Saturday, September 25, 2010
Sukkot is quite an experience in the City of God. As I mentioned in my previous post pretty much everyone seems to have one here. In fact, I read a poll in Wednesday's free Hayom newspaper that said that 48% of all Israelis will build a sukkah, in particular 62% of Jerusalemites. It also splits the total into four categories by religious observance: 31.7% of Chilonim (secular Jews), 54.7% of Masorti (Conservative-ish Jews (aka my people)), 72.6% of Dati (Orthodox), and 94.6% of Haredi (Ultra-orthodox) are building Sukkot for the holiday.
And pretty much every restaurant I pass by has its own sukkah due to the fact that all meals must be taken in there. The ones that don't have sukkot might have less patronization this week due to the mitzvah that one must eat in the sukkah. I went to a restaurant tonight in which they removed the glass roof and replaced it with schach (plant covering that must be used for the roof), a place called New Deli (tagline "Sandwich! Sandwich!"; at least it's better than Moshiko's cryptically Yakov Smirnoff-esque "יש אנשים שקונים פלאפל, כאן פלאפל קונה אנשים" which literally translates as "Some people buy falafel, here falafel buys people")
I also went to the Lulav and Etrog Shuk on Tuesday (which is much more pleasant-smelling then the Kapparot Shuk a few days earlier). I bought as set of Lulav, Etrog, and Hadas for 50 shekel and when I got home the pitam was missing from my etrog. I ran back (actually this time I took the bus, I wasn't going to take another hour walk each way from Emek Refaim to Machaneh Yehudah) and the guy immediately replaced my etrog with no questions asked. Fast forward to the first day of sukkot at the Kotel where I was at the front left corner of the outdoor section of the Wall. Let's just say that it's a bad idea to leave your etrog in a box on a shtender. I really don't like the packaging that they use in Israel which is similar to the things they use to protect Asian Pears. I miss the foam stuff... Anyway, Gamzu L'Tovah.
The humidity has returned with a vengance and that's not good considering we do a lot outside during this holiday. Though I've mulled sleeping in our sukkah it's just too hot at night. I need the AC.
Finally, I ams seriously thinking of going to Hebron sometime in the next two days with friends to go to the Cave of Machpelah which is completely open. There are only ten days during the year in which Jews have unfettered access to it and Sunday and Monday are two of them. Hopefully all of our places of worship will be completely open to us soon. I would love to be able to daven on the Temple Mount...
Plus it looks like there is going to be an amazing Simchat Beit HaShoevah there Monday with Lipa Schmelzer. Anybody know anything about this Parade of Nations in Jerusalem?
Anyway Shavuah tov and Chag Sameach
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Contrast this with last night. Last night had a palpable silence. We stepped out of Kol Nidre services at Kedem into that very same bustling street of Emek Refaim I just mentioned was silent. There was not a single car. Instead there was a mass of people in the middle of the street milling and perambulating. I have never experienced anything like standing in the middle of the street (where any other day I play a game of Human Frogger) Rachel Imenu having a half-hour conversation with a group of people. I'm not sure whether it is illegal to drive or people just don't see the point of driving on Yom Kippur, but the only motor vehicles that we saw were police cars on patrol. Even the ramzorim (traffic lights) were disabled for the holiday, flashing yellow for 24 hours. The only thing to dodge was the ofanayim, the many bicycles that many were riding in the pedestrian-filled streets. The closest thing I can compare this phenomenon to is perhaps, l'havdil, Halloween in a gated community. A bunch of people walking around, hanging out, with no care of automobiles.
As for Yom Kippur itself, it was preceded with a trip to the Kotel where I recited Psalms for a bit before joining an afternoon service. After leaving a petek (note) in the cracks of the indoor section of the wall I witnessded a man administering 39 lashes to another man (albeit quite lightly), apparently a pre-Yom Kippur tradition. I got back to my neighborhood at around 1 PM expecting to get my first meal of the day but practically everything was already closed. Wow these places close early before Shabbat/Yom Kippur! The only places I saw open were the treif McDonalds (and I would starve rather than eat there, though they were closed on Yom Kippur along with everything else in the country) and Falafel Adir which was about to close where I struck up a conversation with a Canadian Jew who had made Aliyah for the specific purpose of joining the Israeli Army.
Yom Kippur itself was wonderful and the fast was easy. I led musaf for a service that was considerably longer than usual (2 hours from beginning of Repetition to Chassidic Kaddish, though add 15 minutes for the Hineni and the Silent Amidah) and with way more new-age melodies, though I began the Avodah Temple Service (we did the Nusach Sephard edition) with Misirlou, a Greek-Jewish melody that was popularized as the theme song of Pulp Fiction. It was off-the-hook.
I'm going to go to sleep now as Sunday is a school day here. Oh, how I miss weekends...
Shavuah Tov and Shanah Tovah!
Wednesday, September 08, 2010
Shanah Tovah U'Metukah,
Monday, April 12, 2010
Vhi Sh'amda: Egypt and Eastern Europe
A poem for Yom HaShoah 2010 by Matt Rutta
Delivered at American Jewish University, April 12, 2010
Last week we celebrated our escape from Egypt
Today we mourn our inability to get out of Eastern Europe in time
In Egypt Pharaoh killed our newborn baby boys and let our girls live
In Eastern Europe the Nazis and their collaborators shot and gassed men, women, and children with no mercy
From Egypt marched 600,000 men of the Army of God
In Eastern Europe Six Million were left behind
We marched triumphantly with our heads held high from Egypt
We were lead from the concentration camps on Death Marches
In Egypt we built the Treasure Cities of Pitom and Raamses to hold the spoil of Pharaoh's wars
In Eastern Europe we built the gas chambers and crematoria of Buchenwald and Treblinka where we would meet our own demise
In Egypt Pharaoh set Egyptian taskmasters over us
In Auschwitz the Sonderkommando were Jews forced to turn against their own people for the chance to survive a little bit longer
When we disobeyed in Egypt, we were forced to glean our own straw to make our tally of bricks
When we disobeyed in Sobibor the SS would shoot every third Jew
In Egypt we were like an appliance
In Eastern Europe we
In Egypt we were forced to build the pyramids, the glorious tombs of the Pharaohs in Giza
In Eastern Europe we were forced to dig our own mass graves in Babi Yar
Of Egypt we joyously proclaimed "In every generation people rise up to utterly destroy us but but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from their hand?
Where was the Holy one in Eastern Europe?
When we were liberated from Egypt we left so quickly that our matzah had no time to rise
When we were liberated from the Concentration Camp we were so malnourished that even eating the Bread of Affliction would overwhelm our distended bellies, killing us.
In Egypt we went from sorrow to great joy
In Eastern Europe we went from sorrow to more sorrow.
In Egypt we joyously sang "Who is like you God among the mighty?" as we marched across the split sea.
In Eastern Europe we joyously sang "I believe in perfect faith that the Messiah will come" as we marched into the gas chambers.
In Egypt the slaves' greatest worry was when they would be fed
In Eastern Europe it was not "when" but "if"
They missed the fleshpots of Egypt, with the leeks, the onions, and garlic that they ate free in Egypt
In the Concentration Camp it was a small bowl of rotten onion floating in polluted water
In 210 years we increased from 70 to 600,000 men
In 6 years we were reduced from 14 million to 8 million humans
Our experiences in Egypt three millennia ago are believed by many religions and most of the world's population
Our experiences 65 years ago continue to be denied by those who seek to destroy us again, devour Jacob, and finish the job
In Egypt we cried out to God and He heard our cry and saved us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm
In Eastern Europe we cried out to You! Where were You?!
You who guided us through the desert and protected us with a pillar of fire
Our flame was almost extinguished
You are our Shepherd and we are Your sheep,
And we were sheep to the slaughter
Had they only stripped us of our citizenship and expelled us from their land,
Dayenu, it would have been enough
Had they only destroyed our stores forbidding us to sell to gentiles
Dayenu, it would have been enough
Had they only stolen our property to take as their spoils
Dayenu, it would have been enough
Had they only burnt our Torah scrolls
Dayenu, it would have been enough
Had they only forbidden the observance of Shabbat by punishment of death
Dayenu, it would have been enough
Dayenu! Mir Hoybn Shoyn genug! We've had enough!
Protector of Israel, protect the remnant of Israel, don't let Israel be destroyed, we who proclaim "Hear O Israel!"
You have heard our outcry too late, but You have returned us to the land you Promised us, the Holy Land flowing with milk and honey,
Now fulfill your promise, save us from the hand of those who every generation wish to destroy us and let us fulfill our battle cry of "Never Again!"
Redeem us and save us and let us dwell in peace!
Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Yaaseh Shalom Aleinu V'Al Kol Yisrael, V'imeru… AMEN!
Sunday, September 27, 2009
But there are even further restrictions that set this day apart (except for its opposite which we observed exactly 2 months ago, the day of mourning of Tisha B'Av). No eating, no drinking, no leather shoes, no bathing, no washing, no perfume or lotion, no sex. I have I have always been bugged by being wished an easy fast or "tzom kal" on Yom Kippur. The reason we forbid these things is because of the mitzvah of the day from the Torah is "v'initem et nafshoteychem", "and you shall afflict your souls". It's not just a spiritual thing, but also physical. We should suffer for our sins. I think it's the reason that we recite the Eleh Ezkera as the Chatanu Selichah of YK Musaf. This dirge really belongs among the kinot, the elegies of Tisha B'Av. Instead we recite the story of the Ten Martyrs, the accounts of some of the greatest Jews of all time, Rabbi Akiba, Chaninah ben Tradyon, Rashba"g, Rabbi Yishmael the High Priest, and others, all for daring to prevent the evil Roman emperor Hadrian (yesh"u) from snuffing out the flickering flame of Torah in this time of persecution.
But what I'm referring to is the suffering that we inflict upon ourselves on these two days. On Tisha B'Av, the black fast, we abstain from all of these pleasures because we are in deepest mourning, and in addition we sit the floor, praying a subdued state and without melody and are even forbidden to study Torah. On Yom Kippur, the white fast, we abstain for the opposite reasons. "Ki vayom hazeh yechaper aleychem l'taher etchem, mikol chatoteychem, lifnei HASHEM titharu". Today God has given us to atone for our sins. It is on this day Moses decended with the second set of Ten Commandments, a tangible symbol of our forgiveness. Today we become holy. Regarding Genesis 1:26, the verse in which God says "Naaseh Adam b'Tzalmeinu KiDmoteinu", "let Us make man in Our Image", the Ramban, Nachmanides says that humanity emerges from two separate souls: Nefesh Tachton, The nefesh that comes out of the earth from which all living creatures are created, and Nefesh Elyon, that neshamah which comprise the angels so they can perform the Will of God and possess the power of reason. The lower soul has limitations that are inherent in all of the animals, needs for food, sex, sleep,. On Yom Kippur we shed our gashmiyut, our physical needs that limit our potential. We become like the angels who have no such need for sustenance. We are like Moses who shed his body as he ascended into Heaven to plead with God on our behalf.
So we abstain because we are at the level of angels (and thus throughout Yom Kippur we recite the Kedushah that outside of this day is reserved for Shabbat and Festival Musaf, the only one in which we dare to join our words with those of the angels.
Though we definitely need to focus on the daunting task before us, I think we also need to suffer a little. And if fasting is easy for you anyway (as it commonly is for me - I never lost my first wind on Tisha B'Av and even watched the Food network for the last two hours to show my obstinance) then perhaps the Rabbi's sermon or cantorial arias will give you sufficient suffering.
Gmar Chatimah Tov, may we all be forgiven and sealed in the Book of Life for goodness and for peace. May your fast and abstaining be meaningful and allow you to focus and reflect. May it merit the Geulah, the Redemption when we do not need to worry ever again.
(This wasn't meant to be a dvar torah, I originally conceived this as a facebook status update regarding my gripe with people saying Tzom Kal"
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
This is how I called it last night before I went to bed. It sounds as crazy as Victor Krum catching the golden snitch but Ireland winning the Quidditch World Cup but it is quite plausable.
It's 5:15 AM in Israel and finally all of the votes have been tabulated. Centrist Kadima won with 23% of the vote (28 seats) followed closely by Right-wing Likud with 27 seats. I had expected Likud to win but apparently not. However I wouldn't count Likud out yet. President Shimon Perez will now call on the head of the winning party, Tzipi Livni to form a coalition. I don't think she can do it. To make A coalition government one must have a combination of at least 61 seats out of 120 seats in the Knesset, meaning a combination of multiple parties. If Kadima wanted to form a coalition government with all the leftist parties they would fall 6 short, and that's implying that all of the left wing parties join them (which they won't).
Left & center 28+13+3+4+4+3 = 55
United Arab List/Ta'al 4
They NEED the right wing parties here. Likud trails by only a seat and within the entire right wing there are 65 seats. Likud could conceivably form a pan-right coalition/phalanx without the inclusion of Kadima.
Right 27+15+11+5+3+4 =65
Yisrael Beitenu 15
United Torah Judaism 5
Jewish Home 3
National Union 4
As long as Shas doesn't whore itself out to the highest bidder as it did last time (especially as their spiritual leader pronounces his next controversial statement), Likud has Kadima in a vice grip. Likud is likely going to hold out, as is far-right wing Yisrael Beiteinu and not immediately attach themselves to coalitions. The rest of these parties will follow suit.
When Tzipi Livni tried to form a coalition government after the special Kadima Primary after disgraced Premier Ehud Olmert stepped down last year she failed miserably. And now she has even LESS supportive parties. The Arab parties have said they would boycott any coalition that included anyone who demanded a loyalty oath so there is no way any Arab party (the viable parties being Ta'al/UAL, Hadash, and Balad).
About the loyalty oath. Avigdor Lieberman, head of the third place winning Yisrael Beiteinu party has demanded that all citizens of Israel need to take a loyalty oath to Israel just as one must take a loyalty oath to become a citizen of the United States (or in any elementary school classroom's Pledge of Allegiance). If one refuses to take this oath, they will be stripped of their citizenship, right to vote, and right to run for public office but will remain as permanent residents of Israel.
Labor, once the winningest party in Israel's history (they held control from the founding of the modern state until Menachem Begin's Likud finally wrested control in the 70s) has now fallen to fourth place, and although I like their leader Ehud Barak, I don't know if he will have that much of a role in the coalition.
So there are a number of scenarios that can play out, and as long as Shas stays out of trouble it will be a right wing government. Kadima now needs to decide how much it will capitulate to the right or risk being the head of the opposition. President Peres is mandated to appoint the person he feels most likely to be able to form a coalition to do so, but Livni might be passed over for Bibi Netanyahu because Tzipi is likely to fail once again. We shall see. Whatever happens, I hope it is for the best of Israel.
Oh, and Haaretz seems to agree with my theory
Wednesday, October 08, 2008
The Meaning of Life is a Life of Meaning
Rosh Hashannah 5769
Delivered before Congregation Beth Meier on Rosh Hashannah
“Hold fast to the spirit of youth – let years to come do what they may!” Emblazoned on the mantle of the fireplace in hallowed John Jay Hall, this is the toast of the Philolexian Society, my literary society when I was an undergraduate at Columbia. It translates into Hebrew as “L’chayim!” “To life!” is a very loaded statement, as we well know from Fiddler on the Roof, “If our good fortune never comes here’s to whatever comes”, “life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us, drink l’chayim to life!”
Nothing captures the complexity of life like this past week’s Torah portion: The Rabbis mandated that Nitzavim always be read the Shabbat before Rosh Hashannah. Though one of the shortest parshiot in the Torah it repeats numerous times the importance of life: God places before us life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil. Choose life!
The ultimate philosophical question is, “what is the meaning of life?” “Why are we here?” Ma Anu? Meh Chayeynu? We ask this at the very beginning of Psukei D’zimra and it will be a central piece of the Yom Kippur liturgy. I believe that the answer lies in the second chapter of Genesis. “And the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to till it and tend it”, today being traditionally the 5,769th anniversary of this event. Be God’s gardeners and shepherds to make the world a better place. Though at first glance this may seem a good idea for the meaning of life, it is only the start: I believe it is the very next verse. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die”. The choices of Nitzavim are here: The trees of Life, Good, Evil, and the threat of Death for partaking in any of them.
Now pay close attention because there will be a test on this: Adam and Eve had a major decision to make: Whether to eat or to not eat from the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:
If they don’t eat they will live forever in paradise and walk with God. They will never hunger with a guarantee of food and provisions forever, never get sick, never die. They will also never learn anything, never experience feelings or emotions. Ignorance is bliss. If they ate, on the other hand, they would be exiled from paradise, banished from the obvious Presence of the Lord. Their biological clock would begin to tick as they experience mortality, sickness, painful childbirth, barrenness. They will engage in backbreaking toil to attain bread (a successful harvest, food and rain are not even a guarantee). But they would feel emotions. Pain and sorrow, yes, but also love, happiness, and satisfaction.
True to my word there is indeed a test on this, in the form of an informal poll. With a show of hands, how many of you, if in the position of Adam or Eve would NOT eat from the Tree of Knowledge? How many of you would indeed eat from the tree?
If you tell a child they can have any food in the kitchen except for the cookies. “Don’t eat the cookies,” you scold. What is the first thing he is going to go for? The cookie! That is human psychology whether you are a child or an adult with or without the ability to reason. Eating from the tree was a natural choice.
As opposed to my Christian colleagues who call this the downfall of man and Original Sin, I actually find this to be one of the most positive events in History. I am firmly convinced that God actually intended us to eat from the Tree. The catalyst of human history is one honey-tongued serpent. If God is Omnipotent and Omniscient, then He must have placed the snake in that tree. God intended us to have a free will to make the decisions whether to follow or shirk His laws and ethics and not be his drooling Garden drones. There are consequences to our actions but we have the freedom to make these decisions.
We were removed from the garden which is eternally guarded by fiery cherubs lest we eat from the tree of life and live forever. So why choose life in these four options?
By eating from the tree we have already chosen Good, Evil, and Death (as the tree has given us both knowledge and mortality). There is only one more option we have not yet tried: Life. Now God finally gives us access to something which we have been denied since our expulsion from the Garden of Eden by locked gate, fiery cherub and ever-turning sword: The Tree of Life. We choose life by holding fast to the Torah, and the wooden Torah rollers are called Etzei Chayim. which we grab onto when taking an aliyah or lifting the Torah.
Torah is ultimate knowledge, it is everlasting life. It links us to our past. Most of our liturgical additions for the High Holidays focus on life: “Zochreynu L’chayim, Melech chafetz bachayim, v’choteveinu b’sefer hachayim lemancha Elohim Chayim”, “Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for your sake O Living God.” Throughout the liturgy of these Ten Days of Repentance our liturgy is rife with pleas to be inscribed in the Book of Life.
Even in death there is life. If, God-forbid, someone dies we don’t focus on their death but talk about their life and when we come together to recite Kaddish there is not a single mention of death, only life, because shiva, mourning, comfort, these are all for the living.
Torah is the Family Tree of Life. It records the names and deeds of our ancestors, men and women of piety who, through our study, live forever. How will the world remember us when we are gone?
When burying their dead, the Ancient Greeks would place an obolus coin under the tongues of the deceased so they could pay the fare to Charon to ferry them across the River Acheron on their journey to Hades. Jews however are not buried with trinkets nor vested in designer suits but in a disqualified tallis and simple white shrouds, a feeling which the white robe I wear today is meant to evoke. We Jews believe that we cannot take anything with us. Our legacy is rather through our deeds. Whether good or evil this is how we will be remembered.
We were created B’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God. But how can we take this literally if one of the basic tenets of our faith is that God is non-corporeal? The medieval commentator Nachmanides says that we were made of two Neshamot, like all other animals we are formed of the dust of the earth, thus like all other animals we are mortal, need to eat, sleep, reproduce, but also have a free will. And we are also like the celestial beings made in the Image of God we are made with an immortal soul with the ability to reason and understand and that thirsts not for water but for God. An amalgamation of the two, we can be at once dust and ashes and heavenly. Unlike angels we have a free will.
And yet, It is not in Heaven. One of the most famous stories in the Talmud, and the unofficial theme of the Conservative Movement Bava Metzia 59b quotes Nitzavim. Rabbi Eliezer, convinced that he is right on his arguments, causes supernatural occurrences at his command, the movement of a tree, the reversing of a flow of a river upstream, the collapse of the walls of the house of study, yet all are rebuffed by Rabbi Joshua and the rest of the sages as meaningless. When a Heavenly voice cries out “Rabbi Eliezer is right! He’s always right”. Rabbi Joshua responds, “It is not in heaven’, for since the Torah was removed from the realm of God when given at Sinai, we no longer pay heed to heavenly voices. It is up to us to make our own decisions whether to continue the divine work of Creation or to destroy.
Our great philosopher and codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides records that the Jews that left Egypt recited a blessing over the manna: “Hamotzi Lechem Min HaShamayim”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the sky”. This blessing makes sense, in the desert God cared for us and gave us ready to eat manna. This parallels the blessing we say over bread: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Haaretz”, “Praised are You Lord our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the ground”. Have you ever pulled ready-to-eat bread out from the ground? No! The process is extensive getting bread from the ground to your table. We plant seeds in the ground, which with the help of sun and rain eventually cause wheat to sprout. Humans still cannot digest the wheat at this point. It needs to be gleaned and harvested, threshed, milled, mixed with water and other ingredients, kneaded, baked, all before it can be eaten. So why do we thank God for pulling bread from the ground? We do God’s work when we make bread just as we do God’s work when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, help out someone in need, cry out against injustice. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. When Adam and Eve followed the advice of the snake and made that history-altering decision to eat from the tree, God said “now the man has become like one of us”. No longer do we eat the manna falling from the sky, but have become God’s partners in creation. So the meaning of life, my friends, is not merely to till and to tend, but to live. God wants us to eat from the tree.
May years to come bring what they may, but may this year be a year of health, love, life and peace. Shanah Tovah.