Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Offering Hope

Everyone needs hope. We cannot survive without it. At times our hope may be simple,just getting home and seeing our family after a hard day at work. At other times, more stressful and depleting, our hope may be more esoteric. We hope soon all our suffering will come to an end or perhaps that their will be a better future for us, if not in this world then in the next, or if we can't escape our suffering at least their will be a brighter future for our children. But no matter where or when, human beings have a need for hope and one way or another,be it fanciful or real we will find it.

I was made conscious of the struggle for hope when I looked over the early verses of this weeks Parsha of Va'eira. You may recall the Parsha opens with Hashem rebuking Moshe for his challenge to the way things were going. At the end of last week's reading Moshe complained to G-d that since being sent to redeem the Israelites things had only gotten worse for them. Hashem tells Moshe at the outset of Va'eira that he needs to have the faith of the Patriarchs who never questioned Hashem's ways even when they seemed inscrutable.

At the end of Hashem's rebuke He once again sent Moshe on his mission and demanded that he tell the Israelites that indeed they will be redeemed. No, more, much more, Moshe is commanded to tell them not only will they be redeemed, they will become G-d's special people, they will have a special providence, and that they will be brought into the land of Israel, the land of their ancestors to inherit it for themselves.

After charging Moshe with the responsibility to to share this glorious passage of promise with the children of Israel the Torah continues "And Moshe spoke so to the Children of Israel but they did not listen to Moshe due to their exhaustion and the hard work imposed on them".

I found it fascinating that here Moshe has a wondrous message of hope and redemption for the Israelites, a nation so burdened and oppressed, a message full of promise and inspiration. Yet they could not hang their hope on it. They were too beaten to listen. Didn't they need hope? If everyone needs hope, surely the oppressed need it. I know our ancestors were suffering and fatigued but you would think that would have made them more attune to the glorious message of the Divine promise.

The answer to the question teaches us much about hope both for ourselves and when offering it to others. Remember the Isaac Leib Peretz story Bantsche Shveig (Banstche the Silent). Briefly, it tells the tale of a simple minded Jew in the shtetle who was abused constantly for his limited intelligence, poverty, and for being a social misfit. For all the abuse heaped on him Bantsche remained silent, never uttering a harsh word in return nor uttering a complaint. When Bantsche died he was treated in heaven far differently than on earth. If here he was social reject totally maligned, in heaven he was seen as the purest and holiest of men, mostly because of his compelling self-control remaining silent to his tormentors and in the face of a life of abuse and adversity.

Peretz writes that in the Heavenly Court Bantsche was found deserving of great reward. After-all he was a true Tzaddik. Even Satan could not deny his saintliness. When the time came, the Heavenly Judges asked Bantsche what he might want for his prize in the World Eternal. Any request would be granted since it was indeed earned. Bantsche thought for a moment, Peretz writes, and then answered "Maybe I could have a hot roll and butter each day for breakfast". And with that Satan roared a great laugh for indeed he had won!

In many ways the story of Bantsche Shveig is a story about hope. Bantsche could have had anything. He was worthy of the best heaven could offer. But Bantsche's life had been so rough and so impoverished that he could not even hope for a true piece of heavenly bliss. In light of his life's struggle the most he could aspire to was the warm roll and butter. Hope for Bantsche was limited by his circumstances and its effect on his psyche.

The same was true for the Israelites in Egypt. Moshe brought to them the wondrous message from G-d, a message that included becoming a G-d's chosen nation, and inheriting a new land of their own. Beautiful words, but words that spoke to more than the People could hear. The People in their time of persecution and abject slavery could only hope for an end to their suffering. They could not even imagine the larger vision offered them. It was beyond their horizon.
It is no wonder that the next time Hashem sends Moshe back to the People to again deliver the message of hope, a few verses later, he is commanded to simply redeem the people from Egypt, no more and no less. That they could hear!

Often we see people who are struggling. Life is hard for them. Perhaps they are dealing with a terminal illness, or a terminal marriage.Perhaps they are feeling overwhelmed with financial burdens or a lack of success in their endeavours. We want to offer hope. We know they need hope. The message we take from the Parsha of this week is that any hope we might offer can only be received and held on to if it is within the mindset of the sufferer.

To offer someone who is dealing with paralysis after a stroke the hope that they might yet run a marathon and go on to cite some athlete who did so, may be beyond the ability of the paralyzed one to hang on to. It might well be better to keep the hope closer to where the person is now. Perhaps a hope the other could hear would be the hope that they will yet walk again and cite some neighbor we know of similar age and circumstances who made such progress. Pancreatic cancer is fatal. No one has been cured of it. Offerring hope to one sufferring a fatal cancer might better be found in the hope of making the most of the time left, than a hope based on miraculous recovery (though some patients may prefer to pin their hope on a miracle as unrealistic as that is).

The key is, while hope is vital for everyone, the hope we offer the other needs to be consistant with where they are and with what they find possible in light of the circumstances they are living. Yes, offerring another hope is a gift, but the angels, no matter how they may have wished, could not offer Bantsche a hope more than he could imagine, and even Hashem's promise so glorious fell on deaf ears to our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt and had not the mindset to hear.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, December 23, 2010


When I was growing up I heard many a Rosh Yeshiva reflect wistfully on Jewish life in Europe and how it was so much more spiritually authentic than life in America. Some of those Roshai Yeshiva came from Europe, others just knew it from their own teachers.I accepted their perspective as true. We are living in an inferior spiritual world. What once was is lost and irretrievable.

But as I grew I came to wonder. Was it true? Was Jewish life in Europe pre-Holocaust spiritually superior to Jewish life in modern America. Were those the 'good old days' spiritually speaking, never to return?

I am not sure how many of you have read the Yiddish writer Chaim Grad and his classic novels like "The Aguna" or others like him.
They wrote of life in the shtetles and cities of Eastern Europe they knew both well and personally. These were not the anti-religious Yiddish writers who had an axe to grind. Nor were they writers who over-romanticized the life of the Jew of the period. They wrote what of what they experienced in both the good and bad.
What is clear from reading Chaim Grad and others is that, contrary to what I heard in Yeshiva, my ancestors in Eastern Europe were no paragons of virtue. True there were many holy men and women of distinction. But society as a whole could be as corrupt and mean spirited as anything we see in our days and worse. Cruelty was commonplace. Many a Jew, both religious and otherwise acted in ways that are inexcusable. And even religious leaders, rabbis and others were not so uncommonly morally corrupt. Over-all, the impression one gets on reading first hand accounts is that Eastern European Jewry and its social systems was no better than what we have today and in many ways far worse.

And truth be told the idealization of Eastern European Jewry, in contrast to the facts is not a one time phenomena. In the context of tradition, we always seem to glorify earlier generations. The sages of the Talmud said of themselves that they are pale imitations in comparison to the sages of the period prior. The Vilna Gaon said that we have no capacity to even imagine the excellence of our ancestors of the time of the Second Temple and to hold ourselves in comparison.

Yet the facts often point otherwise. The Jews of Bayit Sheni were the Jews of Kamtza and bar Kamtza and guilty of huge and grievous sins against each other. The zealots of the Second Temple period were often ruthless; the priests often corrupt. After-all we are talking of the generation that warranted the destruction of the Bait Hamikdash and galut for their sins!

How do we reconcile the seemingly contradictory perspectives. On the one hand within tradition we venerate earlier generations. On the other, we know factually that the past was no better and at times worse than the current climate in which we live?

The answer I think can be found in the Parsha of this week, that of Shmot. It is clear, no matter how we may want to glorify the generations of the past that our ancestors in Egypt were lacking. Just look at the stories we are given. An Egyptian task-master is beating a Jew and none but Moshe comes to his aid. One Jew is beating another and again that seems commonplace. When Moshe attempts to intervene he in turn is threatened. And later, in response to Moshe's message of redemption, he suffers scorn from his own people. From the glimpses we have of the society its not surprising the Sages tell us that Israel was very nearly too far gone to be redeemed.

Yet the Parsha also tells us of heroes. It speaks of the mid-wives Shifra and Puah who at great self-sacrifice refused to obey the Pharoah and kill the Jewish babies on birth.It tells of us Batya, the daughter of the Pharoah and of her effort to save baby Moshe. In tradition she became a convert to our faith, giving up her prestige and position in Egypt. It tells us of Moshe and his heroism in defence of his people. In fact, the very Jewish society that we read of as mediocre at best, produced heroes that can never be duplicated. No one, no matter how spiritually excellent, will ever be like Moshe.

And in this lies the great truth. Yes there is something to be said of an excellence of earlier generations that we can not aspire to attain. Not however in the society as a whole. On the contrary, the societies past, whether in Second Temple times or Eastern Europe had flaws as profound as our own. But what cannot be duplicated is the excellence in individual people, rabbis, leaders, men and women of unique stature, the holiness they attained, their character and spirituality is beyond our capacity and even, at times, our ability to imagine

So what can we take from all this.For one thing, I don't believe their is any benefit in putting down the social context in which we live. Over-all we are progressing as a people, not regressing! We get better with each generation and we need to affirm that. We are moving closer to Mashiach, not further away. More Jews study Torah today than at any time in Jewish history. Yes, many Jews are not religious, but where have we ever seen so much religious practice in an environment where not coerced to be frume! After all in earlier generations Jews had no choice but to comply with the religious rules of the kehilla. And where have we ever seen in the past such a profound movement of t'shuva, return to the faith. Its glorious!

No, there is no point in putting ourselves down. We need to affirm our People's growth and spiritual progress...and build on it.
Yet we do need to be mindful that we lack the individual excellence that existed in the Greats of yesteryear. Today we have no Rambam, Vilna Gaon or even Chafaitz Chayim. We affirm that so as to keep us personally humble and reverential to the teachings of the past, teachings and guidance we need so much in-order to continue our journey to the redemption.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Channuka Then and Now !

Tonight will be Channuka.With darkness, we will gather as family and light the menorah (or here in Israel more commonly called, 'chanukiya'). Brachot will be made, songs sung, not to forget the tasty treats. We will usher in the 8 days of celebration.

There is a beautiful composition recited after lighting the candle called "hanairot halallu". The passage reminds us of why we light the candles, "to mark the miracles and wonders... done for our Fathers in those days at this time". It goes on to tell us "... these candles are holy. And we have no right to make use of them (not for light nor for warmth etc)... They are only for us to gaze
on, so that we may thereby give praise to Your Great Name for all Your miracles and wonders and salvation".

The odd thing about Channuka is that it is of the most spiritual of Jewish holidays. The Rabbis taught that Channuka is different from Purim. Purim marks a time where our physical survival was threatened. We celebrate G-d's redemption with food and drink and indulgences of our body. Channuka was not a time where the physical existences of our people was at risk. It was the Jewish spirit that was persecuted and as much by the Hellinistic Jews as by the Greco-syrio rulers. The spirit of Hellinism was sweeping the world. Jews who believed in the values of Torah were out of step. The edicts that caused us anguish in the period of Channuka were not those of Haman, focused on our destruction. The edicts were those focused on compromising our observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and the study of Torah. The heroes of Channuka were martyrs for the faith like Channa and her 7 sons, all of whom perished rather than submit to the Greco-Syrian authority .
Indeed Channuka was the first time in Jewish history where martyrdom for the faith, something we would sadly see as commonplace in the times of the Crusades, was invoked and called for, a new kind of Jewish heroism.

It is for that reason,since Channuka as essentially a triumph of the Jewish spirit, that there are no mitzvot associated with Channuka that focus on the physical. It may be nice to eat sufganiyot and latkes, but no mitzvah! The one mitzvah is to light the menorah. And even there we are not meant to make use of the light as mentioned above, but rather just to gaze on it and give thanks.

Whats odd about all this is that Channuka has become the most materialistic of Jewish holidays, especially in the States. Its a holiday where no one feels guilty, even the least affiliated Jew, because there is so little to observe. Light candles? give gifts? eat latkes? Why not? One can live a totally assimilated life and embrace that!

I remember many years ago when living in a small Jewish community in moderately sized Southern city, that the newspapers, as was their custom, did a feature on a Jewish family at the season of the holiday, in this case Channuka. They showed pictures of the family readying for lighting candles and interviewed the mother. The mother, trying to be informational, told the reporter of how Channuka marked a miracle that happened to the oil in the Temple and that therefore we have a custom to eat foods made with oil. She then went on to give a recipe for Channuka of a food cooked in oil. Latkes? no! Sufganiyot? no! Crab cakes!! She actually gave a Channuka recipe for crab cakes!

It is sad when one thinks about it, that this holiday that speaks to the heroes, both men and women, who gave their lives for observance and Torah, so that Judaism should persevere,those who said "we are different from you and we refuse to surrender our uniqueness," would be celebrated by their children as the holiday of assimilation. What so much of the Jewish world is essentially saying in the current secular theme of Channuka is "We are just like everyone else. We eat the same. Live the same lifestyle. Being a Jew is just a matter of culture and history, but with little real consequence. We want to be like you!"

So when we come to make our blessings tonight and light our candles
what are we celebrating? What should we see when we gaze on the lights?

What we celebrates is the survival of our faith! What we see in the candles is that pure light, with G-d's help, triumphs. Despite the woman and her Channuka crab cake recipe and many like her, who sadly have gotten lost along the way, Torah Judaism thrives and prospers. Despite all the efforts throughout Jewish history to compromise our commitment to our faith, we remain strong and determined. I go to Mir Yeshiva every day to learn. Would you believe five and a half thousand young men and some older, like me, do the same. And that's just one Yeshiva amongst thousands around the world! That's what one sees in the candle! The power of the pure to triumph, even if few, even if weak. Would that the martyrs of Channuka and all our history could see the vibrancy of Torah today...all resultant from their devotion.

Indeed there is much to celebrate and for which to thank Hashem.

Chag Urim Samaiach
Shabbat Shalom