Saturday, 14 October 2017

In the beginning....

As we start reading the Torah over, I cannot cease, yet again, to marvel at its wisdom. Some believe it was written by G-d, the ultimate composer. Others believe it was written under Divine Inspiration. Whatever the source, its cup of wisdom certainly “runneth over.”

Whenever I read the first chapter of Beresheet (Genesis) which recounts the story of creation, I am enthralled by the recurring sensation that whoever wrote it several thousand years ago, must have had some understanding of science and the laws of nature.

I am not a scientist, I do not profess to be one. I am, however, intrigued.
As a lay person, I can only eandevour to address this complex issue of creation, a topic which, admittedly, has fascinated me for years and lead me to form the impressions which I have had about its narrator.

At the outset of the Book, the author states: בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ")In the Beginning G-d created the Heaven and Earth) which, as Rashi explains does not merely mean “ in the beginning” but rather “In the beginning of” the process where G-d set to create the world. In fact in that verse, we are told that three very important pillars of our existence were formed, Time, Space and Matter.

 Then we are told that “"וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ  (the Earth was Tohoo Vavoho) indicating that it was chaotic before G-d put it in order. As I stated, I am not a scientist, far from that, but nowadays, we know of studies by physicists which confirm that the expansion of the early universe at the time of the big bang, was highly chaotic. The first chapter in Bresheet unfolds to us the sequence of events that shaped our world as we know it today.

“Let there be light,” is the first act of creation. Every child knows that the sun is the source of light yet the sun, the moon and the heavenly bodies were created only later. There goes the theory that the entity that composed this recount was ignorant of the laws of science. I can partially agree with it. In our time and age, we are still discovering facts about our universe. Just as the understanding that the earth was round came at a later stage, so perhaps did the awareness that the sun is the source of Light came later to the people of the Tanach. When the “the big Light” and the “small Light” were created, according to Bresheet, they were for the sole purpose of distinguishing between the day and night and to determine the special and Holy Days, months and years.” לְהַבְדִּיל, בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה; וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים, וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים
The composer of the chapter of creation, however, was, like modern humans, aware that Light was energy, the source of all living in our universe. And that indicates that some understanding of the laws of nature did exist already then.

Next is the act of separation between “הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ, וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ “ the upper water and the lower water,” Heaven and Earth, or as Bersheet calls it
  שמים,  ארץ  וימים “dry land,  seas and sky. The Hebrew word for sky is Shamayim. It means, “there is water there.” I can only envisage the Biblical people staring at the sky, seeing that it is blue just like the sea water next to them and concluding that the blue up above, up there, is the same blue of the water near them.

Following that, came the creation of the plants and trees. Surely, we all know that without the process of photosynthesis in which plants are an important factor and which produces oxygen,  no life could ever exist on our planet. The composer of the first chapter of Bresheet must have also known that.

Another scientific fact that is well known to modern day scholars is that life originated in the sea. The author of the first chapter of Bresheet seems to have known that too. The creation of tetrapods: the four-limbed vertebrates, had to be preceded by the creation of the various creatures of the sea.

Finally, comes the creation the animals, the reptiles and all living creatures that can survive on land, culminating with the highest forms of living, Man and Woman.

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ And G-d created Man in His image, tells us the author of this fascinating first chapter of Bresheet. We all know that the reference is not to a physical image but rather that hidden spark of G-d that each one of us holds.

May that spark shine through and ignite our world with Light, Love and every blessing.

Shavua tov!

Wednesday, 20 September 2017


Kavod is Hebrew for Honour.

Honour, a word which originated in Latin, could mean a host of concepts to many. To some, it means glory, renown, dignity reputation. In Hebrew, however, the language which I, as a Jew, define myself in, it bears those and much more, a lot more.

Hebrew is a language based on the system of roots. As such, in most cases, words that share the same root are related in their meaning.

The root for the Hebrew word Kavod כָּבוֹד   is  כ,ב,ד k,v,d . It is the same root for the word, “heavy,” כָּבֵד, (kaved).  What follows then is that these words are related as they stem from the same root. We generally refer as heavy to something that weighs much and thus has a stronger influence on our lives. Honour is generally given to anyone who bears significance and meaning.

Kaved,“Liver” in Hebrew, is another word that stems from the same root as Kavod. It is that internal organ in our body whose role is to break down the food we eat, a very significant role. It was also discovered in the past that the liver is the heaviest internal part in the human body.

Kavod, appears in the Tanach 119 times. In most cases there, it is used to describe G-d.  In other cases, when it is used to describe humans, it almost always refers to their inner beauty and good qualities. These are the qualities that are the reflection of that spark of G-d, His image, that is in each one of us. Every one of us, therefore, holds the potential to adorn themselves with the title of being Honourable.  We can, through our deeds and behavior, choose to highlight these inner traits or we may choose to ignore and scorn them. Dignity,
the state or quality of being worthy of earning Honour or respect, and integrity are the compass that will dictate and guide us, humans, in choosing the right path for ourselves to be merited and deserving of Honour. That, as Roger Froikin, my mentor, has just reminded me is consistent with our great Jewish ideology and tradition of 3400 years.

This concept is also reinforced in the literature of our sages where the following saying is emphasized.  “Those who run after Kavod, the Kavod evades them…. Those who run away from Kavod, Kavod chases them.
 "הרודף אחר הכבוד הכבוד בורח ממנו, והבורח ממנו ..., הכבוד רודפו"

Again, what that saying implies is that in Judaism, genuine Honour is not external, one which is given for a flaunt of wealth, social or other position or a role. Neither is it one that can be actively sought, demanded or imposed. Rather, it is earned. It is earned for wisdom, honesty and modesty which are expressed through their deeds and behaviour. Therefore, when we witness people for whom all that matters are their title and their affluence yet when asked to engage in a matter that they consider beneath their dignity, we refer to them as players in the game of Honour.

As we enter the Jewish New year of 5778, I express a silent prayer for Am Yisrael, in particular, and the world in general. I pray that this year will bring Peace, unity to our fractured world and above all the earned cloak of  Kavod, Honour, to all.

Shanah Tovah

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Opportunities and Learning Curves

Life presents us with many opportunities. Unfortunately, we miss many. We miss them for various reasons. Fear of change or perhaps the stage that we are at on our Life’s path may not always be timely, are but a couple of the reasons for failing to see the prospects that some events, or experiences hold for us.

When the opportunity that I am about to share with you first presented itself to me, I was least ready for it.
At that time, was living in New Zealand and nearing my 50th birthday. I held a great job as a Hebrew lecturer at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch and lived a quiet, sometimes too quiet, life down under.

I decided to spice up my routine and joined a local gym. That decision has changed my life, enriched it and opened up doors that led me into realms that I could only dream of.

One day while I was training with my personal trainer, I noticed some younger girls standing in front of the mirror and posing in a way that enhanced their muscle tone.

I was intrigued.

“What are they doing?” I asked my personal trainer. “Oh, they are practicing for a body sculpting competition,” she answered casually.
“You mean body building?” I persisted. “No,” she quickly corrected me. “It is a much milder, softer and more delicate field.”

“I would like to try it,” I jumped in excitement.
“Forget it,” came her abrupt response, “ you are forty-nine, fifty, forget about it.”
I was taken back by her discouraging answer but not for long.
“No dear,” I answered in a determined voice, “if anyone is going to forget it, it is you, not me. No one has a right to kill anyone’s dreams.  I am going to start training and aim toward competing. I may not win,” I added before I left the gym, ”but no one could ever stop me from embarking on that journey.”

The following day, I changed personal trainers. Shelly, my new one was wonderful, supportive and encouraging.

The routine I had to go through was harsh. It required an immense amount of self-discipline and will power. The exercise regiment was rigid. I trained for about 2-3 hours per day, walking, weight bearing exercises, practicing my dance routine and posing. The diet was, likewise, strict. I had to weigh every crumb I put into my mouth. No alcohol, no sweets. There were many temptations along the path. And while I resisted them, I knew then that I would do it only once in my life.

In November 2003 as I was standing on stage holding my 1st place trophy, another door opened up for me to reveal another great opportunity. I realized that if I, at almost 50, could reach such an achievement, I can help maturing women such as myself, women after childbirth, during menopause, improve their looks, their self-image and self esteem. I suddenly realized the niche that this experience carved for me. 

Six months later I completed a Personal Training course and received my certificate. It was an immensely rewarding experience and a great learning curve. I have learned about our body, about nutrition and overcoming hurdles to reach what many believe is the impossible. I have trained many women who achieved some wonderful results.

My advice to them all was, “do not let Life go by you, let it go through you!” 

That was, is and always will be the motto of my life.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Survival was my Hope; Celebrating Life is my Victory

That title encapsulates the essence of the story I am about to unfold to you, a moving story of survival, hope and its eventual rewards of success.

Avraham Moshe Minkowski, also known to his friends as Manny, was born in 1926 in the town of Starachowica, in the southern part of Poland.

His religious Jewish family of ten enjoyed the quite life of their shtetel.  Manny belonged to the local chapter of Beitar and lived through a relatively normal childhood until that dreadful day in November 1939 where his world turned upside down as the Nazis marched into their little town.

On that day, at the young age of thirteen, soon before his Bar-Mitzvah, Manny and his father were separated from the rest of their family. That is when his  painful pilgrimage through the inferno of drifting from one Nazi labour camp to another, towards the final destination at Auschwitz, where he was reduced to number A19762 (etched in his brain in German until this very day!), started.

That journey is laced with tales of struggle, pain, humiliation, repeated beating, starvation, theft, death and other horrors which are too harsh and too many for this paper to contain. Manny’s strong spirit, however, overcame them all. He belongs to a very special and exclusive group of Jews who have inspired many of us, Shoah survivors. He is one of the invincible. No power would or could ever extinguish their tiny spark of Hope, a spark that ignited their desire to go on living and pass their legacy to future generations.

Manny’s journey of survival, however, did not end when the Russians liberated Auschwitz. Fortunately, neither had hope left his heart.

Soon thereafter, he realized that his road to freedom was still speckled with many more harsh experiences woven with pain and betrayal, forever testing his resolute Jewish Spirit which eventually prevailed. His wanderings took him to Germany, then back to his home town and after what seemed like an eternity, Manny found his way to a refugee camp in the most southern spot of the Italian boot.

While in Italy, where he spent a year and a half, first in its southern part and later in Arona in the north, Manny joined the Italian branch of the Irgun which had over a thousand members of Beitar who had arrived with the flood of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. It was there that he acquired the skills of mechanics and electricity which would eventually earn him a very important role in the history of the early days of the nascent state, Medinat Yisrael, our Jewish Homeland.

 These skills were first handy when Manny became part of the team that prepared the explosives which were used to bomb the British Embassy in Rome on October 30th, 1946. The explosion which took place in the early hours of the morning, destroyed the central part of the building. Though the planners made every effort to avoid casualties, two Italian civilians were injured.

Then there was the Altalena Affair. Manny was selected to be one of its ten crew members.
The Altalena was an American made war ship, more precisely a landing craft. It was chartered for a twofold purpose, to bring European refugees to Eretz Yisrael and badly needed weapons for both Etzel (Irgun) and Haganah. In addition to the close to 1000 people on board, the ship also carried rifles, rounds of ammunition, Bren guns, armored vehicles and other war equipment.

                                                             Manny on board the Altalena 

                                  Training on board of the Altalena as it was making its way towards Yisrael

 A few precautionary measures were taken in order to assure that hostile powers would not be able to detect the ship. The first, a radio silence was declared and it had been agreed that the Haganah (a Jewish paramilitary organization during the British Mandate era which later became the core of the IDF) would send them a coded message where to land and unload the badly needed weapons.
Another measure was to blur the connection between the ship and the identity of its occupants. Some of the Hebrew names were changed into less sounding “Jewish”. That is when Avraham Moshe became Manny.

Unbeknown to the Altalena crew, a UN brokered truce was accepted by both sides. The first cease fire of Israel’s War of Independence went into effect while it was making its way to Yisrael.

On June 20th, 1948. The Altalena arrived at the shores of Yisrael. No signal was given as to the place of landing, as had been agreed prior to its departure from France. The crew suspected that something was terribly wrong although they could not point their finger to it. They awaited further instructions.

After an unexpected delay, the temporary government instructed it to land in Kfar Vitkin, a small town along the Mediterranean coast half way between Haifa and Tel Aviv. Soon thereafter, the offload of most of the weapons commenced. Most of the refugees were brought to shore.

Menchem Begin came to greet them. Suddenly, some shots were fired at them and they all hurried back into the ship. Begin instructed them not to fire back. “There will be no war between brethren,” were his words. They obeyed him.

From there, they sailed to Tel Aviv, flying a white flag which was visible to all. Their only wish was to negotiate. As they approached Tel-Aviv, heavy shelling of the boat was what welcomed them. The shooting came from what was known as the “Red House” – the headquarters of the Haganah. That is where the Tel Aviv Hilton stands today.

The shelling and shooting never ceased. The wounded were evacuated from the ship under fire and those who could, jumped into the water and swam ashore. Manny was one of them.

Manny pointing at the Altalena as its survivors, himself included, are swimming ashore. Notice his tattooed number A19762

Today, Manny and his beautiful wife, Rachel live a rewarding life here in Yisrael. They are surrounded by the love of their three children and ten grandchildren. His son, Yaron Minkoowski is a world renowned and one of Yisrael’s top fashion designers. Yaron married his beloved wife, Pazit Yaron Minkowski, a well-known Yisraeli actress, in 19.7 (the first three digits of Manny’s Auschwitz number). Their daughter, Ori Minkowski, 16, followed in the footsteps of her father and is now the youngest fashion designer in the world.

Manny (second to Left) in the company of  his three children (two daughters to his right), four of his grandchildren. His son, Yaron in the middle and his granddaughter Ori in front of her father, Yaron. To his left is his beautiful and talented wife Pazit Yaron Minkowski. To the left of Pazit is Rachel, Manny's amazing wife of 60 years.

For Manny, Hope and Survival undoubtedly transformed themselves into one big Celebration of Life. We wish him many more years of Health, Celebrations and sheer Bliss.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Torah, a Contract, a Covenant of a Different Kind

In this week’s Torah portion,  Parshat Ekev, D’varim (Deuteronomy) 7:12-8:10, Moshe continues to remind Am Yisrael of the terms of the Covenant that they had entered with G-d at Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah.

Like any contract, written or oral that is entered into between the parties ,  the Mosaic Covenant specifies obligation, the mitzvot, as well as the rewards that result from fulfillment of all obligations and includes  the adverse results of violating its terms and how to deal with such consequences.

There are other Covenants that G-d has entered with Am Yisrael as as the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant. Unlike the Mosaic Covenant though, those are unconditional. This one is not only conditional, it is one that is not easy to follow. Yet, as we all know, Am Yisrael accepted it verbally and out-rightly when they said,  
   נעשה ונשמע“Naaseh Venishma.” (We shall do and listen).  It is one that is not easy to follow,
A law school professor might tell his students that the Mosaic Covenant is a “CONTRACT OF ADHESION”

A type of Contract, a legally binding agreement between two parties to do a certain thing, in which one side has all the bargaining power and uses it to write the contract primarily to his or her advantage.

That law professor would also possibly ask his students about its validity.  After all, what choice did the people feel they had about accepting such a contract from an all-powerful G-d who had just freed them from slavery in Egypt?   Moreover, they were asked to accept this deal without having really studied it and without benefit of legal counsel to help them understand its implications. 

In retrospect, would they agree that it was a good deal?  Some, like those who erected he Golden Calf or Korach and his congregation, did not and proceeded to violate the contract’s provisions with disastrous effect.
Now, why have we written about this?  

This story teaches something unique about Judaism and Jewish culture and why Torah should have been studied and seen only in the original Hebrew language.
It, also, illustrates something vastly different between traditional Jewish interpretations of Torah and those of others who have adopted Jewish literature and interpreted it to fit their own theologies.

One example where translations of the Torah from Hebrew has erred, innocently or deliberately, is when one refers to the information that was written on the Two Tablets that Moshe brought down from Mount Sinai as “commandments.” What was inscribed on them is described in the Torah asדברות   (Diberot) literally meaning  “pronouncements,” NOT “commandments” as the translation reads. There is a different word in Hebrew for commandments, מצוות (Mitzvot).

Our Torah, literally “instruction” (not law), in Hebrew, describes what happened at Mount Sinai  as ‘giving’ the Torah as a ‘gift’ (giving and gift in Hebrew  are derived from the same root, נ,ת,נ), implying that the giver is benevolent and loving,  like a caring parent,  caring for the welfare and best interests of its children. Therefore, though it may still be a contract of adhesion, it is one provided in love and concern.  It’s the parent who tells his child “look both ways before crossing the street, because the consequences of not doing so could be horrible”, not to set up the child to be fearful and not to be mean to the child, but out of love and care.   That, too, is a ‘contract of adhesion’, but one based on love and concern.

We are troubled by those who teach that all Abrahamic religions are essentially the same, just versions of the same themes and beliefs with little differences here and there.  Some Jews want to believe that as it makes them feel safer to be like everyone else in what they fear as a hostile world.  Christian Missionaries have for a long time preached that line to Jews to encourage them to convert, to just accept a small change, they claim, for salvation.   The problem is that between Judaism and the other “Abrahamic religions,” there is a theologically wide gulf that makes them almost polar opposites.

Christianity sees the establishment of the contract between G-d and Am Yisrael precisely as that definition above of the Contract of Adhesion.  A cruel and demanding G-d imposing harsh rules on the people with a deal they cannot dare refuse without an opportunity to study it.  They combine that with the Hellenistic belief that mankind is helpless and at the whim of the fates and gods, needing a hero to save them.  (according to Christian theologian Fr. Hans Kung). 

In great contrast, Judaism sees that contract more as directions and lessons (Torah, as we mentioned above, means instruction) from a benevolent kind father, who wants the best for his children and from a Benevolent G-d who wants the best for His People, ones who share the desire to set the standards and warn against what will naturally happen if those standards are not kept.  It’s the parent who warns his children to look both ways before crossing the street because he cares for their safety and welfare. 

Thus, for Am Yisrael and Jews, the Covenant is not the kind of one sided deal imposed by the powerful G-d.  It is lessons given as a gift to those who might benefit. In this case, it is Am Yisrael ONLY.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Our Resilient Jewish Spirit

This Shabbat is another special day on the Hebrew Calendar. It is שבת נחמו Shabbat Nachamu. 

Shabbat Nachamu ("Shabbath of comfort/ing) takes its name from the Haftarah from the Book of Isaiah 40:1-26. It is called by this name because of the Haftarah’s opening words,נחמו נחמו עמי " “ : Be comforted, be comforted my People.”  It speaks of comforting the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven Haftarot of consolation leading up to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

For me, this National milestone also bears a personal significance. It was on Shabbat Nachamu that my parents were liberated from the Nazi camps, seventy two years ago.

Growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, that is the date my parents always mentioned when asked about their liberation. Some found it strange. Why? You may ask.

Most people would remember and mark the Gregorian Calendar date as their anniversary of such an important event in their lives. Strangely enough, I never knew it by any other date other than “Shabbat Nachamu.” I doubt my parents ever remembered or at least did know the Gregorian date at some stage. Now, more than ever, I find it odd that they never remembered their Hebrew birth date, yet remembered the Hebrew date of their rescue from the inferno. That oddity is woven with bright coloured threads that send shivers through my spine each time that I stop to think about it.

It is only this year that I finally realized the significance or the symbolism of this date.

Firstly, for Jews to remember, observe and commemorate Jewish holidays and events, while being inmates of death camps in a hostile environment that tried to erase every connection to their essence as Jews, is commendable. As the years go by, I learn and read more and more stories of how some Jews risked their lives during those years to hang on to every possible shred of Jewish tradition. That is truly inspiring.
Clinging to their wonderful tradition, the customs, the celebrations at least through remembering them, infused in them the hope for better days and the firm belief that the “Eternal of Yisrael shall Never Lie.” What a fountain of optimism and courage it must have unfrozen in them. Their resilience was second to none.

Moreover, in Yiddish, the lingua franca of most European Jews upon whom the Shoah was brought, this disastrous event in Jewish history has come to be known as “Der Churben” דער חורבן  (The Destruction). This is the same name that was given by Jews to the destruction of both Temples, which according to tradition were both destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av,  חורבן בית המקדש (the Destruction of the Temple).

How appropriate, then, that the Liberation of these Jews, who did all they could to cling to their Judaism, took place on the very day we console Am Yisrael on all of its sufferings.

And the parallel between their survival and that of Am Yisrael goes further than that. Like Am Yisrael, my parents and many other Jews were liberated to see the resurrection and the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. They came out of the Abyss, collected the broken pieces of their shattered lives and built a bigger and stronger tabernacle out of it in Eretz Yisrael.

May Am Yisrael continue to thrive on our Promised Land and make our Jewish Homeland go from strength to strength for ever and ever.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Be the Change.......

“It is not incumbent of you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it…” Pirkei Avot 2:16
Being Jewish makes every day special and meaningful. Today, Tisha B’Av, is even more so.
Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Hebrew Calendar. According to tradition, many tragic events are said to have happened on this solemn day over the centuries. Both Temples were destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans respectively. On this day, the last stronghold of Bar Kochba was captured and his rebellion against the Romans was finally defeated. On the ninth of Av in 1290, King Edward I signed an edict compelling the Jews of England to leave the country. It was also on this day, according to tradition that the Jews were expelled out of Spain in 1492, and the day World War I broke out in 1914.
Naturally, we cannot change the events of our history. Can we, though, affect, influence or change its future course?
The question of whether events and circumstances control people or whether people control them, has long occupied the human mind. I am a firm believer in the latter. The optimist in me subscribes to Virginia Woolf’s belief of “forever altering one's aspect to the sun.” It is also known as adaptation.
The world we live in is far from perfect. It may never be that way but what is to stop us from striving towards that goal?
When it comes to affecting events in our lives and our world, I tend to distinguish between Fate and Destiny.
We cannot change fate. Fate is the common denominator all humans share. We are all born at some stage and will eventually die sooner or later. Destiny, however, that which takes place between the time of our birth and time of our death, is what we, as thinking creatures, Homo Sapiens, are capable of shaping and molding with change being its end result. “The measure of Intelligence is the Ability to change,” thus told us Albert Einstein. That includes our actions and the events that they produce (excluding, of course, natural occurrences over which none of us have any control).
The ability to affect and shape one’s destiny has been one of the prominent features of our Jewish People. It is not limited to individuals, though. It can also happen on the national realm. National survival or existence does not occur on its own. It needs to start with the smallest unit of that entity, the individual. In our case, it is you and me.
As a Jew, especially on this grim day of national mourning, I seek that change for our People. Jewish history is soaked with rivers of blood and a sea of tears. Why would we, or anyone want to repeat that? We need to understand, however, that it is the task of every Jew to be the change that they wish to see in our People. Learning and internalizing past lessons is the key and precursor to that change. On this day, I ask every Jew to stop and ask themselves, what have we learned from our People’s past so that we can change and improve in our Jewish future?
On Tisha B’Av, more than ever, the Jewish World must realize that it cannot afford to repeat past mistakes. Neither are we free to absolve ourselves from the duty and the task that G-d has entrusted us with, through the Covenant we entered with Him at Mount Sinai. We were ordered to choose Life and we agreed. Life, as we Jews know, is not always easy for us, if ever.
It is during such times that the wise words of Victor Frankl should light our path, “When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Sunday, 16 July 2017

“Ki Mitziyon Tetze Torah Udvar Hashem Mirushalayim” (From Zion Shall Torah come forth and Hashem’s word from Jerusalem) Part II

This is the second article addressing the Yisraeli Rabbinic authority and the relationship between Yisrael, Zion, the Spiritual Center of the Jewish people and the Diaspora Jewish community.

I believe many would agree that keeping a unified Jewish community has never been an easy task. However, it is sharing the same tradition, Torah, Written and Oral Torah as well as Halacha despite the differing customs and observations between Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews, which has been the key to our survival as a nation.

The rulings made by the traditionally appointed Jewish authorities, rulings that were based on Torah and Halacha were not always to everyone’s liking. Some found them too harsh, painful, demanding and even unfair. Have Civil law and the rulings of the appointed Civil Court that made certain decisions always been to everyone’s liking? Did they always please all? What about those times when the rulings by both the Civil Court or the Rabbinical one were fair and even lighter than was called for because of mitigating circumstances?

Let me cite some examples of such rulings, some personal ones.

Both my parents, as many know, were Shoah survivors. They came from different backgrounds. My mother came from a modern, educated and wealthy family. My father from a religious one and a poor one. They met in the labour camps. My mother got pregnant during the war and gave birth to my brother three months after they were liberated. My brother was born out of wedlock, at least so I thought.

They moved to Yisrael in 1949. They were still unmarried. Did the Rabbinate ask them to rush to register to get married according to Jewish law? Did they torment them? Did they question them, forcing them to prove their Jewishness? Did they act in any inhumane way? NO!

 After the testimony of witnesses who testified that they had been together for several years, they were accepted as a married couple for all intents and purposes.

It was only when I was in high school that I found out that my parents never had a proper Chuppah. One day, I asked my mother to see their Ketubah. She told me they had none. It hit me like a thunder. I could not sleep that night. I had an exam the following day and asked to be excused from it. The fear that I may not be considered Jewish, that I am illegitimate, that I will never be able to be married in accordance with Jewish Law, tore me apart.

I decided to go to our town’s Rabbi, Rabbi Sokolover to ask his opinion.

“Your parents are considered married in accordance with Halacha,” he reassured me. “There are many couples like your parents. Halacha recognizes their marriage even if they do not have a Ketubah.” What a relief it was for me. I was Jewish. I was legitimate.

The Rabbinate was also accommodating on another issue that was close to me. One of the 613 Mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah prohibits against tattooing one’s body.    Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:28 commands us: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for a dead person; you shall not etch a tattoo on yourselves. I am God.”

Again, I will raise the issue of the Shoah. What were Mr. and Mrs. Gutter, our neighbours and my parents’ closest friends, along with many other Shoah survivors supposed to do about the tattooed numbers branded on their arms when they were but children in Terezin? Would the Torah prohibit them from being buried in a Jewish cemetery? Did the Rabbinate compel them to go have their tattoos removed surgically because it was against Torah or Halacha?

Again, rabbinical opinions on the subject are as numerous as those expressing them. I will not list them here. I will, however, share with you one story which touched me deeply:
A woman once asked Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (1914-2003), the well-known posek who wrote responsa during the Holocaust, if she could remove her concentration camp tattoo via plastic surgery. He advised Holocaust survivors not to remove their tattoos, but rather to wear them as badges of honor (Teshuvot Mima’amakim 4:22).

One final example to prove my point of the humanness of the Rabbinate.  A couple of American friends of mine who emigrated to Yisrael in the 1980’s was childless. They decided to adopt two orphans from Brazil, a boy and a girl. Their mother was not Jewish which meant that the children were not.  The boy had to undergo a Brit Milah, naturally. However, did the Rabbinate pile a whole bunch of hurdles in front of my friends as far as declaring the girl Jewish? Did they make life miserable for them demanding that the girl go through proper Halachic conversion? NO!

My friends were invited to the Rabbinical Court where they were asked how they intended to raise their children. After a series of questions, the Rabbis decreed that the Jewish education which my friends were going to rear the children in was proper and satisfactory to warrant them Jewish status and they approved their request.

 There are many more such examples. I am certain, though, that for each example I provided here, many would rush to provide instances to prove the opposite. Indeed, the Rabbinate may not always make life easy for everyone but to portray it as the epitome of all evil is unfair and wrong.

Please stop and think. Do we, Jews, wish to keep our unique Jewish identity? Now that we have our own Jewish Homeland back, do we want to lose it by flooding it with those who may bring along with them foreign practices which might water down our strong and powerful essence, an essence that withstood the turmoil of time? “The proof is in the pudding,” as they say in English. And the pudding has proved to be the best one. Why then change its recipe? Why fix our well cemented national fortitude if it “ain’t broken?”

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

“Ki Mitziyon Tetze Torah Udvar Hashem Mirushalayim” (From Zion Shall Torah come forth and Hashem’s word from Jerusalem)

When I read about the growing gap between Jews in the Diaspora, mainly the U.S., and those in Yisrael, I am filled with a sense of loss, and great distress. Some have been unhappy about Yisrael’s policies toward the Palestinians. Recently, however, many American Jews have expressed hurt and humiliation with Yisrael’s conversion laws and other rulings by the Rabbinate.
Let us be honest, Jews have rarely been, internally, a united group. We all are familiar with the saying, “Two Jews, three opinions.” Being at odds with each other, questioning, debating and disagreeing has been part of who we were, are and forever will be.
Despite those traits, though, we have always shared one tradition and one set of guidelines about Jewish customs, dates of observances and commemorative events. It started on Mount Sinai where G-d commanded Am Yisrael to follow His laws, adhere to His Torah and set dates of the months and the years. Since Moses was the bearer of G-d’s commandments, the power to determine the interpretation of G-d’s Laws, decide when the Holy Days occur and other rulings was given to him and later to his successors, the Prophets, the Sanhedrin and the Rabbinical courts. Naturally, these decisions all originated in Eretz Yisrael, Zion where the Jewish religious authorities, past and present, have always been situated (except on a few occasions where these guidelines were still followed). Their decisions were uncontested and unchallenged.
For instance, in ancient times, the rabbis decreed that Jews in the Diaspora should celebrate Holy Days for two days. Some still do. There is a good reason behind it.
The Lunar Calendar which is what determines Jewish Holy Days was, at times, confusing. Prior to the arrival of the fixed calendar, the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, situated in Zion, Yerushalayim, the Spiritual center of the Jewish People would establish whether any month was 29 or 30 days depending on the first sightings of the new moon. Accordingly, if there was a Holy Day on that month, communities in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora would know when to celebrate and observe it.
Once the Sanhedrin found the testimonies of detection of the new moon legitimate and decreed that a new month began, the message was disseminated to distant Jewish communities outside of Eretz Yisrael via bonfires which were lit on pre-selected mountaintops. When spotted, lookout stations on other mountaintops would light their own fires to transmit the message to the Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Unfortunately, a sect by the name of Samaritans which rejected Rabbinic authority and were opposed to their rulings started to light their own fires in an effort to manipulate the calendar and cause more confusion.
As a result and to avoid disorder, the method of communicating by fires stopped. Instead, messengers were dispatched to pass on the decree of the Rabbis to Jewish communities outside of Eretz Yisrael. Messengers were much slower than the fire lighting and resulted in confusion among distant communities concerning the precise date of the New Month.
Due to the disarray surrounding the start of the new month, the Rabbis ruled that outside of Eretz Yisrael, every Holy Day should be celebrated for two days to ensure that at least one day of the observance of that Holy Day would be on the correct day.
Since the fixed calendar came into use in the 4th century CE, some may ask whether the need to keep the two days observance in the Diaspora is still relevant.
One answer is provided by Rabbi Hai Gaon who was an undisputed authority on Jewish law in the 11th century. According to him, the obligation to keep two Holy Days dates back to the days of the prophets.
And herein lies the root of what some may consider a problem. There is a general rule that once a rabbinical sanctioning has been made by the Sanhedrin and accepted by the entire Jewish people, it can be absolved only by a court in a similar prominence to the one that decreed it. However, finding nowadays a court that will equate the Sanhedrin in stature is almost impossible, let alone one that would equate with that of the prophets who were divinely inspired.
And that is but one example.
Which brings us back to the titular message. Tradition, as prescribed by the religious authorities in Tzion (Zion), has kept Judaism going for over two millennia. It is this tradition that has helped preserve us as a People that survived when many around us disappeared and forgotten. Do we wish to end up like them and enter oblivion? Do we want to re-form that which has proved to be the best form, one that withstood the storms of time, one that ensured our survival, one that has connected Jews the world over and forged us into the strong eternal entity that we are today?

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Why Am I Not Surprised?

The recent decision by UNESCO to declare the Cave of Machpela (The burial place, according to Jewish tradition, of Avraham, Sarah, Itschak, Rivka, Yaakov and Lea, our Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs) as an “Endangered Palestinian burial site” did not come as a surprise to me. How come, you may ask.

For years now, Jews and the state of Yisrael have been giving not only chunks of our Land to strangers, but also slices of our Jewish Zionist identity and heritage to foreigners. Parts of Judaism, Jewish symbols and cherished concepts that have been ours for a few millennia are handed out as prizes, as spoils, as trophies to anyone who claims to love us and support us. So why should anyone be surprised when those to whom we so willingly hand out pieces of our essence, decide to wake up one day while we are still in a deep slumber and claim those as their own?

In case some find it hard to follow my point, let me be specific.

When the Romans arbitrarily renamed our Eretz Yisrael as “Palestine,” in order to add insult to injury and do all they could to disassociate Jews from this Land, those who resided in it were, as a result, renamed “Palestinians.” No, they were NOT Arabs. No, they were NOT Muslims. Those were not around here then. That name was given to us, Jews. It was an offensive name. Palestine was named after a heathen nation, the Philistines (meaning invaders), one of the worst enemies of Am Yisrael. We refused to take on this name and understandably so.

The name Eretz Yisrael along with the name “Palestine,” were later jointly used by the British during their Mandate over the area. The name “Palestinians,” however, was hardly used, if ever, during those years. Those that lived in the area were either Jews or Arabs. The name just laid there collecting dust until a group of Arabs, who moved here from surrounding countries, decided to adopt it and claim it as their own.

Personally, I have no problem with anyone calling themselves or crowning themselves with this or that name or title. I cannot stop them from doing it. I do have a problem, however, with anyone appropriating that which belongs/belonged to others and doing all they can to convince the world that that name, that title, that history was theirs from its inception. And that is exactly what is happening with the name” Palestinians.” They have engaged, sometimes with our backing, in efforts to re-write history to match their imaginary narrative and convince the world that they are the “original Palestinians.”

I am even more upset with those among us who have encouraged and supported such claims by them.

We have given them the keys to Har Habayit (Temple Mount), OUR Har Habayit, and openly. Why then was everyone caught by surprise when UNESCO declared that holy Jewish place as a “Palestinian” site?

We have enabled such a move.

It is not only the Muslims, though, that we have assisted in usurping that which belongs to us only. A year and a half ago, I read the following headline in “The Independent:”
Joseph's Tomb arson attack: Jewish and Christian holy site in West Bank 'set on fire by Palestinians' I was dumbfounded. I knew that since the Oslo Accord, this Jewish Holy site has been under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. However, when in the world did Joseph’s Tomb become a “Jewish AND Christian holy site?” When did Jews hand out religious property shares in Joseph’s Tomb?
Yisrael is indeed a holy place to many. The Land, however, belongs to the Jews first and foremost (and please do not quote me prophecy which promises this Land to all!). Until such time as the Tanach prophesizes, foreigners are welcome to worship here who and what they please but only as guests. It breaks my heart when I read that Yisrael is selling land to external religious entities and thus giving them chunks after chunks of what is ours, only to see them one day claiming parts of our Jewish Homeland as their own?

Which brings me to another serious concern. We have been handing out titles which are part of our heritage only and are reserved to some only. I have read Jews labelling those who make money out of supporting Yisrael as “Righteous Gentiles,” a title that is saved for the select few special souls who saved Jews during the Shoah while risking their lives. What a spit in the face it must be for those brave individuals to see their memory being diluted.

Likewise, many of us have been letting those who claim to love us and support us call themselves “Zionists,” (as opposed to “Pro-Zionists”) when that hard-earned concept, that idea is one ONLY Jews have harboured and practiced for over two millennia. Hence, we get “Christian Zionists.” We get “Muslim Zionists.” We even get “Koranic Zionism” (which claims that since Muhammad declared Eretz Yisrael belonging to the Jews and since he came BEFORE Herzl, the founder of Political Zionism, he is the “original Zionist.”)

Zion and Zionism belong to the Jews only.  What concerns me is that many non-Jews who crown themselves with the title “Zionist” may be doing that for the purpose of paving their way to claiming parts of Zion as their own. Let me explain.

Some might have heard by now about an Evangelical missionary group called  HaYovel Ministries Yes, they, too, call themselves “Christian Zionists.” Their enablers have even ensured that they get land to set up their encampment on Mount Grizim AKA Har Haberachah (Mount of Blessing). According to Tommy Waller (, their patriarch, “Many Christians make a mistake of thinking that Israel is just for the Jews.”

No, Mr. Waller it is NOT A MISTAKE, Eretz Yisrael is for the Jews, you are merely a guest in it.

They have already claimed themselves the holders of “New Jerusalem,” (which of course will replace Jewish Jerusalem!). It will be the one from which their messiah will rule when he comes back to earth. That, at least, is the message  Caleb Waller bears to his fellow Evangelicals in Nashville.

Frankly, I am not surprised and I do not blame the Wallers and other Christian groups that have set base and camp in Yisrael. Their Jewish enablers and many others among us Jews have allowed them all to cloak themselves with the title Zionists, leading them to believe they have a stake in Zion.

How long do you, dear readers, reckon it will take before UNESCO or any other International body next declares Holy Jewish Site as that of others while we are asleep at the wheel?

Wake up Jews! Is this the legacy we want to leave to our future generations? Will we be able to look them straight into the eyes and say that we have done all that is within our power to ensure their future in Eretz Yisrael, and keep it as the Jewish Homeland?

These are the pressing questions that need to be addressed if you, like me, wish to preserve the Jewish soul.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Art of "seeing"

“Do you see Palm trees?
I see no palm trees!
Do you see camels?
I see no camels?

Perhaps before my eyes a brief passing shadow -
I see nothing, I see nothing!

it is a sign that we have not yet got there
And the horizon is still far
And your heart is still open
To the four corners of the world
And one needs to continue to walk
And continue to march
And the road is still pulling

Thus wrote, Naomi Shemer, the talented Yisraeli Poet, about road signs.
There are sights that one can see – palm trees and camels and a man resting under the fig tree. And if we still do not see them, it means that there is still a road to cross, a lesson to learn, a precision to be reached.
“Perhaps before my eyes a brief passing shadow,” says the wanderer. He means, “I notice that there is a reality that my eyes have yet to get accustomed to seeing.”

“It is a sign that we have not yet got there,” answers him the poet. In order to get there, one has to “see.”

What does one “see?”
Is it an anatomical or philosophical question?

Esref Armagan is a Turkish artist who paints beautiful paintings. Part of his talent is to explore new objects which he had not encountered earlier and interpret them in his pictures. Esref scribbles with pencil and paints with colours. His paintings are astonishingly harmonious.
Except  Esref is a blind man.
Already at birth, he was blind in one eye and later on lost his sight in the other. And still, he does wonders with his paintings. If asked, “Do you see camels?” he will answer, “Camels I do see, draw them and give them meaning.”

And please do not imagine that Esref only paints on paper as is customary in modern painting. He paints the object itself and his picture reflects accurately that which he paints.

Scientists were dumbfounded by the phenomenal painting skill of Esref. They put him through a series of tests, and MRI at different times. They discovered that only when he paints, not through any other cognitive action he engages in, his back brain with emphasis on his visual area functions.
Esref sees in his mind’s eye. He actually sees.

So many years of painting have trained his nervous system to visualize. Not with an eye but through sensual interpretation of what is being caught by the ear through hearing, by the hand though touching feeling and through his other senses, Esref’s brain interprets the pictures.

The power to see is stouter than the seeing eye.
In the Tanach, in Jewish traditions as well as Muslim ones, the prophet is referred to as “The Seer.”

Even Shakespeare planted in his plays such prophetic seers.

“Vision is stronger than the seeing vessels.
It is connected to the heart and the soul.
It is bonded to feelings and faith.
The eye allows it to see in the most basic form.
The other senses will give it volume and Life.”
A recent discovery by a team of Yisraeli researchers at the Hebrew Universiy, revealed that with the help of a newly developed camera, we can now see writings on ancient pottery, writings that until recently were invisible to the eye. A pot, dating back to the first Temple era, that was unearthed revealed the order of wine from a provider by the name of “Elyashiv Ben Oshiahu.” (Who would have imagined that thousands of years after his death, this man’s name would be revealed to us?)

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” taught us The Little Prince as he was recalling his forgotten Rose on a faraway planet.
The Torah portion of a few weeks ago, “Parashat Shalach,” recounting the story of the spies who were going to tour the Land and see whether it is good.

To see if something is good is not a mission for the eyes only. It is a mission for the heart, the senses, the soul and the great spirit.

Looks are misleading, perhaps a passing shadow and the eye misses camels, palm trees and amazing beauty. Here, Esref Armagan, one blind painter sees more than any eye could see because his heart, the heart is in the right place.
So why do the spies return from the Land and recount a story which gets more and more extreme?
Why did their eyes see only the scary giants and how were they even able to know that they were seen like grasshoppers?
And what really did their eyes see and how much of it was their heart’s fears and concerns?

This story tells of the fear of the new good, about the comfort of habits.

On the physical level, the eye that sat in the darkness will painfully shrink when it is suddenly exposed to the Light. Likewise, the eye that was exposed to bright light will be filled with darkness if it enters a dusky place. In both cases, the eye needs time to get accustomed to the new reality.

Seeing (ראה in Hebrew) which is considered the most factual (and it is not in vain that the legal term for exhibit, fact = ראיה =  in Hebrew is derived from the same root), is indeed conservative, hangs on to the familiar and fears changes.

The well known philosopher Emmanuel Kant, in his work “Critique of Pure Reason,” noticed the distinctions between man perception of reality and reality itself. All of our knowledge, Kant, claims, never stems from the object itself but rather from the traits that characterize it. The eye, the ear, the senses of taste of smell and touch are all tools to teach us about the object while the object itself remains unknown to us. Therefore, the senses that absorb the information and contribute to man’s knowledge of the object  are the result of the manner in which man’s knowledge and thought process operate, and accordingly interpret that which they take in.

So what have we actually learned?
When Am Yisral, while still in the desert, asks to send spies to see for them the Land, the mission is accompanied by fear of change and the notion that the receiving eye accepts only that which the heart feels and is ready to absorb only that which emotion guides it.

Hence is the command : שלח לך!"”Bamidbar, 13 ;2 (Shelach Lecha! Numbers 13;2) “send for yourself.” At the end of the day, each mission of “seeing” for others, can be yours and yours only. It stems from you, from your interpretation of it. The other who have sent you, had he gone by themselves, would have evidently seen what their heart told them to see.

And here is the message to us all. Anyone who has inscribed “mission” on their banner needs to know that testimonies which we gather on the road of our mission are ours only and that the scene, the sight is much broader than what our senses can grasp.

In order to see the deeper picture, one needs a special camera like the one developed by the Hebrew University researchers, or an eye that is powerful and talented like that of Esref Armagan . Or perhaps the knowledge and the realization that there is more, much more, is sufficient, promising and will adjust the mission for the best outcome.

The Iftar meal, celebrating the Holy Ramadan, does not center around the food. Rather it is the gathering of the family and friends, time for unity and love. Our Shabbat meal, likewise, does not surround the food but the bringing together of family and friends. Time for unity and love.
This gathering of our teachers is not about the meal that we are sharing. It is about the gathering of friends, time of unity, love and sharing. It is time of genuine brotherhood. And we know how to see that which we have and not only that which we don’t.

And when I gather all the sights that I see along the road of my mission, I want to come back to them, to Am Yisrael waiting in the desert and tell them:
“The Land is very bountiful. The Land is very good, its sights are breath taking, blessed is its fruit. Mostly, how wonderful and great is its People, how beautiful are its people, all of its people and how amazing and blessed are its many beautiful messengers.”

Shabbat Shalom

(A friend and a colleague of mine who wishes to remain nameless delivered this amazing and very enlightening speech a couple of weeks ago to a group of us. It was delivered in Hebrew. I decided to translate it and share it with the world.
Feel free to share. Thank you.)