Monday, December 9, 2013

Nelson Mandela & Joseph: Profiles in Reconciliation

 I am truly blessed.

A great gift of Hashgacha Pratis (Individualized Divine Providence) that I am privy to on a regular basis is that somehow the Lord more often than not arranges current events to have a direct connection with the Weekly Sidrah.  I would have to assume that He provides this service not only as a convenience to Rabbis who are searching for a topic for their weekly sermon, but rather it is meant for all of us, to bring home the that the Torah’s lessons in a very direct and meaningful way.  This week was no exception.

The entire world stopped this week, it would seem, to pay tribute to a special man who has gone to meet his maker: Nelson Mandela, former anti-apartheid activist-turned prisoner for life-turned president of the newly non-racist republic of South Africa.  The accolades Mr. Mandela received in his later years were immense, from a Nobel Peace Prize, tributes the world over, and the assumption of an important place in world history as one of the preeminent leaders of the twentieth century.  As Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers all stream this week to South Africa, it is certainly worth considering what his passing means to Am Yisrael.

Unlike all the essays that are being written that are overflowing with superlatives about Mandela's great humanitarian qualities, I begin by noting that there is much in his record that I, and I imagine other Jews, are less than thrilled about.   Although he was basically friendly towards Israel and Jews in general, he was much friendlier to the Palestinian cause.  He was consistently a harsh critic of “the settlements”, and decried “the occupation”, insisting on Israel's duty to return to the 1967 borders.  He called Arafat ימ"ש a friend, and famously said that "our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians".   Following in his and Bishop Tutu's footsteps, South Africa's government decided last year that goods imported from Israeli West Bank settlements cannot not be labeled "product of Israel", and the University of Johannesburg became the world's first to impose an academic boycott on Israel.   (At the same time, it is noteworthy that Mandela never deviated from his belief in Israel’s right to exist within secure borders, and that much of his pro-Palestinian bias was probably based on a simplistic view of the age-old conflict.)  Furthermore, it is true that the ANC (African National Congress) under his leadership at times used some rather despicable means to achieve their ends , and there are various positions that he took that we might rightly deplore.  I assume that some of this is part of the reason that PM Netanyahu decided he was too busy to attend the funeral.

Nevertheless, the greater story of his life, and the achievement for which he deserves all the credit that can be given to him, is the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, and rapprochement with the white population that he championed after achieving political power, despite how he had been treated earlier.   There is a long history, particularly in Africa, of long oppressed populations that finally throw off the yoke of their former persecutors, who then begin taking revenge – killing, maiming, and otherwise reveling in visiting misery – on their former interlocutors.  They felt that it was time for payback --  for expression of all the suppressed hatred and misery, both physical and spiritual, that had been imposed for so long.  It was time to take back all of the fortune that had been procured by the formerly dominant culture on the backs of the wretched enslavement of the underclass.   A bloodbath, similar to what happened in Zimbawe, was greatly feared.  Many whites --  including much of the Jewish community -- fled, fearing the worst. 

But it did not happen.  And that was largely due to the message powerfully conveyed by one man – Nelson Mandela.

The message that Mandela mostly succeeded in conveying was that it was time to bury the hatchet, let bygones be bygones, and to move on to a better tomorrow.   He sought to establish a “Rainbow Nation” that would represent people of all races.  He limited reprisals for the past to setting up a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” before which those who had been hostile to Blacks before need now only renounce their former ways, and reconciliation would be offered. Today's South Africa is far from perfect, but it is a very livable place for white people, and that is largely due to Nelson Mandela.

The connection with the story of Joseph jumps right out at you.   A prominent man, convicted due to an unjust trial by the dominant culture, condemned to long years in a terrible prison, not only does not lose his integrity and self-worth, but becomes an inspiration to all and gains the respect of all his fellow prisoners and jailers.   Suddenly the impossible happens.   From the depths of the dungeon, literally overnight, he rises to become the most powerful man in the land, exhibiting a positive attitude that captivates all who meet him.

Even more on point, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers, they are speechless and frightened, knowing that the second most powerful man in the world was in fact the brother that they had uncaringly subjected to slavery, torture, imprisonment, and possibly worse, and that they were completely in his power now to do with them as he wished.

But, of course, Joseph knew that a Higher Power and a Higher Purpose was operating, and he showed himself to be above revenge, pettiness, anger – he saw himself as an instrument of Hashem who had been brought to Egypt in His infinite wisdom, in order to bring incredible good to not only his own family, but to the whole world.  He was not about to waste his time, emotions, and energy on trying to fix the wrongs of the past – that could never be undone anyway.   The important thing was to focus on the future, and to bring peace and harmony back into the family and work towards a greater future.

In thinking of this I was reminded of a wonderful Israeli song by Uzi Chitman z”l, called “Mah Chashuv Hayom”.  It was written in the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, with all of its trauma and incriminations and pain, when accusations and fear were consuming all too many --   Here is a loose translation:

I shall go forward
I will not look back
And I think of a way,
To forget, not to remember
For whatever was – is no more
God is sitting up there -
Up there in the clouds,
And little me is down here -
Not understanding.

What is important today? - what?
What is important of yesterday? - what?
What is important at all - what?
If we continue to will [it so] - then,
Everything will work out.

I will go on the middle road,
I will not stop marching,
I will also kneel [when appropriate]
I'll go on and on.
For whatever was, is no longer.
God sits up,
With the angels,
And little me is down here
Looking for a way

What is important today? - what?

We shall not know fear,
We shall not recognize pain
We will walk  together
To a happy ending.
For whatever was, is no longer.
I shall set my face forward,
I will not look back.
See now that I promise,
I promise not to return [to the past].

What is important now - what?
אני הולך קדימה, 
לא מביט אחור. 
וחושב על דרך, 
לשכוח, לא לזכור, 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו, 
אלוהים יושב למעלה - 
שם בעננים, 
ואני קטן למטה - 
לא בעיניינים

?מה - היום חשוב מה
?מה – אתמול חשוב מה
?מה  – הכל חשוב מה
אם נמשיך לרצות - אז
הכל יסתדר

אלך על אם הדרך, 
לא אפסיק לצעוד, 
ואכרע גם ברך
אלך לי עוד ועוד. 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו. 
אלוהים יושב למעלה, 
עם המלאכים, 
ואני קטן למטה 
מחפש דרכים. 

מה חשוב היום... 

לא נדע גם פחד, 
לא נדע מכאוב 
ונלך ביחד 
עד הסוף הטוב. 
כי כל מה שהיה - איננו. 
את פני אשים קדימה, 
לא אביט אחור. 
ותראו אני מבטיח, 
מבטיח לא לחזור. 

מה חשוב היום...

Little more need be said.

I close with the hope that the memory of Joseph and Lehavdil Nelson Mandela will remain with us.  Although Mandela's imperfect version of reconciliation fell far short of the total graciousness of Joseph, it was astounding neverthelessLet it guide us to overlook the pain that too often separates us, to not let the hurtful past prevent us of seeing the greater good and humanity even in those who may have hurt us.  Allow us to be able to live with differences of opinion with others without losing our sense of brotherhood, and to respect that others with very different views may have some of the truth on their side as well.  May we go to a better tomorrow, not look back, and walk together to a happy ending

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hellenists or the Maccabees – Which side are we Open to?

The story of Chanukah is well known and beloved by all. It is a thrilling tale of the fight of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek oppressors, who oppressed us and tried to take our religion away. The heroic Maccabees fought the military occupation and miraculously won. Upon entering the Temple they found only one completely pure flask of oil and it lasted for eight days. Accordingly, we light candles, eat latkes, spin dreidels, give some gifts, say Al Hanissim, and . . . that's about it. To quote a popular formula regarding all Jewish Holidays, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat.”

Of course, our Sages found far more depth in the story, and there is much commentary about why they instituted this longest of Jewish Holidays (There are really only seven days of Pesach, and Succot & Shmini Atzeret are separate holidays). It is a Yom Tov that is full of meaning and relevance to those who take the time to look a little bit below the surface. To illustrate, we really need go no further than the Rambam's famous formulation “The Mitzvah of Chanukah is exceedingly beloved חביבה היא עד מאוד" (Laws of Chanukah 2:14). Surely the Rambam was not referring to latkes and dreidels, but pointing to something far more important.

If one looks then at the sub-text of the story, it is clear that the main message of Chanukah that is important to us is not centered on the struggle between the Jews and the Syrian-Greeks. There were many military battles between the Jews and their neighbors (fought by the Shoftim, Kings, etc) that are not eternally memorialized with a Holiday. Rather, the struggle that made Chanukah eternally important was the battle between two groups within the Jewish people: The mainstream Jews and the Hellenists.

The Hellenists felt that the mainstream Jews were backward, stuck in the past, close-minded to all the wonderful new ideas that Grecian culture represented, which were in fact amazing and mesmerizing. Perhaps no other nation in the history of Mankind has so influenced the art, poetry, architecture, math, science, government, theater, philosophy, and sports of the world as did Greece. To be open to Greek culture was to be modern, progressive, in step with the times, and current with the latest and greatest notions of ethics, morality and freedom. How much more exciting was it to subscribe to this great new modern culture than to the (at the time) over 1,000 year old dusty Judaism! If you were serious about being a modern Jew – you wished to be a Hellenist!

The Hellenists ultimately broke completely with Torah and tradition, and openly maligned and rebelled against all that was Holy to the Jewish people and Torah values. They became allies of the Greeks in defiling the Holy Temple and abusing the Torah, and engaged in activities such as reversing their circumcision, eating pork, bowing to idols and even became self-hating enough to side with the enemies of Israel. Hellenism threatened to annihilate the Jewish world through assimilation in ways tyrants tried but could not do by force, as they succeeded in influencing between one third and one half of the entire Jewish people to join them.

Although the Maccabees won the battle against the Hellenists in the Chanukah story, it is questionable whether they won the long term war. The problem of Hellenism continued throughout Jewish history until our day, albeit in different forms and under different names. The basic premises of the Hellenists were later adapted by the Saducees, later by the Karaites, and closer to our time, by Reform. Although there were clear differences between these groups, the common themes of an over-emphasis on assimilating with the predominant culture, the negating of the primacy of traditional Torah values, the denigration of the authority of the Sages in determining Jewish law, and the self-hating shame with which they looked at the parts of Torah and Halacha that they found distasteful are very clear.

I took a particular interest this year in trying to understand how Hellenism began. Most sources point to the very good relations that were established between Alexander the Great and Shimon HaTzaddik as a starting point. Although it brought much good to live under the benign rule of a friendly government, there were those who were overly impressed by the allure of Grecian culture as above, and began measuring their values, including their Torah values, by what was consistent with the new, modern, progressive, “scientific” ways of thinking, instead of having Torah and Halacha remain the yardstick by which to measure how much of secular values were appropriate.

Many of the early Hellenists did not outright reject the Torah and Halacha . . . they merely wished to modernize it and bring it up to contemporary standards. They did away with what was no longer in vogue, or politically correct, and emphasized new innovations that were in keeping with Greek, as well as some Jewish, values. They were an amalgam of Torah and modernity, refusing to be bound by precedent, and focused more on what they perceived would be relevant to the young, searching Jew.

Of course the story of Chanukah is a story of the rejection of those notions – of the idea that Judaism had to bend to the times and to be in step with Western values; that the Torah and Halachah had to be remade to that conform to modernity. By contrast, the Maccabees stood for Torah as the golden standard to measure all new ideas. We must not seek to conform Torah to modernity; modernity must fit with Torah values, or be rejected.

This lesson of Chanukah is thus as timeless as it is vital.  We must forever be on guard of knowing when, to what degree, and how much we can take in contemporary values, as we strive to forever keep the Torah as our golden standard, as our light in the darkness of the surrounding world. Particularly so for those of us who do not take a blanket rejectionist stance vis a vis' the secular world we live in, the light of Chanukah reminds us to keep Torah as our ultimate standard by which all else must be judged.

This brings me to a painful topic; the developing schism between those in the Orthodox world who have traditional respect for the Halachic process and precedent on the one hand, and those, particularly those associated with Yeshiva Chovevei Torah and Yehivat Maharat, who unfortunately seem to feel that it is their sacred duty to break with tradition on the other hand.   Their modus operandi is to espouse Liberalism as the highest value, and to twist the Halacha to fit their pre-conceived objectives by making any possible argument that they are still within the Halachic process, relying on minority positions that have clearly been rejected by most Poskim, or by new readings into fundamental matters of faith that will “prove” their contentions. As long as they can be seen in the eyes of their adoring public as progressive, and to be upholding the causes of Liberalism against the outmoded traditionalists, they will not stop from creating new Halacha and rejecting traditional norms.

And yet, they bristle when their fealty to Orthodoxy is called into question.

Let me clear – I am not accusing practitioners of Open Orthodoxy of being Hellenists – yet. The leadership of those institutions is made up of passionate Jews, some of whom I have met and know, who consider themselves deeply committed to Torah and Yirat Shamayim. I contend, nevertheless, that they have gone much too far on the slippery slope that is leading away from Orthodoxy, and that if they do not reverse direction immediately, it may be too late before they lead thousands of our sisters and brothers towards the road that can only lead to a modern form of Hellenism.  There is much written on this topic that I am in full agreement with . . . please see here, here, and here for starters.

May the leaders of Orthodox world find the way to continue to proudly represent traditional Jewish values while engaging with the contemporary world and the many Jews that are enmeshed in it, and to stand firm in the face of the modern-Day Hellenists that plague our communities.

Happy Chanukah

Thursday, November 7, 2013

When There Is A Legal Will, There Might not be a Halachic Will

It is apparent in the parshiyot of Bereishit that although the Patriarchs were concerned with many matters, one thing, above all, was crucial. They were determined to pass down to future generations the Bircas Avraham – the blessing that Hashem gave to Avraham Avinu – that of a special relationship between the Almighty and the Jewish People, and between the Jewish People and Eretz Yisrael. This desire is considered a crowning achievement of Avraham:

For I [Hashem] have known him [Avraham] because he will instruct his 
children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of Hashem 
to perform righteousness and justice, so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham 
that which He spoke concerning him. [Bereishis 18:19]

This desire – to pass down our legacy to our children – is something that we think about more and more as we get older, which we certainly ought to. In our society, the main legal vehicle for formalizing the way that legacy is passed down is generally by writing a will. There are three main types of wills that every person should have, in order to ensure that their intent and desire is carried out by their children and heirs. These three types are:

  • Ethical Wills – a document in which one communicates their hopes and dreams for the next generation. This is the type of will that the Patriarchs implicitly provided for their children.
  • Living Wills – These are documents in which instructions are laid out for decisions regarding health care should a person be incapacitated from making those decisions themselves.
  • Regular Wills – a document that provides instructions for how one's estate and personal effects are to be distributed after their life ends.
    (In the case that there are minor children involved, it is also very important in that a legal guardian can be appointed and methods can be put in place for providing for one's children should the parents G-d forbid die while the children are still minors.)

Each of these areas should have an article unto themselves to describe even the most basic fundamentals. In this essay I would like to deal with regular wills, and to emphasize the importance of dealing with the Halachic requirements of a will which many people are not aware of. I hope to get to the other types of wills in a subsequent essay.

A will is a document in which a testator (person wishing to give instructions as to the disposition of their assets) executes a written record of all of his/her wishes, which is signed with appropriate legal formalities, and then set aside in a safe place until the end of the testator's life. The will has no legal significance until the testator's death, after which it springs into irrevocable legal effect, which can not be changed. And this is the source of a very great Halachic problem.

The problem we shall describe is only one of several Halachic problems. Among the most significant problems are the following:

According to the testamentary system set out in the Written Torah, there is no such thing as a will. The Torah sets out a system whereby a Man (who is the sole owner of his and his wife's possessions with few exceptions) is inherited by his sons (not his daughters unless there are no sons), and if the sons are not available, then successively by various paternal relatives. The wife's inheritance is limited to the value of her Ketubah (generally understood to mean somewhere in the realm of $25,000 -$50,000). The sons do not receive equal shares; the Bechor – first-born son – receives a double portion.
Furthermore, there are considerations of how the testator's debts are to be paid, what bequests might be made for other persons and/or charitable causes, and what arrangements are to be made for minor children. The basic Halachic default provisions are generally not consistent with the way that most people today, including Orthodox Jews, wish their estate to be divided. Unless another Halachically legitimate way can be found to effect those wishes, one would be in Halachic violation if they do not follow these guidelines.

Of course, this is not a new problem, and various forms of a Halachic will, or “Tzava'ah”, have been proposed by Poskim throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, of course, people wish to have not only a tazva'ah enforcable in Bet Din, but a legally effective will that can be entered into Probate Court. And here is where the largest Halachic problem lies.

The problem is this. Under the laws of New York State (and every other state) a will is a worthless piece of paper, completely lacking in legal effectiveness, until the moment of death. The testator is completely free to change it, invalidate it, discard it as he/she sees fit. In fact that it why wills always begin with the claim of being the “last will and testament”; it is a simple way to invalidate any prior will, which is automatically invalidated by the writing of a later one. (One should still get competent legal help to make sure that the previous one is indeed invalidated). The point I am stressing is that the will takes effect only after death, not a moment before.

Under Halacha, however, one loses all rights to one's property upon death; all property that has not been given or sold before death automatically passes to the heirs according to the Torah scheme of inheritance, with no right of the deceased to direct any bequests whatsoever.

In other words, according to Halacha, bequests can only 
be made to take effect BEFORE death, 
while the testator is alive; after he/she dies there remains nothing for the testator to give

 By contrast, under NY (or any other state) law, bequests only be made AFTER death.  
The testamentary intent as expressed in the will has absolutely no effect and can be changed anytime inter vivos
(while the testator is still alive)

Thus a person who relies only on a will that is valid under NY law is in effect setting up a terrible situation for his/her heirs. For example, if a man dies and provides in his will that he wishes his property to go 50% to his wife, and the other 50% to be divided equally between his three sons and one daughter, and does nothing to make this halachically valid, he will be setting up a situation whereby the heirs will be engaged in theft if they follow this plan. Under Halacha, the wife is entitled only to the Ketubah, ans the estate is to be divided in four parts, with the eldest son getting two parts, the other two sons getting 25% each, and the daughter nothing. (If the daughter is a minor, her brothers would have a responsibility to provide for her basic care from their inheritance.) If the wife or daughter take under the will, or if the two younger brothers take more than their 25% share, they will be guilty of genevah, assuming that the deprived do not waive their rights.

It is thus crucial that when setting up a will there be a consultation with a Rabbi and/or attorney who is knowledgeable in Torah to make sure that it will be valid both in the Bais Din as well as the Probate Court. This expert can help advise about what should go into a properly executed will and Tzava'ah, as well as being knowledgeable about other forms of expressing testamentary intent, such as the many different kinds of trusts which may be more appropriate than a will for a particular individual.

I would be very happy to discuss these matters further with anyone who has an interest in making sure that they are providing for their heirs in a most beautiful way, both materially and spiritually .

Note:  This essay does not constitute legal advice.  In some jurisdictions it might be construed as a legal advertisement

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth

 As we approach the Day of Judgment, one wonders how we might focus in preparing for our case before the Most High Judge, who will judge us with the unvarnished truth, hopefully tempered with mercy.   The truth about all of our lives – our accomplishments and shortcomings, the justifiable explanations and the empty excuses, that which was done with sincerity and the times that we just went through the motions  (or even failed to do that) – all of it will be reviewed and judged by the Judge of Truth on these Days of Awe.  It would seem that the least we could do to prepare ourselves to meet the Judge of Truth is to be truthful ourselves, and only then ask for Divine Mercy given our shortcomings as frail, limited, mortal humans.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that whole and complete Truth is a rare commodity in our world.  Note: I did not say that Truth is a rare commodity.   There is a lot of Truth that is spoken about many topics, and that is adhered to by so many wonderful people.   What is rare, however, is “Complete Truth”. By this I mean Truth based on all sides of complex issues, and not just the part of Truth that is consistent with our desires and prejudices.   I maintain that much of what I hear stated about so many issues is not “Complete Truth”, but rather “Half-Truth”s that attempt to reduce an issue to a black and white resolution favoring one aspect, rather than a nuanced understanding that the Truth is far more complex. And the old yiddish saying, “A Half-truth is a Whole Lie” might just apply.

I would like to explain my thesis by way of example – selecting several representative issues from the many that would bear such analysis – in the limited space I have here:

*    The Rambam's attitude towards Kollel Learning – The ongoing debate in Eretz Yisroel (and to a lesser extent in the US) about the future of the Kollel system is well known.   Given that it ought to be fairly self-evident that the current model is economically unsustainable, and that the vast majority of Israelis are in favor of reducing government subsidies to the ever-growing Kollel population, those who argue for the status quo look for Torah-based justification for their point of view.   One of the most frequently quoted sources for the validity of the Kollel system is the following statement by the Rambam at the end of Hilchos Shmitta V'Yovel (13:13):

ולא שבט לוי בלבד אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם אשר נדבה רוחו אותו והבינו מדעו להבדל לעמוד לפני ה' לשרתו ולעובדו לדעה את ה' והלך ישר כמו שעשהו האלהים ופרק מעל צוארו עול החשבונות הרבים אשר בקשו בני האדם הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים ויהיהה' חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים ויזכה לו בעה"ז דבר המספיק לו כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים :
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit generously motivates them and thus understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God, proceeding justly as God made him, removing from his neck the yoke of the many reckonings which people seek, he is sanctified as Holy of Holies. God will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites

The Rambam thus holds, so goes the argument, that whosoever chooses a way of life in which they are supported by public funds, avoiding participation in general civic responsibilities, and devoting their lives to service of Hashem, is choosing the path of Kodesh Kodoshim, the Holy of Holies, and will be blessed for it.  Ergo, Kollel life is the ultimate good.  During my recent trip to Israel, I saw a Chareidi newspaper quoting a leading Torah personality who offered this as THE proof that status quo in the Kollel system must be defended at all costs.

But is this the whole truth?   Let us look at what the Rambam says in Hilchos Talmud Torah (3:10):

כל המשים על לבו שיעסוק בתורה ולא יעשה מלאכה ויתפרנס מן הצדקה הרי זה חלל את השם ובזה את התורה וכבה מאור הדת וגרם רעה לעצמו ונטל חייו מן העולם הבא לפי שאסור ליהנות מדברי תורה בעולם הזה אמרו חכמים כל הנהנה מדברי תורה נטל חייו מן העולם ועוד צוו ואמרו אל תעשם עטרה להתגדל בהן ולא קרדום לחפור בהן ועוד צוו ואמרו אהוב את המלאכה ושנא את הרבנות וכל תורה שאין עמה מלאכה סופה בטילה וגוררת עון וסוף אדם זה שיהא מלסטם את הבריות

Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God's] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.
Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an ax to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.[1]

Anyone, even one completely unfamiliar with the Brisker Derech that is so popular in the Yeshiva world, can see that this seems to be a classic סתירה (contradiction) in the Rambam.   Given the enormous respect that exists for consistency in the Rambam's work, one normally strives to find an approach that allows both of the statements to be true, each in its own context (צויי  דינים) . In fact such solutions readily exist, of course, although I do not have space to go into them here.[2]  If one is intellectually honest, one does not just ignore the source that is inconvenient or that argues against a position that one favors.  

And yet, this is routinely done in the Yeshiva world.  The quote from the Rambam in Shmitta V'Yovel is always trotted out, while the one in Hilchos Talmud Torah is suppressed and ignored.  This is what I am referring to as a “Half-Truth”.

*    Women of the Wall – One of the great controversies that erupted this summer was over the rights of the so-called “Women of the Wall” to conduct an egalitarian prayer service while wearing Tallitot and Tefillin on Rosh Chodesh mornings, praying loudly in a manner that is highly offensive to the vast majority of those who usually frequent the holy Kotel HaMaaravi.   In stating their case, they assert that the Kotel is not an Orthodox synagogue, and the non-Orthodox have just as much right to pray there as anyone else.  They furthermore state that they are motivated by their strong desire to worship Hashem and that there are some classical Jewish sources that permit women to wear Tallitot and Tefillin. Although these assertions are somewhat debatable, let us grant that they are truth.   But are they the whole truth?

Is it not also true that if what they really wanted was to worship Hashem at the Kotel Maaravi, an alternate site is available 200 feet away, at the Southern portion of the Western Wall, which is just as Holy and which would have the great advantage of avoiding conflict, whereby they would be able to pray in peace to their heart's content while not antagonizing those who worship differently?   And much as there may be some classical sources that speak of  Holy women who wanted to go beyond that which was required of them, and thus added Talit & Tefillin, is it not true that many of the leaders of the Women of the Wall are not observant of basic Jewish practice such as Shabbos, thus making their additional spiritual striving somewhat suspect? Is it not also true that a major objective of the WOW is not religious fervor, but rather political activism to undermine the prevailing Orthodox custom?[3]

This is another example of a Half-Truth being told to the media, rather than the Whole Truth

*    The Status of Bein Adam L'Chaveiro – Our communities have a lot of justifiable pride in the many wonderful ways that our interpersonal relationships have improved tremendously over the last several decades.  There is a far greater vigilance against Lashon Hara, many more Chessed organizations doing wonderful work, programs and shiurim galore on various areas of improvement attract many attendees. It is certainly true that we have come a long way, and that there is much to be proud of in how we are working to be better towards each other.

Unfortunately, it is equally true that there is still so much to be deplored in our community.  So much cynicism and skepticism, suspicion of others that are not exactly like us, intolerance of others not on our religious standard, and derision of those with whom we disagree.   There are so many divisions and arguments and conflicts.  The plague of Sinat Chinom (baseless hatred) is all too alive and well.

To dwell on only one or the other of these sides, would be to see only a Half-Truth, not the Whole Truth.

*    Internet Access in the Home – The truth is that the internet presents a great spiritual danger.  We have all heard stories of the many lured into sin and miserable personal problems by the pervasive hard and soft pornography; internet addiction, (including sexual addiction that is fed by the internet) is a real problem.   While in the past a person who wanted to view illicit material might have had to go across town and hide in order to access it, it is now easily accessible, mostly for free, in the private comfort of one's basement.  Even for those who are not lured by the really negative stuff on the internet, it presents a problem of unlimited access to endless entertainment and video, which can lead to wasting one's life while neglecting family, business and of course Torah study.   This is a truth that cannot be denied.

But it is only Half-Truth.  The internet is also a tremendous blessing.   It is has tremendously valuable Torah resources on it, and has brought learning and shiurim and programs and help to millions.   It is also an invaluable tool for so many vital tasks, and an indispensable tool in any sort of business or commercial undertaking.  Used properly, the internet can be a great force for the good, and thus is not going away anytime soon.

Given the problems caused by the internet, many Rabbonim and community leaders (and for that matter leaders in the non-Jewish community as well) have tried to find ways to combat this scourge, sometimes by taking absolutist measures, such as were discussed in the large gathering at Citi Field last year.  From what I have heard, however, most of those efforts have failed to accomplish what was hoped for, as very many looked at those efforts as hopelessly out of touch with the real world. 

In my opinion, that is because the pronouncements were based on Half-Truth.  If the story is painted black and white, with the other side totally demonized and excoriated, when many know deep down that the positions taken are overstated, little or nothing is accomplished.   It is only when one takes a nuanced approach that acknowledges both sides of the truth, both the positive and the negative, and crafts realistic approaches in cognizance of both, that Whole Truth will emerge, and be adhered to.

There are many other similar issues that come to mind.   The attitude of the American Jewish community towards the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael, the appropriate role of of women in communal leadership, the Shidduch crisis, secular education . . . and many others.  If only people would realize that most major issues in life are complex, and that there are many sides to be considered before deciding what the solution should be, we would be much farther along to finding the truth and less prone to end up with Half-Truth.[4]

In closing, I hope that as we approach the Day of Judgment, we find the courage to be honest, to accept those parts of the truth that does not necessarily fit with our preconceptions and prejudices, and to try to pursue Truth as it is, not only as we would like to be.  It is only thus that we can feel justified in approaching the Judge of Truth, hoping for His Mercy

Have Sweet and Happy New Year!

[1]                 This is very mild compared to what the Rambam says in his commentary to the Mishnah in Avot (2:2).
[2]    Cf. Shaarei Talmud Torah, Rabbi Prof. Leo Levi, (Feldheim 1980) in which he shows that in Shmitta V'Yovel the Rambam never intended that Torah scholars should be supported by public funds, but rather that like the Tribe of Levi, they be released from certain civic obligations and be given some preferences in business so that they might earn their livelihood with greater ease, freeing up more time for Torah and Avodas Hashem.  It is interesting that this book, which presents the whole truth regarding the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, was banned in Chareidi circles, though it had approbations from R Yaakov Kamenetzky and R Pinchas Menachem Alter זצ״ל
[3] Anat Hoffman, leader of WOW works at the Reform Action Center as her “day job”, where her main passion is to find ways to " see that the powerful Orthodox bloc in the City Council does not dictate lifestyle choices for the secular population of Jerusalem", as well as fighting for the civil rights of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, according to her bio.
[4]    There was a wonderful article published this summer Klal perspectives by Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, in which he argued for the importance of gathering enough of the correct data before making decisions, that would serve well as a complement to this essay.  It is available on the INTERNET at

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tisha B’Av – Festival of Sadness

Unless things change a whole lot in the next few weeks, we will one again be going through the days leading up to and including Tisha B’Av, the Ninth Day of the Month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.   Year after year, we take time to reflect on our condition in the Diaspora, and what this long, seemingly endless exile is supposed to teach us, while awaiting the long sought for Geula (Redemption).   

There is an interesting anecdote recorded regarding a meeting between the prophet Jeremiah and the famous Greek philosopher, Plato.  Jeremiah was mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, and Plato engaged him in conversation.  Impressed with Jeremiah’s great wisdom, Plato asked him “I do not understand how a sage of your stature can weep so bitterly over something that is over and done with.   Surely, what is past is finished with, and your concern now ought to be solely with the future, and how you can influence it.   What possible use can there be in all of this weeping?  Jeremiah answered, “I cannot give you a proper answer to your logical question, for you will not understand it.”

Was Plato not right?   And surely now, 2500 years later, is it not time to focus on the present and the future, and to let bygones be bygones?   Can we never forget?  Can we never forgive?   How can we spend three weeks of every year going into greater and greater mourning, culminating in a day of fast and sadness after all this time?

In fact, one of the great blessings that Hashem grants us is the ability to forget painful memories.  “Hashem has decreed about a deceased person that they should be forgotten from the heart” (Sofrim 21).  If it was not possible to forget, if the pain of losing a close relative or friend remained always as immediate as when the loss first occurs, we would be immobilized, unable to cope with life.  It is a blessing that while we always carry a memory of a departed loved one, we are able to remove the pain of the loss from the forefront of our consciousness.  Nevertheless, this general rule does not hold here, as expressed by the famous verse in Psalms, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten!”  We are bidden never to forget!  The sages, by instituting all of the Halachot surrounding these three weeks, made sure that at least during one long period of the year, and several other fast days year-round, not to mention the requests in our thrice-daily prayers, that we would constantly remember and never forget to mourn for Jerusalem. 

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Barzovsky, zt”l, wrote a fascinating essay on this subject, in which he noted that central to Tisha B’Av is the idea that we are not to make our peace, ever, with the fact that the Bais Hamikdosh (Temple) was destroyed.  To never allow ourselves the thought that we accept the post-Bais Hamikdosh world as the new, normal; as the permanent reality for us as Jews.  The Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed for many reasons, some more well known than others.  But that was never meant to be its final disposition.   The day that we stop hoping that the Bais Hamikdosh will be rebuilt is the day that its destruction will really be irreversible. 

This basic thought ought to permeate all of our concerns in life.   We struggle with our problems, with our kid’s education, with our personal growth, with financial problems, existential problems; we look at the contemporary scene both here in Israel.  We look to the pundits and “wise men” who have this or that solution to intractable problems or who point to this or that occurrence to explain the crux of our quandaries, and forget that the main problem is none of the above, but rather it is the fact of Golus – our distance from Hashem and his Holy Temple in Jerusalem.   For it is surely true that no matter how many problems we solve here in America and regardless of how much we grow in our spiritual lives as Jews, we will have a huge gaping hole in our spiritual lives as long as “we have been exiled from our land, and we cannot fulfill our obligations in your great & holy House  . . . ”

Why are so many Jews distant from their spiritual roots?   Why are there so many terrible, endless problems between groups of Jews?  How are we ever going to be able to resolve the great issues that divide us, when those matters are based on such fundamentally different outlooks on what the Torah is, what it means to be Jewish, the nature of our Jewish obligations, and how flexible can we be about adapting them for modern times?  What will it take to allow myriads of Jews who have no idea of the beauty of Shabbos, Kashrus, Torah learning, and Jewish living to even have a real glimmer of what they are missing?  How will the great problems surrounding the Land of Israel, and the mutually exclusive claim to is territory, ever be resolved? 

And most of all, how will all of us ever be able to finally arrive at a place of closeness with Hashem; when we will be able to always feel the indescribable joy of His closeness without the inner contradictions and pain and difficulty, and existential loneliness, that we so often feel in our spiritual quest?   To quote the timeless words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his ode to the Jew in Golus that we say on Tisha B’Av:

 “Zion! When will you ask about the welfare of those who were taken from you? ...Those who long to cling to your mountainsides . . .  Your atmosphere is food for souls, Your dust is spice and your Rivers’ floes of flagrance, I would treasure going even barefoot and bare through your former castles and ruins, at the place of your hidden Ark, with the Cherubs in your Sanctuary.  I cast off the pride of my accomplishments  . . .  for how can I enjoy my eating and drinking  . . . How can I enjoy the sunlight . . . when I remember fallen Israel, and recall Judea captured . . . Beautiful Zion, you excite Love & Joy, bound to you are the lives of your friends, those who glory in your successes, who hurt in your pain, and who weep over your destruction . . . from prison dungeons they reach out to you, bowing from distances toward your gates . . . ” Translated by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein in Jewish Action

In this most beautiful elegy, (beautifully re-translated), where the aching longing for a reunion with Hashem in Jerusalem is expressed without equal, we begin to sense just how much we are really missing in this long Golus, comfortable as we may be.

These longings for that rebuilding are the building blocks of the eventual edifice.  Although in many ways, Judaism teaches that what one does (actions) are more important than what one thinks or believes, it is nevertheless true that “The longing to perform a mitzvah, or to engage in a spiritual pleasure, is even greater than the pleasure itself.”  The active awaiting of its rebuilding, the tears shed over its absence; the effort to not assimilate into the surrounding culture and its alien values, but rather to strive to retain our uniquely Jewish selves, these are what will eventually bring it back.   Every tear shed and every sigh over its absence, and what it means to us today, is another element in the building.

Thus, says the Slonimer Rebbe, the period of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av are a period of crying, but a positive period: a crying that is part of the rebuilding process.  A cry of hope, of longing for a better future – an expression from the depths of the soul that we will never be satisfied and complacent in our spiritual quest until we have achieved total Teshuva, back to the closeness with Hashem that once was and is still potentially possible.  “Hashiveinu Hashem Aylecho VeNashuva  - Bring us back to you Hashem and we WILL return, renew our days as of old! ”

This longing is something that is so very precious to Hashem, as the Zohar states, “A person that raises their voice to cry about the destruction of Hashem’s house, merits to have it said ‘together we shall sing’.”   As Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev said regarding the verse in Eichah, “You will surely cry in the night, and her tear will be on her cheek, not receiving comfort from all those who come to console her,” the tear remains on the cheek because they make a great impact in the heavens if a person truly cries regarding the Churban - destruction.  The tears are not for naught, they are the lubricant that allows one to move higher and higher in one’s spiritual quest.

For each of us then, we certainly must face life with a happy confident attitude.  We must take time to enjoy our growth, to celebrate our Jewishness, and to sing with the joy of being fortunate to be engaged in building our spiritual lives inwardly, as well as in our families and communities.   But we must also take the time to mourn a little inwardly; about all the potential that is there, that is not yet being fulfilled.  Only thus will we continue to grow, and look forward to the day that our inner sanctuary will be fully built, heralding the time of Moshiach, speedily in our days.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Parading in the Middle - Principle or Moderation?

When I was given the honor of writing a regular column in the Queens Jewish Link, the question arose, “What should the byline be?”   I thought of ideas such as “A Rabbi Reflects” (too stuffy), “A Tree in the Forest” (a presumptuous reference to Forest Hills), “Libi BaMizrach” (my blog name) and even Mordechai Shmutter's “A Title Goes Here” (it had already been done).  But when I hit on “The Middle Road”, our talented editor Naftali Szrolovits warmed to the idea.  I am not sure what it meant to him, but to me it is a reference to my quest to help articulate the voice of what I believe is the silent majority of those who feel comfortable neither fully in the left nor right of Orthodoxy; seeing both positive and negative aspects of both sides, and seeking to embrace that which is good from all sides. 

I suppose that this is a way of moderation – of trying to live within the “Golden Mean” so eloquently described by Maimonides – to stay away from the extremes of both sides and to cleave to the middle path.  However, even the Rambam would agree that the middle road is not always the appropriate one.   In a beautiful essay, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm שליט"א described the tension between being a moderate and standing for principle.  In matters of character and personality – in developing character traits through which one interacts with others – one ought to be a moderate and keep a healthy distance from extremes.   “But when it comes to principle – to ideas, philosophy and commitments; to a code rather than a mode of conduct – then only the vision of truth may guide us.”   Furthermore, he quoted the Kotzker Rebbe זצ”ל as commenting in his inimitable style on the traffic conditions of his day that “only behemos (animals) walk in the middle of the road; not human beings.”   The Kotzker, a man for whom truth was everything, and to whom popular opinion mattered not a whit, was the ultimate man of principle – not by any means a moderate.  But I am confident that the Kotzker would agree that although matters of principle were vital, acting in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem and assiduously avoiding actions and statements that cause Chilul Hashem, are equally important, even if it means adopting a moderate form of expression in public. 

The trick, of course, is being able to properly differentiate when something is a matter of principle – that must be upheld even if viewed by others as extreme – and when the matter is one that calls for a moderate stance.  This is particularly difficult when there are Rabbonim on different sides of an issue, and one is torn as to whom to listen to.   The topics of  “Aseh Lecha Rav” (the obligation for each person to choose a Rabbinic authority to follow) and “Da'as Torah (the authoritativeness of Rabbinic opinion) go way beyond the scope of this article (I have written extensively on this on my blog for those interested).   Once one has a Rav, one most certainly ought to follow their Rav's guidance as to how to conduct oneself on controversial (and all other) matters.   But there are certainly Rabbonim and schools of thought that believe that many issues are to be left up to the individual person to decide how to conduct themselves, under the general rubric  and guiding principles that they received from their Rabbinic authority.   It is in this area that it becomes difficult to decide whether it is a matter of principle that is at stake, or it is an issue about which the path of moderation is appropriate.

Two cases in point, on the last two successive Sundays.  The first Sunday was the occasion of the annual Salute to Israel parade.  In the last QJL edition I wrote about what a wonderful occasion the parade was, and how marvelous it was to see such a broad range of people joining together to “march for Klal Yisrael”.  I also noted that there was a group that was conspicuously absent – the Chareidim – and lamented that we could not all join together in support of Israel, much as many others had not joined with the Chareidim in celebrating the Siyum Hashas last summer.  
I received a fair amount of feedback regarding the article, most of it very positive.  However, I also received some criticism for the perceived implication that the Chareidim who did not attend were not acting correctly in so refraining.  My critics cited several reasons that  fully justified their absence.  These included (a) The fact that the laws of modesty and traditional separation between the genders would not be properly kept.  This was particularly problematic when considering that spectators were there to observe marchers dance and sashay down Fifth Avenue on a summer day when not dressed according to tznius standards acceptable in the Chareidi community, (b) the presence of several objectionable groups, such as the so-called LGBT synagogue groups, which was protested by many Rabbonim as a Chilul Hashem, and (c) a general ambivalence, or less, about the State of Israel and Zionism, which made this a non-optimal use of precious time.   In essence, they were saying that there were matters of principle that overrode the path of moderation that would argue for burying differences and joining with the others.

The next Sunday saw the large demonstration in Foley Square organized by Satmar to protest “the Persecution of Religious people in Israel”.  I do not want to discuss this event at length, other than to note that it was confusing for many who consider themselves Chareidi as to whether or not one should attend, given that there were some Rabbonim who said one must go, and others saying that one should not. (See my blog for a collection of the letters).   While most Chareidi Rabbonim would be in agreement about the principle that there is a need to fight the intentions of the current government, there seemed to be a disagreement about whether it was right to make a public demonstration upholding that principle, or whether  the appropriate path to take was one of moderation; not one in which the secular media could report as a massive anti-Zionist protest.  A question of principle vs moderation. 

Which is the proper approach in these matters?  That is not for me to decide.  In my humble opinion, however, it is incumbent for every person to decide for themselves which Rabbonim to follow in these matters.  (Factors in making that decision would require a long discussion, but it is an extremely important question that ought to be given a great deal of effort and thought).   It is also crucial that people really think through why, by commission or by omission, they are acting to uphold some principle, and whether they really think that the cost of doing so is worthwhile if it goes against principles of moderation that would have one act together with the majority of the community.

Finally, I am thinking of principle vs moderation in a professional context.  As of this month I will begin practicing law and mediation, while continuing as a Rav on a part time basis.   In the area of mediation, one of the main objectives is to help the parties to a conflict see that if each of them stands for the “principle” that they are arguing for with no room for compromise or moderation, they will likely never achieve resolution of the matter at hand, nor peace with the person with whom they are arguing.  Ways must be found for the sides to feel that they are engaged in moderation of behavior without sacrificing principles that are important to them, particularly in a severe conflict such as a divorce.  It is my honor and privilege to help the parties achieve this balance, and I hope to help many others in resolving their differences.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Without much comment . . . Should one attend the Demonstration today in Manhattan?

There is a demonstration that will take place  in Manhattan today, organized primarily by the Satmar community, to protest the proposed actions of the Israeli government regarding the Hareidi Yeshivot.

I am not going to comment at this point on my view regarding this demonstration.   I only want to record here the circus that is being put on by those claiming to report on what "Da'as Torah" is on this issue.

Letter #1 allegedly from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, שליט"א - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter #2 allegedly from Rav Chaim Kanievsky, שליט"א - one should attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky שליט"א - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Dovid Soloveichik שליט"א  - one should attend the demonstration

Letter from the combined Lakewood Roshei Yeshiva  שליט"א  - one should not attend the demonstration

Letter from Rav Eliyahu Ber Wachtfogel  שליט"א - one should attend the demonstration

I also note for the record that I was in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin on Thursday, and there was a sign posted on the door in the name of the Hanhalah encouraging the talmidim to attend.

What is a person who is serious about Da'as Torah to do?    I don't know.  Other than to pray hard:

השיבה שופטינו כבראשונה, ויועצנו כבתחילה, והסר ממנו
 יגון ואנחה, ומלוך עלינו אתה יי לבדך בחסד וברחמים וצדקינו בצדק ובמשפט

Restore our judges as in former times, and our counsellors as of yore; remove from us sorrow and sighing, and reign over us, You alone, O L-rd, with kindness and compassion, with righteousness and justice

PS - A statement from the Rabbinical Council of America, which I think is a bit over the top as the demonstration is not about support for Israel but rather the new government attitude to the Hareidi community, but nevertheless:

RCA Statement Concerning Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Israel Rally in New York
The Rabbinical Council of America Condemns Ultra-Orthodox Anti-Israel Rally   
The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the largest Orthodox rabbinic group in North America, deplores the attempt of a small but vocal group to undermine the image Americans have of strong, unshakeable, wall-to-wall Jewish support of Israel. Two chassidic communities well known for their rejection of a Jewish state have agreed to a joint rally in Manhattan on Sunday, June 9.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, RCA President, said, "It is an insult to the memory of the Satmar Rov, ob"m, that his disciples a generation later would take to the streets to publicly aid the many enemies who stand ready to destroy, G-d forbid, the Jewish State - and all Jews. For all his well-known opposition to a secular state, he always put the protection of Jewish lives first. It is unthinkable that as the largest Jewish community in the world deals with a nuclear threat from Iran, a military front opening with Syria, and the mushrooming of global anti-Semitism, that he would have countenanced aiding and abetting our enemies."

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President of the RCA, added, "We call on all Jews, Orthodox and not, to redouble their efforts to explain to their fellow Americans their commitment to the Jewish State and its central position in their thinking, even when they find fault with certain positions of its government, as happens with the policies of any true democracy."

Monday, June 3, 2013

Marching for Klal Yisrael

Perhaps I have been marching in this direction for a while, but today I attended my first Fifth Avenue “Salute to Israel” Day parade.

If today’s parade is reliable evidence, virtually all of the more Modern Orthodox leaning schools and institutions in the NY area proudly march up Fifth Avenue in support of Israel during this annual event.  Having gone to more “right-wing” schools and yeshivos growing up, this massive parade was not on the radar screen for me.  I did not know people who marched, did not associate much with those who might attend, and was never given information to believe that this was a worthwhile event.  It seemed like a place for the local politicians to demonstrate to gullible liberal Jews that by their attendance at this event they “proved” their love for Israel and Jews, and not something that made any real difference to anyone. 

I was wrong.  

I was privileged to attend the parade today with my daughter Diti, in the VIP section, as a guest of Jean and Eugen Gluck, wonderful members of our shul and prime supporters of the parade for the past twenty five years.  I had several thoughts at the parade that I thought were worth noting:

  • There was such a wonderful diversity in the crowd, which was marked by many very different groups – all joined together in support of Israel and in a friendly spirit.   All too often Jewish gatherings manage to highlight our differences; here, friendliness and brotherhood reigned supreme.  While a great many of the marchers, and the spectators, seemed to be from Modern Orthodox leaning circles, there were plenty of others as well.  There were Reform and Conservative groups, Federations, Zionist organizations, non-affiliated, and even plenty of non-Jewish groups.  Several of the marching bands were clearly not Jewish, nor were the Christians in support of Israel.  It was great to see so many thousands join together in support of the Jewish State and nation, when there is usually so much animosity directed toward us.  I am not sure what ultimate affect the parade has on the fortunes of Israel, but it was a magnificent and beautiful show of support and goodwill.

  • The energy of so many of the young people was exciting and palpable.   We always hear about how the youth are turned off to Judaism and are so rapidly losing their connection to all things Jewish.  The parade was a sign of great hope.  So many wonderful young men and women, marching, singing, dancing and cheering – proud to be Jewish and proud to demonstrate it.   The problems of alienation, assimilation, and intermarriage are far from being solved, of course.  But it was heartwarming and so encouraging to see this wonderful spirit on display.  Which brings me to my next point

  • I had the great privilege of watching the parade with several Holocaust survivors.  Watching Jean Gluck stand on her very painful feet – smiling, waving, handing out candy, and joyfully taking it all in for hours – was such an inspiration.  I could not help thinking that surely it crossed the mind of many survivors that they had participated in a parade of a very different sort almost seventy years ago – the infamous and horrible Death March through the forests of Europe.   One of the cruelest and most horrible things that the accursed Nazis, may they eternally rot in hell, made Jews endure was to force the weak, starving inmates – who they had worked to the bone –  to march in the freezing cold at a fast pace for many days in the freezing European winter, for no purpose at all, often on a purposely circuitous route to nowhere.   The camps were abandoned, the war lost; but rather than just letting them go, they forced these poor people on the terrible march where untold thousands who had made it through all the horrors of Auschwitz fell when they had no more strength to go on.  Elie Weisel’s harrowing account in “Night” of his father’s death on the march sticks in one’s mind forever as a symbol of the senseless barbaric cruelty that our people endured.

    And yet, there I sat with survivors of those marches, who took such solace in seeing thousands of free, strong, proud, committed young Jews marching with joy and abandon.   When I mentioned these thoughts to Sam Weisinger, he said, “No one who was not there could even begin to know what I am feeling today”.   What an incredible privilege to share a little bit of this with the precious survivors that we still have with us!

  • Unfortunately, there was a down side as well.   One looked far and wide for any participation from the Chareidi community – in vain.  With one glaring exception – the terrible Reshaim of Neurei Karta who seem to dedicate their lives to Chilul Hashem – the Chareidi community was absent.  As I mentioned earlier, this was my first parade, and thus I am no one to criticize others.   I only can feel pain and angst that the entire Jewish community can come together in joy and celebration and appreciation for the wonderful gift that is the State of Israel – except for the Chareidim. 

    I am well aware of all the arguments that they would present; all the imperfections of the State especially when it comes to Torah and religion, all of the people who left a Torah lifestyle to embrace secular Zionism, and all of the hard feelings that exist between the communities.  But those ought to be internal arguments.   As in the famous formulation of Rav Soloveichik zt”l, we are entitled to, and must uphold our principled positions and disagreements "כלפי פנים" when it is a matter of Torah importance.  However when we are dealing “כלפי חוץ”, in a Jewish stand vis a vis the outside world, we must stand together.   But that is a dream – one which it seems will have to wait for some future time.

Finally, in thinking about very large groups of Jews, my mind wandered back to an even larger, though less public, gathering less than a year ago – the magnificent Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium.   That evening was such a wonderful Kiddush Hashem, and created such good feeling amongst people, and motivated so many to dedicate themselves to Torah learning.  Although the crowd there was mostly Chareidi, a substantial number of non-Chareidi participated as well, as Jews came together to celebrate Torah. 

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the participants at one celebration were absent at the other.  

We look forward to a day when all of Klal Yisrael can gather together and celebrate, and on that great day the Lord will be One, and his Name will be One.