Wednesday, December 15, 2010

In Israel With My Son Ilan

There is no more powerful classroom than the classroom of life experiences. This is why I have always believed in travelling with my kids as much as possible, allowing them to experience, learn and see the world with their own eyes. Peni and I are big believers in life experiences. This is why we have taken our kids on so many trips, locally in California as well as family trips to Israel, Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. (I've probably left something out!).

This past Monday afternoon, my son Ilan and I arrived in Israel. Ilan is 10 (almost 11), and this is his fifth trip to Israel. By comparison, when I was his age, I had yet to step foot in the Holy Land! So, why is this trip different than Ilan's four previous trips to Israel? Because this trip is all about him.

Four years ago, I did something similar with my daughter Shira, who was also 10 at the time. Shira had just raised an incredible $24,000 to benefit Israeli children in the northern town of Shlomi, who had been hit hard during the summer of 2006 Lebanon War. Shira and I came to Israel to meet the kids, and she had arranged for 350 of them to attend the Festigal, Israel's annual kid's show extravaganza. We decided to join the kids, and we also took advantage of the trip to Israel to visit various people, places and things. That trip included visits with family, a night with the Shlomi kids at the Festigal, and dinner with Israeli author Amos Oz and his wife Nili in their Tel Aviv apartment. We did visit some sites, but Shira was thrilled to meet lots of people, especially as they recognized her from the color photo and write-up in Israel's Yediot Acharonot newspaper.

Ilan had a different itinerary in mind. "What would you like to do on your personal trip to Israel with Daddy?" I asked him.  "Hikes, archaeological sites, more hikes, and some more archaeology." Ilan loves ancient history, and he loves adventures. Is there any better place in the world that combines these two experiences than Israel? So, here we are, off to an adventure through Israel's canyons, riverbeds and antiquities! We will visit the sites of ancient Jerusalem, and then are off to hike and journey through the Judean Desert, the Dead Sea Region, the Galilee, the Golan Heights, play in the snow on the Hermon, visit the coast and Tel Aviv, and travel down to the Negev for more hikes. We have been here a few days, and if you want to follow our trip, you will have to go to the special blog site that Ilan set up as  trip journal  http://ilananddaddy.blogspot.com/. There you can see photos and follow our adventures through Israel.


My purpose of this post is to encourgage parents that if you want to help build a positive Jewish identity for your kids, there is nothing better than showing them Israel yourself. Show them how much fun Israel is, how, cool, hip, ancient, modern, tasty and inspirational this amazing country of ours is. In just a few days, I have seen a deep impact on Ilan -- his love for Israel, his spiritually charged praying at minyan every morning, our Torah study together, and his remarks on how amazed he is with the survival of Israel and the Jewish people --  all of this is strengthened here in Israel. Enjoy these photos below, and don't forget to check out Ilan's blog for more. For now, let me only encourage you: if you are looking to take your kids on a really fun trip, injected with meaning, filled with adventure and abounding in diversity -- forget Hawaii or other typical vacation spots -- go to Israel -- the experience of a lifetime, again and again!!!



Thursday, November 4, 2010

Burnt Tefillin: A Lesson in Religion




It was the summer of 1985. I had just completed my service in the Israel Defense Forces, and I took up residence in Jerusalem. As I put on my tefillin one morning, it suddenly dawned on me that it was time to give these "loaner" tefillin back to the army. I should really buy a new pair, I thought. With so many religious stores to choose from in Jerusalem, where should I go?

I went back to my Yeshiva to speak to one of the rabbis, and he told me of a tefillin factory in Beit-El where they make the "top of the line" tefillin. He told me that it would be expensive but worth it, and that to help me out, he would would write a letter asking that I be given the "yeshiva student discount."

As he wrote the letter, he looked up to me and asked "Why is a young man your age buying new tefillin? Don't you still have the pair from your Bar Mitzvah?" I told the rabbi the story, that just a few months earlier, on Tu B'Shvat (in February, 1985), my platoon was attacked in Southern Lebanon by a suicide bomber. I explained to the rabbi that the suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives toward our Safari truck, and, in a flash moment, triggered a massive explosion just a split second before his intended impact with our truck. On that truck were 14 soldiers, along with all of our personal equipment, our weapons and explosives -- and 14 pair of tefillin. The truck and all that it contained -- tefillin included -- went up in flames, but the 14 soldiers (10 of whom were wounded) miraculously came out alive.

As I told this story to the rabbi, he remembered hearing of the incident, and with an anguished look said "Yes, that's right, I did hear that story. That was such a terrible tragedy, 14 pair of tefillin burning."

Shocked and dumbfounded by his response, I calmed my immediate inner rage, mustered up all of my courage, looked the rabbi straight in the eyes and said "Rabbi, with no disrespect to you, I choose to look at the story a bit differently. Instead of focusing on the tragedy of 14 pair of burnt tefillin, I instead celebrate the miracle of human lives -- my life and the lives of my comrades -- who survived the bombing, can go on living, and can even come to you seeking advice on where to buy a new pair of tefillin. After all, Rabbi, had one of my friends been killed, could I have come to you asking where to buy a new one? Aren't we always taught that Judaism places the sanctity of life above all other things?" The rabbi saw that I was trembling, agitated and emotional, yet he continued to write his letter. He finally completed the letter, placed it in an envelope, and handed it to me.

I returned the loaner tefillin to the army, and my burnt tefillin were soon replaced by a beautiful new pair from the Beit-El factory. I still own that very same pair, and every morning when I wear this special pair of tefillin, they remind me of the near-death experience that my comrades and I went through, and -- as a result -- they remind me of the sanctity of life.

They also remind me that the rabbi never did answer my question.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Rabin's Funeral




I wasn’t born when JFK was shot, but I certainly remember where I was when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down by an extremist. It was Shabbat, November 4, 1995 (12 Heshvan, 5756, on the Hebrew Calendar). I was about to sit down to Shabbat lunch with a group of students in the synagogue, when someone came in to inform me that Rabin had been shot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Were it not for the two weddings I was scheduled to officiate at that week, I would have flown to Israel to attend the funeral.

I remember every moment of Rabin’s Funeral. I remember the moving tribute delivered by his granddaughter Noa, who opened her eulogy by saying “Forgive me if I don’t speak about the peace process today, for I wish instead to speak about my grandfather.”

I remember President Clinton – who brought me to tears with his “Shalom Haver” remarks moments after the assassination – moving me yet again, this time by delivering a “Dvar Torah” on that week’s parasha: “This week, Jews all around the world are studying the Torah portion in which God tests the faith of Abraham, patriarch of the Jews and the Arabs. He commands Abraham to sacrifice Yitzhak. ‘Take your son, the one you love, Yitzhak.’ As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak.”

Last year at this time, I was privileged to travel to Israel with Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan and seventeen other rabbis for a three day mission to Israel. Our very first stop was the site of Rabin’s assassination, where the consul laid a wreath, and I was honored with leading the “El Malei Rachamim” prayer.

This year, I am back in Los Angeles, the same city where I was fifteen years ago when Rabin was assassinated. This week marks the fifteenth anniversary of the assassination (on the Hebrew calendar), and official ceremonies were held throughout Israel. This week, we read the same Torah portion – Parashat Vayera – that was read the week of Rabin’s funeral, the parasha of “Akedat Yitzhak" (The Binding of Isaac). This week, I look back at that unforgettable funeral, and I remember one more feature that stands out in my mind more than any speeches: the fact that a Jewish funeral took place in Israel where the deceased was surrounded and eulogized by Jews and Arabs.

I remember how Rabin was publicly eulogized (in this order) by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, King Hussein of Jordan, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Jew, followed by an Arab, followed by a Jew, followed by an Arab, all standing together at one graveside in Israel, eulogizing one Jewish leader. I think about the children who were born that year in Israel. They probably have a hard time understanding how such an integrated funeral was really possible, given the Middle East they have witnessed since they were born.


As I reflect on that moment, I ponder the spiritual significance of Rabin’s funeral. Was Rabin's funeral, which brought together Jews and Arabs for one brief moment, a first in Middle East history?

At the end of next week's Torah portion, Hayei Sarah, the Torah describes the death and burial of Abraham. A "father of a multitude of nations," Abraham fathered two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, whose offspring were unfortunately doomed to struggle with one another for thousands of years. Having one common father in Abraham, each son's offspring were poised to become "great nations." The Jewish people trace their lineage through Isaac, for God told Abraham "it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you." The Arabs, and later the Muslims, trace their heritage to Ishmael, of whom God said to Abraham, "I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed." Each son was destined to be a leader of his own people.

After growing up together briefly, the half brothers were separated, Isaac's family going one way and Ishmael and his mother Hagar going in another direction. They were separated from one another for some 70 years. During that time, according to the Midrash, Isaac actually had gone to visit Hagar. We do not really know the purpose of the visit, but perhaps it was Isaac's overture at reconciliation between the half brothers.

Then Abraham dies. "And Abraham was gathered to his kin. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the Cave of Machpelah." The Talmud describes Ishmael's attendance at his father's funeral as an act of "teshuvah." To do teshuvah means to return. Ishmael returned to his father and to his half brother, Isaac. Was Ishmael's teshuvah a response to Isaac's earlier visit to his home? We will never know.

All we know is that Isaac and Ishmael, Jew and Arab, stood together at their father's graveside, tending to Abraham's burial needs together, each probably having delivered moving eulogies for all of "Abraham's kin" to hear at the funeral.

It is an unfortunate fact of history that the momentum of Isaac and Ishmael standing together at their father's graveside was not carried into the future of their respective people's history.

Similarly, it is unfortunate that when a funeral similar to Abraham's took place just fifteen years ago, the momentum of that event was not carried forward equally by both sides beyond Rabin's graveside.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Letters to Talya: A Yom Kippur Reflection

Thirty-nine years ago, Dov Indig, a young soldier in the Israel Defense Force tank corps, sat on guard duty in the Golan Heights. Joining him was a reserve soldier, many years older than Dov. During their four hours of guard duty, they engaged in a deep conversation about religion. It must have been a fascinating exchange; Dov came from Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where students combine Torah study and military service in combat units, and the reservist came from a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, the epitome of secular Zionism.

The reservist told Dov of his teenage daughter, Talya, an 11th-grade student in the kibbutz high school. Talya’s class had recently spent one week in a Gesher (Bridge) seminar, where secular Israeli teenagers interact with religious kids and study Judaism from a more traditional perspective. The seminar raised many questions in Talya’s mind about Judaism, and her father felt unable to address her questions. He liked Dov’s approach and asked permission from Dov for Talya to write to him with her questions. Dov happily obliged, and what ensued was a two-year exchange of letters between Dov and Talya.

This thought-provoking and moving exchange of letters between two pre-Facebook teenagers is found in the 2005 book “Michtavim L’Talya” (“Letters to Talya”). I was recently re-reading the book, and it dawned on me how deeply this book relates to one of the most powerful lessons of Yom Kippur.

The Mishnah teaches: “For transgressions between man and fellow man, Yom Kippur effects no atonement, until they have pacified each other” (Yoma 8:9). This Mishnah emphasizes the interpersonal angle of Yom Kippur, one that far transcends cantorial performances and eloquent sermons. It teaches us that fasting and prayer do not resolve differences between people. It reminds us that in addition to talking to God with a scripted text, Yom Kippur is also about talking things out with family, friends and those with whom we have different religious and political viewpoints.

So it was with Dov and Talya. They lived in the same country but came from two extremely different places in life.

Dov was a Modern Orthodox religious Zionist yeshiva student. His worldview was rooted in God, Torah, halachah and the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
Talya was the classic secular Zionist. Raised in a secular kibbutz, her worldview was rooted in the modern-day values of Western civilization, of an enlightened Zionist society in Israel and in the Jewish people as agents of universalism.

Egalitarianism was not a part of Dov’s world, and God was not present in Talya’s upbringing and education. Dov frowned upon the abandonment of Torah and saw it as part of the cause for the breakdown of family values in Israeli society. Talya could not accept the separation of boys and girls in social venues such as dancing or holding hands on a date. What these vastly different youngsters had in common was their youth, their curiosity about the other and their willingness to talk with each other.

From very different perspectives, Dov and Talya exchanged letters for two years. It sounds scripted, but it’s all true. They spoke about God, Torah, Zionism, values, Jewish history and the political direction of their country vis-à-vis the Arabs. As we enter Yom Kippur, these intellectually brave teenagers remind all of us that the power of dialogue — face to face, Facebook or through written letters — has the power to bridge gaps, resolve differences and bring people closer together.

In fact, here is Talya’s very last letter to Dov (my own translation):

Dear Dov,
I received your letter today, and I am already writing back. Perhaps this is because of your previous letter, where you wrote of the possibility of war with Syria. I am deeply worried; so much so that I have decided that this year, for the very first time in my life, I am fasting and going to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. There I will pray that there will be no war, and that the high alert of our soldiers is a false alarm.
So, what do you think? Would you have ever believed two years ago, when we started writing to each other, that a cynical kibbutz girl, who bothers you with all sorts of annoying questions, is actually going to the synagogue and fasting on Yom Kippur? I hope I can hold up throughout the day!

I have changed so much these past two years, as my world has opened up to ideas that I would have never imagined in my wildest dreams. It’s all thanks to you, Dov, thanks to your fantastic letters, and thanks to our fascinating dialogues and exchanges. It now seems to me that I am living from letter to letter, so please, hurry up and write more, as I await your letters.
I wish you a good and wonderful New Year.
Yours, who thinks about you often,

Talya

Dov never had a chance to respond. He was killed on the second day of the Yom Kippur war.

On this Yom Kippur, let us commit to continue their dialogue.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Torah Thoughts from Paris

This week I bring you “Torah Thoughts from Jerusalem – via Paris.” After two wonderful and productive weeks at the SEC in Jerusalem, where we held our historic first annual Sephardic Summer Institute, I decided to take a few days with my wife and visit the city where my father lived for ten years, where my parents spent their first year of married life, and where intellectual and artistic inspiration is as common as the corner café.
We arrived here Wednesday, and after checking into our charming little hotel, we went out to explore the neighborhood where we are staying – Le Marais – the historic Jewish neighborhood of Paris. I would like to share with you our first afternoon in Paris.

My friends have often commented that I must have a built –in wireless detector in my brain that detects Jewish bookstores (In Israel the signal is always beeping!), for within a few minutes of our walk down Rue de Rosiers in the Marais, Peni and I found ourselves in one of the most magnificent Jewish bookstores I have ever seen (and I have seen a few in my day). There in front of us, in a smorgasbord of books as varied as French cheeses and wine, we discovered the vibrant intellectual and spiritual world of French Jewry. Torah commentary, literature, poetry, intellectual journals – you name it, it was there. Peni studied French in college, and French is my first language from childhood, so we were both fortunate enough to appreciate the depth of what this bookstore represented.

This brought to my mind the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh: “Behold I set before you this day a blessing and a curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). Throughout the Jewish world, the “blessing and curse” is often expressed by the conscious decision to strengthen and perpetuate Jewish life – a blessing – or the abandonment of anything Jewish – a curse. Here in Paris, as reflected by the vast intellectual and spiritual treasures I found in this bookstore, the Jewish community has decided – despite, and perhaps in spite of, an unfortunate resurgence of anti-Semitism (as told to me first hand by a local café owner), to choose the path of blessing and express a serious engagement with Jewish life. My library is now enriched with the Torah commentary of Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi (a French Sephardic rabbi who helped re-build French Jewry after the Shoa) and Marc-Alain Ouaknin (A French rabbi/intellectual who writes creative spiritual works on many Jewish topics) – and I also purchased a Moroccan Shofar.

As we walked out of the store – our minds and souls nourished – we felt it was time to also nourish our bodies. What to eat? And where? The answers to these questions were right in front of us, in every direction we turned. On these few charming Parisian blocks in the Marais, we were presented with more kosher restaurants than one can find in any given neighborhood of Tel Aviv. French food, Israeli food, Moroccan food, Ashkenazi food, kosher markets filled with gourmet meats, wines and cheeses, and patisserie/bakeries with pastries and baguettes that make you say “diet, what diet?”

Here again, I looked at this bustling Jewish life – this time in the culinary arts -- and it brought to mind yet another teaching from this week’s parasha, one of the most characteristic expressions of living a Jewish life: the laws of Kashrut (the Jewish Dietary Laws – see Deuteronomy Chapter 14, verses 3-21, for a full listing of the permissible and prohibited animals to eat, and the prohibition of mixing meat and dairy). Here, in the heart of Paris, you can enjoy life as any other Parisian – eat the best cheeses, taste the finest wines, walk out of a bakery with a baguette that you finish by the time you get back to your hotel, or enjoy the finest entrecote steaks and pommes frites (that means French Fries – they don’t call them that here, FYI) – and you don’t need to compromise your observance of the Torah’s laws of kashrut. Simply magnificent, and once again, the expression of being a blessing, not a curse.

After a wonderful meal, we continued to explore, and we found a beautiful historic synagogue, opening its doors in time for Minha – the daily afternoon service. As opposed to what media might present, the synagogue was packed -- more so than I have seen in many US or Israeli synagogues – and mostly locals, not tourists. After the services, Peni and I met in the lobby, and we almost simultaneously commented how powerful it is that no matter where you are – Los Angeles, Boston, Jerusalem or Paris – the feeling of community in a synagogue is always that of feeling “at home,” and the language of prayer is always one. Of course, when that language is laden with a French accent, it brings out the romantic side of spirituality, and makes prayer a language of love. Parisians wouldn’t have it any other way.

Shabbat Shalom and Au Revoir from Paris!
August 6, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Ten Commandments

How many commandments are there in the Torah? To most people the answer is simple: 10.

True, there are those who know the Torah contains 613 commandments, but the majority of people believe that there are only “The Ten Commandments.” For them, the 613 figure comes as a shock. And even among those who are aware of the 613, you will sometimes hear, “Yes, I know, but there are really 10 ‘big’ commandments.”

Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that the term “Ten Commandments” is foreign to the classic Jewish tradition. The birth of “The Ten Commandments” tradition is in the Christian world, where Christian theology asserted that only these 10 statements, spoken by God at Mount Sinai, were relevant. The Septuagint, the Greek version of the Torah, translated the biblical term Aseret Hadevarim (10 statements), as dekalogos, which means “10 words.” Largely due to Christianity’s theological conclusions, the commonly known word “Decalogue” came to be known in Hellenistic and Christian circles as “The Ten Commandments.”

Rabbinic Judaism never used the term “Ten Commandments,” which in Hebrew would have been Aseret Hamitzvot. Instead, the rabbis named them Aseret Hadibrot (10 sayings or utterances).

What made these particular commandments unique to the rabbis was obviously not their exclusivity to all other commandments, but the manner in which they were transmitted to the Israelites. Most of the Torah’s commandments were transmitted through Moses. God would teach Moses, and Moses in turn would teach the people.

This is reflected in the oft-repeated verse “And God spoke to Moses as follows: Speak to the Children of Israel and instruct them….” This phrase, with either “God spoke to Moses” or “God said to Moses,” appears in the Torah 146 times. By contrast, the introduction to the “Aseret Hadibrot” — “God spoke all these words, saying…” — appears only in this instance. The fact that God chose to speak these 10 statements in first person, without an intermediary, is what caught the eyes of the rabbinic tradition. In fact, the Midrash Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael goes one step further, saying that all 10 statements were actually spoken by God as one: “God spoke all these words. This teaches us that God spoke the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance — something impossible for creatures of flesh and blood. If so, why then is it said ‘I am the Lord your God,’ ‘You shall have no other Gods,’ and so on? It simply teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, after having said all of the Aseret Hadibrot in one utterance, repeated them, saying each commandment separately.”

The words of this Midrash have even impacted the way the Aseret Hadibrot are read in the synagogue from the Torah. It is the custom in most communities to stand during the reading of the Aseret Hadibrot, a show of special reverence for this being the actual voice of God that was heard at Mount Sinai when these commandments were spoken. Additionally, when the Torah reader chants them, he must choose, based on the custom of the community, how to chant them. There are two alternative systems of cantillation for the Aseret Hadibrot — “lower cantillation” (ta’am tachton) and “upper cantillation” (ta’am elyon). The former divides the Hebrew text into verses, in the usual grammatical manner of the rest of the Torah, where the latter divides each commandment into its own unit, reflecting the manner in which God actually spoke them.

It is obvious that in the Jewish tradition, the Aseret Hadibrot are not the “Ten Commandments,” but they do hold a special place within the tradition. Is the mere fact that they were spoken out loud by God enough of a reason for the special attention they are accorded? Or is the actual content of these commandments, which is so powerful that God purposely chose to utter only these directly, the reason for their special place in Judaism?

The answer to this question is best summed up in Sefer Haikkarim, a 15th century work of Jewish philosophy by Spanish rabbi and philosopher Joseph Albo, who writes: “These 10 statements are general, all-inclusive principles representing the two main categories of commandments in the Torah. The first five of these commandments represents man’s faith in God, and his obligations toward God. The next five define the overriding principles governing man’s relationship to his fellow man, and are mandatory to the existence of an orderly life in any state or society” (Section 3, Chapter 26). As such, Albo asserts that the Aseret Hadibrot are a sort of “preamble to the constitution,” and without them, the rest of the Torah cannot make sense.

The Talmud teaches that the Aseret Hadibrot were once a fixed part of Jewish liturgy, and were recited every day during services. This practice was abolished, the Talmud says, so as to not strengthen the claim of the heretics who said that these are the most important commandments. I strongly believe that given the sad state of spiritual and moral affairs in today’s society, we should reinstitute the daily recital of the Aseret Hadibrot. Let us worry a little less about the “claims of the heretics” and focus more on what path we would like our world to follow.