On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Was there really a miracle on Chanukah?

This morning, I found an obscure story that dates back to the time of Chanukah.  The basic premise was that there were actually no miracles on Chanukah at all. 

It points out that even though there was technically one jar of oil that was found, it was a certain type of old oil that lasts twice as long so it would burn for two days.  It also says that the Kohanim (priests) used a certain type of wick which lasts twice as long, bringing it to 4 days.  It also says that since Kislev was during the colder season, oil burned twice as slow bringing it to 8 days.

It also points out that the Maccabees were Kohanim from the family of the high priest which were genetically stronger and more powerful then the average person.  Therefore, even the victories in battle weren’t a miracle.  Yes, they were outnumbered, but they were big, strong and knew out to mix it up.

Apparently, the writer was not alone in these beliefs.  According to this, a lot of Jews felt the same way… the Chanukah miracles were just a bunch of coincidences which in no way deviated from the natural world order.  They simply didn’t believe they saw miracles.

If we were there, which side would we have been on?  Would we have seen these things as miracles or tried to explain them away as natural occurrences?

Now… if you’re thinking that you don’t believe this one bit and there’s no way this opinion even exists, you’re correct.  I just made the story, but the idea pervades our life.

Do we see things as miracles or as natural occurrences?

In our time, there are more Jews coming back to observant Judaism than any other point in history.  Even a generation or so ago, practically everyone predicted that Orthodox Judaism was going to die.  When my father was born, in the 30s, not only was Orthodox Judaism predicted to get wiped out, it looked like all of Judaism might not make it.  So, what happened? 

Somewhere, in this short time period, for the first time in history, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, decided it was time to return to their spiritual roots.  There’s no logical explanation for this.  Yes, we had some great Rabbis, but the Jewish people have always been blessed with a few great leaders in every generation.  How do we explain this?

We can either try to rationalize it and says that the horror of the holocaust somehow reawakened our spirit of religion or you can call it for what it is… The Ba’al Teshuva movement is nothing short of a miracle on par with anything we read about in the Bible.

What about the land of Israel?

From the time I was born, the Jewish people had a state including all of Jerusalem.  From my perspective, there doesn’t seem to me anything miraculous here at all.  When I take history into account, even recent history, it paints a different picture.  When my older brother was born, Jews had no access to the Old City.  When my parents were born, the state of Israel didn’t even exist.  When my great-grandparents were born, Jews returning to Israel was nothing more than a dream.  So, what happened?

A group of poor, downtrodden people of Europe, after two thousand years, decided it was time to come home.  With little political support, little money, no experience in building a nation or fighting, they built a nation.  They were joined by their brethren from the concentration camps, from the Arab countries, from Ethiopia and eventually more from Russia, but none of these people brought any great skills to help build this nation other than an unshakable belief that it was time to come home.

Do we try to rationalize how this happened?  Outnumbered, outgunned, unwanted, unskilled & unsupported, the Jewish people rebuilt their home.  Is this nothing short of a miracle?  Even David Ben Gurian, who never considered himself religious, said “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles”

It’s really up to us to decide.  Are we going to be like the skeptics who are so entrenched in our beliefs that we try to rationalize the irrational… or do we accept that at some point it’s more rational to recognize that the had of G-d is in every aspects of our lives and we have the privileged of witnessing the open miracle that preludes the ultimate and final redemption of the Jewish people.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Loshen Horah Game

More or less, my son has had a lot of the same kids in his class every year since he’s been in school.  Things went well in the first couple years, but in kindergarten, something happened… teasing.  While it may have existed before, we never heard about it.  We tried to explain to him that teasing is a form of loshen horah.  Loshen Horah is a broad term to describe any type of negative speech.  It doesn’t matter whether that speech is true, false, said behind someone’s back or to their face.  Even neutral gossip that may lead to negative feelings is a form of loshen horah.  The word “loshen” means “tongue” or “speech” and the word “horah” means evil.  We tried to explain why teasing was wrong and one should not do it.  We also explained how one should react when he’s the one who gets teased.  They all had a positive effect, but didn’t have the results that we wanted until… we discovered The Loshen Horah Game.

Just about every night, we have a ritual called “14 minutes, when after bath time is done, the teeth are brushed & the stories are read, my wife and I each lie down with each one of our kids and discuss about our days, tell stories or let them talk about whatever they want to.  It was during this time, where my son & I came up with the game.  We would take turns where one of us would speak Loshen Horah about some imaginary person and the other person had to figure out how to respond.  It went something like this:

Me (in a very silly kid voice): “Hey… did you see Frank (my son doesn’t know anyone named “Frank”) today?  He’s so stupid.  Let’s go make fun of him and tell him that we’re not going to play with him.”

My son: “He’s not so bad.  I bet if we played with him more, we’ll really get to like him.” Strategy: Direct rebuttal to try to diffuse the situation.

Me (still in a silly kid voice): “But Frank is so stupid, let’s go call him stupid-head”

My son: “Him… let’s go play legos.  The teacher brought in new ones for us to play during recess and I want to build a fire station”
Strategy: Distraction.

The silly voice makes it fun for him.  Since we started, we’ve expanded the concept, and the voice, to the Yeitzer Horah Game.  Both games work and help me teach valuable lessons to my children. 

The tougher question may be, how do I deal when adults speak loshen horah to me?

What if the speaker is a community leader or Rabbi?

Does it make a difference if they’re speaking badly about an individual person or another organization?

In the past week or so, I’ve had three cases where people spoke or I observed loshen horah.  Here’s what I did:

1. Rebuttal – The first case was when someone (who’s a very learned Jew) I know told me, individually, how another Jewish organization was doing something that was against Jewish law.  I went to the mishneh berurah, and the matter wasn’t discussed, but there was a hint that what the organization was doing was appropriate.  I went back to the individual to show them what I found and they were sticking to their guns.  I told them that I didn’t know how this organization was doing what they were doing, but the organization is made up of good, G-d fearing Jews, and Jewish law requires me (and him) to make an assumption that they are relying on a accepted ruling that neither of us have learned and not that they are doing something wrong.  The person reluctantly accepted the answer.

2. Distraction – The second case was where another Jew (let’s call him Levi) that I know started speaking badly about an individual Jew (let’s call him Shimon) and the organization that they were involved with.  This case was different, because Shimon insulted Levi pretty badly on a very sensitive topic.  I don’t know the whole story, but I know enough to know that Levi has every right to be upset.  Pirke Avos tells us that we shouldn’t try to appease someone when they’re angry so I know that if I try to recommend that we go hang out with Shimon or speak about Shimon’s good qualities, it’s going to upset Levi even more.  I quickly change the subject to something else and the loshen horah ends for now.

3. Removal – I didn’t discuss this matter with my son, because he’s in such a small class where the kids have to interact with each other, but sometimes we just have to remove ourselves from the situation and limit our interaction with certain individuals.  There’s a certain Jew that I know, who has many good qualities, but he’s easily offended and can be demeaning to people who his bad side.  I’ve known him for several years and have always tried strategies 1 & 2 on him, but the situation hasn’t improved and when I interact with him, I often come away feeling frustrated or upset.  When we encounter someone like this, sometimes the best choice is to exit the conversation and remove ourselves from the situation.

When we read through Tanach, it’s sometimes very hard for us to understand how so many people fell victim to the temptation of idolatry.  It seems so unappealing to us that it’s not even a temptation at all.  The Rabbis tell us that after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple), the inclination of idolatry was removed from this world, but it was replaced with the inclination to speak loshen horah. 

It can be a very strong temptation to say someone negatively about someone else, but we must all do our best to avoid it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

I want to share with you an article that was written by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida. He writes in response to a Pew Research Poll that came out this week regarding the state of the Jewish population in North America.

by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida

There is a lot of hand-wringing and distressed looks going on right now in the American Jewish world. According to a recent article making the rounds concerning the state of American Jewry by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, things are looking pretty grim.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews - a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.


Now while I agree there are some very disturbing issues and trends in the Jewish world regarding unaffiliated Jews - Hey, this is what I do for a living! - I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why? Because they left out Chabad. As the article goes on to say:

Reform Judaism remains the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews are 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent, and groups such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined.

Whoa, hold on a second. I don't see any mention of Chabad in there. Chabad you ask? You betcha! According to the Union of Reform Judaism website, there are 875 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada. But Rabbi Motti Seligson from Media Relations for Chabad.org told me that there are 959 Chabad centers (part of over 1500 Chabad institutions) just in theUnited States alone. That is more than the so-called strongest branch of Judaism in the USA.

And this is precisely why this study is practically meaningless. It is based on a completely outdated model and mentality and has totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.

Furthermore, the folks at Pew are using categories of Jews from the 50's and 60's that have almost wholly changed since then. To illustrate, let's talk about my niece who is in her first year at Wilfred Laurier University in WaterlooOntario. She has attended Chabad for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat dinners in the little amount of time she has been in college.

Now, if they were to approach her for this survey, she wouldn't say she is Orthodox because she knows what that is and isn't there (yet). She certainly is not Reform because she has zero affiliation with that movement. She would probably call herself Conservative given these choices, but that would be bogus because she really does not go to a Conservative synagogue unless there is some sort of simcha/happy occasion like a Bar Mitzvah. However she does attend Chabad more than most Conservative or Reform members attend their respective synagogues and yet there is no Chabad option to check.

And then there is another point - the holy grail of membership. This is another completely meaningless factoid in defining Jewish affiliation in our day and age. Who cares if someone is a card-carrying member of a synagogue or not?! There are plenty of people who come to Aish regularly who are not official "members" to us or any synagogue.

Yet the simple reality is that these folks are more actively Jewish than many official "members" of synagogues who may show up once or twice a year for Kol Nidrei or a relative's Bar Mitzvah. Hence these people would be categorized as "just Jewish" which according to this survey implies failed Jew; hardly the truth.

Don't get me wrong, I am acutely aware that there are all kinds of challenges facing American and Western Jewry regarding intermarriage, assimilation and the like. But we need a balanced view to see the reality of the situation. And this report simply does not do that by the egregious omission of Chabad in particular and the Bal Teshuva movement in general whereby hundreds of thousands of Jews from all different backgrounds are exploring their Judaism and Jewish definition of themselves in countless ways. We are far from a blip and certainly should not have been outright ignored.

So for the vast number of Jews who are on different levels and paths in their own personal journey of what it means to be Jewish and who go to Chabad for Sukkot or log onto aish.com or defend Israel through AIPAC or have made the commitment not to eat shell-fish - for those Jews perhaps we need to smash some old paradigms and need a new category of Jew.

So I propose that inasmuch as they are the most visible and numerous and therefore ought to get the naming rights, we should now have another category of Jew in addition to the Reform etc. designations - the Chabad Jew. And just like Kleenex® and Jello® have morphed beyond their initial limited product names into generic words for tissues and gelatin desserts, so too Chabad® can now become the expansive term for exploring Jew. (Isn't that ironic coming from an Aish rabbi?)

And the more I think of it, the more it makes sense. Chabad is an acronym for Chachmah, Binah and Da'at - Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. And that's exactly what these Jews are doing - they are, each in his or her own way, trying to get a bit more wisdom, understanding and knowledge of who they are and from whence they came as they continue in their personal journey of how our Torah, Mitzvot and Judaism can bring a little bit more peace, enjoyment and meaning in their lives.

But in the meantime, the next time someone comes up to you and asks you what kind of Jew you are, look them in the eye and tell them, "I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Death in Judaism – “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” Obi-Wan Kenobi

A couple weeks ago, I went to the unveiling of my wife’s Uncle Jeff.  He was around 60 years old and lost after a 9 month bought with Pancreatic Cancer.  I had a good relationship with him during the 10 years I’ve been with my wife and liked him very much.  I never really thought about it when he was healthy or even when he was sick, but something occurred to me at his funeral.  Not only did he become my Uncle, he was my only Uncle.  My father was an only child, and my Mother has one brother, but we were never really close to him.  One of my mother’s sisters husbands passed away when I was very young and I never really had a relationship with my other Aunt’s husbands. 

On the day of the funeral, the synagogue was packed with people.  Jeff had such a strong effect on so many people.  The Rabbi speaking about Uncle Jeff was his life-long best friend and delivered what was the perfect combination of a memorial and a comedy routine.  Uncle Jeff, always the jokester, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. 

As he spoke, I thought…

How did Uncle Jeff live his life?

How am I living my own?

What can I learn from him… even now?

Two years ago, I attended a lecture at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.  The theme of the lecture was that we should live our lives backwards.  We should start by thinking about what we want said about us at our funeral and work backwards to become that type of person.

I am probably dating myself when I quoted the original Star Wars movie in 1977.  I was only 4 years old when Obi-Wan Kenobi said “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  I was surprised when I learned that this idea did not start in Star Wars and that, in fact, it is very much a Jewish idea for the Tanya (published in the late 18th century) says that the righteous person protects this world after his passing even more effectively than he did during his lifetime.  Before that, the Gemara Tanis says that our father Jacob never died.  The Torah says specially that he was buried, so how do we understand this?  One of the expansions is that he lives on through his children and grandchildren since they learned from him and emulated his ways.

When we internalize the core values of someone... When we take them into our heart and incorporate them as our own, we keep that person, not only alive, but elevate them to a greater status than when they were in this world.

This is a lesson, not only for how we look at the people that we care about, but for how we live our own lives.  What values would I want people to emulate from me after my passing?  What would I want them to say?  How do I want to be remembered?  This is how I need to live my life.