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The Challenge of Shemita – Part One

wheatfieldA few hours from now, the Shemita year will begin!

Here in Israel, once every seven years we observe the Sabbatical Year, the Biblical commandment (Shemot 23:10; Vayikra 25:1-7) [1] to refrain from agricultural work, to allow the land to rest and to grant everyone equal and unencumbered access to agricultural produce.

As in previous Shemita years, there has been much discussion and debate about how this law should be observed in modern times.  (I’ve recently published a small booklet explaining the various issues and opinions from the perspective of the consumer.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you can download a copy here.)  These debates are important, and I hope to address them in a follow-up post in the next week or two.  But for now, moments before this awesome holy year is to begin, I would like to draw attention to the lofty and inspiring vision embodied by this commandment.

Shemita is described by the Torah as Shabbat HaAretz.  Just as we observe Shabbat once every seven days, the Land itself observes Shabbat once every seven years. [2]

But it is not only the land that rests.  All of the people who work the land rest as well.  In a pre-modern agrarian economy, this meant that probably upwards of 80% of the people (who earned their livings either directly from farming or indirectly from related fields like producing wine or oil, or selling agricultural products commercially) would have their employment drastically reduced for an entire year.  Just as we are commanded to cease our economic activity once every seven days in order to remember our Creator, to temporarily release ourselves from the “rat race” of pursuing a livelihood, to spend time with our families and to focus on spiritual matters like prayer and Torah study – so too once every seven years the entire economy was to go into massive slow-down mode, so that the same goals can be met on a national scale.

But Shemita isn’t only about God.  It is also about our relationship with each other.  It is about temporarily eliminating the gaps between rich and poor, between strong and weak, between master and servant.  The Torah specifically describes this aspect when it says “And in the Seventh Year you shall release and abandon [your land] so that the poor among your people can eat, and that which they leave over shall be eaten by the wild animals” (Shemot 23:10). [3] And to those people (a very small percentage in the pre-modern agrarian society) whose livelihood was completely unaffected by the cessation of agricultural activity, the Torah addressed the related commandment of Shemitat Kesafim – the requirement to release borrowers from the obligation to pay their loans, and to nonetheless lend money to anyone who needs assistance (Devarim 15:1-8).  The few people who were able to go about their jobs without restriction were obligated to essentially subsidize everyone else. [4]

Reducing our economic activity to such an extent requires us to rely directly on God for our sustenance, and putting our faith in Him to such an extent is very difficult.  For this reason, the Torah itself (Vayikra 25:20-24 and Devarim 15:9-11) uncharacteristically issues a special exhortation about keeping the mitzvah, and promises us a Divine blessing for doing so.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of the human weakness of Jews who didn’t live up to these challenges and various historical circumstances, much of Shemita observance today amounts to legal devices that allow us halachic legitimacy to sidestep these laws. In the case of the agricultural laws we have the Heter Mechira and other loopholes [5], and in the case of Shemitat Kesafim we have the pruzbul, an ancient device recorded in the Talmud that employs a legal loophole to enable lenders to collect loans in spite of the Torah’s commandment to release them.  Let’s be honest: these loopholes are legitimate but they are also, in a sense, cop-outs; we don’t violate the prohibitions, but we don’t live up to the Torah’s vision either.

The ideal of an entire society basically shutting down its economy for an entire year so that everyone, rich and poor alike, can spend the year focusing on spiritual matters and on social equality is apparently still beyond our reach.  It is for that reason that halacha gives us the loopholes, so that we can continue to function.  But that doesn’t mean we should reduce Shemita to a series of legal procedures.  If we can’t yet observe this mitzvah in its fullest, we can at least take a few steps in that direction.

For those of us here in Israel, that means making the effort to eat vegetables and fruits that are endowed with Kedushat Shvi’it (the special sanctity of the Shemita year) available through the Otzar Bet Din system.  More on that, b’ezrat Hashem, in the second post.  For Jews everywhere, though, the values of Shemita – taking time off to focus on our relationship with God and with each other, are still applicable.  And the imperative to help others financially even more than we do in other years, including lending money and forgiving debts when possible [6] also applies to all Jews everywhere.

I recently saw a fascinating website (in Hebrew) called “Shnat HaShevaThe organization behind this is pushing for the general public (with an emphasis on the non-observant sectors) to embrace the values of Shemita as a national social and spiritual imperative.

As we enter Rosh HaShana and begin this holy Shemita year, we should all be thinking about what each of us can do to help enhance the Jewish People’s observance of these commandments and to strengthen the fundamental values they embody.

Shana Tova and Shabbat (Ha’Aretz) Shalom!


[1]According to most authorities, contemporary observance of this law is based on a rabbinic ordinance and not Biblical law.  However, the rabbinic enactment is based on a Biblical idea.

[2]A friend of mine who lives near Kibbutz Shaalvim told me seven years ago that they held a cute little ceremony in the late afternoon on Erev Rosh HaShana.  The entire Kibbutz walked down to the fields in order to wish them “Shabbat Shalom!”

[3]This is an expansion of a theme inherent also in the weekly Shabbat.  Compare the two versions of the Fourth Commandment, Shemot 20:7-10 and Devarim 5:11-14.  Note the differences in the reason given for observing the law!

[4] This insight has powerful implications in our contemporary post-industrial economy.  Whereas in ancient times over 80% of people were affected by the agricultural restrictions, today only a miniscule percentage of the public works in these fields.  However, the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim applies to all Jews, even outside of Israel!

[5] See The Kosher Consumer’s Guide to Shemita for an explanation of Heter Mechira and the various other loopholes.  Although devices like Otzar Bet Din are much closer to actual observance of the laws then the Heter Mechira is, in its contemporary manifestation it is still far from the ideal described in the Torah.

[6] The pruzbul gives us the ability to lend money without having the debt cancelled by Shemita.  But there is no obligation to use it on every loan!  When lending money to a person with genuine financial need, it is praiseworthy to observe the mitzvah of Shemitat Kesafim in its most literal sense.

Did We Win?

press confIn their press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz insisted that we won the war against Hamas.  They correctly pointed out that Hamas, and the entire Gaza strip, suffered unprecedented damage that will take many years to repair, that Hamas lost around 1000 fighters, some of its most senior leaders, and most of its rockets, tunnels and other weaponry, and that Israel benefitted from wide-ranging international understanding.  They also pointed out that Hamas was forced to capitulate, eventually accepting the very same cease-fire proposal that they refused before the ground invasion. 

Netanyahu made the decision to avoid a full-scale reconquest of the Strip, which would probably have led to the deaths of many of our soldiers and subjected Israel to significant international pressure.  Apparently, he also doesn’t want to have to rule the Gaza strip again.

On the other hand, several members of his cabinet – most notably Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett – argue that because of that very decision, the operation was a failure.  They correctly point out that while Hamas has been weakened it has not been destroyed, and that if they are able to replenish their supplies and reinforce their control as they have after previous cease-fires, the next round of fighting is inevitable, and it will be even more difficult next time.  Additionally, at least in Bennett’s opinion, the prospect of regaining control over the Gaza strip, including the ruins of Gush Katif, would not be a negative thing.

So who is right?  Did we win or lose?

The answer will be clear only with time.  If we are able to keep Hamas weak and prevent it from rearming, and if sustained quiet prevails on our southern border for a significant period of time, then Netanyahu’s tactical decision will be vindicated.  If not, then we indeed failed to achieve our objective.  Personally, while my world-view is closer to Bennett’s, I’m willing to wait and see.

But regardless of who turns out to be correct, at this point a few things should be exceptionally clear: 

  • We can never agree to a Palestinian state with total sovereignty over any land west of the Jordan River. This war we just fought against a fairly powerful Hamas army was a direct result of our disastrous withdrawal from Gaza nine years ago.  Even if Netanyahu is right that reconquering the Strip isn’t wise right now, we can never allow any Palestinian entity, or anyone else for that matter, to have sovereignty there. 
  • Even more so, we cannot entertain any such thoughts regarding any parts of Judea and Samaria, which are significantly closer to our population centers.
  • On a day when Al Qaeda militants just captured the border crossing between Israel and Syria and imprisoned 43 UN peacekeeping soldiers, we should be asking ourselves what things would look like if, God forbid, these guys were sitting on the hills overlooking Tiberias. Thank God we never made a deal with Syria and withdrew from the Golan.  Any such ideas should be removed from the table permanently.

And if Netanyahu is right, it’s only because the world tied our hands.  If we had international support, we could and would have recaptured the Gaza strip and destroyed Hamas long ago (or probably would never have left in the first place) – and the Arab population of Gaza would be much better off.  We must therefore hold the UN, the Europeans, and even the Americans, partially responsible for this mess – even if President Obama and Secretary Kerry are insulted when we say that.

Those leaders, however, are paying the price for their own errors as well.  Obama took pride in the “achievement” of withdrawing American forces from Iraq, he balked and decided to back down from his threats to attack Syria, and in return he got ISIS and the brutal murder of James Foley.  According to intelligence officials quoted in the media, the fear that ISIS operatives (especially those like Foley’s murderer, who have Western passports) will now conduct major terrorist attacks on American or European soil is very real.  One can only shudder with horror at the thought of what might happen if American and European foot-dragging allows Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.  And Prime Minister Netanyahu is absolutely right that all of these groups (Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran, etc.) are ultimately all the same.

History has shown time and again that what starts with attacks against Jews never ends there.  Thousands of years ago, God told Abraham “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3).  It has been true throughout history, and it is happening again in front of our eyes.

When This is Finally Over….

soldiersToday is the 17th of Tammuz; a day devoted to national self-reflection.  So let’s pause and reflect on the very intense month our nation has been through.

So many things have happened, and so much has changed.

It began on Friday morning, the 15th of Sivan (June 13) when we learned that three of our children had been kidnapped.  Within hours, Jews across the spectrum and across the world were united in worry and prayer for these boys, whom almost none of us knew personally.  Those emotions – pain, worry, faith and solidarity – followed us for the next 2-1/2 weeks until one evening we heard the dramatic and devastating news.  The national worry turned immediately to national mourning, mixed with fury as we heard the audio recordings of the evil monsters laughing as they murdered our three holy, innocent children.

From the bereaved families to the Prime Minister, cabinet members and Chief Rabbis who spoke at the funerals, down to pretty much every blogger and facebook commenter I saw, the sentiments were just about universal.  Like many others, I also wrote about this a few weeks ago: the evil is unfathomable and the tragedy is devastating, but something positive did come from all of this – we learned that in spite of our many differences, we really are one family and we can come together for the most noble of purposes.

No sooner were the boys buried, though, then we learned about the horrific murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, and a few days later the unthinkable was confirmed: some of our own people are capable of the exact same level of evil.  This shook us to our core and unleashed a flurry of condemnations from political leaders, rabbis and ordinary people – again with almost complete wall-to-wall unanimity.

But before we had a chance to digest that, rockets started flying, sirens began to blare, tens of thousands of our men were called up for emergency reserve duty (known as “tzav 8” here in Israel), and all Israelis found themselves constantly asking where the nearest bomb shelter would be. From our brothers and sisters abroad, the prayers resumed and expressions of genuine solidarity flowed in.

For a few hours this morning it looked like there was a cease-fire; by now it is clear that the fighting continues, and a ground operation may be just around the corner.  If so the prayers will certainly intensify, as we once again worry about the safety of our young men.  At some point, though, this round of fighting will come to an end (hopefully with a complete victory for the IDF).

And then maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to return to our normal lives for at least a while (although by now it should be clear that nothing involving Israel and the Jews is ever “normal”).  That would be a real blessing.  We all have important things to do in our personal and communal lives and it would be wonderful to be able to actually focus on those again.

And at that point, the differences, disagreements and emphatic disputes will return in all of their intensity.  The arguments will continue, and that’s actually a good thing.  Our rabbis tell us (Avot 5:17) that “an argument for the sake of Heaven is destined to prevail”.

The problem is that it might look like the unity is quickly dissolving.  But it doesn’t have to.  When we return to routine, things don’t have to go back to exactly the way they were.

In fact, that’s really what this time of year is about.  Our Rabbis also tell us (Yoma 9b) that the present exile was caused by “baseless hatred”.  Anyone who studies the history of that time understands that this is a reference to the many factions among the nation.  They were divided religiously, politically and ideologically, and they didn’t conduct those disputes as “arguments for the sake of Heaven”; instead there was civil war.

There have been a number of times over the past decades when it looked like we were headed back towards those dark days, making the building of a Third Temple appear even more remote, and maybe even threatening to reverse the dramatic Redemption already under way.  After this past month, though, we’re in a very different place.

We’ve been through a lot these past few weeks; we’ve suffered a lot, but we’ve also learned a lot about ourselves.  Indeed, we have so much to be proud of.  Let’s resolve together to hold on to that.

Jewish Terrorists

I had planned to put out a post tonight marking the ending of the Shiva for the three murdered boys, and commenting on the mood within our nation.  The breaking news tonight makes that discussion seem inappropriate right now.  Perhaps in a day or two.  For now, I would like to share these thoughts.

muhammad abu khdeirThere is still a gag order preventing the press from releasing details, but it seems that six young Jews have been arrested on suspicions of kidnapping and murdering 16-year old Muhammad Abu Khdeir last week, in revenge for the murder of our three boys several weeks earlier.  Muhammad was murdered several hours after Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali were buried.

If this is true, then the killers are Jewish terrorists. There is no other word for it, and they must be treated as such.

They must be tried, and if the evidence supports it, convicted and sentenced according to the full severity of the law.   There is no justification and no excuse for murdering an innocent child, no matter how understandable our grief or anger.  There is no difference between a Jewish and an Arab terrorist, just as there is no difference between a Jewish and an Arab victim.

And if indeed Muhammad was murdered by Jewish terrorists, that means there are terrorists among us, and this is a stain on all of us.  As the Bible teaches in the context of the commandment known as Egla Arufa (Deuteronomy 21:1-9), if someone is murdered near our communities, the entire community bears some of the blame.  We must all do some soul-searching to ask how it is that such people can come from our communities.  This cannot be allowed to ever happen again.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that although the Jewish terrorists are no different than the Arab terrorists, as a nation we are still very different from our enemies.  Let’s compare:

        • Three Jewish teenagers were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.
  • There were celebrations in Gaza, the Palestinian Authority governing party glorified the crime and launched facebook campaign celebrating the “victory” with three-finger salutes (while mumbling a six-word “condemnation” in English and continuing to celebrate in Arabic).
  • The murderers have still not been found.
  • Meanwhile, the people of Israel, and Jews all around the world, prayed and mourned.


  • An Arab teenager was murdered by Jewish terrorists.
  • There were swift condemnations by both the Prime Minister and the President of Israel, the family of Naftali Frenkel, and Israelis from across the political and ideological spectrum.
  • The Israeli police launched a swift investigation, and arrested six suspects within four days.
  • Meanwhile, thousands of Arabs are rioting violently and calling for a third intifada.

We are not like our enemies.  It’s our responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

The Kidnappings and Us

#bringbackourboys bus sign

(photo credit: Sara Haber)

Our enemies have identified our Achilles’ heel.  It’s infuriating, but we may as well admit it: they have figured us out and know how to get results.

They’ve learned that if you want to extort something from Israel, the way to do it is to kidnap our people and hold them hostage.  This isn’t a new revelation– they’ve already used this tactic to free 1000 terrorists in exchange for Gilad Schalit in 2011, leveraging experience they had gained after previous kidnappings, like the deal for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in 2008.  Undoubtedly, that’s the thinking behind the current kidnappings also.

Let’s be honest. Even after the worst terrorist attacks, including the mass suicide bombings of the early 2000’s, within a few days after the attack, we’ve all moved on emotionally.  Of course we are devastated, saddened, and enraged, and we will never forget the victims, but on the day-to-day level we move on. We have no choice – if we allowed terrorism to break us, we’d have been defeated long ago.

But when there are hostages, it’s different.  As long as we believe there’s even the slightest chance they are alive, we just can’t let go.  We worry endlessly about them and their welfare, exactly as if they were our own family members.  And most importantly, we are willing to do just about anything to bring them home.

We pray that this time it will be the IDF that gets our boys back safely. But ultimately, if it were to become necessary we might well agree to pay an absurdly high price again, just like we did for Gilad Schalit.  There were agonizing debates about the exchange back then, and they’ve become wrenchingly relevant again; yesterday the army announced that one of those released terrorists was indicted for the murder of Baruch Mizrahi right before Passover.  (Personally, as I wrote at the time I was very torn, and remain so now).

So they’ve found our weakness. What they don’t realize is that they have also revealed our greatest strength.

On the Sunday night following the kidnapping, there was a mass prayer at the Western Wall, with an estimated 30,000 people.  I was in the Old City that day, as my wife’s cousin was visiting Israel with her family, and I gave them a tour of the area.  It was their first trip to Israel ever, and they joined us at the prayer gathering.  Seeing the event through their eyes was amazing. Watching endless waves of people enter the Kotel plaza, they kept asking: Are all of these people really coming for three boys that almost none of them know? Are you sure this was only announced a few hours ago?  A teenager had recently been murdered in their hometown of Portland, OR, and the contrast in the public reactions was remarkable.

And it doesn’t stop. I don’t think I’ve been to a single prayer service in the past two weeks without an extra chapter of psalms being added.  I had the pleasure of attending two students’ weddings in the past two days, and both said a special prayer under the chuppah.  A few days ago the electronic siddur on my Android phone (Tfilon – highly recommended and free!) was automatically updated to include a prayer for the three boys’ release.

tfillon screen shot

(screenshot: Batsheva Haber)

And it’s not only the Orthodox. Many secular Jews have joined in as well, including talk-show hosts Avri Gilad and Hila Korah who recited psalms on their show as an expression of unity. A special Mincha prayer was held in the Knesset this week, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid reported that he prayed for the first time in six years upon hearing of the kidnappings.  And of course there was the instantly-viral #BringBackOurBoys internet campaign that continues to gather steam from all over the world.

Indeed, no other nation could show this type of unity.  It may be our greatest weakness but it is also our greatest strength.  It’s sad that it sometimes takes tragedies to bring it out, but we must learn from this. We pray that our boys – our boys – come home immediately and this tragic affair comes to a speedy end.  But then we have to make sure not to lose this.

How Should Jews View Christianity?

Pope at KotelYesterday, an interesting confluence of events got me thinking.

I was guiding some tourists (a really nice Jewish family from New Jersey) who wanted to see Caesarea and Zichron Yaakov.  Of course, yesterday was also the day that Pope Francis visited Jerusalem. Since we left the city at 9:30 in the morning when the pope was on the other side of town, the effect of his visit on our day was limited to some minor traffic issues. Nevertheless, as I say, the juxtaposition got me thinking.

While standing in the Roman Hippodrome in Caesarea, I told my guests about a historical event that happened in that city. The incident undoubtedly attracted almost no attention at the time (especially because it may have been kept secret), but it began a chain of events that changed the history of the world, including some very severe consequences for the Jewish People.

The event took place sometime in the middle of the first century of the Common Era, and is known to us only from Christian sources.  Although the early Christians were Jews who observed all of the commandments of the Torah (the only thing differentiating them from other Jews being their belief that the Messiah had already come), after a few decades they made the decision to turn their attention to Gentiles. And according to Christian tradition, the very first Gentile to be baptized was a man named Cornelius the Centurion – a Roman military officer stationed in Caesarea.  He was followed by many others; although Christian belief never really caught on among Jews, it spread like wildfire among Gentiles. What began with Cornelius in Caesarea ended up conquering the Roman Empire within a few centuries.

After that we walked a few hundred feet over to the walls of the Crusader city of Caesarea, and spoke about what happened over a thousand years later, when European Christians – the spiritual descendants of Cornelius – returned to the Land of Israel as conquerors.  Those Crusaders massacred thousands of Jews, both in Europe along the way, and here in Israel.

As we spoke of that, I mentioned the dramatic contrast with the events taking place at that very moment back in Jerusalem – the leader of the largest Christian denomination visiting the sovereign capital of the Jewish State of Israel, recognizing and honoring that sovereignty, expressing horror and remorse for the sins of the Holocaust, and publicly declaring the fundamental theological change that Christianity has undergone in the past few decades (and which this pope has emphatically embraced). Certainly, this confluence should be viewed as the closing of a historic circle.  The Catholic church, which was the source of some of the worst acts of anti-Semitism in history, today acknowledges the unique historic role of the Jewish People and our covenant with God.

So where does that leave us?  How should Jews view Christians and Christianity?

The answer, I believe, is complex. On the one hand, even after the historic reconciliation, we must recall that Christian belief still contains a number of fundamentally idolatrous concepts [1] that stand in direct opposition to the Torah.  On the other hand, we should remember that in a celebrated passage,[2] the Rambam notes that both Christianity and Islam, while containing many false beliefs, are part of God’s plan to bring the messages of Torah to the entirety of humanity, helping to pave the way for the coming of the Messiah. So that means that Christianity represents a number of major steps on the road from the falsehoods of the ancient past towards the world of truth foreseen by the prophets. Not all bad; not all good – somewhere in the middle.

The other day, someone asked me how I would react if I was one of the people who met the pope personally, and he gave me a blessing. Would I respond “Amen”? Would I feel blessed? I responded that if he blessed me using the specific name of Jesus, I would certainly not say “Amen”. But if it was a generic blessing in the name of God, from a person who represents this major step towards true worship of the true God (even if they aren’t completely there yet), I would in fact appreciate it.

In any case, standing in Caesarea talking about Cornelius and the Crusaders while the leader of over 1 billion Christians was praying to God at the Western Wall was, for me, just another indication of the approaching Redemption.

The exact halachic status of Christian worship is a subject of debate from the time of the Rishonim (early commentators) through contemporary authorities.  Nevertheless, it is generally recognized that certain beliefs – chief among them the concepts of the trinity and incarnation – are in basic conflict with Jewish theology.

[2] The passage in question is found in the Mishneh Torah, at the end of chapter 11 in the Laws of Kings (otherwise known as Hilchot Melachim. Shout-out to a few MMY girls who know who you are. Message me if you see this!). Because the passage contains some criticism of the founder of Christianity, it was censored from the early printed texts on which many contemporary printings are based.  Therefore, if you try to look it up, you may not find it in the edition you are using. It can be seen, however, in newer editions of the Rambam, or online here.

Israel at 66 – What are You Doing?

degelIt’s that time of year again.  Here in Israel, blue and white flags are going up on lampposts, apartment balconies, public buildings and automobiles, and people are stocking up on meat and charcoal.  In Jewish communities abroad as well, celebrations for Israel’s 66th Independence Day are scheduled and the Jewish People is getting ready to celebrate.

Well, at least many of us are. There are still, as there have been from the beginning, some Jews who don’t think we should celebrate. Among these are some liberal Jews who feel that Israel isn’t democratic enough, and some religious Jews who think Israel isn’t Jewish enough. Some of these people will be demonstratively boycotting or protesting celebrations, and many others will just stay home.

To me, though, there is no question whatsoever; the requirement to celebrate is 100% clear.  Every day when I walk down the street all I see is the fulfillment – in exquisite detail – of Biblical prophecies.  While I recognize that there have been great Torah leaders who saw things differently, with each passing year it becomes clearer and clearer that God’s will was different than we may have thought.  Generations ago there were indeed legitimate arguments about how the redemption of the Jewish People was to be brought about.  But as Rabbi Berel Wein declares in this remarkable piece, by now history has spoken.

I’ve written about this a number of times in the past. I’ve analyzed the connection of the State of Israel to the coming of the Messiah from a philosophical angle and from a halachic one.  I’ve written emotionally about these things as well, and spoke about it in this YouTube video made by my neighbor Izzy Broker.  In countless speeches I’ve given over the years for Yom HaAtzmaut, I’ve spoken passionately about our absolute obligation to sing and dance (and perhaps make mangals*), and to offer special prayers of thanksgiving for the great miracles we continue to experience on a daily basis.

This year, I won’t elaborate on those points (you can just click on the links above) but instead go a step further and talk about the purpose of celebrating. Yom HaAtzmaut isn’t just an excuse to party, and it isn’t even only about expressing gratitude to the Almighty.  Both of those things are important, but if that’s all we do, we’re missing the point.  The singing, dancing, celebrations and prayers are meant to move us and motivate us to action.

The Biblical prophets promised us that we’d survive the harsh exile come back to the land of Israel. But they also told us that each one of us needs to be deserving in order to participate.  For example, take a look at Yechezkel (Ezekiel) 20:33-44.  This prophecy (especially verse 38) makes clear that the redemption of the Jewish people is assured on the national level, but that each individual still needs to be worthy of participating.  We are not redeemed passively; each one of us has to be worthy of redemption.

In practical terms, what this means is that as we celebrate on Monday night and Tuesday, as we sing and dance, pray and eat, and mostly as we marvel at the miraculous redemption unfolding before our eyes, we must each ask ourselves what else we can do to personally contribute to this process.  Here are a few ideas of what to think about:

  • For Jews still living abroad, think about making Aliya.  For many people, it may very well not be practical or advisable at the moment, and that is completely legitimate.  But it doesn’t exempt you from thinking and planning. If you can’t make Aliya today, when and how can it become possible?  What are you doing to make it a reality?
  • For those already living in Israel: What are you doing PERSONALLY to help make this country better, stronger, more developed?  What else can you contribute, beyond what you are doing already?
  • For Jews everywhere:  What can you do to help bring Jews back to Judaism and back to Israel, to support Israel and help defend her, and to contribute to strengthening the Jewish people and its eternal message?
  • And finally: what can each of us do to improve ourselves personally and to improve our relationship with our creator?  What can we do to make sure we are worthy of participating in the redemption, as it occurs here and now?

Chag Atzmaut Samaeach to everyone!

*Mangal is Israeli slang for “barbecue”.  According to Wikipedia, the source of this word is in the Bedouin dialect of Arabic, from which it was transferred in a modified form to Turkish and from there to Israeli Hebrew.  Who knew??

In Prison for Learning Torah???

Yesterday, the Knesset passed the poorly named “Equality of Service” law, designed to increase the number of haredim serving in the army. This controversial law brought 300,000 protesters to the streets of Jerusalem two weeks ago, and 150,000 in Manhattan earlier this week.  But despite the unusually harsh rhetoric accusing the government of nothing less than shemad (religious persecution), the absurd claim that they are “going to imprison people for learning Torah” is nothing but a cynical lie.

While I have some very serious reservations about this law, including the clause about criminal sanctions[1], it is important to set the record straight: Even after the passage of this law the State of Israel will not imprison people for learning Torah!  In fact, the State of Israel will continue to pay for Torah study in elementary schools, high schools, yeshivot and seminaries (in addition to paying for synagogues, mikvaot and other religious institutions) and will even continue to grant permanent exemptions to tens of thousands of full-time yeshiva students!

All the law requires is that – after a three-year transition period – less than ten percent of haredim above the age of 21 will be required to enlist, and even this small number can choose National Service options (including several that involve teaching Torah) instead of army service.

The law also does not impose criminal sanctions for learning Torah!  All it says is that in theory, if people break the law and refuse to report for duty, they will be subject to the same criminal penalties as everyone else.

Absolutely nobody thinks that yeshiva students will really be arrested for draft dodging.  This is nothing but a cynical lie designed to serve the interests of extremist politicians on both sides (Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid can now take pride in having “forced the haredim into the army” and the haredi politicians can drum up support for “fighting the evil decree”.  Unfortunately, the fact that neither of these statements has anything to do with reality seems to be irrelevant).

You can agree or disagree with the law (as I said, I disagree with it).  But let’s at least have an honest discussion about the actual reality, and not hysterical screaming about nonsense.


[1] The law will not actually increase the number of haredim serving in the army, and it may even cause a reversal of the existing trend towards greater participation.  The criminal sanctions will never be implemented because the law has too many loopholes to prevent it, and because in any case this clause will only come into effect after the next election when a new government can change or cancel the law if they need to. What the criminal sanctions clause does accomplish, though, is give extremists plenty of ammunition to create hysteria and bring people out to protest.  As I wrote over a year ago, if the goal was to actually increase haredi enlistment in a healthy way, this could be accomplished far better with economic pressure, and it would be a lot harder to drum up support for opposition.

Can Israel Really be Democratic?

kerryIn the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Prime Minister Netanyahu is insisting that the Palestinians accept the definition of Israel as a “Jewish state”.  While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry appears to support that demand, Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is reportedly refusing to accept it.  Abbas argues that democratic principles require Israel to give exactly equal treatment to all citizens, and to all religious and ethnic groups.  Since some of Israel’s citizens are not Jews, he says it would be unfair to define Israel as “Jewish”.

Abbas himself, of course, is a total hypocrite. Just yesterday he once again insisted that not one single Jew would be allowed to live in the Palestinian state he wants to form, and even admitted that his administration incites to violence against Jews. He has no right to lecture us about democracy.

Our opponents in the BDS movement, who are beginning their next “Israeli Apartheid Week” in a few days, argue that we are no different than South Africa once was – a country that unfairly privileges one group and discriminates against others.  These people insist that the only way we can absolve ourselves of the crime of racism and oppression is by turning Israel into a democratic “state for all of its citizens” and removing any special status for Jewish people or the Jewish religion. This would include symbolic steps like changing our national anthem, flag and possibly even the name of the country, as well as more substantive matters like changing the laws that reflect Israel’s Jewish character. That would include the Law of Return.

But what about the issue itself?  There’s plenty of anti-Semitic hypocrisy in the BDS movement as well, and it’s easy to point out their one-sided distortions and outright lies, not to mention the fact that Arabs in Israel have more civil rights and freedoms than in any Arab country.  That’s all 100% true. But let’s be honest. It doesn’t really address the issue. The fact is that in Israel, many laws and policies favor Jews and Judaism, and give them privileged status over non-Jews and other religions. How is that fair?

Well, let’s consider what would happen if we agreed to the demands and made the necessary changes. We’d have to stop allowing Jews to make aliya. And the next time Jews can’t stay in their countries of residence or begin to feel endangered by anti-Semitism (as may very well happen in parts of Europe at some point over the next few years), we wouldn’t be able to take them in as we did for the Russian and Ethiopian Jews in the 1990s. They would have nowhere to go.

And if the Palestinians ever become a majority in Israel, what sort of laws would they pass? How would a police force and army under Palestinian direction treat Jewish people and Jewish holy sites? Israeli Jews would also have nowhere to go.

Although Palestinian spokespeople and their supporters around the world deny that Jews ever had a connection to this land and view us as foreign invaders, the historical reality is that since our exile from this land we have been to pretty much every country on earth, and while we have been able to stay in some of them for quite a while, we’ve never been able to make our permanent homes anywhere else. Asking us to turn our country into an American-style democracy is asking us to commit national suicide.

The Torah tells us that ultimately, the only place for the Jewish People is in the Land of Israel (see Devarim 28:64-65), and that the Land of Israel can only thrive when the Jewish People are here (see Sanhedrin 98a).  History has shown that both of those statements are absolutely true.

We’re not an apartheid state. We do – as we should – concern ourselves with making sure that the minorities in our midst are treated as fairly as possible.  If we fail at this sometimes, we can and must correct those errors. But we must remain a Jewish state (even if even we can debate whether or not it’s 100% democratic), because to do otherwise would mean the end of the Jewish People.

This may make us uncomfortable, but it is a reality.  As Bilaam ben Beor told us thousands of years ago, “Am Levadad Yishkon” – we have always, and will always, dwell alone.

We have a unique role in human history, and sometimes that means we simply operate with different rules.

Yeshiva Tuition and Israel-Diaspora Relations

dollar-signsWhat do the two items in this post’s title have to do with each other?   I would have thought nothing, until I stumbled across a fascinating article last week. I’ll get to the article in a few paragraphs, but first let me briefly explain the problem for those who may be less familiar with it.

Most Orthodox Jews in the United States (and a small but significant number of non-Orthodox ones as well) send their children to private day schools. As religious institutions, US law bars these schools from receiving any type of government support (federal, state or local). While donations cover some of the cost, the lion’s share falls on the parents in the form of tuition payments.

Rising education costs have driven the tuitions higher and higher, with an average day school now costing  $10,000-$15,000 per year for elementary school, and high schools often approaching or exceeding $20,000.   Summer camps (which many consider essential) add on as much as $5000-$10,000 more per year.  And most parents then send their children to Israel for at least one year, with a price tag of close to $25,000 (plus airfare and living expenses). All of this, for each child, before even beginning to think about college and graduate school.

A typical Orthodox family with, say, four children can easily see total education costs rising above $100,000 per year, after taxes.  More and more families simply can’t do it without help.  The costs continue to rise and the subsidies and additional funding are shrinking.  The term “tuition crisis” has become common in the community’s discourse, and there is talk of Orthodox parents sending children to public schools or – worse – reducing the number of children they have.  Some people are predicting nothing less than the collapse of the entire system.  Everyone agrees that something has to be done, but to date, no real solution has arisen.

So this past week, as I said, I read a fascinating article suggesting a creative solution, by Yosef Abramowitz from Kibbutz Ketura (he identifies with the non-Orthodox day school community).  I can’t say it as well as he did, so I will quote a few lines:

It is time for Israel, and the strength of her economy, to play a critical role in making day schools affordable in new ways…. The Bank of Israel could make long-term, low-interest loans available to Jewish families…or, at the very least, it could provide a loan guarantee for day school parents….

While a child is enrolled in Jewish day school, part of the [loan] repayments would be covered for parents — half by the local Jewish federation and half by the State of Israel. Payments would be frozen whenever the recipient visited Israel, whether on summer programs, junior year abroad, MASA or some other long-term program. If the recipient makes Aliya by a certain age and stays in Israel three years, then all or part of the loan would be forgiven.

The State of Israel is also creating a sovereign wealth fund to invest smartly the huge windfalls it expects from its recently discovered natural gas deposits — an estimated $125 billion over the next two decades. While Israeli education, defense, renewables and society should certainly be the major recipients of the profits here, asking the State to set aside 10 percent of the funds, or $12.5 billion, to finance affordable Jewish education around the world would radically transform lives and strengthen Israel by strengthening Jewish peoplehood.

Personally, I was blown away by this proposal, for two reasons:

1.  Let’s understand what he just said.  He wants the State of Israel to provide financial support to the American Jewish community.  Think about what this means.  For decades (actually centuries), Israel has been built and sustained through Diaspora philanthropy – it is rare to find an Israeli school, library, park, museum, hospital or other public institution that doesn’t display at least one plaque honoring donors from the Diaspora.  But now it seems that the tables are beginning to turn. Thankfully, Israel’s economy is strong and growing, and sadly, America’s continues to flounder.  It was only a matter of time before someone suggested the philanthropy should go the other way.

This may sound overly dramatic, but I see this as yet another sign of what I wrote about a few months ago: the realization of the Messianic prophecies of redemption.  The Jewish People is coming home, slowly but steadily. And as a result, the center of gravity in the Jewish world is changing. 

2.  I’m not very knowledgeable about financial matters, and I admit that Abramowitz lost me completely somewhere between LIBOR interest rates and endowment funds, but this proposal sounds like something we should seriously consider.

Jewish education, around the world, is the single most important thing to the future of our People, and our State.  Together with defense and welfare, it needs to receive the highest priority in our expenditures – and yes, we Israelis are responsible for Jews around the world.  Israeli budgets are tight also, but we must make education a top priority.  To that end, it was encouraging to read in yesterday’s news that the government will cancel further planned cuts to the funding of yeshivot, and will restore the funding for Diaspora students learning here.

A plan like Abramowitz’s, which would announce to the world that the State of Israel sees itself as responsible for Jewish education worldwide, and simultaneously strengthens the bonds and encourages Jews to come to Israel and to ultimately immigrate here, sounds like a very solid investment.  I think we should consider it.  What do you think?