Yom HaAtzmaut 5778 – Satiety

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I suppose anyone living in a place with individuals who were alive before the founding of the country they live in maintains a greater sense of appreciation for what it took for that land to exist. Those living in the aftermath of the founding of the United States probably felt this way. The first century was not an easy one for America, but the founders of the country still permeated the land, either in person or in spirit.  The same can be said of Israel. There are individuals whose facade would not indicate anything out of the ordinary, yet upon further research, one might uncover that this person fought bravely for the nascent Jewish state to exist. Last year, a documentary titled “Ben-Gurion: Epilogue” was released. It was created from 6 hours of archived footage from a 1968 interview by BBC with the founding Israeli leader, and it’s an absolutely scintillating production. There were no film crews around to press George Washington or any of the other founding fathers on his thoughts regarding the founding of the United States of America. Memoirs or letters that have been published on the topic are not able to capture what the video is able to do. Seeing Ben Gurion react to a question, give brutally honest, poignant answers while perched in his compound in Sde Boker. It adds a tremendous layer of appreciation for the day.

In a similar vein, at my graduation from Yeshiva University, Ambassador Yehuda Avner, having just finished his magnum opus, The Prime Ministers, gave the keynote address. His account was not only that of a historian studying the events, nor was it exclusively one of someone living at the time the events occurred. He himself played a role in history as it was unfolding. Speaking lovingly about this previous chapter in his life was anything buy history: it was nostalgia. Avner was not reading pages from his book to assembled masses, but from his firsthand account in his mind. You could hear the history in his voice.

My feelings on this day are a mix of happiness, hope, and a significant amount of gratitude. I’m happy that I live in a world where the Jewish state of Israel is a burgeoning nation, a reality that was not a given for my grandparents and generations before them. I am hopeful for an even greater future on the horizon of our Homeland. I know Israel is imperfect, just as every single nation that has or will come into being is or will be. Change, while difficult, is easier than beginning anew in a different land with absolutely nothing. Finally, the gratitude, which is owed to God, and to those who came before and worked the land that I love so much.

These thoughts are summed up more eloquently by Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the founding Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion (recorded in The Religious Significance of the State of Israel [Alei Etzion 14] and Commitment and Complexity):

“Despite the many problems the State faces, we may not ignore the great miracles we experienced at the time of its establishment.  Analogously, although the Hasmonean state was far from perfect, its establishment (and the return of Jewish sovereignty, albeit limited) was nevertheless a cause for celebration, as the Rambam emphasizes.  The Rambam (Commentary to the Mishna, Yoma 1:3) knew very well the inauspicious character of the Hasmonean kings:

But in the time of the Second Temple, things were imperfect, as is well known – the kings did not follow the correct tradition and they would appoint the High Priest by force, even though he was unworthy…

Nevertheless, he felt that the establishment of the Hasmonean monarchy constitutes the main reason behind the celebration of Chanuka (Hilkhot Chanuka 3:1-3): 

The High Priests of the Hasmonean family were victorious and killed [the Greeks], thus saving Israel from their hands.  They established a king from among the priests, and monarchy returned to Israel for over two hundred years… Because of this, the scholars of that generation instituted that these eight days, starting from the twenty-fifth of Kislev, shall be days of joy and praise.

            The Second Temple period thus serves as a legitimate model by which we may assess the contemporary Jewish State, a half-century after its establishment.  However imperfect, one cannot overlook the many positive elements of our independent national existence.  Our leaders today are no worse than the Hasmonean kings, and our country is no worse than theirs was.  To the contrary, our leadership and society often exhibit moral qualities far superior to those of the Hasmonean dynasty.”

There are those who say Hallel, with or without a bracha, or even recite a Shehechiyanu or Al HaNissim to mark the religious significance of Yom HaAtzmaut. Whether one adds these additions to their daily routine is of little importance to me, so long as we uphold the strong recognition to the Almighty for enabling the state of Israel to exist. I yield again to Rav Amital from this same work:

“How can we not thank the Almighty for all the kindness that He has showered upon us? First and foremost, the State of Israel serves as a safe haven for five million Jews. After the nightmare of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees wandered around the globe, finding a home and refuge only in Israel. The State has contributed an incalculable amount to the restoration of Jewish pride after the devastating chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) caused by the Holocaust. Today, too, the State plays an enormous role in the Jewish identity of our brethren throughout the world. For so many of them, the emotional attachment to the State remains the final thread connecting them to the Jewish People and to the God of Israel.

  I spoke earlier of Rav Kook’s inability to come to terms with the establishment of a state that would not bring to fruition the ultimate destiny of redemption.  This led him to claim that the impending State of Israel was to be the ideal State of the period of ge’ula (redemption).  But don’t all the critical functions fulfilled by the State of Israel (as listed above) justify its existence, even if it has not developed into the ideal community?  After the traumatic destruction of the Holocaust, which Rav Kook could not possibly have foreseen, the State played a critical role in the restoration and revitalization of the Jewish people.  It is hard to imagine what the Jewish nation would look like today if, Heaven forbid, the State of Israel had not emerged.

            I experienced the horror of the destruction of European Jewry, and I can thus appreciate the great miracle of Jewish rebirth in our homeland.  Are we not obligated to thank the Almighty for His kindness towards us?  Unquestionably!  And not just on Yom Ha-atzma’ut; each day we must recite Hallel seven times for the wonders and miracles He has performed on our behalf: “I praise you seven times each day!” (Tehillim 119:164).”

Rav Amital concludes:

“We remain very, very far from the ideal Jewish State, and we must therefore do whatever we can to bring about its realization.  A more just society and stronger public values are necessary prerequisites for its actualization.  If we want to hasten the ultimate redemption, we must work harder to ensure moral values on both the individual and communal levels.  Closing the social gaps, concern for the vulnerable elements of society, fighting poverty, respectful treatment of the non-Jews in Israel – all these measures will bring us closer to the day for which we long.  We hope and believe that our State will develop into the ideal Jewish State, “the foundation of the Divine Throne in the world, whose entire desire is that God shall be One and His Name shall be One.”

I cannot imagine what the landscape of world Jewry would resemble without the state of Israel. Our hope, our longing has gnawed at us as a nation for so long. Seventy years to a child seems like an eternity. In the grand scheme of life, it’s a mere second.

Pirkei Avos teaches us that at the age of seventy, one achieves a sense of satiety, as referenced to David HaMelech who died at that age “beseivah Tovah” (Divrei HaYamim I 29:28). The state of Israel does indeed have much to be satisfied about. Eretz Yisrael, as little a country as it is, punches far above her weight in terms of impacting the rest of the world. Setting aside all else that our tiny medinah has done for the rest of the world, I shudder to think about the fate of our people had the State not been declared 70 years ago. Where would we go? Where would our safe haven be? Nevertheless, the Mishnah does not stop at seventy, and continues to rattle off adages for other ages through 100. The message, to me, is clear. Although we can look back and recount the miracles brought by God in order to bring the state of Israel to be – the pioneers making the desert bloom (even before the state was established!), teaching simple tailors and shoemakers to fly planes and evolve into an effective army leading to unbelievable and improbable military victories – there is much more that the Jewish homeland can and will no doubt accomplish.

Thank you Hashem for the gift of Israel!

Yom Hazikaron 5778 – On the Periphery

 

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*A student of Yeshivas Kol Torah wanting to visit the graves of righteous sages in the Galil. He posed a question of whether or not one would be allowed to interrupt their Torah studies to do so to the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Rav Shlomo Zalman replied to his pupil that one need not venture north to find graves of tzaddikim to pray at. Rather, there were plenty of “tzaddikim” who were buried on Har Herzl, Israeli’s military cemetery.

*A recent feature article in Ami magazine profiles Rabbis Avigdor and Chizkiyahu Nebenzahl, the immediate past and current chief rabbis of the Old City, respectively. Rav Avigdor serves as the rabbinic head of ZAKA, Israel’s primary rescue and recovery organization. They are volunteers who are on the scene immediately after natural disasters and terror attacks, cleaning up the havoc wrought. Rav Avigdor’s grandson, Avraham Nebenzahl, notes that he used to see his grandfather stand near the #1 bus stop outside the Kotel plaza donned in his bloodstained ZAKA uniform, tears streaming from his eyes, as he returned home from cleaning up the scene of a terror attack.

*Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon once related that a soldier at war once asked him if he could daven in his tank due to the less than pleasant smell inside. When Rav Rimon shared this question with an American rabbi, his North American counterpart didn’t understand the question. “One can’t pray in a scenario like that, so they’re exempt entirely!”, protested the American rabbi. Yet, Rav Rimon notes, never once has a soldier ever asked if he doesn’t have to daven. It’s simply never come up.”

On Yom Hazikron, I think about these vignettes, among others, that put me in the right frame of mind to approach this day. There are plenty of other anecdotes that will do the trick. These two capture the essence of what we’re commemorating. Rav Shlomo Zalman’s story hits me because of its poignancy. Rav Nebenzahl’s story speaks to me because I can picture this very scene playing out in my mind. Rav Rimon’s account speaks volumes of the caliber of many of the soldiers of the IDF.

The memorial is two-fold: on one hand, we remember the soldiers who valiantly fell fighting for their country, while we also reminisce about those individuals who have been victims of terror. I find myself on the periphery, making small connections to some victims. I feel uneasy making myself believe that I am much closer to these kedoshim than I actually am. I recognized one of the students killed in the Mercaz HaRav attack from living in the Old City at the same time. I’ve traversed many different places where people, both soldiers and civilians, have tragically been murdered in cold blood. Nevertheless, many of us who share this lack of first-hand connective tissue are somber today, thousands of miles away from the state of Israel.

To those with a strong connection to the land, it makes no difference how close one is to the victims. They are our sons, our daughters, our sisters, our brothers. When the Torah recounts how great the tenth and final plague was leading up to Paro releasing the Jewish people from his grip, the text states that the cry was so powerful because there was no Egyptian house that remained untouched. Each family experienced a casualty. In Israel, even if the kedoshim were not part of one’s own immediate family, the relationship is still there. A friend, a neighbor. The aggressors care not who you are or where you come from. Politicians are not spared (ask Benyamin Netanyahu). Rabbinic leaders aren’t either (ask the family of Rav Elyashiv who lost a daughter in 1948 to Jordanian shelling or Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbanit Chana Henkin who lost their beloved son and daughter-in-law not long ago).

When I think to myself that I’m on the periphery and feel foolish (almost) for getting worked up about the thousands of holy individuals who have died in the name of Israel, I am quickly pulled back to reality. The Gemara (Shevuos 39a) teaches us that the Jewish people are responsible for one another. Rashi comments that when Bnai Yisrael camped at Har Sinai in anticipation of receiving the Torah, they did so “k’ish echad b’lev echad.” The nation was so staunchly united in their mission that is were as if one person with one heart were making the decision, rather than the hundreds of thousands of people who were assembled at the foot of the mountain.

Someone once told me that they didn’t necessarily understand why we recognize Yom Hazikaron. Look up the names Nachshon Wachsman, Michael Levin, or Ezra Schwartz and tell me that you feel no sense of grief or loss. Put yourself in the shoes of the families of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who, after almost 4 years, still do not have their sons’ bodies to bury, and tell me you feel nothing. Millions of Israelis would love nothing more to treat the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut as insignificantly as Americans treat July 3rd. Sadly, they do not have that luxury. We do not have that luxury.

 

Yom HaShoah 5778 – Questions

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The Jews are a people full of questions. We are asked a question, and we will sometimes respond with another. There are times when we encourage questions en masse. As we recently celebrated the holiday of Passover, this tidbit is no doubt fresh in our minds. Pesach is a time when we not only desire questions, particularly from the children, but we organize the night in such a roundabout way that, naturally, questions are evoked. Conversely, there are often times when we are taught not to question. These are generally more painful commands. When a tragedy occurs, when someone is taken too early from this world, we are sometimes given the missive of “we do not question the Almighty” as we remain in the aftermath to pick up the pieces and move on.

This idea of asking questions has spawned a fascinating avenue in the form of sheilos u’tshuvos, Jewish responsa literature. Literally how the rabbis respond to our queries over Halachic matters. Rabbis today know that a major part of their time in the rabbinate is spent fielding shailos. In turn, they may themselves need to reach out to their own rebbeim and mentors, or outside rabbinic experts in order to know what to respond. There are volumes and volumes of rabbinic literature dedicated to answering our questions, and new volumes continue to be put out annually.

Sheilos u’tshuvos sefarim are something that I find to be riveting, although I do not often plumb the depths of many of them. In addition to the line of thinking used in giving the proper response, I’m curious to know about the mindset of the petitioner. What are they thinking? What’s going on behind the scenes that serves as the impetus for this shaila? There is one particular work that strikes me whenever I come across it are the responsa penned by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a tremendous Torah mind who lived in Lithuania when the war broke out. He eventually survived the horrors of the Shoah and wrote up the shailos that he received during this time. A one volume English work was published and the responsa, preceded by the stories behind each of them, are hard to imagine.

A hoarse Kohen wanting to know if he could still “duchen” with the other Kohanim.

Using garments of martyred Jews.

A Sukkah built with boards stolen from Germans.

Yet, the shaila that hit me like a ton of bricks is a more well known one. It was asked to Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels, the Rav of Veitzen (Hungary), who also managed to survive the war and compile a collection of the petitions asked of him during the years of terror. In the introduction to his sefer, Mekadshei Hashem, he writes that on Rosh Hashannah 1944, there was a tremendous “selection” of 1600 boys. Those between the ages of 14-18 of a certain height would be spared and forced to endure hard labor. The others would be met with death. It somehow had become apparent to concerned parents of these boys that the Kapos (yemach shemam) would be willing to accept bribes from what the Jews were able to smuggle on their person in order to extract their child from the group. However, it also became clear to them from the Kapos that there would immediately be another boy taken in his stead to be slaughtered. A father with little money or possessions was able to scrape together enough to fulfill the ransom for his only son. He asked of Rav Meisels: would it be permissible for him to pay off the wicked Kapos in order to save his son knowing that another boy would meet his demise due to this action? Rav Meisels was trembling. He demurred, and said to this holy Jew that he was not equipped to answer at that moment and that in the times of the Temple, the entire Sanhedrin would need to be convened for such capital cases. He continued that it would be hard for him to answer such a question in Auschwitz as he did not have any of the relevant sefarim to guide him. While Rav Meisels hemmed and hawed in his mind about the various issues pertaining to this request, he nevertheless implored the father of this son to not ask this question. The father was not placated and did not accept this answer. Whatever answer was offered to this shaila, the father would obey. Rabbi Meisels again tried to deter the father, telling him that he cannot possibly render a Halachic conclusion without first consulting any sources. The father responded: “Rabbi Meisels, if this means that you can find no heter for me to redeem my son, so be it.” The Rav protested. “My beloved brother, I did not say that you could not ransom your child, and I cannot rule yes or no. Please do what you wish, as if you never asked me.”What cuts me to the core is that Rabbi Meisels points out in his sefer that the petitioner noted that this query was one of Halacha l’maaseh (see above), a practical question. Halacha l’maaseh?  We today typically associate Halacha l’maaseh with something significantly more trivial. It used to be “is this chicken Kosher?,” or “my meat spoon was accidentally used to stir my chocolate milk.” These are what we think of as practical questions of Jewish law pertinent for our everyday lives or our lives at that very moment. Would it be permissible for him to pay off the wicked Kapos in order to save his son knowing that another boy would meet his demise due to this action? 100 out of 100 rabbis would never rattle this case off as a Halacha l’maaseh case when pressed for one. The fact that the text above denotes those words, enlarged, makes my stomach churn and my head spin. The churning and spinning continue when I ponder about what will be in the next few years. In a time where we have more access to information and the ability to educate ourselves more than ever before, the memories are still fading. This year, Poland outlawed shirking any blame to their country for crimes committed during the Holocaust. To say that there was no involvement on their part is to say that you did not breathe yesterday. This above account described by the Veitzener Rav is only one of thousands. These atrocities did not happen hundreds of years ago with no one left in the wake to remember the exact details of what transpired. The holy survivors still are among us! On this Yom HaShoah, even more than we owe it to ourselves to pass along their stories, we owe it to them. Over the course of now until the next Yom HaShoah, we will no doubt lose more of these unbelievably heroic individuals. Where will that leave us? What will we do? The next generation will have questions, and we are no doubt tasked to answer them.