April 22, 2009
Old But New
Parshat Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33)
A number of years ago, when my two daughters were 8 and 6, we had the pleasure of spending a family summer vacation in Israel. We stayed at my mother-in-law’s home right near Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. One day while eating breakfast we heard a truck pass outside with a loudspeaker making announcements. At first the words from the loudspeaker didn’t make any sense to us. Our daughters leaned over to the window and listened as best as they could. They came back and informed us, “It sounds like some Arabic message.” My wife and mother-in-law dismissed this as impossible and quizzed them on exactly what they heard. The girls said, “It sounded like ‘Alt zuch, alt zuch.”
After a moment my wife began to chuckle. She figured out what was happening and explained that it was a truck from a free-loan society, or what we would call a Jewish Salvation Army, going from community to community asking if anyone has any old items that they no longer needed. My wife said, “It isn’t Arabic; rather it is Yiddish and they are saying, ‘Alta zachin, alta zachin’ — ‘Any old items, any old items.’”
My daughters began to think what they could contribute. Realizing that they weren’t in their own home they looked at me and out of the mouths of babes came, “Abba, aren’t you an ‘alta zachin’?”
At that very moment I had an epiphany and realized that what we should appreciate the most, often becomes ‘alta zachin’ — old hat, prone to be relegated to that which can be discarded and forgotten. If this is true of people, it certainly is true of ideas that we should hold precious. As we prepare to celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut of the State of Israel, this idea is a reality that we need to note.
The Talmud in Tractate Brakhot 43a addresses this concept in an intriguing way. The Talmud instructs that just as we have blessings for food we also have blessings for wonderful aromas. Among the aromas mentioned is the beautiful-smelling balsam oil. The Talmud states that balsam oil grew mainly in the Jericho area and was unique to Israel.
The Talmud records the following amazing discussion about which blessing should be recited when one smells balsam oil:
“Rav Chisda said to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Regarding balsam oil, what blessing do we recite on smelling it?’ Rav Yitzhak said to him, ‘Rav Yehudah said that we recite, “Who creates the oil of our land.”’ Rav Chisda said in response to Rav Yitzhak, ‘Exclude the opinion of Rav Yehudah from this discussion, for the Land of Israel is especially dear to him. What is the proper blessing for everyone else?’ He said to him, ‘So said Rabbi Yochanan, the blessing is: “The One who creates pleasant oil.”’”
This discussion bothered me. Rav Yehudah, we are told, composed a beautiful blessing for balsam oil, which reflected the fact that balsam oil is a unique product of Israel. Yet Rav Chisda rejected that idea and said clearly that this opinion is too biased since its author, Rav Yehudah, is especially in love with Israel. Rather, he argued, for everyone else the blessing for balsam oil must be generic, not mentioning the Land of Israel at all.
This entire discussion disturbed me because it suggests that Rav Yehudah was too in love with Israel and that such feeling isn’t worthy of being emulated. But is that honestly the message of the Talmud?
I finally understood this Talmudic passage after I read “With My Own Eyes,” the autobiography of Jacob Katz, the late Hebrew University professor of Jewish history. In this riveting work, Katz describes how he arrived in Israel from Germany in March 1936 after earning his rabbinic ordination and doctorate. He recounts that his first holiday in Israel was Passover. He was amazed how in Jerusalem he literally saw people in the streets gather spontaneously and begin dancing, with passersby joining in. He notes that the old timers didn’t really notice this, but here he was, a new immigrant and he wrote, “To me, coming from the Jewish exile, bred to a Judaism carefully contained within the four walls of home and synagogue or, at most, the privacy of a Jewish street, this explosion of Jewish life into every nook and cranny of the city was an exhilarating experience.”
After reading this I finally understood the Talmud’s reasoning for rejecting Rav Yehudah’s wording of the blessing. The rabbis were worried that his formula would allow the populace to take Israel for granted. It would become words recited, rather than a dream yet to be fulfilled. Rav Yehudah, whose love of Israel was so profound, could utter the words, never taking Israel for granted. The rest of us, however, might transform the words into the daily routine, not noticing the excitement of the Land of Israel, and thus we would be taking Israel for granted.
As we celebrate the 61st Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, this idea must resonate with us for we can never take the State of Israel for granted. We who have witnessed the great miracle of the State of Israel must never forget how blessed we really are.
Elazar Muskin is senior rabbi of Young Israel of Century City, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area