Friday, March 16, 2012

Agnon's "Spin" On Desecrating Shabbat

From where do we derive what is permitted and forbidden on Shabbat? Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei (our double Torah portion this week) describes the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in full architectural detail. Every step is outlined, every piece of raw construction material is listed, and every artistic craft is spelled out. Just prior to all of this detail, Moshe gathers the entire community and introduces the instructions to build the Mishkan with the following commandment: “These are the words that God has commanded for you to do. You may work during the six weekdays, but Saturday must be kept as a holy Shabbat to God.”

Immediately following this reminder to observe Shabbat, Moshe then proceeds to describe the full instructions for building the Mishkan. From this juxtaposition of the commandment to observe Shabbat and the full details of the various labors needed to build the Mishkan, the rabbinic tradition derived that the prohibited labors on Shabbat are the very labors needed to construct the Mishkan. The rabbis read Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei like architects and artists, breaking it apart into different categories and genres of labor. They derived a total of 39 forms of labor (or, more specifically, “creative acts”) needed to build the Mishkan, and they ruled that these 39 forms of labor are, in fact, the prohibited labors on Shabbat. 

These labors are listed in the Mishnah (Rabbinic Laws), Tractate Shabbat , Chapter 7:2: “The primary labors (on Shabbat) are forty less one: Sowing, Ploughing, Reaping, Binding Sheaves…” etc

The sixteenth prohibited labor listed by the Mishnah is called “toveh,” which means “spinning.” The technical description of “spinning” is the act of twisting fibers (or threads) together to produce long threads.

The labor of “spinning” brings to mind a thought-provoking tale written by S.Y. Agnon, the 1966 Nobel Prize laureate from Israel.

The story is titled “K’neged Otam Shekov’im Yeshivot Shel Ts’chok V’Kalut Rosh” (Against Those Who Establish Gatherings of Laughter and Frivolity):

            The story is told of a woman, who, every Shabbat, after she finished praying and studying the week’s Torah portion, would sit at home alone and spin yarn –so that she wouldn’t be sitting with her neighbors when they busied themselves with idle gossip.

            One Shabbat morning, Moshe Rabbenu was taking a walk. He came to the city of that very woman. He saw the Shechinah (Divine Presence) resting over one particular house, so he entered and found that one woman sitting and spinning yarn.

            He said to her, “My daughter! Don’t you know that today is Shabbat?”

            She said, “I know today is Shabbat.”

            He said to her, “And don’t you know that work is forbidden on Shabbat?”

            She said, “I know it’s forbidden to work on Shabbat.”

            He said to her, “If so, why are you spinning?”

            She said, “And what else should I be doing at this hour?”

            He said to her, “You could pray, or you could read the commentaries to the Torah portion.”

            She said to him, “I already finished my prayers, and I already read the week’s Torah portion.”

            He said to her, “If that’s the case, then go and sit with your neighbors, and do not desecrate Shabbat.” So she stood and set aside her work and went to their company.

            The following Shabbat, Moshe Rabbenu saw that the Shechinah (Divine Presence) was no longer resting above that same house. He entered and found that woman sitting with her neighbors, engaged in conversation. And what were they talking about? About this one who made for herself a dress worth so much, and that one whose husband bought for his wife a pearl necklace, this one’s son who cast his eyes on that one’s daughter, and the daughter who cast her eyes on another one’s son. And so it was: they sat and gossiped about frivolous things. When Moshe saw all of this, he said to the woman, “My daughter, return to your work and do not occupy yourself with such foolishness.”

            Therefore, a person should always be very careful not to occupy himself with frivolous matters on Shabbat.

What message does Agnon convey in this bold and daring tale? What moral is imbedded in this creative interplay on Shabbat between, on one hand -- a pious woman who prays, studies Torah, and then chooses to sit at home spinning threads rather than hanging out and gossiping – and Moshe, God’s authoritative prophet and lawgiver, the ultimate symbol of Torah and Rabbinic authority?

Agnon challenges us to reconsider and expand the concept of Hillul Shabbat --“desecrating Shabbat.” Given the ugly damage that gossip creates in society, Agnon’s story posits that if God had to choose between the two, then God would most likely prefer for one to sit and spin threads on Shabbat than to sit on Shabbat and spin tales about others.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Purim, Agnon, Herman Wouk and Bibi's AIPAC Speech

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a tyrant in the Persian Empire approached his king with the following suggestion: "There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in your majesty's interest to tolerate them. If it please your majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction..." These words by the Amalekite Haman to King Achashverosh are the classic birth of what we call anti-Semitism.

In December 1961, Israeli writer and Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon wrote a review of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. In his review, Agnon wrote that the strength of Shirer's book is that he places before our eyes the horrific events that emerged from one small nation, "who in the beginning we dismissed as if they were no big deal." Quoting the Talmud, Agnon says "This once again demonstrates the wisdom of our sages in the Talmud, who warned us to 'beware of tiny nations.'"

But it is the following words of Agnon's that are most powerful: "This lack of caution on the part of the world is one of the fatal flaws of the world community, and is especially a flaw of the Jewish people -- a people well versed in such flaws -- as we convince ourselves to ignore those who hate and threaten us, and end up being hit and injured by them, sometimes to the point where there is no remedy for the injury."

In October 2001, another great Jewish writer, Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk, wrote the following words of introduction to the newly re-issued printing of his classic Winds of War and War and Remembrance:

"As I write these words in late October 2001, a new war is just beginning, global again in scope but totally different in character. In the last global war, before VE day and VJ day came, there befell the collapse of France, the Bataan death march, the fall of Singapore, the siege of Stalingrad, bloody Tarawa, and bloodier Guadalcanal; and at the hidden heart of that global war, concealed by the smoke of battle, there burned the Holocaust. That eternal benchmark of barbarism, let us remember, was set not by a Third World country, not by Orientals, not by the Muslims, but by the Germans, an advanced European nation. The evil in human hearts knows no boundary, except the deeper, stronger will to freedom, order and justice. In the very long run, that will so far has prevailed. 

Now it is the destiny of America -- for all its faults and weaknesses, the greatest free society in history -- to lead the world against a new grim outbreak of evil, a savage stab at the core of freedom on earth, a dark, shocking start to a new millennium."

Just a few days ago, I and 13,000 others at AIPAC -- and by now millions of others on YouTube -- heard Prime Minister Netanyahu speak the following words: 

"Some commentators would have you believe that stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb.They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already underway, that it would be ineffective, and that it would provoke even more vindictive action by Iran. I’ve heard these arguments before. In fact, I’ve read them before. 

In my desk, I have copies of an exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress and the US War Department. The year was 1944. The World Jewish Congress implored the American government to bomb Auschwitz. The reply came five days later. I want to read it to you. Such an operation could be executed only by diverting considerable air support essential to the success of our forces elsewhere…..and in any case would be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources….And here’s the most remarkable sentence of all. And I quote: Such an effort might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans. Think about that – “even more vindictive action” — than the Holocaust."

Agnon's review is a grim reminder of the world's naivete as it related to Nazi Germany, Herman Wouk's reflections -- in addition to pointing to the grim brutality of WWII and the Holocaust -- also bring September 11 and its global effect to our attention, and the letters that Netanyahu read (which are a reflection of Agnon's words) show us what happens when governments operate with their heads in a bucket of sand.

I write these words as Purim day winds down, and my family and I conclude a full night and day of celebrating the defeat of Haman and his evil plot to destroy our people. I also write these words fresh out of AIPAC, and now on my way to hear Israeli President Shimon Peres address a crowd of 1000 at the Beverly Hilton hotel. With all of this in mind, the best words to conclude these reflections are those of Prime Minister Netanyahu: 

"My Friends, 2012 is not 1944. The American government today is different. You heard it in President Obama’s speech yesterday. But here’s my point. The Jewish people are also different. Today we have a state of our own. The purpose of the Jewish state is to secure the Jewish future. That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. We are blessed to live in an age when there is a Jewish state capable of defending the Jewish people."


Monday, March 5, 2012

Reflections from AIPAC: Day One

The atmosphere in Washington, D.C. was all set. You could feel AIPAC in the air. From the thousands of delegates walking around adorned with their AIPAC Policy Conference badges, to the early morning report on CNN about President Obama's scheduled address, all the way to the subtle hints and messages sent to readers through the editorials and book reviews in the "Outlook" section of Sunday's Washington Post.

This is my third policy conference, and although I was once again given a delegate badge with a ribbon that reads "rabbi," I would have much preferred one with the more appropriate title for this year -- "parent." For the first time, we have come as a family. My wife Peni (her first conference) and I made the decision that it was the right year for our kids Shira (15) and Ilan (12) to be delegates and witness first hand the political process of lobbying for and supporting Israel in our nation's capitol. Being at AIPAC as a parent is an entirely different experience, one that made my first day special and unique in so many different ways. More on that later, as I want to save the best for last.

Back to the Washington Post. I pulled out the "Outlook" section -- which has editorials and book reviews -- and was immediately struck by the lead editorial's headline: "An Israeli Strike on Iran would backfire: Former Pentagon official Clin H. Kahl says history points to a hollow victory." Wow -- here we go! I read through the first part of the piece, and when I turned to page B4 where the piece continued, my eyes were drawn to the continuation of the piece by yet another headline: Israel's 1981 strike on Iraq is no model for dealing with Iran. I finished the op-ed piece and turned the page, to be met by the section's first book review, a book titled The Partnership:Five Cold Warriors and their Quest to Ban the Bomb." On the next page was the review of another book: When General Grant Expelled the Jews. I find it interesting that on the same day when the President of the United States is scheduled to address AIPAC, and the main agenda item on the table is contemplating all options in preventing a nuclear Iran -- including a military option -- the Washington Post chooses to run an editorial against the military option, penned by a Pentagon personality, and also chooses to review a book discussing nuclear war. It is no less interesting that in the same section, on the day when over 13,000 AIPAC delegates -- mostly Jews -- descend on Washington to impress President Obama who will open the conference, the Post runs a book review about General (later to be President) Ulysses S. Grant's order to deport Jewish citizens of America. A subtle message to all of us here reminding us that once upon a time we Jews were not so influential in the U.S.?

On to the conference. The opening plenary kicked off with a panel featuring former Deputy Secretary of State Liz Cheney, former Congresswoman Jane Harman and Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, moderated by David Horowitz (founding editor of the new Times of Israel news site). In the AIPAC spirit, bi-partisan (Cheney -- Republican, Harman -- Democrat) along with Ya'ari's Israeli point of view. All went well until Cheney changed the tone of the discussion: "No president has done more to delegitimize Israel than Obama, and I hope that at next year's AIPAC conference, we'll be celebrating a restored relationship between Israel and the U.S. with a new president." Harman, of course, responded, and just like that, the bi-partisan atmosphere of AIPAC went away. There were applause, boos, more applause and more boos -- an inappropriate atmosphere as a prelude to listening to President Peres of Israel, and then President Obama. The most interesting response for me was that of my daughter Shira: "This really seems inappropriate," she said, "especially to hear so many people applauding Liz Cheney's statements just moments before President Obama is scheduled to speak here. Not only is it disrespectful, but it just doesn't seem politically smart at an AIPAC conference. Doesn't getting on his bad side kind of defeat the purpose here?" Is it any wonder why we are so often reminded to listen to the wise and un-jaded voices of our younger generation?

The conference went back to an electric atmosphere when President Peres spoke, followed by President Obama. President Peres was welcomed beautifully by a children's choir singing "Yerushalayim Shel Zahav," and as he approached the podium, he shook each of the kid's hands. His message -- coming from the man who spent many years as defense minister of Israel, and as the one mainly responsible for Israel securing nuclear weapons as a defense mechanism against a hostile Arab world -- was an inspirational message of peace and hope. Peres focused on Israel's many achievements, and encouraged the brain power of Israel to continue developing technology that helps improve the quality of life for all human beings. He said that the purpose of Israeli society -- and of Jews in general -- is "to be just, to do justice, and to never deny justice to others." He said he believes in making peace because he wants to keep Israel "Jewish, democratic and attractive," and with great passion declared "I'm proud to be Jewish, proud to be Israeli." His address was moving, one of the highlights of this conference so far.

Next up: the President of the United States. I am sure you can read the many reviews, praises and critiques of President Obama's AIPAC address, so let me just say that in keeping with my desire for the AIPAC experience remaining bi-partisan and non-political, I can only say that as a Jew with a sense of Jewish history, I was in awe of the moment. Especially in the week of Purim, when Jews read the story of the behind the scenes infiltrations of government that Mordechai and Esther had to resort to in order to save the Jewish people, it is awe inspiring to think that the most powerful man on earth stood before 13,000 pro-Israel, mostly Jewish delegates -- all in the open -- to address them about protecting and standing in friendship and partnership with the Jewish state. We've come a long way, baby!

I took a break and met up here with some of my fellow members of the Sephardic Educational Center (Ron Nessim, Marcia & Bob Weingarten, and Sarita Fields with her grandson Evan). A reporter from New York came to interview us, and asked us if there is a "Sephardic" perspective on AIPAC. We told her there is really no such thing, and that the "Classic Sephardic" perspective was always to embrace Zionism and support Israel.  We added that owning our Sephardic Educational Center campus in the Old City of Jerusalem certainly gives us an extra-added interest in everything happening in Israel.

Seeing all this through my children's eyes is especially powerful. They are certainly amongst the youngest people here, but certainly also amongst the most perceptive and curious. I took them to the book kiosk, and Ilan ended up buying a book called Turning Oil Into Salt: Energy Dependence Through  Fuel Choice. I bought Israeli TV commentator-turned politician Yair Lapid's book, and Shira was excited to meet him (see photograph of us below).  Shira was deeply disturbed by the ignorance of the many protesters outside, whose posters and slogans displayed a "one-sided ignorance of the facts." Both Shira and Ilan were infuriated at the protests of the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist "Neturei Karta" sect -- "How could they call themselves Jews?" they said. I confess that as we got into a cab to go to lunch and we drove by them, I had a few expletives to express to these horrifying characters.

The climax of our first day came in the form of a film we together saw at AIPAC: Follow Me: The Jonathan Netanyahu Story. For close to 90 minutes, we sat mesmerized as we saw this touching and beautifully made tribute to the life of a great hero, the fallen leader of the famous Raid on Entebbe on July 4, 1976. The film told the story of Jonathan simultaneously from two angles -- that of the Entebbe story, and that of the philosophic, intellectual, romantic poetry-reading Jonathan. We were treated to photos and film footage of the Netanyahu boys during their upbringing, intimate and very personal interviews with Prime Minister Netanyahu (Jonathan's little brother), and interviews with some of Jonathan's comrades in arms. 

"What drove you to make this film?" Shira asked the directors during the Q &A. This was followed by Ilan's question: "What were you trying to accomplish by portraying his life both through the raid on Entebbe and his personal life? Was it to show the personal and human side of a combat soldier?" Provoking such questions from the younger generation -- curious, sensitive, inquisitive -- are the reasons why this film is so important. It brings us back to the world of Zionism that values what Israel is made of -- the humane combat soldier like Jonathan Netanyahu, who in one of his famous letters wrote: "Having killed people up close during the Yom Kippur War added a whole new ugly and haunting dimension to being a soldier." 

It brought to life our conversation at the lunch table, when I told the kids that one of the key differences between soldiers in Israel vs. elsewhere in the world is that in most other societies, people in the military have a "military mind," and when they retire from the military, usually end up writing books or becoming speakers about military matters. In Israel, you have the phenomenon of combat soldiers who become peace activists, paratroopers who write love songs, or -- like Jonathan Netanyahu -- commando soldiers who "fight terrorism in the day while reading philosophy and poetry at night." They view the army as a necessary evil that they will commit to, all the while praying that the next generation won't have to.

I guess that's why we're here at AIPAC this year -- to make sure that both America and Israel stand strong and together in their resolve to stop a nuclear Iran. Doing so will hopefully assure that Shira and Ilan, the 2,000 plus young college delegates that are here, and the younger generation in Israel, in the U.S. and around the world -- can grow up in a world where they can concentrate less on weapons that can destroy the world, and instead focus their brain power on ways to help improve the world.

Quite a first day!