Wednesday, September 29, 2004

90 Kilometers for Red 

The symbols of the armed forces are clear to the soldiers but not always to the civilians. Here in Israel, just about everyone knows who is who by looking at the boots, pins (and here, too), tags, berets and stripes/bars on the uniforms (these sites are only in Hebrew).

If you see a soldier wearing two stripes (a corporal) then you know that he is a "job-nik" – the derogatory term for the non-combat soldier. No self-respecting combat soldier will ever wear two stripes on his sleeve: Its nothing or three. If you see a soldier with red boots then you have to take a further look at his pins, at his beret and at his shirt. Red boots for infantry soldiers (the highest on the food chain) means that this soldier is a paratrooper or a Special Forces soldier.

But it doesn't end there. Other non-infantry units wear red boots, so you have to be sure before offering your respect for the "higher" rungs of the ladder. If the soldier with the read boots and the red beret has his shirt out and belt over his shirt – well, he is a paratrooper. The paratroop wings should also be in his chest and of course you will want to make sure, as we wrote above, that he doesn't have two stripes on his sleeve. If his shirt is in, there is a good chance that he is a special forces soldier, but since the paratroops also have special forces soldiers …. Of course you also have to see if he has a gun and what type it is so that … Well – you get the drift.

Some things you just get and some things you need to earn. Boots you get on draft day. Sometimes even when you earn something you don't get to wear it- the stripes for example, or if you are in a special forces unit and took an extra combat medics course, you don't wear the medics pin on your shirt, but hidden away on your beret (which of course is never actually worn on your head, but on your shoulder).

But then there are things that you earn and wear with pride. Paratroop wings are one such thing – but the unit beret is the prize. This is true of all units, combat or otherwise, for until you earn your unit's beret you have to walk around with that embarrassing green one you got on the day you were drafted. For the aforementioned "job-niks" this day comes rather quickly, after you have finished some sort of basic training and a course or two.

For the infantry soldiers it comes only after 7 or 8 months of basic and infantry training and the "masah kumta" - the forced hike or literally, the "Beret hike".

Now there are four infantry units in the Israeli army. The Nachal, which was started to help settle new kibbutzim and combined settlement activity (back when that phrase was apolitical) and army service. The second unit is the Givati which has been fornedand reformed and is without the traditions necessary for its members to think of themselves as "elite".

Then come the two that, well, hate each other. Golani is probably made up of the toughest soldiers in the army. They are the anti-intellectual (which may be why they are the only unit with no page on the IDF web site) dirt eating tough guys with amazing esprit d'corps who take pride in jail time and don't believe in going around an enemy if you can go right through them. They are famous for recapturing Mt. Herman in '73 by going straight up – time and time again, at great loss of life -until the mission was accomplished.

The last -and the only volunteer unit in the infantry are the paratroopers. They are the "elite" of the infantry, essentially the airborne troops (like the 82nd and 101st in the US army) also tough as nails but their unit is more of a thinking man's army approach and will actually plan a battle before fighting it.

Each unit has its special forces units dedicated to reconnaissance, engineering, etc.

Then of course we have the special forces units like the super elite Sayeret Matkal, the Air Forces', Shaldag and 669, Shayetet (SEALS), as well as Duvdevan, Maglan, etc. etc – each with their own purpose.

Which gets us back to the beret. The red beret to be specific.

Yesterday we went to our son's "Masah Kumta" (see above) where he and his comrades in arms marched 90 km's up to Jerusalem's Givat HaTachmoshet (Ammunition Hill) for the ceremony in which their old embarrassing green berets were replaced by the proud red berets of their respective units.

The ceremony is nice and tearful - with the soldiers literally falling off their feet. The second part is where the "Jewishness" comes in – each family brings enough food for , well ,for an army, as the soldiers, their siblings, parents and in some cases girlfriends chow down with one eye on the new red berets.

Now, when our son goes by train or bus he can hold his left shoulder with pride.

Chag Sameach.

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Monday, September 27, 2004

Now its the Anglicans' Turn 

A friend and reader who is also Christian has sent me the this link regarding a visit from the Anglican Church to Israel to judge whether they should follow their Presbyterian brothers (our comments here) and recommend "divestment" from Israel. It seems that these good Christians need to commit anti-Semitic acts "so that Christian faiths can bring peace to this land."

My friend wrote the following to me:
"Those High Holidays just came out of nowhere and made said (Jewish) leadership unavailable. And here this delegation traveled from the world over to ISRAEL (the last time I heard, the country was predominantly JEWISH) and to their shock, surprise and dismay found 'Gone Davenin' signs posted on Jewish doors. The TV reports say: 'There were no meetings with government officials. A spokesman says that was because of the Jewish holidays.' "

You would think that they would wait for Christmas to start on their blood libel, but from what I understand these Christians don't have much use for Christmas, or Jesus, or God for that matter.

Religious Jews might feel uncomfortable when Christians start talking about God, but we will be in big trouble when they stop.

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Sunday, September 26, 2004

The Day After 

I hope everyone's fast went as well as ours. We in Israel have the advantage of ending at a little after 6pm – sort of like ending the fast before Ne'ilah starts. The weather cooperated in front of a predicted sharav (heat wave) this week (just in time for eating outdoors).

As I opened the door of my apartment at 5:45 this morning to take my son to the train station on his way back to the army, there was a copy of Yediot Acharonot on the floor. Yediot is known as the lowest quality of the three dailies (there is a lot of competition there) and there is really not much in it to read.

AS I turned the pages I noticed the pictorial spread at the center of the paper focused on Yom Kippur. There was the obligatory picture of the bikini clad woman with friends at the beach in Eilat as well as the one of the hundreds, if not thousands of kids on their bicycles in the middle of the street (since no one drives on Yom Kippur, the streets are empty and the kids take advantage of the situation).

Then there was the required "religious" picture. Although they usually are of chicken swinging kaparot "shluggers" this time they had, what for me was a new one. There was a picture of haredi men holding their shirts up being whipped in what the caption wrote was a "traditional lashing (malkot) ceremony".

Does anyone know if this is a new thing or not? I thought I knew all the traditions – but if this is truly traditional and has been going on every year for hundreds of years, then I wonder why neither I, nor my wife have never heard of it? Or is this one of those brand spanking new traditions?

In another note: In a sign of rabbinic boredom, Friday's Jerusalem Post reports that Bnei Brak's Rabbi Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz "called on gabaim to post the directive" that "women worshippers have been instructed to leave synagogue before the end of services" and "not wait for their male relatives near the premises so as not to create stumbling blocks for the men worshipers".

My own personal "stumbling block" waited for me not only after musaf but also davened ma'ariv and met me right outside the shul. Of course, the Bnei Braker's coffee was probably ready for them as soon as they came home to break their fast.

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Thursday, September 23, 2004

Self-Doubt and Self-Confidence on Yom Kippur 

Is Yom Kippur a time of self-confidence or of self doubt? On the one hand we come before God, hat in hand, begging Him to judge us either as "a father would judge his children" or as slaves who are dependent on Him. Yet, we are taught that we should approach the King of Kings as we would approach a king of flesh and blood – with humility sure, but with dignity and self confidence, too.

It's hard to approach Yom Kippur with too much self confidence in our thoughts and actions. Yet, how can we really do teshuva unless we know what it is we ought to do in life? What is teshuva without proper action? How can we really proclaim our intention to repent without having full confidence in at least in the "derech" – the "way" of our lives – let alone the specific activities that we need to do?

"Authenticity" seems to have become a big word in religious circles as we desperately try to recover if not the lost world of Moses, Rabbi Akiva and Miamonides, then at least that of our great-grandparents. Over the last year I have tried, amongst other things, to argue that this "authenticity" – if this is something we can actually pin down - can be had only by being a part of this world.

This world moves in directions that are good or bad for us, but it moves nonetheless. The circularity of the Jewish calendar gives us the impression that we can always return to where we started – on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And that impression is correct, to a point. We do return every year to our starting point ready to (to bring up a well worn but apt metaphor) walk the course yet again. And we know that it is our unchanging and unchangeable challenge from God to walk that course with the aid of His word year after year.

Yet, each year the course is a little different. The rules change along with the years. The course is no longer as smooth as it once was and the other people walking beside us are not necessarily the same ones from years past. To tell the truth, even the word of God seems to change: Sometimes it manifests itself as a withdrawal into a mythical world of the past and sometimes it shows itself in a surrender to fads and trends that last a season or two.

But sometimes the word of God changes because of newly uncovered facts of nature and of life. Sometimes, it changes simply because circumstances have changed the way we read the words or follow the commands. Sometimes these changes require leniency and sometimes stringency. We shouldn't be afraid of either.

So, as we approach Yom Kippur we approach the new year yet again with the trepidation and self doubt that the actions of our past year require us to ask God to "be gracious to us and answer us, though we have no merits …".

But we also must approach God with the optimism and self-confidence that the "derech" with which we have chosen to walk the changing course allows us to remind God that "Thou didst choose us from among all peoples; thou didst love and favor us … Thou, our King, didst draw us near to thy service and call us by thy great and holy name."

Let me take this time to ask forgiveness if I have offended any readers.

Gmar Chatima Tova.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Next Thing you Know ... 

... they will say that the Vilna Gaon's torah came from the Ba'al HaTanya. Tzemach Atlas on another fight in Vilna.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Yom Kippur is a Family Holiday 

I remember days gone by when the family was the crown jewel of Judaism…

Here in Israel the educational dogma of the religious education establishment is that a son's (not a daughter's of course) religious experiences are too important to be left of the parents. This is most clear during the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) where boys in yeshivot are forced to stay in their yeshivot for Yom Kippur and often for Rosh Hashanah, too.

The unspoken rationale is that a boy needs at least three years of a "yeshivish" Yom Kippur to help him understand what the Day is really about.

A non-Yeshiva Beit Knesset (synagogue) is well, just that – a House of Assembly. In a yeshiva you don't just daven with doctors, mechanics, businessmen and storekeepers, you daven in presence of presumptive talmidei chachamim.

Yom Kippur is too important to a boys' life, the thinking goes, to be left to his father and his community – he must experience the true Judaism, the one of the Beit Midrash. The Judaism of the kehilla and the families that make it up, well, that Judaism it seems is not genuine, not authentic enough.

But if there are any nights of the Jewish calender besides the seder night that are family nights - they are the nights of Kol Nidre and Ne'ila - when we ask the heavenly court to accept our teshuva and close the Day that makes it happen.

I write this as I start the second round of a three round bout with my 16 year old son's Rosh Yeshiva, regarding his place of prayer this Yom Kippur. I lost round one last year on points. However, I will win the bout.

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Sunday, September 19, 2004

The Personal and the "Am" 

In the most dramatic sentence of the most dramatic prayer of Rosh Hashanah (and of Yom Kippur – with the possible exception of the Avoda) the poet derives words from two contradictory sentences in the Bible and puts them side by side:

"U'b'shofar gadol yitakah
V'kol d'mama dakah yishamah"

"The great shofar is sounded,
A gentle whisper is heard".

The first part comes from Isaiah 27:13 as the last of a series of declarations that starts "Vehaya bayom ha'hu…" and refers to days of redemption.

The second part is from Job 4:16 and is a part of Eliphaz Ha'Temani's first response to Job. The "gentle whisper" or "still voice" that Eliphaz hears, asks him 'Shall mortal man be just before God? Shall a man be pure before his Maker?'

Is the poet taunting us with this juxtaposition of man's inability to face God along with the promise of national redemption? What is the relation between national or communal redemption and individual repentance? The obvious answer is that only through individual repentance can we attain communal redemption.

But maybe we are to learn its corollary instead – that as long as we as a people can't be redeemed because we refuse to stop worshiping other than God (our sects, our ideologies, our individual rabbis and rebbes) – our individual repentance is worthless.

Maybe by putting these two powerful sentences into one we are being told that although Teshuva, Tephila and Tzedakah (Repentence, Prayer and Charity) cancel the stern decree – they are useless to members of a community who use the community not as a route to redemption and a better life but as a route to individual aggrandizement.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Tale of Rabbi Amnon and his Prayer 

I will tell you the story of a tragic man and a wonderful prayer. A man who gave his life for this prayer that Jews recite every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Though the story is tragic, the prayer though challenges us to repent so as to convince God to forgive our sins and give us another year to try beyond our capacity, to do His will.

Rabbi Amnon was a religious leader in a small community in upstate New York. His congregation was moderate in size and like all such congregations was controlled by a group of strong willed, sometimes pious oftentimes manipulative men. Rabbi Amnon tried his best to lead his congregation by providing an example of living as to God’s Laws. This was difficult to do in a small town with no Jewish school for his children and no kosher butcher close by.
Rabbi Amnon had friends and colleagues who wouldn’t go to the small towns in spite of their love of all Jews. Some decided to teach in the Yeshiva, others to wait their turn at the larger and more prestigious congregations in New York City
Being a rabbi of a major New York City congregation allowed one to avoid many of the difficult issues religious Jews faced when leaving the City. This was even more of a challenge for the rabbi who as a lonely spirit faces challenges and issues that those Rabbis of the City avoid. In the City you could always rely on colleagues and teachers for support on legal and moral issues.
To be a New York City rabbi meant to meet the challenges of the most sophisticated and knowledgeable Jews of the land. These challenges were often intellectual, often matters of style and occasionally matters of religious practice. To be a rabbi in one of these City congregations required a certain mental and emotional toughness.
Some people say that Rabbi Amnon didn’t have that toughness to succeed in New York City. Some people say that he was not intellectually strong and that he couldn’t stand up to congregants who were lawyers, doctors of all kinds and in certain cases even Rabbis.
I ask you not to believe those claimants. I knew Rabbi Amnon. Let me assure you that his toughness allowed him to stand up to any and all of congregants, be they of the City or of the small town. Intellectually, he was second to no one short of his wonderful teacher. Don’t let the criticism of others fool you or you will not appreciate the fact that this story, this tragedy was one that changed the High Holiday prayers for the Jewish people to this very day.

Rabbi Amnon came to his congregation in Upstate New York one cool summer evening, four weeks before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The previous rabbi had left after a short four-year tenure and he replaced a rabbi who stayed just three years. That was the pattern for rabbis in this and many similar communities. It was difficult to be a practicing Jew in these towns and once the rabbis and their wives had children of school age they would do their best to move back to the City in order to provide their children with a proper Yeshiva education.
Our Rabbi Amnon though came with his pregnant wife and two nearly school age children with the intention of making a home for himself and his family. He wanted to teach these Jews about being Jewish and wanted them to see a family be raised as properly practicing Jews. There was of course a bit of pride in him, too. He wanted to be THE rabbi of the town. He wanted to be respected and to be known as the rabbi of the community. He wanted to be the one who created a Jewish community in a place where there were only Jews.
Rabbi Amnon started off well. He was friendly and accommodating. In his first month he attended small gatherings in his honor and hosted the “strong-willed men” in his modest home. It was his sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashanah though earned him respect. He spoke of revelation and quoted poets, philosophers and rabbis. He spoke of repentance and prayer in light of revelation, explaining deftly and carefully that to repent in Judaism is to go back in time and reverse an individual’s sins. This, said Rabbi Amnon was the way we were to participate in the greatest revelation of God’s words in the history of mankind – that which happened at Sinai.
These themes excited and energized the congregation. They looked at the young rabbi and heard him speaking with the enthusiasm of an intellectual and religious world that they wanted to learn about. The strong-willed men looked at themselves with pride at having the foresight to have chosen a rabbi for these times.
The excitement only grew as the High-Holidays continued. The second day of Rosh Hashanah brought another wonderful sermon on the same theme, this time emphasizing charity. The congregation felt uplifted as they headed home after services on the second day. The shofar, the prayers, most especially the rabbi’s sermon allowed the people to begin understanding the importance of the High Holidays.
As Yom Kippur succeeded Rosh Hashanah so the latest sermon exceeded the first. On the holy night where Jews recite the Kol Nidre in the chant that has filled synagogues for hundreds of years, Rabbi Amnon spoke of God in ways that people had never heard. God as a partner with man for righteousness, God as He who wants man to do good, to succeed. God who helps man, but whom in His righteousness will accompany man’s failure to heed God’s word with the sword or fire or flood.
The people left the synagogue eager to return the next morning. The congregation felt proud of themselves that they had the insight to vote for such a rabbi. They felt good about being fed such lofty concepts and ideas. About having quoted to them the greatest of the Jewish world’s thinkers. About having quoted to them the greatest poets of the world.
The next day, on Yom Kippur itself, the congregants were to hear more. They heard Rabbi Amnon continue where he left off as he preached before the Yizkor service in which people commemorate their late relatives. He tied all his High-Holiday sermons together with a rousing command that THEIR repentence, that THEIR prayer and that THEIR charitable behavior could force the hand of God – not only for themselves but for the Jewish people as a whole.
Yom Kippur ended and the people felt purified. They felt as the Jews must have felt as they saw the vision of the High Priest as he left the Holy of Holies and finished the Day of Atonement service. And Rabbi Amnon, partially responsible for the atonement of his congregation felt as the High Priest must have felt when he left the Holy of Hollies on Yom Kippurs past when his very survival meant that God had accepted his prayers for himself, for his family, for his fellow priests and for the Jewish people.
Rabbi Amnon felt an additional surge of piety when the Shofar sounded to end Yom Kippur. It was his first triumph as a rabbi in this town. He had started to mold a Jewish community out of a collection of Jews and would build on this success. He felt that his words transcended even the great and moving prayers that the Cantor chanted. The service was his. The people would look to his words to help them as people and as Jews.

What happened in the intervening years, between the beginning and the tragedy is hard for me to say since I left the community for many years. But I heard through letters and chance meetings by traveling congregants that Rabbi Amnon was continuing in his work and that the community he formed was strong and stable. I was told that although he was never able to surpass that first High Holiday season, his sermons continued to move the congregation to greater prayer, to greater acts of charity and to greater repentance.
I was told how Rabbi Amnon and his family were able to show the community how to raise a proper Jewish family. The community created charity programs and worried about leading just lives. The congregation reacted to calls for help, be they from Rabbi Amnon himself or other members of the congregation.
Rabbi Amnon was most successful though with the children. They came to synagogue because their parents brought them, but were glad when the rabbi himself took time to shower them with stories and of course candy. As the children grew older and the power of stories and candy waned he started to loose touch with them. But they always respected him and a word from Rabbi Amnon at least shamed the adolescents into better behavior.
I heard the story of Rabbi Amnon’s stare one Passover eve that caused some troubled teens to go home to attend the family Seder. Another story passed the lips of a visitor where the rabbi walked for miles on the Sabbath in a January snowstorm to convince the children of some of strong-willed men to come home from a party that was later broken up by the authorities.
Of course there were failures, too. There was the daughter of the member who declared her atheism and the son of the president who ran off never to be seen again in his community – both after Rabbi Amnon promised their parents that he would move them to stay.
All in all though, the stories I heard were ones of a living congregation, with its ups and downs – but with a rabbi who kept them as Jews and as a community.

On my return to my hometown the Passover before the tragedy I sensed that something was wrong. The Rabbi and those strong willed people that ran the congregation seemed nervous, on edge. They said hello on passing and the rabbi even invited me over to his house for a Sabbath meal so that we could catch up on what I had been doing over the years. But the tension was clear to see.
I was not the favorite of Rabbi Amnon’s young congregants but he liked me and looked at me with promise. He was disappointed when I decided to leave the community he was building – for he saw me and those like me as the future of the community. I was observant and pious in my own way. He knew I would never be one of those strong-willed people of the community but he knew that I could set an example by my modest temperament.
After the holiday, the tension between the Rabbi and the strong-willed men became more obvious. In the middle of the summer when the fast day called Tisha B’Av commemorating the destruction of the Temple came, the rabbi was uncommonly quiet. He shortened the morning prayer services. Even more telling, he let the fast end without his annual reading and commentary between the afternoon and evening services, of select passages from the Book of Lamentations.
Slowly, in the days after Tisha B’av when the Rabbi usually started preparing his High-Holiday sermons he could be seen in quiet meetings with the strong-wiled men. Rumors and gossip spread about a challenge to his authority from the other religious leaders of the town. Although he got on well with them, Rabbi Amnon always feared the outside forces that might destroy what he was building. He knew that his leadership depended not only on his relationship with his congregants but with his dealings with the other religious leaders of the town.
This though was not the case. I myself saw him being honored by the Inter-Faith Council and understood that his one fear, to be stripped of his congregation because of what he liked to call his “those dangerous outside forces”, was not what was worrying him.
It was obvious to me that he was being torn from within. Something serious was going on that went beyond his performance as a rabbi to the core of his identity as a Jewish leader. His wife looked sad and they no longer took their Sabbath afternoon walks. The month of Elul in which Jews prepare themselves to face the Creator came without the usual changes in the Rabbi’s behavior. Every Elul, the month preceding the High-Holidays, the Rabbi came to synagogue earlier for morning services and stayed later at night after evening services. This Elul, he rushed in and out, on time to be sure, but neither arriving early nor leaving late.
Finally, in the week preceding Rosh Hashanah, the tragedy started to take shape. The facts now reached the entire community. The son of the President of the congregation, the son of the man most responsible for bringing Rabbi Amnon to town was planning an act that would cause the congregation to either cease being Jewish or to cease being a community. It is not as if this act was of the worst sins in the world, or that it was not done before in this community.
Just as tt was clear to the President that his son and his son’s family would always be part of the congregation, it was just as clear to Rabbi Amnon that this could never be.
Rabbi Amnon, who was accommodating on so many problems was not willing to bend. The community would remain a Jewish community, not one that would sanction, let alone accept in its midst that which would surely make it melt away. Rabbi Amnon now doubted his ways. He felt that maybe he was not strong enough in his sermons, that he was not clear enough in his pronouncements for prayer, repentance and charity. How else he wondered could anyone presume to think that on this issue he would allow the sinners to remain.
And they were sinners, both the son and the father.
The pressure on Rabbi Amnon grew. After the Selichot service which traditionally begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah and prepares the community and God for a relationship that will emulate father and son instead of judge and accused, Rabbi Amnon didn’t know where to turn. He no longer felt that he could ask God for guidance since there was really no question he could ask of him.
The President and his friends, those strong willed men, approached the Rabbi after the midnight service in order to let him know of their decision. The Rabbi, they insisted, could not continue to serve the congregation without finding a way to allow the son to remain in the community. Rabbi Amnon didn’t have to befriend the son, they understood that they couldn’t demand that of him. Yet, in these times, he couldn’t let the children of those who mattered most stay outside of the community. They assured the Rabbi that the congregation would follow the strong willed men and that the Rabbi would have no place in the community, or even in the town.
Rabbi Amnon lowered his head and thought. He stood silently. The men stood in front of him and he felt their glares, he felt as if the jury were staring at him waiting for him to present his defense.
Then Rabbi Amnon lifted his head and asked the strong willed men if he could have three days to consider the issue. Rosh Hashanah was to begin Wednesday night. They would have their answer before the New Year was to begin.
The strong-willed men left Rabbi Amnon to his thoughts. They agreed to give him three days and from this they understood that the Rabbi was just looking for the best way to capitulate.

Rabbi Amnon walked home after that fateful Selichot service. He walked the cold lonely streets and entered his dark house. The Rabbi opened the door, sat down and cried.
How could he allow those men, those sinners to think that he would accept the defilement of his congregation? How could he allow the community to think that he was considering a way to accept their demands?
Rabbi Amnon didn’t sleep that night. When his wife awoke she found him sobbing quietly and realized that what had happened. She knew those strong willed men and knew that they would destroy her husband. He had feared those terrible forces of the outside for all these years, yet she knew it would be the forces of the community itself that would destroy him.
The Rabbi’s wife went over and felt him burning up with fever. Although there were no bruises and no signs of violence, the Rabbi’s limbs were soft. He couldn’t make use of his arms and he collapsed when he tried to rise from the sofa. The doctor was called in and a room was prepared in the hospital.
By the morning the congregants had heard of the Rabbi’s request for three days in which to work out a plan that would be acceptable to the strong willed men. By the evening they knew that he was in the hospital. The rabbi’s wife went around town begging for visitors to come and see the Rabbi. She knew that if his community would come he would be healed.
The community came to visit him, but Rabbi Amnon’s situation did not improve. He knew that he had sinned against God by giving the impression that he would accommodate the sinners and that the community he built would no longer be a Jewish community as long as God did not punish him.
The end of the three day period came and the President and the other strong willed men came to get their answer. Rabbi Amnon didn’t speak. He just lay there. The look of calm on his face the men took for a look of defeat. They walked away satisfied that they had won.

It was the morning of Rosh Hashanah and the congregation gathered for prayer without their rabbi of many years. The President sat at the head of the congregation and the cantor chanted the prayers. The morning service was completed and the Torah portion was read.
The shofar was sounded. Thirty blasts were heard. The cantor begged God to allow his prayers to be heard in spite of his shortcomings. The congregation silently murmured the Musaf service and waited for the cantor to repeat it.
There was a rumbling in the back of the synagogue as the cantor started the repetition. He invoked the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, sang the praises of God who desires life and asked who could be merciful like God. He declared God as the Holy King.
As the cantor was to state the holy words that the angels say to each other in the heavens – the Kidusha prayers that brings the angels down to man, the rumblings grew too loud to continue. The cantor stopped and turned his neck, only to see the Rabbi, the dying Rabbi being brought to the Bimah by his wife.
Rabbi Amnon, supported by his wife, turned to the congregation and asked their forgiveness. He then asked their permission to say a prayer that would help them understand God, to understand God’s ways, to understand what these High-Holidays could do for them.
And he started:
U’netaneh Tokef Kedushat Hayom.
“Let us tell how utterly holy this day is….
And how awe-inspiring.
It is the day when thy dominion shall be exalted
Thy throne shalt occupy it in truth ….

The Great Shofar is sounded,
A gentle whisper is heard,
the Angels, quaking in their fear, declare:
The day of judgment is here to bring the hosts of heaven to justice!….

All mankind passes before thee like a flock of sheep.
As a shepherd seeks out his flock ….
Thou dost count and number thy creatures,
Fixing their lifetime and inscribing their destiny.

On Rosh Hasahnah their destiny is inscribed
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed…..
Who Shall live and who shall die

who by water, who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast
who by hunger and who by thirst ?

who shall be at ease
and who shall wander about …
who shall be lowered and who shall be raised ?"

After Rabbi Amnon finished this prayer, he expired on the Bimah.
And as they looked at their rabbi dead in the Synagogue, killed by hatred, they screamed to the heavens that which Rabbi Amnon taught:
“And repentance …
and Prayer …
and Charity …
will cancel the stern decree”.

The congregation and the cantor whispered the words of the angels in the Kedusha service but could not continue any further. They left the seventy remaining blasts of the shofar silent.

And now you have heard the tragic tale of Rabbi Amnon. In the days after that Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, news of the story of Rabbi Amnon spread. I myself remembered his prayer and sent it to his teacher and his colleagues throughout the land where they cried it on Yom Kippur.
And to this very day on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish people throughout the world over cry over this holy prayer created by God through Rabbi Amnon, before reciting the words of the angels in heaven.

Copyright Out of Step Jew, September 2004

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Sunday, September 12, 2004

On Graves and Laziness 

We have written in the past about the obsession we seem to have here with visiting the "graves of the great" - even when we have to make up where they are buried. There are graves of people who specialize in finding a proper mate for a single woman and graves of people who specialize in other things.

My friend the historian tells me that there are pretty strong traditions for visiting these graves although many of the rabbis have frowned upon the practice. We know that the Rambam had problems with it and much of the Lithuanian rabbinate also seem to have objected. We also know that the midrash tells us that the reason we were not told where Moses is buried is so that we wouldn't make his grave into a shrine.

I am not a historian and the origins of these practices are less interesting to me than the reasons for its current popularity. Two of my children have class trips for this "teshuva season" that centers on graves. My son in 11th grade just came back this morning from a full night "tour" of the graves around Tzfat. The fact that the graves that are marked are all but certainly not the graves of those we think are there is just one of the problems. I guess its just as ridiculous to worship false than real graves.

My daughter, in 7th grade, is taking an all night trip (all night activities are very popular here in Israel - not really sure why) to the Negev. They will take a walking tiyul and then end up at the grave of the Babba Solli in Netivot (a sister city with Philadelphia). Now the Baba Sali (Rav Yisrael Abuchatziera) was a Moroccan rabbi and kabalist who "performed miracles" when alive. Apparently, his wife has continued the tradition and apparently collects money and miracle requests, one of which she deposits at the grave.

My wife tells me that I can't keep criticizing the schools and their activities so my first reaction to forbid this "avodah zarah" during this time went unsaid. (Luckily, my 16 year old has already internalized my objections so he just went 'for the ride').

So, what is this obsession we have? Will this really bring young girls closer to God than a regular class in gemara? Will this really convince rebellious 16 year old boys to embrace Judaism where they might be considering otherwise?

I can't say yes or no to these questions, but I will say that I think these trips are the result of the same intellectual laziness that causes people to ask rabbis for advice for everything large and small in life.

I think that it is part of the intellectual laziness that turns teshuva from a serious exercise in self-betterment through rigid and difficult intellectual and emotional exercises to a surrendering of our intellectual and emotional selves to easy but baseless sound bites and their equivalents.

This laziness is the rabbinic answer to MTV and television. The claim that today's kids aren't interested in difficult challenges is proven false by the amazing physical feats that today's kids perform and the ease with which they manage to manipulate today's machines.

Today's children may need different motivations and different methods but that doesn't mean that they deserve to get only the easy way out. We are cheating our children when we demand so little of them and there isn't much less we can demand of them than worshiping at graves.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2004

A Great Generation 

We went to a funeral the other day. A 93 year old woman named Trude Kochba who lived for nearly 70 years on Kibbutz Yavne, near Rechovot passed away leaving behind three daughters and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

You don't have to be a socialist to understand the great contribution that her generation of Kibbutzniks made to the Jewish people. This was a generation of German Jews (Yekkes) who came to the country in the '30's ahead of the Nazi onslaught and literally built the country. They built up much of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, founding kibbutzim like Yavne, Tirat Tzvi, Sde Eliyahu and others. This particular woman left medical school at the University of Heidelberg in the mid '30's – a decision that was to save her life – and came to build a community and a country.

She was one of the founders of Kvutzat Yavne – one of the most financially successful kibbutzim in Israel. This generation of olim – arguably the greatest generation – not only set up kibbutzim but also the Technion, banks, the stock exchange and other enduring institutions. They were for many years the backbone of much of the cultural and intellectual life of the young country.

It was they who brought Tosconini to conduct the precursor to the Tel-Aviv Philharmonic. It was people like Gershom Scholem, Jacob Katz, Nechama Leibowitz, Yeshayahu Leibowitz and others who filled the intellectual conversation of the country for decades.

For religious Zionism, unfortunately the "yekkes" had less influence on the movement than they should have had. People like Tzuriel Admonit and Mechel Pearlman also of Yavne are not household names (yet) in the religious-Zionist world – but they pioneered and embodied a true "Torah Va'avoda" in ways that today's religious-Zionist leaders could never do.

To Trude Kochba and your whole great generation of halutzim – Yehi Zichrachem Baruch.

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Monday, September 06, 2004

Terrorism, anti-Terrorism and anti-anti-Terrorism 

Sometime after the McCarthy hearings in many quarters it became unacceptable to be an "anti-communist". Not that the new "in" group wanted America to be a communist country or wanted to give up any of their bourgeois goodies, but they didn't want to be associated with those who actively opposed communism.

Hence was born the "anti-anti-communists", that group of people whose main reason for being was the opposition in US foreign policy to anti-communism. This being the Cold War – or WWIII – that meant opposing the main tenet of US foreign policy. It meant opposing support for anti-communist movements in other countries, it meant opposing every weapons system that the US armed forces proposed, it meant opposing any political candidate who based their foreign policy on the containment, let alone rollback of Soviet communism.

Following the route of their forefathers a new movement has been born in the international media, university campuses and in parts of the major political parties in the US and Europe. This movement is anti-anti-Terrorism.

This new movement has its foundations in Europe but sad to say it has already spread to the US and even to the country that has been fighting terrorist for longer than its existence – Israel.

We saw it clear as day in the international media's coverage of the latest terrorist attack in Russia. Even where over 150 children were killed after being starved and left without water by their captives for two days (the children were forced to drink their own urine !), even after blowing up the school building and forcing children to plant explosive devices – after all of that neither the BBC, nor Sky nor CNN, nor even Fox (when they covered it at all) called these people what they were - terrorists. They continued to refer to them as "hostage takers", rebels and fighters, as people who were "highly motivated" and believed in a "cause".

It became clear to me that the news-people and the chattering classes have decided that the only people they refuse to be associated with are the anti-Terrorists. It's as if by admitting that there was terrorism in the world that their entire world-view would come crashing down, since they have spent the last three years insisting that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". It would mean that at least some of the things that Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Sharon, Netanyahu et al have said and done over the years might even be correct. And they know that that cannot be the case.

But as in the past – to be an anti-anti-Terrorist is to find moral equivalence between the perpetrator of terror and its victim. To be an anti-anti-Terrorist is to side openly with evil against any possibility of good. To be an anti-anti-Terrorist is not just to be part of the "in" crowd at dinner parties, it's to be against the most basic morality and the most basic decency.

As with other issues, one can oppose this and that policy in the fight against terror, but one cannot, even by the use of words alone and even by "objective" journalists, be against the fight against terror.

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Friday, September 03, 2004

Avoiding the Truth 

Hostage takers, militants, armed gang - just some of the names the media use to refer to the terrorists who took hundreds of children and others hostage in Russia.

If the media would call them terrorists would they then have to admit that certain people (other than Israeli soldiers that is) really are evil? Would they then have to admit that the root of this evil is in places like the high school in Ma'alot and and the school bus near Nahariya?

Is there anyone out there who still thinks that this is not WWIV and that we can fight this war more "sensitively"?

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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Generation Whiners 

I have to admit that I am more than a bit tired of the non-stop whining of young twenty-something American Jews (known for some reason as "generation Y'ers"). This time it is the attendants of a conference sponsored by Michael Steinhardt , Lynn Schusterman, Bill Davidson and Eugene and Marcia Applebaum called the "Professional Leaders Project".

These poor "twenty-somethings" as reported by Gary Rosenblatt in the Jewish Week, feel a "sense of disconnect between the organized Jewish community and the younger generation".

Well, isn't that the way it's supposed to be? Didn't we all feel a "sense of disconnect" and therefore affiliate with youth organizations and movements to which our parents and their friends couldn't come? Some of us rebelled and "left town" so to speak, to return when we matured. We didn't whine about the fact that the AJC and the ADL and the JCC's didn't let us into leadership positions – BECAUSE WE DIDN'T WANT TO JOIN THOSE ESTABLISHMENT ORGANIZATIONS ANYWAY !

Stop whining that the "leaders" won't give you a turn and ask yourselves a few questions: What have you done to earn the right to "lead" the Jewish community? What makes you think you deserve a short cut to your professional aspirations just because its allegedly to "serve" the Jewish people? Why do you think that if some JCC bureaucrat doesn't make nice to you it gives you an excuse to abandon the Jewish people?

If you really want to earn the respect of the Jewish community then stop whining and stop threatening that if you are not given what you want you will just have to leave and that’s that. There is so much (too much!) diversity within the "establishment" Jewish community that all of your excuses are just that, excuses.

Enough! Your co-religionist twenty-somethings in Israel are risking their lives and delaying their own professional and personal lives by doing reserve duty for 30 days every year (and this after at least three years of army duty while you were partying during Spring Break) - the least you can do is to stop the constant complaining.

And Gary, don't you have anything more important to write about?

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