Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Today, on the 8th and final day of Hanukkah, I find myself in the most unlikely of places celebrating Hanukkah: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., otherwise known as The White House. I was surprised and honored to receive an invitation from President Obama to this year’s Hanukkah reception. Surprised, because an invitation to the White House from the President is not what you normally find in your inbox when you check your e-mails. Honored, because…well, that’s obvious.
What isn’t so obvious is Jews in the White House. Many of us today take for granted that Jews are power brokers in Washington. With Jews often forming a core of many recent presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat, the idea of Jews in the White House seems like no big deal. The sight of Jewish senators and members of Congress, or as senior aides and advisors to presidents, is a reality that seems like a given to most of us. Some in the Jewish community celebrate that we “have finally arrived” in this country, and others are still uncomfortable with what they call “too much Jewish power and influence.” Be it as it may, Jews – a tiny, miniscule population on earth, and a numerical minority in the U.S. - wield much political influence in this great country. Since it wasn’t that way in the U.S. less than 100 years ago, what happened? What changed?
The answer has nothing to do with any wealth or power American Jews have achieved, rather with a tiny dot on the map in the Middle East. In 1948, when the Jewish people declared independence in their own historic homeland for the first time since the Maccabees ruled Israel, things began to change for Jews – in Israel, and all over the world, including in the U.S. With our own Jewish state, our own economy, our own government, and, perhaps most importantly after the Holocaust, our own military forces for the first time since the Maccabees, the Jewish people entered a new era. No matter where we lived, we felt proud and protected. Even in the oppressive Soviet Union, the “refuseniks” and “Prisoners of Zion” drew strength and inspiration from the existence of the State of Israel. In fact, it was only due to the existence of Israel that American Jews felt strong enough to mobilize the “Free Soviet Jewry” movement that ultimately led to the release of Soviet Jews. Study the status of American Jewry during the Holocaust, and then from the 1950’s onward. What changed is not our economic success, but our confidence to assert ourselves as Jews – all thanks to Israel.
It is more than symbolic that Jews are welcomed into the White House specifically to celebrate Hanukkah, for it is only because the revival of the spirit of the Maccabees some 65 years ago that such a celebration can take place there today. As I step into the most famous home in the world, and am greeted by the most powerful man on earth, I do so with full awareness that a strong Israel is the reason why this can happen. On behalf of my daughter Shira who accompanies me today, and on behalf of all the guests today, we thank President Obama for this gracious invitation…but our ultimate thanks goes to Israel and the IDF, and to God , who has given us the privilege of living in an era where we witnessed and continue to experience the modern-day Hanukkah miracle: a renewed Jewish homeland.
Am Yisrael Chai.
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9.12.13 at 3:58 pm | 40 years later, heartfelt letters from the front. . .
8.29.13 at 6:02 pm | Years ahead of his time, Sephardic Chief Rabbi. . .
8.22.13 at 4:49 pm | How foods and prayers ward off curses and bring. . .
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September 17, 2013 | 9:43 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sukkot seems to present a paradox. In our prayers, Sukkot is referred to as Zman Simhatenu – the “Season of Our Joy.” One would think that joy includes all of the physical comforts in life. Yet one of the main commandments of Sukkot is to build and live in a modest, temporary structure called a “Sukkah.” We are commanded to celebrate this joyous festival specifically by leaving the comfort of our homes.
Rabbi Yitshak Arama (Spanish Talmudist/Philosopher, 1420-1494) offers a deep insight as to the symbolism of dwelling in a Sukkah during Zman Simhatenu:
On Sukkot, everyone leaves behind his money matters, merchandise and produce, and all of his material possessions, and goes into a tiny booth which contains nothing but the meal for one day and usually nothing more than a bed, table, chair and lamp. This serves as a remarkable reminder for us not to indulge in building imposing structures, impressing on us that the minimum is all that we need during our temporary stay in this physical structure called planet earth, which is also a temporary abode. The minimum area for a Sukkah, seven handbreadths square and ten high, indicates a life of modesty and frugality. It is as if the halakha here is teaching us: limit yourself to the minimum, and do not aspire to luxury. If you accustom yourself to frugality, you will never lack anything; whereas if you allow yourself too many luxuries, you will feel as if you never have enough.
Rabbi Arama’s teaching brings to mind the timeless principle taught by Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:
Eizehu ashir? Ha-Sameach B’helko.
Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot in life.
(Pirkei Avot 4:1)
By dwelling in a Sukkah during a weeklong festival of joy, we are reminded that happiness is not measured by the size of a home or the luxurious furnishings within it; rather, life is ultimately about the inner joy that one feels in his or her heart. Sukkot teaches us that life is about family, friends, health, intellectual exchanges, spiritual enlightenment, and any other substantive features of life that go beyond material possessions. Life measured exclusively in material wealth, large buildings, bank accounts, zip codes, automobiles and financial status is a life void of meaning. As Rabbi Aramah teaches, life with too many luxuries builds a mentality that “this is not good enough, I need the better one.” Think about how we spend thousands of dollars on electronic products – phones, tablets and laptops – and just a few short months later, when the newer model comes out, we are convinced that the one we have is no longer good, and we must “upgrade.” Sukkot challenges us to think differently.
Dwelling in a Sukkah also reminds us that life is temporary, and that we must learn to value our time here on earth. Dwelling in a Sukkah reminds us of the frailty of life. Much like a sudden, unexpected gust of wind can knock our Sukkah down, so, too, can our situation in life change so quickly. Sukkot is a time when we are reminded to appreciate our lives, and to thank God and those who surround us for the blessings we may have. In this minimal structure of temporary walls and a roof of palm fronds, we are called upon to celebrate life, be thankful for what we have, and enjoy every moment.
A Kabbalistic tradition teaches that as part of the expression of celebrating life, it is a mitzvah on Sukkot to invite guests into our Sukkah. On each night, in addition to any family or friends, we also invite and welcome the Shiva Ushpizin, the “Seven Guests,” each of which joins us on a different night of Sukkot: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.
In the spirit of what Sukkot teaches us about life, perhaps we should invite one more symbolic guest -- Abraham Lincoln -- who had a very profound teaching about life, one that is most definitely applicable to our dwelling in joy in a Sukkah:
“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”
Hag Sukkot Sameach and Moadim L’Simha.
September 12, 2013 | 3:58 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
“This is Kol Yisrael from Jerusalem, Reshet Aleph and Reshet Bet. Shalom and Gmar Hatimah Tovah. It’s 3 p.m. An official IDF [Israel Defense Forces] spokesman reports that at approximately 2 p.m. today, the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched attacks in the Sinai and in the Golan Heights. Our forces are currently fighting against the attackers. Due to Syrian jets flying over the Golan Heights, air-raid sirens have been heard throughout the country. These alerts are to be taken seriously, and residents are asked to stay off of the streets and inside shelters. A major emergency call-up of reservists is currently under way. Our correspondents in the Golan Heights report fierce battles between Syrian and Israeli tanks, and the roads are lined with military vehicles. Worshippers wrapped in tallitot were seen coming out of synagogues to bless the soldiers on their way to battle.”
Forty years ago on Yom Kippur, this radio broadcast was heard in Israel, sending shockwaves and panic throughout the country. On the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Israelis felt afraid, confused and bewildered. Yet despite these apprehensive emotions, Israelis were determined to defend themselves. Ripped away from loved ones, forced to replace tallitot with flak jackets and prayer books with Uzi submachine guns, Israelis pulled together in this moment of crisis and rose to the occasion. They were unified in their desire to defend their families, their communities and their collective homeland.
On this 40th anniversary of that fateful Yom Kippur day, I present our readers with excerpts of authentic “letters from the front,” written by soldiers in the thick of battle. Coming straight from their hearts, the words of these letters are genuine and pure. Especially when read on Yom Kippur, they arouse a sense of kedushah (holiness) within us, metaphorically evoking selections from the Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book).
The Silent Amidah
“I finally received your letters. Reading them suddenly reminded me of a world that I almost forgot existed — a home, a wife, children, small daily problems and tremendous love. The sound of the canons is subdued for now, replaced instead with silence. What a beautiful thing it is, this silence. The skies are clear and all of the stars are visible. Beholding this beautiful sight within this awesome silence, it is hard to imagine that just a few short hours from now, at the crack of dawn, these two armies will wake up to wreak explosive and hellish havoc on one another. Oh, the beauty of silence.”
Ten Pahdecha — Instill Within Us Fear of You
“Being here in battle, I have learned about things that I never took seriously. I have learned all about pachad — fear. I am afraid. This realization of fear came to me on my 20th birthday, here on the front lines. As a birthday gift, I received the gift of fear. As strange as this may sound, the realization of fear opened my heart, for during this long moment of fear, I also discovered something else within me: a will to live. Such were my feelings when surrounded by missiles flying in all directions.”
Atah Kadosh — There Is No God Besides You
“The long grueling hours that I spent in the trenches under enemy fire gave me the opportunity to think about the meaning and value of life. The more I thought about such things and the closer the missiles came to hitting us, I and all of my friends gathered around the small book of Psalms that I always keep in my pocket. In the face of real danger, we can only turn to God. Together we lay in the trenches, frightened, yet full of faith in God. Each of us took turns kissing the little book, each of us reading a sacred Psalm.”
V’Ya’asu Kulam Aguda Ahat — May We Become One Unified People
“Life is quite strange. Being here in the darkest of circumstances inspired me towards the most beautiful thought: I love all of my people. Anyone who is Israeli, anyone who is Jewish, I love them all, no matter what differences we may have. Dear God, how small-minded we sometimes act towards one another when life is normal, but how giving and warm we are in our dire moments of crisis. This seems to be the character of our people: confrontation and divisiveness in our day-to-day lives, but rock solid unity and strength in the face of threats and danger against us.”
Our rabbis taught: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” Forty years later, on this Yom Kippur, these words enter our hearts. They remind us of the valor, faith, humanity and character of those who defended Israel during her greatest hour of need. Their heartfelt words, like those in the machzor, inspire us with hope in the face of uncertainy.
August 29, 2013 | 6:02 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
In loving and revered memory of a Gadol Ha-Dor, a great rabbinic sage, scholar, leader and teacher, the State of Israel’s first
Sephardic Chief Rabbi, a giant in Torah, a pursuer of peace and unity,
who loved every Jew with all of his heart,
Rabbi Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, z”l,
whose 60th memorial we mark this Friday (August 30), the 24th of Elul.
60 years ago, late on a Friday afternoon, the 24th of Elul, just as the Shabbat candles were lit, a great light was extinguished in Israel,
as Rabbi Uziel breathed his last breath here on earth,
just a few days before Rosh Hashanah.
Every time I walk into the courtyard building on our Sephardic Educational Center campus in the Old City of Jerusalem, I feel a sense of awe and pride, knowing that in his pre-Chief Rabbi days, Rabbi Uziel was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Tiferet Yerushalayim, the Old City’s most prominent Sephardic Rabbinical institution. This historic yeshiva was housed in our SEC courtyard building. We are privileged to be carrying on his brilliant teachings and illustrious legacy today.
The Talmud teaches:
“We do not make monuments for the righteous;
their own words and teachings serve as their ultimate memorial.”
In this spirit, in loving memory of Rabbi Uziel, I offer below a selection of his teachings on various topics, which I have translated directly from the beautiful and poetic Hebrew that characterized his literary style.
Rabbi Uziel was the quintessential classic Sephardic Haham of the modern era, and his halakhic rulings and spiritual way of life serve as the greatest model of how Classic Sephardic Judaism can be expressed in today’s world. As we enter a New Year, I pray that the merit of this great sage protect us, and may his teachings continue to guide us and inspire us, illuminating our path in Torah and wisdom.
Rav Uziel, in his own words…
On the State of Israel as a fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
The first stage to redemption is removing the Jewish people’s subservience to the nations of the world. This messianic stage is taking place before our eyes, as we well know that our past subservience to the nations has caused us great harm, but now, with the return of the Jewish people to their land and the building of our own state, we are no longer subservient to the nations. Despite all of the dangers we are encountering in realizing this messianic stage, we nevertheless see an awakening of God’s will for the Jewish people to settle in their own homeland. This Divine awakening is what inspired us towards the Declaration of Independence of our own Jewish state. We live in an era where we are witness to the fulfillment and realization of the vision of our prophets.
On Halakha (From the introduction to his Mishpetei Uziel responsa)
In every generation, conditions of life, changes in values, and technical and scientific discoveries create new questions and problems that require practical solutions. We are not permitted to avert our eyes from these issues and say Torah prohibits anything new, i.e., anything not expressly mentioned by earlier sages is automatically forbidden. We may not simply declare such matters permissible, nor can we let them remain vague and unclear, with each person acting with regard to them as he wishes. Rather, it is our duty to search all halakhic sources, and, based on what they explicate, to derive responses that address current-day issues. In all my halakhic responsa, I never inclined towards leniency or strictness according to my own personal opinions; rather, my intentions were always to search and discover the truth. Gathering all of my intellectual strength, I walked in the light of earlier halakhic masters, whose waters we drink and whose light enlightens us; with this holy light, which issues from the concealed Light of God, I illuminated my eyes...
On Torah and the Modern World
Our holiness will not be complete if we separate ourselves from human life, from human phenomena, pleasures and charms, but only if we are nourished by all the new developments in the world, by all the wondrous discoveries, by all the philosophical and scientific ideas which flourish and multiply in our world. We are enriched and nourished by sharing in the knowledge of the world. At the same time, though, this knowledge does not change our essence, which is composed of holiness and appreciation of God’s exaltedness.
His goals and aspirations as a rabbi
To spread Torah among students, to love the Torah and its mitzvot, to love the Land of Israel and its holiness, to love absolutely every Jewish man and woman and the people of Israel in its entirety; to love God, the Lord of Israel; to bring peace among all Jews physically and spiritually, in their words and actions, in their thoughts and in the ruminations of their hearts, in all their steps and deeds, at home and in the street, in the village and in the city; to bring true peace in the house of Israel, to the entire congregation of Israel in all its subdivisions and groupings; and between Israel and their Father in heaven.
His peaceful overture to Muslim leaders
To the Heads of the Islamic Religion in the Land of Israel and throughout the Arab lands near and far, Shalom U’Vracha. Brothers, at this hour, as the Jewish people have returned to its land and state, per the word of God and the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, and in accordance with the decision of the United Nations, we approach you in peace and brotherhood, in the name of God’s Torah and the Holy Scriptures, and we say to you: Please remember the peaceful and friendly relations that existed between us when we lived together in Arab lands and under Islamic Rulers during the Golden Age, when together we developed brilliant intellectual insights of wisdom and science for all of humanity’s benefit. Please remember the sacred words of the prophet Malachi, who said: “Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?”
On Rabbis Working Together for the Common Good of Am Yisrael
We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel”(rabbis and spiritual leaders) unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them. Such unity, of spiritual leaders working together, unifying our people as one, will serve as our greatest source of comfort and strength.
On Jewish Unity (from his Ethical Will)
Preserve with absolute care the peace of our nation and of our state -- “And you shall love truth and peace” (Zechariah 8:19) -- because disputes and divisiveness are our most dangerous enemies…they are like moths on Beit Ya’akov, causing our bones to rot. By contrast, peace and unity are the eternal foundations for the national sustenance of Beit Yisrael. Therefore remove all causes of divisiveness and disputes from our camp and our state, and place in their stead all factors that will lead to peace and unity amongst us.
His Inspirational Message for Rosh Hashanah
Awaken, all sleepers, from your deep sleep. Let us come together as one family and gather around the grand ideas and ideals of our Jewish tradition. Let us, with our bodies and souls, be the Shofar that awakens us, and awakens the whole world. Our unified voice – as one Shofar – will help bring about the ultimate sound of the Shofar that we all await: the Shofar of the Messiah. This Shofar will enlighten the world with the knowledge of God, filling the world with truth, righteousness, justice and peace.
August 22, 2013 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
My first memorable experience with Parashat Ki Tavo came when I was a child. My father and I were invited to a Bar Mitzvah in an Ashkenazi synagogue, and the parasha was Ki Tavo. The Bar Mitzvah family was kind enough to honor my father with an aliyah to the Torah, so it was a real shocker to them when my father refused to go up to the Torah. What was the problem? How could my father refuse such an honor?
The aliyah was the sixth aliyah in Parashat Ki Tavo, which contains a description of the most devastating curses in the Torah. In Morocco (where my father grew up), nobody ever wanted that aliyah. It was actually the custom for the community to pay someone to take that aliyah! Just imagine – we usually make donations after receiving an aliyah, but for this one aliyah in the year, you had to pay someone to take it.
What’s so spooky about this aliyah?
"If you will not listen to the voice of God ... all of these curses shall come upon you and overtake you" (Deuteronomy 28:15).
The aliyah proceeds with 54 verses filled with detailed descriptions of some of the most dark and devastating curses. Understandably, this aliyah has instilled fear and superstition in generations of synagogue goers. In fact, the list is so gloomy, that it is customary for the person reading the Torah to soften his voice and read this section almost silently. Jewish law is even sensitive to this frightening section of the Torah, in that the schedule of Torah readings on the Jewish calendar is permanently fixed to assure that we always read Parashat Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah, so that we do not begin the New Year and then go to the synagogue on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to hear all of these curses.
Enough with curses. What about blessings? With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, we should all have blessings on our mind. In the Sephardic tradition, we not only think about blessings – we cook them! Sephardim turn blessings into a tasty array of foods on the first night of Rosh Hashanah -- a “feast of blessings.”
When we come home from Arvit (evening) services, Sephardim sit around the table and conduct a Rosh Hashanah Seder, eating a wide array of symbolic foods whose theme is rooting out curses and praying for blessings.
We eat pumpkin or gourd, which in Aramaic is called kra (in Hebrew the word for "tear up" is also kra), and in a play on words, we pray that God will "tear up [kra] any evil decrees against us, and let our merits instead be read before God."
We then eat pieces of a fish or lamb's head, and we say, "May we always be the head, and not the tail" (see Deuteronomy 28:13 -- "And God will make you the head, and not the tail").
We then eat dates, leeks and beets. All three foods are eaten accompanied by prayers for the termination of our enemies. The Hebrew word for date is tamar, and before eating the date we say "She-yitamu oyvenu" (May our enemies be consumed; yitamu -- consumed -- sounding like tamar). The Aramaic term for leeks is karti, and before eating the leeks we say "She-yikartu oyvenu" (May our enemies be cut off; yikartu -- cut off -- sounding like karti). The Aramaic word for beets is silka, and before eating the beets we say "She-yisalku oyvenu" (May our enemies disappear; yisalku -- disappear -- sounding like silka). These beautiful (and tasty) customs reflect our innermost desire to begin a year void of some of life's most brutal curses: strife, conflict and war.
We then eat pomegranate seeds and say "May we be full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds" (according to one tradition, there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate). My family has the custom of eating sesame seeds mixed with sugar, and we say, "May our mitzvot be as abundant as sesame seeds, and as sweet as sugar."
As sweet as all of these foods are, we know that the blessings they symbolize are even sweeter.
In Sephardic synagogues, the Arvit (evening) prayers on Rosh Hashanah open with a beautiful liturgical poem – Ahot Ketanah. Each stanza of the Ahot Ketanah poem concludes by saying "May this year and all of its curses come to an end,” and the finale of the poem is “May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning." As we read Parashat Ki Tavo on Shabbat, we do so knowing that we will soon gather in synagogues and around our tables, ushering in the New Year and all of its blessings, thus leaving behind the awful curses of Parashat Ki Tavo.
Tichleh Shanah V’Kileloteha -- May this year and all of its curses come to an end.
Tahel Shanah U’Birchoteha -- May this coming year with all of its blessings come to a good beginning.
August 2, 2013 | 12:08 am
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Upon his election as Israel’s new Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion, Rav Yitzhak Yosef said:
“I will not sway to the left or right from the path of the Torah, rather I will do everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
His father, former Sephardic Chief Rabbi/Rishon L’Zion Rav Ovadiah Yosef, had these words of advice for his son:
“It is your task to have mercy on the oppressed and exploited members of society, and to stand by the side of the needy. Have pity and take care of the Agunot (anchored/chained wives in a dysfunctional marriage, whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce, thus preventing them from moving on with their lives). Make every effort within halakha to find creative solutions to permit them to be released from these situations. You must hear the cries of the oppressed, and do all that you can for the sake of social justice.”
With regards to rulings in halakha, Rav Ovadia Yosef had these words of wisdom for his son:
“A person who has little knowledge of Torah, when in doubt, will always say ‘forbidden.’ On every issue, such a person will say ‘forbidden, forbidden.’ Such is not the path of Torah. The true path of Torah is to search for halakhic ways to be lenient, so as not to make the Torah a burden upon the Jewish people. You don’t need to be a great scholar to say ‘forbidden,’ and there is no wisdom in searching for halakhic stringencies.”
Both father and son Yosef spoke in the spirit of Hillel, whose sensitivity and care for (in Rav Ovadiah’s words) the “oppressed and exploited members of society” made his halakhic rulings the ideal path for rabbis – and the Jewish people as a whole – to follow.
One of the primary examples of Hillel’s bold, socially conscious halakhic rulings has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh. In this parasha, we are commanded to observe the special mitzvah of the Sabbatical Year (Shmitta), and the economic legislation mandating that all loans be forgiven during the Seventh/Sabbatical Year.
The mitzvah of loan cancellation in the seventh year is a piece of legislation intended by the Torah to ease the burden upon those who are unable to meet their financial obligations. This well-intentioned mitzvah met with abuse and misuse. A cheating trend developed where some people took out loans, knowing they will not pay them back, as they will hold off paying until the seventh year comes around, which then – by Torah law – cancels the debt. This awful abuse of the Torah’s goodwill towards society created a financial crisis during the late Second Temple period, as creditors were now afraid to lend money. Like in any good society, who usually suffers when people abuse the law? Those for whom the law was created. Creditors were afraid to lend out money, and those who most needed a loan were unable to secure one. But it’s the Torah’s law that the seventh year cancels the debt. What to do?
The Talmud records that Hillel the Elder saw that the situation in Israel was creating hardship on many members of society, and that the well intentioned Shemitta law from the Torah designed to help the poor was now working against the poor. Enter Hillel’s bold and creative halakhic innovation -- the prosbul.
The Talmud teaches:
Hillel instituted the prosbul in order to mend society (mi’pnei tikkun olam). When Hillel saw that people were refraining to loan money to one another, he instituted an amendment to the Torah’s law (a takanah) stating that every creditor and debtor must appear before a Beit Din (Rabbinic court of law) to sign the prosbul. What does the prosbul say? That the undersigned understand that the seventh year does not cancel debts, and that the loan must be paid back in full. (By Hillel’s decree, it now became a halakha that the seventh year no longer cancels debts, and, as a result, this removed the fear from a creditor of lending money, since the now amended halakha stated that he must be paid back. As a result, those in need could now secure a loan).
Hillel’s prosbul stands out as the classic example of a rabbinic leader making a bold halakhic decision with the intention to improve the quality of life within society. Hillel understood that Jewish law is not frozen in time, rather is a dynamic system that allows for amendments and changes, especially when it comes to improving life for those who are most committed to following halakha. Hillel also felt that if people are suffering as a result of abusive loopholes within halakha, then halakha was no longer bringing honor and glory to God, and God could not possibly be looking down happily at Jews who were suffering as a result of halakha. I am sure if Hillel were alive today, the situation of Agunot, for example, would be quite different. It is the handling of these difficult issues in halakha that will determine if Rav Yitzhak Yosef is – in his own words – “doing everything in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
But to be a true student of Hillel takes more than bold and creative halakhic rulings. There is also an overall approach to one’s fellow man – derech eretz (polite, soft spoken, courteous and dignified behavior) -- that characterizes a leader behaving “in the spirit of Beit Hillel.”
When contemplating why Hillel’s rulings were ultimately chosen as the preferred halakhic path for the Jewish people, the Talmud teaches:
Since both Hillel and Shammai’s rulings are ‘words of the living God,’ what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halakha fixed in agreement with their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the teachings of Beth Shammai before their own.
Hillel also sought to unify the Jewish people with darkhei shalom (peaceful ways), which is why Hillel taught:
Be students of Aaron, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.
Hillel loved the ways of Aaron, because they were his own ways.
In this spirit, Rav Yizhak Yosef has much to learn from one of his illustrious predecessors in the position of Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Rav Ben Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the State of Israel’s very first Rishon L’Zion. Considered by many to be a modern day incarnation of Hillel, Rav Uziel’s brilliant halakhic rulings were certainly in “the spirit of Beit Hillel,” especially as it concerned Agunot, orphans, widows and converts. But Rav Uziel also embodied Hillel’s call to be students of Aaron, an example of which is seen in his call to unity for the Jewish people, and for rabbis to serve as the engines in creating unity:
We must remove this divisiveness that plagues us, and instead make our work as a community a reflection of peace and love. But who will stand and lead this change amongst us? This specific task belongs to the “Faithful in Israel,” our rabbinic and spiritual leaders. This belongs to them, because the Torah is not an alienating force; rather it is a force that brings people closer together. The true announcement of the redemption and the coming of the Messiah will only happen when the hearts of parents are drawn closer to their children, and the hearts of children are drawn closer to their parents. It is about time that the “Faithful in Israel”(rabbis and spiritual leaders) unite forces in their sacred work, and unite the entire Nation of Israel around them.
Rav Yizhak Yosef is a Talmid Haham (rabbinic/halakhic scholar), and I have no doubt that he is up to the task of being a refelction of Hillel in his halakhic rulings. As a student of his father’s own halakhic rulings, he certainly has a rich legacy of halakhic leniency to build upon.
His greatest challenge, however (and arguably his most important task) will be to create an atmosphere of tolerance, respect and unity amongst rabbis, and for the Jewish people.
Honorable Rav Yosef: please – for the sake of Am Yisrael -- be a student of Rav Uziel, a lover of peace and pursuer of peace, a lover of human beings who brought them closer to Torah.
July 11, 2013 | 4:11 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Why do we continue to fast and mourn on Tisha B’Av?
There are days when the entire Jewish people fast because of the calamities that occurred to them then, in order to arouse their hearts and initiate them in the paths of repentance (teshuva). This will serve as a reminder of our own wicked conduct and that of our ancestors, which resembles our present conduct, and therefore brought these calamities upon them and upon us. By reminding ourselves of these matters, we will repent and improve our conduct, as [Leviticus 26:40] states: "And they will confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ta’aniyot [Fast Days], 5:1)
Much like the individual engages in teshuva (repenting for sins and misdeeds) throughout Elul through to Yom Kippur, so, too, the Jewish people as a whole must engage in a “collective teshuva” on Tisha B’Av.
Maimonides teaches us that on Tisha B’Av, we are not only mourning the actual loss of the Temples, but are primarily mourning and reflecting upon our own poor behavior as a people – abandonment of Torah and mitzvot, coupled with moral decadence – that led to both Temples being destroyed.
But Maimonides takes it one step further. He teaches us that the true power of Tisha B’Av is when we conduct a national “moral check-up” of the current state of internal affairs in the Jewish world. This means that in addition to fasting, reading the Book of Lamentations and sitting on the floor with ashes on our heads reading Kinot (dirges about loss and destruction), we must also conduct symposiums on what’s happening in our own Jewish communities. But does this happen? Are Jewish communities willing to “look and search deep within” to see what’s wrong, what requires “tikkun” (repair), and how we are going to repair what’s wrong?
One Jewish community is willing to do this. It’s name: Israel.
For many years, Tisha B’Av was off the radar of most Israelis (other than religious or traditional Israelis). They viewed it as an antiquated, outdated fast day, with no contemporary relevance. Many even said “Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron are our Israeli Tisha B’Av,” and – especially after Jerusalem was re-united in 1967 – the continued mourning over Jerusalem seemed silly to most Israelis.
Many who held these views were unaware of Maimonides’s teachings, and were also unaware of what a great 19th century rabbi -- the Netziv – wrote about the destruction of the Second Temple:
The Jewish community of the Second Temple period was a crooked and perverse generation. True, they were Tsadikim (righteous) and Hasidim (pious), and amongst them lived many great Torah scholars. However, they were not Yesharim (upright and just) in their daily conduct towards one another. Therefore, as a result of the deeply rooted Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) towards each other, each person looked upon his own religious behavior as being the only legitimate form of religiosity, and whoever did not believe or behave according to that form of religiosity was labeled a heretic. This perverse form of thinking led to zealotry, murder and the deepest divisiveness within the Jewish community. The results of this trend led to corruption, which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is for all of these reasons that one may even justify God’s decree of destruction, because God is Yashar (upright and just), and God does not tolerate such self-righteous individuals whose behavior, supposedly “For the sake of heaven,” is actually crooked and corrupt. The result of corrupt behavior for so-called “religious reasons” is ultimately the destruction of human society and civilization here on earth (Netziv’s Introduction to the Book of Genesis).
On November 4, 1995, when an Israeli Jew pulled the trigger on his own prime minister, Israelis were shocked into understanding what the Netziv meant. Suddenly, the concept of Sinat Hinam (baseless hatred) was alive and present in Israeli society, and had reached its low point.
On the first Tisha B’Av after Rabin’s assassination, an ad hoc group of young Israelis – religious and secular – decided to get together and have a symposium on what was going wrong in Israeli society. They felt that in light of Rabin’s assassination and the deep polarization it created within Israeli society, it was time to bring Tisha B’Av and its lessons of Sinat Hinam back into the consciousness and discourse of Israeli society.
Every subsequent Tisha B’Av, the original small group grew in size, until one Tisha B’Av, 14 years ago, one of them had the brilliant idea of turning this ad hoc symposium into a nationwide Tisha B’Av program. This idea succeeded largely due to a brilliant marketing campaign. On Tisha B’Av, it is prohibited to study Torah (the exception being studying the Book of Lamentations, or any section of the Talmud dealing with the destruction of Jerusalem). This prohibition stems from the fact that we are not allowed to engage in anything enjoyable on Tisha B’Av, and Torah study is a great intellectual, spiritual and emotional delight. Therefore, the organizers who sought to spread their Tisha B’Av program throughout Israel named this new initiative Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah – Tonight We Do Not Study Torah. They picked relevant themes relating to burning issues within Israeli society, and chose various panelists who would attract crowds. This brilliant marketing campaign caught the eyes of thousands of Israelis, who began to attend the Tisha B’Av symposiums, primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
14 years later – this coming Monday night – there will be 26 Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah symposiums throughout Israel! The panels will feature prominent members of Knesset, religious leaders, educators, religious and secular Israelis, men, women, young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – all contemplating this year’s theme: Hashvil Ha-Zahav – The Golden Path. This refers to (appropriately) Maimonides’ teaching that in all matters in life, one should thrive to achieve the cherished “Golden Middle Path,” not veering to the extreme right or left. In light of the deep political and religious divisions in present-day Israel, this is a timely and needed discussion.
In this week's Haftarah, the prophet Isaiah refers to the Jewish people in the lowest of terms: “Rulers of Sodom…People of Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:10). Why would Isaiah use this awful metaphor? Sodom and Gomorrah represents the ultimate decadent society, totally void of morals and ethics. Pirkei Avot teaches “He who says ‘What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours’…this is the behavior of Sodom.” A selfish society where religious and political leaders are so corrupt that they don’t care about their own people, where neighbors don’t care about each other, and where the wealthy don’t care for the poor – such a society is doomed to destruction, like Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, this happened to the Jewish State twice. The organizers of Ha-Layla Lo Lomdim Torah seek to assure that the third Jewish state remains standing, vibrant and successful forever.
I have been privileged to attend these symposiums the past few years, and I plan on doing so again this coming Monday night. Such gatherings give me hope that – despite all of the ills that exist within Israeli society – we are beginning to see here the shades of Isaiah’s closing words from this week’s Haftarah: Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those that return to her, with righteousness.
Israeli society is coming of age, and Maimonides would be very proud of what happens here on Tisha B’Av.
July 4, 2013 | 1:02 pm
Posted by Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
It’s the one “Fourth of July” I will never forget. July 4, 1976. It was 37 years ago, and the United States was celebrating it’s bicentennial. Like all good Los Angelenos, we were in Palm Springs for the long weekend. But while the bicentennial festivities dominated the scene, events in Uganda that day would ultimately capture our attention…and our hearts. While America celebrated 200 years of freedom and independence, a tiny nation in the Middle East reminded the entire world – including Americans – what freedom and independence are all about.
I will never forget seeing my father run from our hotel room to the pool (where most of us were), announcing to us in excitement “Israel liberated the hostages!! They sent commandos to liberate the hostages!!” I will also never forget how someone we had just met that weekend – a non-Jew – jumped into the pool, opened a beer and shouted with joy “Let’s drink to Israel!” I will never forget the feeling of celebration that erupted around the pool, and how everyone – Jew and non-Jew alike – celebrated Israel’s remarkable achievement. We had only American flags to wave, but it felt like we were at a pro-Israel rally. The Jews in the crowd felt that this was one of the greatest moments of Jewish pride ever, and especially as American Jews, we were proud that Israeli/Jewish soldiers carried out this heroic act of freedom and independence on – of all days – the 4th of July.
37 years later, I find myself in Israel on this 4th of July, reflecting on that historic moment. There are many thoughts that come to mind, but one particular verse from this week’s Torah Portion pops out at me: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6). It is mind-boggling, disturbing, and completely against the ethic and spirit of being a Jew, that while we bless the memory of the Entebbe operation’s commander Jonathan Netanyahu (the lone commando to have lost his life during the mission), and while we celebrate the courage of the commandos – religious and secular together -- who risked their lives to redeem Jewish captives and save Jewish lives, a debate still rages on in Israel about whether certain segments of Israeli society should be exempt from serving in the IDF because they are “more religious” than others.
Who can stand at Jonathan Netanyahu’s grave, or stare in the eyes of the IDF commandos who carried out this mitzvah of bringing their brothers and sisters home in safety, and say that there are Israeli men who – in the name of God and the Torah – should not serve in the IDF, for they are “more religious than you.” Who and what is a “religious Jew”? How absurd it is that we even engage in this debate! How ridiculous that we even give credence to such a perversion of what it means to be a “Torah-abiding” Jew. How far we have strayed from the spirit of King David, the true role model who combined military prowess as an Israelite warrior and religious devotion to God as the author of the Book of Psalms. How far we have strayed from Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh La-Zeh – “All Jews are responsible one for the other.” I am tired of hearing the argument that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boys are displaying their “responsibility towards the Jewish people” by sitting and studying Torah all day. Enough with this silly argument, unprecedented and unheard of in Jewish history. Their Torah study has not only added nothing to the Jewish people or Israeli society, but, tragically, has given Torah a bad name, and has created a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name. The very Torah that they profess to follow so closely screams out at us – and at them – this week: “Why should your brothers go out and fight while you stay here?”
In 1948, when men, women and children alike were fighting Israel’s War of Independence, a group of yeshiva students approached the elderly Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Uziel. They asked for a halakhic exemption from fighting in the war, claiming that Torah study was their contribution to the defense of Israel. He castigated them, telling them he wished he had the strength to “pick up a rifle and participate in the mitzvah of defending Jerusalem.” To prove his point, he joined the Civil Guard in Jerusalem, and when he stood guard at checkpoints, he proudly wore the Civil Guard’s armband on his rabbinical robe.
On this 4th of July, 2013 – 37 years after Jonathan Netanyahu z”l and his troops taught the world what freedom and independence are all about – I pray that Israeli society will soon see a day when all of its citizens – religious and secular alike – will partake in the mitzvah (not the “burden,” as some call it) of defending our one and only Jewish state. When I proudly graduated IDF basic training at a ceremony at the Kotel in 1984, emblazoned in fire above us were words that read: “Only those who know how to defend their freedom are worthy of it.”
Thank you to Jonathan Netanyahu, and to all of the heroes of the Entebbe mission. 37 years ago, on the Fourth of July, you taught us what it means to be worthy of our freedom.