Monday, December 14, 2009

"The Two Menorahs" by SY Agnon (translated by Daniel Bouskila)

In the synagogue there stood a Hanukkah Menorah made of tin, and engraved upon it was an impression of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the candlelighting blessings for Hanukkah. It's candle holders were wide and deep. All year long the Menorah was hanging on the northern wall of the synagogue, in the exact same place where they would hang a Matzah that symbolized the permission to cook during the Passover holiday. Every eve of Hanukkah, the Shamash (caretaker) of the synagogue would take down the Menorah, clean, shine and polish it, place it on a table next to the doorway, place wicks and oil in its cups, and light it for Hanukkah.

It happened one year that a few days before Hanukkah, the Shamash wished to prepare the Menorah for the holiday, but he could not find it. The news of this spread all over the town, and the news ultimately arrived to all of the town's children. God inspired the children to come up with a plan -- they would take all of their dreidels made of lead and bring it to the town's craftsman, so that he would make a new Menorah from all of the dreidels. They brought all of the dreidels to the craftsman, and they promised that his pay would be all of the Hanukkah gelt (money) that they would receive from their parents. It wasn't two or three days, and some even say one day, and the craftsman had already completed the new Menorah. The children took the Menorah from the craftsman and brought it to the synagogue, and that night they lit the Hanukkah candles from this Menorah.

A few months later, before Pesach, when the Shamash was cleaning and preparing the synagogue for Pesach, he suddenly found the lost Menorah under a bench. He picked it up and placed it back in it's natural place. The following year on Hanukkah, the Shamash took the original Menorah and prepared it for Hanukkah. The elders of the synagogue saw this and said, "The children who gave up their dreidels and Hanukkah gelt so that we should all have the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah -- they should have the merit that their Menorah should be used." They established that they should light from the lead Menorah that the children had commissioned, even though the original Menorah looked prettier. And so it was, that the light of the children illuminated the synagogue -- and the entire town -- year after year on Hanukkah.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Give Shalom A Chance

Someone would probably be labeled a hippie if he or she were to use the English word “peace” as a greeting or an expression when parting. Yet in Hebrew, the standard “hello” or “goodbye” is shalom (peace), and the word carries no modern cultural or political connotation.

What is it about the word “shalom” that has enabled it to become the standard Hebrew salutation? A small sampling of its place in Jewish tradition will reveal that “shalom” is far more than a greeting.

In the Hebrew Bible, the word “shalom” appears 237 times, including in this week’s Torah portion, Naso. In the Birkat HaKohanim (Priestly Blessing), which is part of our daily Jewish liturgy, the concluding line reads, “Yisa HaShem Panav Elekha, V’Yasem Lekha Shalom” (May God direct his favor upon you, and grant you peace) (Numbers 6:26).

Commenting on the word “shalom,” the Netziv, the 19th-century rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, says, “Now that the previous blessings have been pronounced, we recite a blessing that is the vessel which contains the other ones, for without peace one cannot derive gratification from any blessing.”

The “previous blessings” referred to by the Netziv are the first two parts of the Priestly Blessing — “May God bless you and protect you,” and “May God deal kindly and graciously with you” (Numbers 6:24-25). In a beautiful metaphor, the Netziv refers to “shalom” as a vessel that contains “blessing, protection, kindness and grace” from God, and further remarks that without peace, one cannot truly enjoy these or any other blessings.

The great Torah commentator Rashi, in his typically brief yet packed comments, says, “Without peace there is nothing.”

Is peace only a blessing from heaven, or can human beings participate in creating peace?

The Book of Psalms teaches: “Seek peace and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15). Based on this injunction to actively seek peace, the rabbinic tradition brings to light an aspect of Aaron’s life that complements his ritual duties as high priest. Pirkei Avot teaches: “Hillel says: ‘Be a student of Aaron, lover of peace [ohev shalom] and pursuer of peace [rodef shalom]’” (Pirkei Avot 1:12).

For Aaron, who was commanded to recite the Priestly Blessing, its simple recitation was not enough. Aaron was the ultimate creator of peace within the community, reconciling differences between married couples and disputes between friends. From Aaron we learn that prayers are not mere words we recite, but, especially with peace, a lifestyle we must create for ourselves.

How far must one take the pursuit of peace? In an interesting numerological calculation (known as gematria), the Baal HaTurim commentary remarks that the numerical value of the letters that spell “shalom” (376 — shin=300, lamed=30, vav=six, and mem=40) is equivalent to the letters of the name “Esau” (376 — ayin=70, shin/sin=300, vav=six).

Esau was Jacob’s twin brother, and there was hardly “shalom” between the two. Furthermore, in later rabbinic tradition, Esau, the father of the Edomite nation, came to be equated with the Roman Empire, Christian Rome and all of the persecution of Jews that came with it. Despite all of this, the Baal HaTurim says that the numerical equivalence of “shalom” and “Esau” teach us that “one should always be first in inquiring after the peace of all men, even the peace of a non-Jew.” Where this may seem like “no big deal” for the Jew in the modern world, it was quite bold of the Baal HaTurim to make such a statement, especially in light of the atmosphere toward Jews in medieval Europe. Perhaps we can draw from his teaching today by remembering that “Esau” was symbolic for “enemy of the Jews,” and therefore, “being first to inquire after the peace of all men” — including Esau — serves as food for thought in the debate of whether it is wise for the Jews to make the first overture for peace toward our enemies.

It is no wonder that we greet one another with the blessing “shalom.” It is, as the minor Talmudic tractate’s Perek HaShalom (Chapter of Peace) puts it, “The greatest of all blessings, for all blessings and prayers conclude with peace.”

I therefore conclude with a prayer that “shalom” become more than just a greeting. In other words, "Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu, V’al kol Yisrael, v’imru amen."

(originally published in the Jewish Journal, June 4 Issue, 2009)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A Yom Ha-Shoah Reflection

Today is Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. In memory of our 6 Million brothers and sisters who were brutally murdered in the Shoah, I present this poem composed by Uri Zvi Greenberg, one of Israel's great Hebrew poets.

Born in 1896 in Austria-Hungary, Greenberg moved to Palestine (Israel) in 1924. He was awarded Israel's Bialik Prize three times, and was the recipient of the Israel Prize -- Israel's most prestigious honor -- in 1957. He died in Israel in 1981.

Greenberg's poems are often called "prophecies," as he was one of the few Hebrew literary figures of the 1930's and 40's whose works envisioned and warned of the detruction of European Jewry (S.Y. Agnon was one of the others). Greenberg understood the Holocaust as a great tragedy on multiple levels, amongst them the Jewish indifference to their own destiny. Greenberg's words are powerful, poetic and direct, and he minces no words in "telling it like it is."
Below is one of Greenberg's most powerful reflections on the cruelty and inhumanity of Nazi Europe towards the Jewish people.

by Uri Zvi Greenberg

We were not likened to dogs
among the Gentiles.
They pity a dog, caress, even kiss him with the Gentile mouth.
For like a puppy, fondled at home, they pamper it, delight in it always.
And when this dog dies - how very much the Gentiles mourn him!

We were not led like sheep to the slaughter in the boxcars,
For like leprous sheep they led us to extinction over all the beautiful landscapes of Europe.

The Gentiles did not handle their sheep as they handled our bodies.
Before slaughter they did not pull out the teeth of their sheep.
They did not strip the wool from their bodies as they did to us.
They did not push the sheep into the fire to make ash of the living
And to scatter the ashes over streams and sewers.

Are there other analogies to this, our disaster that came to us at their hands?
There are no other analogies-
Therein lies the horrifying phrase:
No other analogies!

For every cruel torture that any other man may yet do to man in a Gentile country -
He who comes to compare it will state:
He was tortured like a Jew.

Every fright, every terror, every loneliness, every chagrin,
Every murmuring, weeping in the world,
He who compares it will say:
This analogy is of the Jewish kind.

There is no recompense for our disaster, for its circumference is the world.

The whole culture of the Gentile Kingdoms to its peak -
through our blood.

And all its conscience -
through our weeping.