Friday, May 8, 2015

How Victory in Europe Day Connects to Counting the Omer

Today we mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and, in the Jewish calendar, we just finished observing Lag Ba'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. 

Two Holocaust stories show a profound connection between the two events. 

Counting the Omer requires no religious artifacts, such as shofar, lulav, matzah, etc. All you need is your mind. Once you remember how many days have passed since the second night of Passover (if you forgot - use the magic formula), you can perform this mitzvah in any situation you find yourself. Simply recite the blessing, and the count for that day, e.g.: Today is 33 days, which are 4 weeks and 5 days to the Omer. 

It was thus a mitzvah the Jewish people could keep even when they were suffering from persecution, pogroms and imprisonment. Even in the darkest of days, during the Holocaust, we find that counting the Omer was an inspiration to Jewish camp inmates, and a form of spiritual resistance: The Nazis can take everything from us, but they can't take our dedication to our tradition.  

Dwight D. Eisenhower accepts a menorah from Rabbi Menashe Klein.
Rabbi Menashe Klein z”l was a teenager in Buchenwald when he was liberated by  American troops on April 11, 1945.  In volume 10 of his book Mishneh Halachot, he recounts that he was so sick, wounded, and emaciated after Auschwitz and subsequent camps that he could not stand on his feet or even sit up.
But at that great moment of liberation, he wanted so much to perform the mitzvah of counting the Omer in the proper form, since it is preferable to count the Omer standing:
Using the very last reserves of my strength, I grabbed a pole with two hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position, counted the Omer, and then collapsed back on the wooden floor . . . but I knew this would be the day of freedom. 
And that day, he remembers, was the 13th day of the Omer.

Another survivor, author Livia Bitton-Jackson, records in her memoir  I Have Lived AThousand Years  a tragic episode related to counting the Omer that shows, once again, the kiddush hashem that was done through this mitzvah. She and her mother had been transferred from Auschwitz to a slave labor camp in Germany.  In the minutes preceding her liberation on  Shabbat, April 28, 1945,  there was machine-gun fire. The  three Stadler sisters from Livia’s hometown were sitting next to her. Two sisters were instantly killed. As the surviving sister, Beth Stadler, wailed, Livia’s mother had the presence of mind to shout to Beth, “Remember, your sisters’  yahrzeit will be  three days before Lag Ba’Omer. Today is the 30th day of the Omer.”

These survivors’ dedication to keeping track of the Hebrew calendar even in those horrific times is testament to the Jewish spirit. Despite living through unimaginable horrors, they performed the mitzvah of counting the Omer, turning it into a form of spiritual resistance. When we recite the Omer, we are remembering them, connecting to our tradition and continuing their legacy. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Magic Formula for Counting the Omer

If you were stranded on an island without a Jewish calendar and no internet connection (oy gevalt!), how would you know what number to count in the Omer?
Every year, on the second night of Passover, we begin a special 49-day period in the Jewish calendar known as Sefirat Ha’omer, the counting of the Omer.
The problem, however, is how to remember the correct count for any particular night, especially now that we’re past the first week. This Friday (April 24), is it 14 or 15 or 16 to the Omer?
Sure, you can look up a Jewish calendar or go online and find websites, but what if you don’t have access to calendars or to the web? Imagine you are in an army operation where no electronics are allowed? Or what if you’re hiking on the Appalachian Trail?
Magic Formula: G.S.S–7
Every year there is a magic formula to figure out the correct Omer count on any given night. It can be summarized with the acronym G.S.S – 7 which means:
  1. GUESS a number
  2. SUBTRACT the day of the week (Sunday=1, Monday=2, etc).
  3. SUBTRACT magic number 1
  4. If your result is DIVISIBLE BY 7 (or it’s 0), your guess is right. If not – make another guess and repeat the process.

Let’s see how this formula saves the day by following the story of the Amars who went on a vacation to the Pago Pago Islands.
Yaakov and Rachel Amar felt they needed quality time together, and so they left all their smartphones and tablets back home, and traveled to the romantic Pago Pago Islands. They arrived there on Friday April 24, and immediately relished the amazing landscape and inviting beaches of these American Samoa islands.
On Friday night, as they are about to begin a Shabbos meal, the Amars remembered that they haven’t counted the Omer. They were about to begin the blessing, but to their chagrin, they realized they forgot what’s the correct count! Because they were so excited about the trip – they couldn't remember what’s the Omer count tonight. They have no calendar, and it's Shabbos (so they can't call anyone), and anyway, there is no wireless service on this island. 
Both of them know the Halakhic rule that if you forget to count one night, it irreparably disrupts the count, and you are not allowed to continue counting the Omer with a blessing on any of the following nights. The Amars became crestfallen, deeply concerned because they were about to lose the privilege to perform this special mitzvah. An otherwise magical vacation was about to be ruined. 
 Just when they thought all is lost, Rachel remembered the magic formula. Excitedly, she exclaimed: “Guess, subtract day, subtract magic number 1, divisible by 7?”
She proceeded to make a reasonable guess. “Let’s try 22 for tonight’s Omer number. After all, we started counting about 3 weeks ago so it must be in this range.”
Applying the formula, from her guess of 22 she subtracted the day of the week, Friday:
22 – 6 = 16

She then subtracted magic number 1:
16 – 1 = 15
The result, 15, is not divisible by 7. That means her original guess (22) is wrong. 
Catching on quickly, Yaakov realized they need to refine their original guess so he suggested “Let’s try 21 and see what happens.”
They reapplied the magic formula:
21 – 6 – 1 = 14
The result, 14, is divisible by 7, showing that the refined guess of Omer count 21 is the correct count for this Friday night!
They did it! Without any connection to the outside world, our couple figured out that this Friday night, April 24, we count 21 in the Omer.

They high-fived each other, drand a L’chayim, and made the blessing over the Omer, joyous that they were able to perform this mitzvah and count the Omer properly.
This formula will work for any night of the Omer this year, with a small caveat that your guess has to be within a range of 7 of the correct count. That should not be a problem because most people know the approximate range we’re in so their guess is not completely wild.
The formula is good for every year, but the magic number changes. You'll need to come back to our website to get next year's magic number. But for the current Omer season, this formula will ensure that even if you find yourself on the amazing Pago Pago Islands or simply got stuck without your iPhone, you’ll never forget the correct Omer count.

(An expanded version appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.)  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Praise Blind Loyalty or Encourage Critical Thinking?

This year,  when we read the Haggadah at the seder,  I discovered two Zionist thinkers' opposing views about the Child Who Doesn't Know How to Ask (she'eyno yode'a lish'ol). 

In the famous passage about the Four Children (in some translations - the "Four Sons") we have 4 different types of children (the Wise Child,  the Rebellious Child,  the Simple Child,  and  the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask) asking about the Passover rituals, and each one is given a different response tailored to their personality. For the fourth child, the Haggadah says:   
As for the child who does not know how to ask, you should prompt the child. As the Torah says: "You shall tell your child on that  day - it is because of this that God did for me when I went free from Egypt."

In the Haggadah of Mishael Zion and Noam Zion I found a fascinating juxtaposition of the opinions of two modern Zionist leaders.  

Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder of the right wing Revisionist Movement which later became Likud, wrote:

No! I don't agree with the advice of the Haggadah here. The Haggadah says open the child up to critical thinking. In my judgment the parent should be silent. Just kiss this child on the forehead for faithfully maintaining loyalty to those sanctified traditions. The love of knowledge, the philosophical quest is important, but the supreme wisdom is to accept the treasures of the past without second guessing, without evaluating their historical origins and their pragamatic utility. It is essential to cherish and preserve that kind of respectful wisdom and not to tarnish it with unnecessary talk. 

Yariv Ben Aharon, however, adamantly disagrees. Born in 1934, Ben Aharon is a prominent author and educator in the kibbutz movement, and has led the renaissance in Jewish and Talmudic studies among Israeli secular Jews. He embraces the Haggadah's approach and explains the importance of teaching critical thinking:
Open up the children who have not learned to ask. Lead them on the path to becoming a questioning personality, one who inquires about the way of the world. Open them up so they can formulate their own questions. For without questions, your ready-made answers remain inert and there is no common ground between you. The silence of the child can be thunderous. The silence of the one who does not know how to ask may be the result of not having found an appropriate address to express queries . . . Model for the child; show them adults who know how to ask of themselves questions. As the Rabbis said: "If the child and the spouse are unable to ask, let the parents ask themselves" (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 115a). Then there is a good chance that the child will learn to ask as well.

I agree with Ben Aharon.  Who do you agree with? 

Friday, March 20, 2015

How is Parashat Vayikra Connected to Spring?

Today is the first day of Spring. Is there any connection to this week's sedra, Vayikra? 

At first blush, all you can find are lengthy descriptions of the various types of sacrifices. There doesn't seem to be anything related to the seasons of the year. 

But, when you pay attention to the words, you will find the Hebrew word for Spring - aviv

וְאִם תַּקְרִיב מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרִים לַיהוָה--אָבִיב קָלוּי בָּאֵשׁ, גֶּרֶשׂ כַּרְמֶל, תַּקְרִיב אֵת מִנְחַת בִּכּוּרֶיךָ

If you bring a grain offering of the first fruits to the Lord, you shall bring new ears parched with fire, grits of the fresh grain, as your grain offering of the first fruits (Leviticus 2:14).

So the new ears of the grain are called "aviv." How did we get from here to the modern-day meaning of Spring? 

We have to go back to the Plague of Hail to discover that "aviv" actually means in Biblical Hebrew a "barley ear."  

In the Plague of Hail, the Torah describes the damage that was done to agriculture, and differentiates between types of harvests - one that was ruined because it already ripened and hardened, and one that was spared because it ripens late:  

  וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה וְהַשְּׂעֹרָה, נֻכָּתָה  
כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיבוְהַפִּשְׁתָּה גִּבְעֹל
.וְהַחִטָּה וְהַכֻּסֶּמֶת לֹא נֻכּוּ  כִּי אֲפִילֹת הֵנָּה

Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in the bud, but the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, because they ripen late.  (Exodus 9:31-32)

Because the barley ear ripens at this time of the year, this month became known as the Month of Aviv, and later it came to mean the entire season of spring. 

So all of you who have the name Aviv or Aviva or any derivative - now you know how special you are, and what a history your name has! 

Friday, March 13, 2015

200 Verses to Hammer Home Our Responsibility

This week's double parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei, contains a very detailed description of the building of the Tabernacle (mishkan), the vessels (keylim), and the weaving of the priestly vestments (bigdei kehunah). 

It is almost identical -- word for word -- to the instructions given in the sedras Terumah and Tetzaveh which we read 2 and 3 weeks ago, respectively. 

Why couldn't the Torah simply say that Moshe, Betzalel and the Israelites did all they were commanded to do by God? This would have saved, roughly, 200 verses! Think about how much faster we would get to the special Birthdays and Anniversaries kiddush, sponsored by our honorees, that's waiting for us this Shabbat! 

Perhaps the Torah wanted to stress how important it was that the Israelites listened to the instructions, and came together to perform this monumental building task. 

That's why we need to hear how some contributed and donated, be it gold or silver or bronze, be it wool or animal skin, be it oil or incense. 

That's why we need to hear how some used their skills, be it designing, drawing, cutting wood,weaving cloths, slicing stones, or hammering pieces together. 

That's why we need to hear how others helped, lifted, transported, measured and relayed messages.  

Under the supervision of Moses and the artisans Betzalel and Oholiav, everyone gave of their money, their skill or their time, in order to build something together – a symbolic home for God's presence. 

During the whole time the Tabernacle was being constructed, there were no complaints, no rebellions, no dissension. What all previous miracles and wonders failed to do, the construction of the Tabernacle succeeded in doing. It transformed the people. It turned them into a cohesive group. It gave them a sense of responsibility and identity.

Seen in this context, this week's sedras are not boring repetition, but an exciting affirmation of the importance of being involved in projects and working together with others for the benefit of the entire community. 

As we mark the Jewish Federation's Good Deeds Day this Sunday, March 15, all of us can be involved in projects for the benefit of our larger community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Our Religious School students, for example, will be performing songs and music for the residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington.

Of course, Good Deeds Day should extend to Good Deeds Month and Good Deeds Year and beyond. There is no shortage of worthy organizations and projects to ensure our society is filled with justice, caring and compassion. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Moses Shatters the Tablets to Teach Us a Lesson on Counterfeit Holiness

(Published today in the Washington Jewish Week)

In this week’s parsha Ki Tisa, Moses smashes the Ten Commandments on the foot of Mount Sinai after seeing the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf.  

Rashi, the great 11th-century Bible scholar, comments - on the last verse in the Torah - that G-d gave Moses a yasher koach for breaking the tablets.  

This is the origin of the custom to congratulate those who do a praiseworthy job by saying yasher koach!

While the proper Hebrew form is yishar kochacha, the saying yasher koach has gotten a life of its own, and its literal meaning is “May your strength be firm.” In essence, you are wishing the person the strength to continue doing good things.

But why did Moses receive a yasher koach for destroying the tablets about which it's written "The tablets were the work of G-d; the writing was the writing of G-d, engraved on the tablets”? What is praiseworthy in shattering what was arguably the holiest object in history?

Or, was it holy? 

The great scholar Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (Lithuania, 1843-1926) explains this was necessary in order to teach the Israelites – and all of us – an important lesson.  

In his commentary, Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha maintains that at the core of the sin of the Golden Calf lies the Jewish people’s erroneous belief in sources of sanctity outside of G-d. The Israelites perceive Moses as inherently holy and essential to their relationship with the Divine. When Moses disappears, they feel compelled to create another source of supposed holiness. 

Realizing that he must try to cure the nation of its misconceptions, Moses turns to them and effectively says: I am not holy. I am a man just as you. The Sanctuary and its vessels are not intrinsically holy. Their sanctity derives from G-d's presence in our midst. If you sin, these objects lose their holiness.

Even the sanctity of these tablets—the word of G-d—only derives from your relationship with G-d. Now that you have sinned, these tablets are mere stone, devoid of any sanctity. As proof of my point, I shatter them before you!

Rabbi Meir Simcha extends this principle to everything in this world -- physical objects, people and land. Nothing is intrinsically holy -- whether it's a tzaddik or the Land of Israel.  Holiness is a status that is earned by moral and just behavior, and can be lost too - when the behavior of people is corrupted. 

As the Meshech Chochma writes poignantly:
In summation: There is nothing holy in the world deserving of service and submission, only the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is holy in His inevitable existence.

Just as the Tablets and the Tabernacle possess no innate sanctity, so, too, the Land of Israel has no innate holiness. What makes the Land of Israel a "holy land" is performing mitzvot, and building a society based on justice and morality.  In other words, if the Israelites maintain a society which pursues justice, with human rights and equality as core values permeating their social existence – the land becomes a holy land. However, if the Israelites’ country degenerates into a country of oppression and discrimination, the land loses its sanctity. 

To be sure, there are other views about the nature of holiness. But the bold view offered by Rabbi Meir Simcha is supported by other sources, not the least of which is the Prophet Amos who prophesied that the  Jewish people are no different than other nations:  

To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians -- declared the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir (Amos, 9:7). 

These striking verses convey an important message about the "Chosen People" concept. Israel has no automatic uniqueness. It is a nation among nations, subject to the same forces of history as other nations. Chosenness is a challenge, not a guarantee of anything. It is simply another way of saying there are stringent moral requirements demanded from the Israeli society. 

It is no accident these verses will be read in synagogue in a few weeks as the Haftarah of Parashat Kedoshim which opens with the command to be holy, alerting us to a deeper understanding of the idea of holiness.  

Only the Jewish people’s actions - when they create a society based on human rights and justice for all - make them a holy nation.