Thursday, January 29, 2009

Teaching and Creating, in Hashem's Image

By Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Orot College of Education

Click here to download a pdf version of this shiur.

I remember my first teaching moment, when I knew that computer programming would have to take a backseat to Torah. Studying at YU, a friend asked me whether I would participate in a women's learning program on Wednesday nights. Reluctantly, I agreed, driving out to Westchester County during the cold of winter. But a funny thing happened when I would sit down to teach my class. Almost as soon as I sat down to begin the class, it would be over. The clock seemed to skip the hour during which we learned. (I hope my students felt the same way, at least to some degree.) But even more than enjoying the teaching, the experience changed me even more. I found the ability to help someone grow in learning and help them grow closer to Hashem intoxicating. And that's a feeling that's still with me today.
While we most often associate Parashat Bo with makkat bechorot and korban Pesach, the honor of "most famous passages from this week's parashah" (you didn't know there was such an honor) clearly go to the sections at the very end. Both קדש לי כל בכור and והיה כי יביאך gain their renown from the fact that they appear in every pair of tefillin ever written. The fact that they're tightly sealed in the black boxes doesn't help them, though. Yet, when we juxtapose these two sections we find several issues which require explanation.
Read the following two sections as carefully as you can, noting that they appear consecutively in the Torah. See if you can see how many topics, words and phrases seem to repeat themselves in the two sections.
קדש לי כל בכור (שמות י"ג:א' – י')
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: קַדֶּשׁ לִי כָל בְּכוֹר פֶּטֶר כָּל רֶחֶם בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָדָם וּבַבְּהֵמָה לִי הוּא: וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה אֶל הָעָם זָכוֹר אֶת הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיא ה' אֶתְכֶם מִזֶּה וְלֹא יֵאָכֵל חָמֵץ: הַיּוֹם אַתֶּם יֹצְאִים בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב: וְהָיָה כִי יְבִיאֲךָ ה' אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַחִתִּי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ לָתֶת לָךְ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת הָעֲבֹדָה הַזֹּאת בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה: שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תֹּאכַל מַצֹּת וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי חַג לַה': מַצּוֹת יֵאָכֵל אֵת שִׁבְעַת הַיָּמִים וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ חָמֵץ וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה לְךָ שְׂאֹר בְּכָל גְּבֻלֶךָ: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה' לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם: וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה' בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ ה' מִמִּצְרָיִם: וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה:
והיה כי יביאך (שמות י"ג:י"א-טז)
וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ ה' אֶל אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לְךָ וְלַאֲבֹתֶיךָ וּנְתָנָהּ לָךְ: וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ כָל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לַה' וְכָל פֶּטֶר שֶׁגֶר בְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה לְךָ הַזְּכָרִים לַה': וְכָל פֶּטֶר חֲמֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה: וְהָיָה כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מַה זֹּאת וְאָמַרְתָּ אֵלָיו בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים: וַיְהִי כִּי הִקְשָׁה פַרְעֹה לְשַׁלְּחֵנוּ וַיַּהֲרֹג ה' כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבְּכֹר אָדָם וְעַד בְּכוֹר בְּהֵמָה עַל כֵּן אֲנִי זֹבֵחַ לַה' כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם הַזְּכָרִים וְכָל בְּכוֹר בָּנַי אֶפְדֶּה: וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ ה' מִמִּצְרָיִם
When you look at the last two sections of the parashah, you quickly begin to see a lot of repetition. The following short list appears in both parshiot:

While there are a number of differences between the two sections, what strikes me most is the fact that that Torah seems to say the same ideas twice in two consecutive sections. Both refer to redeeming a first-born child or animal, both speak about inheriting the Land of Israel, both refer to the relationship between parent and child and seem to include some sort of teaching moment, and both allude to the mitzvah of tefillin. I point out these amazing similarities because they help highlight the differences. Obviously, the Torah need not relate the same ideas twice consecutively. These two parshiot must convey different messages, and we'll find them by highlighting several important distinctions between the two parshiot. While there are a number of important distinctions, I'd like to focus on just a couple:

Clearly, these differences raise obvious questions: why does the parent give an explanation to a child who never even asked a question? What's the difference between להגיד – "to tell" and לומר – "to say"? Why does the Torah use two different words to describe the same religious article in subsequent sections?

Asking Questions at the Seder
We generally assume that people teach so that others can learn. That seems to make sense. Whether we teach professionally in the classroom, or just learn individually with our children, or simply are showing our children how to take challah from the dough on Thursday night, we teach so that they can learn. Otherwise, if no one is listening, why spend the time or energy to relate the information? What's the point?
But then we come to the night of the Seder. Sure, we're supposed to answer our children's questions. They ask and we answer. But what if no one's listening? What if I'm stuck alone on the night of the Seder? What if there's no one there to ask me a question, and for me to answer? Should I still answer the question, or since there's no one asking, what's the point? The Mishnah in Pesachim addresses this question clearly stating that, while it's preferable for a child to ask his father, ואם אינו חכם אשתו שואלתו ואם לאו הוא שואל לעצמו – "if the son is not wise, his wife asks him, and if not, he asks himself." If there's no one else to ask me the four questions during the Seder, I must ask myself the questions and answer them as well. This only begs the question: what's the point of asking and answering questions myself?

The Male in Female in Each of Us
God created us to emulate Him. While we use the male form (Him) to describe God, Chazal teach us that God has no true gender – He is both masculine and feminine at the same time. I'm not a kabbalist (and if I was I wouldn't tell you), but the seforim (not sure which ones) teach us that each individual, created in God's image, has both of these masculine and feminine tendencies. Rav Soloveitchik, in a beautiful essay reprinted in ימי זכרון, explains that the דוכרא - the male aspect of God (and of us) is the part that gives – that influences others. Conversely, the נוקבא – the female aspect of God relates to the receiver, the part of us that is influenced and shaped by others. Keeping this in mind, we can now examine teaching in a new way.

Two Types of Teaching At first blush, we look at teaching in a purely utilitarian way: we teach in order to impart information. My daughter needs to know how to tie her shoes; my son needs to know his vocabulary in order to finish his Navi homework. Even in the classroom, my students need to know this information to be better, more informed Jews. (Or if you ask them, they need the information to pass the test – but that's a separate issue entirely.) In any case, we see the act of teaching in its functional form – useful and important, but nothing more.
But the Torah tells us that Hashem wants us to teach not only because our children or students (be they child or adult) need and want to learn the information. Rather, Hashem wants us to teach because the act of teaching transforms the teacher from a passive person – a נוקבא – into an active shaper – a דוכרא. When we teach we come to emulate God in a powerful and profound way, by become creators ourselves – creating students, new people, and more educated children. Thus, when we teach others, we not only change our students. Perhaps even more profoundly, we change ourselves.
This is the fundamental difference between the two parshiot at the end of Bo. קדש לי כל בכור reflects inward and relates to the transformational power of יציאת מצרים not as a lesson for our children, but as a means to change ourselves. For this reason, I must teach my child about יציאת מצרים whether he asks me about it or not. I'm not speaking to him necessarily. I'm telling him – והגדת לבנך – whether he's listening or not, (it's far better if he is listening, of course), and whether he's even there or not. I wear my Tefillin not as an adornment for others, but as a reminder to myself that when Hashem redeemed us from Egypt, He granted each of us the opportunity to become like Him in some small way: to be the creators of worlds. In this context, Hashem didn't take us out of Egypt. He took me – as an individual, destined and commanded to emulate Him to the best of my ability. The Torah sums up this idea powerfully when it tells us that the reason why I wear Tefillin is, למען תהיה תורת ה' בפיך – so that the Torah of Hashem will be in your mouth. In my mouth, and mine alone. As I teach, I transform myself and become closer to and more like Hashem in the process.
But then there's the practical aspect of teaching. It's nice for me to emulate God, to become a mini-creator, but someone's got to teach the children. Someone has to answer their questions. When people need information – when they're the needy נוקבא – when they require shaping, we all must step up to the plate. As parents we must teach our children; we must "speak" with them, listening to their questions and answering to the best of our ability. Instead of wearing Tefillin to remind ourselves of how Hashem saved us, they now become a טוטפת – an adornment to be seen not by me, but as a symbol for others, most notably, my own children. In this context we all become parts of a greater unit: Hashem took us out of Egypt. Tefillin remind us that Hashem redeemed us all. In practical terms, we become responsible for each other, and for all Jewish children. Every Jew needs to learn and grow, every one of us needs to fulfill the aspect of נוקבא – to be shaped and molded into better people and better Jews. And that starts with teaching our children about who we are as a people. It starts with יציאת מצרים.
All too often, we fail to recognize the transformative power of teaching, and the significance that Judaism places in it. We see only the practical value of teaching – and our own shortcomings, so we don't do it. Sure, if you're a professional teacher you do it. But how many of us shirk the responsibility of teaching our children and studying with them because we feel inadequate. We don't know the information that well; we can't explain it well; we don't relate all that well – we all know the reasons.
Parshat Bo reminds us that Hashem doesn't just want us to send our kids to someone else to learn the material. He wants us to emulate Him – to be creators of worlds. He doesn't just want them to learn. He wants us to teach.
And that takes effort and energy. It takes thought and preparation. You can't just sit down at the Shabbat table and bemoan the fact that you don't have anything to relate on the parshah. You have to prepare something beforehand; a topic to discuss, an issue to relate. Write down a list of questions to ask your younger children. Take the time to prepare a meaningful discussion that will engage and enlighten.
Because when you do, you'll see that it's not only about your children learning. It's about emulating Hashem, and become creators ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Weather is Gorgeous. And It's Terrible

If you live in New York or Michigan or Chicago, I'm sorry for you. Today you probably had to slug through snow, ice and sleet to get to shul or work or school. I really do feel bad, since I rode my bike with a windbreaker, and then went for a run in shorts and tee shirt. I did all that because the weather here in Yad Binyamin - and in all of Israel for that matter, has been gorgeous. With highs in the mid-60's (that's farenheit) all week, we've stopped using our heat altogether, and Rena even turned the air conditioning on in the car today. (It was stuffy). It's really terrific weather.
And it's terrible. Because as nice at it might make life today, we really need the rain. In an article on Jpost today, I learned that Israel has no real long-term water plans, which I find especially disconcerting given the fact that, "Israel is facing its worst water crisis in history." We really need rain, and we need it badly. Which is where all of us come into play.
Several months ago the chief rabbinate of Israel put out a request asking that Jews in Israel (and I guess around the world) begin to add a special prayer for rain in their davening, during שמע קולנו of the amidah. I have been doing so sporatically (whenever I remember), but I guess it hasn't been enough. It's going to take a greater effort.
So please add the following tefillah to your davening. I'm including the text at the bottom of this post, but you can also click here to download a pdf to put into your siddur for quick reference.
A Prayer for Rain.
וַעֲנֵנוּ בּורֵא עולָם בְּמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים, בּוחֵר בְּעַמּו יִשרָאל לְהודִיעַ גָּדְלו וְהַדְרַת כְּבודו, שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלָּה תֵּן טַל וּמָטָר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וְתַשבִּיעַ אֶת הָעולָם כֻּלּו מִטּוּבֶךָ, וּמַלֵּא יָדֵינוּ מִבִּרְכותֶיךָ וּמֵעשֶׁר מַתְּנַת יָדֶךָ, שְׁמור וְהַצֵל שָׁנָה זו מִכָּל דָּבָר רָע, וּמִכָּל מִינֵי מַשְׁחִית, וּמִכָּל מִינֵי פֻּרְעָנִיּות, וַעֲשה לָהּ תִּקְוָה וְאַחֲרִית שָׁלום, חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ וּפֵרותֵינוּ, וּבָרְכֵנוּ בְּגִשְׁמֵי בְרָכָה וְנִזְכֶּה לְחַיִּים וָשׁובַע וְשָׁלום, כַּשָׁנִים הַטּובות, וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ דֶּבֶר וְחֶרֶב וְרָעָב, וְחַיָּה רָעָה וּשְׁבִי וּבִזָה, וְיֵצֶר הָרָע וְחָלָיִים רָעִים וְקָשִׁים, וּמְאורָעות רָעיִם וְקָשִׁים, וּגְזור עָלֵינוּ גְּזֵרות טובות מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, וְיִגּלּוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ עַל מִדּותֶיךָ, וְתִתְנַהֵג עִם בָּנֶיךָ בְּמִדַּת הָרַחֲמִים, וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ
Answer us, O Creator of the world, with your attribute of Mercy. He who chooses His nation Israel to make known His greatness and glory. He who hears prayers, grant dew and rain on the face of the earth and satiate the whole world from Your goodness. Fill our hands from Your blessing and from the wealth of Your giving Hand. Protect and save this year from anything evil, from any type of disaster, from any type of tragedy and provide this year with hope and a peaceful end. Have mercy on us and on our produce and our fruit and bless us with blessed rain. May we merit life, plenty, and peace as in the good years; and remove from us pestilence, sickness, and famine, wild animals, captivity and plunder, the evil inclination, difficult illnesses and disastrous events. Decree upon us positive decrees before You and may Your mercy triumph among Your attributes and may You lead your nation according to the attribute of mercy. May You accept our prayers with mercy and appeasement.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thanking Hamas?

During the recent brief tour of the south during the JNF Rabbinic Solidarity Mission to Israel, we took a tour of Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, and got the lowdown from the medical people on how they prepare for the war, the changes that they had to make - and even a short tour of the emergency trauma unit where they bring the injured straight from the battlefield. What shocked me most was the fact that the emergency room was totally and completely empty. Sure, it was ready for anything, but there was no one in the room.
So I asked: where are all the regular people. Certainly there had to be accidents, normal injuries - the stuff of daily life that bring people into emergency rooms. Back in Detroit, I had been to numerous emergency rooms, my favorite being the one in the Henry Ford Hospital where my good friend Dr. Howard Klausner works, and it was anything but empty - always a beehive of activity.
Then it dawned on me: the numbers of injured must be way, way down. So I asked a nurse giving the tour and she admitted that during the war, people just didn't go out the way they normally did. They weren't driving as much, and so they got injured far less. And on the radio this week, following a rather heinous car crash (of which there have been a couple this week), the host observed that during the war, people drove differently. They were kinder, less hurried, less agressive on the roads. The whole country really did come together. We really didn't see articles like this one in the papers during the war.
Which makes me wonder: did the war in Gaza, somehow perversely, save Jewish lives?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Seeing the Good. And the Bad - Devar Torah for Va'era 5769

Thank God, the war has ended. At least for now. By the time you read this, our sons will have returned to their bases, once again out of harm's way. Quiet has returned to the south of Israel, and we hope that the stability and normalcy most people take for granted can again become part of daily life citizens living in the south of Israel.
By all accounts, the war was an incredible success. At a shiva house this week (not related to the war), Rabbi Lazer Brody noted that if someone had said before the war that Israel would suffer only thirteen casualties (and each one is a terrible loss) in a full-fledged Gaza war, no one would have believed. We must see the fantastic hand of Hashem that heard our prayers, guided our soldiers, and protected our citizens.
Truthfully, seeing Hashem's hand isn't that hard. How many times did we hear on the radio or read in the news, "Twelve missiles fell today – no one was hurt." How can 900 missiles and rockets aimed at cities and population centers miss so often, if not for yad Hashem?
In truth though, it's always easier to feel God's guiding grasp on our shoulder when things go the way we'd like. But what about when they don’t? Do we feel a level of hashgachah when things don't go our way? Do we search for and see the Divine when we endure the distress of defeat – both nationally and personally?
Often you have to go back to the end of last week's parshah to understand the beginning of this week's Torah reading. This week is a good example. At the end of Parashat Shemot Moshe presents Hashem with a series of complaints. "It didn't work. I went to Par'oh, told him what you said, and not only aren't things better – but they've gotten worse. למה הרעתה לעם הזה – why have you damaged this poor people? למה זה שלחתני – why did you send me?" Hashem, concluding the parshah, answers Moshe's questions by insisting that He would indeed redeem the nation from slavery in Egypt. And that's where Parashat Va'era begins.
וארא אל אברהם אל יצחק ואל יעקב ושמי ה' לא נודעתי להם – "I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, and never revealed my Divine Name to them." Why does Hashem refer specifically to the Avot here? How do they relate to Moshe's complaint and Hashem's response? Rashi (on verse 9) answers these questions by quoting a Gemara from Sanhedrin (111a).
Our rabbis learned out regarding the issue above, when Moshe said "Why have you done evil" the Holy One blessed be He said to him, "Woe to those that are lost and not forgotten. I have what to complain about the deaths of the avot. I revealed myself to them many times as el shakai, and they said to me, 'What's your name?' And you ask me, 'What's Your name – what should I tell them?' When Avraham went to bury his wife Sarah and couldn't find a suitable grave until he had to pay an exorbitant sum; and Yitzchak [struggled with the residents] who complained about the wells that he dug; and Ya'akov needed to buy the field where he pitched his tent – and they never complained against me. And you said, 'Why have you done evil?'"

In other words, when Moshe complains to Hashem, Hashem throws the complaints right back: "You know, things don't always go the way you think that they should. Why, when things don't see to go the way that you'd like do you immediately wonder where I've gone?
The Avot achieved greatness precisely for this reason: their faith transcended the difficulties they encountered in life. They could see yad Hashem not only in the good, but also in the bad. And while we're not Avot by any stretch, growing in our emunah means learning to see Godliness in every aspect of life, both good and bad.
The Mishnah in Berachot (Chapter 9) teaches us, חייב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שמברך על הטובה – "a person is obligated to bless God on the bad that befalls him, just as he blesses God on the good." No, it's not easy to see yad Hashem either in personal or national setbacks. But our emunah demands that if we're going to believe that Hashem intervenes and guides our lives during our most joyous and happy moments, then He must also be there with us, crying alongside us, when we suffer and mourn.
It's hard to think about emunah when times are hard. Perhaps this Shabbat specifically, when we can sigh with a sense of relief; when we can give thanks for the good – for the safety and security that God blesses us with - we can best ponder this question.
Shabbat Shalom.

Returning to Normal

Speaking to people in the States, many wonder what the attitude here is about the conclusion of the Gaza war. Should we have stopped so soon? Why didn't the IDF continue to pound Hamas? I especially hear a lot of chatter from more right-wing Americans about how the IDF should have taken over all of Gaza. I've got a few comments:
  1. The army had pretty much destroyed everything that it could find, from tunnels to weapons caches to any Hamas installation or building, without actually entering the highly populated areas in Gaza.
  2. Hamas had basically stopped fighting, and would not even send me to go attack. The soldiers that I spoke to said that they were not that impressed with the way that the Hamas fighters fought. They expected differently, but did not encounter that much civilian resistance.
  3. Hamas fights through terror. Many of the battles were calculated to capture soldiers, which thank God did not happen. But entering populated cities greatly increases the likelihood of another Gilad Schalit, which no one wants.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, while Israelis were incredibly patient about the war, it's hard living under the constant threat of missile attack. The army knew that a cease-fire had a great likehood of stablity, and that the rocket attacks would stop - which thus-far they have. I suspect that many people who wanted the war to continue don't live close enough to Gaza to have had to run to their safe-rooms whenever a siren sounded; they didn't have to sit in the bathroom with their children who were too frightened to shower alone, fearful that they wouldn't hear the siren; they didn't have to run through the grocery store, frightened to be caught in an attack, unable to shop at a leisurely pace.
In other words, most people wanted things to return to normal. I know that's how I feel. I can only imagine how the citizens of Sederot and Ashdot and Netivot and Ashkelon feel.

We pray for the families that lost loved-ones, for the injured soldiers, and also that the calm continues. Until the next war.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Doing My Part

Yesterday, as I got out of my car at minchah, I clicked the little clicker-thing to arm the alarm. Nothing happened. That's weird. But I went to minchah, hoping the problem would resolve itself. After minchah, I was late for a chavruta (study partner), but the thing wouldn't disarm. (It automatically arms itself after about a minute). And the only way to work the alarm is with the wireless keypad - no pad in the car itself.
It was weird. I went to the local computer store for a battery, and he told me that I was the third person that day looking for a battery. And then, when he tested my battery, it worked fine. Everntually Rena sent Simcha with the other keypad which worked, but the whole thing didn't make sense - until I read an article in the New York Times that said:
Across the border region, Israel has lowered a kind of electronic curtain to prevent remote-control bombs, disabling even remote car locks well into Israel.
I don't know if that was really why my alarm didn't work. After all, we're pretty far away. But if it is the cause of my car-alarm troubles, it's fine with me.
Just doing my part.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Very Personal War - 2nd Edition

A group of friends of mine from the United States, led by Rabbis Barry Gelman of Houston, and Asher Lopatin of Chicago, came to the southern region of Israel for a 36-hour solidarity mission. I joined them in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Nitzan, Be'er Sheva, Sederot, and other places as well. (We drove around quite a bit.)
The most meaningful part of the trip was our visit to Soroka Hospital in Be'er Sheva, where we visited a soldier injured during the fighting named Li'el Cohen. My friend Rabbi Gelman, writing on the blog for the mission (isn't the 21st century amazing) wrote:
The group I visited with went to see the family of Lee'el Cohen who suffered a serious head and brain injury in Gaza last week. We prayed together and spoke about Lee'el and his wife. Lee'el's father requested that we lead our congregation in prayer for Lee'el , the other wounded soldiers as well as all the soldiers of the IDF.
Lee'el has been married for 14 months. His family is praying that he will soon recover and continue building his family. His father called this struggle only and " intermission" in Lee'els plans. We explained that our delegation came as representatives of the American Jewish community so soldiers like Lee'el would know that they are supported and loved by Am Yisrael. We explained that we were only representatives of our communities and in reality there thousands of Jewish families represented in that room. Although It is hard to believe, Lee'els father told us that our presence warmed his heart and gave them added strength to carry on.
There was a constant flow of uniformed young men and women coming to visit Lee'els family. They were all members of his Golani Brigade unit. I have reached a point where these fighting men and women look like children to me.
Lee'els father constantly spoke of God, together with the doctors, who he called angels in white coats, who would hopefully heal his son.
For me, this was the most powerful part of the trip. To spend time with a family that is suffering so much anxiety and uncertainty, but who at the same time handle themselves with such poise and express such deep faith is an unbelievably moving experience.
We promised that we would pray for his well-being, and send our message to as many people as possible. Li'el suffered severe injuries to the head, and his recovery - even if successful, will be long and arduous. I spent some time sitting with Li'el's mother. She sat in that cold hospital lobby, with mounds of food by her side, and pictures of her son. It's amazing how similar hospitals can be, no matter where they are in the world. She said that as a mother, she could not sit by her son's side for very long at any one time, watching him suffer in pain.

Please pray for a refu'ah for Li'el Hoshea ben Miriam. May Hashem bring him a complete recovery, both in body and spirit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Appreciating Our Blessings - Devar Torah for Shemot

Yad Binyamin seemed like a perfect choice. A wonderful community with a nice mix of Israelis and “Anglos”, my wife and I felt it would be a great place to begin our lives as new immigrants to Israel. Indeed, we were right. The kids have made good friends, the schools have been terrific to work with, and the community members warm and welcoming. Yad Binayamin really has been great.
Except for our friends from the South. OK – not really our friends. I mean our enemies from Hamas in Gaza. Yad Binyamin lies 39.5 kilometers from the Gaza border, just inside the outer limits of Hamas rocket capability. The Military Civilian Authority decided (wisely) to keep all children home from school, mine included, and they have only returned to school this week. Life at home is the same, but different. Just a little more tense. The children don’t sleep as well. They don’t venture out like they used to.
But still, with the challenge of living in a real war zone, carrying my children into our protected room, listening to my wife lie on the ground during a rocket attack on my cell phone, things are wonderful. They truly are. Why do I say so? Because I learned lesson from the Ben Ish Chai that I saw in a terrific sefer called מעיין השבוע.
As we begin to read of שיעבוד מצרים, the subjugation of the Jewish people at the hands of the Egyptians, one primary question enters our minds: why? If God really wanted to ultimately give the Jewish people the Torah and return them to ארץ ישראל, who needs Egypt? Who needs hundreds of years of slavery, suffering and desperation? Why not just keep Ya’akov and his family in the Land of Cana’an, take them to Eilat for a weekend to give them the Torah and let them comfortably settle the land? Why did God deliberately create a situation that demanded suffering before the salvation?
The Ben Ish Chai answers this question through a parable.
There once lived a wealthy businessman who kindly took in an orphaned youth as his houseguest. He happily gave the youth a home to live in and the young man settled into his new life comfortably. Several years later, a poor man came to the house to ask for tzedakah. Like most beggars, he expected only a modest donation, perhaps only five or ten shekel. When the man pulled out two hundred shekel, the pauper rejoiced. He began to bless the g’vir, his wife, his children – his city, his home. It was all the businessman could do to get the man out the door, bowing and throwing blessings behind him as he left.
Watching the scene unfold, the businessman’s wife commented to him, “While it’s true that you gave that man a nice gift, it’s not that much in the grand scheme of things. We’ve given the young man living in our home far, far more than two hundred shekel, and while he’s a fine young man, he never thanks us the way that man did.”
The businessman agreed with his wife, and called the young man into his office.
“You have been living with us for several years,” he told him. “You’ve always been pleasant, but I want you out of my house now. Please leave everything we’ve given you, and go immediately.”
The young man, dumbfounded, didn’t know what to do. All he could do was quietly leave the house, wondering where to go next. Arriving in the center of town he soon grew hungry. With nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, he found a hard bench in the park to spend the night. Forced to find work for food, he began hiring himself out to deliver groceries to harried housewives, earning just enough to get a bite to eat. On the third day the businessman told his assistant, “Go call the young man back to the house and return him to his room.”
That afternoon at lunch, the young man rushed into the kitchen to help set the table. He thanked his patron profusely for the food, and afterwards asked if he could help in any other way.
The Jewish nation, said the Ben Ish Chai, was that young orphan. If God had given us the Torah with ease and comfort; if He had allowed us to remain in ארץ ישראל without having to conquer it ourselves, we would never appreciate the value of those incredible gifts. This is why Hashem sent Ya’akov down to Egypt and the Jewish people suffered for so long. Only because we suffered to gain our freedom and only because we struggled to receive the Torah do those values mean so much to us today.
And, only because we fought – and continue to fight – to protect our right to ארץ ישראל do we truly appreciate the Land that Hashem has given us. There really is a relationship between the hardships we undergo and how much we value the blessings that we have. Thank God, I live in Yad Binyamin, not Sderot. I really don’t have things so hard. And the subtle changes to my daily life that the war has brought highlight just how much I appreciate my kids’ school, my community, the quiet of normal daily life, and the blessing that I merit to live in Eretz Yisrael.
Each of us deals with challenges and tribulations in our lives. Shemot reminds us that even while we address the hardships of life, those very struggles can help us appreciate the tremendous blessings that Hashem brings to our lives each and every day.
We hope and pray that with Hashem’s help, the IDF succeeds in its mission, life in Israel returns to normal, and our soldiers return safely to their families soon.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Very Personal War

People have told me that war in Israel is a family matter. And they're really right. In Michigan, whenever a soldier from Michigan died in Iraq, you heard about it. Maybe they mentioned his or her name, maybe not, but never much more than that.
When four IDF soldiers died in Gaza last week, the radio stations carried not only their names, but extensive interviews with their families. I learned about what kind of people they were. One a young Druze from a villiage near Haifa, another a graduate of yeshiva who truly believed in the holiness and sanctity and power of the Jewish nation. His brother said on the radio (Reshet Bet) on the day that he died, that even if he had known that he would be killed the next day, he would have enlisted again to fight. Our soldiers aren't just unknown names and numbers. They're people, mostly young men, with lives and hopes and dreams. They're the sons of colleagues from Michigan who are teaching in Akiva, and the child of a rav of mine from Bar Ilan University. It's all very personal.
Which brings me to an email that I received at work today and an article in the Jerusalem Post online which said, "Officer critically hurt in Gaza blast." Sad. Worrisome. But not personal. But then I noticed an email that was sent to all the employees at Orot.

אנא אמרו תהילים לרפואת אהרן יהושע בן חיה שושנה
קצין צה"ל שנפצע קשה אתמול
אהרן הוא הבן של הרב קרוב מקרני שומרון שהתחתן ביום ד' האחרון
ובשבת חתן בבקר גוייס למלחמה

Please recite Tehillim for the complete recovery of Aharon Yehoshua ben Chaya Shoshana, an IDF officer who was critically wounded yesterday. Aharon is the son of Rav Karov from Karnei Shomron who just got married last Wednesday, and was called up on the morning of his Shabbat Chatan.

I found out later that while they called him up during his Aufruf, they let him go home for his wedding last Thursday, and then called him up again during Sheva Brachot. And today he's fighting for his life.
It's not an officer. It's a rav's son. A new wife's husband. A jewel of Israel. Let us pray for the refuah sheleimah of Aharon Yehoshua ben Chayah Shoshanah.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Parenting by Example: A Devar Torah for Vayechi

The phone rings during the dead of the night. You grab the phone half-awake, barely registering the time on the clock. 4:35 am. Who could be calling at this hour? It's the hospital. "Your father is sick. Things don't look good. You'd better come quick."
Of course. You jump out of bed and quickly pull on some clothes. You grab your car key, your cell phone and wallet and head towards the front door.
But then you wonder: should I bring something else? What else am I missing? What about your kids?

Yosef received precisely that phone call: ויאמור ליוסף הנה אביך חולה – "And he said to Yosef, behold your father is sick." (48:1) The Torah doesn't even bother telling us that Yosef travels immediately to his father. But it does tell us what – or who -- he brought with him. ויקח את שני בנוי עמו – "and he took his two sons with him. "Yosef took his children. Yosef took Menashe and Ephraim.

Why did he bring them? Rashi says that he brought them to receive a brachah. Yet, nowhere do we find Yosef asking his father to bless his sons. Rather, the initiative for the brachot comes from Ya'akov himself. "Take them to me and I will bless them."

We can find a different reason for Ya'akov to bring his sons by asking the question from the other direction: why wouldn't he bring his sons? After all, if you found out that your aging father had fallen ill and you feared that he was nearing death, would you come alone or would you bring your children? I imagine that all of us would bring our kids, especially if they were not too young – which Menashe and Ephraim were not.

Or would we? After all, hospitals are nasty places. I've heard parents tell me more than once that they didn't want to "expose" their children to the difficult sight of seeing Bubby or Saba hooked up to all those tubes. After all, is that the lasting image that we want them to have of their beloved grandparent?

Of course it's not. But hopefully, our children have many more images and memories than the final stay at the hospital. More importantly, the lasting image they must have is of their father or mother lovingly sitting at the side of the bed, jumping for every need – from an extra blanket or a sip of water, to the recitation of yet another chapter of Tehillim. They must learn from us how to be people of chesed, mitzvot and yirat shamayim. For if they don't learn it from us, where will they learn it?

Yosef brought his sons with him to see Ya'akov because Yosef made it a practice to include his children in all his positive endeavors and especially in the mitzvoth that he performed. He was about to fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av v'em. It made perfect sense for him to bring his sons along with him. So why does the Torah tell us this seemingly unimportant fact? Both in language and in fact, Yosef's parenting practice of including his children pays great dividends. Precisely because Yosef brings Menashe and Ephraim does Ya'akov bless them; their presence that accords them the honor of being the models of Jewish blessing for all time.

When Yosef hears about Ya'akov’s illness, the Torah tells us that ויקח את שני בניו אתו - "and he took his two sons with him. "Yet, when Ya'akov learns of their presence and wishes to bless them he uses the exact same language: ויאמר קחם נא אלי ואברכם- "and he said, take them to me and I will bless them. "In using the same word – לקחת, in an unusual way, the Torah connects Yosef's "taking" with Ya'akov’s. Only because Yosef had the foresight and parental instincts to bring his sons with him on this visit do his sons merit the blessing that they receive.

As parents, we all struggle with the same issues. We push our children to grow and achieve – but we don't want to push them too much for fear of alienating them. We want them to take initiative and act on their own. So we bug them about it. Yet, all too often we forget that one of the best forms of encouragement is teaching by example. How many mothers attend a Tehillim group but don't invite their daughters along? How many meals have we cooked for a neighbor but neglected to include our children in the project? How many times have we visited a friend who was sick, but left our kids at home?

If the power of chesed can transform us, we must also use it as an educational tool to share our good work – the very best part of us – with our children. They must see the tzedakah that we give. They can participate in the chesed we perform. And just like Yosef, when we "take" our children with us and expose them to the best parts of who we are and what they can be, we give them the greatest blessing of all: inspiration by example.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Table Talk for Shemot - From Last Year. Scary.

I wrote this Table Talk for the YIOP bulletin last year. It's amazing how true it was, especially in light of the cynical and sick Hamas practice of using their own children as human shields. (see the second story)

On average, each and every day three shells, mortars or Katyusha rockets land somewhere in Israel, lobbed from Gaza by some faction affiliated with Hamas. In response, Israel has placed a virtual economic stranglehold on Gaza, causing a great deal of suffering for the average Gaza resident. Why doesn’t the controlling Hamas leadership put an end to the shooting, and alleviate the suffering of its people? Because it’s better politically for Hamas to continue to resist, no matter the consequence.
In putting the suffering of their enemies ahead of their own citizens’ well-being, the leaders of Hamas follow a long pattern of this type of behavior, beginning with Par’oh in Egypt.
As we all know, Par’oh initially attempts to force the Jewish midwives to murder Jewish infants during childbirth. When the midwives refuse, Par’oh issues an all-encompassing decree: ויצו פרעה לכל עמו לאמר כל הבן היאורה תשליכהו וכל הבת תחיון – “And Par’oh commanded his entire nation saying, every male shall be thrown in the Nile and every female may shall be left alive.” Rashi notes that Par’oh never distinguishes between Jewish and Egyptian babies. Rather, אף עליהם גזר – “he even decreed on [their own children].” Par’oh, warned by his astrologers of the impending birth of a child that would ultimately cause his downfall, doesn’t care whether he’s throwing Jewish or Egyptian babies into the river. As long as he remains in power, that’s all that matters to him. If a few – or thousands -- of his own people suffer in the process, that’s of no concern to him.
It’s amazing how often history repeats itself.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Parenting During a War: Challenging Choices

Raising children during a war presents unique challenges. Thankfully, we live far enough away from Gaza that I find it difficult to imagine rockets landing here. Unfortunately, Yad Binyamin sits close enough to Gaza that the army (or the Defense Minister) insists that we should the schools closed. (A lot of discussion here revolves around the question of how much politics play a role in this situation. Would Ehud Barak have closed all the schools if he wasn't up for reelection in a month? Sure, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, but other facts do come into play.) This has created the unusual situation that looking around everything seems quiet and normal, but because they’re stuck at home on a bright sunny day, children intuitively know that something is wrong.
Personally, I don't feel that much more tense than normal. I studied in Israel during the first Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles at us (and no one knew whether he was kind enough to arm them with chemical or biological warheads). Sitting in a hermetically sealed room with a gas mask and an atropine pen at the ready - that was scary.
But my children do not enjoy the “benefit” of my past experience. They just know that there's a war, and that the "bad guys" are shooting rockets at Israel. So they're very much on edge. For example:
• Last night before havdalah, for some reason my alarm clock in my bedroom went off - a regular "alarm-clock" beep. Several of our children began to cry, wondering if that was the sound of the siren, and whether they should run upstairs to the mamad (sealed room). It was quite eye-opening.
• When we learned that there wouldn't be any school today, we decided to go as a family on a small trip - probably to a park somewhere. My son asked that wherever we go, could it please be "out of range?" Sure.
• This morning listening to the radio, the news played some of the sounds from Gaza. Hearing the radio from upstairs, two kids came down with worried looks on their faces, wondering if the noise was "close." I explained that the sounds weren't here - but "there." But I turned the radio off quickly.
Last night we received a nice letter from the school's psychologist about how to deal with our children during the war. I found the letter somewhat confusing. On one hand, we're supposed to be honest and forthright because kids know that something's up. On the other hand, the letter suggests that we shield them as much as possible from images or media that might overly frighten them.
All good advice. But where's the line between not enough information and too much? How much do I tell, and how much do I hide?
I guess that's the perennial parental struggle. Only in war, the issues become that much more pressing.

Shabbat in Yad Binyamin: Living in Range

On Thursday, the regional council ran a "drill" telling us that they would test the sirens at 12pm. We decided to use the opportunity to practice running to the mamad (our protected room), so that we'd know what to do if we heard a "real" siren. As 12pm approached, the kids even came in from playing outside so that we'd be ready. Twelve came and went - and no siren. Apparently, I learned over email that when they expanded the yishuv, they might have forgotten to expand the siren system to cover the entire new area. I pretty much couldn't hear anything - and I was listening for it, which makes me wonder how I would ever hear anything if an actual attack took place.
Thankfully, I'm not the only concerned citizen here. (I'm actually on the very mellow side.) Numerous residents called to complain, and were told a few things:
  1. We're looking into it
  2. The army needs to fix the sirens, but Be'er Sheva comes first. Theirs didn't work that well either.
  3. Actually, the sirens are supposed to be automatic, but not all of them are connected to the network. So, there are soldiers who are sitting there, ready to hit the button at the appropriate time in the areas not covered by the automatic siren system. While they should have pressed the button they didn't, supposedly because they were out eating lunch. (Great system. This story is just ridiculous enough to believe.)
We learned last night that school would continue to be canceled for the foreseeable future. Truthfully, they said that they're taking things one day at a time, but on the moatzah's (regional council) web site, they're already planning youth activities and tiyyulim outside the region for tomorrow. It's difficult to know how long this will go on.
Shabbat was subdued - very quiet. While we heard a number of planes flying about, especially towards the end of the day, nothing much happened here - not that I expected anything. Still, we needed to be prepared, so I turned on the radio to one of the silent stations that the government runs for people who keep Shabbat, so that if there's an alarm, they turn on the station and warn everyone.
Many families left for Shabbat. I think they just felt it would be easier with family up north. Others slept "camp" style in their mamads, all together. We slept normally, and figured that if an attack came, we'd have sixty seconds - enough time - to get into our mamad.
I didn't hear anything all Shabbat. Nice and quiet - so I figured that there were no attacks. Then I turned on the radio to learn that Hamas did launch about twenty rockets over Shabbat, and I hadn't heard anything. Which made me wonder whether I had the right frequency, or the radio system wasn't yet up and running. Who knows?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year - No School Today! Yay.

I had my day all planned. First a run. Then sit down and do some work - maybe get some writing done; perhaps some other work. Then, at the end of davening I discover the dreaded news: no school today for any children. None tomorrow either. What caused this sudden cancellation?
  • Did the moatzah (regional council) suddenly discover New Years Day? (For some reason, in Israel they call New Years "Sylvester". I have no idea why, but any time I hear it on the radio it makes me laugh. Sylvester. Isn't that the name of the cat who's always trying to eat Tweety Bird? But I digress.)
  • Did a foot of snow suddenly fall last night? Again no.
Rather, the Minister of Defense of Israel expanded the boundaries of the Military Zone around Gaza to 45 kilometers, and we're now officially in range. So there's no school.

We got a letter over email from the Rosh Mo'atzah - who's a great guy explaining the decision, making it clear that he had nothing to do with it. My favorite part of the letter is where he explains that in his mind, "In the merit of the Torah learned [by the children] of the Moatzah Nachal Sorek (where we live), no citizens of Israel will be stricken.

May it be God's will that his words come to pass. Meanwhile, let us all pray for the safety and well-being of our soldiers, who will take up the battle to protect the citizens of Israel.

I guess now that really means us.

Because I want my kids back in school soon.