Monday, December 15, 2014

What Do The Coming Elections in Israel Mean in the Real World?

With the breakup of the government, the media is in a frenzy, ecstatic about the prospect of the coming elections in March for two reasons: it gives them something to talk about, but even more importantly, politicians will be spending gobs of money buying media in all its myriad forms for the foreseeable future. Now is a good time to own a newspaper. Or a radio stations. Or a PR firm. Or all three.
Many think that other than the unending chatter about who will run with whom and which place he or she gets in the party rankings, the elections have no real bearing on the lives of regular Israelis. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I'll give two small examples, both connected to the Ministry of Education.

Reform #1: Bagrut Exams 
Love him or hate him, it's a recognized fact that Rav Shai Peron took on the post of Minister of Education with great passion and energy. He decided that Israeli education is too test-based, connected to the rote memorization of information, and uninspiring. (If you ask me, he's right.) So, in less than two years, he introduced a series of sweeping reforms that literally altered the high school curriculum for students across the country. He made teachers lives' harder, giving them greater freedom (and responsibility) in the classroom, and removed entire swaths of required subjects, drastically reducing the number of Bagrut (matriculation) exams both in terms of subject matter and number of tests. Teachers complained (somewhat legitimately) that he imposed the program too quickly, without giving them time to adjust to the new system, properly explaining how it would work, or giving them the necessary training (all valid complaints). He responded by telling them, in so many words, to deal with it.

Reform #2: Getting into College
I work in the admissions office of a large college of education called Orot. Our state-sponsored, four-year, degree-granting college awards its graduates both an undergraduate degree as well as a teacher's certificate. Because we're a government recognized (and funded) college, the Ministry of Education determines the requirements for acceptance, which are universal for all teachers colleges. If you can get into one school, theoretically you should be able to get into any of them.
In the past, in order to get into pretty much any undergraduate program in Israel, you needed to take (and score relatively well on) a test called the Psychometry. (its pronounced psee-cho-me-tree in Hebrew). Israelis universally hate the exam, as it's a combination of Hebrew language, advanced math, and English language. Kind of an SAT on steroids. Students understandably hate it. And, like in the United States, an entire industry has sprung up around teaching how to study for and take the test. Also, like in the States, the connection between success in the Psychometry and in college is anecdotal at best. Remember also that for most Israelis, there's at least a three year break between the end of high school and the start of college. Think about how hard it must be to return to formal education by preparing for a mindnumbingly annoying, pointless exam. Welcome back!

Last year, the Ministry of Education changed the admission standards (at least for colleges of education), requiring far less students to have taken the exam to gain admission. It in fact left the choice of which students to admit up to the schools, leaving, to borrow a Hebrew term, a balagan. Like many government decisions, the exact details of the regulations were left somewhat opaque and would only be determined over the course of time. Now, with the fall of the current government, no one really knows how many students to admit, and what requirements to ask them for.

So, if you're a high school student, you really have no idea how many subjects you need to learn over the coming years to graduate high school. My tenth-grade son came home and told me that he and his classmates were planning on going on strike (yes, he really said that) to protest the fact that they didn't know what subjects they were supposed to learn. (His mean dad made him go to school. Apparently, so did every other parent in the country.) And if you've completed your army service or national service and want to gain admission to college, do you need to invest thousands of shekel and hundreds of hours to take a meaningless and essentially pointless test to get into college or don't you? No one really knows.

And truthfully, no one will really be able to answer these questions until well after March 17th, when the new government (and Minster of Education) is not only sworn in, but settles into his or her new job enough to be able to answer these very simple questions.

And, truth be told, these are relatively minor issues. How about the people running hospitals, or army divisions? Who answers their tough questions between now and March about future policy decisions that need to be made now?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hallel on Chanukah: Praising God Despite the Darkness

What would happen if this week, leading politicians from across the political and religious spectrum in Israel declared a new national holiday for our victory over terrorism? How would we react? I imagine that we would be at least somewhat perplexed. Celebrate? This week? Isn’t it just a little bit early? For all of our efforts this past summer, Hamas seems determined to proclaim its great hatred and wish to annihilate us. Iran is lurking in the background, and even our friends celebrate terrorists as martyrs. It's hardly a time to celebrate.
Yet, this is exactly what the Jewish people do during the Chanukah war. The conquest of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Beit Hamikdash by no means signaled the end of the war against the Greeks. In fact, the war dragged on for at least another two years, and the hero of our story, Judah the Maccabee, died in a subsequent battle against the Greek army. One can easily wonder: how could they celebrate? OK – rededicate the Beit Hamikdash  and quietly begin the sacrifices again. That much we can see. But why not establish Chanukah at the end of the war, when everyone can enjoy the peace and prosperity that peace finally brings?
The answer to this difficult question lies in the words of Hallel that we say throughout Chanukah, words that reflect an important Jewish value that we must keep in our minds, especially during such difficult and trying times.
When we examine the chapters in Tehillim that comprise Hallel, at face value, several sections don't seem like much of a Hallel at all. What’s supposed to be praise turns out to be rather depressing. Yes, there’s the הודו לה' כי טוב – we do praise God for the good, and declare His greatness and goodness to us. But then there are entire chapters that are not so positive, that really must make us wonder what they’re doing in הלל.
אפפוני חבלי מות ומצרי שאול מצאוני – the pains of death encircle me, the confines of the grave have found me;
אתהלך לפני ה' בארצות החיים: I will walk before God in the lands of the living
האמנתי כי אדבר אני עניתי מאד: I have faith even though I say, “I have suffered greatly.”
How is this הלל? Why are these words of praise and thanks to God?

During my first year of study in Israel at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, I learned what הלל is really all about. On יום הזכרון, Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers, Rav David Kimchi, then a Madrich at the yeshiva who had fought in Lebanon in מלחמת שלום הגליל – the (first) War for Peace in Galilee in the 1980’s, spoke to the American students. He described the terror of battle and the randomness of war. You simply didn't know who would live and who would not. After surviving a tank battle, he explained how the paragraph of מה אשיב came to have special meaning to him:
מה אשיב לה – how can I repay God for all his kindness to me – for saving me from the chaos and horror of battle?
נדרי לה' אשלם – I will repay my vows to God. What vows? What does King David mean? Rav Kimchi explained that when you’re in battle, in a tank – and things aren't going well, you’re scared – terrified, and cry out to God for salvation. So you make נדרים: “God, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to learn this many pages of Gemara; to do this many מצוות.” So, when we are delivered, we must keep our vows.
Finally, David says, יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones.” Everyone, said Rav Kimchi, lost a friend, a platoon member, and family member. Those are the חסידים – the devout ones who give their lives for the Jewish people. 
This is the Hallel of King David. He says praise and dedicates himself to God not when things are wonderful and happy. Rather, he says Hallel when the pain of war still burns freshly in his mind – when the smell of the battle and the vivid and painful images fill his head. It is at that time that King David says: Yes, I have suffered – BUT. Yes, I feel pain – BUT. But, I must still give thanks to God. But, I must still say הודו לה' כי טוב – and give praise to God, for all the good that I still enjoy.

Yes, BUT. There must be a but, and we must continue to say הלל, because we must also see the positive side of the picture, and appreciate what we take for granted in today’s day and age.

This past year has been more challenging than years past. We endured a challenging war which placed many Israelis - citizens and soldiers - in the line of fire. We have witnessed a resurgence of terrorism that once again strikes, seemingly at random, leaving horror and dread in its wake. And still we say Hallel and give praise, because we have so much for which we must be thankful.

When we read the history of the Chanukah revolt, historians teach us that one of the most perplexing aspects of the entire Chanukah story is Antiochus himself. After suffering a humiliating defeat in Egypt, Antiochus returns to Jerusalem to reassert his authority on the Holy Land. Yet, in a real sense he is already in control. He has no real need to rule with an iron fist, but for some reason he does. Repudiating the Greek policy dating back to Alexander the Great to let the local culture maintain its own religious practice, Antiochus decides that he’s going to get rid of Judaism. And he does try, although to this day, no one really knows exactly why. Upon his return to Judea, the Book of the Maccabees tells us that he and his army massacre Jerusalem, murdering 40,000 people, and selling another 40,000 into slavery.
One can easily imagine today what would happen to the Jewish people were we not in control of the Land of Israel. Let’s not kid ourselves: we know how our enemies about us. There would be no worldwide outcry if an Ayatolla turned himself into another Antiochus. He’d love the opportunity. But this time things are different. Finally, for the first time in Jewish history since Chanukah, we can protect ourselves. We can, and we do.
And for this, even during our suffering, we must say Hallel.
The lighting of the Menorah does not signify the end of the war by any means. Yet, the people during those times are able to see יד ה' – and to rededicate themselves to their traditions and their teachings. They’re able to pick up and go on – and not focus on the terrible suffering that they have endured, and continue to endure at the hands of the Greek army. So too we must do the same: to cry for those we lose, but to never lose sight of the יד ה', and never to forget the goodness that we enjoy and can never take for granted.
Even while we say יקר המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones” – we must still say, הודו לה' כי טוב, and forever remember the goodness and blessing and strength that God gives the Jewish people today.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Dedicated in memory of my father, Harav Simcha ben Yitzchak Kalman, whose yartzeit was this week.

The Sages castigate Yosef for failing to have faith in salvation from God by asking the Egyptian Minister of Wine to rescue him from prison. I've always wondered: Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Aren't we supposed to try and save ourselves? Why is he criticized, and in the eyes of Chazal, punished so severely, for an action that seems, at face value, positive? I think I have an answer, but you'll have to listen to the end to hear it.

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