As Shemita Ebbs Away

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will come to an end.  Since the Torah describes Shemita as Shabbat HaAretz (the Shabbat of the land), that makes today sort of like those final moments at the end of the third Shabbat meal, as the sun sets and Shabbat comes to an end.  Each week, those moments are traditionally spent singing slow songs and reflecting on what we’ve learned and experienced.  I think the same should apply to Shabbat HaAretz, so let’s take a few minutes to do exactly that.

Exactly one year ago, a few hours before Rosh HaShana 5775, I wrote a post describing the awesome once-in-seven year opportunity we have here in Israel, as Shemita was about to begin.  A bit later on I wrote a second post discussing the practical dilemmas that observant consumers face during Shemita, regarding which produce to consume and which halachic positions to follow (by the way, these halachic questions remain relevant for at least another 6-8 months, until all of the fruits and vegetables from the Shemita year are used up and next year’s crops become available).

Over the course of the year and as recently as this morning, I’ve also had the privilege of giving many classes and lectures about Shemita, and leading many Shemita tours in which I took families and groups out on “field trips” (sorry – couldn’t resist the pun!) to learn about different aspects of this mitzva up close and meet heroic farmers who made great sacrifices to observe it.  In these final moments “as Shemita ebbs away”, I’d like to share one insight that I learned from a teenage girl on a seminar I spoke at earlier this year, and from a woman on one of my tours.

In a number of places, our rabbis tell us that Shemita is the key to Redemption.  In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) even says that the Messiah is destined to come immediately after, and perhaps as a result of, a Shemita year.  The question, of course, is why this is so; what is the specific connection between Shemita and Redemption?

Whenever I speak about the various halachic approaches to Shemita, I express my strong preference for obtaining and consuming produce grown on Shemita-observant farms and marketed through the Otzar Bet Din system.  I prefer this method to all others, because I believe that it is the contemporary option that comes closest to the ideal that the Torah envisioned.  On Otzar Bet Din farms, the laws of Shemita are fully observed and the farmers refrain from all forbidden labors.  The farmers are also not able to sell their produce for profit, and instead are paid a fixed salary as employees of the Bet Din (the religious court that runs the farm during Shemita).

In theory, the produce is supposed to be distributed to the public for free, in keeping with the Torah’s law that all agricultural produce is ownerless this year.  However, in the current system the Bet Din does not have the financial resources to meet its obligations, and therefore has no choice other than to charge a service fee for the produce it distributes.   The net result of this is that the consumers need to pay a fee for each kilo of produce they obtain, and it winds up looking and feeling pretty much exactly the same as the way in which we buy our produce in other years.  For this reason, many people are unhappy with Otzar Bet Din and (mistakenly) view it as a meaningless formality.

When speaking at a seminar about Shemita earlier this year, I acknowledged this weakness, and explained to the participants how I think Otzar Bet Din would work in an ideal world.  The costs for running the farms would be paid in full by the government, with funds from the State budget.  The produce would be distributed to the consumers genuinely free of cost (I have a whole idea of how this can be done with a computerized database indicating how much of each type of produce each person is entitled to each week and distribution points where magnetic cards can be swiped to ensure that everyone gets only what they are entitled to), and in that way actually accomplish more of the socio-economic aspect of what the Torah actually envisioned.  I told the participants that I am sure this is how it will be done when the Messiah comes.

It was at that point that one girl raised her hand and said “I don’t understand.  Why does this have to wait for the Messiah to come?  Why can’t we implement that system right now?”  I thought about it for a moment and said, “You are right.  In principle, there is no reason we can’t do this right now – if the Jewish People would want to.  The problem is simply that most people aren’t yet ready to agree to such a concept.”

I few weeks later on a Shemita tour, I quoted this girl to a group I was leading, and one of the women suggested that this could be a project we should all work on.  We have seven years to convince people to do it – let’s get the Knesset to pass a law implementing and funding a national Otzar Bet Din for the Shemita of 5782.

Is this realistic?  I don’t know.  But it did make me realize one fundamental truth: many aspects of what we are waiting for in the Messianic Age are not up to God; they are up to us.  If only all of us wanted it, we could make it happen by just doing it ourselves.  So who is going to bring the Messiah anyway?  Is it something that God needs to do for us?  Or something we need to do for ourselves?

Certainly there are aspects of both.  But Shemita observance gives us an opportunity to see how much of this is really in our control.  Maybe that’s why Shemita is so closely connected to the Redemption.

So as we prepare to “make Havdalah” and move on to the auspicious post-Shemita year, let’s all contemplate that and think about what each of us can do to make this the Motzaei Shviit she-Ben David Ba (the post-Sabbatical year in which the Messiah comes).

Shana Tova

Birthright in Yiddish

מגנט תגליתEarlier this month, I had the privilege of serving as the tour guide/educator on a ten-day Taglit-Birthright Israel trip.  This was the first time I have served in this role; I hope it will be the first of many such opportunities.

As has been widely noted and acknowledged, Birthright is a phenomenally successful program.  Begun 16 years ago as the bold initiative of a single American philanthropist, as of this summer the program has brought over half a million (!) young Jewish adults to Israel.  For most participants, Birthright is the first time they have been to Israel; in many cases it is the first meaningful Jewish experience of their lives.  Statistics have shown a marked uptick in connection to Israel and engagement with Jewish life among Birthright participants.  I can personally attest to the lasting impact this trip has made on some young American Jews with whom my family and I are acquainted.  Therefore, I considered it a great privilege to be able to lead such an encounter.

Interestingly, the group I was given for my first Birthright experience was far from typical.  Although the participants in my trip met the ordinary eligibility requirements (they were Jewish, between the ages of 18-26, and had not been to Israel for more than three months since the age of 12 – in fact most had never been here at all), they did not match the profile of the average Birthright participant.   This is because my group was a specially-organized “niche” trip geared towards the “ultra-Orthodox” population.  It was comprised of nine married couples from the Hasidic communities of Brooklyn and Monsey, and another 22 single women, mostly graduates of “Bais Yaakov” high schools in New York and New Jersey.

The trip was an incredible, enlightening and uplifting experience for all.

First of all, it was a lot of fun.  In addition to getting some practice on my rusty Yiddish (I took it as my foreign language back in college), there were many moments of spontaneous excitement.  Perhaps the strangest for me was when I found myself dancing on the roof of one of those iconic “Na-Nach-Nachman” trucks.  (This is not something I do on a regular basis.)

Beyond this, though, the trip was a learning experience for everyone involved.

For the participants, this trip accomplished all the things that a “regular” Birthright trip does, and maybe more, starting with the fact that they got to see the land of Israel, in most cases for the first time.  I don’t know if I will ever forget the exhilaration I felt on the fourth day of the trip as we ascended to Jerusalem after several days in the north, singing “Im eshkachech Yerushalayim” (“If I forget you, O Jerusalem” – Psalms 137:5) as the bus slowly climbed the hills past Maaleh Adumim.  For most of the participants, this was the first time in their lives they had entered the holy city.  What a privilege to be able to facilitate that!

Although they have a much stronger background in Jewish studies than the typical Birthright participant, concepts such as Zionism, the Israeli government and army were very new to them. Of course it did not surprise me that, just like many Birthright groups, during the closing session a large number of participants listed Friday night prayers at the Western Wall as one of the most meaningful moments of their trip.  But I was amazed that so many of them also mentioned the visits to the Har Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem and to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv.  The group picture (above) taken spontaneously in front of a Merkava tank parked on a flatbed truck at the side of a road shows how significant this experience was for everyone.

But it wasn’t only the participants who learned a lot on this trip.  I (and some of my family who joined for Shabbat) learned just as much from them as well.  Having lived in Monsey, NY before making Aliya, and having subsequently worked for many years in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, I have had many opportunities to interact with haredim and Hasidim.  Still, spending ten intense days together enabled me to get to know them and to experience their world in a deeper way than I have been able to previously do.

Seeing how they reacted to sites like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s grave on Har Meron and Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel’s at Amuka (especially for the young women; this site is considered a very auspicious location to pray for an appropriate shidduch) was eye-opening for me.  Sitting down after dinner on Friday night with the entire group for an hour and a half of singing (I usually call things like that an “Oneg”, but apparently it’s called something like “butteh” in Yiddish) with refreshments purchased by the participants themselves was also amazing.  The interactions among the participants from different communities, and the amount of respect, openness and genuine interest that they showed towards Jews from the National Religious and mesorati (Traditional) communities who they met during the trip was also very noteworthy.

In the end, perhaps the greatest lesson of this trip was that despite the unique religious and cultural demographic, ultimately this was a Birthright trip like any other.

According to the Birthright organization, the objective of the trip is “to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel…to foster participants’ understanding and identification with Israel, and…motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity.”  I watched that miracle happen over a mere ten days with these 40 young adults, in pretty much exactly the same way it does for tens of thousands of others every year.

Maybe the biggest lesson of this is that despite our tendency to focus endlessly on the religious, ideological and political differences that divide us into a seemingly infinite amount of groups and sub-groups, we Jews are still one people, which so much more that should unite us and bring us together.

Remembering Gush Katif

geirushYesterday, I had the privilege of leading some of the boys on the NCSY Summer Kollel on a Nine Days-oriented trip that included a visit to the excellent exhibit at the Gush Katif Commemoration Center in Nitzan.  I’ve taken others there as well, and have seen this exhibit several times now.  Still, each time I walk out powerfully shaken as I relive those excruciatingly painful days.

It’s been exactly ten years, as of next week.  Thinking about the difficult weeks leading up to the destruction of Gush Katif, I remembered an email that I wrote to my students the night after Tisha B’av 5765, hours before the expulsion began.  In the spirit of Tisha B’av, and in order to help others remember and/or learn about this event, I am republishing it here (edited very slightly for style to make it internet-appropriate). 

In the merit of mourning the destruction, may we merit the rebuilding of Gush Katif, together with Jerusalem.

Al Shever Bat Ami
(The Destruction of the Daughter of My People)

Dear Talmidot,

It is now 2:30 am on Motzaei Tisha B’av, and I cannot sleep.  It’s not common for me to be unable to sleep (usually my problem is staying awake!).  But these are not common times.  Tonight, chaotic and often contradictory thoughts are racing through my head.

Fear.  Anguish.  Excitement.  Anger.  Hope.  Despair.  Confidence.  Confusion.

After a while as a teacher, you get to a stage when the only way you know how to learn something is if you teach it to your students.  At this point, talking to all of you is pretty much the only way I know how to organize my thoughts.  So, if you don’t mind, please allow me to attempt to share these feelings with you.  I’m not really going to try to come to some conclusion or understand the huge historic events swirling around us.  That clarity, if it comes at all, will only be in the future.  I’m just going to try to organize the confusion in my head, and share it with you in the hopes that maybe some of you can do something positive with it.

Please excuse me also if I leave the balanced political discussions for another time – I simply can’t talk about that right now.  At the present moment, all I can see is that a horrific tragedy threatens to take place, and I don’t know what to do to stop it.

Each year during the Three Weeks, I attempt to use the halachically mandated practices of Aveilut (mourning) to bring myself to certain feelings of mourning for Yerushalayim.  Though I am generally somewhat successful, I have to acknowledge that there is usually a certain “artificial” quality to my feelings.  On this evening of the Tenth of Av, I must admit that I usually feel a sense of relief at the fact that by tomorrow afternoon this will all be over, and fight a semi-conscious excitement to just move on to my summer vacation and return to normal life.

But not this year.  Now my urge is to go back to sitting on the floor and to read Eicha and kinot all over again.  Or to get up and run someplace and do something – although it’s not clear where to run or what to do.  It seems we’ve tried just about everything, and I intend to continue doing so in the days ahead (in a few hours I plan to go to Jerusalem and protest outside the Prime Minister’s office, and perhaps a day after that to head down South.  And although I’m far from sure that any of this will do anything, I have nothing else to try.)

Thousands of years ago tonight, the Bet HaMikdash burned, sealing the fate of churban ha’aretz (the destruction of the land).  And now, at this very moment, an army is poised to begin another churban – thankfully a much smaller one, that cannot be compared to the destruction of an entire nation or to the many other horrific tragedies that we read about this morning in kinot.  On the other hand, this churban is in a sense even more painful, because the army who is to carry it out is our own.  Of course, we brought the previous churbanot on ourselves as well – but this time it is so clear and obvious.

This past Shabbat, my family finished Seuda Shlishit before Shkiya, as the halacha demanded.  After birkat hamazon, there was about a half an hour left before we would take off our shoes and begin the observances of Tisha B’av.  There wasn’t much we could do at that point, so we went to sit out on our porch to get a bit of fresh air.  It’s something I like to do from time to time, to sit outside in the cool evening air and enjoy the beauty of Eretz Yisrael.

As I was sitting on the balcony with my children playing nearby, watching the last rays of sunset fade over Kfar Etzion, a thought occurred to me.  All over Israel, I realized, people are doing the same thing – Seuda Shlishit is over, and everyone is just waiting for Tisha B’av to begin.  And probably at this moment in Gush Katif, there is a person doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing – sitting out on his porch with his children, spending the final moments of Shabbat enjoying the view in the place where he built his home.  Like me, he’s marveling at the beauty of the same sunset (I see it over the mountains; he sees it over the sea.)  Like me, his awe and admiration for the physical beauty of the land helps him appreciate the great privilege of living in Eretz Yisrael.  Like me, he has a sense of comfort and satisfaction sitting next to the house he built to fulfill the mitzva of settling the land, knowing that the hardships are all worthwhile, and not wanting to trade this life for anything.

But of course, that’s where the comparison ends.

You see, my reaction to the sunset was to say to my wife, “You know, it’s really nice out here.  Maybe next week we’ll eat Seuda Shlishit here on the porch!”  But when the man in Gush Katif thinks of next Shabbat….

Where will he be next Shabbat?  Will he still be in his home?   Indeed, will his home still exist?  Will he still see the view?  Will he even have a home, anywhere, with a view or without?  Will he have a shul to go to?  Will he have a job to go to next Sunday morning?  Will his kids have a school to go to in two weeks?

This morning, our Rav gave a brief shiur in our shul in which he stated that, should these events actually take place, he thinks there will be a halachic obligation on all Jews everywhere to rip their clothes and recite the bracha of “Dayan HaEmet” with “shem umalchut“.  He said he thinks this is true even for one who thinks that this plan is a positive thing that will ultimately improve our situation.  Even if necessary or even good in the final analysis, a terrible thing is about to happen right now.

I’m a firm believer that as long as the tragedy has not yet happened, it is never too late to stop it.  “Even if a sharp sword is threatening a person’s neck, he should never despair of the possibility of Divine mercy.”  At times, in fact, it seems so clear to me that something massively great, perhaps even Messianic, is about to happen.  Yet at other times, often just moments later, I find myself on the verge of despair.  And thus, I feel, urgent questions must be asked immediately.

How did this come about?  How did we bring ourselves to this point?  This, of course, is the question that the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) screamed in this morning’s haftara, “al ma avda ha’aretz” – why was the land lost??!  I scramble and hurry to try to answer that question before it happens, in the desperate hope that it can yet be stopped.  For Yirmiyahu the answer was crystal-clear: “Al azvam et torati” – because they abandoned My Torah.  But today, we have no prophet to point his finger at the particular problem, and I for one am not wise enough to see it clearly.

Certainly, the deep divisions among the Jewish People have a lot to do with it.  One of the things that is most frustrating about the current situation is that the great majority of supporters of the Disengagement Plan do not seem to recognize the tragedy that is about to take place.  It would seem that even one who thinks that this will improve our strategic situation should cringe at the thought of Jewish towns being handed over to Arab terrorists, and should be given some pause at the sight of the celebrations that are already beginning in Gaza, pronouncing loud and clear that they view this as but one step on the road to Jerusalem.   Even if one feels politically that this is necessary, it would seem that he must still acknowledge the horrible injustice of thousands of people being forcibly evicted from homes and communities they built over decades at the cost of great sacrifice (and the request of all previous governments), and not even being given any realistic options of where to go and how to rebuild their lives.  As I have written before, I think these things should be beyond the debate and should be acknowledged also by the supporters of the plan, who can and should do so without diminishing their conviction that we must do this.

But largely, they aren’t.  I see no outpouring of sympathy and compassion for the residents of Gaza and the Shomron – other than from a very dedicated and defined community of their supporters.  The feeling one gets is that much of the public just isn’t very interested in what’s going on.  And some segments of the population, and certainly the press, seem to even be celebrating.

Last week I went with my two daughters to Tel Aviv, to spend an evening handing out orange ribbons.  It was part of a nationwide effort – hundreds of teenagers and adults gathered in a big park on Rechov Arlozorov, right near the “Rakevet Tzafon” train station.  Smack in the heart of pro-Disengagement territory, trying to make a difference.  After listening to a brief inspirational talk by Rav Aviner, they fanned out to street corners all over Gush Dan, smiling at people, handing out orange ribbons and fliers, and trying to talk to the people.   And my daughters and I were among them.

We got different reactions from people.  Many people, even in Tel Aviv, were very supportive.  There were also those who disagreed but came to speak to us, and we had a few very significant conversations on the street with people who did not agree, but were interested in hearing our opinions and respected our convictions.  I thought that was extremely worthwhile as well, and I also benefitted from hearing their point of view.

But unfortunately, we also encountered a lot of anger, and even hostility.  Many people gave us dirty looks, clearly bothered by our presence and incensed that we had invaded “their” city.  A few people actually said some very hurtful things.  One woman even said something to the effect of: “Just get yourselves out of here.  First get out of Tel Aviv, and then get out of Gush Katif!”

All we knew how to do was to smile back at them.  But, I found myself asking over and over again, why the anger?  Even if we continue to argue about what we should or shouldn’t do, why can’t we at least cry together about what is about to take place?  I’ve been to many protests over the past year, and although they tried to present a forceful message and spoke with a considerable amount of anger, I have heard over and over again the message that this is still our government and our army, and that the soldiers who may come to expel us are still our brothers, and we must treat them as such.  And yet somehow, the deep divisions and even animosity are there.  And this is the closest I can come to answering the question of what is causing this threat of destruction.

A few weeks ago in MMY, Mrs. Mali Brofsky spoke very passionately at the Yom Iyun we held to try to address these issues.  She said the real “disengagement” is the spiritual disengagement that happened a long time ago – that we have become two separate people: a religious community committed to Jewish values and a secular community that feels very alienated from us and from what we represent.  This, she said, is the real cause of the problems we’re facing.

There’s no question that she is right.  But what to do about it?  How to change it?  She seemed to point the accusing finger primarily at our (Religious-Zionist) community, to decisions we made decades ago and the natural outcome of our actions.  She may very likely be right about this as well.  But I still don’t know what we should have done differently – or more importantly, what we should be doing about it now.

So perhaps all there is to do is to return to the classic Jewish response to the threat of tragedy – repentance, prayer and charity.  This past week there was a remarkable prayer gathering at the Kotel.  I tried to go, but didn’t make it past the Jewish Quarter to come anywhere near the Kotel.  There were simply too many people there (those who came a bit later than I did got stopped at Jaffa Gate.  The entire Old City was packed and there was barely an inch in which to move.)  I have never in my life seen so many Jews in the Old City (some people, like Rabbi Katz, who have been here longer than I do say they may remember one or two other times in the past, during very extraordinary events.  I don’t have the statistics to check whether this was a record crowd or not, but it doesn’t really matter.  It was powerfully impressive.)  There is absolutely no question that something like this makes an impact in Shamayim.  The outcome, however, is the exclusive decision of the Ribono Shel Olam, and nobody can know what will happen until it has happened.

One thing that this has taught me, though, is that all of Am Yisrael is connected, and everything that each of us does affects all of us.  And therefore, all of Am Yisrael, wherever they may be, must do everything in our power to increase tefillah, teshuva and genuine acts of kindness, especially those that bring different groups of Jews together on common ground and increase our common commitment to true Torah principles and values.

It’s also clear to me that no matter how the current issue comes to resolution, the struggle over the values of Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael and Torat Yisrael will continue for potentially a very long time, until the Mashiach comes.  Unless that happens tommorow (which, of course, is entirely possible and what we are waiting for), then we will continue to face these problems no matter what happens with Gush Katif.

And therefore, I think it’s all the more important, and crucially urgent, for all of us to devote some serious time and energy to introspection, both on the individual and communal level, and think about what we can do to improve a situation that we don’t even really understand.

Thanks for listening.

With prayers for salvation and complete redemption, speedily,

-r haber


Don’t Slander the Land!

beautiful landWhen describing the sin of the spies, the Torah uses a somewhat unusual term: “Vayotziu Dibat HaAretz” (Numbers 13:32).  While this is usually translated as “they spoke evil about the land” or “they slandered the land,” the word “Diba” appears only a few other times in the Bible, and there is only one other place where it is used in a narrative context[1] . In both contexts, its exact meaning is unclear.

I’m not sure of the precise definition of the word Diba, or the significance of its usage here (if anyone has any thoughts, please comment below!).   But I would like to point out that there is actually something quite unusual about the specific type of evil speech through which the spies sinned.

Jewish law describes several different offences in the area of evil speech.  What is typically referred to in English as “slander” is called Motzi shem ra.  This refers to a situation where a person spreads negative false rumors or lies about another person, group of institution.  There are other offences called Lashon HaRa (literally: “evil speech”) and Rechilut (sometimes translated as “gossip”) that cover situations where a person reveals negative true information about someone else.[2] Although sometimes it is permitted, proper and even required to reveal negative information, if not justified then defaming someone, even with the truth, is a crime.

So there are sins involving lies, and sins involving the truth.  In which category should we place the Dibat HaAretz of the spies?

On the one hand, a careful reading of the Numbers 13:17-32 makes clear that everything they said was true.  So it wasn’t the Motzi shem ra type of slander.

But it wasn’t Lashon HaRa either, since the information they revealed (that the inhabitants of the land were numerous and strong and that some were giants, that the cities were powerfully fortified and that the living conditions could be harsh) were not objectively negative things.  Indeed, the two dissenting spies who gave a favorable report did not dispute any of the facts revealed by the others.  On top of that, they had been specifically charged with the mission of reporting on these very matters (see particularly 13:18-20).  They cannot be blamed for telling the truth and they did not illegitimately revealing damaging information.  So it wasn’t Lashon HaRa.

So what, in fact, was the nature of this Dibat HaAretz?  In their case, the sin was simply about how they presented the information, and how they interpreted it.  The very same facts that could lead some of the spies to declare, “We can certainly accomplish it…the land is very very good!”  caused others to proclaim, “We cannot make it there…it is a land that consumes its inhabitants.” It’s simply a matter of perspective.

The minority report of Joshua and Caleb was infused with faith and optimism; the majority report of the other ten was poisoned with cynicism.  Tragically, the destructive power of cynical negativity was too great to overcome, and this led to an entire generation dying in the desert.  This was the sin of Dibat HaAretz.

There’s a powerful lesson in this, especially in the age of the internet and social media.

Here in Israel, we’ve recently completed an election campaign that was marked by negativity, shallow slogans and ad hominem attacks.  Similarly, across the Jewish world, as we debate various controversial issues, the same tendencies towards demagoguery and maligning others for easy advantage sometimes surface.  And to make matters worse, we’ve recently confronted a number of scandals involving criminal or inappropriate behavior by rabbis and other leaders, and these have provoked responses that at times go way beyond addressing the actual issues and malign entire communities, philosophies and institutions.

Do not misunderstand what I’m saying.  Criminals, evil people and those who harm others must be stopped immediately and brought to justice.  Genuine problems in our communities and our country must be exposed, confronted and overcome, and legitimate arguments must be debated.  It’s just that none of this needs to involve cynicism.

So as we read about the spies this Shabbat, let’s all resolve to work vigorously to fix whatever is broken, but not to slander (or “l’hotzi Diba”) our people, our brethren and our country.  Let’s join Joshua and Caleb proclaiming “The land (and its people) are very very good!”

[1]This is in relation to Joseph, who told his father something bad about his brothers: “Vayave Yosef et Dibatam ra’ah el avihem” (Genesis 37:2).  However, the Torah does not inform us of the content of Joseph’s report to his father, so it is unclear what the term actually means.

[2]The distinction between those two categories is not important here.

Gedol HaDor

RALIn the past month since the passing of moreinu ve-rabbenu (our esteemed teacher), much has been said and written about Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.  Each speaker and writer has tried to shed light on some particular aspect of the uniqueness of this Torah giant.

Personally, I’ve remained fairly (and uncharacteristically) silent.  It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – to the contrary, I could write many tens of pages about the formative impact he had on me and the immeasurable amount of things I learned from him over the decades.  I have basically remained silent, though, because I didn’t want to say things that have already been said.  As our Sages put it, kol hamosif, gore’a (adding can sometimes take away).

But now, on the occasion of the shloshim (the conclusion of the thirty-day period of mourning), I do have an insight to share.  I want to discuss a term that I have heard – and used – again and again over the past month when speaking about Rav Aharon:  Gedol HaDor (the great one of the generation) [1].

Calling Rav Aharon a Gedol HaDor may seem unremarkable, but it is actually somewhat of a paradox, because it’s a term that he didn’t use very often.  He certainly never referred to himself by that title, but he also didn’t generally use it to refer to his own revered teachers and other Torah giants of this generation or of previous ones.  There was a reason for that.

You see, in contemporary Orthodox discourse, the term “Gedol HaDor” (or the more generalized plural term “Gedolim”) has taken on meanings and connotations that don’t really exist in classic Jewish sources.  The contemporary use of the term Gedolim is associated with a philosophy about which Rav Lichtenstein often expressed reservations or objections.

Nowadays, when the term Gedolim is used, it’s generally applied to a select group of specific individuals, as if it connotes an objective status or position to which one must be appointed.  Those crowned as Gedolim are granted wide-ranging authority.  Their halachic rulings are deemed binding on the entire generation, and automatically override those of any other rabbi who is not considered a Gadol.  On matters of public policy, their word is final and as binding as the instructions of the Torah itself.[2]  In some circles, their prayers and blessings are deemed to possess supernatural power, their predictions and pronouncements are regarded as prophetic and their personal instructions – even on non-halachic matters – are deemed binding.

When the term “Gedolim” is used these days, it is often accompanied by the assumption that there is unanimous agreement as to who is a member of this group, and who is not.  There is not, however, an agreed-upon mechanism for obtaining the status of “Gadol”.  And while some of those designated as Gedolim in recent years and decades were undoubtedly worthy of the title, I’m not so sure about others.  And there definitely are some individuals who I believe should be on such a list, but for some reason aren’t.

For his part, Rav Lichtenstein was steadfast in his insistence on the absolute supremacy of halacha and the requirement that only qualified posekim (decisors) issue halachic rulings.  He also spoke frequently about the need to hold Torah learning and Torah scholars in high regard, and about the esteem he had for his own teachers.

Still, I don’t recall him using the term “Gadol” very often, if at all.  He was adamant that halachic arguments should be judged on the basis of the sources, that ideas should be judged based on their merits, that rabbis should not determine all aspects of public policy, and that rabbinic pronouncements do not remove an individual’s right to make autonomous decisions nor his responsibility for those decisions.

Because Rav Aharon didn’t speak about “Gedolim”, his students generally didn’t either.  And yet, now that he has left us, we all find ourselves referring to our revered and beloved teacher by that exact title:  Gedol HaDor.  And why?  Because, simply, that’s the only way to describe what he was – one of the greatest people of our generation.

He wasn’t a member of an exclusive group with special authority, because he negated the very legitimacy of that concept.  He didn’t insist that his students and followers accept his opinion – to the contrary; he insisted that we think for ourselves and form our own opinions, sometimes even on matters of halacha.

And yet, he taught and led tens of thousands.  Among the multitudes of his students are rabbis, teachers and leaders across Israel and the world.  His teachings continue to reverberate, and indeed he was a leader to the entire generation.

He commanded respect and emulation, though he never demanded it.  His impact on an entire generation came simply through the power of his encyclopedic knowledge, unfathomable intellect, and even greater piety, humanity and concern for others.  He taught us to reject the culture of “Gedolim,” but he led an entire generation simply by being the Gedol HaDor.

[1] Though sometimes pronounced “Gadol HaDor,” I prefer to use the grammatically correct Hebrew expression.

[2] Indeed, several political parties in the current Knesset have official bodies known as “Moetzot Gedolei HaTorah” which make all decisions.  The MKs in these parties are ostensibly obligated to vote only according to the instructions of the “Gedolim”.

My Son is a Soldier

20150309_100512Yesterday, my wife and I dropped off our oldest son, Moshe, to begin his service in the IDF.  Since I never served in the army myself, and since our two older daughters did National Service, this was a first for us.

I’ve lived in Israel for almost 18 years, and never have I felt more like an oleh chadash (new immigrant) than I did yesterday.  Paradoxically, though, I’ve also never felt more Israeli.

Our son is enrolled in a five-year hesder program that combines military service with Yeshiva study.  He enlisted in the Givati Brigade together with an entire group from his Yeshiva, and a few other Yeshivot also had groups enlisting yesterday.  Amazingly, as the boys gathered at the enlistment point in Tel HaShomer, each group greeted their friends enthusiastically, with singing and dancing (watch video)!  Even later in the day when he got to his training base and sent us a picture of his “dormitory” (see below) he was in great spirits.

Luxury Accomodations

Luxury Accomodations

As a parent, I can’t say I feel exactly the same way.

18 years ago, when I made Aliya, many people asked me what I thought about the idea that my son (who was two years old at the time) would one day have to serve in the army.  My answer was always the same: “I hope it won’t be an issue.  I hope that by the time he’s old enough, there will be peace and we won’t need an army anymore.”   This response usually elicited a chuckle or a sarcastic response, followed by, “No – seriously…”.  People reacted as if I had found an elegant way to avoid dealing with the issue.

But I wasn’t avoiding anything. I meant it in all sincerity.  I was perplexed that people seemed to think my proposition – that maybe there would be peace – was so unrealistic.  Often, these conversations took place in shul, just after we finished praying.  I wondered what it meant that a person who just finished reciting the Amida prayer, with its multiple requests to bring the Messiah quickly, can so easily scoff at the suggestion that perhaps, in 15 or 20 years, those requests might actually be answered!

Over the years I have self-righteously repeated that story in various venues, exhorting my audience to consider whether they really believed in the Redemption.  But yesterday the day finally arrived, and unfortunately, the Messiah isn’t here yet.  Our army is still just as necessary as it was when Moshe was a baby, and last summer, we saw exactly what being an Israeli soldier can still mean.  So for the past few weeks I’ve been asking myself what it means that this moment has finally arrived, and in spite of my confident declarations over the years, the issue still is very relevant.

But then last week, I remembered another story that happened around 17 years ago, shortly after making Aliya.  I was in Eilat with a group of students.  Sitting in the lobby of the youth hostel, I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was working there.  At one point in the conversation, the man lifted his shirt to show me that he was carrying a tiny miniature pistol in his belt.  It was only about four or five inches long and looked like a toy, but the man insisted that it was an actual, fully functional handgun.  He then explained that he got such a small gun because he carries it with him wherever he goes, all the time.  “You will never catch me without it,” he said.

I asked him, as a resident of Eilat, why he needs to be armed all the time.  There are, of course, dangerous places where one might feel the need to carry weapons – but Eilat isn’t one of them.  Did he really feel that he couldn’t walk out of his house without a gun?

“Apparently you don’t understand,” he responded.  He then lifted a different part of his shirt – his sleeve – to reveal a series of numbers tattooed on his arm.   “I know what can happen when Jews can’t carry weapons.  When I got to Israel and saw that now, God has given us the right to have them, I vowed that I would actualize that right for every minute of the rest of my life.  It doesn’t matter if I will ever need it – as a Jew I can now carry a weapon, and can defend myself.  That’s an incredible thing, and not to be taken for granted.”

That powerful story has stayed with me over the years, and last week I realized that it was the answer to the issue I’ve been struggling with.  No, the process of Redemption is not yet complete, and we still need an army.  But the thing is that we have an army!!  And that means the Redemption is well under way.

Moshe is the first person in our family in several thousand years to serve in a Jewish army.   That’s a huge privilege.  Yes, it’s something to worry about, but it’s also something to be proud and even happy about, and to thank God for.

That’s the paradox of these amazing and confusing times.  I guess I really am Israeli now.

Humiliated on the Temple Mount

Snow on the Dome of the Rock in the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City is seen from the Mount of OlivesLast week, I went up to Har HaBayit (the Temple Mount).[1]  I’ve been there a number of times before, but this time was different. In the past, I have gone to the Mount as part of an organized group of religious Jews led by a rabbi. This time, I was there as part of the course I’m taking to get my tour guide license. My classmates are mainly secular Jews, and there are some non-Jews in the class as well. I was the only rabbi with us.

In some ways this experience was even more uplifting and inspiring than my previous visits, and in other ways, it was even more infuriating and humiliating.  Let me explain.

Security on the Mount is provided by armed Israeli police and unarmed officials of the Moslem wakf (religious trust), like this guy:

wakf guard

The policy of the Israeli government and police is to allow Jews to visit the Mount, but not to pray there, since that would apparently offend the Moslems. But for some reason, while the police vigorously enforce these prohibitions, they allow deliberate provocations from the other side. For example, groups of Arab women are bussed in to Jerusalem every day, just to follow Jews around the Temple Mount, shout loudly at them and taunt them (rumor has it they are paid a salary for their services). See this video for an example.

In previous visits I have gotten used to this intolerable situation. But this time, going “incognito” with a group not identified as religious, I was left more or less alone. Going up as a tour guide and not as a religious Jew also gave me the opportunity to enter a few places I otherwise would not have been able to, mainly the underground chambers from the time of the Second Bet HaMikdash known (inaccurately) as “Solomon’s Stables”.  That was really amazing.

solomons stables

“Solomon’s Stables” built by King Herod

shaar hulda hallway

Hallway ascending to the Mount from the southern gates known as “Shaarei Hulda”. Our ancestors in Second Temple times used this entrance to the Mount.

So why do I say that my visit was also infuriating and humiliating?

In order to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Moslems, we were told in advance that we would not be allowed to display any outward Jewish symbols such as a kippa or tzitzit. These would need to be concealed. This bothered me greatly – do I really have to hide my Jewishness here, in the heart of Jerusalem??

But then it got worse. At one point the police told us we would need to remove our hats altogether and walk bare-headed. I explained that I didn’t want to do that; I always keep my head covered for religious reasons, it was a hat and not a kippah, and all the tourists on the Mount were also wearing hats (it was raining). But I was told that this is the rule and if I did not comply, I would have to leave the Mount immediately.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – I have never received a demand like that from a policeman, anywhere in any country (to the contrary; wherever I go, the police protect my rights). Was an Israeli policeman actually demanding that I remove my head covering??? Here, of all places???  I had to make a split-second decision: comply with the demand, or be expelled from the Temple Mount. I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not…but I complied.

A few minutes later, with my hat back on and in a better mood, I experienced an even more exhilarating aspect of the visit. On two separate occasions I needed to wait for my group (for example while they were in the areas that halacha prohibits entering). According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to engage in frivolity or idle chatter on the Har HaBayit, so those waiting times gave me the opportunity to observe the mitzva of mora mikdash – reverence of the holy site.

Although I am strongly opposed to them, I was careful to abide by the rules that prohibit Jews from praying out loud. So I simply stood still, staring at the Dome of the Rock (where the Holy of Holies is) and contemplated the awe-inspiring significance of the place. Even though I did not pray out loud and I made sure to follow the rules that my lips not be seen moving, I did manage to recite Psalm 24 to myself about five or six times. With a religious group, the police generally keep the group moving, so there is no time for that.

But then, a wakf guard noticed me standing there, absorbed in my thoughts and swaying softly. He immediately approached and told me that praying was forbidden. I responded that I was not praying; just standing there. He insisted that I stand in a different pose in order to make it clear that I am not praying. An Israeli policeman then asked me to sit down so that nobody would think I was praying.

Since descending from the Mount, the conflicted emotions of soaring spiritual inspiration combined with pain, humiliation and deep sadness have gotten me thinking. I have drawn three conclusions from this experience:

1)  In spite of the indignities, we must be very grateful for the fact that we have the right and ability to visit this holiest of places in accordance with the demands of halacha and in safety and security.

2)  The humiliation I felt at the hands of the authorities was once commonplace for Jews. Thankfully I have almost never experienced anything like that – certainly not here in Israel but not in any other country either. The experience was, therefore, a helpful reminder that the Redemption is still not complete. It highlights the paradox that although the city of Jerusalem has been rebuilt in the most splendid of ways, its most important part remains in ruins. I felt the churban very clearly there.

3)  It is unconscionable that the Israeli government allows this type of disgrace to go on. We must use every legal means to pressure them to change this policy and allow Jews to pray openly and securely. If Moslems object and attempt to interfere, it is they who must be removed from the Mount.

But we must understand that the reason this is happening is that most of the Jewish people doesn’t understand the significance of this place. Imagine if the government wanted to restrict Jewish prayer at the Kotel. Any government that even attempted such a thing would be brought down within minutes, because the Israeli people would not stand for that. The humiliation at the Temple Mount will similarly end when the Jewish People are reconnected with it.

Thus, the solution to this injustice, like so many other things, comes down to the need to encourage more and deeper Jewish education. We must redouble our efforts to teach more Torah to more Jews everywhere. Ultimately that is what will lead to our Redemption.

[1]The halachic questions regarding entering the Har HaBayit should be the subject of a separate article. For now, I will say that many rabbis hold that it is prohibited at the present time to enter the Mount at all. However, I obviously follow a different opinion, also supported by many authorities, that allows it provided one immerses in a mikveh first and observes various restrictions regarding the areas of the mountain that are permissible, and regarding appropriate conduct on the Mount.