Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What is Chanukah?

Chanukah starts tonight (December 20th) at sunset.

The Talmud (Shabbat 21b) records an unusual conversation.

Our sages are discussing the particulars of the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles.  When to light, where to light, who should see the lighting, etc.

Then, almost as an afterthought, someone poses the question:

What IS Chanukah?

No one in the Talmud ever asks "What is Passover?", or "What is Rosh Hashannah?"  Those, and a few other holidays, are commanded explicitly in the Torah.

You might say: well, obviously Chanukah can't be in the Five Books of Moses - the war and the miracle happened much later!

That's true.  However, we have another post-Torah holiday in Judaism, called Purim.  Yet, the Talmud never has to ask "What is Purim?"

The Talmud assumes that anyone reading its hallowed pages, already knows the Hebrew Scriptures thoroughly.  One of the books in the Hebrew Scriptures (the collection of Scriptures that Christians refer to as the Old Testament) is the book of Esther.  So even though Purim is not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses, it IS mentioned at the end of the book of Esther.

Chanukah is the only festive holiday we have that is not mentioned within the Hebrew Scriptures.

There is a book called the Book of Maccabees, with full details of the Assyrian-Greeks trying to take over Israel, and the small band of zealots who wouldn't give in to assimilation and foreign rule.

However, this book is not part of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Therefore, it lacks the authority to inform Jewish law and practice.

Which returns us to the original question.

"What is Chanukah? The rabbis taught:  On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev Chanukah commences and lasts eight days, on which mourning and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Hasmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to light the menorah of the Temple) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and gratitude were to be recited." 
  -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat21b

Now that we know what Chanukah is, let's look at how we commemorate the miracle.  Specifically, what do we light?

Many of our readers are used to seeing a Chanukah menorah look something like this:

These colored candles, available at most American supermarkets, have come to symbolize Chanukah for many people.  It's perfectly fine to light your menorah this way, but you should be aware of a few issues.

- The menorah flame should last at least 30 minutes.  Sometimes the colorful candles go out sooner.  

- On Friday, when we have to light before shabbat starts, and we want our menorah flame to continue to burn 30 minutes past nightfall, your average supermarket Chanukah candles just won't cut it.

- The miracle itself happened with oil!  

Because of these concerns, some of us actually light with glass cups filled with olive oil, and special wicks designed for this purpose.

To be fair to the candle users, I have heard one argument in favor of using candles over olive oil cups.  That is, the quality of the flame from a candle is better.  Some people think it looks nicer.

Since the whole point of lighting the Chanukah menorah is to publicize the miracle, attractiveness is a factor in the decision of how to light.

What do you do?  Candles, oil, something else?  

Also, what's your favorite Chanukah food?  

Leave us a comment below!

Monday, November 28, 2011


I'm so excited to meet a great group of Israel supporters in Las Vegas!

Come join us as supporters of Israel meet to hear the latest news on daily life in the Holy Land.

Topics will include:
-Arab-Jewish relations
-conditions in the North
-the continuing threat from Hizbullah
...and some GOOD NEWS (for a change) on the future of Israel.

When: Wednesday November 30th, 6:30pm

Where: UNLV Wellness Center, meeting room 1020 (next to Thomas and Mack Center)

Hope to see you there!

An aerial view of our new campus, in Akko

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Tweetup / Meet the man behind the blog

It has been quite awhile since our last blog post. We hope to return to more regular contributions of Torah topics and interesting insights soon.

My attention has been focused on planning my fall trip to the United States.

If you're in the New York area (or even if you aren't!), come join us this Saturday night (November 12th) at 8pm for a "tweetup" at Burgers Bar - 1906 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY.

Meet the guy who has been tweeting and blogging all about our amazing yeshiva for these many months.

Meet others who care about Israel and interact with our school online.

Most importantly - bring your friends!

What: tweetup / melava malka hangout

When: Saturday night, November 12, 2011

Where: Burgers Bar, 1906 Coney Island Ave, Brooklyn, NY

RSVP is encouraged, but not required.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Who shall live...

We are fast approaching the Holy Day of Rosh Hashannah. Although the observance of Rosh Hashannah extends for two full days (in Israel as well as the Diaspora), we refer to the Jewish New Year as one "long day".

What happens exactly on Rosh Hashannah?

Every human being, as well as every nation, receives a judgement for the year.

In one of the most moving stanzas from our Rosh Hashannah prayers, we recite:

"On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur will be sealed, how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted."

Today, a lifetime terrorist leader, the mastermind of countless Jewish murders, and now the dictator of the Palestinian Authority, Machmoud Abbas, will address the United Nations.

He intends to ask the nations of the world to bolster his attempt to destroy the Jewish homeland.

The jihad against the Jews has little to do with Judea or Samaria. It is a purely ideological fight. It is an insult to the jihadists honor that any non-Muslim enjoys sovereignty in the Middle East.

Ideally, these terrorists seek worldwide allegiance to fundamentalist Islam. However, they are practical enough to accept this goal in stages. Stage one is full domination of the Middle East.

This fight continues here in Akko. A demographic war is being waged against our city. This city, nowhere here the so-called "disputed territories", is in danger of falling to a growing number of non-friendly Arab Muslims.

Ultimately, we must realize that G-d will decide our future. It is no accident that this UN provocation comes right now, as we are about to be judged for the year.

Will the nation of Israel live or die? Will the city of Akko enjoy tranquility, or suffer?

More importantly, what can we do to improve our annual judgement?

In the very next line of the same Rosh Hashannah reading, we recite together:

"...but Repentance, Prayer, and CHARITY, cancel the severe decree!"

Will you stand with us, at this auspicious time?

Will you help to insure for us, and yourself, a sweet judgement?

Will you contribute to strengthening the Jewish people?


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Response to Shaun Wolfe

Check out the comment thread on the previous blog post. Shaun Wolfe posted a few comments, the latest of which deserved (by my estimation) its own blog post for my response. Shaun wrote:

" If you can take whatever action is deemed appropriate based on your beliefs regardless of secular constraints, then why can't others -- as long as they are genuine in their belief?"

In short - 'cause we're right and they're wrong. :o)

Again, the source of Western morality is Torah. We, in the Western world, take for granted concepts like "life is sacred above all else"

In Islam, as well as many Asian traditions, honor is more sacred than life.

Kamikaze pilots in World War II, suicide bombers in Israel, Muslim fathers killing their disobedient daughters in the U.S., these people aren't crazy. They just have a different value system.

If we take the secular view, then we truly can't say that any value system is inherently superior to any other.

I don't subscribe to that view. I say that we (of Judeo-Christian civilization) are right and everyone else (to the extent that their values contradict ours) is wrong.

I don't have the exact quote in front of me, but I heard Mr. Jillette say something in an interview, something about how he respects those with religious conviction much more than those in liberal churches (synagogues). He can say to them "you're dead wrong" and they can say to him "you're dead wrong", but at least they can have a dialogue and present arguments for each side.

Without an anchor, without an objective value system by which to live, we have no justification to tell anyone else that any given action is "right" or "wrong".

So, that's why it's wrong for people to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings, even if they think they are serving some higher power by doing it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Response to Penn Jilette and his new book "G-d, no!"

For those of you who may not know, Penn Jillette is one of the greatest magicians alive today. Along with Teller (yes, that IS his full legal name), Penn performs in Las Vegas several times a week, usually to a packed house.

Penn is famous for his personal views as well as his professional acumen. He advocates for Libertarian politics, including free-market capitalism and a repeal of laws against "victimless crimes".

Penn is also an atheist. This is the topic of his most recent book "G-d, no!"

[He doesn't use the hyphen in his book title. It is our policy not to write the Creator's name, in any language, in this forum, because of a prohibition to casually use Hebrew names for G-d]

I have great respect for Mr. Jillette. He does not attack religious people, and in fact encourages them to continue dialogue with the rest of the world. He has said things like (not an exact quote), "Please, pray for me, if you think it will help!"

It is only because Mr. Jillette seems to be sincere in his quest for knowledge, (including religious knowledge), that I care to respond to the opening of his book. He starts out by asking:

"If G-d... ...told you to kill your child, would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you're an atheist"

First I will answer Penn's question. Then I will challenge his assertion, according to a basic tenet of Judaism.

If G-d told me to kill someone, first I would check existing Jewish law and see what it says.

Jewish law says that I must kill someone if he/she is an immediate threat to my own life or the life of another. It also has provisions for war. The Bible mentions capital punishment for certain deeds, but capital cases can only be judged by a specific type of Jewish court that does not currently exist.

So if G-d told me to kill someone, but Jewish law says I can't, I wouldn't do it.

This certainly does NOT make me an atheist. Here's why.

G-d revealed His Law to our people, the Israelites, on Mount Sinai. We received the Written Law (The Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament), and the Oral Law, (later codified as the Mishnah, expounded upon in the Talmud, and clarified in volumes upon volumes of rabbinic discourse)

Before the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, if a person received some kind of Heavenly communication, the proper response was to listen. If that dream or vision included a command from On High, then one was supposed to follow that command.

Once the Law was given, it takes precedence over all other sources of information. In fact, G-d even warned us about this, after we received the Law.

"If a prophet arises in your midst, or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, and then he speaks to you, saying: 'Let us go after other gods, which you have not known, and let us serve them' - you shall not listen to the words of that prophet, or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your G-d is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Deuteronomy 13:2-4)

It is easy to love G-d and follow the Law when you're standing at Mount Sinai, witnessing the greatest event in human history.

When the excitement fades, and you're back to normal, everyday living, and then someone comes along with an amazing "sign" or "wonder"; then what are you going to do? Will you stick to the Law that you know came from G-d, or will you be lead astray?

This is THE ultimate test of life. Every moral dilemma that we face comes down to this: Follow G-d, or follow something else.

So you see, Mr. Jillette, I strive everyday to develop a deep, close, personal relationship with my Creator. Understanding G-d's Infinity means realizing that, unlike us mortals, G-d has no need for the backspace button. The all-powerful, all-knowing King of the Universe never makes a mistake, and certainly doesn't need to appear to me in a dream, or a vision, and tell me to violate the Law.

Please comment below - I would love to get a conversation going here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

G-d made _____ happen BECAUSE...

There is a tendency for human beings in distress to ask the Eternal question, "Why?"

The "whys" that have been proposed to us in the rabbinical world range from "Why can't I make more money" to "Why did G-d allow/cause the Holocaust".

In nearly all of these cases, any question that starts with "Why did G-d..." does not have a worldly answer.

We must remember that most of the people who ask these types of questions are in great pain. Our obligation is not to answer their unanswerable question, but to attend to their pain and help them find a way out of their distress.

A bigger problem occurs when some individuals attempt to answer these questions.

There have always been self-appointed "diviners" who will offer up some connection between tragedy and transgression.

I loathe to link to any of their content, lest these charlatans receive more publicity. If you're interested, search on Youtube for the name of any tragic event, and you will inevitably find a video that will forcefully assert, "G-d made _______ happen BECAUSE..."

The Torah has already warned us against this.

"You shall not eat the blood [of an animal] ; neither shall you practice divination nor soothsaying." (Lev. 19:26)

Divination is the act of explaining G-d's actions on Earth. Soothsaying is casting spells, chanting mantras; anything that (we think) will somehow bypass G-d's control of the universe, and grant us some material benefit.

What is the connection between eating an animal's blood, and divination or soothsaying?

Perhaps we can say that, just as the concept of eating blood is so repulsive to us physically, we should feel spiritually disgusted by these spiritual transgressions.

How can we engender such a strong feeling against these practices? By understanding the true nature of G-d.

When we continuously learn, teach, and live a true understanding of the Holy One, severe mistakes in spiritual thinking become all the more apparent to us.

G-d is Infinite; beyond time, beyond space, beyond physicality, beyond the limits of human logic. It is the ultimate folly to try and limit the rationale for G-d's actions to whatever our limited minds can conceive.

The bottom line is, anyone who finishes the sentence "G-d made this happen BECAUSE" is transgressing an explicit Torah law.

When we are able to accept that we can't explain the Heavenly cause of apparently bad (or apparently good) events, we come one step closer to a sincere connection with our Creator.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

9th of Av - from destruction to rebuilding

Please watch (and recommend) this video to anyone who cares about the future of the Jewish people.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A friend in time of need

When Itzik (Yitzchak) comes home from school, there is no one to greet him. His mother works ten hours a day as a cleaner in a local office building.

His father, tragically, was murdered by Hizbullah terrorists during the Second Lebanon War.

With no money for after-school activities, no one to help him with his homework, and little available in the city, what can we expect from little Itzik?

At best, he will sit in front of the TV all afternoon. Unfortunately, there are more dangerous temptations that may lure him out onto the streets.

For far too long, this has been the norm in periphery towns in Israel. Even children who are blessed with two parents often do not have any positive adult interaction throughout most of their childhood. There are simply too many bills to pay, and not enough hours in the day for many working-class Israeli parents. Since they must work long hours to survive, their children are left without any guidance.

Two young boys in Akko, and their 'Big Brothers' - students from our yeshiva
Our 'Big Brothers' style program provides these latch-key kids with positive role models.  Whether they help with homework, run an activity in our brand new Educational Center, or simply organize a game of soccer, our students make a big impact in the lives of Akko's youth.

We hope, as this program continues, that some of the boys who have benefited from this program will eventually be inspired to attend our yeshiva.  As they prepare to give back to their community, they will also receive an excellent Jewish education, and in turn, strengthen the Jewish population of Akko.

We need your help to continue this program.  Please give generously today!


Monday, July 18, 2011

Why many Israeli children do not have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony

This may sound strange to many of you, Jew and Gentile alike, who live near Jewish communities in other parts of the world.  Every Jewish kid you knew had a Bar (boy) or Bat (girl) mitzvah ceremony, right?  Everyone knows, it's the Jewish coming-of-age ritual.

Sometimes, the Torah reading and/or synagogue speech is overshadowed by a very lavish party.  With free flowing alcohol (for the adults only, of course), mountains of gourmet food, and a live band to play while the attendees dance the night away, some Jews have started to complain that the whole event is more "bar" than mitzvah.

Despite all of that, the Bar Mitzvah is still a treasured rite of passage in most Jewish families around the world. Why, then, do many Israeli children never have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at all?

Simply stated, many parents don't have the time or requisite knowledge to teach their children to read from the Torah; they also lack the money needed to hire a tutor for them.

Here in Akko, a large part of the Jewish population are refugees (or children of refugees) from North African and Middle Eastern Muslim countries, as well as Jews who fled the Soviet Union (while it still existed).

In many cases, both parents must work full time jobs to provide a basic standard of living.  Once they've paid for rent, food, utilities, clothing, bus pass etc - there's just no money left for "luxuries" like a Jewish education.

Our Bar Mitzvah program has positively changed many lives already, here in Akko.  We offer free Bar Mitzvah tutoring to children in the community.  When they're ready to read from the Torah, we host the whole ceremony in our Beit Midrash (main study hall).

Some of our supporters have asked me, "Why do they need lessons?  Don't they already know how to read Hebrew - it's their first language!"

While it is easier for these kids to prepare for a Bar Mitzvah than non-Hebrew speaking children, it's important to realize that Modern Hebrew and Ancient Hebrew are not exactly the same language.

Once they become familiar with Ancient Hebrew, they must also learn the Torah portion, and how to chant it according to their family custom (both sefardim and ashkenazim have multiple sets of "notes" on the words, and we strive to provide each child with their family's custom of chanting).  They also need to understand the concept of the Torah in general, their Torah portion specifically, and how the ideas discussed in their portion are relevant to modern life.

Teacher (one of our students) and Akko youth seeking to understand the ancient text of the Torah

Our Bar Mitzvah program produces happier, more confident children, ready to enter their teenage years with a greater appreciation for and understanding of our unique heritage.

A young boy learns how to put on tefillin - a practice which also starts at the time of Bar Mitzvah

 The cost of providing one child in Akko with a series of Bar Mitzvah lessons, plus holding the ceremony on our campus, is $500.  (Ask any Jewish parent - that's a HUGE bargain!)

Would you consider sponsoring a Bar Mitzvah?


Monday, July 4, 2011

Pictures from our recent campus dedication


What a night!  Friends of the yeshiva from all over the world converged in Akko to celebrate our new campus.

Legendary Jewish singer Avraham Fried performed.  Our students and our supporters had an opportunity to meet each other.  Others came for the concert, but left with much more; a deeper understanding and appreciation for everything that Yeshivat Heder Akko does for our community, and our country.

Here are some photos of this fantastic evening.
Setting up - our residence halls in the background.

Avraham Fried (right) with some of his adoring fans.

The very talented Mr. Fried with our beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Stern.

The stage is set, and we're ready to rock! (Well, not rock; more like Jewish ballads, but that doesn't sound right - we're ready to 'Jewish ballad'... you get the point)

The entrance to our stunning beit midrash (study hall).

Two of our students who are currently serving in the Israeli army.

All of our students serve in combat units.  May G-d bless and protect them!

If you would like to honor a special person in your life, make a dedication on our "tree of life".

Our guests enjoy words of Torah inside our brand new beit midrash (study hall).

It's concert time!  Avraham Fried gets the whole crowd to sing along.

Thank you to everyone who made this event possible.  May we all be blessed to celebrate together in the future!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Conversion to Judaism

 וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת-הַגֵּר: כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.

Normally, we post only the English translations of Biblical verses on our blog.  This blog is written as a place for the English speaking world to connect to our yeshiva in Northern Israel.

However, the verse above (from Deut. 10:19) is a bit tricky.  Specifically, the word GER (גר)

Let's remove the word in question, and translate the rest of the verse:

"You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

Most religious Jews would tell you on the spot that the phrase "v'ahavtem et ha ger" means, "you shall love the convert".

Yet, if we use the word ger to mean convert, the rest of the verse doesn't make sense.  Jews weren't converts in Egypt!  To the contrary; our tradition teaches us that the Israelites kept their own names, language, and clothing, throughout the 210 years of slavery.

In a way, all Israelites became converts when the nation accepted the laws of the Torah - but that wasn't "in the land of Egypt", it was on Mount Sinai.

So let's take a look again at this verse:

  "You shall love the ____, because you were ____ in the land of Egypt." 

If you've already looked up the verse for yourself in an English translation of the Bible, you probably found the word GER translated as "stranger".  G-d is telling us to love the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt.  We were a minority, a slave class, no friends or family in high places to help us, no political power, nothing.

What does that have to do with a convert?  According to Jewish law, a person who has completed a valid conversion is a full-fledged Jew - just as Jewish as someone born to a Jewish mother.*

Conversion to Judaism is a process that takes years to complete.  It involves study, understanding, and practice of our holy directives.  Someone who is in the process of conversion will look, dress, and act like any other observant Jew.  Only when this Gentile fully integrates Torah into his/her life, and understands his/her obligations in Jewish law, will the local rabbi bring this person to a Rabbinical court to complete the process.

 So then, why do we use the same word to mean "convert" and "stranger"?

In fact, this double use of a single word teaches us a great lesson in how we must relate towards the converts in our own communities.

When a convert joins a Jewish community, he/she has no family, no connections, no mentors from childhood, no communal clout... ...just like our ancestors in Egypt!

It is distressing that conversion to Judaism has become such a political mess, especially here in Israel.  Many of us personally know of people who converted according to Jewish law outside of Israel, and subsequentially made aliyah (moved to Israel).  Unfortunately, their status as Jews can sometimes be challenged, if they want to get married, or serve in an official Israeli Rabbinic capacity.

 While it is important for the Israeli Rabbinate to verify that a convert became a Jew in the proper fashion, it is equally important that converts are treated with even more respect, care, and concern, than born Jews.

More importantly, we must work to unify all halachic** conversion procedures worldwide.  Some advancements have been made in the area already.  A convert in North America who goes to an RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) rabbinical court for the end of the conversion process will be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.  It's a good start.

However, there are many sincere souls who seek to join our ranks.  Some of them have never heard of the RCA.  They obtain a conversion from another rabbinical court, and are blindsided when they want to be recognized as a Jew by the Israeli Rabbinate.

There are several ideas being considered in the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and in the Rabbinate, to unify the conversion system.

While it is beyond the scope of this blog to endorse any specific plan, we do hope and pray that unity will prevail.

On a personal level; remember that every time you go out of your way to help a convert, you simultaneously fulfill TWO positive commands!  "Love your neighbor" (Lev. 19:18) AND "Love the convert" (Deut. 10:19)

Thanks to our Twitter friend,  @mascety, for suggesting this topic.

*A kohen cannot marry a female convert, and a mamzer can marry a female convert, but in all other aspects of Jewish law, a convert has the same status as a born Jew

**"halachic" means "conforming to halacha - Jewish law" 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dealing with dissent

The Torah portion of Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32) tells us about Korach and his challenge to Moses for the leadership of the Israelites in the Sinai desert.

Moses responds by challenging Korach and his supporters to a contest.  Actually, it's more like a Divine retribution version of Russian Roulette.

Only Aaron was authorized by G-d to perform the incense service.  Any non-authorized person trying to do the incense service was liable to the death penalty.

Korach's main argument with Moses (and Aaron) is that "we are all holy".  Korach thought that we shouldn't have Kohanim (Aaron's descendants) solely in charge of the Holy services and offerings of the Tabernacle (which later became the service of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem).

Although many of the classic commentators offer a range of ideas as to the motivations behind Korach's rebellion, the plain meaning of the verses suggests that he was accusing Moses of nepotism.  Moses led the prople, so his older brother got the cushy government job, with great benefits (eating the offerings, crop donations known as trumah, special blessings to give to the rest of the Israelites, first honors, etc.)

So Moses called on Korach to act according to his words.  Korach and his followers would offer the incense at the same time as Aaron.  If Moses has been telling the truth until now, Korach and his followers would die as punishment for their sins.  If Korach was right, they would be fine.

How many times have we asked for a sign from G-d?  A miracle of some sort?  Sometimes we ask for a sign, and get it, but others around us are more jaded, and explain it away as coincidence.

Moses understood this part of human nature, so he made the following request to G-d.

"If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then [the  masses will conclude that] the LORD has not sent Me.  But if the LORD make a new thing, and the ground open its mouth, and swallow them up, with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the pit, then [everyone else] shall understand that these men have despised the LORD." (Num. 16:29-30)
That's exactly what happened.  The ground ripped apart, and Korach and his gang fell into the abyss.

Dealing with Korach's dissent from G-d's directive required a swift, unequivocal response.

Oy, how the mighty have fallen!  Today, most of us lack the sincere connection to our Creator to rely on that kind of miracle to combat the dissenters who challenge our knowledge of G-d, and our service of G-d.

Not only have the faithful fallen far away from spiritual greatness - the dissenters have as well!

Korach was a spiritual giant.  He had a greater and deeper understanding of G-d and Divine Law than anyone alive today could ever achieve.  In short - he knew better.  However, as great as a person is, so is his/her Evil Inclination.  Korach gave in to his own thrist for honor, leadership, and dominance.

Since we can recognize that the detractors of Torah today attack us from a place of ignorance, we can understand that strong verbal debate is not effective.  Rather, rabbis from across the Torah Observant world advise us to reach out to naysayers with love, warmth, and compassion.  Leading by example is the best way to engage the dissenter today.

However, part of the message from the Korach confrontation is still very much applicable today.

We must not confuse love and warmth for the dissenter with a soft stance on what we know to be True.

Always be ready to declare your spiritual knowledge with the utmost conviction and resolve.

A section of the Mishnah known as Pirke Avot (Chapter of the Fathers) sheds some light on the balance between open-mindedness and intellectual integrity.

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all men, as it is written (Psalm 119:99) 'I have gained understanding from all my teachers.' (Avot 4:1)

Learning from everyone does not mean automatically accepting what they say as accurate.  The same text also says:

Rabbi Elazar said: Be eager to study the Torah. Know what to respond to a heretic. Know before whom you toil and who is your employer who shall pay you the reward of
your labor. (Avot 2:19)

How do we determine what information goes under the heading "I have gained understanding from my teachers" and what we file under "Know what to respond to a heretic" ?

The answer to this is also found in Pirke Avot:

Joshua ben Perachyah said: Make for yourself a rabbi, and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit. (Avot 1:6)

This was Korach's major error.  His refusal to learn from a qualified teacher led to his untimely demise.

When we learn from someone who is part of the chain of Torah transmission, we are able to take in all sorts of religious / spiritual information, and discern the difference between Truth and falsehood.

From this position of great strength through knowledge and understanding, we can engage the dissenter in the proper way - warm, loving, but without compromise on what we know to be true.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why should I care about the destruction of Israel?

We asked our friends on Twitter to give us a Jewish-related topic that we could write about on the blog.

@casreeves, one of our Christian Zionist followers, sent in the following:

"What would be the loss to the world if Israel was destroyed?"

 Unfortunately, this question is honestly being asked by many young Jews around the world today.  According to one survey, (see here and here), nearly half of young American Jews responded that they would not consider it a personal tragedy if Israel were wiped off the map tomorrow.

 Now, some supporters of Israel will make a completely secular argument for the Jewish state.  Besides being necessary for the Jews to defend themselves, have their own land to prevent persecution, etc - hey, just look at how cool the country is!

According to FLAME (Facts and Logic About the Middle East - read whole list here), Israel is great because:

- the cell phone was invented here

- Mircrosoft and Intel do lots of Research and Development here (the hardware and software you're using right now to read this were likely developed here)

- We are the only liberal democracy in the Middle East

- We have the biggest economy and the highest standard of living in the Middle East

- We are the only country in the Middle East to give true religious freedom to all

These are all very nice things.  Still - they can all be replaced rather easily.  The next great cell phone or microchip could be designed somewhere else.  Who knows, with all of this Arab Spring stuff going on, maybe  another Middle Eastern country will rise up and become a great liberal democracy, with religious freedom, and liberty and justice for all.

All in all, we would have to admit that if the jihadists have their way, and succeed in the complete and total destruction of Israel, the world would find another way to get new technology, and possibly find another Middle Eastern country to support when it democratizes.

There is a greater, deeper lesson in the existence of the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel - and especially when the three unite.

What we consider to be "morality" today, is actually the direct result of Torah practice in the world.

The Jewish people are a "Light unto the Nations" (Isiah 42:6).  Everything that is considered "good" and "moral" has its roots in the Torah.

Christianity, and even non-jihadist Islam, take the moral teachings of the Torah and apply them to their own theological understandings.

The entire world has benefited, and continues to benefit, from the Jewish people, who live and teach the morality of the Torah to the other Nations of the world.

The Jewish people were able to return to their G-d given land, the land of Israel, and re-establish sovereignty in 1948.  Many wars erupted since then, and Israel has been able to stave off total annihilation.  In 1967, after only six days of fighting off a planed Jewish genocide by the combined forces of all Arab neighboring states, Israel reclaimed the entire city of Jerusalem, our holy capital, as well as the heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria, where many biblical events (including the entire episode of Chanukah) took place.  In addition, the Golan Heights were liberated from Syrian occupation, the Syrians having used this historic Jewish plateau to constantly shoot rockets and terrorize the Israeli farmers below.

The entire Sinai peninsula and the tiny Gaza Strip, both occupied by Egypt, were also captured by Israel.  The Sinai peninsula was given to Egypt in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.  (If the new Egyptian government cancels peace with us, do we get the Sinai back?)

A serious error in judgment made Israel abandon Gaza in 2005, and the Israeli government callously evicted thousands of Jews who had built their lives there, at the behest of previous Israeli governments.  The good news is, the nation as a whole were so emotionally traumatized by the decision to take away the life and livelihood of so many innocent Israelis, that the people will likely never tolerate an eviction of any kind, from any part of Israel, ever again.

Despite the setbacks and missteps, the fact remains that the People of Israel were reunited with the Land of Israel, and an increasing percentage are following the Torah of Israel.

Unfortunately, secular humanism is growing like a cancer, at a rapid pace throughout the world today.

The best antidote to this moral rejectionism is a strong Jewish People, following the Torah, in Our Land.  We continue to be a Light unto the Nations, and our very existence in the world, and especially in Our Land, strengthens every human being who chooses to connect with the morals and values of the Torah (which have largely been adopted by Western Civilization and are now often called "Western morality").

So, " "What would be the loss to the world if Israel was destroyed?"

One less vibrant democracy?  One less technologically advanced country to produce new and innovate products?  One less country in the world where people can be free?

Yes.  And it would also be the first victory in the war against Western Civilization.  It would be the top domino, knocking over all other Western powers, one by one.  It would a modern-day Tower of Bavel triumph - a stinging salvo in the fight against our very Creator.

Anyone who cares about the continuation of life in the free world must necessarily support the continuation of the renewed State of Israel.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Shavuot - A promise is a promise.

It was the single greatest event in human history.

The One and Only Creator of Everything, the Infinite One, Almighty, Holy and Blessed be His name - gave the blueprint of Existence to human beings.

Which human beings did He choose to deliver this awesome Law?  He didn't choose the wealthiest group of people at the time, nor the most powerful, nor even the most refined of character.

G-d gave the Torah to a lowly group of Egyptian slaves.

Why?  Wouldn't it have made more sense to give this Holy Code to a people of greater stature?  Certainly, the ruling class of any given nation in existence at the time would have had greater means to publicize this open miracle, this Giving of the Torah.

G-d gave the Holy Torah to these Egyptian slaves, these Israelites, because He had already promised to do so.

"And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a G-d unto you and to your seed after you.   And I will give unto you, and to your seed after you, the land where you dwell, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their G-d."  (Gen. 17:7-8)

G-d promised Abraham that his descendants would receive both the Law to live by, and the Land in which to follow the Law.

We had fallen so low; the kabbalists explain that there are 50 levels of spiritual connection (טהרה) and disconnection (טומאה).  The Israelite slaves in Egypt had fallen to the 49th level of spiritual disconnection.  Any worse, and they would have been completely disconnected from G-d.

We have all heard about the miracle of the Ten Plagues, the Splitting of the Sea, and of course the Giving of the Torah.  What makes all of these events even more miraculous was that G-d elevated an entire nation of people from the lowest of the low, to the highest of the highest spiritual connection - direct revelation.  Torah.

We can now see the deeper significance of counting 49 days from Passover (leaving Egypt, leaving slavery), and  the 50th day corresponding to the Giving of the Torah.

The slaves had jumped from -49 to 0 in a very short span of time.  Now, they needed to do the hard work of slowly climbing from 0 to 1, and then 2... all the way to 49, and then 50; complete spiritual connection.


This process mirrors our own spiritual struggles.  No matter how far a person has fallen away from G-d's law,  no matter how spiritually disconnected he or she is; they can instantly leap from any negative state, straight to zero.  Anyone who sincerely admits, regrets, and vows to correct his/her mistakes, has instantly removed all of the previous damage.

Getting out of negative territory is easy.  The harder step is building towards ever greater levels of connection with the Divine.

We achieve this ascent through the study of the Law, the performance of the 613 commandments given to us,  as well as personal character refinement.

One such trait is integrity.  G-d made a promise to Abraham, and fulfilled that promise, even though Abraham's descendants were not worthy of the great miracles bestowed upon them.

 May we all keep our promises, keep the Law which connects us to the Divine, and keep striving for the 50th level of spiritual connection.  


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jerusalem Day

A few weeks ago, the entire country of Israel celebrated Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzma'ut).  Everything was closed.  Kids were off from school, all offices were closed, no mail was delivered.  The entire country celebrated 63 years of independence.  The smell of meat grilling on the BBQ (called Mangal in Hebrew) permeated every large city and small town in our homeland.

Indeed, we had great reason to celebrate on that day.  The entire Arab world tried to destroy a tiny nascent Jewish force, and miraculously, the Jewish soldiers, and their brand new government, we still standing at the end.

That was an important day in Jewish history.

Now, back to today.  I am sitting here in the yeshiva office.  All of the schools are open, the offices are open, it looks and feels like a normal business day in Israel.

It's a bit strange.  We should be rejoicing and celebrating all day today.  In many ways, Jerusalem Day celebrates a greater and more important miracle than Independence day.

The conditions in June 1967 were certainly different than in May 1948.  The Israeli army was stronger.  So were the combined armies of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.  The Arab goal was the same - a full eradication of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

 The Independence war left many of our most important biblical sites under Jordanian control.  The Western Wall itself, along with the entire Temple Mount complex, were cut off from Jewish worshipers.  Hebron, Shechem, Jericho, Shilo, as well as a site very important to our Christian friends - Bethlehem - were completely cut off.

Barbed wire cut through the center of Jerusalem.  Judea and Samaria, aside from their historical importance, provide the high ground, looking over the central coastal plain; the most populated piece of Israel. (Think Tel-Aviv metro area).

In addition, the Israeli farmers in the North, along the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), were subject to rocket attacks from the Syrians directly above them in the Golan Heights.

In six short days, all of this changed.

Through bravery, fantastic intelligence, and the grace of G-d, ALL INVADING ARMIES WERE DEFEATED!

The Egyptian forces fell, and the entire Sinai Peninsula, as well as the Gaza Strip, became Israeli land.

Jordan was forced to retreat beyond the Jordan River, restoring Judea and Samaria to its rightful owners.

The Syrian army divisions threatened to demolish all of Northern Israel.  They were miraculously defeated, and the Golan Heights reverted to Jewish sovereignty for the first time in over a millennium.

However, today isn't called Judea-Samaria Day, or Six-Day War victory day.  It's called Jerusalem Day.

The most important piece of real estate redeemed from our enemies that week was not the Sinai  (which was later returned to Egypt in a peace deal), or Gaza (which has since been abandoned and become a Hamas terror base).  Judea, Samaria, and the Golan were more important, for strategic and historical reasons.  Yet even those great victories pale in comparison to the three little Hebrew words uttered over a crackling army radio:

HAR HABAYIT B'YADEINU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


The Holy Temple.  Three times a day, every day, for nearly two thousand years, faithful Jews have prayed to return to the Temple Mount and rebuild our Holy Temple.

On this day, 44 years ago, step one was complete.

 Our holy city, the city rebuilt with centuries of tears and heartfelt prayers, had finally been reunited.
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget [its skill].  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you; if I do elevate Jerusalem above my greatest joy."  -Psalms 137:5-6

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Secret of Secrets

Since the beginning of Pesach (Passover), we have been counting the 49 days that lead up to the holiday of Shavuot - the anniversary of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Shavuot itself means "weeks".  We count every day of the seven weeks in between Pesach and Shavuot.  This entire process is known as the Counting of the Omer (For an understanding of Omer, and the Scriptural source to do this counting of days and weeks, see Lev. 23:15)

Besides the straightforward Torah command to count these days, there is another aspect to this practice.

Jewish mystical (Kabbalah) wisdom assigns a sephira to each week, and each day within each week.

They are:
-Chesed (Kindness)

-Gevruah (Strength)

-Tiferet (Splendor - balance of Chesed and Gevurah)

-Netzach (Victory, or endurance towards victory)

-Hod (majesty)

-Yesod (secret, inner knowledge)

-Malchut (Kingdom - the physical world)

This means that day 1 of our counting is the day of Chesed of Chesed (Week 1, Day 1).  Day 2 is Chesed of Gevurah (Week 1, Day 2), etc.

Why am I writing about all of this today?  Because today, day 41 of the counting of the omer, is:

Yesod of Yesod

Today is the day to explore the secret of secrets.  Who are you?  Forget about who you're supposed to be, or who other people expect you to be, or who you pretend to be in social settings - who are YOU, at the core of your existence?

Take this day and explore your Yesod of Yesod.  Decide who you are, what is important to you, and how to improve this inner aspect of your being.