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)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Journey Through the Land of Oz

Review of The Amos Oz Reader (Harcourt, 2009)

(review originally appeared in the Jewish Journal 4/29)

“We must keep in touch,” Amos Oz said during my first meeting with him three years ago.

“With great pleasure,” I answered, proceeding to ask him today’s natural follow-up question: “What is your e-mail address?”

He looked at me with his charming smile and responded: “I don’t have an e-mail.”

Amos Oz, Israel’s best-known and most translated author, has penned 33 books — including novels, novellas and short stories — along with more than 400 articles on literature and Israeli politics. I use the word “penned,” because this gifted writer and outspoken political commentator accomplished this impressive literary output the old-fashioned way — with pen and paper. Actually, with two different pens — one blue, the other black.

“They each have a special purpose,” he once told me. “One is to rage against the government and tell them to go to hell, and the other is to tell stories.”

On May 4, Oz will turn 70. As part of the celebrations, a new English-language anthology, “The Amos Oz Reader”(Harcourt), was just released, offering a retrospective of some of the author’s finest writing from both his pens.

It is a refreshing departure from the stereotypical out-of-context compilation, and credit for this goes to editor Nitza Ben-Dov, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at Haifa University. Ben-Dov has creatively grouped Oz’s writings into four different themes: The Kibbutz, Jerusalem, the “Promised Land,” and some of Oz’s personal reflections, “In an Autobiographical Vein.” In so doing she gives us a bird’s-eye view of his life through the lenses of his writing.

Born May 4, 1939, in the Kerem Avraham neighborhood of Jerusalem, Amos Klausner grew up an only child in war-torn British Mandate Jerusalem during the years immediately leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel. His father, Yehuda Aryeh Klausner, was an intellectual whose politics were right-wing Revisionist Zionism. His mother, Fania Mussman, also an intellectual, suffered from severe depression. Their tiny Jerusalem apartment was filled with thousands of books, and Amos grew up in a milieu that included weekly Shabbat afternoon visits with his great uncle, professor Joseph Klausner, and often with Klausner’s neighbor and arch rival, the great writer S.Y. Agnon.

In 1952, Amos’s mother committed suicide at the age of 38. Two years later, just 14 1/2 years old, Amos Klausner left Jerusalem for Kibbutz Hulda, leaving behind his father and his family name, renaming himself “Oz” (which means “strength”), and rejecting his father’s Revisionist Zionism in favor of left-wing, Socialist Zionism. This biography continues to shape and inform much of Oz’s writings.

The “Kibbutz” section of the anthology features an excerpt from his first novel, “Elsewhere, Perhaps” (1966), where he explores the complex fine line between personal and communal life on the kibbutz, as well as the often-blurred line between kibbutz idealism and petty human behavior typical of any society.

Oz’s most famous novel, “My Michael” (1968), is the first exposure we have to his dark view of the city of his childhood, Jerusalem. The “Jerusalem” section includes a substantial excerpt from “My Michael,” titled “It’s Cold in This Jerusalem of Yours,” where the narrator, the depressed Hannah Gonen, describes the city as “a landscape pregnant with suppressed violence.”

One of Israel’s most vocal political journalists and peace activists, Oz’s other pen is well represented in the “Promised Land” section of the anthology, in which we encounter Oz’s liberal Zionism, his understandings of the terms “Jewish” and “Zionist,” his disdain for right-wing extremism and his vision of what Israel potentially can be. The section “In An Autobiographical Vein” features a chapter from “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” titled “My Mother Was Thirty-eight When She Died.” In 2003, Oz openly confronted the most traumatic event of his childhood, the suicide of his mother. With the publication of the quasi-memoir, quasi-autobiographical “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” readers were finally able to journey with Oz through the trauma and pain of his loss.

As Amos Oz celebrates his 70th birthday, the State of Israel celebrates its 61st year of independence. Oz recently said, “being an Israeli at 70 is like being an American who is 250 years old. I saw the Boston Tea Party and met both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.”

While Oz’s analogy about his age is sharp and witty, it risks painting an inaccurate image of the Israel and the Israeli that he portrays in his books. The “George Washingtons and Abraham Lincolns” of Israel are not characters in Oz’s novels, and the “Boston Tea Parties” of Israel are at best the background to his plots. Amos Oz’s Israel is not the epic Israel and larger than life Israeli one finds in Leon Uris’s “Exodus” or Herman Wouk’s “The Hope.” Instead, he presents his readers with portraits of small, everyday people in provincial places within Israel. In fact, almost half of Oz’s books are set in the one square mile of Kerem Avraham, the small Jerusalem neighborhood where he was born. And when we do meet Israel’s political leaders or confront the complex issues surrounding the establishment of Israel, Israel’s military campaigns, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — as expressed in Oz’s political essays — one finds an Israel void of apologetic government rhetoric or simplistic one-sided arguments.

A week after our first meeting, I opened my mailbox and found an “old school” air-mail envelope adorned with a red, white and blue border. Inside was a personal letter on plain white paper, written in black pen.

Even without e-mail, Amos and I have kept in touch ever since.

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.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pick Up the Pieces

The “Tablets of Testimony,” the stone tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments, have a powerful and deeply symbolic story to tell. Beyond the words inscribed by God, the journey of these stone tablets reveals an important lesson in life.

A mere 40 days after hearing God’s voice pronounce the Ten Commandments, the Israelites suffered a serious spiritual setback. Unable to retain, or even comprehend, the idea of a formless spirit speaking in a divine voice, they returned to the more familiar, simplistic, man-made idols of their immediate Egyptian past — the golden calf. Upon shaping the golden calf, Aaron declared, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Moses, who spent those same 40 days atop Mount Sinai with God, then descended the mountain “with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, written on both sides” (Exodus 32:15).

Who had shaped and written these tablets?

“The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exodus 32:16). Carrying in his hand the weight of “God’s word,” Moses looked down at his own brothers and sisters. “And it happened when he drew near the camp that he saw the calf and the dancing, and Moses’ wrath flared, and he flung the tablets from his hand and smashed them at the bottom of the mountain” (Exodus 32:19). In one dark moment, the fantasy of an ideal people becoming the bearers of God’s word was shattered.

Next came the challenge: Where do we go from here?

The Talmud teaches: “Rabbi Judah bar Ilai taught that two arks journeyed with Israel in the wilderness — one in which the Torah was kept, and one in which the tablets broken by Moses were kept. The one in which the Torah was placed was kept in the Tent of Meeting; the other, containing the broken tablets, would come and go with them” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim, 1:1).

Yet another Talmudic teaching goes one step further, asserting that “both the new tablets of the law and the broken pieces of the first tablets were kept in the same Ark of the Covenant” (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot, 8b).

How did Moses and the Israelites move beyond their shared breakdown? Realizing their mistake and what they had potentially lost, the Israelites collected the broken remains of their first encounter with God, and they gave them to Moses. Fortunate enough to be given a second chance, Moses brought down another set of God-given tablets and placed them alongside the broken pieces.

Whether it happened the way the first Talmudic teaching describes (separate arks) or the second teaching tells it (the same ark), the rabbis offer us a powerful reminder that wholeness and brokenness share equal space in life. The Tablets of Testimony, in both whole and broken form, is a metaphor for the human condition — striving for perfection, all the while embracing imperfection. Both the whole and the broken are considered sacred in the Jewish tradition. They are both “God’s word.”

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, taught: “Nothing is more whole than a broken heart.”

Failures, broken dreams and shattered fantasies are an inevitable and natural part of life. In fact, the “shattering of tablets” is often a necessary gateway through which we must pass in order to reach the greater heights that we seek in life.

Through the episode of the golden calf and the broken tablets, Moses and the Israelites teach us that even after openly defying God’s word, it is still possible to pick up the pieces and start over again.

Quality of Life

It was a very brief meeting, and a seemingly peculiar exchange of words. For the first time, the head of the Israelite household -- Jacob -- meets Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

The only thing they shared in common was Joseph.

To Jacob, Joseph was his son, and to Pharaoh, Joseph was the economic wizard who saved his empire's economy from total disaster.

If one were asked to speculate on what these two men would speak about during their first meeting, it might go something like this:

"Jacob, you raised a brilliant young man. Without him, our country would be in a great depression right now."

Beaming with pride, Jacob would respond, "Thank you, your majesty, it's a great honor to see my son serving in your distinguished court. He always was a dreamer, and I am proud that he followed his dreams."

Pride, honor, and praise -- all of the ingredients one would expect in a first conversation between a grateful king and a proud father.

There is no such exchange between the two, nothing even remotely close. Instead, here's how it went: "Joseph brought his father and presented him to Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 'How many are the days of your life?' asked Pharaoh of Jacob. Jacob replied to Pharaoh: 'The days of the years of my sojourning are a hundred and thirty years; few and unhappy have the days of my life been. I did not attain the days of the years of life that my fathers did during their sojourn through life.' With that, Jacob blessed Pharaoh and left his presence." (Genesis 47:7-10)

Far removed from the typically schmaltzy story of "Your son is so wonderful," and "Yes, I'm so proud of him," the brief exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob has an altogether different aura, rooted in what we call in Hebrew hochmat haim, or life's wisdom.

As the leader of a powerful empire, Pharaoh had certainly met many world leaders. In his meetings with them, he certainly drew from their wisdom and advice, as would any intelligent ruler. One can only imagine what Pharaoh expected Jacob to look like, but the 16th century Polish commentator Kli Yakar tells us that Pharaoh was shocked when he saw a thin, frail, weakened old man approaching him, barely able to walk toward his throne. Jacob begins by blessing Pharaoh, and this seems to bond the two men, so much so that Pharaoh poses a wise, carefully worded, personal question: "How many are the days of your life?" The wording of Pharaoh's question caught the eye of many commentators, who wonder why Pharaoh did not simply ask, "How old are you?" Why did he word his question as "How many are the days of your life?"

Jacob's response reflects a deep understanding of Pharaoh's carefully worded question: "The days of the years of my sojourning are 130, [but] few and unhappy have been the days of my life."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German commentator, remarks that Jacob differentiates between living and existing: "You ask how many are the days of my life? I have not lived much. I have sojourned on this earth for 130 years. The days of the years that I can really call my life were in reality only few -- and were themselves bitter and full of worry."

The Netziv, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva during the second half of the 19th century, offers an additional insight: "My years of success in life were few and bitter, for even when I had actually achieved material wealth and financial security, my life was still filled with woe and sorrow, such as the death of my wife Rachel and the rape of my daughter Dinah."

Jacob's answer is filled with perspective on life's big question: How do we measure and define a "happy life"? Is it by living to a ripe old age? Is it through material wealth and success?

According to Hirsch, Jacob was telling Pharaoh that a true human being does not see life through length of years, rather through the quality of days lived. As much as we may like to think otherwise, Hirsch says, "It is only with a few select people that each day is full of importance and is considered by them as having a special meaning." Jacob's perspective brings to mind the custom of reciting Psalm 90 at a funeral, when -- before burying a loved one -- we ask God to "Teach us to number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom."

The Netziv's comments add the powerful reminder to Pharaoh that material wealth alone does not bring happiness. In another psalm recited by mourners (Psalm 49), we are reminded that material wealth is not carried with us into the grave. Jacob told this wealthy king that his great palace, wealth and fame are of no value without the true happiness, love and fulfillment of family life and personal relationships.

In the waning days of a 130-year-old life that included receiving his father's blessing by way of deceit, a terrible relationship with his brother, an unfulfilled married life, the rape of his daughter and constant strife between his children, Jacob teaches Pharaoh -- and all of us -- that happiness is not about reaching old age or amassing wealth; rather, it's about the quality and richness of day-to-day life. In this regard, his brief encounter with Pharaoh is arguably his greatest and wisest moment as a patriarch.