelings, beginning this coming Saturday night and lasting through Sunday night, millions of Jews around the world – including here in Israel (where I am for the summer) - will observe the fast day mourning the destruction of both Temples that once stood in Jerusalem. Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av? 
In his introduction to the Book of Genesis, the Netziv (19thCentury Rosh Yeshiva & Rabbinic Scholar) provides a powerful description of what happened on Tisha B’Av:
   The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community. 
This negative behavior is also reflected in the special Haftarah (Prophetic portion) that we read this week. The Haftarah is taken from the opening chapter of the Book of Isaiah, which opens with the words “Hazon Yeshayahu” – “The Vision of Isaiah” – hence the name of this special pre-Tisha B’Av Shabbat is “Shabbat Hazon.” In this Haftarah, Isaiah had a vision of doom, where, in a metaphoric fashion, he named the Jewish people “Rulers of Sodom” and “People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate in a decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where leaders don’t care about their people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice.
In the Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law), Maimonides takes this historical narrative one step further:
    There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva).This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct.
Maimonides teaches that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are lamenting and reflecting upon our poor behavior that led to the destruction of both Temples.
Is there a remedy to our own ills? If our own poor decisions and negative actions launched and extended the darkness of Tisha B’Av, can we also help create the light at the end of this seemingly endless dark tunnel? 
Maimonides emphasizes that the power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a moral check-up of the state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. In addition to fasting and reading the Book of Lamentations and Kinot, we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities today. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to search deep within to see what requires “tikkun” (repair)?
One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel. 
On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding the timeless message of Tisha B’Av. The concept of Sinat Hinamwas alive and present in Israeli society, and had now reached its low point.
On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, a group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and hold a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. In light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it reflected within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinamback into the discourse of Israeli society.
Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the small group grew in size, until one person had the brilliant idea of turning this symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). The organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah – Tonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose panelists who would attract crowds.This marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis who started to become interested in Tisha B’Av.
This coming Saturday night there will be 24 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel. The panels will feature Sephardim and Ashkenazim, religious and secular Israelis, members of Knesset, rabbis of all denominations, educators, authors, entertainers and social activists. Together they will sit and engage in dialogue about how to improve Israeli society.
When a friend asked me how I observe Tisha B’Av in Jerusalem, I told him I go to the Kotel to mourn the past, and attend the symposiums to contemplate the future. I walk away from the Kotel feeling sad, but from the symposiums, I walk away filled with hope, as I feel that they are paving the way for the prophet Zechariah's vision, that one day – hopefully soon -- Tisha B’Av will be transformed from a day of mourning into “a day of joy and gladness for the Jewish people.” 
Wishing you an easy and meaningful fast.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Never Again: Those Who Fought Back (Thoughts for Yom Hashoah)

Although Israel declared her independence in 1948, it was not until 1953 that the Israeli government established an official day on the calendar in remembrance of the Holocaust. Why the delay? The Holocaust was a very touchy subject in the newfound Jewish state. From the beginning of the modern Zionist movement in the late 19th century, Zionist leaders were encouraging European Jews to leave Europe and move to Israel. They spoke of the great dream, vision and privilege of re-building a new Jewish state, but they also warned of the increasing anti-Semitism that was overtaking Europe. Most European Jews did not heed the Zionist call. This includes many anti-Zionist rabbis, whose “legacy” lives on in their Haredi descendants, who do not recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish State, and who refuse to partake in the defense of Israel.

Throughout the dark years of the Holocaust, while European Jews were being killed by the thousands everyday, the pioneers of the Zionist Yishuv (settlement) in the Land of Israel were busy building what ended up becoming the new State of Israel. In addition to building kibbutzim, moshavim, and new cities like Tel Aviv, they were also building something that Jews did not have in nearly 2000 years – an army. Building a new Jewish military did not just involve training and weapons tactics, but something much greater and more challenging – a new Jewish mindset. After years of persecution, pogroms and expulsions, where Jews were forced to accept their fate without an option of self-defense, it was now the task of the Zionist leadership in Israel to train a new generation of Jews who were to be raised on the ideals of Jewish political independence, and Jewish military strength. Zionist leaders were committed to erase what they felt was the complacent mentality of diaspora Jews, and replace it with a new ideology where the Jews became masters of their own destiny. This type of thinking was being taught everywhere in the Yishuv – in schools, in public gatherings, in kibbutzim and in cities. Newspapers were filled with articles speaking in praise of Jewish political and military self-determination. Judah and the Maccabees became the new Jewish heroes, and walls everywhere had posters depicting the ideal “new Jew” – young and strong, with a pitchfork in hand and a rifle slung across his shoulder.

As reports of the horrors of the Holocaust began to circulate around the world, the Zionist Yishuv continued to build up this new generation of Jewish pioneers and defenders of Israel. In addition to the new Jewish fighting forces being developed by the Zionist leadership (such as the Haganah, the Etzel and the Palmach), there was even a 5000-strong volunteer “Jewish Brigade” in the Yishuv – trained by the British – who, in November 1944, were dispatched to Europe to fight the Nazis. At all levels in the Yishuv, Jews were being taught that Jews have the right to defend themselves, and – when provoked or attacked – Jews fight back.

With the end of World War II, Holocaust survivors started coming to the Land of Israel. Their initial greetings by the residents of the Yishuv were mixed and varied. Reactions to the new immigrants ranged from sympathetic pity and empathy to triumphant feelings of “I told you not to stay in Europe.” It wasn’t easy for the residents of the Yishuv -- who were raised on the ideals of Jewish strength and self-defense -- to accept the sight of their own Jewish brethren coming from Europe, physically emaciated, with a story that was largely one of Jewish helplessness and not fighting back.   

This unease about the Holocaust permeated throughout the Yishuv and into the early years of the State of Israel. The Holocaust was rarely spoken about in any official way, it wasn’t taught in schools, and there were no formal school or state ceremonies marking any sort of “Holocaust Memorial Day.” The dilemma regarding a “Yom HaShoah” that the new State of Israel contemplated was rooted in Zionism itself. Since Zionism is an ideology that is built upon Jews defending themselves, how can Zionist schools teach that “just a few years ago,” millions of Jews were deported from their homes, fenced into ghettos, forced into labor, and gassed to death in concentration camps? Worst of all, from the Zionist perspective, how could Zionist schools teach the young generation that was raised on Zionism that the Jews in Europe – with rare exception – did not fight back? What kind of message would a “Yom HaShoah” convey to young Israelis? Such were the dilemmas and debates about the Shoah and its commemoration in the early years of Israel. 

When the decision finally came to establish a “Yom HaShoah,” there were two essential issues on the table: the character and message of the day, and what date would “Yom HaShoah” actually be established on? The answer to both issues came wrapped up in one, and the official full name of the new commemoration begins to tell the story: Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah – The Day of Holocaust and Herosim.

It was decided that if the State of Israel was to establish a day commemorating the Holocaust, it’s aura would not exclusively be one of mourning the victims of the Shoah, but it would also honor the memory of those who did actually fight back against the Nazis. This “Shoah/Gevurah” combination was best expressed through the legendary Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest, most famous (although not exclusive) episode of partisan fighter Jews who organized resistance against the Nazis. The anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is April 19, 1943, which on the Hebrew calendar is the 14th of Nisan, the eve of Passover. Due to the impracticality of establishing this new day on the calendar just before Passover, it was decided to move it to just after Passover, on the 27th of Nisan. 

Placing it on this date presented a new narrative beyond “Shoah/Gevurah.” It would now lead into the State of Israel’s two most important modern dates on her calendar, both of which fall just a week after the 27th of Nisan – Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israeli Soldiers – 4th of Iyar) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day – 5th of Iyar). This calendar scenario of Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah leading into Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut presented a narrative known in Israel as “Mi-Shoah L’Tekumah,” which technically means “From Destruction to Re-Building,” and – in this case – means “From The Holocaust to the Rise of the State of Israel.” 

With these dates firmly established on the State of Israel’s calendar, the educational message that Zionsim had taught throughout the days of the Yishuv would now come to light. Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah would teach young Israelis that, in addition to Jews being gassed in concentration camps, there were also those who – in the spirit of Zionism – fought back against the Nazis. The horrors of Auschwitz were juxtaposed with the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, and the many other ghetto fighters who mounted resistance against the Nazis. Students in Israel would not spend the day exclusively with images of Jews going to gas chambers “Like sheep to the slaughter,” but would also learn – and idealize – the strength and courage of those who fought back. Whereas Holocaust ceremonies throughout the world focus on tragic readings from children’s diaries and poems, with names like Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel taking center stage, Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah ceremonies feature readings and stories about Mordecai Aniewelicz, Antek Zuckerman and Ziviah Lubetkin, all leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Field trips on Yom Hashoah V’Hagevurah are not limited to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (Israel’s official museum and memorial to the Holocaust). Schools can alternatively choose a visit to the “Mi-Shoah L’Tekumah Museum” at Kibbutz Yad Mordecai in the Negev, a kibbutz named after Mordecai Aniewelicz, the Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They might also go up north to visit the Holocaust museum at Kibbutz Lochamei Ha-Geta’ot – The Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors who were all members of resistance movements during the Shoah.

Kibbutz Lochamei Ha-Geta’ot presents a moving denouement to the journey and message of Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah. Amongst the founders of the kibbutz were Antek Zuckerman and Zviah Lubetkin, a brave husband and wife who fought side by side in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, Antek and Zviah became symbols of Jewish heroism, and their story typified the “Shoah/Gevurah” message. In addition to their public activities in Israel, Antek and Zviah also had a family that they raised on the kibbutz.

In the late 1990’s, many years after Antek and Zviah passed away, the Israeli Air Force made a historic decision to open the IDF’s most difficult course – Combat Pilot Training Course – to girls. This historic move would potentially put Israeli girls in combat for the first time since 1948, and would do so from the most difficult and prestigious of places – the cockpit of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. The dropout rate of this grueling course is very high, and only a handful complete the full three years of training.

In 2001, at the graduation ceremony for Israeli Fighter Pilots, a girl named Roni approached the stage to have her combat pilot wings affixed to her uniform by her commanders. This was a historic moment, as she was the first modern-day female combat pilot in the Israeli Air Force. 

It was also an emotional moment in Roni’s family – and in Jewish history. With her new wings firmly affixed to her uniform, Roni grasped them and looked up to heaven and said, “This is for you, Savta.” In this moving gesture, Roni dedicated her pilot wings to her late grandmother.

Who was Roni’s grandmother? Roni was born and raised on Kibbutz Lochamei Ha’Getaot. Her grandfather was Antek Zuckerman. Her grandmother – Savta – was Zviah Lubetkin. 

From the street battles of the Warsaw Ghetto to the skies above Israel, from Savta Zvia to her young granddaughter Roni, we hear the resounding cry – in a tough but sweet female voice – of “Never Again.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Future Tense

This coming Shabbat, the 25th of Elul, 5777 (September 16, 2017), is the anniversary of the creation of the world. According to Talmudic tradition, on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, God began to create heaven and earth. The month of Elul is a 29 day month, and if you count through the six days of creation, the 6th day of creation falls on the first of Tishri, which we call Rosh Hashanah (September 21, 2017). 

On Rosh Hashanah – the New Year – we commemorate the sixth day of creation, which is the day when Adam and Eve were created. It is for this reason that Rosh Hashanah is not a classic “calendar” New Year (it’s actually the first day of the seventh month), rather it is a day when we think about life, death and our existence as human beings. It is a day of judgment (Yom Ha-Din), and a day of remembrance (Yom Ha-Zikaron). Most powerfully, though, it is a day about the future, with the sound of the Shofar awakening us to contemplate how we plan on marching into our next year of life.

This week we are blessed with two Torah portions – Parashat Nitzavim and Parashat Vayelech – and both contain powerful expressions of forward thinking. Both are spoken by Moses, during the last few days of his life. Anticipating his own death, Moses chooses to spend his last days thinking about his people’s future.

At the beginning of Parashat Nitzavim, in a farewell address to the people, Moses says “Today you are all standing before God your Lord – your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcers, every Israelite man, woman and child…” (Deuteronomy 29:9). Quite an impressive audience Moses is addressing. Yet despite the diversity of who is present, Moses also turns his thoughts to those who are not present: “But it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant…I am making it both with those who are standing with us today before God our Lord, and with those who are not here with us today” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14). When addressing “those who are not here with us today,” who is Moses referring to? The commentator Rashi says “this is referring to the future generations.” In affirming the covenant between God and the Jewish people, Moses is reminding those who are present that they have the responsibility to think about future generations. 

Not only then, but in every generation when this Torah portion is read, Moses’ words speak to the present generation and reminds them that a responsible Jewish community is not only about the here and now, but it is also about the future. Communities that heed to Moses’ words choose to invest in their future – in youth, in young adults, and in education. Such communities are not stuck in the past, nor are they simply living for today, rather they are setting the foundations for the next generation. Especially because it is so easy to get caught up in who is present – “tribal chiefs, elders,” etc. – the true mark of success in any community is leadership that can look beyond their present audience and concern themselves with “those who are not present.”

The future is also about training leaders, assuring that each generation will benefit from the wisdom and talents of select individuals who will lead and inspire them in a visionary fashion. 

In Parashat Vayelech, Moses, who begins by saying “I am now 120 years old, and I can no longer be active” (Deuteronomy 31:2), stands before his chosen successor Joshua, “…and in the presence of all Israel, said to him ‘Be strong and brave, since you will be the one to bring this nation to the land that God swore to their fathers that He would give it to them” (Deuteronomy 31:7). Recognizing that his tenure as a leader is coming to an end, Moses stands before his people with dignity and grace, charging his successor to march forth and lead his people with courage. At the ripe old age of 120, Moses reminds us that one of the keys to the continuity of a community is leadership. What would have happened to the Jewish people had Moses not picked and trained a successor? The same thing that happens to any community that does not place leadership training as one of its top priorities: lack of direction and absence of vision. Rather than heading into the “Promised Land,” such communities often disappear into oblivion.

Sounding the Shofar stirs up many emotions within us. It makes us cry, it brings a smile to our faces, and it strengthens us with hope. In addition to all of these beautiful sentiments, may this year's sound of the Shofar inspire within us a vision to plan, build and invest in our future. 

Shabbat Shalom

Monday, August 28, 2017

Who Lives, Who Dies: Hamilton’s Rosh Hashanah Message

Can the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” serve up some inspiration for the High Holy Days? Reflecting back on how I felt on the night of Feb. 25, 2016, on my way out of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York after seeing “Hamilton” (yes, with the full original cast!), I think the answer is yes.

“Hamilton” is a work of lyrical genius. It’s entertaining, creative and groundbreaking. But above all, Hamilton is a deep exploration of the human condition. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” These existential lyrics appear in many of the show’s songs, and the theme persists throughout the “Hamilton” experience. “Once I wrote this passage, I knew it would be the key to the whole musical,” Hamilton’s creator, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has said. The show is uplifting, depressing, funny, poignant, tragic and inspirational — all at once. The night I saw “Hamilton,” I laughed, cried, sang and felt troubled. Ultimately, I walked away still believing in humanity, filled with hope.

As I contemplate the coming High Holy Days, I look back on how I felt after seeing “Hamilton” as an ideal framework for a meaningful experience. Properly understood, Rosh Hashanah asks us to undertake a deep exploration of the human condition. Indeed, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer poses almost the exact same question as “Hamilton”: “Who shall live, who shall die?” As to “who tells your story,” the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings — like “Hamilton” — offer an honest profile of our story.

In “Hamilton,” we meet the founding fathers of America for who they really were: heroic, valiant yet flawed human beings. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is at once a larger than life, overachieving genius and a fatally flawed person whose life was scarred by dysfunctional relationships. Javier Munoz, who took over as the lead in “Hamilton” in July, believes that this honest and realistic portrayal of our nation’s founders (particularly their character flaws) is precisely why the musical’s story exerts such a potent hold on people. “They allow the audience to say, ‘I’m OK the way I am — flawed and human.’ It pulls them in closer.”

In the same spirit, the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah offer an honest portrayal of Abraham and Sarah. On a day when we contemplate our own character flaws and imperfect lives, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s troubled relationship, the complex account of Ishmael’s birth, Sarah’s disturbing expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the infamous day when Abraham almost slaughtered his own child. Despite all of this, we also look up to Abraham and Sarah as people who helped shape the religion and faith with which we identify. We tell these stories on Rosh Hashanah — the anniversary of the creation of human beings — because they remind us that all people, including those we look up to as our founding patriarchs and matriarchs, are filled with character flaws. Much like the “Hamilton” experience, worshippers who read these stories in the Torah are “pulled in closer” to one of the existential truths that lie behind the Rosh Hashanah experience: human beings are imperfect, and despite that eternal truth, we never lose hope in our potential to achieve great things.

For two and a half hours, Hamilton’s creative blend of rhythmic hip-hop lyrics, powerful musical arrangements and thought-provoking messages sent me on a journey through the full gamut of human emotions.

Properly experienced, a Rosh Hashanah service should do the same. The rhythmic lyrics of the liturgical poetry should inspire us to sing and feel uplifted, the powerful music of the shofar should bring us to tears, and the rabbi’s message should be thought provoking. If your Rosh Hashanah experience involves laughter, tears and deep contemplation, and if sometime during services you should feel troubled, inspired, worried and then hopeful, Rosh Hashanah, like “Hamilton,” will have touched the deepest recesses of your soul.

 Of all the characters in “Hamilton,” the one who touched me most deeply was George Washington (played by Chris Jackson). His commanding stage presence and soulful singing of every lyric filled me with chills and brought me to tears. I felt privileged to convey my feelings to Jackson after the show, and after meeting him, I felt he was blessed with a deeply unique spiritual quality.

I was therefore not surprised that when I read through the show’s official behind-the-scenes book “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the chapter on Jackson featured a beautiful double page photo of him and the rest of the cast backstage holding hands in a circle, their eyes closed, with Jackson leading them in a pre-show meditation (something he does before each performance). His message to his colleagues: “Let’s agree that for the next two and a half hours, this is the most important thing we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — in the audience, on the stage and in the orchestra pit — will leave the theater a better person than when they walked in.”

Let’s hope that this coming Rosh Hashanah, we can approach our services as the most important things we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — the congregants, the clergy, the volunteer ushers — will leave the synagogue a better person than when they walked in.

Let that be the story we live to tell.