Tisha B’Av 2021

When I made my first Aliyah (I actually immigrated officially to Israel twice, once in the 1980s and again in 2016) I thought I was one of a group of friends in Los Angeles who all planned to make a life together in Israel. Actually, I wasn’t the first one to make the move–there was a couple who had recently gotten married who arrived a few months before. There were several couples and several singles. We had dreams of a life shared together, perhaps in the Galil, maybe by the sea…..

Every time I returned to the US for a visit, all of my friends, still in LA, declared how much they “just love Israel”. After a year or two, the first couple returned to the US. Supposedly to clear up some work-qualifications (Israel, almost 40 years later, does continue to pile up obstacles to foreign (read that “American”)-trained professionals to work in their fields here. Thus the tremendous shortage of doctors we have here and the inexcusable disincentive for your “nice Jewish Doctor” to make Aliyah. For many years, until I fell out of touch with just about everyone in this group, I was constantly reassured that they JUST LOVED ISRAEL.

A few years after that, I, too, returned to the US. Initially if was a two-year sabbatical, but the years piled up and I found that I, too, JUST LOVED ISRAEL. Believe me, it took me close to 30 years, leaving behind all the people I truly love in this world, to return home. I know it’s not a simple thing.

But I also know that all the fasting, all the Lamentations, all the services sitting in candle-light on the floor didn’t mean a thing. Israel and Jerusalem remained deficient and I remained in Exile, a spiritual orphan.

I’m home now, for my fifth Tisha B’Av this time around. Jerusalem and Israel are still deficient, but even though the third Temple, the House Of Prayer For All The Nations, the yet unbuilt and unoccupied home for the Shechina, the Divine Presence, looms in our hearts and in the Heart of the World, at least one tiny piece of the puzzle has clicked back into place.

But so many other, absolutely necessary and beloved souls remain in self-willed Exile, a painful and self-numbing state of alienation, are just empty place-holders here now. These essential building blocks to the restored Bet HaMikdash, to a fully-functioning Kodesh HaKadoshim, Holy of Holies, to the reunited and re-integrated Highest Potential of humanity, remain longed-for, deeply missed, still awaited.

L’Shana HaBa’a B’Yerushalayim. May these times of mourning come to a close, soon, please God, soon.

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Both a family friend from much earlier and one of my two mentors when I first began my journey to become a rabbi, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger, of blessed memory, was, in my day, the most beloved rabbi in my hometown of Denver in the 1950s. With a brilliant and decisive mind, what really struck people was his humility and openness. He taught me to respond to most questions with, “I don’t know. Let’s look into this together”. When after many years of internal back and forth, I finally decided to pursue smicha, I went to his house to ask his advice.

He looked me in the eye for a couple minutes and then he said, “Zeitlin, the one luxury I never afforded myself has been Absolute Certainty. About anything.” After that he asked about my parents, with whom he and his Rebbetzin, Ida, were close friends, indicating that he gave me the advice he thought I needed.

As it turns out, that piece of rabbinic wisdom is something I think about every single day, as I have since that day so long ago.

One of the requirements and frequent functions of an orthodox rabbi is to answer halachic questions. Most of our early training is mastering the reasoning techniques presented in the Talmud. And one of the first things that should strike anyone after even a brief glance at a daf Gemara (a page of Talmud) is that brilliant, highly trained experts, often disagree. There is rarely one “right” answer to just about any question. Of course, as a practical matter, both the rabbis in those days and in ours need to reach a practical, ad hoc solution. But no one ever thought, or ever should think that they are declaring eternal, indisputable TRUTH. Disputes, after all, are the very warp into which the weave of Oral Torah is woven.

The Ishbitz Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Leiner 1801-54), whose thought has very much captured my heart and mind of late, writes in Mei HaShiloach on this week’s parsha, Korach, that Korach’s rebellion, a major challenge to the authority of both Moses and Aaron, was based on, of all things, the mitzva of Tzitzit, a special garment worn daily, distinguished by strings tied to each of the four corners. One of these strings at each corner is mandated to be a specific shade of blue called techelet, and we’re instructed (both in the mitzva, commandment, itself to wear tzitizt, and also to determine when we can begin our morning prayers (Talmud Bavli Berachot 1:2) to meditate on the difference between this unique color and the white of the garment itself, or perhaps between it and dark green. This mitzva had just been presented at the very end of the previous parsha, Selach and Korach immediately asks a question, what might well be an impertinent question–usually the garment itself is white, but what if the entire garment itself was dyed techelet? Would it require the added string(s) of techelet?

Less intersted in resolving that ancient dispute, and also not really interested in describing the political feud and it’s background, the Mei HaShiloach takes a different tack and discusses Techelet itself. He tells us that this color, seen kabbalistically/spiritually, represents the quality of Yirah, usually badly translated as fear (as in “fear of God”). In addition to that, we learn that the word, taken literally from its root, R-A-E, is based on seeing, seeing deeply and truly. (The concept of fear enters as a result of seeing God’s presence everywhere and in everything. At least superficially admitting our own imperfection, we realize that we’re certainly going to “sin”, at the very least, when we don’t measure up to The Creator’s expectations for us. As we turn our focus in that direction, and notice that we’re actually focusing our attention on ourselves and no longer on God!, we put ourselves deeper and deeper into the vicious cycle of guilt and ever-worse decisions!)

However, if we return our focus, our Yirah to God, we’re quickly faced with an apparent contradiction that even when we sin, even egregiously, even when we seriously hurt ourselves and/or others, God, allowing it, gives at least his implied consent. Which brings us to the “unthinkable” idea that all the evil that exists in this world is also part of God’s Will, Ratzon Hashem.

The key to this highly distressing contradiction is the word “Unthinkable”. But that word is also the key to understanding all these seeming dilemmas. Perhaps among the most challenging difficulties is to face the insult to our egos, that we are Man, not God. As Issaiah teaches (55:8), Ki Lo Machshavotei Machshavoteychem, “My Thoughts are not your thoughts”, V’Lo Darcheychem Daracei, “Nor are you ways My Ways”. God reveals to humanity only a part of His Divine Wisdom, His Divine Will. (And what He reveals to each individual is, necessarily, much less to what He Reveals to all humanity.) And all of this resides in God’s Wisdom and Purpose, not in our curiosity nor in our arrogance. 

Thus it’s not “mere” humility to say, “I don’t know”, but rather a statement of one of the highest and most sublime truths. In fact, it’s certainly one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual heights a person can reach to begin to be even slightly aware of the magnitude of God’s Wisdom and Will and how unapproachable on any real level it is to us.

Immediately after offering our thanks and gratitude to The Creator every morning when we say, “Modeh/ah Ani L’fanecha” we then remind ourselves that Reishit Chachma Yirat Hashem, the beginning of wisdom is awareness of God’s presence, reminding us that only God is God, and we’re not. And that way we begin our day telling the truth to ourselves of who we are. A very good beginning, if you ask me.

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With our Complete Hearts, Souls and Might

Writing about Parshat Naso, the Ishbitzer, in Mei HaShiloach explains that merely escaping from slavery, leaving the territory of Egypt, even receiving the Torah at Sinai, was not enough (contradicting the Seder Pesach song, Dayenu). In fact, it wasn’t until the Mishkan was erected and the various tribes and families assiged their tasks both in operating the Mishkan and performing the Karbanot, approaching (the Creator) rituals, as well as taking it down for travel, packing it and all the sacred objects it contained and was constructed of, transported and then re-erected in its next chosen location, did The Shechina, God’s Divine (feminine) presence fill both the Mishkan itself, but also the entire camp of Israel (and eventually all of physical reality).

The tasks are greater and more numerous than any one person or even one group, no matter how skilled, inspired and specially trained, could achieve and fulfill. And no task, no matter how holy and elevated it is, can be accomplished without all the other tasks, even those which might appear less important, somehow lower in holiness, also achieved. Moses and Aaron, regardless of their importance and the special natures of the neshamot could not single-handedly lead the Jewish People from Slavery to Freedom, through the Desert, into the Holy Land, Build the Holy Temple and utilize it to bring all humanity to perfection, without the necessary, and, therefore, just as holy, contributions of every individual. The Prophet, the Leader, the Mashiach are all vital to the project, but, ultimately, everyone of us is responsible to refine and purify our own neshamot, souls, to achieve all that we can also in the material sense, to become people who strengthen and reinforce our fellows. None of us are free, none of us are “redeemed”, until all of us, together are.

So we are given a toolkit and a set of detailed instructions. We, Am Yisrael, have ours embedded in the Holy Torah, which, yes, contains 613 arterial mitzvot, commandments, but also individual guides, calibated for each of us in terms of abilities, achievements, hopes and desires, of how each of us need, specifically and individually, to fulfill those mitzvot which are relevant to us (the system is designed that it cannot be completed by a single person, or even a small group of people no matter how special, but requires whatever actual number of us is represented by and hinted at the number 600,000, the root (what I also call “arterial”) souls of Am Yisrael, which are subdivided down the generations to who knows how many millions of individual Jews, each having to discover exactly how he or she can fulfill those mitzvot relevant to it.

Like the Menorah the golden light source within the Holiest Place of the Temple, made up of six separate “candles” each aimed at the central (and, thus seventh, representing perfection, completion, the full spectrum of light)

arm, every one of us needs to “aim” our mitzvot, our holy service (and holiness should, with practice and intention, direct everything each of us does in life) where our specific “light” is needed. No one else’s mitzvot can achieve what our’s can, and we only achieve the complete goal when every facet is illuminated, when each of us is functioning in our completely unique way.

When we say Am Yisrael Chai, we remind ourselves that we each need each other, not only in our own generation, but across generations, to contribute what we’re here to add. Whether the ultimate payoff is during our lifetimes or, like it is for the generations that came before us, some time yet ahead, we, as the totality of Am Yisrael ultimately equal Chai, the Life Energy that animates all of existence.

Shabbat Shalom

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Can Your Heart Handle It?

You don’t have to sign up. Whether or not you put away your car keys and smartphone and keyboard and tv and credit car, you will still have access to it. It doesn’t matter if you cover your hair or leave it flying in the wind, whether you pray three times a day or never get around to it, whether you have a beard or you can’t get enough cheeseburgers, whether you believe in “God” or not. It certainly doesn’t matter if you’re not Jewish, this energy is open for all.

Even if you’re forced to observe this Chag in a bomb shelter this year because Hamas is lobbing rockets indiscriminately at civilians here in Israel, you’re still (maybe especially) part of the experience. The Torah transcends current events, even if they contribute to the greater reality Torah encompasses.

We don’t celebrate Shavuot to commemorate receiving the Torah more than 3300 years ago. Rather, we received the Torah that year, specifically on this day, because it was Shavuot! That energy had been entering the world on that day since Creation, just as it continues to every year on this day, including this one. And although only we, Am Yisrael, the Jewish People accepted it that time, it was available to all the nations, just as it remains today. In fact, shortly after this, Yitro, the high priest of Midian arrived shortly after to the camp of Am Yisrael to celebrate both our escape from the slavery of Mitzrayim and also to celebrate the receiving of Torah.

This Torah we celebrate is much more that a set of rules which only the Jewish People are obligated to keep. It’s more than the stories of our ancestors, our journeys, our triumphs and our exiles. The Written Torah, Tanach, begins at the beginning, literally, In the Beginning, the Big Bang itself, and concludes in a wild rush of praise to be found in dance, in music, in cymbals and drums, a call for every soul, every breath (Kol Haneshama) to join together celebrating all existence. (And when you delve deeper you learn that beneath the surface this Torah embodies the very name of The Creator, is a map of the Universe, an operating manual for life on earth, and much much more.)

In case we don’t get the idea, we learn that David HaMelech, King David, the author of Tehillim, the Psalms (which conclude the Written Torah just summarized) was born on this day–Our Musician/Poet King, filled with Inspiration and Creativity, came into the world on just this day. Further, we traditionally read Megillat Ruth, the story of Ruth, the quintessential convert to Judaism, a woman motivated by love and loyalty, who is to become David HaMelech’s great-grandmother, is chanted (in one of the most beautiful melodies of the entire liturgy) on this day. And remember, David HaMelech will have a descendant who will usher in an era of eternal peace (we call him Mashiach (Messiah).

For those around my age who’ll get the reference, Shavuot is the original celebration of Love and Peace (and music, too).

Are you ready? It will arrive whether you’re aware or not, but all it takes to enjoy it is to be aware. Perhaps next time you’ll want to take a more active part–you can if you want. But the Infinite Energy of Torah will once again make its entrance in just a few hours.

Can your heart take it? “Can your heart welcome it?” is more like it.

Chag Shavuot Sameach.

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Global/Tribal/Universal: Either/Or Or All Three At Once

I’m not much of a joiner. I guess I value my privacy, or I’m just shy. I see myself pretty much as a hermit, although a gregarious one. Can these seeming opposites coexist in one body/one soul?

Likewise, today in much of the western world there is a goal of globalism which disdains what it judges to be “primitive” tribalism. On the other hand, a large, perhaps the majority, of the world primarily identifies with it’s tribe, and often look at alliances with other “tribes” as temporary and strategic. Is globalism indeed advanced and progressive (used as an adjective, not a political position), ideal or is it a type of colonialism, the elite attempting to impose their world view on everyone else, dressed up with pretty words?

Perplexing to some who know me, or, at least, acquainted with me, I recently returned to Israel, the focus of my own “tribe” just a few years ago after a long absence, at an age many people begin to contemplate retirement instead. Ironically, I moved here alone, in a manner dragging my individual tribalism into the global expression of that “tribe”.

All that being said, I don’t feel I’m living an unresolvable contradiction, but for the first time, perhaps, in my life, I feel integrated with my surroundings.

The Ishbitzer in Mei HaShiloach for this week’s parsha, Bamidbar, focuses on the opening pasukim and points out that the word שאו, s’u, instructing Moshe to initiate a census of the Jewish people, to count, is closely related to the word נשיא, Nasi, which means prince (also, president). There’s an element of elevating, not merely counting.

To be counted as a member of B’nei Yisrael, the Jewish people, is to be ennobled. In fact, it’s to be raised up, both as an individual soul and as part of a collective, to be incorporated into the Divinity of The Creator Himself. As the Ishbitzer puts it, a number (as opposed to merely a total) in which each individual number is important on its own. Being a member of the tribe rather than just a faceless component. God, in His immensity, is able to contain the individuality of each soul.

Each of us is a distinct portion of the whole, we’re each one of the “measures” of God. The word he chose for “measure” is מדה, Middah, which is also used to refer to the individual sephirot. Coming to the end of the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the seven weeks we “count the Omer“, many of us relate each day to a unique combination of sefirot or middot. These middot are a way we map The Creator (as it were, of course we can never “map” God) onto His Creation, the universe itself (there is even a meditation after we count where we explicitly pray to repair, l’takeyn, each of these measurements/dimensions,middot). Which brings our journey from individuals to members of Bnei Yisrael, the tribe, to the ultimate Global itself.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

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Never Easy Answers; Please No Easy Questions

There are some sefarim (books) and rebbaim (rabbis/teachers) who remain closed off to me for years, but suddenly they come alive and shimmer with the brightest light I can imagine. When this happens, I feel a sense of real urgency to understand what messages they have for me, what lessons I surely was not ready for in the past, but suddenly find so important. It literally took decades of urging by one friend until Rav Kook began to shine so brightly to me. Another is Mei HaShiloach by the Ishbitzer, advocated to me by another friend and teacher. If there is a common thread between the two, it’s that they don’t ask simple questions designed to elicit a predictable, preprogrammed response. Rather the questions they ask force me to think, to confront eveything I thought I already knew, to challenge my long-accepted frames of reference. A reminder that Judaism isn’t a catechism religion.

Especially with Ishbitz, there’s not only no guarantee that he will leave me on safe ground, bouyed up by “what everyone knows”, rather, he’s much more likely to leave me filled with questions, wondering if anything I thought I knew can be maintained.

Of course, that’s how Torah should be. If Torah, the blueprint the Infinite Creator uses to bring reality into existence, “U-VaTuvo Michadesh B’Chol Yom Tamid Ma’aseh Bereishit“, In His Beneficence, in His pure goodness, renews every day, the very act of Creation, and also represents the Infinite Mind of The Creator, it’s impervious to a “one and done” understanding. In fact, it also implicitly and simultaneously contains possibility and impossibility, the inescapable conclusion that it’s both true and untrue at the same time.

The Ishbitzer writes about Parshat Emor, which begins by prohibiting Kohenim, hereditary members of the priestly sect, from our normal mourning practices. These mourning practices accompany us through the complex psychological stages of mourning, beginning with the acceptance of death, our most painful life experience. It’s natural for most of us to experience it as pain and loss with nothing positive at all about it. A Kohen is held to a higher standard. As one whose entire service is directly addressed to The Creator, he must keep in mind that nothing that occurs in this world is random, but everything is under the hashgacha, supervision, of God. And since God’s intention, as far as we’re able to understand (i.e. at the very limit of our understanding) is only l’heytiv, to benefit. An ordinary person, in the midst of devestation and loss, perhaps as part of a psychological emergency reaction, cannot entertain such complexity, that there are more than a single aspect to God’s treatment.

A Kohen, we are often reminded in many other places, lives at a heightened level of love, and also of awareness. Aaron, the first and prototypical Kohen, is Ohev Shalom and Rodef Shalom, loves peace and actively persues it (Mishna Avot 1:12). He is the quintessential Ish Chesed, man of Chesed, loving-kindness.It might be impossible for a true Kohen to fully engage with the other side which we call Gevura, “strength” if one oversimplifies one’s world view and sees Chesed and Gevurah as “opposites” rather than as complementary.

Kaballah, our “mystical” tradition, can, and should, lead us to understand that the world is not created in stark black-and-white. Rather, it’s infinitely shaded and complex. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the over-emphasis of the legal aspects of Torah, Halacha, even those who don’t feel caught up with or obligated to fulfill Halacha have adopted the radical misconception that Torah is authoritarian, confusing that with authoritative, which is much closer to the true nature of Torah. Thus, they’ll look at the infinitely complicated and complex world of Sefirot, a type of divine energy underlying all physical reality, literally and as mutually exclusive. Rather than seeing ten distinct, but interrelated forces as separate and, somehow, unique and independent forces. Thus, they want to see Aaron’s central trait of Chesed as excluding Gevurah, continuing this over-simplification until is somehow monotonally exists without any trace of any more subtle shade to what they want to simply label as Chesed, “Loving Kindness”.

Seen this way, a Kohen should literally be excluded from mourning practices except, as a concession to human weakness, for his immediate relavites. Halacha l’ma’aseh, practical halacha, the normative rule that’s chosen, almost always only one of several or more opinions, might seem simple, but the process from which it is derived is anything but. Thus Halacha forces us to see even Aharon, the Kohain, to contain competing inner forces, living both as a symbol and also, just as importantly, living human.

Rather, we’re forced to see that overly-easy answers imply overly-easy questions and that the entire process leads us away from reality. Rather, we need to remember that God’s seal, Chotem Hashem, is Emet, Truth.

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Invited to Grow

Regular Tefilla, badly translated as “prayer”, is pre-programmed for us three times every day. Of that small minority of us who actually take advantage of this opportunity, surely less than half can even roughly understand/translate what we’re saying, and even fewer have a more sophisticated idea. For many, the thrice-daily tefilla has degenerated into, at best, a speed vocalizing project that rarely poenetrates our minds, let alone our hearts.

Repetition, however, encourages familiarity and at least vague recognition, even if only at the sound level. If we learn a little bit about just a few of the phrases we recite daily, it can be very eye-opening, For too many of us, Jewish religous practice has degenerated into check off boxes on a too-long and too-complicated To Do List. It’s a shame to lose the daily sense of wonder, “Is this what our tradition is really telling us?”

The morning service, and thus the Jewish day, begins with a series of Brachot, praises of God. The first one says, “HaNoteyn l’Sechvi Bina l’Havchin Beyn Yom U-Beyn Lilah“, thanking and praising The Creator for giving the Rooster, not the smartest of creatures, the intellectual tools to distinguish between day and night, in other words, to recognize that it’s a new day.

Can we, on the other extreme of the intelligence scale, actually recognize that each morning is the beginning of a new day? Not just a day, but a new one, filled with opportunities and potential. Although we’re all creatures of habit, we needn’t be slaves to it. We can, and if we intend to grow and improve, to daily come closer to realizing our potential, we must see ourselves as new beings, new creations, each and every day. If we intend to change, to do Tshuva, returning to our untouched roots and potential, we necessarily need to leave our old mistakes, the damage our actions caused, our Aveirot, sins, behind. Only then can we try to fix them and to move on to new challenges in the eternal process of tikkun, refining ourselves and our world.

This often seems an impossible challenge. Where can we find the reserves, the inner strength, the wisdom, to no longer be trapped in the past?

Several pages later, as we begin the brachot, blessings, for the Shema Yisrael, we say, “U-VaTuvo Michadesh B’Chol Yom Ma’aseh Bereishit“, In His Beneficence, in His pure goodness, renews every day, the very act of Creation. As even the lowly rooster can intuit, we can ponder and analyze and inspire ourselves with the reality that today is not yesterday, but was re-created by the Almighty, full of fresh potential and fresh opportunities to do better than we did in the past.

I often wonder why we’re told to recite the words, “Modeh (ah) Ani L’Fanecha“, “I am filled with gratitude before You|, every morning before we even get out of bed. Why are we so thankful for yet another day if it may be filled with the same disappointments, frustrations and failures of yesterday? If life is a zero-sum game, who really wants to play it anymore?

But, before we fall into despair, we can fall into hope, with the confidence that difficult as it might be, we can, each of us, make today and tomorrow much better than we even fantasized possible just yesterday.

Remember that in the beginning of this essay I said that Tefilla is badly mis-translated as “Prayer”. The root of Tefilla the Hebrew letters פל, Peh Lamed, really means falling. The choice is ours to fall into despair or to fall into hope.

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By Not Doing

Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Pesach (and Sukkot) are filled with a unique, semi-Kedusha, holiness. Strangely, it’s a period of time where most men do not engage with their special relationship of teffilin.

I wonder how to achieve that intense closeness that I almost take for granted every morning, binding myself to The Creator, this week by pointedly not tying these leather boxes, filled with Torah verses, on my arm and my forehead.

It’s one of the great mysteries to me, how to develop, with years of daily practice, a constant awareness that can then be recalled by not doing.

Nevertheless, this is something we can all achieve.

We will re-don them here in Israel on Sunday, in the Disaspora, on Monday, with a special and renewed awareness. Much like the view you can get after climbing down from a ladder and then ascending a nearby one that’s even higher.

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Striving Hard For Herd Freedom

I had hoped to publish these thoughts before Pesach, but computer problems prevented me from getting any work done at all in the last three weeks. Der mentsh trakht un got lakht; Man plans and God laughs. But even this all-too-common phenomenon which we all experience so frequently in our lives is also filled with meanings if we take the time and make ourselves open to listen.

While it’s stupid to say that God brought Covid into the world only in order to teach Jews who study Torah, that infinitesimal slice of mankind, a profound truth, that isn’t to say that there are no profound truths we can learn from the terrible plague which has besieged all humanity over the past year. Obviously, we should learn from everything we’re shown, everything we experience and everything that occurs.

It’s arrogant to even entertain the fantasy that we can possibly know why The Creator does anything, but the fact that He arranges the world in certain ways is raw material for us to explore since there is no contradiction that He has much more to do than to maintain a clandestine dialogue with Torah scholars and that everything He in fact does also contains messages for us aimed at our refining ourselves to, as Ramchal puts it, more closely resemble God since He is the True Good (Hatov HaAmiti).

As Pesach approached this year, I think we were all still in a state of shock from the past year. While we here in Israel are being shown a vision of what a post-Covid world can look like, largely thanks to the aggressive and mostly successful vaccination program we’ve undergone, most Jewish communities are still in situations not that much different than we all were in last year. For many, this Pesach will, once again, be a mostly solitary experience with, at best, masked, socially-distanced and, therefore, very small Seders. This year’s miracle in Israel can be replicated everywhere now that safe and effective vaccines have been crafted, manufactored, distributed and administered.

None of us as individuals would have been capable of doing all these things, but now that the vaccine exists, all we need do is “opt-in”, not only protecting ourselves, but also protecting our family, friends, neighbors and society in general. That there is a significant number of people refusing the vaccine to make “herd immunity” impossible and dooming us all to repeated waves of deadly infection, is beyond my ability to imagine.

But this is not the first time mankind, or a large enough segment, chooses badly.

As we learn in Shemot 13:18, וַחֲמֻשִׁ֛ים עָל֥וּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃, Bnei Yisrael went up from Egypt Chamushim, which is normally translated as “armed”. Rashi explains this rather unusual word for armed to really teach us that Chamesh, one-fifth, only one-fifth of the people chose to leave with their fellows. Fully four-fifths of the Jewish people decided that eternal slavery in Egypt was preferable to freedom in their own land.

You might ask why didn’t God just take them out of Egypt even if they didn’t want to go. Certainly after tasting freedom they’d understand. But, of course, you don’t empower someone by taking away their power and autonomy. Remember, He never removed their power to decide to opt-in.

Bechira, Free Will, is the power to decide and that includes the power to make bad decisions as well as good ones. But it also contains Tshuva, which should never again be mindlessly translated (or mistranslated) as “repentance”, but, rather, the ability to go back and make a better choice. In everything.

Because the potential for Geula, redemption, meaning total redemption, is also in our reach. Always.

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All Jews are Jews Of Color

There hasn’t been a lot to feel good about this just-past Chanukah as Corona infections, hospitalizations and deaths are, world-wide, once again peaking. Despite the imminent roll-out of both the Pfizer and now the Moderna vaccines, it was difficult, to say the least, to feel much Simchat Yom Tov, joy in the holiday.

Perhaps it was only to put a crack in the doom-and-gloom that the internet exploded with the feel-good video, Puppy For Hanukkah, by Daaveed Diggs, an immensely talented musician and performer, by all accounts a very personable young man who has probably accumulated a giant pile of Tikkun Olam points, but very little knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history. By combining his Jewish as well as his African-American heritages, he is also immensely proud of striking a blow to celebrate Jews of Color. (https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/daveed-diggs-speaks-about-representing-jews-of-color-in-hanukkah-video-652148).

What’s wrong with the picture–a “progressive”, orthodox rabbi, jazz  musician and artist like me, frothing at the mouth with my hackles fully raised?

A great conceit of the progressive left is that there are two categories of Jews. The first, the “Good Jews” are all similarly progressive and woke, disdain  “whiteness” and “white privilege” like all good progressives. It’s a basic assumption, an article of faith, as it were, that social action, which means advocating for whoever has newly entered the ranks of victim and attacking all of the intersected groups of oppressors, burning a flag or two or tumbling a statue if available. Since all are agreed that the saddest, gr, eatest and most aggrieved victim in todays world are the Palestinians, Jews are now not only fair game, but if hunting were permitted, the highest value trophy to bring down. Which proves, of course, that Jews are White, and tarrable with the White Privilege/Colonialist/Oppressor brush.

It’s true that the stereotyped cliché of an American Jew is and Ashkenazi i.e. Eurpopean, i.e. White, Yiddish cracking zionist. Of course, America has long turned a blind eye to Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews, Jews from round the Mediterranean and from Northern Africa (just as it has long turned a blind eye to people from Spanish/Portugese speaking backgrounds, all lumped together as Latinos, which really just meant either Mexican or Puerto Rican, depending on where in the US one is standing. Perhaps in America, for those trying to fit in and provide a safe haven for their children, it’s already hard enough for a Jew to fit in, so why bother trying to establish a secondary identity?

But step off the plane at Ben Gurion and at least half of the Jews you see at first, second and third glance are, indeed, Jews whose families fled Arab countries in 1948, rather than those who fled Europe before and right after the Holocaust. Not only that, you hear a veritable Babel of languages, or at least accents and pronunciations. Jews whose first language was Arabic, Yiddish, Ahmaric (the language of Jews from Ethiopia), French, English, Russian and, yes, even a few native Hebrew speakers. And when you look around, it’s immediately obvious that no, you’re no longer in Kansas any more, nor on location for any number of early Coen Brother films. Jews come in the full variety of human skin color, finally returned home form 2000 years of exile Beirut and Krakow, Chicago and Minnepolis, Damascus and Cairo and Kiev and Moscow and Berlin and London and Fukien and Cochin and Mumbai and Nairobi and Kabul and Herat and Saana and Fez and…… Get the idea, we have established communities all around the world. And, guess what, after a few generations (since there was always mixing with the host population) we look exactly like people from all those countries and regions.

In other words, all Jews are “Jews of Color”. So, no, you don’t have permission to split us into Jews, the bad, white guys, and Jews of Color, the good guys, oppressed Africans and swarthy Lebanese. And those Jews who, unfortunately, never received very much information about Jewish history over four thousand years, and who are being exploited by people with no interest in their Jewish traditions and identities except as a weapon against those bad bad Ashkenazi stereotypes, so familiar from Nazi and PLO (or French or English or Russian, etc. etc. etc.) propaganda.

Guess what, if  you go back just a few generations to where those so-called “white” Jews previously lived, they were likely just as oppressed, just as much the other, just as much “the dreaded-N-word” of those societies.

So, please remember in all your intersecionality nonsense, every Jew you meet, be he from China or Kenya or Yemen or Brazil or Duluth is a Jew of Color. And we’re proud to be.

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