Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Srugim סרוגים- Ana Efneh - Where do I turn?

As some of you may or may not know, I often struggle to define myself religiously, and sometimes find myself searching for my place as a young, modern Jew who believes in the centrality of halacha as a divinely-guided plan in a confusing world, one in which I wish to be a full participant. One one hand, I look for a community which has a similar outlook to both Jewish law and modernity - will it be found among the Conservative movement, in which I was raised, or in liberal Orthodoxy, which attempts to find avenues for openness and womens' participation within a traditional halakhic framework. For now, I sit on the fence, torn between these two communities and visions which each offer different opportunities and ways to confront challenges.
As a student at Columbia and JTS, I am part of a community of others my age who are confronting the same challenges, and a diverse one in which a variety of views are represented. After watching the first season of the Israeli Drama Srugim, (referring to a kippah srugah, the knit head covering worn by religious zionist Israelis) I now have immersed myself in an Israeli community caught trying to maintain a similar middle ground between age-old values and modern pulls.
The series takes place in an area of south Jerusalem known as הביצה של קטמון, the swamp of Katamon, a neighborhood filled with religious Zionist Israelis in their mid to late twenties, many of whom are single and caught in the overwhelming dating scene. Along with the romantic adventures of the show's 5 main characters, Yif'at, Reut, Hodayah, Amir and Nati, they confront other philosophical and religious challenges as well.
Reut on a number of occasions attempts to challenge the preexisting boundaries of womens' ritual participation. In the first episode, she makes kiddush for the group of her friends at Shabbat dinner, a practice becoming more accepted and mainstream in the Modern orthodox community. In the show it is questioned, but nobody prevents Reut from fulfilling this mitzvah, showing an understanding of a woman's inherent equal obligation for Kiddush. Later on in the season, continuing to challenge these boundaries, Reut approaches a student at Yeshivat Mercaz Harav who gives Bar Mitzvah lessons (Yochai, whom she dates for a while) asking to learn how to read haftarah, which she wishes to do for her father's yahrzeit. Yochai at first refuses, agreeing to make a tape for her, but gradually agrees to teach her. One of the pinnacles of the show comes at the conclusion of episode 9, as Reut reads the Haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh in front of a womens' prayer group, including her closest friends.
Hodaya attempts to figure out the essence of who she is as she equivocates with her identity as a religious woman. When we first meet her, the struggle is already evident as she has been studying bible academically at Hebrew University, an act of rebellion against her Rosh Yeshiva father. It is there where she meets Avri, a professor of archeology, and they begin a relationship, in which she fails to tell him that she is religious. Eventually, issues arise as Avri attempts to serve Hodaya pasta with meat and cheese, and she decides to violate Shabbat on another occasion rather than reveal her background. Without ruining the rest of the plot, it is enough to say that Hodaya's struggle with her own religious identity and her relationship with secularism and the secular world is extremely honest, and provides an important window into how real Israelis deal with the confluence of this two different worlds, and where they fit in.

Although there is so much more that can be said about the deeper meaning of Srugim, the overall message is best illustrated by the show's stirring theme song, - אנה אפנה Where shall I turn. Written with so many double meanings and hidden messages, it is more than just a song, but a spiritual modern piyyut (Jewish liturgical poem). The words of the song truly reflect not only the struggles of those in the Bitza of Katamon, but my own as well.Below you will find the music video, and Hebrew/translated lyrics (thanks to the blog 'The Muqata'):

I pursue Your laws, on the one hand
On the other, my passion pursues me.
Ashamed and embarrassed, I will enter Your gates.
And the long nights and the loneliness and the years,
And this heart that has not known peace.
Until the sea becomes quiet, until the shadows disappear.

אני רודף אחר חוקיך, מחד
מאידך תשוקתי אותי רודפת
בוש ונכלם אבוא בשעריך
והלילות הארוכים והבדידות ושנים
והלב הזה שלא ידע מרגוע
עד שישקוט הים, עד שינוסו הצללים
Where shall I go, to where will I turn, when Your eyes gaze upon me?
Where shall I flee, how will I not turn away?
Between truth and truth,
Between law and practice.
Between the days of yore and modern times.
Between the hidden and the revealed,
Between the world to come and this world.

לאן אלך, אנה אפנה, כשעיניך מביטות בי
איכה אברח, איך לא אפנה
בין אמת לאמת
בין הלכה למעשה
בין הימים ההם לזמן הזה
בין הנסתר לנגלה
בין העולם הבא לעולם הזה
I pursue Your laws, on the other hand my passion burns me
Fierce as death, terrible as troops with banners
The long nights and the loneliness and the years,
And this heart that has not known peace.
Until the sea becomes quiet, until the shadows disappear
Bring me back!

רודף אחר חוקיך, מאידך תשוקתי אותי שורפת
עזה כמוות, איומה כנדגלות
הלילות הארוכים והבדידות והשנים
והלב הזה שלא ידע מרגוע
עד שישקוט הים, עד שינוסו הצללים
Where shall I go, to where will I turn

לאן אלך, אנה אפנה
Wishes for a happy and peaceful 2009 - ברכות ל2009 של ששון ושלום!

Monday, December 22, 2008

חג האורים בבית הכנסת- Hannukkah in the Synagogue, its deeper meaning

Now that I have successfully completed my semester (an appropriate additional כונה {Kavvanah- intention} when saying Hallel and being joyous on Hannukkah), I would like to offer some words of Torah on an interesting aspect of lighting Hannukkah candles. As you may be aware, there is an established practice to not only light candles each of the eight nights (preferably to the left of the doorway, or at least towards the public domain (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 671)) in the home, but also in Shul, either between the Mincha and Maariv services or at the conclusion of Maariv.
The other day, I was reading a responsum by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose politics are quite deplorable, but whose teshuvot are a joy to read, both for their thorough presentation of relevant sources and clear, gramatically correct writing style. In Yechave Da'atשו"ת יחווה דעת חלק ד סימן לח), Rav Ovadiah's second collection of responsa, he addresses the question of the permissability of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Hannukah candles through an electric Hannukiyah. The answer, three pages later, is in that one cannot legitimately make a b'rakha over an electric hannukiyah, based partially on the reasoning that electric power is not analogous to oil, and that one cannot recite 'להדליק נר של חנוכה', to kindle the Hannukkah lights, while flipping a switch or pushing a button. During his analysis Rav Ovadiah also discusses the reasons behind our practice of lighting candles in the beit knesset, with the appropriate b'rakhot. He presents two reasons [Original text, followed by English summary]:
והנה עיקר הטעם שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת, מבואר בשו"ת הריב"ש (סימן קי"א), שהואיל ועיקר תקנת חז"ל שהדלקת נר חנוכה תהיה על פתח ביתו מבחוץ לפרסומי ניסא, ומכיון שאין אנו יכולים לקיים המצוה כתקנתה, ומדליקים נר חנוכה בפתח הבית מבפנים, ואין פרסומי ניסא אלא לבני הבית, לפיכך תיקנו להדליק בבית הכנסת במעמד כל קהל המתפללים לפרסומי ניסא. ע"ש. אולם גם ההדלקה שבבית הכנסת צריכה להיות באופן שיוצאים בה ידי חובה, ולא בחנוכיה חשמלית. ואף על פי שמבואר בתשובת הריב"ש שם שאין שום אדם יוצא ידי חובתו בהדלקת נרות חנוכה של בית הכנסת, וכן פסק הרמ"א /או"ח/ (סימן תרע"א סעיף ז'), מכל מקום צריכה להיות באופן שראוי לצאת בה ידי חובה. ומכל שכן לדעת הארחות חיים (בהלכות חנוכה אות י"ז), שמדליקים נרות חנוכה בבית הכנסת להוציא ידי חובה את מי שאינו בקי ואינו זריז במצוה זו.
1) The main reason, according to the Ribash (Rabbi Isaac Ben Sheshet, 1326-1408, Spain), explains that the most appropriate way to fulfill the mitzvah is to place the candles outside to entrance to our homes, in order to spread the miracle. Since we are unable to fulfill the mitzvah in this ideal manner, by lighting outside the door, and thus the miracle is only spread to the members of the household, {my note: probably a reflection on the circumstances of his time and place}, it was established to light candles in the synagogue in order that the miracle should be proclaimed before all of the worshippers. According to the Ribash, and also the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserless, 16th century Poland), while nobody fulfills their onligation through this lighting, it nevertheless must be done in a manner through which one would be able to complete the mitzvah.
2) However, according to the Orchot Chaim (by Yehuda Aryeh Halevi Lowinger, Vienna, 1868), we light candles in the synagogue in order to ensure that those who are not knowledgable about how to light the candles will be able to be included in the Mitzvah.
Both of these reasons for lighting in the synagogue, simplified as persecution or ignorance, can be seen as halakhic contingencies for less than ideal situations. However, as in most cases we can put a postive spin on these sad circumstances of the 15th and 19th centuries, thanks to our living in a more free world in 21st century. Unfortunately, there are still places today, even in North America, where Jews do not feel comfortable displaying a Hannukkiyah, or do not know how to light one. One a personal level, in this holiday set aside for thanks and praise (see Mishnah Berurah to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 670:2), it is appropriate to express gratitude for being part of a family and community where I am able to display my Judaism proudly, and was given the tools to become knowledgable about its laws and traditions. At the same time, this idea presents a great challenge for all of us, to work to increase the level of Jewish education in our communities so that all Jews will be able to take ownership of our beautiful heritage, and bring it into their homes. Furthermore there are places around the world where it is still unsafe to place a Hanukkiyah in a window looking onto the street, and we who libe relatively comfortably in Western democracies should again appreciate that.
When lighting candles in our synagogues, it is important to always keep these original reasons for the practice in mind, as explained so clearly by Rav Ovadiah. Although we may no longer be living in fear of publicly duisplaying our Hannukiyyah, or if everyone in the community lights in their homes, we must appreciate how far we have come, and that there is still more work to do - It is not upon us to complete the work of spreading knowledge and pride in Jewish living and tradition, but neither are we free to desist from it.
חג אורים שמח- A joyous festival of lights!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Grateful, yet prayerful Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is in fact a very Jewish holiday, a wonderful opportunity to be grateful for living in a free and open democracy, proudly as American Jews, and to join together family and friends for a 'chag', yet one where we are not forbidden to do creative labor as on Shabbat and Yom Tov.
As Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday, it creates some meaningful liturgical moments, where we can give special meaning on this special day.
  • מזמור לתודה 'Mizmor L'Todah' (Psalm 100), is recited each weekday during P'sukei D'Zimra, after the Hodu section, in which we praise God for our heritage. The opening words of this short psalm are 'A psalm of thanksgiving. Shout out to God, all the earth - Serve the Lord in happiness, come before him with joy.' What more appropriate way, on this day established to give thanks for a successful harvest, and renewed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as an ode to our national heritage, to apply this gratitude when we recite this psalm, which comes in place of the 'Todah' sacrifice. This sacrifice was originally brought to the temple by those who had experienced distress and been saved from it (Psalm 102 has been understood as an exposition on the bringing of this offering). Especially in these hard economic times, it is all the more important to appreciate our family and friends with whom we will celebrate this day, as well as other gifts which have been bestowed upon us.
  • תחנון Tachanun, is a series of prayers of penitance and supplication recited daily on weekdays, with an extended version recited on Mondays and Thursdays, days on which the Torah is read and thus thought to have additional significance to make requests to God. In Nusach Ashkenaz (used by Conservative and many Orthodox liturgies), the tachanun service includes the recitation of Psalm 6, the piyyut Shomer Yisrael, and additional verses, supplemented by additional reflections on Torah reading days. Because of its intense and somber nature, tachanun is omitted on days of a joyous nature, both on the calendar and as a result of life cycle events, like a wedding, brit milah or a house of mourning (which is a time set aside to reflect on the loss of the beloved and comfort mourners, not for personal supplications).
  • So, should we recite tachanun on Thanksgiving? While I am generally opposed to altering the liturgy without good reason, there is a long tradition, especially among Hasidic communities, of omitting Tachanun on days of joy for their community, like the yahrzeit of a rebbe or the anniversary of a joyous communal event. I believe that for those who choose to do omit tachanun on Thanksgiving, in can certainly be seen in this tradition. For the American Jewish community as a whole, this day can be seen not only as an occasion for general gratitude, but for the strong and secure home that we been able to build here as Jews, and for the refuge that this land has served (though not a perfect one), for millions of our people escaping pogroms and other persecution. Though I do not usually search for 'excuses' to skip Tachanun, I feel this one presents itself for me, as one who is proud to be a traditional Jew and an American citizen.
  • Psalm 81 is recited each Thursday at the conclusion of the Shacharit service, but many of its words are especially meaningful on the fourth Thursday in November, especially its opening verse, "Prasise our God for our strength, shout to the God of Jacob." The psalm continues with a praise of God for guiding Joseph in Egypt, who ensured a bountiful harvest (think Thanksgiving feast!) for the Egyptians and his family. The people are also reminded that "There should bee no strange god be among them; neither shalt [they] worship any foreign god," (v. 10) reminding us of the privilege to live in a society with both freedom of religion, and separation of Church and state. The final verse of the psalm states, "And they shall be fed with the fattest of wheat, and I will make you satisfied with honey from the rock." May we be thankful for our sustenance, even if it is not an actual 'harvest, and in the words of Psalm 90:
ויהִי, נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ-- עָלֵינוּ:
וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ.
May God's graciousness be upon us, and may he establish for us the work of our hands.
Happy חג ההודיה\הודו Thanksgiving/Turkey Day!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Parashat Vayera - It's all about following through..., and making that special time happen

Fourteen years after his death, Shlomo Carlebach's legacy has become virtually synonymous with his song, Ki Va Moed. Often when we sing this song, whether when celebrating a joyous occasion or using the tune to welcome in Shabbat with Psalm 96 (Shiru Lashem Shir Chadash), we fail to notice the beauty and significance of the words of the Psalmist to which Shlomo composed.

אַתָּה תָקוּם, תְּרַחֵם צִיּוֹן: כִּי-עֵת לְחֶנְנָהּ, כִּי-בָא מוֹעֵד
You shall arise, and comfort Zion - for it is her time of grace, for her appointed time has arrived. (Psalm 102:14)

This verse, along with the final phrase of the piyyut (liturgical poem) Yedid Nefesh, recited in most communities preceding kabbalat shabbat,
מהר אהוב כי בא מועד, וחנני כימי עולם
Soon, my Beloved, for the appointed time has come, and have mercy on me all of my days.
can be interpreted in many ways, including as a time of closeness between God and the Jewish people. In any interpretation, we must take into account the root of יעד, which implies have the quality of being predetermined or deliberate.

The reason I bring in these references to kabbalat shabbat, besides for being a big fan of Carlebach and Yedid Nefesh, is that the word moed - special, or appointed time- figures prominently in this week's parshah. The opening scene finds Avraham, just after his Brit Milah, and Sarah in their tent, when they are visited by three men (traditionally thought to be angels). The task of one of these men is to announce to the couple that Sarah will bear a son at the age of 90. As shocking as this would seem to us at first thought, it was to to Sarah, and she 'laughed in her heart.' God then responded to Avraham, and reiterated the promise given by the angel:
הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְהוָה, דָּבָר; לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה--וּלְשָׂרָה בֵן.
Is anything too great for God; at the appointed time I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah will have a son. (Bereshit 18:14).

Not only does Sarah have a son, Isaac, a year later, but the Torah makes the point of using the same language upon the fulfillment of God's promise to the couple as it did in the original promise a few chapters before:

וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה לְאַבְרָהָם בֵּן, לִזְקֻנָיו, לַמּוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
And Sarah concieved and bore a son for Avraham in his old age - at the appointed time, as God had spoken to him. (Bereshit 21:2)

In Bereshit Rabbah, as I learned with Yossi this week, the rabbis take note of this pattern of God promising and fulfilling, and create a beautiful midrash around it based on a verse in the book of Ezekiel.

וה' פקד את שרה כאשר אמר
זהו שאמר הכתוב (יחזקאל יז): וידעו כל עצי השדה כי אני ה' השפלתי עץ גבוה הגבהתי עץ שפל
אמר רבי יודן: לא כדין דאמרין ולא עבדין, אלא, אני ה' דברתי ועשיתי.

אמר רבי ברכיה: אני ה' דברתי ועשיתי.
והיכן דבר?

(שם כב) למועד אשוב אליך ולשרה בן. ועשה.

וידעו כל עצי השדה, אלו הבריות, היך מה דאת אמר: (דברים כ) כי האדם עץ השדה.
כי אני ה' השפלתי עץ גבוה, זה אבימלך.
הגבהתי עץ שפל, זה אברהם.
הובשתי עץ לח, אלו נשי אבימלך, דכתיב: כי עצור עצר ה'.
הפרחתי עץ יבש,
זו שרה.
"And God remembered Sarah as he had spoken" (Bereshit 21:1)
This is referred to in the verse "And all the trees of the field shall know that I am God, I have brought down the tall tree and raised up the lowly one, I have made dry a lush tree and made fruitful the dry one; I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled." (Ezekiel 17:24).
Rabbi Yudan said: He (God) is not like those say things and don't act on them, rather, "I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled."
Rabbi Berechiah said: "I am God, I have spoken and fulfilled."
Where did he speak?
" the appointed time I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah will have a son. (Bereshit 18:14). And thus he did.
"And all the trees of the field shall know" - This is as the Torah said "For is man like the tree of the field" (D'varim 20).
"I am God, I have brought down the tall tree" - This refers to Avimelech [who took Sarah into his house, after Avraham said that she was his sister].
"and raised up the lowly one" -this is Avraham.
"I have made a lush tree dry" These are the wives of Avimelech, as it is written "For the LORD had surely closed up all the wombs of the house of Avimelech" (Bereshit 21:18).
"and fruitful the dry one"- this is Sarah.
This midrash has a very beautiful lesson, if we choose to emulate God's attribute of following through with one's commitments. The language evokes the words of the first b'racha after the haftarah:
הָאֵל הַנֶּאֱמָן הָאומֵר וְעושה. הַמְדַבֵּר וּמְקַיֵּם שֶׁכָּל דְּבָרָיו אֱמֶת וָצֶדֶק:
The faithful God, who says and does, who speaks and fulfills, whose words are true and just.

Just as God promises a son to the childless Sarah, and Isaac is born the next year, lamoed - at that time, we can take this lesson in our lives and relationships, by setting aside time for the things that truly matter - whether it is friends and family, torah study, or gemilut chasadim, deeds of lovingkindness. We can also echo the faithfulness implicit in moed, by fulfilling our promises and obligations and showing the value of our words and the weight they carry. Thus, we can follow in God's paths and emulate His faithfulness, just as when He promised Sarah a son in her old age, a feat she could barely believe, and allowed her and Avraham to rejoice in the birth of Yitzhak, לַמּוֹעֵד, אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים - at the appointed time, as God had spoken.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Parashat Lech L'cha - Hebrews/Jews in Politics

While the most famous parts of this week's Parashah may be the opening verse (12:1
וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:
God Said to Abram, Go forth from the land which I will show you), Abram and Sarai becoming Abraham and Sarah, and the Covenant of circumcision, there is another interesting (if less obviously inspirational) undercurrent present, that of politics.
At the end of chapter 12, Abram and Sarai are forced to descend to Egypt because of a famine in Cana'an. Abram tells Sarah to announce that they are brother and sisters so he is not killed, and in the end must explain to Pharaoh when Sarai is taken to the Royal palace.
In chapter 13, Abram negotiates his disengagement from his nephew Lot, as the two have accumulated too much livestock to continue living together comfortably. Abram chooses the plains of Canaan, but Lot, in the first of many ill-fated decisions, chooses the area of Sodom, which at the time was very fine grazing land. This incident leads into the excitement of chapter 14 (which I had never learned until I began participating in the חידון התנך- bible contest in high school). A war breaks out between a coalition of four kings pitted against a coalition of five kings. Abram, a relatively new resident of the land has no reason to get involved in this battle until Lot is taken captive by the group of 4 kings, and Abram decides to take action. He enters the war on the side of the five kings (including the king of Sodom), and sends troops from among the members of his household and his comrades. At the end of the chapter, we see that Abram's strategy worked, and Lot was returned safely. He is praised by Melkitzedek, king of Shalem, along with his allies, but refuses to take part of the spoils that were his entitlement according to ancient custom. Thus, we see in Abram's actions an example that many Jews have attempted to emulate throughout our history; a strong commitment to Jewish values and identity, combined with full immersion in the larger world and society.
These stories of Abram came to mind when I heard the news of some of President-elect Obama's appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel this week as his White House Chief of Staff. As I looked into Emanuel's background and history, I saw a similar commitment to dichotomy of Jewish and secular to that held by Abram, but without mixing the two in a way that would remove the integrity of Judaism and America, synagoue and State. Rahm is the son of Benjamin Emanuel, a pediatrician and member of the Irgun during the 1940s in Palestine/Israel. Both he and his children attend(ed) the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Jewish Day School in Chicago, and he is the member of a modern Orthdox shul there. Emanuel has shown a strong commitment to both Israel and the US. In 1990, he volunteered on an army base in Israrl dueing the height of the Gulf war, and he's been quoted many times since then emphasizing Israel's right to self-defense, and the need to hold the Palestinians to the same standards. However, this commitment to the Jewish state and Jewish life has not prevented Emanuel from serving as a top advisor in the Clinton White House, and a top Democratic congressman for the last 6 years, committed to improving health care access for all.
I would like to add in an anecdote shared with me by my abba from the blog of Rabbi Jason Miller:
I recall a funny story Jack Moline told me about his first experience meeting President Bill Clinton. Jack visited the White House weekly to study Torah with his friend and congregant Rahm Emanuel (left), the Illinois Congressman. Emanuel, then senior advisor to President Clinton, had an office in the West Wing. Jack always went to the White House with Kosher corned beef sandwiches for Emanuel and him to enjoy. He was also always prepared to stand at a moment's notice and greet the President with the traditional Jewish blessing one says upon meeting a head of state. One day during a Moline-Emanuel chavruta session, the President walked into Rahm Emanuel's office to chat about a basketball game when Jack jumped up with a mouth full of corned beef trying to utter the blessing.

That story came to mind the other day when I read an article about Rep. Rahm Emanuel in Newsweek magazine. The article theorized that Emanuel ("Rahmbo") might be the most likely Democratic Party leader to be the one to encourage Hillary Clinton to drop out of the race should Barack Obama continue to be the front runner. Why Emanuel? Because, the article explains, he is close to the Clintons from his years campaining for them and serving in the Clinton White House. And he is close to the Obama campaign as well based on his long standing friendship with Obama's campaign strategist, David Axelrod.

How close is Emanuel with Axelrod? "So close," Newsweek states, "that Axelrod signed the ketuba, a Jewish marriage contract, at Emanuel's wedding, an honor that usually goes to a best friend."
In response to this funny and inspirational story, I would like to end with a few relevant pieces of text to ponder:
ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שנתן מכבודו \מחכמתו לבשר ודם
Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, who has given from His honor /wisdom to flesh and blood.
---This is the Blessing that Rabbi Moline recited for President Clinton. I pray that that we continue to be inspired by those who lead our nation, and that the incoming administration continue to reflect the values of this b'racha and Rabbi Louis Ginsburg's prayer for Our Country (see post of November 3).

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם שחלק מכבודו \מחכמתו ליראיו
Blessed are You, God, King of the universe, who has given from His honor /wisdom to those who fear Him.
---May we be able to tke pride in those like Rep. Emanuel, who rise to the heights of power and involvement in American society, while continuing to reflect a strong commitment to Jewish living and values in their personal and public lives.

Shabbat Shalom! May we, the Jewish People, the United States and Israel continue to go מחיל לחיל, from strength to strength.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Learning in a community, Praying for our National Community

While I often find it hard to write on the blog while concentrating on midterms and papers, I have a few updates to share in this period between Rosh Chodesh Marcheshvan and Election Day.

On the Rosh Chodesh end, I wrote an article about the joy of Hevruta (partnership) study for the monthly KOACH E-zine, and I wanted to share it here as well:

By Gabe Seed
JTS / Columbia University

"Hevruta o Mituta" – Friendship/Peer Study or Death?! (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 23b)

As a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one might think that I am inundated with Jewish studies. Although I am majoring in Talmud and have countless hours of formal Jewish learning in my schedule, some of my best Jewish education comes in the form of hevruta, informal Jewish study with a friend or two. The most wonderful element of hevruta study is that it is almost infinitely flexible, in terms of frequency and length of meeting, as well choice of topic to be studied. This year, I have two hevrutot which have greatly enhanced my Jewish learning, as we have learned so much from each other and the texts we have studied.

Starting during the previous school year, my friend Jonah Rank, a junior at JTS/Columbia, and I have been studying Masekhet (tractate) Sotah in the Babylonian Talmud, which deals with the ritual prescribed when a wife is accused of being disloyal to her husband, along with a number of other topics. In addition to honing our skills in Aramaic and rabbinic text study in general, Jonah and I have also struggled with the philosophical issues raised by the words of the Mishnah and the Gemara. Although the institution ofsotah may no longer be practiced today, it is a fascinating part of our Jewish heritage.

At the beginning of this year, I began an additional hevruta with Yossi Hoffman, a junior at NYU, with whom I had studied at Ramah in Nyack this summer. Yossi had suggested that we delve into the world of classicalmidrash, medieval works which explain and comment on difficulties in biblical texts. Some rabbis and scholars have compared midrashim to the sermons of today and it is fascinating to try and detect the rabbis’ underlying motivation in the messages they find in the text. Yossi and I have been learning midrashim related to the weekly Torah reading, from D’varim Rabbah, as well as selections related to the special portions for the holidays inPesikta D’rav Kahana, a work compiled from manuscripts by Dr. Bernard Mandelbaum, former Vice Chancellor of our very own JTS. Studying these texts, especially with the insights of a hevruta, has enhanced both my understanding of midrash and the meaning of the biblical texts when they are read.

It doesn’t take any special qualifications or background to have a hevruta like mine and it can happen on any campus around the world. Even here at JTS, an academic center of the Conservative Movement, some of the best learning takes place outside of the classroom, in a planned or impromptuhevruta session!

Gabe Seed is a sophomore at JTS and Columbia, where he majors in Talmud and history, respectively. He spent a year before college on Nativ, studying at the Conservative Yeshiva and Kibbutz En Zurim.  He also has a presence on the web at, with a blog and the Zemirot Database which he co-founded.

Looking ahead to the election, there are plenty of comments I could make from a political perspective, as I do have strong views about how Jewish tradition speaks on the hot issues of today.  However, I am choosing instead to devote this space to words of gratitude, prayer and hope that represent the feelings of American Jews on our unique opportunity to live in the open and democratic society that is the United States.

---Professor Louis Ginzburg (1873-1953), Scholar and Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow, 1985:

Our  God  and  God  of  our  ancestors:  We  ask  Your  blessings  for  our  country,  for its government, for its leader and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority. Teach them insights of Your Torah that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.  Creator  of  all  flesh,  bless  all  the  inhabitants  of  our  country  with  Your  spirit.  May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony to banish all hatred and bigotry and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country. May this land under Your Providence be an influence for good throughout the world, uniting all people in peace and freedom and helping them to fulfill the vision of your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.” And let us say: Amen.

---Yocheved Tupper , Student, JTS and Barnard College:

Please feel free to include this in your daily prayers. If you don't pray daily, please feel free to use it! Also, feel free to post it but please give me credit. The first is non-denominational and the second is specifically for Jews. Please alter it to your religious needs! Please make sure to give me credit, even if you alter it, as every time we cite our sources we bring G-d's presence into the world. (this is according to Jewish law) Also, if you do use it, let me know in the comments below just because it'll make me happy to think of us uniting in prayer for a fair election.

Non-Denominational Version:
Almighty G-d, Ruler of time and space, give all those who believe in and work for the fulfillment of the democratic promise of equality, justice, and freedom the strength and insight they need to persevere and positively influence the vote. May Your children vote tomorrow free from the prejudice that has filled this election and in the interest of their collective good. May Your felt presence enable all who have the right to vote to do so quickly and without challenge to their citizenship. May communities and individuals who have been disenfranchised be fully enfranchised. May every vote be counted accurately and swiftly. May Your love of justice guide all who are responsible for voting machines, ballots, lines, and poll places. May Your steady hand prevent the overzealous from declaring the election's finish before due time, and may the expression of true and just democracy in which every person is protected and uplifted, which is Your hope for all Your children, be fulfilled in our time.

Jewish Version:
Our G-d and G-d of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, give all those who believe in and work for the fulfillment of the democratic promise of equality, justice, and freedom the strength and insight they need to persevere and positively influence the vote. May Your children vote free from the prejudice that has filled this election and in the interest of their collective good. May Your felt presence enable all who have the right to vote to do so quickly and without challenge to their citizenship. May communities and individuals who have been disenfranchised be fully enfranchised. May every vote be counted accurately and swiftly. May Your love of justice guide all who are responsible for voting machines, ballots, lines, and poll places. May Your steady hand prevent the overzealous from declaring the election's finish before due time, and may the expression of true and just democracy in which every person is protected and uplifted, which is Your hope for all Your children, be fulfilled in our time.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Yachad, Shivtei Yisrael - Together, the tribes of Israel

וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן, מֶלֶךְ, בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם, יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

"And there was a King in Yeshurun (a reference to Israel), when the heads of the people gathered, together as the tribes of Israel." (D'varim 33:4)

This pasuk, taken from the torah reading of V'zor Hab'racha, the final parasha which is read on Simchat Torah, is a perfect one to summarize my Simchat Torah experience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Besides for having a wonderful chag overall, with new friends and old, I was proud to be a part of the two communities with which I celebrated Simchat Torah in the evening and the morning. Last night's festivities began with a festive Ma'ariv service with Koach, the Conservative group at Columbia's Hillel. After the service and the introductory verses to the Hakafot, we danced the Sefer Torah from the Hillel building down the street to the Roone Arledge Auditorium, the largest room in Columbia's student center, which has hosted such little-known figures like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Barack Obama and John McCain. After a few minutes, we were joined by Yavneh, Hillel's orthodox group, and soon we began our annual joint hakafot, an amazing show in Jewish unity. Separated by a diviaion of low folding tables, the entire community danced in an arrangement known as a trichitza, with a mens section, womens section and a mixed section. Each segment had one sefer torah, and we even attempted to dance to the same songs in each section. I experienced much intense joy for a number of reasons. First of all, it was wonderful that our entire Hillel community could come together on such a joyous occasion with so few barriers, so that we truly felt united in our celebration of Torah and Judaism. Secondly, I was proud to be a part of the mixed section of the dancing; as a traditional Conservative Jew who believes in the permissability of mixed dancing, I was proud to see the vitality of our celebration, inclusding the attendance of regulars and those aren't generally shulgoers.

The celebration came to a climax for the 7th Hakafah, as we danced the sifrei torah out of the auditorium, up Braodway, and into the main Columbia gates, as we had the final hakafah outside on Low Plaza. It was an amazing felling of Jewish pride as we celebrated in the center of the Columbia campus. At one point, we successfully formed a large circle around the plaza with everyone present, and sang Achainu and Hatikva with everyone present, which was truly a spiritual moment for me. Around 11:15, we began to dance the sifrei Torah back to Hillel, at which point I joied Yavneh for a joyous Torah reading [Traditionally, the Torah is not read at night. However, there is also an idea that we do not take a Torah from the Aron Kodesh without reading from it, so many have the custom to read the beginning of V'zot Hab'racha]. Although I'm told that some hakafot went into the wee hours of the morning, I actually hung out for a short while before I got some sleep so I could wake up on time for shul the next morning.

I spent Simchat Torah morning with Kehilat Hadar, an independent traditional/egalitarian community, which met at local Conservative shul Ansche Chesed. They pulled all the stops with having a ruach filled davening and hakafot, so much so that I left after the silent Amidah of musaf (around 2:30) because I was late for lunch! There was plenty of singing, even in p'sukei d'zimra, and a joyous hallel, followed by a rousing hakafot. Often in my childhood, I remember Simchat Torah being fun, but I think it says a lot that I felt quite exhausted after all the dancing this year! By the end of hakafot and beginning of Torah reading, there were a few hundred people present, which meant that it took about an hour and a half for everyone to have an aliyah, even with 5 Torah readers. Although the Ba'alei K'riah were great (including a few kids of Conservative rabbis), I followed the lead of a few others and decided to read my own aliyah!
And not to forget our lead-in pasuk, Hadar's services also represented Yachad Shivtei Yisrael. I saw dozens of friends there from all different stages of my life, and from across the spectrum of belief and observance.

This year's experiences reminded me of true meaning of the holiday - The Torah belongs to all of Israel, if only we will take ownership of it, however it speaks to us.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Take with you d'varim! - a follow-up!

I often have a strange feeling at the end of Yom Kippur. Of course, I am overjoyed at the feeling that our prayers have been heard and that our sins have been forgiven. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 425:1), in the gloss of the ReMa (Rabbi Moshe Isserless), that is is a mitzvah to begin bulding our sukkah as soon as the fast ends, in order not to pass over a mitzvah that comes to hand. This is surely a beautiful concept, and amongs its messages is the one that Yom Kippur is not an end, but a means to continue our relationship with God and mitzvot. However, this still leaves me with one issue - How do we ensure that the process of self-introspection and reflection that we have just gone through is not forgotten, and that do not forget the steps and prayers in which we were immersed in order to improve our behavior and actions?

When I was in Israel on Nativ, I was introduced to an amazing Machzor which has forever altered my High Holiday experience. Named ממך אליך (Mimcha Eilecha - 'From You, To You'), it's concept is brilliant - to provide a complete, traditional text surrounded by a plethora of traditional and modern commentaries, with everything from traditional, medieval and hassidic texts to modern poetry and short stories. Although it sounds like a lofty goal, I would love to see if anyone would publish a similar set in Emglish: a complete traditional Hebrew text, a translation that is faithful to the original, and texts to complement it from every corner of the Jewish experience, spanning time, place and outlook. While I do find the traditional liturgy and especially the piyutim (poems which complement the structured prayers) very meaningful, the readings and quotes in this Machzor have helped to enhance the meaning of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur experience.

On the final page of the Yom Kippur Musaf service I found a short bt very meaningful quote which hearkens back to my d'var torah for Shabbat Shuvah:
קחו עמכם דברים ושובו אל ה' -את הדברים שאתם אומרים בבית הכנסת, בשעת התפילה והלימוד, אל תשאירו שם, אלא קחו את הדברים הללו עמכם גם בצאתכם משם.
"Take with you words (d'varim), and return to God" - These words which you say in the synagogue, during times of prayer and study, should not be left there, but rather should be taken with you when you leave there."
- Malbim (19th century Russia)

I feel that this quote is the perfect answer to my search. There is a reason the Yom Kippur happens once per year, as it is the pinnacle of our relationship with God. But this day was and is not an end in and of itself, but a means to impact on how we choose to live our lives each and every day. Especially on Yom Kippur, but each and every time we daven or learn, we should not leave our words and prayers in Shul, but allow them to influence our daily lives. Judaism is not meant to be just a compartment of our lives, but the essence of who we are and what we believe in.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hayom! - היום! - Today!

While whole bookshelves have been written about the themes of the High Holiday Liturgy, I would like to focus on one which I find particularly meaningful and which helps explain my great distraught at reading a feature article in the New York Times yesterday.

Throughout the liturgy, both the core b'rachot and the piyutim, of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, remind us of the special power invested in those very days, in the repeated use of the word 'Hayom' - today, this day. These references reminded me during my tefillot to concentrate on the unique opportunity to reflect on the beginning of a New Year, and the focus on the day elevates the other core themes of the Rosh Hahanah Musaf (God's Kingship, Remembrance and Revelation), as well as atonement on Yom Kippur.
Here are a number of the countless tefillot that reflect the 'Hayom' theme, which has helped bring meaning to my Yamim Noraim so far.

וּנְתַנֶּה תּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּום. כִּי הוּא נורָא וְאָים
And we proclaim to you the greatness of this day, for it is terrible and awesome.

עוד יִזְכּר לָנוּ אַהֲבַת אֵיתָן, אֲדונֵינוּ.
וּבַבֵּן הַנֶּעֱקַד יַשְׁבִּית מְדַיְּנֵנוּ.
וּבִזְכוּת הַתָּם יוצִיא הַיּום לְצֶדֶק דִּינֵנוּ.
כִּי קָדושׁ הַיּום לַאֲדונֵינוּ:
May he still remember for us the love of the steadfast one (Avraham), our Ruler,
and through the one who was bound (Isaac) may he set to rest our strict judgment,
And through the merit of the pure one (Jacob) may he bring out today a positive decree,
For today is holy to our God!

היום הרת עולם, היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים
Today is the birthday of the world, today all creatures of the world will stand in judgment.

הַיּום תְּאַמְּצֵנוּ:
הַיּום תְּבָרְכֵנוּ:
הַיּום תְּגַדְּלֵנוּ:
Today you will strengthen us - amen!
Today you will bless us - amen!
Today you will raise us up with your greatness - amen!

And on Yom Kippur, we repeat too many times to count, in our liturgy and Torah reading (Vayikra 16:30)
כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם: מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ.
For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the LORD.

As this is only a sampling of the times that our rabbis reinforce the power of these special days to transform us each year, I was greatly distressed to see this article on the front page of the Metro section yesterday.
Rabbi Has Message. So Does Cellphone. -
In it, the Times reporters traveled to a number of Reform and Conservative congregations in Manhattan and at each found a variation of the same scene. Congregants frantically walked in and out of the service, checking their cellphones, blackberries and iphones for the latest financial news. At one Conservative shul, the static from so many electronic devices caused their microphones to malfunction.
While I did find out the gravity of the financial situation after the conclusion of the holiday, and while I understand that I don't work on Wall Street, I think that not being able to remove oneself from the world of business on such a special day is both sad and disrespectful. If the news outside is sad, than it is even more of a reason to leave it behind and come together as a community to praise the "author of the universe (אדון הכל) and to pray for a better future.
While I personally would not use an electronic device on Yom Tov out of halachic (Jewish legal) imperative, I would encourage others who do not feel that compulsion, to turn off their communication devices, and instead communicate with their souls and with God, "He who spoke and the world came into being." Wall Street will open after shul and after the holidays. But this day, these days of awe, only come once per year. May we sense their message and seize the power embedded in the words of the machzor and the days themselves. I wish to conclude with one final prayer:
כְּהַיּום הַזֶּה תְּבִיאֵנוּ שָׂשִׂים וּשְׂמֵחִים בְּבִנְיַן שָׁלֵם:
כַּכָּתוּב וַהֲבִיאותִים אֶל הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עולתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצון עַל מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל הָעַמִּים:
On a day such as this may you bring us, glad and rejoicing in the rebuilding of Shalem (=Jerusalem, but lit. wholeness, completion, peace), as it is written (Isaiah 56:7):Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.


Shabbat Shalom and G'mar Chatima Tovah!

Take with you d'varim (words?) - Parashat Vayelech

Hayamim chol’fim, shanah overet, aval hamanginah l’olam nish’eret

The days change, a year passes, but the melody remains.

The words to this Israeli folk/children’s’ song come to mind when reading this week’s short, but significant portions – the parasha of Vayelech from the Torah, where Moshe prepares to submit his poetic legacy to the people of Israel, and the Haftarah, which gives the name of Shuva to this special Shabbat. I would like to focus on the opening of this haftarah, and an important lesson that can be drawn from it.

This week’s haftarah is actually a composite of selections from among three of the twelve minor prophets, beginning with the concluding portion of the book of Hosea. Hosea’s prophecy deals with what Professor Amy Kalmanofsky calls the wayward wife metaphor, in which God is the husband and Israel, an unfaithful wife. But as Hosea’s words come to a close, the message is one of hope and reconciliation, appropriate for this season in which we reflect on our past deeds and how we can alter and improve our relationships with God and those close to us. The prophet, acting as God’s conduit, announces:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have fallen because of your sin.
3 Take d’varim with you
And return to the Lord.
Say to Him:
"Forgive all guilt
And accept what is good;
Instead of bulls we will pay
[The offering of] our lips. (Hosea 14:2-3)

In Hosea’s vision, our return to God is not based on materialistic of financial acts – but Rabbi David Kimche (RaDaK) argues that it cannot be just words either. He explains, “I do not ask from you gold or silver or offerings, but rather a complete t’shuva with all of your heart. “

We are told that we can’t buy our T’shuvah with material good, but Hosea seems to imply that Teshuva does not take place in a vacuum; while we should surely start fresh with our words and actions, we are not required to go it alone. This prophetic call for our return is phrased in the plural, to remind us that repentance is designed to take place in a community, like ours here at MSRH and JTS, where we can recognize that we all have faults and shortcomings, and we can support one another in our growth and learning over the coming years. I would like to interpret Hosea’s term of d’varim as words of Torah, but Torah in the broadest sense. I hope that we can all find our spark of Torah in the new year, whether it is by studying with a friend, repairing the world, or anything in between. God has called us to return, our only requirement is to hear that call and take with us D’varim on our journey.

Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Chatima Tovah!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Through the Torah shall we be blessed

Being a college student concurrently at two institutions is not always easy, and this week was filled with reading, paper-writing, and waking up early for selichot services in anticipation of the approaching Yamim Noraim (high holydays). But it was also filled with much blessing. One special blessing that I was given this week was the opportunity to meet in a small, intimate forum with prominent Israel author and intellectual Amos Oz and approximately 25 other undergraduates. Although I have not yet had the privilege of reading Oz's work, it was fascinating to hear from and ask questions of someone with such broad life experience and depth of insight. Although Professor Oz's words were sometimes difficult to hear or agree with, especially regarding sacrifices that Israel would be forced to make in its future, they came from a place of honesty not often heard from politicians or other public figures.
But aside from being blessed with this special opportunity, I am happy to be in a community where serious Torah study and community building occurs daily. At JTS, I feel lucky to have learned about the development of Halacha with Rabbi Joel Roth, the laws of inheritance from Massachet Bava Batra with Dr. Jonathan Milgram, Medieval Jewish History with Dr. Benjamin Gampel, and Isaiah and Jeremiah with Dr. Amy Kalmanofsky.
However, one of my greatest pleasures is learning Torah lishmah, for its own sake. I again had the pleasure of learning Midrash with my friend Yossi, and we were inspired by halachic lessons on this week's parashah, and philosophical musings from Pesikta D'rav Kahana (a Palestininan collection of midrashim related to special Torah and Haftarah readings).
I was especially inspired from a piece in D'varim Rabbah (8:2):
רבנן אמרי: אמר הקב"ה: אם ברכת את התורה לעצמך את מברך.

שנא' (משלי ט): כי בי ירבו ימיך ויוסיפו לך שנות חיים.
The Rabbis taught: If you make a B'aracha over the torah [study or reading], you will recieve a blessing for yourself... as it is written: "Through me shall your days multiply, and years of life shall be added to you" (Proverbs 9).

The shoet parashah of Nitzavim has deep meaning as we approach Rosh Hashanah. We are told (D'varim 30:8): " See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil." After learning this midrash and examining the parshah, I will try to be more concious of the blessings in my daily life, and increase Torah and the blessing that comes with it. Just as we are told in the Torah, we too can choose in our own activities to choose the paths that highlight life and good.

On this not, I pray that we shall all be blessed with a Shabbat Shalom and a Shanah Tovah umvorechet (a good and blessed year)!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Parashat Ki Tetze - Surrounded by Mitzvot!

This week is a special parasha, not only because it contains the most mitzvot of any in the Torah, but it also was (one of the) parsh(iot) on which I marked my becoming a Bar Mitzvah seven years ago. Though some may find the lack of any narrative in the parashah a bit dull, I find the plethora of laws both exciting and axhilirating, as they have so much of an effect on what we do as Jews and members of a western democratic society.
This week I also began a chevruta in Midrsh with my friend Yossi, in which we plan on studying a selection of midrashim related to the week's parasha. There were so many interesting ideas in what we learned that it was hard to choose just one. the following text, about which I will comment comes from D'varim Rabbah 6:3:
ג [לכל מקום שתלך המצות מלוות אותך]
זה שאמר הכתוב (משלי א): כי לוית חן הם לראשך.
רבנן אמרי: נעשה דברי תורה חן לרשיותך.
אדם בן תורה, בשעה שהוא מזקין הכל באין ומסבבין אותו ושואלין אותו דברי תורה.

דבר אחר:
מהו כי לוית חן?
אמר רבי פנחס בר חמא: לכל מקום שתלך המצות מלוות אותך.

כי תבנה בית חדש ועשית מעקה לגגך.
אם עשית לך דלת, המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר (דברים ו): וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך.
אם לבשת כלים, חדשים המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר: לא תלבש שעטנז.
אם הלכת לגלח, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא': לא תקיפו פאת ראשכם.
ואם היה לך שדה והלכת לחרוש בתוכה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנאמר (דברים כב): לא תחרוש בשור ובחמור יחדו.
ואם זרעת אותה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא' (שם): לא תזרע כרמך כלאים.
ואם קצרת אותה, המצות מלוות אותך, שנא': כי תקצור קצירך בשדך ושכחת עומר בשדה. אמר הקב"ה: אפילו לא היית עוסק בדבר אלא מהלך בדרך, המצות מלוות אותך.
שנא': כי יקרא קן צפור לפניך:
Proverbs 1:9 teaches us: "for they are a wreath to adorn your head"....
...What does it mean that they are a wreath for your head? Rabbi Pinchas Ben Hama said: Whererver you shall go, the mitzvot will accompany you!
When you build a new hoise, the mitzvot accompany you, as it says "When you build a new house, then you shall make a parapet for your roof" (D'varim 22:8)
When you make a doorway, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you should write them on the doors of your house" (D'varim 4:9)
When you go to shave, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you shall not round the corners of your head" (Vayikra 19:27)
When you wear new clothing, the mitvot surround you, as it says "you should not wear an admixture of wool and linen" (D'varim 22:11).
If you plant a field, the mitzvot accompany you, as it is written "you should not mix two species in a field" (D'varim 22:9).
When you go to plow your field, the mitzvot surround you, as it says "you shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together." (D'varim 22:10)
When you reap it, the mitzvot accompany you, as it says "when you go to reap your harvest, and forget a measure of is for the stranger, orphan and widow" (D'varim 24:19).

The Holy One Blessed Be He said: even if you are not engaged in any act and just walking along the way, the mitzvot will accompany you. How do we know this?
" If a bird's nest chance to be before you along the way" (D'varim 22:6).

When Yossi and I first looked at this midrash, we were a bit puzzled. What do we learn from this nice, but seemingly random, list of mitzvot that Rabbi Pinchas presents us with, most of them from this week's parasha? It then occured to me, as it has since I began my journey of critical, academic text study at the Conservative Yeshiva and JTS, that we must examine the text according to when it was written and not purely through our 21st century lens. According to an article in the Jewish Encyclopedia co-edited by Louis Ginzberg, this compilation of Midrash was probably edited around the year 900 in Eretz Yisrael, a time when much of the Jewish community there lived an agrarian lifestyle. Therefore, the mitzvot listed here can give us some insight into activities that were part of daily life for our ancestors over a millenium ago, when houses had flat roofs (and required parapets), and fields needed to be sown, plowed and reaped.

Rabbi Pinchas's list of daily mitzvot inspired me to consider how many opportunities I have for mitzvot in my daily life, and which I'm sure is true for many of us. In addition to 'big' mitzvot like Tefillah, Shabbat and Kashrut, I am amazed by how many opportunities there are in my immeadite community to engage in both mitzvot bein adam laMakom (between humans and God) and Bein Adam L'chaveiro (between humans). JTS's Va'ad Gemilut Chasadim provides countless ways to give back to the community, from blood drives to volunteering at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and old age homes. These types of 'social action' mitzvot are even on our nation agenda, as seen in a forum held here at Columbia last night featuring Barack Obama and John McCain. Finally, I am fortunate to have so many opportunities to engage in serious Torah study at JTS, Columbia and the community at large.

Even if we probably won't happen upon many of the mitzvot enumermay you merit ated in this mishnah, it is our challenge from Parashat Ki Tetze to seek out mitzvot to accompany our daily lives, and activities that reflect the values taught in the Torah, even we aren't plowing with donkeys or oxen!

Shabbat Shalom, and Tizku L'mitzvot (may you merit mitzvot)!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

קולומביה אורו של עולם Columbia, light of the world!

Shavua Tov!
I am proud to announce that not only did I start off my college career by hearing the president/dictator of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Columbia seems to have started an annual high-profile speaker series. This coming Thursday evening, Both Barack Obama and John McCain will be speaking in our very own Roone Arledge Auditorium. I entered myself in a lottery to secure a spot in the room, but the odds aren't too high. We shall see!

Presidential Candidates Will Speak at Lerner

Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama, CC ’83, will appear on stage together in Alfred Lerner Hall next Thursday as part of a summit on the importance of public service, event organizers told Spectator.

“Both Obama and McCain have confirmed their attendance,” University President Lee Bollinger said Wednesday afternoon.

The candidates are two of the many high-profile figures who will appear on campus during the summit, hosted by ServiceNation, a nonpartisan coalition devoted to increasing the commitment of citizens to part-time public service. The organization hopes to have 100 million per year signed on by 2020.

According to an e-mail sent to members of the Columbia community on Wednesday night, students will be able to enter a ticket lottery to reserve seats. But, Bollinger warned in the e-mail, space for Columbia students is limited. According to ServiceNation, 500 “leaders of all ages” are expected to attend the two-day summit, which may curtail the amount of seats available to students. “We will ensure that all seating available goes to students in our University community,” Bollinger said.

Students will receive an e-mail with details regarding lottery registration on Thursday.

The event is part of ServiceNation’s two-day New York Summit, and will also feature New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other politicians. R&B singer Usher is serving as the summit’s Youth Chair.

ServiceNation had previously announced that its summit would be held in New York City, but did not specify that Thursday’s events would be held at Columbia.

Thursday’s event also marks the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Out of respect for the memory of those who died that day, both campaigns pledged to tone down attack ads.

The summit’s co-chairs include Caroline Kennedy; Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise Alliance; TIME’s Richard Stengel; Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation; and Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP. ServiceNation Summit is underwritten by a grant from Carnegie Corporation, and will be presented by AARP, TIME, and Target.

The appearance marks Obama’s first visit to his alma mater during his presidential campaign. Since he announced his candidacy in May 2007, Obama’s reticence to discuss his time at Columbia or to appear at the school has fueled questions about his activities as an undergraduate in Morningside Heights.

Obama, the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, won the Democratic nomination after a protracted primary battle with New York U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton. In this election, he has run on a platform of “change,” citing his personal experience growing up as the son of a Kenyan father and midwestern mother in Indonesia and Hawaii, as well as his time as an activist in Chicago and an Illinois state senator. Opponents have attacked Obama for his relative inexperience in national and international politics.

McCain, the Republican senior U.S. senator from Arizona, last appeared at Columbia as the Columbia College Class Day speaker in May 2006. His daughter Meghan graduated from Columbia College in 2007. He spoke largely about his support for the war in Iraq and the importance of dissent and discussion, and was heckled by many attendees.

McCain was initially considered a long shot for the Republican nomination, but his campaign picked up momentum after the New Hampshire primary in 2008. He is expected to formally accept the Republican nomination this week at the Republican National Convention.

During the campaign, McCain has repeatedly cited his own experience as a war veteran and his years in the House of Representatives and Senate as evidence of his qualifications to be president. Critics say that McCain’s policies are too similar to what they believe are the failed policies of President George W. Bush.

Next week’s event will mark a rare joint appearance between the Democratic and Republican candidates, a point that Bollinger stressed in his e-mail. The two candidates last appeared together two weeks ago at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.
Rumors swirled around Columbia during the first day of classes about a potential high-profile speaker because certain student groups had their secured space in Lerner revoked for the same date.

“It’s wonderful for us to have the two leading candidates here, and to talk about the issues surrounding service,” Bollinger said.

In the e-mail sent to students, Bollinger said that ServiceNation’s mission fit well with Columbia’s interest in public service. “It is entirely fitting for us to become part of this two-day conclave that will bring together so many admired leaders in our country to consider ways to expand the scope and scale of successful service programs throughout the nation,” he said.

Bollinger wrote that the spirit of ServiceNation’s initiatives are “an essential part of Columbia’s identity and academic mission.” He stressed that the event is nonpartisan, and will not be a debate.

The presidential election comes on the heels of strife over the Iraq war, a shaky economy, and the conflict between Georgia and Russia. The vote also touches on issues such as race and gender, since, if elected, Obama would be the first black president, and if McCain sees success, running mate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin would be the first female vice president.

Melissa Repko, Jacob Schneider, and Amanda Sebba contributed to this article.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Parashat Shof'tim - How do we take responsibility?

This week's parasha of Shof'tim (which happens to be the one I read at Robinson's arch at the Kotel for my Bar Mitzvah seven years ago), could not be more relevant, as we are in the midst of an intense presidential campaign, a time when discussions of values are in the news and in the air. Shof'tim, which constitutes the heart of the legal portion of Moshe's final address, deals mostly with interpersonal laws (mitzvot bein adam l'chavero), and specifically about setting up a just society. It begins with the famous exhortation of צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף - Justice, Justice, shall you pursue (D'varim 16:20), and continues with a number of topics under this umbrella: idolatry, courts, kingship, murder and war.
One of the most interesting, and possibly troubling situations presented in the parasha is at the end of the sh'vi'i aliyah (which I will be reading tomorrow). After giving a number of instructions about how to conquer the land, including the beautiful environmentalist message of the commandment not cut down fruit trees when attacking a city (20:19-20), for "Is a fruit tree human, to run from you in a seige," we recieve the law of the 'Egel Ha'arufa.'
We are told in D'varim 21:1-9 of the case of a corpse being found between two cities, and no evidence as to who committed the murder. The Torah provides a special ceremony in which the elders of the closest city to the location of the corpse take a calf that has never been worked and take it to the side of an unsown riverbed, where its neck is then broken. The elders wash their hands over the body of the calf and recite:
יָדֵינוּ לֹא שפכה (שָׁפְכוּ) אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה וְעֵינֵינוּ לֹא רָאוּ. ח כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ יְהוָה וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ
יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם הַדָּם. ט וְאַתָּה תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי מִקִּרְבֶּךָ כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינֵי יְהוָה
"'Our hands have not spilled this blood and our eyes did not see it. For give your people Israel that you redeemed and do not allow innocent blood to be spilled in the midst of the people,' and they should be forgiven for this blood. And thus should you extinguish the innocent blood from your midst if you do that which is right in the eyes of God."

In one vein, it is very nice and beautiful that the Torah provides a ceremony, where we can recognize the occurance of such a heinous act as a senseless murder/death of an unknown person. On the other hand, it is somewhat troubling that it seems that the elders of the city can almost too easily 'wash their hands' of the murder.
However, the existence of this ceremony in itself can send us a more positive message. (I can't remeber in whose name to teach this lesson:) One reason that this type of murder/death could occur, especially outiside of a city, is if a person were spiritually or physically outside of a community, and the leaders of the community did not make the proper effort to include those on the perimeter. This ceremony, which in any case is somber and not jubilant, could serve as a wake-up call to the elders that they must improve their efforts to reach out to those who may be excluded from the community for any reason.
We too, must heed this message; we must reach out to those in our communities who may feel on the outside, especially to guests, visitors and newcomers. As well, in this period of Elul 5768, when we are reflecting on both our personal and national actions, we must remember to include those who may escape our thoughts. May the values of justice and righteousness present in this week's parashah be near to us as we make both personal and national goals in the days and weeks ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

P.S. (Post Shabbat): As we discuss senseless, and preventable deaths with the 'egel ha'arufah (broken-necked calf), I would like to dedicate these words to the memory of Anthony Esposito, 48, father of 3 and brother of our JTS director of Facilities Joseph Esposito who was killed in a tragic, and probably preventable crane accident this past week, the third such incident in the city in the past year. I hope and pray that preventable incidents like these can be decreased if we, and those who are in positions of power take care in matters of human life.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

זה סוף הקיץ, סוף הדרך -An end of Summer D'var Torah

(Translation of title: 'it is the end of the summer, the end of the path' - Lu Yehi, by Naomi Shemer)

After just attending a shiva minyan in the neighborhood the past few nights, I was inspired to offer some words of Torah on this Shabbat of Ekev, the second Shabbat of Consolation following Tisha B'av. As a number of relevant and inspirational quotes had come to mind, I will present each of them and explain its relevance for these concluding days of the summer, after camp has ended and before returning to school next week.
ב טוֹב לָלֶכֶת אֶל-בֵּית-אֵבֶל, מִלֶּכֶת אֶל-בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה--בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא סוֹף כָּל-הָאָדָם; וְהַחַי, יִתֵּן אֶל-לִבּוֹ.
2 It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting; for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart. (Kohelet Chapter 7)

While I do not believe it is at all healthy to have Kohelet's bleak world view all the time, it is important to take his words to heart once in a while. Although I did not know the woman for whom we were mourning, I always find Shiva Minyanim a time to step back and reflect on our relationships with those whom we care about and with our communities, as opposed to with the material world of our daily lives. These ideas are also reflected in the words of Psalm 49, recited on most days in a house of mourning:
But man abideth not in honour; he is like the beasts that perish.
14 This is the way of them that are foolish, and of those who after them approve their sayings. Selah
15 Like sheep they are appointed for the nether-world; death shall be their shepherd;
and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their form shall be for the nether-world to wear away, that there be no habitation for it.
16 But God will redeem my soul from the power of the nether-world; for He shall receive me. Selah
While these words of the psalmist may be quite overly bleak,I feel that they are appropriate for a house of mourning, when we should be steered to focus on the legacy that a person left, and not just on possessions.

Parashat Ekev is also about reflection, sitting in the middle of Moses's second discourse to the people of Israel as they are about to enter the land. Ekev sits between the majesty of V'etchanan, when we heard the Aseret Hadibrot (decalogue) and Sh'ma, and the legal code which begins in next weeks reading of Re'eh. But this week is Moshe's opportunity to remind the new generation which is poised to enter the land of where they have come from and their ultimate mission. Before Moshe reviews the sins of the generation of the wilderness, and especially of the Golden Calf, he reminds us and them of God's love that he had shown in the desert:
ג וַיְעַנְּךָ, וַיַּרְעִבֶךָ, וַיַּאֲכִלְךָ אֶת-הַמָּן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַעְתָּ, וְלֹא יָדְעוּן אֲבֹתֶיךָ: לְמַעַן הוֹדִיעֲךָ, כִּי לֹא עַל-הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם--כִּי עַל-כָּל-מוֹצָא פִי-יְהוָה, יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם. 3 And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.
ד שִׂמְלָתְךָ לֹא בָלְתָה, מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְרַגְלְךָ, לֹא בָצֵקָה--זֶה, אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה. 4 Your clothing did not get old upon you, neither did your foot swell, these forty years.
ה וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְיַסְּרֶךָּ. 5 And thou shalt consider in thy heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the LORD thy God chasteneth thee.

We learn a number of lessons from these poignant verses.
  • Man does not live by bread alone: As we get ready to return to our routines of school and work, we should also assess the Mitzvot that we perform and our other actions, in addition to the way we earn our physical bread
  • Your clothing did not get old upon you: A good reminder to be thankful, in addition to God, to those who raised us and made sure that our clothing never got too worn, in addition to nurturing us spiritually.
  • Just as a parent chastens their child: Disipline is only appropriate and effective when done out of love, but we often do not see the love in our discipline or rebuke until years later.
As the summer comes to a close and we return to a regulated routine, our traditions have a number of similar, but contrasting outlooks.

  1. Jeremiah: כ עָבַר קָצִיר, כָּלָה קָיִץ; וַאֲנַחְנוּ, לוֹא נוֹשָׁעְנוּ. 20 'The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.'(Chapter 8)
  2. Naomi Shemer:

    זה סוף הקיץ סוף הדרך

    תן להם לשוב הלום

    כל שנבקש לו יהי.

This is the end of summer, the end of the path
Allow them to return safely here
All that we seek, may it be

Both Jeremiah and Shemer served as 'national poets' for the Jewish people, during the destruction of the first Temple and the Rebirth of the State of Israel respectively, and they bring very different ideas out of this turning of the seasons. While Jeremiah seems to represent one who had goals for the long days of summer and now mourns over what he wished to accomplish and was unable to, Naomi Shemer sees this conclusion of a time of hope, concluding with the words made famous by The Beatles, 'Let it Be.' As the days get shorter and start to cool, We can choose to follow Jeremiah or Naomi Shemer; Although both are beautiful poets, I will try to live up to Shemer's lyrics, and in the spirit of the other words of our tradition, trying to use these days of Shabbat Ekev for reflection, and a resolve to keep improving our deeds and continue hoping that God will let it be

Ken Y'hi Ratzon. Amen.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

סליק מסכת בבא בתרא: The Tractate of Bava Batra is Completed

While the learning of this entire masechet was in memory of our heroic soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev z"l, I would like to give these words a different dedication, to two young people who were taken before their time, and whose Yahrzeits occur during this week surrounding Tisha B'av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.
ה' נתן וה' לקח יהי שם ה' מבורך - God gave and God took, may the name of God be blessed (Job 2:21), is a beautiful but difficult verse to accept. These tragedies defy human explanation, but hopefully we can learn from them and make their memories a kiddush hashem, a sanctification of God's name.
Michael Levin, zecher gibor livracha (may the memory of a hero be for a blessing), died age 21, 8 Av 5766, who died in Lebanon defending the land and people of Israel. Michael, an alum of USY, Camp Ramah in the Poconos and Nativ set an example in his dedication to Am Yisrael by leaving his family while on vacation to return to fight with his unit in Lebanon.
Jared Ascher, died age 4, 12 Av 5753, my first cousin (and the closest in me to age, just two months younger than me), who died of an incurable brain tumor.
Each of these young souls had something special to give the world, and were taken from us before their time. Y'hi Zichram Baruch - may their memories serve as a blessing. I wish to end the dedication with the opening words of this week's haftarah: נחמו נחמו עמי יאמר אלוהיכם - comfort, comfort my people! Thus says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

While many hold that 'just' completing a tractate of Mishnah, is not enough for a proper siyum, which requires a tractate of Gemara or a Seder (one of the six orders of Mishnah), I still feel that my completion of Bava Batra's ten chapters deserves some summarizing and reflection.
Many Masechtot, especuially those which are almost exclusively concerned with halachic material, end with a short passage of aggadah which provides a bit of flavor to the extended legal section. As a sort of virtual siyum (celebration of study), I would like to 'teach' the final mishnah of the masechet and provide some 'drash' on it.
Bava Batra 10:9
י,ט [ח] המלווה את חברו בשטר, גובה מנכסים משועבדין; על ידי עדים, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. הוציא עליו כתב ידו שהוא חייב לו, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. הערב שהוא יוצא לאחר חיתום שטרות, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. מעשה בא לפני רבי ישמעאל ואמר, גובה מנכסים בני חורין. אמר לו בן ננס, אינו גובה לא מנכסים משועבדין ולא מנכסים בני חורין. אמר לו, למה. אמר לו, הרי החונק את אחד בשוק. אמר לו הנח ואני נותן לך, פטור, שלא על אמנתו הלווהו. איזה הוא ערב שהוא חייב: אמר לו הלווהו, ואני נותן לך--חייב, שכן על אמנתו הלווהו. אמר רבי ישמעאל, הרוצה להחכים, יעסוק בדיני ממונות, שאין מקצוע בתורה גדול מהן, שהן כמעיין הנובע. והרוצה לעסוק בדיני ממונות, ישמש את שמעון בן ננס.

One who loans to his fellow through a written contract, he [the loaner] can collect from liened property (i.e., assets that can be seized to pay outstanding debts); a loan made though witnesses, payment can be collected with unliened property. If the loaner poroduces the loanee's handwriting that he is owed money, he may collect from unliened property.
If a guarantor is found after the loan has been granted, he may collect from unliened property. This case came before Rabbi Yishmael, who said that he may collect from uniened property. Ben Nanas said to him, he may not collect from liened or unliened property. Rabbi Yishmael responded, why? Ben Nanas replied, behold the case of a loaner who halts (lit. strangles) a creditor in the marketplace. A passerby said, leave him alone and I will give you [the money]. He (the passerby) is not liable to pay back the loan, because the loaner duid not loan to the creditor based on this person paying back the loan. however, in the caee that the guarantor said, loan to him money, ande I will repay you, he [the guarantor] is liable to repay because the loan was made based on his promise.
(and now, the message): Rabbi Yishmael says, one who wishes to become wise, should study the laws of commerce and property, because there is no greater pursuit than it in Torah, for it is like a flowing fountain. And one who wishes to learn these laws, should study under Shimon Ben Nanas.

Although pages could be written about the legal and philosophical implications of the legal portion of this mishnah, I would like to focus on Rabbi Yishmael's closing maxim. One might think it strange for a rabbi, especially one living quite soon after the destruction of the Temple, to tell his followers to focus on the intricacies of civil law- what about shabbat, kashrut and agricultural tithes?
I think that this statement, which echoes Rabbi Akiva's famous words ("Thus said Rabbi Akiva, this is the essence of Torah, love your neighbor as yourself") is indicative of the true goal of rabbinic Judaism: If one is only concerned with matters of ritual and their relationship with God is only fulfilling half of the mitzvot. Rabbi Yishmael is making a strong statement about the importance of interpersonal relationships, which are regulated through Mitzvot Bein Adam L'chaveiro (commandments between human beings) and codified in the tractates of Seder Nezikin.
Rabbi Yishmael's statement is all too necessary of a reminder today in the wake of the agriprocessers fiasco (in which the country's largest kosher meat plant has been accused of violating immgration laws, child labor and worker mistreatment. Although some rabbis such as representatives of the Orthodox Union and National Council of Young Israel have claimed that kashrut is only abut the minatae of those specific regulations (that would be found in masechet hullin), I, and I believe the rabbis of the mishnah, would strongly disagree.
In this time when we mourn so many different tragedies, some far beyond human understanding, we should resolve to work on our fulfillment of interpersonal mitzvot and our treatment of others, and thus we will be watered by the sweet spring of Torah and hopefully improve the world as well!

B'tzeiti M'imitzrayim/B'tzeitim M'irushalayim/ B'shuvi Lirushalayim

Al Eileh Ani Bochiya: For These I Cry - Thoughts on Tisha B'av 5768

Tisha B'av is a difficult day. While the aura of mourning may be difficult to grasp for those who may be unfamiliar with it, it is not easy even for someone like myself, who is fully immersed in the Jewish calendar.
It is an interesting idea to compare Pesach and Tisha B'av, both of which ask us, as 21st century Jews, to place ourselves in our ancestors shoes and imagine respecively, being redeemed from slavery in Egypt, and witnessing the destruction of two temples, as well as the other tragedies that have become associated with is day, inculding the Crusades, expulsion from Spain in 1492, Chelmincki pogroms in 1648-49, and the start of World War I in 1914, which eventually led to the Shoah.
Both Pesach and Tisha B'av are anticipated on the calendar. With Pesach, we are told to start preparing for the holiday 30 days prior to it [i.e., on Purim] (see Rashi to P'sachim 6a), which is pretty necessary for the cleaning and cooking to get done (or at least the planning for it). We also have 4 special shabbatot with their own maftir and haftarah readings, which anticipate this 'Season of our Freedom.'
Likewise, we begin to prepare for the somber nature of Tisha B'av three weeks prior with the fast of Shiva Asar B'tamuz, on which we mourn the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in 70 CE, along with a number of other sad events. From that date, it is customary not to hold weddings, go to concerts, or have haircuts. Beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av, our joy is [further] decreased (Mishnah Ta'anit 4:6), and we customarily refrain from consuming meat and wine. However, despite this preparation, it is still difficult to go from a joyous shabbat to an intense 25 hours of mourning and reflection.
While I hope you appreciate the comparison which I described above between the most intense joy and intense sadness on our calendar, I really can't take credit for it. It is rather based on a stirring kinah (sad poem recited on Tisha B'av) whose refrain is the title of this post (When I left Egypt/When I Left Jerusalem/When I Return to Jerusalem) , written by Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra in 12th century Spain. I would like to provide the Hebrew text below (since the text is not as well known as it deserves to be), and then provide a bit of analysis and translation. [As a side note, this poem was known to me because it serves as one of the introductory pages to the Moss Haggadah, with each stanza framing a perpetual calendar for the first night of Pesach, which is always the same day of the week as the following Tisha B'av, thus another link between the two holidays.]

This stirring poem contains 22 couplets, each beginning with a letter of the Alef-Bet. What provides its beauty and haunting nature is that while the first line of each couplet begins with a joyous image of the Exodus from Egypt, it is immediately followed by a haunting image of the destruction and expulsion from Jerusalem both in 586 BC and 70 CE. May of the images in both categories are based on verses from the Tanach.
Here is translation of the first few stanzas:
A fire burned within me, as it rose in my heart - when I left Egypt.
And dirges I will raise up, so I will remember - when I left Jerusalem.
'And Moses sang,' an unforgotten song- When I left Egypt.
And Jeremiah lamented, and full of crying it was - when I left Jerusalem.
My house He established, and caused His presence to dwell within it - When I left Egypt.
And God's wrath came down upon me like a pillar of smoke - when I left Jerusalem.
One of the elements of this poem that I truly appreciate is Ibn Ezra's writing in first person. He attempts to embody the idea of B'chol Dor Vador -that in every generation one should see him or herself as if they left Egypt - and applies it to both the exodus and the destruction. The poet asks us to remember our highest point even when we are so low, part of the idea that we have at least some ability to control our national destiny. As well, it is stirring how such close comparidons werre found between the exodus and explusion, between songs of joy and songs of mourning, clouds of Divine protection and divine wrath.
Evoking another rabbinic custom, Ibn Ezra beautifully inserts a twist of hope at the end of the kinah, whose last stanza reads in the Ashkenazi tradition:
Torah and witnessing [at Sinai], and precious vessels - when I left Egypt.
Joy and gladness, and an end to tragedy and mourning - when I return to Jerusalem.

May we all merit to return to a Jerusalem of peace, whether to live or to visit, and may we be thanful for the rebuilding of Jerusalem that has occcured in our lifetime.


I wish to conclude with a short description of our Tisha B'av observance here at Ramah Nyack. After Seudah Shlisheet on Saturday night, which was augmented by a fuller menu of Lasanga and sweet potato pie, we moved in to the Beit Knesset, where the parochet (curtain) had already been removed from the Aron Kodesh. We had a short study session, folowed by the beginning of the maariv service recited without a tune. This section of the service was concluded with kaddish shalem and the blessing over the flame. We then walked outside and down a candlelit walkway to the grassy area, where we gatherd around low tables and read the book of eicha by candlelight. After the conclusion of maariv, we walked over to a blacktop area, where I sang as part of the 'tisha b'av choir' a series of sad songs as two Israels lit the word zachor (remember) on fire flanked by Israeli flags (a somewhat strange tradition, if you ask me). This was followed by a number of optional activities, from which I chose to attend a session led by my friend Michael on the midrashic compilation Eicha Rabbah.
This morning, we again davened outside on the grass, and I read the haftarah, recited in the melody of eicha except for the concluding verses.

Later this evening we will have a Mincha service, a movie and discussion, and Ma'ariv and Break-Fast.