Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Bestow upon her the great goodness that is stored up for the righteous."

Yom revi'i, 23 Nisan 5771.

This post dedicated with love and respect to the holy neshamot of Esther Nechama bas Ahron Meir and Ella Yehudis bas Shraga Feivel.

This blog usually concerns what I love about Israel.  Sometimes it concerns what I love about being part of the Jewish family.

We of the Baltimore kehilla lost two lovely friends during Pesach.  The honor of the Yomim Tovim prevented us from mourning them fully during the time we were experiencing their loss.  Yet we know that neither of them would have wanted us to neglect our responsibilities to Pesach to grieve.  They were as different as roses and daisies; and I loved the light and color and freshness each of them added to our community.

I want to share with you some correspondence between these two great neshamot, from just days before they left this world.  This conversation took place in a special blog set up by family members for Esther Nechama, zt"l, on a marvelous site called CaringBridge.

[From Judy]  FRIDAY, APRIL 1, 2011 2:18 PM, EDT
Dear Esther Nechama,

I don't want to miss the opportunity to wish you and your family a beautiful Shabbas. May the light that has been shining on you and your family this past week continue to burn brightly. Only good health and simchas!


[From Esther Nechama]  SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2011 1:22 PM, CDT

There are so many people that need yeshuos and refuos and we daven that our tefilos will help. One of our constant visitors and fellow strugglers, Judy, is in dire need of our tefilos.  Please take a moment to specifically include her in your tefilos. IYH, It will help her. Judy's name: Ella Yehudis bas Hinda Devora.  May she have a refuah shlaima quickly and easily with no side effects.  Thank you 


[From Judy]  TUESDAY, APRIL 12, 2011 12:51 PM, EDT

Dearest Esther Nechama,

I finally have some temporary strength to check you blog, and I just want to say I love you dearly, and thank you and your eons of friends and admirers for adding me specifically to your tefillos. A new type of chemo is beginning tomorrow. My doctor is straightforward with me, as I am with her: I appreciate her care and honesty, but we all know eveything is in Hashem's hands. I will never stop davening for you, or keep you far from my heart. We are in this together!

Much much love, to you and to all those daveners we both know, and to all Klal Yisroel,
Ella Yehudis bas Hinda Devorah

There were other passages, but these were the last.

I won't deny it: I struggled mightily with the loss of these two ladies.  It was a two-fisted sucker punch to the spiritual stomach.  We lost Esther Nechama; and while we were still reeling from that blow, we lost Judy.  My calendar was marked for April 29, when we had all agreed to take a bit of the shlissel challah in Judy's merit.  My faith was sorely tested.  Not in Hashem, nor in His plan.  I don't only believe -- I know that He knows what He is doing, and everything will be proven out to have been for the best.  But I struggled (and continue to struggle) with the question of whether or not our tefillot and recitation of King David's holy Tehillim make any difference in that plan.

But this post is about those two holy souls, and what it is to be a Jew.  Here they were, both (as we later learned) on the very edge of death -- and they took time to write to or about each other, as if their own concerns were as nothing compared to this other lady's suffering.  I don't believe they "hung out" a lot in life.  But near the precipice where life turns into the next great and unknown adventure, they both rose to a greatness that negates the self, and makes others primary.

This is only part of the great beauty I have learned from Jewish teaching.  It's not about me.  It's about us, our connection to each other, our interaction with The Divine, our affect on time. 

These women are both my heroes.  I miss them in this world.  I am so very grateful that Hashem decided I should have the blessing of knowing them.  I have lost sisters.

May we all be comforted among the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.
I send out my heartfelt prayers for the feelings of my dear friends, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldberger, and their dear kehilla, in their time of loss, as well as to the precious families of these fine and special women.  I know that they are absolutely proud of each of you. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Oh, That I May Believe!"

Yom chamishi, 3 Nisan 5771.

A few years ago, our Baltimore kehilla lost a teenager to a car accident.  My sons were his friends.  Of course, all of this young man's friends were devastated; and they closed ranks in a tight circle of pain that parents and love and logic could not penetrate for a time.  Like soldiers who've seen combat, no one could possibly understand them, except for others who'd "been there."

One boy struggled for longer than the others with his doubt in a G-d that could let such a thing happen.  He showed his anger and contempt for G-d by decreasing his observance of the mitzvot.  First he stopped wearing his kipa and his tzitzit.  After a time, receiving no apparent answer from Hashem, he stopped keeping Shabbat.  His parents were beside themselves.  But they loved him, and they understood that this was his argument with G-d, not their argument with their son.  They reasoned, they drew firm but gentle boundaries for his behavior in their home.  They waited.

He is still struggling to find answers.  But, baruch Hashem, he has witnessed enough miracles since then, and been willing to see them as miracles, that he is little by little allowing G-d back into his life.

I can't know what Rabbi Cardozo was thinking about when he wrote this beautiful essay.  But I dedicate it to this fine young Jew, and to all other Jews like him, who want so desperately to believe, or to believe again.

Thought to Ponder


Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Once, a young man approached a Jew in the street and told him that his synagogue needed a tenth man to make up a minyan for mincha, the afternoon prayer. The man responded, “I am an apikores (heretic)!” To this the young man answered, “Since when does an apikores not have to pray mincha?” (1)

Once, when Rabbi Noach (of Lekhovitz) was in his room, he heard one of his disciples beginning to recite Maimonides’ Principles of Faith in the House of Study, next door.  The student stopped immediately after the words “I believe with perfect faith,” and whispered to himself, “I don’t understand!” And then once more: “I don’t understand!” “What is it that you do not understand?” Rabbi Noach asked him. “I don’t understand what it is all about,” said the man. “I say ‘I believe’. If I really do believe, then how can I possibly sin? But if I really don’t believe, why am I telling lies?” “You do not understand,” said the Rabbi “The words ‘I believe with perfect faith’ are a prayer meaning “Oh, that I may believe!” The Hassid was then suffused with a glow within.  “That is right,” he cried. “That is right. Oh, that I may believe, Lord of the world, oh, that I may believe!” (2)


We are living in one of the most difficult times in Jewish history. Since the days of emancipation, Judaism has come under constant attack from within and from without, and many have left the fold. This has had a devastating effect on the future of the Jewish people.

It is clear that there is a desperate need to turn the tide and bring Judaism back to our young people.  This call comes not only from religious circles but even from some of the most secular Jews who realize that without proper Jewish education there is no hope for a Jewish future, neither in Israel nor in the diaspora.

Many have argued that belief in God and observance of rituals should no longer be central to Jewish education but should be replaced with cultural events and the study of Jewish history.  These would serve as a means to encouraging Jewish identity and pride as well as cultivating a sense of belonging. This, they say, should go hand in hand with regular visits to Israel and an intensification of the Zionist enterprise.

Advocates of this proposal feel that belief in God is no longer relevant in an age in which science has replaced religion, and Jewish observance no longer speaks to the majority of our young people.  Therefore, these two factors do not serve as enough of an incentive to remain Jewish.  

But this theory is highly problematic. To argue that belief in God is outdated is not only a gross misreading of the truth but also what people are in need of.  When vital values become obsolete, and many are overwhelmed with every kind of pleasure and comfort, man feels increasingly like a stranger in his own skin. The overall picture is: since he has nearly everything, he is nearly nothing. Much of man’s life is surrounded with existential emptiness, and little to live for. It becomes clearer and clearer that personal meaning is hollow unless it relates to what is transpersonal; man, more and more, is looking for meaning that transcends the smaller objectives. A loyalty that is ultimate.

The question eventually becomes: Is there anything to die for? This is the only reason why man wants and is able to live and endure life. And it is this need that has become most urgent in modern times. Only when we will offer our young people a way to experience an ultimate calling will their souls be recaptured.       

When we have a careful look at our world we realize that many false gods and ideologies are crumbling. Man is hungry for the voice of God because only that can make him feel that there is indeed something to die for. The problem is that this voice has been stifled, and there is an urgent need to recapture its echo.

What has caused great harm is that in nearly all religious circles God is taken for granted and never contemplated. People fail to understand the difference between creed and faith. Maimonides did a great disservice to the Jewish tradition by introducing articles of faith, although he may have seen a need for it in his time. (3) Judaism and belief in God have become dogmatized and sterile.

But Jewish faith is not a dogma. It is neither an easy or secure achievement, nor an attitude acquired immediately for once and for all.

It takes an instant to trust an idol but ages to attach to God. It requires effort, stirring, and preparation.  It means growing in prayer, in selfless deeds, and in the realization of the mystery of all existence. Faith means striving for faith. It is never an arrival. It is a constant journey and can only burst forth at single moments. In no way can it be commanded.

Faith is not born from logical deduction. It is born from doubt, which is its natural breeding ground.   To believe that all doubts must be resolved before we attain faith is a mistaken notion. Avraham, Moshe, the many prophets, and Iyov all lived with implacable perplexities many of which were never solved.

To have faith is to live with unresolved doubts, prepared to rise above ourselves and our wisdom. Looking into the Jewish tradition with its many debates, one gets a clear understanding that those who deny themselves the comfort of certainty are much more authentic than those who are sure. The famous Chassidic sage Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk was once told about a great rabbi who claimed that during the seven days of Succoth his eyes would see Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaacov, Yoseph, Moshe, Aaron and David enter his Sukkah. The Kotzker Rebbe responded: “I do not see the heavenly guests; I only have faith that they are present, and to have faith is greater than to see.”     

Faith means that we worship God before we affirm His existence. We praise before we are certain; we respond before we question. (4) The great art is to live a life of religious devotion before we are sure about what we believe. Man can die for something even while he is unsure of its true existence, because his inner faith tells him it is right to do so. This honest admission of doubt is not only the very reason why it is possible to be religious in modern times, but it is the actual stimulus to do so.

Young people look for a life of commitment without having to be certain or buy into dogmas. They want to take an existential risk, to be able to say:  I am prepared to risk my life for something ultimate in which I believe. 

To argue that Judaism would be better served by cultural events, social gatherings in Hillel houses, or even trips to Israel is to badly misread the existential situation of the Jewish people today. In the long run, these activities will simply add to the problem if they are not accompanied by a strong spiritual component. Only an ultimate value can shape a fully committed soul. The question is not whether God exists, or whether the observance of rituals is divine.  The question is: Do we realize that Jewish identity and Judaism is doomed to fail without the postulation that there is a God and an inner need to observe?

Our first concern must be to bring God back into the lives of young people, to teach them that the ultimate call is to re-engage with Judaism, and to encourage them to take the risk and become religiously inclined even if they cannot be sure. Studying the beauty of Jewish ritual, with its rich colors, deep wisdom and healthy outlook on life, is enough of a compelling reason to commit oneself to its lifestyle whether or not one is convinced of its absolute truth. What needs to be understood is that life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises, and we can be absolutely certain only of things we do not fully understand.     

To believe is not to prove, not to explain, but to accede to a vision. It is for that reason that even an apikores should pray mincha. 

Oh, that I may believe!

(1) Heard from Professor Menachem Kellner.
(2) See Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasssidim, NY, 1948, vol. 2, p.158.
(3) There are many reasons to believe that Maimonides wrote these articles for the common man to give him some anchorage. It is also possible that he never believed in them in a dogmatic way. Others opine that he abandoned them later in his life. See: Marc B Shapiro: The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Maimonides Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004, Introduction.
(4) See the famous hymn “Ein K’elo-henu” in the Jewish morning service.

Please see more of  the writing and teaching of Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo here.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Warning: crawly and slimy things alert

Yom rishon, 28 Adar bet 5771.

If you are looking for a meaningful post, ignore this one and go to my sidebar of Ruti's Regular Reads.  There are some really good writers there, who have important things to say.  Today, I am getting in touch with "my inner boy," a part of me that my husband really likes.  (The trick is marrying the right person.  Bli ayin hara, puh-puh-puh...)  Not that he likes lizards.  ("Snakes with legs.  That's all they are.")  But he likes that I do.

"?מה את מביטה"

What kid doesn't love cherry pickers?

I love when these super fast little guys take the time to pose.

I never remember seeing a hornet until I came to Israel.

The Tom Car is my dream car.  Shopping in Beitar?  No problem.  We'll go overland...

An early sign of spring.

Never kill a mosquito eater.  This guy is your friend.

A flower that looks like a bug or a disease belongs in this post.

There are times I miss being a little kid.  Guess what I want for my birthday!!

Only kids find this a normal photograph.

Not Israel, but funny.  Indicative of the kind of humor that flies around when the Mizrachi lads are all home together.

Dear G-d.  Thank You for giving me such cool things to look at in Eretz Yisrael!  Thank You for giving me sons who have taught me to look up, to look down, and to never ignore anything that wiggles.

News flash: Haveil Havalim #311, "The Warp and Woof Edition," is live at Frume Sarah's World.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Is it racism to be afraid of dying?

Yom shishi, 26 Adar bet 5771.

There has been a lot of talk among my friends lately about racism.  This was brought on, in part, by Israeli Apartheid Week, as well as by a video clip called "What Would You Do?"  The clip shows an experiment in which actors play the parts of a racist store keeper and the customer he refuses to serve.  In this case, the store keeper is an Israeli, one assumes Jewish, and the customer is a young Arab woman in a hijab.  The experiment, with hidden cameras, observes how people respond to the situation.  (Israeli Apartheid Week is just nonsense; so I won't waste your time with it here.)

Much conversation has ensued about whether or not Jews in Israel are racist toward their Arab neighbors.  The discussion has gotten heated, as one friend will post examples of how Jews in Efrat write unchallenged anti-Arab comments on the community chat list  ("Just one example: 'They can do their shopping out of Efrat. It is NOT a place for them.' No one on the list took issue with it."), while another will refute this, pointing out that there is a difference between how that same person in Efrat might think about an Israeli Arab as opposed to a Palestinian Arab -- clearly not racism. What is it, then?

I have a friend who will go anywhere, just to show the world that he can.  He has an Arab friend who lives in Ramallah.  "So, when can I come and visit you?" he asked his friend.  "It wouldn't be a good idea," his friend told him.  "My [Arab] neighbors wouldn't like it."  Why does the cautious Jew get castigated, but this kind of story never even makes the news, much less the court of world opinion?

As another friend says, "What is needed is SYMMETRY. There is no symmetry in Israel -- almost in all ways related to Arabs. You are not able to create the very same video with a Jew walking with his kippa into a shop in Ramallah or Jenin. Lets create symmetric situations, film them and then I agree to discuss about this topic."

For the record, while relations between the Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have never been totally trusting and easy, there were periods before the increased involvement of the West and the United Nations that were much better.  Not only could Arabs travel relatively freely all over Israel, shopping and dining wherever they wished (as, indeed, they still can, certainly with a greater degree of safety than a Jew can shop in Ramallah or Jenin), but a Jew could travel to Bethlehem, shopping and exchanging pleasant conversation with merchants in the Arab shuk.  Now, even the old-timers I know don't dare travel through those cities.

When I was a girl in America, one could still hitchhike to get from place to place.  One day, I got into a truck with a truck driver who forgot to keep his hands to himself.  I got out at the first opportunity, and resolved never to take rides from men again.  I didn't suddenly become sexist.  I just became cautious.  Later, when a few women passengers were reported to have done scary things (such as attacking their hosts with knives, holding them up, and so on), people stopped giving rides, period.

None of my children ever appeared on a milk carton -- if you can't remember this era in American history, ask your parents -- nor were the children of any of my friends kidnapped.  That was irrelevant.  MY kid wasn't going to be stolen.  I didn't suddenly become "transportationist."  They just weren't permitted to travel on city buses or to go anywhere alone until they grew to be husky young bruisers.

When we moved to Baltimore, we had just come from the US Army, where everyone -- regardless of race, creed or color -- is "green."  Racial intermarriage is tolerated within the military to a greater degree than in society at large, because -- with the usual exceptions -- we are all one family.  So when we moved to this East Coast city, we shocked our black neighbors by actually talking to them and smiling at them.

Later, as black high school boys turned my kids upside down to shake candy and money out of the their pockets, and routinely stole their bikes and other toys, they and we learned to be prejudiced.  But our prejudice was specific: it only included inner-city black males in packs between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five.  (Incidentally, my black neighbors who were in their fifties shared the same unfortunate prejudice.)  When we moved to Israel, we did not take this "racism" with us.  Ethiopian Jews are as beloved to us as any other Jews.
The warmth of one Ethopian soldier helped us raise Jewish lads with good attitudes.
Perhaps the most difficult inner turmoil with which I wrestle is the way I am forced to treat the Palestinians who work on my yishuv as invisible.  In America, if a workman of another race or social group worked regularly in my neighborhood, I would greet him, ask about his family, give him something to drink.  Here, I do not feel that comfort level, purely because the workers won't walk around with clear neon signs on their foreheads stating "I am just trying to make a living, and have nothing against Jews," or "I hate Jews, and can't wait for the next Intifada so I can kill off a few."

When I have a pleasant encounter with an Arab woman on a bus or in a shop, I am delighted!  But I cannot treat all of her brothers like people.  This causes me great pain.  It's just not the way I was raised, and it's not the way I want to behave.  You may call this racism, if you like to toss around emotional epithets without thinking too deeply.  I call it tragically necessary caution, and cannot wait for the day I can set it aside, and take advantage of some of those great sales in Bethlehem.

Happily, the customers we are allowed to see in the filmed experiment treat the situation in what I see as the typical Jewish manner.  They are offended at the store keeper's callousness; and customer after customer offers to pay for the young woman's coffee.

The most touching scene is at the end.  A young Jewish woman stands quietly while the store keeper loudly declares to the Arab woman that he doesn't serve her kind in his store.  At first, we are disappointed by the Jewess.  Unlike the previous customers, she doesn't speak up.  When asked, she responds, "What difference would it make what I think?"  Finally, when she gets her coffee, she responds to their questions, "You want to know what I think?  This is what I think."  And she hands her coffee to the Arab woman, and walks out.

The interviewer who set up the experiment approaches her in her car.  She is sobbing and shaking.  When he asks her why, she answers that it is because she could not believe anyone would behave in such a cruel manner toward another human being.

The Arab woman and the Jewish woman share a few warm remarks, and a gentle touch of the hands -- and we share a moment of hope.  May the day soon come when all men can treat one another as friends and brothers.

If you wish to view the video in full, you can see it here.