Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 3, II

Pirkei Avot 3:14

רבי דוסא בן הרכינס אומר: שינה של שחרית, ויין של צהרים, ושיחת הילדים, וישיבת בתי כנסיות של עמי הארץ, מוציאין את האדם מן העולם

Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas said, morning sleep, noonday wine, children's talk and frequenting the synagogues of the ignorant takes a man from the world of life

- 'Morning sleep' can refer to those who struggle to wake up, which results in being late to (or missing) shacharit or hours at work. That takes you away from your zecut to pray in a minyan (perhaps leading to more sins as is stipulated in Pirkei Avot 4:2, chet gorer chet), or can lead to trouble with your boss at work. It could also just simply be referring to a lazy person.

- In my opinion, 'noonday' wine means going out of your way to have wine (or other alcoholic beverages) during the day.

- I think 'children's talk' could refer to unnecessary talks with children or playing with them when there's other issues that need to be addressed. However, if this is a adult talking with kids for a positive benefit (be it helping with schoolwork, or teaching him the importance of good morals etc.), then there's surely no problem with it as it's something an adult should be doing.

- All these actions have something in common - they all take away from necessary daily tasks (work, study etc.) and are of little benefit to the person partaking in them. This mishna is warning us to not allow distractions to 'remove us' from far more important Torah & related goals.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 2, II

Pirkei Avot 2:17

רבי יוסי אומר, יהי ממון חברך חביב עליך כשלך. והתקן עצמך ללמוד תורה, שאינה ירשה לך וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים

Rabbi Yose says: Let your fellow's belongings be as dear to you as your own; apply yourself to study the Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance; and let all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven.

- Rabbi Abraham Twerski (Visions of the Fathers) quotes his great uncle, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Rabinowitz, who interprets the first line in the mishnah to mean: Let that which you give to your neighbor (i.e., tzedakah) be as dear to you as what you own and retain. To back this up, he brings in a story about Don Isaac Abarbanel, a renowned scholar and the minister of finance during the Golden Age of Jews in Spain.

Abarbanel enjoyed the unwavering trust of the king. Several anti-Semitic people in the court sought to defame him, and repeatedly told the king that this minister was growing extremely wealthy by embezzling from the royal treasury, and that his estate far exceeded what he could amass from his salary. Although the king tried to ignore the accusations, their repetition eventually led him to ask his minister to present him with an accurate inventory of all he owned. Several days later, Abarbanel presented the king with a rather meager account. The king remarked, "This cannot be. You obviously own much more than this."

"Your Majesty," Abarbanel said, "Your inquiry as to how much I own could result only from the efforts of my enemies to discredit me. If they can cause Your Majesty to suspect me of embezzlement, they may also prevail on your Majesty to confiscate my belongings. I can hardly consider anything that I can lose at a moment's notice as being truly mine. I therefore made a list of all that I have given to charity, because that can never be taken from me. That is all I can truly claim as my own, and that is the amount I have submitted to Your Majesty."

- The first part of the mishnah can also simply mean, 'Respect other people's property like you respect your own.' That should also mean that one needs to respect the lands we live in, it is 'property' too ... and just like you wouldn't litter or spray graffiti on your property, so you shouldn't do it on public property.

- Does the statement "Apply yourself to study the Torah, for it is not yours by inheritance" not negate what we're told in the Torah, "It [Torah] is an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob," (Deuteronomy 33:4)? The Gur Rebbe says the 'it' is not the Torah, but 'study.' The aforementioned Twerski analyzes the mishnah with the following comparison: You inherited a large sum of money which is in the bank; The money is yours, but if you do not put it to use, the mere ownership of the money does nothing for you. Unless we 'put the Torah to use' (i.e., study it), the fact that it still is ours is of little value.

Memorial Day

On Sunday night, Memorial Day begins in Israel. I normally write something about this day, a day where a majority of Israelis mourn and remember the lives of those we've lost in wars, terror attacks & missions abroad. However, this time I'll let Barbara Sofer's powerful article in the Jerusalem Post do the 'talking.' If you're interested in reading more about Gadi Ezra and the victims of the Jenin battle in Operation Defensive Shield, Brett Goldberg's 'A Pslam in Jenin' is a must read.

‘I’m sick and tired of defending Israel,’ wrote an American relative, annoyed by a wave of criticism over its plans to expand a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem. He’s run out of patience with us Israelis who think we’re smarter than everyone else about our country.

I couldn’t find a civil answer. All I could think was: You’re tired of defending Israel? What about the Peretzes?

Said mother Miriam Peretz, a school principal, in a press interview: “In Morocco where I was born, I went around with my head bowed and I had no freedom. Here in Israel I see my boys in uniform and I’m proud to be Jewish.”

And then, 12 years ago, she heard a gentle knock on their door, the sound feared by every Israeli parent.

“Such a quiet knock and in one moment, your entire world is destroyed,” she said.

Uriel, their first born, was dead, killed by timed explosives in south Lebanon. Five years ago, father Eliezer Peretz died of cancer. And then last month, the angel of death came knocking again. Their son, Maj. Eliraz Peretz, was killed in a firefight with terrorists placing explosives on the Gaza border.

And there’s more.

WHEN URIEL was killed, his short M-16 was passed to another officer in his unit, until it became the property of a soldier named Gadi Ezra [picture below] from Bat Yam.

Ezra was the youngest child of Roseline and Soli Ezra, immigrants from Algeria and Egypt whose families had lived in those countries since the Spanish Inquisition.

Gadi was home on leave when, on the eve of Pessah 2002, a terrorist entered the Park Hotel in Netanya, exploded and killed 30 men and women, mostly Holocaust survivors.

In the early morning hours Ezra’s phone rang, summoning him back to the army. He fought in Operation Defensive Shield, transferred to Jenin. There he was assigned a new commander: Eliraz Peretz, Uriel’s younger brother.

The narrow alleys of Jenin where the terrorists were holed up were rigged with explosives, but the IDF decided against air attacks and artillery to minimize civilian casualties. Peretz and Ezra fought together in booby-trapped houses, seeking out terrorists.

Until they were caught in an ambush. Ezra stooped to help a wounded soldier, and took a bullet in his neck.. He couldn’t feel his limbs. “You have to save me,” Ezra called to Peretz, then “Shema Yisrael...” He died in Peretz’s arms.

Peretz was also wounded. When he returned to his fighting unit, he took a new weapon. A short M-16. Only later did he learn, from the strap, that it was Gadi’s, and before that it had belonged to his own brother, Uriel.

SO MANY, so many beloved soldiers have paid with their lives, year after year, decade after decade for our existence as a state, but Gadi Ezra’s name may be familiar to readers. A letter he wrote to his fiancée Galit Meislik before going to battle has often been reprinted and read at ceremonies.

Here’s a shortened, translated version.

“My Dear Galiti, If this letter reaches you, it means that something has happened to me. This morning, we were informed that the mission planned yesterday, with the Almighty’s help, will take place today. My beloved, on one hand I feel that there is nothing more that I want in this world than to be with you – to love you and establish a home and a family with you. But on the other hand, there isn’t anything I want more than to be a part of this military operation and strike those terrorists a blow so strong that they will never again even consider carrying out a terrorist attack.

“Don’t be angry with me, my love, but at moments like this, your feeling for klal Yisrael (the people of Israel) is the feeling that is supposed to guide you – and you relate to this evil as if your private life does not exist.

“To do this, there is a price that we must pay. I am willing to be that price. Soldiers of King David’s army would free their wives from marriage before going into battle. My beautiful one, I love you so much and the only grief of mine is that you will have sorrow and I won’t be the one who will be privileged to make you happy.

“You deserve all the happiness in the world. I will always watch over you from wherever I am and I will see to it that you will meet someone who will make you even happier than I could have made you. Only promise me that you will continue onward and will not allow Sodom to be the victor. I will love you forever, Gadi.”

BY THE time Eliraz Peretz could leave the battlefield to make a condolence call to the Ezra family, the shiva was over. He drove to Bat Yam with his fiancée Shlomit Gilboa. Shlomit spent much of the condolence call with Galit, who was mourning even though she and Gadi hadn’t yet wed. Shlomit asked Galit to take part in her bridal Shabbat before her wedding. Galit tried to beg off – she wasn’t in the mood for parties and certainly not bridal parties, but Shlomit was relentless.

Six weeks later, on the bridal Shabbat, Galit met the Gilboa family except for Shlomit’s brother, Eliezer, who wasn’t home. “Several times on that Shabbat, family members and friends said that I would be ‘perfect for Eliezer,’” Galit told me. “It was awkward, to say the least.”

Galit said Eliraz Peretz, the new groom, “called us and pressured us and simply wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

Three months after they met, Galit married Eliezer Gilboa. They have four sons. Galit recalled, “At the engagement party, Eliraz took me aside. He said he’d finally understood Gadi’s dying demand for him to help him meant that he had to introduce me to Eliezer.”

The Peretzes and the Gilboas were now family, and the Ezras close to family.

Then, last month, Eliraz Peretz joined the too long list of soldiers who had given their lives to protect his civilians.

Yossi Ezra, Gadi’s older brother, has the M-16 now. A biology teacher, he’s also in charge of security in his village. His mother is unhappy about him using it, he told me.

“Our families have become very close,” says Gadi Ezra’s sister, Vivian Elbaum. “We attend each other’s joyous occasions and the sad ones. Happiness and mourning are mixed up together for us, the bereaved families of Israel. We remind each other that we have to go on, because life is stronger than death.”

May all the memories of the fallen be for a blessing. May we be privileged to defend the State of Israel with words, and not to be put to the ultimate test.


Akavia ben Mahalalel & Corruption

With so much of the news in Israel currently revolving around Ehud Olmert and the Holyland bribery scandal, this brief passage I read in Rav Abraham Twerski's Visions of the Fathers really struck a chord:

We know that he [Akavia ben Mahalalel] stood head and shoulders above all his peers, who wished to appoint him as the Head of the Sanhedrin. However, Akavia differed with his colleagues on four halachot, and he was told that if he would retract his position on these four issues, the distinguished position would be his. Akavia stated that inasmuch as he was espousing the opinion of his teachers, he felt that this was the prevailing opinion of the authorities of the previous generation. He was therefore not at liberty to retract. Furthermore, he argued, if he did yield to his colleagues who now constituted a majority of the Torah scholars, he might be accused of having changed his mind because he could not resist the lure of the lofty position as Head of Sanhedrin. "I may be considered a fool for not yielding and thereby forfeiting this singular honor, but I would be considered unscrupulous if I did yield. I would rather people think of me as foolish than as corrupt," (Eduyot 5:6-7)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Stranded in Cape Town

After a wonderful 3+ weeks in Cape Town, Talya & I were ready to go home. It was time to get back to the routine of ‘reality’ that would begin on Tuesday morning. We arrived at Cape Town’s airport on Monday afternoon two hours before our flight was scheduled to depart for Johannesburg. At the baggage check-in, the lady behind the counter innocently said, “I don’t see you on this flight.” Confused, I pointed to the e-ticket and said, “But we’re right there, surely there’s a mistake.” After asking for some help, the lady sent us to the British Airways (BA) desk to find out exactly what was happening.

This stuff happens. I wasn’t too worried. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since coming to Israel is that you stay calm when these situations arise and try and turn them in your favor – and this is where I diverge from the ‘standard’ Israeli way as I’m not that good at the screaming and yelling part.

We approached the agent at the BA desk and explained what had happened. He started bringing up the data and within a few minutes, a lady had joined to help him out. Struggling to figure out why we were not showing up on the flight, the agent called El Al’s Jo’burg desk to see if they could assist in the matter. While the two were chatting, the supervisor (or at least I thought she was as she had her own room on the side) came in. She looked at the screen and said, “You were supposed to be on the AM flight leaving Cape Town.” “How is that possible if El Al’s flight from Joburg to Tel Aviv is leaving at 8:55pm?” I asked. “That flight left before noon too sir,” she said.

Talya and I looked at each other; we were both caught completely off guard. “Can I speak to the El Al agent please?” I asked the BA agent and he passed me the phone. So this is the story. In December, two months after we’d purchased the tickets, El Al changed the time of the flight. Our travel agent unfortunately forgot to pass this information on to us. What was even more annoying was that when we confirmed the flight with BA on Friday – they never warned us about this either! The balagan (Hebrew for mess) could have been avoided.

Talya & I weren’t too happy about this, but what could we do? We were now stuck without a ticket and the next El Al flight to Tel Aviv was only leaving Thursday (ironically enough, around the same time our flight was supposed to have left at). I asked the El Al agent to please help us and get us on that flight and then called my Nonna. “No,” she exclaimed, “But you confirmed!” I explained it to her briefly and within two hours, we were all back at Nonna’s flat in Sea Point. We had mentally prepared ourselves to leave, so it was odd to be ‘back.’ The next day, the aforementioned El Al agent called back, “We’ve confirmed you on the El Al flight on Thursday and because this was not your fault, there will be no extra fees for you to pay.”

Oddly enough, I don’t think I got angry during the entire episode. I guess there was no point in getting angry – Nothing we could do could change what had happened. The fact that we were getting such excellent service from the BA & El Al agents also helped I'm sure. If they were being well mannered and helpful, surely we could also return the favor. These things happen and despite the few negatives, there are quite a few positives due to this balagan – more time with Nonna and Sea Point.

גם זה לטובה … This is also for the better ...

Friday, April 09, 2010

Table Mountain & Boulders

So today I finally got to take Talya up Table Mountain, one of the most beautiful sites the world has to offer. We went up there with a good friend of mine from Israel (whom I met in Turkey, but that's a story for another day) and his lady. Though it was slightly foggy early on in the day, the weather cleared up rather quickly leaving us with a perfect day for seeing much of the Cape Peninsula. The scenery was, as expected, breath taking. One of the highlights for me was spotting two whales just off Camps Bay. Though we were so far away, we could see them coming in and out of the water. Fantastic stuff. I've uploaded a few pictures (In the 1st, you'll see Robben Island in the middle of the picture, just after the fog) - and will upload more when I return to Israel.

“During the many years of incarceration on Robben Island, we often looked across Table Mountain at its magnificent silhouette … To us on Robben Island, Table Mountain was a beacon of hope. It represented the mainland to which we knew we would one day return.”
Nelson Mandela


After Table Mountain, Talya and I met up with my 'rents and went to Pinelands Cemetery. It was tough, really tough. So many members of our family tree - so many names that are carried by my siblings, my son & I. My tears started flowing when I saw my late Granny's grave. Oh how I wish she could have interacted with my son. She was such an incredible woman. I broke down when I saw my late Nonnou's grave - Nissim Piha. My son's name on a tombstone ... in English & Hebrew. I guess what I felt was what my dad must have felt when he saw his grandfather's (the man whose name I carry) grave in Rhodes with me. A tradition continues. A simple one, but one that creates an unbreakable bond to our history and identity.


We finished off the day with a trip to Boulders, a beach shared by man and penguins (and a few dassies). It was fun to see Nissim's reactions to the penguins. He really does love the sand but still no success with the water bit. Oh well, at least we tried! :)


It's amazing to think this (almost) month long vacation is almost over ... It's been such a wonderful experience. A home away from home. I'm looking forward to get back to Israel ...

Sunday, April 04, 2010

One Pair of Socks

I really liked the following story, so decided to share (taken from the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's Communal Directory & Diary):

Edward Reichman died in Jerusalem after a long illness at the age of 80 years old. He was a real estate tycoon who had become a billionaire. When he passed away, he left a vast fortune worth billions of dollars. He left 2 wills directing that one be opened immediately and that the other one to be opened 30 days later. Among the instructions left in his first will was the request that he be buried with a certain pair of socks he owned. The Reichman children immediately brought the socks to the Chevra Kadisha (Wikipedia definition here), requesting that their father be buried in them. Of course the Chevra Kadisha refused, reminding the family that it is against Halacha (Jewish law). They pleaded explaining that their father was a very pious and learned man, and he obviously had a very good reason to make this request. The Chevra Kadisha remained firm in their refusal.

The family frantically summoned the Chevra Kadisha to the Beit Din (Wikipedia definition here) where the great Rav explained to them "Although your father left that request when he was in this world, now that he is in the world of truth, he surely understands that it is in his best interests to be buried without the socks."

Mr. Reichman was buried without his socks.

30 days later, the second will was opened and it read something like this: "My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have 1 billion dollars, but in the end, he can't even take along one pair of socks!"

He's alive!

March 30th, Al Jazeera reported:

A 15-year-old Palestinian boy has been killed and several others injured near Gaza's border with Israel after Israeli troops opened fire at Israeli Arabs and Palestinians protesters marking the "Land day".

Witnesses said Mohamed al-Farmawi was shot dead on Tuesday after he approached the fence along the border with Israel.

Gaza emergency chief Moaweya Hassanein told reporters that medical teams and International Red Cross Committee (ICRC) co-ordinated with the Israeli army to collect the boy's body.

The New York Times was a bit more skeptical:

Palestinian officials said the youth, Muhammad al-Farmawi, was killed by Israeli soldiers close to his home in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The military denied having fired at anybody in that area, however, and local Palestinians said the boy had been missing since Monday, raising questions about whether he could have been the victim of internal violence.

Yesterday, YNET provided the story with a happy ending:

The teen returned home on Friday after apparently trying to cross over into Egypt via a smuggling tunnel, where he was kept for several days. The Ma'an news agency reported that his family was overwhelmed with happiness at the news

The curse of the Palestinian 'witness' strikes again ... When will we learn?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers, II

I've decided to, bli neder, try this exercise again, almost two years since I did it last. I won't go into the mishna I choose as deeply as I did during the first round, but will just offer ideas and relate personal stories to it. A quick introduction as per the original blog:

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), one of the tractates contained in Nezikin within the Mishnah, offers moral advice and insights of the leading sages of different generations. One of the customs of the Sfradim & Mizrachim is that we read the six chapters of Pirkei Avot during the last six weeks of the Counting of the Omer. So, as I continue to delve into this amazing work, I've decided to share one quote a week and offer some commentaries on it. The format will be simple - the quote in Hebrew & English followed by some commentary on it. Please feel free to add your take in the comments.

*This 'project' is also dedicated to my late Nonnou (Grandfather in Italian) Nissim who lived by this tractate. Although he failed to get me interested in it as young boy (I did write the opening few lines for 100 Rand though), he helped plant the seeds that have allowed me to mature spiritually.

For the reason Sfradim & Mizrachim do this during this time period, please click here.

And now the quote (1:17):

שמעון בנו אומר, כל ימי גדלתי בין החכמים, ולא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה. ולא המדרש הוא העקר, אלא המעשה. וכל המרבה דברים, מביא חטא

Shimon his son said: All my life I have been raised among the Sages, and I have not found anything better for the body than silence. It is not the theory that is the primary thing but action. Whoever talks excessively brings about sin.

- It's interesting that Shimon says silence is better for the body (and not the soul, as is continually mentioned in Chafetz Chaim's work). The pain we cause others, or the strife we promote within our relationships due to unnecessary talk, can lead to great discomfort and depression.

- I think the 'silence' is important for our finger tips too. I often find that discussions, be it about serious subjects or even just jokes, get taken out of context online and upset people unnecessarily. The most recent one for me was a discussion about kitniyot with N., a friend. Looking back on it, I don't even think we disagreed with each other's view point. However, my inability to use proper 'typed' talk upset N., who I think took my words as an attack on his point of view. We're not going to always agree on everything and though debate is critical, respect and silence can sometimes be better than debating a machloket (disagreement). If however, there is a need/desire to discuss, one must use their words wisely as 'excessive talk' can only cause harm.

- My family was invited to the Rabbi's home last night for Shabbat dinner. I asked the Rabbi what he most associated with my late Nonnou Nissim. He responded after some thought, "His anavah (humility) and ability to come to synagogue and just be quiet. He just focused on prayer, and didn't talk about anything unrelated. I even used to see people trying to talk to him to see if they could get a rise from him, and I don't ever remember him rising to the bait."

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Chol Ha'Moed on Clifton

As it was Chol Ha'Moed for Tals and I already, we decided to take the scenic walk from Sea Point to Clifton's 4th beach for a swim today. The 45 minute walk takes one around Lion's Head and to the beach (see pic below) via the coastal route, where one has a stunning view of the cable car station on top of Table Mountain & the 12 Apostles. The time on the beach was a lot of fun. While I've been to this beach many times in the past, I don't quite remember the water ever being that close to freezing. Didn't stop me from spending time in it however, but boy was it cold ... maybe I'm just getting old. Nissim didn't really want anything to do with the water, but after much convincing from his mother, he started enjoying the sand! Hopefully, when we go to the Indian ocean beaches, he'll take the next step in the 'How to Enjoy the Beach' booklet and actually play in the water too!

While Nissim can say most of our names (Abba, Imma, Nonna, Tova & Nonnou), he's come up with two quite brilliant nicknames for my mom and little brother. My mother is called 'I see' (Due to the game where she covers her eyes and says, "Where's Granny? Where's Granny," and then uncovers her eyes and says, "I see!" ... My little brother is called "Saba" (Grandfather in Hebrew) - No one is quite sure how this came about! Oh well, every time he calls either name out, most of us are laughing ... Ahhh kids.