Monday, May 25, 2009

It's Beautiful, and So Are You

Tonight was a special night in Yerushalayim. As the neighborhood cleared out for a wedding of a fellow yeshiva student, I was gladly left to wander unihibited. I went to Ben Yedhudah Street for dinner, and having ordered to go, I found a nice, obscure spot to eat. It happened that the spot was within earshot of a small cafe with life music. Tonight, the music was provided by an Israeli guitar player who played soothing versions of already soothing Beatles songs. As I sat there, if just for a moment, I got to a place where I once again realized how nice it was to be in such a city as Yerushalayim.

Recently, I have had questions about my ability to really enjoy my time here in Israel, while also having to be preoccupied with yeshiva. What makes the difference? If something is wonderful, as so many things truly are, that quality should be present whether one is doing a million things or one thing. The difference, it seems, is the difference between two qualities addressed in the upcoming holiday of Shavuos: matan Torah and kabalas haTorah, the giving of Torah and the receiving of Torah.

Judaism teaches that while the revelation of Sinai took place in the desert at one time in history, it continues to come with us. Each day, constantly, Hashem pours out Torah onto the world, whether we realize it or not. On Shavuos, the holiday that marks the initial giving of the Torah, it seems that the magnetism of the moment is extra special, but the current giving of the Torah is not limited to that day. The difference about Shavuos is that it is a special day to concentrate our own minds and energy on the idea of the giving of Torah, what this means to us, and how we can refocus ourselves to be able to receive the Torah that is constantly poured upon us.

This is the real difference: we must recognize that the process of acquiring something is two-fold. First, the object must be made available. In the case of Torah, Hashem makes it available at every moment. Secondly, we must recognize our own responsibility and engage in kabalas haTorah, receiving the Torah.

To get to a place that truly enables one the be mekabel the Torah doesn't seem like an easy task. The sages, in their amazing understanding of the human condition, explained what is needed in order to achieve such a difficult task: one must make himself and his Torah hefker, meaning "without an owner". In his commentary, the scholar Rashi explains this to mean that one must understand that they are essentially not their own, but were placed on this earth for a purpose, and the same is true of the Torah knowledge already acquired. Once we understand this, and begin to share ourselves, our time, and our knowledge with others, Rashi says that this will clear our vessels and allow ourselves to receive all of the new insights into Torah that are flowing into the world at every moment. Even 2,500 years ago, Jewish scholars understood what we can hardly grasp today: only an empty vessel can receive more.

The story is told that there was once a great rabbi who, after learning all of Talmud Bavli (the extensive volumes of commentary composed by leaders of the exile community in Babylon) and committing it to memory, he wished to learn the Talmud Yerushalmi, written by the leaders in Jerusalem and filled with much more mystical insight. After attempting time and time again to learn the Yerushalmi, he found himself unable to remember even a single word. Finally, frustrated and confused, he visited another rabbi. Upon hearing of the problem, he was presented with a solution: in order to learn the great and mystical Talmud Yerushalmi, he had to forget all of the Bavli.

In our everyday life, we can apply this principle beyond Torah learning: the best way to increase something inside ourselves is to share it with others. The questions, struggles, and insights that this can bring are of infinite value. Perhaps this has been my problem here in Israel: I was too busy looking for what I didn't have, that I hardly understood what I do have. In this realization, in the ability to embrace and share our portion with others, everything can be found. The same is true of all things, and Torah in particular, if we accept the truth of it, as R' Ben Bag Bag said in Pirkei Avos, "Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it." On this Shavuos, the season of the giving of Torah, may we all remember to receive our portion by understanding our role in giving it to others.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Az Hinei Shuv Magiah...

Today, in addition to the normal, I found the most amazing place to have lunch. I had great eggplant lasagna, salad with spicy chumus, and butternut squash soup. The whole atmosphere was so un-Israeli, it wasn't even fake American was quite nice. I thought that today I would re-visit the notion of things that differ between Israel and the United States...

1. Prices do not appear on a large number of items. This generally isn't a big deal in the United States, because the pricing in different stores tend to reflect some sort of standard. However, in Israel, something may cost 16 shekels in one place, but 8 in another.

2. Toilets. I'm not sure why I haven't written about this before, but Israel has two basic types of toilet. The first type has a large separation between the bowl and tank, and the two flushing handles are sticking out. The other version has the "bowl and tank" set-up more like in America, and the flushing handles are actually buttons. The reason for the two types of handles, one for light flushes and one for heavy flushes.

3. Jerusalemites and Israelis in general are more public about their events. During the past month, including today, there have been so many outdoor celebrations for Israel, Jerusalem, and who-knows-what that stages have hardly been taken down.

4. Except for the meat, which is killed in Uruguay and Argentina, food in Israel tends to be very, very fresh.

5. Unlike America, where it seems that people tend to, and are even encouraged to shluff off their unique backgrounds, Israelis of varying heritage have a way of being fully Yemenite/Moroccan/Galicianer, and fully Israeli at the same time. The social structure, in this way, tends to mimick the "salad bowl" idea of multiculturalism rather than the "melting pot".

6. In America, it isn't too common to hear someone yelling uncontrollably at the top of their voice about how So-and-So said he would be here in 5 minutes, and after 5 minutes and 10 seconds he hasn't arrived. In Israel, however, it happens every day.

7. My personal favorite of the moment: You can see a check-point for the West Bank from the rhino exhibit at the zoo.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Man Hears What He Wants to Hear...

In this week's parsha, Parshas Behar-Bechukosai, the posuk (verse) appears, "Im bechukosai tei'leichu v'es mitzvosai tishmeru...If you follow my statutes and observe my commandments". What is this double wording, "my statutes and my commandments"? In the Torah, not even a single letter is superfluous, so it cannot be that the two refer to the same thing. According to Chazal, the ancient generation of sages, "bechukosai" gives over a unique concept: toiling in Torah. In fact, the gematria (numerical value) of "bechukosai" is the same as the Hebrew for "toil in His Torah". The Chofetz Chaim says that the fact that we are commanded to toil is a chiddush (novel idea), because every mitzvah gains a reward, and who ever heard of someone getting paid (a reward) for not finishing a project! However, in Judaism, to toil is not only worthy of reward, but it is the ikar (main point) of Torah itself. To learn and love Torah, to see the little things and let all of creation be an inspiration and lesson to us, that's the whole point.

How can it be that we were so lucky to receive a way of life that grants us such a unique opportunity? We know from the Midrash that before HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave the Torah to the Jews, each nation of the world was presented with the option to received the Torah. However, each nation was told only the mitzvah that would prove to be the most difficult for them, so those who had a culture of stealing were told that they couldn't steal, and those that were very idolatrous were told only the commandment against idol worship. This caused each other nation to reject the Torah, unitl only the Jewish people were left, and we accepted the Torah without hearing even a word of the prohibitions. Rav Moshe Weinberger says that it doesn't necessarily mean that only the negative mitzvas were given, but these were the only ones that were heard. After hearing the entire Torah, the other nations were simply left with the stinging reminder of not being able to do this or that. They couldn't grasp the whole picture, and, in the end, turned away from G-d. The Jewish people, however, accepted it all, and received the precious mitzvah of being "amil b'Torah", to toil in the Torah.

There was once a British poetry-reciting competition. Each contestant was given various poems to recite, and the last poem chosen for the gorup was the Twenty-Third Psalm, Kapittel Kof-Gimmel of Tehillim. "Mizmor l'Dovid, Hashem roi, lo echsor...A Song of David, G-d is my shepherd, I will not lack anything". When the last contestant finished reciting, the entire audience began clapping, and it was clear that he was the winner. Amongst the clapping and noise, a small voice in the back of the auditorium began to shout, "Excuse me, excuse me... may I try...", and as the audience parted, a small, old, Chasidishe man was revealed, and he made his way to the front. Expecting to end the competition with a laugh, the judges of the competition permitted him to recite the Psalm. At first he recited a few words, translated them for the audience, but then he immersed himself in what he was saying, forgetting those watching him. The audience, first amused, switched to joy, and soon found themselves crying at the emotional, all-encompassing presentation before them. When the Chasid finished, he made his way down the stairs and out of the auditorium. The contestant who had been declared the winner chased after the Chasid, stopping him as he reached the exit. "Here," he said, hading the Chasid the trophy, "this is yours. Clearly you recited the last piece better than anyone else. But tell did you make such an impression?" The Chasid refused to accept the trophy, and simply said, "You recited very nicely, 'The Lord is my shepherd,' but I know the shepherd, he's a friend of mine, I toil with him all day."

May we too realize the depth and importance of simply toiling in Torah, softening our hearts to know the reality of what is around us, and allowing ourselves to hear the truth about us, that we are all essentially precious, important, and holy, so that it will no longer be the concepts of Torah and G-d, but the reality, that fills our days.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ehhhh...Excuse Me?

On my recent trip to Eilat, in the south of Israel on the shores of the Red Sea, I noticed something interesting. Eilat, being a resort city, has many tourists from Russia and other countries in Eastern Europe, and because Hebrew is obscure to many, they cannot communicate with workers and store owners in any language other than English. In many instances, the interactions were of people on both sides using broken English, hand gestures, and grunts to get their points across. I thought it was very interesting that here in the Middle East, far away from America, two people who have never set foot inside the United States find themselves depending upon English to communicate. 'Tis nice to see the pervading power of the good ole' US of A...

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Be All that You Can Be

Every once in a while, we are lucky enough to hear a vort that is able to touch us on many levels. With the infinite reach of Torah, one might think that this would happen more often. Sadly, though, since we are human, we aren't always able to internalize things the way we should. I happened have this luck on my side last week, on my first full day back in yeshiva, when Harav Shlomo Brevda shlit"a came to speak.

In Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs), a relationship is recorded between a man and a woman, but the true essence of the book is that it is a mystical allegory about the relationship between the Ribbono Shel Olam and Klal Yisroel. According to the Gaon of Vilna, zt"l, each statement of the man in Shir Hashirim is a statement of praise directed toward Klal Yisroel. As some of the verses seem quite strange, it might be hard to understand how such obscure statements could be so full of awe and inspiration. One such verse is, "Sarech k'eider ha'izim shegal'shu min haGilad," or "Your hair is like a flock of goats that trail down from Gilad". What a compliment! Really? Clearly, such a verse needs a little explaining. To do this, Harav Brevda used the sefer Tomer Devorah by the holy kabalist Harav Moshe Cordovero, zt"l.

In his sefer Tomer Devorah, Rav Cordovero points out that Gilad is the area of land taken by Reuven and Gad, and was coveted for the lsuh areas to graze sheep. Here enters the first part of the explanation of the words in Shir Hashirim: just as the massive flocks of sheep looked like a single unit, no spaces or breaks between, as they grazed and wandered, so too the Jewish people are one unit, completely and utterly inseparable. In expounding upon this, Rav Cordovero brings a new level of understanding to the adage from the gemara, "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b'zeh", "All of Israel is responsible for one another." This classic definition is clearly not sufficient to explain what the Hebrew means, as Rav Cordovero points out that the souls of all Jews, originating from the same place, and being part of one another, all connect. Thus, when one Jew suffers within his soul, the soul of each Jew suffers. The same is true of success, and when one Jew has real, meaningful success spiritually, all Jews do, too, since we are "zeh b'zeh".

Now comes the second part: why specifically the goats in Gilad? When Yaakov Avinu (Jacob) fled from his father-in-law Laban, he fled to what is called Gilad (Gilead), a name that comes from the events which transpired on the location. When Yaakov and Laban come to an arrangement, Yaakov tells his sons to gather stones and create a mound as a testimony to the agreement between Yaakov and Laban. According to the Tomer Devorah, this is the first time that the Jewish people (represented by Yaakov's sons) came together to show their unity in completing a task. Thus, the mound, and the whole area were called Gal Eid, or "Mound of Witness", testifying to the ability and unity of the Jewish people.

Seen in this light, this is a wonderful compliment to the Jewish people. This is not a "butterfly effect" chaos theory type of responsibility and connection, but much deeper: the soul of each Jew is completely bound with the soul of every other Jew, inseparable in this life or the next. Not only does this speak volumes of mussar (moral discipline), but has deep Chasidus involved as well. The way we treat others is the way we treat ourselves mamash. Not only does "v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha" ("Love your neighbor as yourself") have importance due to communal relations, but to treat another person differently from how we treat ourselves is a complete contradiction! To harm or scoff at or ignore another person is to do the same to ourselves, since the impact it has on their soul will be the same impact that it will have on ours. When you feed someone who is hungry, part of you is also satiated...When you compliment another, you are also uplifted...When you cause strife with another person, you bring internal strife upon yourself. When such a lesson is really understood and internalized, I can't believe that it won't have Earth-shaking results. This, the "crowning glory" (hair on the head, that which is on the tip-top) of the Jewish people is that we are all completely wrapped up with one another, a reality that is sure to move all to work to be the best that each of us can be.

Now, just for my own curiosity and in light of the understanding of this verse, extra meaning and purpose is there to a married woman covering her hair?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Kimsois Chuson Al Kalu

Arriving back in Israel immediately threw me back into the whole system. As soon as I walked out of the airport, I found myself having to go through the motions and stress of getting a sherut to the proper place in Jerusalem. For the unacquainted, anyone who wants to save money takes a sherut from the airport. A sherut is like a small bus, fitting around 12 people, that goes between the airport and one of the larger cities in Israel. In Jerusalem, because of the large area and the number of people going, the system is broken up by area, and to "save time" the drivers spend hours making sure they place people in a sherut by street. On my sherut, I had several secular Israelis and a group of Mormons from Salt Lake City. Lovely. As soon as we entered Yerushalayim, the Mormons were shocked to see people walking around openly with rifles. This was after they survived the trauma of our sherut driver attempting to run over all cars in his way. I wonder how the rest of their trip turned out...

My first two days back in Israel happened to be national holidays, Yom HaZikaron (remembering fallen soldiers) and Yom Ha'Atzma'ut ("independence" day). Most religious people are too keen on these days. I asked a friend why it was that Zionists and daati leumi ("National Religious", or modern orthodox) wanted to remember the bodies of the soldiers killed defending an anti-Torah agenda, but not all of the souls that the state of Israel has destroyed by putting nationalism above spirituality. He didn't have an answer.

On thing about secular holidays in Israel, unlike in America, is that EVERYTHING closes. I wish that Israelis could be as makpid (strict) about closing on Shabbos as they are to close on stupid holidays like Yom Ha'Atzma'ut. On Yom Ha'Atzma'ut, I found myself standing in line at the only falafel shop open on Geulah. As I stood in line with 50,000 other hungry people, the lone man-behind-the-counter acted in typical Israeli fashion, barking out requests and shoving food to people. A man from France two ahead of me in line, someone who seemingly had never been to Israel before, told the worker that his customers are not animals, and his disrespect and tone are sickening, and that he wouldn't pay. Not really caring, the Israeli shoved the food to him, and he went back to the seating area. Two seconds later, as I still stodd with unknown children latched onto my legs and someone's elbow in my back, the Frenchman returned, took his falafels in both hands, and threw them at the Israeli behind the counter. At this point, even the most aggravated people in line turned on the Frenchman, and people on the street watching through the window verbally assaulted the poor guy as he left. In Israel, you have to have a sense of humor about everything, or you won't even last a day.

Friday was the type of day that makes Israel magical. The sun was bright and warm, the white clouds floated by soothingly, and the whole day seemed to embrace you. As I walked to the kosel for shacharis, I found myself really engrossed in enjoying the day. The Old City seemed more packed with tourists than normal, and the whole city hummed with noise. After davening and an early lunch of chips im charif, I walked back to my apartment. Hotter now than in the morning, Israelis were huddled under treesand below walls, looking for a place cool enough to allow them to drink handmade espresso without completely melting. The city is really wonderful. "Yusis ulayich Eloikoyich, kimsois chuson al kalu..."