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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Monday, July 14, 2014

An IDF Ripped From the Pages of Daf Yomi: Mi K'amcha Yisrael!

The Gemara in Megillah 3a (which happened to be yesterday's daf), in the midst of a discussion about which is more important - sacrifices or the study of Torah - notes that an angel visited the great prophet Yehoshua in the middle of the night, as he was busy preparing for the war to conquer the Land of Israel, in order to offer his "constructive criticism". The angel tells the prophet,
אמש בטלתם תמיד של בין הערבים ועכשיו בטלתם תלמוד תורה
Yesterday you cancelled the afternoon Tamid offering, and now you're cancelling the study of Torah?
Yehoshua asked him, "Which one did you come for? (i.e. what are you upset about - the sacrifice, or the Torah study?)
The angel answered, "Now I came" (Meaning that he was upset about the lack of Torah study in the camp)
The Gemara tells us,
מיד (יהושע ח, ט) וילן יהושע בלילה ההוא בתוך העמק אמר רבי יוחנן מלמד שלן בעומקה של הלכה
Immediately, "And Joshua laid that night in the midst of the of the valley" - said Rabbi Yochanan: This verse teaches us that he laid in the valley of halachah.
According to the Gemara, Yeshoshua understood that fighting a war isn't an excuse not to study Torah. Rather, we are commanded to do both: fight by day, and study Torah at night. So, after a long day of training and preparation, he spent the night studying Torah.

I couldn't help but think of this Gemara when I came across this incredible article and the accompanying video of an officer in the paratrooper corps (Unit 101), who finished Masechet Taanit yesterday, and wanted to make a siyyum. So, by the light of the soldiers flashlights, he made the siyyum you see here, literally bringing the words of the Gemara to life: Our soldiers fight by day, and lay in the "Valley of Halachah" at night.

מי כעמך ישראל, גוי אחד בארץ!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Pinchas - Prosecuting the War

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Pinchas - Prosecuting the War

The Parashah describes the commandment to prosecute a war with Midyan. Why Midyan and not Moav? What was unique about Midyan's actions? The Torah gives us conflicting messages about how to engage the enemies of Israel.

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Hilchot Siren During Tefillah

What do you do if a siren sounds while you're davening Shemoneh Esreh? The following is a translation of a short guide issued by Rav Rafi Shtern of the Bar Ilan University Kollel.

1. There are several types of interruptions during Tefillah: (1) Walking (2) A non-verbal interruption (3) A verbal interruption

2. There are a number of different types of interruptions: (1) an intentional interruption (meizid) (2) an unintentional interruption (shogeg) (3) a coerced interruption (ones) by thieves or wild animals (4) a coerced interruption (ones) due to the individual or the location (i.e. he needs to use the restroom, or the location becomes unfit)

3. There is sometimes a difference for the purposes of psak whether the interruption is long enough that a person could "complete the entirety" of Shemoneh Esreh (irrespective of if the person happens to be at the beginning or end of Tefillah), and whether the interruption was for a shorter period of time

4. In our discussion of an interruption due to a siren, we assume that such an interruption is similar to "a coerced interruption by thieves or wild animals" (ones)

5. Walking (without speaking) due to coercion is not considered an interruption

6. Therefore, regarding a person who hears a siren during the silent Amidah and walks to a protected space (without speaking): If the interruption was for a brief period (=less than the time it would take him to recite the entire Amidah) - then he should continue his Amidah from the place he stopped. But, if the interruption was for an extended period (=longer than the time it would take to recite the entire Amidah) - then he must return to the beginning of the Amidah.

7. If he not only walked, but also spoke: If his speech was "under coercion" (ones - e.g. he had to instruct the members of his family to go to the safe room), then if the speech was extensive enough that he could have completed the entire Amidah then he must return to the beginning of the Amidah; but if he spoke only briefly, he continues from where he stopped.
If the speech was not coerced or necessary, he must return to the beginning of the Amidah.

8. For an interruption at any other part of tefillah (pesukei D'zimra, Shema, etc.) one should continue from where he was interrupted.

May our prayers be heard and bring us all safety and serenity!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The View from Here: Here We Go Again Rockets from Gaza - Summer 2014 Edition

The puff of smoke from an Iron Dome above YB
I live in Yad Binyamin, 37km from Gaza, which used to be considered within range of the rockets. That's now less relevant, as Hamas has begun shooting longer-range rockets. When I got to work today in Elkana (another 50km from Gaza), they had put up signs directing people to shelters, should they need it. I highly doubt that rockets will reach Elkana, but you never know. Interestingly, the original residents of Elkana are more nervous than the newer ones. Any new house in Israel is built with a mamad - a protected room. The older houses were built before rocket attacks, when residents were instructed to use communal shelters. Unfortunately, the minute and a half it would take for a rocket to get to Elkana is less time that it would take for the locals to get to a communal shelter.

Interestingly, for the time being, I'm quite calm about things this time around. We've been sleeping in our beds, and not in the protected room, and fortunately, Hamas has been nice enough to shoot in our direction during waking hours (at least for the adults). When the siren blares, you just drop everything and make your way to the safe room. We're working on making our way to the Mamad swiftly, but also calmly, so as not to overly upset the kids.

The first time we heard a siren this time around, I was on my way home from shul, and a relatively large group of Chassidishe teens were hanging out in the park. They began running in our direction, and a number of them joined us in our mamad. It was a klal yisrael moment - kol dichfin yeisei v'...yeishev b'mamad. After a few moments we heard the boom, and the kids were on their way.

While I'm personally doing OK, one of my children is having a much harder time. He can't really sleep well, and could only fall asleep on the floor of his (much bigger) brother's room. That reality - that the rockets are endangering and frightening our children - is the aspect most infuriating to me. I explained to him the fact that we can't allow our enemies to frighten us, and that our strength is important - and he tries to understand. But he's just a child, and it's normal to be scared.

Yad Binyamin is situated right next to Tel Nof - a large air force base - and you can hear the planes and helicopters flying over at all times. As we heard the planes flying over late last night while I tried to calm him down, I told him that the noise from the planes don't scare me. Rather, it comforts me, and I always say a silent tefillah that they should go and come safely, and successfully squash our enemies.
This morning, as he came downstairs, he told me that he started to think the same way, and the noise above will hopefully give him comfort that we are indeed strong, and will emerge from this episode even stronger.

Two final comments: People in the USA naturally want to express their solidarity with Israel, which is good and proper. We of course need your tefillot, and I saw that one shul already organized an erev Tefillah. Some people immediately think of sending funds.
Yet, I'm not sure that sending money is the best idea - unless its to support shelters for people who don't have them yet (and there are many), or activities for kids looking to get out of the house if this thing drags on. (today, the kids were sent back to camp, so things are OK for the moment). The IDF feeds the soldiers, and they don't really need equipment, to the best of my knowledge. 

But Israel will need political cover from the United States, and the expressions of support from members of Congress to prosecute this action despite the "tragic" pictures emerging from Gaza (or Syria, or Iraq circa 2009). That support must come from Americans, and rabannim and shuls can be very effective in this area.