Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Purim and Unity

I wanted to blog about the above subject.  However, the Geshmack Torah blog already did an excellent job, so I'll share piece:

Two of the mitzvos particular to Purim are Mishloach Manos, and Matanos L’Evyonim – giving gifts to people, and distributing charity freely. The Sfas Emes explains that the function of these mitzvos as they relate to Purim is that they increase unity and brotherhood.
Unity is the anathema of Amalek, who Haman was descended of. His complaint to Achashverosh:

יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם – There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among all the regions of your kingdom, and they are different from everyone else. (3:8)

Even in exile, Jews must maintain identity, and resist assimilation. Haman points out their refusal to integrate, they remain עַם אֶחָד – one nation; this in spite of how the Purim story begins with the Jews attending Achashverosh’s party celebrating their own downfall with the parading of the sacked Temple’s artefacts. The Jews lost their identity and it paved the way for Haman’s nefarious plans to destroy them all – the moment they let their guard down.

The resolution came at the hand of Mordechai and Esther. She tells him to unite the people and impress on them the severity of their futures:

כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם – Gather all the Jews in Shushan. Fast for me; don’t eat or drink for three days and nights. (4:16)

The threat is faced when they gather once more, when the Megila tells us that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם – it does not say ועמדו in the plural, that they stood for their lives, but in the singular. Their national identity had discovered. The Jewish nation had united and defended itself from attack.

It is famously expounded in Chazal that Purim also celebrates קימו מה שקיבלו כבר – the Jews had no choice to accept the Torah at Sinai, but after Purim they accepted the Torah afresh, voluntarily. A prerequisite to the Torah is unity; ויחן שם נגד ההר – The nation camped by the mountain, in the singular – not ויחנו – like one man with one heart. The Sfas Emes teaches that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם is directly parallel to ויחן שם נגד ההר.

Unity is fortified with acts of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – loving ones fellow as oneself. If people identify with the nation, they have a very direct connection to the Torah and Sinai. It is quite reasonable to suggest that due to this, it is taught that זה כלל גדול בתורה.

The Gemara says that Mordechai is identified as an איש יהודי. It asks that he was not from Yehuda, but from Binyamin, and answers that we do not read it יהודי, but יחידי – from the root אחד. He brought unity and identity back to Jews who had lost it, cementing their faith, culminating in a new acceptance of the Torah. All mitzvos of the day will reflect unity and friendship to some degree.

The way to fight Amalek is a constant quest for unity and understanding our identity, and the closer we get, the nearer we get ultimate truth and redemption

It is worthwhile to mention that other mitzvot or minhagim (customs) of Purim also center around unity and brotherhood:

- Megillah - we hear about the miracle of Purim together, as a community.
- Drink (the quantity is obviously a machloket!)!! - when one drinks, one often is friendlier and more willing to talk to people.
- Seudah (festive Purim meal) - spending time together with friends and family

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ten down … no more counting

As I got off the El Al flight on February 17, 2003, I smiled nervously…I had done it. I had done what my parents had down some 20 years earlier. I had come home. I was nervous but I had wanted this for over three years, and I was ready to make it happen. Ten years later, my enthusiasm and love of Israel has not diminished. It’s been a great journey—filled with many highs and challenging lows, with the sole regret being that it took me so long to realize I had to come back home.

For more, click here for my latest piece in the Times of Israel.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shine Bright Like a Diamond

I once lectured a group of ex-prisoners who had just been released from prison in Israel. All had been jailed from crimes resulting from their addiction to drugs. I tried to impress upon them that having a positive self-image can prevent tehir relapsing into drug use.

I posed the following question. "Suppose you were fortunate enough to have a brand new, shiny, luxury automobile. How cautious would you be to protect its luster and to avoid it being dented or even scratched? We seem to have an inherent resistance to damaging something that is beautiful and valuable. I'm sure you would have gingerly cared for your automobile. Why then, did you not have the same attitude toward yourself? It can only be because you did not think of yourself as beautiful and valuable.If you had only been aware of your great value and inner beauty, you would have assiduously avoided damaging yourself by use of drugs. In order to recover and avoid relapse into drug use, you must come to a better self-awareness.

One young man, Avi, interrupted and challenged me. "How can you tell me that I should consider myself valuable and beautiful? Sixteen of my 34 years have been spent in jail. I have been imprisoned eight times. Whenever I get out of jail, no one will give me a job. When they call my family to tell them that I will be released in two months, they go crazy. My family does not want me out of jail. I am a burden to them and an embarrassment. They actually wish I would be dead. How do you expect me to have any self esteem?"

I was taken aback by this frontal attack, but then responded. "Avi," I said, "have you ever seen a display in a jewelry store window? There are precious diamonds, scintillating with beauty and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Do you have any idea what those diamonds looked like when they were first brought up from the mine? They looked like dark rocks or pieces of dirty glass. The average person would have thrown them away and would have been afraid to soil his hands with them.

"Fortunately there is a mayvin, an expert, who examines the diamond ore and can tell one rock from another. He may become ecstatic with a particular rock and tell the onlooker that this 'piece of dirty glass' may be worth millions of dollars. Indeed, after this piece of ore is processed, it emerges as a perfect, priceless diamond of dazzling beauty.

"There is no way the processing plant can inject any beauty into a dirty rock. The beauty is there, deep within the rock. It is not visible because it is covered with layers of other material. The processing plant merely removes the layers that cover the diamond and expose its beauty.

"Avi," I said, "in your case I am the mayvin. You have a beautiful neshama of inestimable value. True, it has been covered with many layers of objectionable material that has accumulated over the years. If you stay with our program, we will remove these layers and expose your beauty to yourself and to the world."

Avi completed the treatment program and eventually got a job and moved into the community. One day the administrator of the program received a call from a family. Their elderly mother had died and left an apartment full of furniture which they wished to donate to the treatment facility. The administrator called Avi. "We have no way of bringing the furniture here. Can you help us?"

"No problem," Avi said. "I'll get a truck and bring it over."

Two days later Avi called the administrator. "I'm at the apartment with a truck," he said. "There is no point in bringing the furniture over. It is old and dilapidated. We can't use it."

The administrator said, "Bring it anyways, Avi. I don't want to disappoint the family. Maybe we will be able to salvage something."

Avi bought the furniture and began hauling it up the stairs to the treatment facility. As he was bringing up an old sofa, an envelope fell from the cushions. It contained 5,000 shekalim! It was essentially hefker (abandoned money). No one knew of its existence. Remember that in the past Avi had stolen purses and broken into houses for just a few shekalim.

Avi called the administrator and reported his find, "Call the family and tell them," the administrator said. Avi did so, and the family donated the money to the treatment program.

I learned about the incident several months later. "Avi," I said, "didn't I tell you that we would reveal the diamond within you? Many people who had never done anything dishonest would have simply pocketed the money. What you did revealed the beauty within you."

Avi subsequently donated a bronze plaque which is affixed on the door to the treatment facility. It reads "Diamond Polishing Center."

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in Angels Don't Leave Footprints.

Monday, February 04, 2013


Can we be aware of our greatness yet be profoundly humble?

Rabbi Naftali of Ropschitz said, "Before my neshama descended to earth, I saw an inscription on one of the walls of Gan Eden, 'You must be very, very humble,' (Ethics of our Fathers 4:4). However, on another wall there was the inscription, 'A person must say: The world was created just for my sake,' (Sanhedrin 37a). I tried to reconcile these conflicting statements. I had not yet solved the problem when I heard the exclamation, 'Mazal Tov! You have a son!' I have spent the rest of my life trying to resolve the conflict.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski in Angels Don't Leave Footprints.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Meretz & Mizrachim

Why is there no partnership here?  Tsafi Saar gives his theory in Haaretz (for more of the article, subscription required):

The Meretz representatives are all good people. Their heart is in the right place. Good souls. Which brings us to their election campaign, an effort rife with mistakes. It started with the patronizing slogan "Your heart is on the left, neshama" – that final word, "my soul," is a term of endearment characteristic of non-Ashkenazi speakers of Hebrew.

Then there was that video that mocked people taking part in the Revivo Project, a revival of old songs from Middle Eastern Jewish traditions, one of the best music projects in recent years. It sometimes seemed as if the campaign were trying to persuade people not to vote for Meretz.

The thing is, the Meretz people really are good people. And smart – they have an explanation for everything. When asked about their lack of Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin), they noted that their three top spots were filled by a woman, a disabled person and a gay man. About the mocking video, they said it was made not by the party but by its supporters. Even if in some cases such answers are acceptable, the questions leave no room for doubt: The party has a problem. A big problem.

In fact, Meretz is continuing the Israeli left's long and inglorious tradition of (in the best case) ignoring Mizrahim, including the Mizrahi left. In the past this was clear racism. What is it today? Why the insularity and foregoing of activities with people committed to similar values? How can it be that a party that waves the banners of human rights, equality and pluralism is sending to the Knesset only people from a hegemonic class? How come its leaders don’t understand that this produces a lack of trust, which the high-flown words, the willingness and even the worthy actions won't dispel?

If Meretz wants to establish a real and broad left, it has to start now. Yesterday it should have begun a thorough inspection, not to say revolution. First, its men and women must acknowledge the problem. There is no escaping it, and no intellectual explanation will sweep it under the rug.

As every female politician in Meretz no doubt knows, men, no matter how progressive and enlightened, cannot faithfully represent women’s interests. In this way, Ashkenazim cannot represent Mizrahim.

Compromise, Beitar, Ophir & 10

When I wrote my thoughts on the elections last week, I noted that to get into the coalition, Shas would need to "compromise and start pushing more of the Yeshiva students into the army and workforce."  I honestly didn't think it would happen this fast, but Haaretz reported in their weekend edition that R' Ovadia Yosef wrote the following in his letter to Shimon Peres, "Not every Haredi is entitled to exemption from military service."  Now their article doesn't really delve into it more than that introductory sentence, but I'm optimistic.  With Yesh Atid and Ha'Bayit Ha'Yehudi (not to mention Yisrael Beitenu and Labor) both considering this an important duty of the government, Shas know the only way to make this change in a way that suits them is to be a part of it. Time will tell ...


Last week, a few Beitar fans unveiled a massive flag saying "Beitar will stay pure forever" - a sign aimed in protest of the signing of two Muslims from Chechnya the week before.  Regardless of their stupidity (Beitar has had Arabs & Muslim players before, not to mention Christians on their current team), the media made sure to stress how all Beitar fans are racists.  I was following the comments on various Israeli sports sites, and I found that a majority of Beitar fans who posted were sickened by what was happening.  There was unfortunately quite a few comments by those who openly supported the claims that have sadly given Beitar such a bad reputation internally and abroad.  While I'm fairly certain these fans belong to, or strongly associate with, 'La Familia' (the group who's become a dominant force in the East Stand, and openly state their hatred of Arabs & Muslims), I still don't understand the need to generalize all of Beitar's fans.  When Arab terrorists kill innocents in Israel, people are branded 'racists' if they say 'All Arabs are terrorists.'  Why the double standards?


Ophir Ben Sheetreet was suspended from her religious school for two weeks due to her singing performance on an Israeli TV show.  I don't really know all the details of the story, but this girl seemingly goes to a religious school which takes a specific stance on the issue (I'd say machmir, but again - I don't know what the basis was for the suspension).  The school could have obviously handled it differently, but without more information from both sides it's tough to really get to the bottom of the story (though it's been a learning experinece to read up on the halachic positions of both sides) ... so I'll sum it up for now like so: If you go to a school which promotes a certain observance level, one has to abide by that level.


Only 10 asylum seekers entered Israel in January: