Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Assertiveness in the Holy Land

My sister and her family are visiting from the US, and decided that they'd like to visit Tzefat and take a tour. She had heard of a place that offered walking tours of the Old City, and their website does advertise a daily walking tour at 11am.
Just to be on the safe side, I figured that I'd call and confirm that a tour would take place today. And, sure enough, they did indeed confirm that there would be an 11am tour.
"Do I need to make a reservation?" I asked.
No need, I was told. Just sure that they're here at 11.
Great. They woke up early, and were on the road a bit after eight, to be sure that they got there on time.
At 11:05am, my cell rings. It's my sister.
Did you get there on time? I asked.
"Yup. We're here, but there's no tour," she says.
"What do you mean there's no tour?"
"There's no tour. That's it." She was calling to see if I could quickly find something else for them to do.

Yet, I've learned that in Israel it really doesn't work that way. There's always another way, usually if you're insistent enough, and especially if you're right.
Let me speak to her, I said.
My sister was reluctant. What, do you think you can get her to give us a tour? There's no tour. Why do you want the phone?
I persisted: Let me speak to her. After some additional protest, she handed the phone to the young woman - "Tamar" - running the desk.
There's been a mistake, Tamar explained. When I said that both their website and a subsequent phone call had confirmed a tour, she apologized for the mistake, but said that while my sister could join any shiur she chose (they apparently have a full slate of lectures at the place), there would not be a tour.

I was insistent, and somewhat forceful. She asked me not to yell - which I don't really think that I did - OK, I did yell a bit - but I was certainly upset, because they were wrong. They had made a commitment and I expected them to live up to it. After a few minutes of listening to me, she gave my sister the phone back, and guessed it - decided to call her manager. Together, they managed to locate an English speaking guide, and in the end, there was a tour.
What frustrates me most about the exchange is that while she insisted that I not yell (speak forcefully), I know that the only reason that she took the initiative and actually found someone to give a tour was because I did. It's not fun to be "Israeli" with people, and Americans often recoil when Israelis act this way. But, had my sister acted typically American, she would have walked away upset that she had driven two hours up to Tzfat for nothing, and rightfully so.
Why couldn't the cheerful Tamar at the desk have done the right thing, acknowledged their mistake, and tried to fix it - without needing someone to insist that she do it first?
In the end, they gave the tour of Tzefat, but still left everyone with a bad taste.

I know that many Americans struggle with this aspect of life in Israel. I agree with them. It's unpleasant. But perhaps things will improve over time. After all, if people wait patiently on line at the butcher in the grocery, and at the post office, perhaps things are in fact changing, ever so slowly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Replace Your License Plate in Israel

Sometimes, the most challenging aspects of aliyah are the small, simple things. Like license plates.
Rena called me from the road to tell me that our rear license plate had fallen off, and she didn't know what to do. I began to envision a long, drawn-out process. Thoughts of the DMV entered my mind, temporary license plates, receiving new ones via registered mail...I thought it would be a long, drawn-out process.
It turns out, that it was nothing like that at all.

I told her to drive home, and began scouring the interwebs for information about replacing our license plate. Only one problem: how do you even say "license plate" in Hebrew? It turns out that it's called a לוחית רישוי. Now you know.
I called the local policeman in Yad Binyamin, who explained that you have to come to the police station and file a report. We went, and he asked us a bunch of questions, and then filled out a form that he gave to us. We took that form to the local "test" location (technically, it's called מכון ישראל) - but everyone knows where their local "test" place is, because it's where you have to take your car to be tested each year, and they yell incomprehensible instructions in broken Hebrew ("Turn right! Left! Brake! Neutral!") while you frantically attempt to comply, hoping that they don't fail your car for something stupid like dry windshield wipers out of spite. Yes, that "Test".
Anyhow, we gave the form to the proprietor (a rather colorful man, for a number of reasons) who, in literally a minute, had his worker stamp out a new license plate, and screw it to the car. We paid 50 shekel and were on our way.

So, if you've lost a license plate (or it was stolen):
1. File a report with the local police
2. Take the report to your local "Test" center
3. Pay 50 shekel
4. Drive away

What seemed threatening and daunting, potentially laden with beurocracy, turned out to be a simple process that took less than an hour.
Hope this helped!

Monday, August 4, 2014

How Can You Support Israel During this Difficult Time? Send Me on Vacation!

Supporters of Israel around the world, watching the Jewish State get battered by Hamas and bashed by the international community, have wondered: What can I do? How can I help. There are many different ways to help, both personally and financially. I'll mention a few you might already know about, and then suggest one perhaps you haven't considered.

1. Prayer: If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you already do this. Keep doing it. I also suggest adding Psalm 144 to your list, but take the time to read and understand it. I spoke about it in this shiur, and it gives me a lot of comfort.

2. Political activism: This can take a number of different forms: (a) Participating in rallies (b) Writing letters to the editor, and supporting Israel in the media (c) Communicating with an elected official. I want to emphasize this point.
Over the past few weeks, we've seen the important role that Congress plays in supporting Israel's right to self-defense. Without the Congressional counter-balance to the pressure that has been brought to bear upon Israel to stop fighting, we'd be right back where we started, and Hamas would already be rebuilding tunnels with concrete supplied by the United Nations. Did you notice that Congress passed a number of resolutions supporting Israel's right to fight over the past few weeks? It cannot be coincidental that the FAA reversed its decision to halt American flights to Tel Aviv after a prominent Senator began asking pointed questions. And the money to pay for those expensive Iron Dome rockets helps a great deal.
I was involved with AIPAC when I was a rabbi, and continue to support AIPAC's work even from Israel. This is the very best time to get involved with AIPAC. Congressional elections take place later this year. Prominent supporters of Israel, including great friend of Israel Senator Carl Levin - who is retiring - will be fighting for their seats. Michiganders: Who will take Levin's place? Will he or she be as supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship as Levin is (hard to believe, truthfully, as Levin was as supportive as they come...) That really depends: Who's working for the candidate that will take his seat? Who's canvassing for votes, and working the phones? Who's writing the checks to support the campaign? It really is as simple as that. The people who get involved early have access later on.
It's not about supporting a candidate you don't believe in. Rather, it's about getting involved in the political process, and supporting someone you really do support, so that the friendship you create now can have a lasting impact down the road.

3. Send me on Vacation for You: All of this prayer and activism is fine and good, but you need to make a real difference right now. How best to do that? Send food to the soldiers? Already been done, and besides, the IDF insists that it's sending enough food to the soldiers already. (I know a guy who runs a food service company here in Israel supplying tens of thousands of meals a day.) Buy soldiers cell chargers? Again a good idea. But all the good IDF ideas have already been tapped out. How much Bamba can a poor private consume? How many pairs of dry-fit tzitiziot can a soldier wear?

What people may not realize Israel's economy, and specifically the tourist industry, has suffered badly during the war. People simply stopped coming, taking trips, cab rides, eating in restaurants, etc. This is, of course understandable, and it's also quite challenging for people who want to support Israel, who can't simply leave their homes, jobs and families and take a trip to the Holy Land.
The Solution? I will take your vacation for you!
I've taken the liberty of setting up an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the express purpose of bolstering the Israeli economy. Over a two week period I (and my family) will:

  • Stay in a luxury hotel
  • Eat in fancy restaurants
  • Travel by taxi only
  • Take tours with paid tour Guides
  • Visit popular and expensive attractions
  • Offer service-people generous tips

These activities will provide vital support for the tourism industry in Israel, so badly battered by the continuing war in Israel. They need our support, and by teaming together (your support and my willingness to take a vacation in your place), together we can do our part to help those in Israel who are in need today!
So visit my campaign and join me in doing our part to help Israel win this war!

Small print: Donations are not tax deductible. They also don't count as ma'aser. Or tzedakah. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Modern Day Clouds of Glory: A Story from the Battlefield in Gaza

The commander of Givati, Col. Ofer Winter, who made headlines with an impassioned letter of encouragement to his troops that borrowed heavily from Tanach and other Jewish sources, told the following story, which appeared today on NRG.
"I have never seen a miracle in my entire military career like the one that took place in the ruins of Chiza.
We decided to attack a certain target before sunrise so that no one could identify us. The advance force arrived at the location on time, the fighters themselves for some reason were delayed. We didn't know what to do, because the sun began to rise, and the rays of light began to illuminate the soldiers. We we almost forced to attack, when suddenly the clouds protected us. Clouds of Glory. Suddenly, they covered us - all of the fighters - with a heavy fog, that accompanied us during the entire attack. No one saw us. Only when the targeted houses had been destroyed and there was no longer any mortal danger, did the fog suddenly lift. Literally, is was, "For the Lord your God walks before you to save you." (Devarim 20:4)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Devarim - Be Strong and Give Thanks

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Devarim - Be Strong and Give Thanks

The night before the shiur, sirens at 2:30am had us running to our safe room in Yad Binyamin. So, we begin with a brief study of Tehillim 144, a chapter that I've been saying during the war after Tefillah, which has resonated strongly with me. We then turn to Devarim, and study some incredible Midrashim about seemingly irrelevant places, which are actually quite relevant after all. Did you know that Gaza appears in Parshat Devarim as well?

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What to Pray for During Times of War, and What Not to Pray For

As the Gaza War continues, I've made two short lists of what to pray for, and what not to pray for.

What to pray for:
1. The safety, success and victory of our soldiers
2. The health of the injured
3. Praying for individuals who I know of: I have been slowly gathering names of relatives of people who I know are in Gaza. The son of a coworker (אלון בנימין בן שרון), the husband of a vendor (יואב בן יהודית), the son of a coworker's neighbor (חגי בן חנה). It helps me when to pray not only for "everyone", but when I know that these are sons, fathers, husbands, with real names.

What not to pray for:
1. Peace
What? Not pray for peace? How is that possible?
The Minchat Elazar
In Rav Rafi Shtern's weekly email (contact him directly sternr111 at gmail dot com if you'd like him to add you to his list), he included a quote from the responsa Minchat Elazar from Rav Chaim Elazar Shapira, the second Rebbe of Mukatch, who was asked about what to pray for during the first World War. He wrote,
"לאשר אנו רואים כי אלו המלחמות הם חבלי משיח... העיקר להתפלל על הגאולה שלימה במהרה בימינו, לא כן ההמון שהטעו אותם שצריכים להתפלל עתה העיקר רק על 'שלום העמים' ושעל ידי זה יופסק המלחמה ישוב למצרים הוא הגלות המר... ומאריכים הגלות ומעכבים הגאולה... וכמ"ש בספר הזכרון להגאון החת"ס זצ"ל (מהד' תשי"ז עמ' נג) כי אם נתפלל על השלום הרי זה עיכוב הגאולה וכמו שאמרו חז"ל 'מלחמה נמי אתחלתא דגאולה הוא... רק שנרבה בתורה ובתפלה... נתפלל רק על הגאולה ולא נחוש על המלחמה כלל, עכ"ל החת"ס...." (ועיין דרכי חיים ושלום עמ' רי"ג ואילך).
As we see that these wars are the birth pangs of the Messiah...the essence is to pray for Complete Redemption quickly in our days, not like the masses who have been misled to think that the essence of what we must pray for now is, "Peace among the nations". For through this the war will stop, and we will return to the anguish of the bitter exile...and those people extend the Exile and delay the it is written in the Sefer HaZikaron of the Chatam Sofer (5617 edition page 53). "For if we pray for peace, this hinders the Redemption, as our Sages said, 'War is also the beginning of the Redemption...' Rather, we must increase prayer and the study of Torah...and we must pray for the Redemption and not concern ourselves with the war at all."
It's not enough to pray for peace. We pray for the Ultimate Peace. Praying (or working)  for an "immediate cessation of hostilities", doesn't make things better. It just delays the peace for which we truly yearn.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Parshat Masei - Parshat Eretz Yisrael

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Masei - Parshat Eretz Yisrael

The Land of Israel represents a primary theme that runs throughout the entire Parshah. This shiur, given during Tzuk Eitan - the ongoing war in Gaza, was dedicated to the safety of our soldiers. Not surprisingly, in the parshah, we found much material related to the current struggle for the Land of Israel.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tzuk Eitan Continues

I've uploaded a quick page for tefillot sent out by Rav Hillel Merzbach (our shul rabbi) that you can recite for the safety and health of our soldiers. You can download the page here.

A Quiet Shabbat
It was a relatively quiet Shabbat in Yad Binyamin - just one siren, right before we were about to begin davening Mussaf (after the chazzan had said the kaddish). We all filtered our way to the back of the shul (which is a covered area), and waiting about five minutes, before returning to our places. It's kind of surreal because in the quiet of Yad Binyamin, you can hear the booms quite often from the Iron Dome intercepting (or trying to) rockets fired from Gaza. All day long one could hear the soft thud of distant booms.

The Cost of the Iron Dome
During a talk over Shabbat, one of the rabbis spoke about what he called the "difficult and trying times" we are currently experiencing. I recognize that each person experiences events differently, so I went to a neighbor of mine and asked him: Really? Do you think it's so bad? Truthfully, rockets are dangerous, and have interrupted our lives. But thankfully (even miraculously), injuries and deaths from the rockets have been kept to a minimum. I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles at Israel, and no one knew if he'd try to fire chemical weapons at us. The entire country walked around carrying gas masks, and we sealed our rooms with tape and wet towels. That was truly scary. The sirens today - much less so.
My neighbor - a very respected rabbi in our community, agreed with me, and suggested that the Iron Dome, as amazing as it is, has a cost. It was less than a month ago that tens of thousands of Jews gathered to pray for the safe return of our three (murdered) teens. Where's the outcry about rockets falling on our cities? Where's the public gatherings? There isn't really any. Because we feel safe (relatively), there's no public outcry to root out the terrorism in Gaza. It's muted. It's not so bad. Of course Tzahal went into Gaza. But will they stay for long enough to really do the job they need to do? I'm not so sure, if only because the public doesn't feel strong pressure to demand it, protected by the Iron Dome.

The Pictures of the Fallen
The same can be said for the release of the names and images of our fallen soldiers.
We value every life and cherish each and every soldier. But I wonder how long Israel will stand strong in the face of a funeral a day, combined with the shared Facebook posts, media bombardment, and publicity. I fear that this is exactly what Hamas is counting on. They don't care about the numbers: ten, a hundred, a thousand? The more deaths, the better for them to garner sympathy around the world.
But we do care. About every. Single. Soul. How long can a country maintain a war when it mourns every fallen soldier?
I'm not sure that there's an answer to this conundrum, other than to point out that we must not lose sight of the end goal, despite the high cost.

Hamas: Their Own Worst Enemy
The Arabs are their own worst enemies for many reasons, but Hamas, if you ask me, takes the cake. If their stated goal is truly to drive the Jews out of Israel, then they're really going about it the wrong way. The best way to do it, would be to leave Israel alone. We'd bicker, fight with one-another, and many Israelis would choose an easier life outside of Israel.
Yet, wars like the one we're experiencing now ask each of us to sacrifice. The fear that we feel is a sacrifice. The pain we're enduring is a sacrifice. And that sacrifice, rather than driving us away from the Land, brings us only closer to her. If you've ever sacrificed for something: a loved-one; a degree; a project - the greater the sacrifice, the more connected you feel to that thing.
Hamas, rather than driving us away, is only bringing us that much closer, and making the entire population of Israel, that much more connected to our Promised Land.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Two Faces of Israel - Thoughts for the Three Weeks and Parshat Pinchas

I recently wrote a piece that was published in Torah Mitzion's weekly newsletter, which I'm sharing here.

The past week has been truly trying for the Jewish people around the world, as we learned of the brutal murder of the three teens we had hoped and prayed for so fervently. I learned the news immediately after getting off flight from Israel in New York. It felt strange – wrong – to be in the United States, when I should be mourning back at home with my family, community and people. Yet, as the week I spent in Israel progressed, I came to recognize that the view of Israel from America is skewed. Sure, it was a hard week; a week of pain and anguish, tears and questions. But, in the United States, I missed the other side; the point of view that would have helped put things in the proper perspective.

Immediately after conducting yet another census, God tells Moshe to go up to the mountain and see the Land of Israel – עלה אל הר העברים הזה וראה את הארץ – “Climb up this Mount Avarim and see the Land.” (27:12) God tells Moshe, “Moshe -- you won’t make it into the Land of Israel, so I’m giving you a chance to see the Land before you die.” This is the end of the line for Moshe. Or is it? The Torah really isn’t clear.
At the end of Devarim in Parshat Ha’azinu, God again seems to instruct Moshe in a similar manner. There God tells Moshe, עלה אל הר העברים הזה הר נבו – “Go us to this Mount Avarim – Mount Nevo” (Devarim 32:49). Yet, the second time, God still calls the mountain Mount Avarim but also calls it Mount Nevo. Is it the same commandment and the same mountain, or a different instruction, in different places, at different times?
Malbim explains that God commands Moshe to climb two different mountains at two different times. Mount Nevo is not Mount Avarim. It’s a different place and a different time. Why does God ask Moshe to climb two different mountains? Why go up to see the land now and then go back up again to see it later at the end of his life? Malbim explains that when Moshe climbs the first mountain – Har Nevo – there’s still much to do: כי היה מוכן למלחמת מדין ולכמה דברים – “he was ready for the battle with Midyan and a number of other things.” When Moshe sees the land of Israel for the first time, he sees the land as a leader – a military leader, a national and political leader.
Each of us looks at things from our own personal perspective, depending upon our station in life. At this juncture in time, Moshe still leads the Children of Israel. So when he climbs up the mountain and looks down upon the valley and the Land, all he can see are objectives, issues, potential problems and crises. He looks down and sees military adversaries. He sees difficult agricultural terrain; economic challenge and security problems. That’s all he can allow himself to see, because he feels burdened by the weight of millions of people, looking to him for guidance and counsel.
But later, at the very end of his life, Moshe has already passed the mantle of leadership to his trusted student Yehoshua. When his knees no longer buckle under the sheer weight of worry for the nation, God, in an ultimate act of kindness tells Moshe, “go up and see the Land I’m going to give to the people.” When Moshe ascends the second mountain, Mount Nevo, and looks down upon the country, this time he looks down at the land not as a national leader, but as a private citizen; not as the commander-in-chief, but as a father and grandfather, whose children will soon inherit that land. This time he sees an entirely different land. Instead of seeing potential problems and challenges; treacherous terrain and security threats, Moshe sees the Land flowing with Milk and Honey, and it’s a wondrous, beautiful sight to see.
We will soon begin the three weeks, a period of tension and strain for the Jewish people. We will, and appropriately so – spend this time focusing on the most difficult periods of Jewish history – our greatest tragedies and disasters. And, hopefully, we try to correct some of the behaviors that brought about that suffering. Especially today, we think of the pain and suffering of the people in Israel, who continue to deal with the tragedy of the recent past, and the citizens of Israel’s south, cowering under a rain of rocket fire.
Sometimes I fear that Jews in the Diaspora (and perhaps in Israel as well) too often view the Holy Land Israel through darkened glasses, focusing too often on the pain and suffering. I realized, watching the news from the States, that the only exposure to Israel is what they show on Fox News and CNN, in the New York Times – or even the English-language Israeli websites (Never forget the news maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads”). We know about the bombings and terrorism, the security threats and economic issues. We’re all ambassadors and dignitaries, concerned and consumed with economy, military and security. But we also forget to take off those glasses and see things the way they truly are.

For all the difficulty and pain of the past week, after the funerals, life in Israel went on as well. Children went to camp. Businesses returned to work. The streets are packed with tourists, and are teeming with life, vitality, excitement and even joy. Even during those challenging eighteen days, when the fate of our boys wasn’t clear, life still continued. In my family we celebrated a simcha during those difficult days. We remembered the boys, but proceeded to celebrate nonetheless, determined to continue to build a fully Jewish life in the Holy Land.
We can never allow ourselves to forget that Moshe saw the Land of Israel twice. He didn’t only see the challenges and struggle. He also saw the beauty, the future, and the promise of the Land.
While we begin the three weeks and move into a somber, serious time in the Jewish year, we must also remember to sometimes step back and see the bigger picture. We must let ourselves see the beauty and majesty of Israel, and the tremendous Blessings that we as a people enjoy today.
And then, when we do see that good, we can look back at the tragedy of this past month, turn to the difficulties of the three weeks and Tisha B’av and ask ourselves: What do we need to do to make that good even better?

Audio Shiur: Parshat Matot - Finding Meaning in War on the 17th of Tammuz

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Matot - Finding Meaning in War on the 17th of Tammuz

Letter from Givati Commander Ofer Winter

We know that we're supposed to focus on improving ourselves and repentance on a fast day. The question is: for what? We discuss the causes for the fast, and then turn to the parshah to look at how a Jewish army fights in a time of war. No alarms went off during the shiur.

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