Monday, February 10, 2020

Changing Tires. Changing Minds.

It’s been cold in Israel this winter. I know if you’ve never been to Israel, you probably imagine it’s hot here all the time, but it’s not. It’s been really cold. Uncomfortably cold. And rainy. Very rainy. And did I mention cold?

So last night, when I noticed that one of our car’s tires was low, I was happy that my husband was willing to get out of the nice warm car at the air pump and fill up the tire.

As we pulled up, we saw that a young man was helping a woman in the car in front of us and my husband hoped a few shekels would convince this young man to put air in our tire as well. So when it was our turn at the air pump, we were both delighted that he, who was A) much younger than us and B) already out in the wet and cold night air, was willing to help.

A few things became obvious very quickly. One, the lack of air in the tire was due to what Israelis call a puncher, which is the endearing way Israelis say puncture. Turns out we had a nail in the tire. After dark. In the cold and rain.

The other thing that became obvious was that this young man was an Arab. He spoke to us in Hebrew, but he spoke much louder to another man in what sounded to me like angry Arabic. So I was apprehensive. Because we were in a difficult spot. The nearby “puncher place” was closed and, together my husband and I have been given many gifts, but tire changing skill is not among them.

The young Arab man indicated that if we pulled over, he would take off the bum tire and put on our spare. This kind of situation can make a person feel vulnerable. Besides the fact that he spoke no English, the language in which I can best express myself under all circumstances, my people haven’t always had a, ahem… neighborly relationship with his people.

Frankly, I was prepared to get ripped off. That was the best possible outcome I could imagine.

I had left the house without any money at all, and my husband only had big bills in his wallet, so he went into the convenience store to get change. While my husband was a hundred yards away, inside the convenience store, getting coffee and change, I asked the young man, in broken Hebrew, what this little adventure was likely to cost us. I was sure I misunderstood his response because I thought he said, “I just want to help.”

It was dark. It was cold. It was wet. We were strangers. Not only strangers, but English-speaking Jewish immigrants from America type of strangers. And he was a local Arab, the exact age and gender of the majority of those who carry out terror attacks against my people.

When my husband came back, holding a steaming cup of coffee and smaller bills, I asked him to employ his significantly better Hebrew to ascertain how much we were going to get ripped off for.

What actually happened: After the pump and punctured tire were put back in our trunk, my husband gave him 50 shekels (about $15) and asked if it was enough. The young Arab man replied that it was more than enough because he really just wanted to help.

You’ll never see harmonious exchanges like this in international media report about Israel. I’ve been told that they actually happen here on a regular basis, but I was skeptical.

Now I have an image of a young Arab man changing our tire by hand, in the dark and cold, just because he wanted to help.

In truth, he didn’t just change our tire.

He also changed my mind.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Why I Gave Up On Daf Yomi Just A Few Days In

Women and their volumes of Talmud
(photo credit Nishmat: The Jeanie Schottenstein Center for Advanced Torah Study for Women)

I admit it. 

I got caught up in Daf Yomi fever.

For the past seven and a half years, I’ve watched my husband sit with a volume of the Talmud in his hands. I’ve cheered him when he announced that he was caught up to the day’s daf. And I was exceedingly impressed that, before the siyum, he pushed himself to make up the pages he missed learning while sitting shiva, first for his mother A”H and then for his father A”H a few years later.

I even agreed to attend a huge Siyum haShas in Jerusalem to help him mark his outstanding achievement. I so wanted to shep nachas, but that siyum turned out to be a huge disappointment. It started with the fact that I had to sit separately, in the balcony, cloistered away, with the other women, while an endless parade of men celebrated themselves for two hours, without acknowledging the possibility that a single Jewish woman had ever cracked the spine of a single mesechta.

I’m not gonna lie. The all-men-all-the-time program zapped a bit of my joy.

A few nights later, balance was restored in the universe after I read all the glowing reports of the Hadran, the Siyum haShas attended by 3,300 Jews, women and men together, celebrating women who completed the latest Daf Yomi cycle. I didn’t attend, which, in retrospect, I regret. I did watch clips and read many reports of how encouraging it was to see women’s Torah learning being celebrated at that level.

In the midst of all these Siyum haShas festivities, my book club began reading If All The Seas Were Ink, Ilana Kurshan’s memoir of healing from a painful divorce and building a new family, over the span of the Daf Yomi cycle.

Studying a page of gemara a day, consistently, for seven and a half years, is a pretty remarkable achievement. The fact that there were women just like me doing it made me consider, for the first time ever, learning Daf Yomi as well.

And so I did. I got the sefer off the shelf. I signed up for a women’s Daf Yomi podcast, joined a women’s Daf Yomi Facebook group and cracked the book open for myself.

One of the pages of Talmud I actually learned.

Talmud is well-known for its meandering style. The rabbis transition from one topic to another with sometimes only the thinnest thread connecting the two. It was a pleasant reminder to me of an engaging Shabbat meal, where the conversation flows naturally from one topic to another.

It was pretty gratifying to be learning the same daf as my husband, for the short time it lasted. I gave it up rather quickly. I would like to emphasize that I didn’t give it up because I thought it was intellectually over my head.

I gave it up because I lack the imagination to transcend the blinding maleness of Talmud. I was braced for an assault on my gender every time I turned the page, because I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know from which direction. I knew enough Talmud to know that, to the Talmudic mind, throughout its 2,711 pages, women are profoundly "other".

I also quickly discovered that I really didn’t care about the hairs they were splitting, especially since each page I learned was, primarily, a minute dissection of a positive, time-bound mitzvah (reciting Shema twice a day) that doesn’t even apply to me as a woman and that speaks of mitzvot, like tzitzit and tefillin, that also don’t apply to me.

This kind of learning nurtures some women. I see from the enthusiasm and the increasing numbers of women investing themselves in learning gemara that it brings them something meaningful.

I couldn’t be more delighted for them.

But I see that my soul needs something else.

I admit I got caught up in the fervor, in the whole Daf Yomi fever. That’s what pushed me to try, when I’d never considered trying before.

But I realized very quickly that this is not the kind of learning I want to spend my time on. For me, I’m happiest learning about the different parts of the soul and where they come from, about gilgulim, about geula and Moshiach and chassidut and Tanach.

For some people, the kind of Torah that makes my soul sing strikes them as not serious or substantial enough to be considered Torah study. For some people, only gemara and halacha count.

This puzzled me until I learned a new understanding of a piece of gemara, ironically enough. In Tractate Niddah (30b) one finds the well-known legend that each fetus is taught the entire Torah while in utero. And just when the baby is born, an angel comes and taps the infant on the mouth. With that tap, the entire Torah is forgotten, according to the gemara. 

I’ve always understood that this was done so that when a person learns Torah again, the echo of their prenatal learning makes it somehow familiar to them. And this story is also a source for explaining why we have an indentation between our nose and upper lip; that's where the angel touched us just before we were born.

But there’s more. In his sefer Even Shlayma, the Vilna Goan explains that each fetus does not learn the same approach to Torah. Some learn nigleh – revealed Torah. And later in life, those people are happiest studying Talmud and halacha.

Other are taught nistar – concealed Torah, namely kabbalah and chassidut. And for those people, Torah nurtures most when it’s connected to the mystical.

Both kinds of Torah are Torah. But not everyone is equally comfortable in both realms. For me, my soul vibrates with nistar.

This whole rapidly truncated experiment made me realize that the worldwide hype, all the press, all the attention to Daf Yomi and the Siyum haShas over the past few weeks is a celebration of nigleh. Which made it a bit like celebrating someone else’s birthday.

It’s a lovely party.

Just not mine.

How I look forward to the world celebrating, with as much attention, the Torah topics that sing to my soul.

I’ve been told that, in the Chabad world, Yud Tes Kislev is a celebration of the annual cycle of learning Tanya, a text I recently started to learn again, after failing to pierce its depth some years ago.

Maybe next year, I’ll celebrate with the Chabadnikim.

And I will finally feel at home.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Are We At The End of History? GUEST POST by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

NO ONE CAN deny that we are living in “special” times. There is so much going on that could easily have MAJOR significance, positively AND negatively. The first part of this book started that conversation and pointed out many such details.

The question is, are we living in THE special time? Are we at the end of history? Is Moshiach about to reveal himself and, finally, to do what “we” have been waiting for him to do now for thousands of years? In Egypt, Messianic times lasted 79 years before they finally ended in departure from Egyptian slavery. How many years will OUR Messianic times last before they end the utopian world of Yemos HaMoshiach?

Until now there have been many “possibilities.” Dates that were actually predicted for Moshiach’s arrival by those who could have known such things have, in the end, come and gone. They may have resulted in something to do with the Final Redemption with redemption-like things occurring at that time. But, they have not resulted in the Final Redemption itself. 

Now it is 5778, 2018 in Western terms. We’re definitely one year closer to the “end” than we were last year. But are we AT the end? Is there anything to indicate that this might be THE special year, a year in the scheme of things that says, “No matter where the Jewish people are holding, Moshiach must come!”

Who knows for sure? Yet, the following facts are, at the very least, very interesting. They don’t PROVE anything—yet. But they do indicate a certain specialness about 5778 that, we may LATER find out, were signs of BIG things to come, REDEMPTION-like things.

The last of the four exiles is Golus Edom. When Ya’akov Avinu had his dream about the four exiles, he was only told the length of the first three: Bavel (52 years), Media (18 years), and Yavan (180 years). Golus Edom, or the “Roman Exile” was left open-ended. Ya’akov never saw the Angel of Edom descend the ladder like the previous three angels.

When did Golus Edom even start? Officially, it seems to have begun when Pompey conquered Jerusa-lem in 63 BCE, or 3698. That is when Israel became an official vassal state of the Roman Empire, and Jews were taken from their homeland to other parts of the Roman Empire. The Jewish people would not regain control of their land again until 1948, 2,010 years later when the UN officially sanctioned the establishment of a Jewish State and homeland. 

Ten years prior to 1948, or 2,000 years from the start of the Roman Exile, was 1938—the year of “Kristallnacht,” a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians. The name comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets after the windows of Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues were smashed.

It wasn’t just a pogrom, however. Kristallnacht was the beginning of something bigger:

Kristallnacht changed the nature of the persecution from economic, political, and social to physical with beatings, incarceration, and murder; the event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust. In the words of historian Max Rein in 1988, "Kristallnacht came...and everything was changed.” While November 1938 predated the overt articulation of the “Final Solution,” it foreshadowed the genocide to come. Around the time of Kristallnacht, the SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps called for a “destruction by swords and flames.” At a conference on the day after the pogrom, Hermann Göring said: “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in anytime soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border—then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.” (Kristallnacht, Wikipedia)

This part was obvious. The part that was NOT obvious was the more historical event it signaled. For all intents-and-purposes, the Holocaust brought about the end of the “European Exile,” which was really just the extension of the Roman Exile. 

It had been the Romans who had exiled Jews from Eretz Yisroel to different parts of Europe, and though the names of the kingdoms of Europe have changed many times over the millennia, the locations of the Jews rarely did. Exactly 2,000 years since the Romans began their exile of the Jewish people, the Nazis, who viewed themselves as the third “Roman Empire,” began to end it, and the fourth and final exile of the Jewish people.

It is said that “Eretz Yisroel was built upon the ashes of the Holocaust.” This is true for a number of reasons which, collectively, explain why it took TEN years (never an insignificant number) for the Jewish people to go from Kristallnacht to being an officially accepted nation by the rest of the world. 

To begin with, though some emigrated from Europe to Eretz Yisroel prior to World War II, the vast majority of European Jews were content to remain where they were. They had put up with anti-Semitism and the pogroms until then, and had built up communities where they were. The status quo reigned, especially since America had yet to be a major draw for them. The Holocaust changed all of that.

Secondly, though the Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave the Jewish people the right to a “homeland,” it did not give them the right of statehood. There were too many other political forces with which to contend, and the British were wary of rocking the Arab boat. It was the Holocaust that compelled leaders like President Truman to give the survivors of the worst genocide ever a country of their own.

The Holocaust also shook the Jewish people out of their complacency. Until that time there was little sense of having to build up the Jewish people. The Torah world had strong centers of learning, and the rest of the Jewish world was content pursuing its own course of “Jewish” life.

However, the quick loss of half the nation meant having to pour a lot of energy and resources into the rebuilding of the nation. The Holocaust reiterated in very strong terms what many Jews had always known: the safest place for a Jew is in their own country. 

As had been foretold to Ya’akov Avinu, the Babylonian-Median Exile lasted 70 years in total. According to Rashi, it was the number of Shmittah years the Jewish people had violated. Perhaps, but the number 70 is specifically associated with the concept of redemption:

So says Hashem: After 70 years of Bavel are completed, I will remember you and fulfill My good word concerning you, to return you to this place. (Yirmiyahu 29:10)

I, Daniel, pondered in the books the number of years of the word of God that came to Yirmiyahu the prophet regarding the completion of the destruction of Yerushalayim: 70 years. (Daniel 9:2)

After 52 years, the gematria of “Eliyahu,” Koresh allowed the Jews to return to Eretz Yisroel to begin reconstructing the Temple. Eighteen years later, the miracle of Purim occurred, and the Jewish people were free to return to Eretz Yisroel, completing the redemption that had begun in Koresh’s time.

The story of Haman is told in 70 verses. He also only ruled for 70 days. 

In 5708, the Jewish State was reborn. Fifty-two years later was 5760, 2000 CE, a year predicted to be one of redemption, including by the Vilna Gaon. It was the year of the “Millennium Bug,” otherwise known as, “Y2K,” which in Hebrew is Yud-Bais-Kuf, the word “Yabok.” That is the name of the river Ya’akov Avinu crossed in advance of his battle with the Angel of Eisav, which symbolized Golus Edom. 

“Yabok” is also the gematria of three names of God, and therefore represents the spiritual completion of a person. When a person rectifies his three lower levels of soul—Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshamah—they gain access to the levels of light associated with these three Names of God.

It is now 5778, 18 years later. Is the completion of the first level of redemption that occurred back in 5760, when because of the potential problems of Y2K even the mainstream media began talking about Armageddon and the arrival of Moshiach, set to occur this Pesach?

Rabbi Yehoshua says: “In Nisan, the world was created . . . in Nisan, they were redeemed, and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the future.” (Rosh Hashanah 10b)

Even the names “Gog and Magog,” the perpetrators of the final war of history and threshold to the Messianic Era, has a gematria of 70. Historically there are really only 70 nations, each with its own ministering angel, PLUS the Jewish people. All other nations have descended from one of the 70 Biblical nations.

According to Kabbalah, 70 represents the concept of “Da’as Elohim,” which is Torah knowledge:

Anyone who becomes settled through wine has the da’as of his Creator . . . the da’as of the Seventy Elders . . . (Eiruvin 65a)

There are 70 facets to Torah. (Zohar, Bereishis 36)

Furthermore, it also says:

God, Who has 70 Names, gave the Torah, which has 70 names, to Yisroel, who has 70 names which originated from the 70 souls that went down to Egypt with Ya’akov, and which was chosen from among 70 nations, to celebrate 70 holy days in the year—52 days of Shabbos and 18 days of Yom Tov, including Chol HaMoed—the Torah was transmitted to 70 elders. (Midrash Yelamdaynu)

Since the month of Nisan is the Rosh Hashanah of months, the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Nisan would be the 52nd, and Shemini Atzeres would have been the 18th “Yom Tov.” It just adds another redemption element to the year 2018.

The Final Redemption is also spoken about in terms of da’as:

After [the War of Gog and Magog], The Holy One, Blessed is He, will take His revenge against them, as spoken about in Yechezkel, and the Jewish people will dwell in their land in security and with much good. DA’AS—Godly knowledge—will greatly increase, as will wisdom and purity. (Drushei Olam HaTohu, Chelek 2, Drush 4, Anaf 12, Siman 9)

The number 70 also seems to represent the end of a cycle at which time a certain Divine purging takes place:

Rebi Chanina said: Once every 60 or 70 years, The Holy One, Blessed is He, brings calamity to the world to destroy the mamzerim . . . (Yerushalmi, Yevamos 49b)

As it is known, the period in advance of Moshiach’s arrival is called “Chevlei Moshiach,” or the “Birth Pangs of Moshiach.” The rabbis compared the arrival of Moshiach to the birth of a baby, which is usually preceded by painful contractions. So too is the “birth” of Moshiach, if the Jewish people do not merit a merciful and miraculous redemption, preceded by difficult times for the Jewish people. 

The comparison is more profound than this. Kabbalah explains that the entire build-up to and arrival of Moshiach is like a birth. Redemption is a function of Divine light that must be spiritually “conceived” and then “born” before it can be actualized.

For example, the light necessary to free the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery was “conceived” the night of the first Seder. The light was not “born” until seven days later when the Jewish people miraculously crossed the sea. The crossing itself was a physical gesture that was part of the spiritual birth of the light that made total freedom possible.

The Second Temple was built in 350 BCE and stood for 420 years, before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, or 3830. If 3,830 is subtracted from the current year, 5778, 1948 remains. That was the year in which Avraham Avinu was born, which began the destiny of the Jewish nation.

This means that the amount of time from Creation until the destruction of the Second Temple, 3,830 years, is the same amount of time from the birth of Avraham Avinu until the current year, 5778. It may mean nothing, or it may mean everything.

The Midrash compares the birth of Avraham Avinu to the creation of the original light on the first day of Creation, the “Ohr HaGanuz.” It was this light that the Temple was supposed to radiate to the rest of the world, and which was lost when the Temple was destroyed. 

Even though the Second Temple did not reach the status of the First Temple, since it was missing key elements like the Aron HaKodesh, it was still the Temple. This concept still remained true, as the Talmud reports:

Herod [revealed himself and] said: “I am Herod. Had I known that the rabbis were so careful with their words, I would not have killed them. Now tell me what I can do as an amends.” 
[Bava ben Buta] answered: “As you have extinguished the light of the world [by killing so many Torah leaders] . . . go and attend to the light of the world [that is, the Temple, of which] it is written, ‘And all the nations become enlightened by it’ (Ye-shayahu 2:2).” (Bava Basra 4a)

If this is true about the Second Temple then it was certainly true about the first one, which was destroyed in 423 BCE, 429 years earlier. However, the destruction of that Temple by Nebuchadnetzar only signaled the beginning of Golus Bavel, which ended with the story of Purim. It was the destruction of the SECOND Temple that concretized Golus Edom—the Roman Exile. 

Furthermore, it occurred just 20 years prior to the end of one of the most important periods of history, the “2,000 Years of Torah.” The first 2,000 years are called by the Talmud the “2,000 Years of Tohu,” because the world was Torah-less until that time. Therefore, history during that period is compared to the null and void that preceded Creation.

At the age of 52, Avraham Avinu began educating the world about God. That happened in the year 2000, and it began what the Talmud calls the “2,000 Years of Torah.” The highpoint of that period was the actual giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people in 2448, or 1313 BCE, which also started a 1,000-year period of prophecy that ended in 3448, or 313 BCE. Another 552 years later, the period came to an end at 4000, or 240 CE.

This began the LAST of three periods of 2,000 years, called “2,000 Years of Moshiach.” As the name indicates, it is the time period during which Moshiach MUST come. The more time passes, the more this is the case. This year, 5778, is 1,778 years into this period of time which began just after the destruction of the Second Temple and the end of a 3,830-year period of time stretching back to Creation. 

Will the events of 5778 also signal the end of 3,830-year period stretching back to the birth of Avraham Avinu? Will it be the beginning of a whole new era, and will its threshold be the final War of Gog and Magog? It is hard to know and even harder to predict correctly. But, this certainly gives us reason to go into Pesach with eyes wide open. If the Seder teaches anything, it is the importance of preparation when it comes to redemption.