The Desert Speaks

I haven’t had many “only in Israel” moments to share on this blog recently.  But now I have a great one. After stepping out of my comfort zone and into the desert, I participated in an all-night hike in the desert, by the southern tip of the Dead Sea, in a program run by Shaul David Judelman of the Eco-Activist Beit Midrash.

Desert Moon at Sunrise

Shaul, along with fellow Bat Ayin resident Yisrael Hevroni, brought us back to nature Jewishly with poems and topics for discussion along the way. The entire trail winded through wadis that carved their way through desert sandstone, creating “flour caves”. I never walked upon anything quite like it. What looked in the dark like boulders and hard protrusions along the cliff was rock that would crumble apart when pressure was applied. The ground beneath my feet often felt like it consisted of hard-packed coconut.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Israelites receive the Torah through the revelation at Mount Sinai.  A large focus of our guided discussion centered on the desert, and why it was fitting that the Israelites received the Torah in the desert of all places. Some thoughts:

  • While slaves in Egypt, we were steeped in a full-fledged culture, but a corrupt, carnal one of idol worship which was not ours. We needed to go to the barreness of the desert and wander there for 40 years before we could receive the Torah and build our own culture upon it.
  • The sands of the desert form piles, tels, that seems to have a strict form that gives it order, distinguishes one area from the next, but the seemingly permanent features are clearly shaped by the laws of nature that God put into place. Water and wind change its shape and form, just as God’s laws for us change and shape us.
  • The desert is a place of humility, a place where one feels fragile, needy. Even the life forms are clingy, preserving precious drips of water and places to take root.
  • The Talmud says that we are to become like the desert, in order to merit receiving the Torah. Some thoughts about why that might be:
    • The nature of the universe is more clearly revealed – just as there must be evil in order for us to recognize good, there must be barrennness in order for us to recognize the plenty which God has supplied us with

      A cliff inside the wadi that crumbles with each touch

    • After so many years of being slaves, and not thinking about how our sustenance was provided for by our masters, we had to be brought to the desert where it was clear that our physical sustenance was only provided for by the grace of God. Only then were we ready to have the spiritual sustenance of the Torah.
    • The Torah is compared to water. In the desert one truly thirsts for and savors water.

Other highlights included being accompanied by several former participants of Livnot U’Lehibanot programs, including Pesach Stadlin, and running into a platoon of paratroopers who were mountain biking through the wadi for fun at 5 a.m.

It was beautiful to pray the morning Shacharit service outside in the desert. I think it’s a shame that so much Jewish life and learning takes place indoors. The Torah even says that mankind is like a tree: כי האדם עץ השדה (Deuteronomy / Devarim 20:19), and it seems right and proper to be out in nature on a very regular basis, and not just during explicit times like Kedushat HaLevanah (blessing of the new moon) and Sukkot. In Israel at least, the temperature range is such that the outdoors can be enjoyed almost all year round.

The silence of the desert at midnight and early morning was spiritually soothing. And now, I’m ready for some Shabbat menucha. May we merit to receive and absorb the Torah whatever our external or internal climate. Shabbat Shalom!

Happy New Year for Trees!

In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve tried to make the secular new year a starting point for developing some healthier habits.  I’m proud to report that a little over 3 weeks in, I’m still going strong!  My husband and I went over our budget, I set aside time and money to dedicate to physical exercise, and I’ve found some great Torah to connect to, some of which I want to share with you today.

Today is the first of the month of Shvat, שבט, and this concept of Rosh Chodesh, or the “head” of the month, a new month, is also in this week’s Torah portion, Bo.  The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, even before they became Jews!, was to declare new months and to create a unique Jewish time frame.

in the jewish calendar, months are based on the moon's cyclesThe Hebrew word חודש, chodesh, comes from חדש, chadash, which means new.  The Jewish calendar is linked to the cycle of the moon, which waxes and wanes over the course of the month. Like I said in my last post, Judaism strongly encourages teshuva, reconnecting, renewal, and opportunities for new growth.

Last night I attended a shiur about the Torah portion and Rosh Chodesh Shvat, which focused heavily on the commentaries by Rav Tzadok HaCohen, the author of the Pri Tzadik. He says the type of renewal of the moon, a renewal after a disappearance, is actually a new thing – not the same as it is before.  In other words, just because we enter a new month, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same as last month. We choose whether to carry the same choices and habits with us into this new era.  To clarify the point, he quotes the Gemara in Gittin 43a “A person does not truly understand the words of Torah until he has tripped over them.”  Struggling, learning, and relearning are all part of the game.  If you misunderstand then get it; if you learn something and then forget it – but then you learn it again – ah! Then it really becomes yours.

King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything loses its value as it becomes old, because a person has become used to it.  The moon, however, is constantly changing and renewing, and that is how we as Jews are to live.

While this wasn’t brought into last night’s shiur, this concept reminds me very strongly of the laws of Niddah, which regulate when a husband and wife can be physically intimate, and ways which they should act when they are separate. One of the thoughts behind it is that a relationship which is allowed to constantly renew itself can grow stronger.  It’s more exciting to be together after a time apart than to experience what inevitably becomes the same old, same old.  Of course this can’t solve all of the complex problems that couples face, but it’s known that today, just as in yesteryear, that if people perceive a relationship to be stale, they may be tempted to chase after something, or someone, more exciting.

Now that we’ve established how wonderful the new month is, let’s get specific about this month.  The first mishna in Mishna Rosh Hashanah explains that there are multiple new years in the Jewish calendar.  And there is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over when the new year for fruit trees is.

According to Beit Shammai, the first of Shvat is when the new year for fruit trees is. He relies on when the moon is the most hidden, it is the most dark. And there is a line of thinking that we are most ready for renewal when there is the most obscurity, perhaps we feel further from God, we lack clarity and seek it.

Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of Shvat, Tu B’Shevat, when the moon is full.  One could also suggest that when things are most clear, when we feel most connected to our personal and national mission, when we feel closest to God, that we are ready to take on the next challenge.

That is an interpretation given over by Rabbi David Sedley about the possible reasonings behind the two opinions. As usual, the sages side with Beit Hillel, so in this case, Tu B’Shevat is held as the new year for trees.

But today is still Rosh Chodesh, a day of renewal, Hallel, and celebration. Tu B’Shevat is the time of year that we expect to see almond blossoms bud, the sap to begin to emerge in trees, and also for the majority of the year’s rainfall to have landed.  Thank God, it’s been a rainy last two weeks, and I’m glad that we have two more before most of it is locked in.

We know of course, that the moon does not actually go through cycles and that this is merely our perception of the shadows and reflection of the sun’s light on the moon, as viewed on earth.  Jewish thinkers too, have known that the waxing and waning of the moon can be easily calculated.  The fact that this phenomenon is a result of our perception only strengthens the concept, however.  Opportunities for renewal, or the lack thereof are a matter of perception.  Things can be the same as they’ve always been, or they can be different. We can be cynical about things remaining the same, or we can make resolutions to change. It’s up to us.

As we say in the special additional Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh, may we be blessed with good things, happiness and joy, salvation, the ability to support ourselves, rich lives, and peace.

Developing Jewish Habits

I recognize that the new Gregorian Calendar year 2012 has zero significance in Judaism, but as a part of the wider Western culture in which I live, I couldn’t help but notice that January 1 is a time that many people try to make changes in their lives to develop healthier habits and achieve their goals.  While January 1 isn’t celebrated with a lot of big bashes in Israel – in fact for many people it goes unnoticed – after all, January 2 is another work day (even though it was a Sunday this year).  I even forgot what was going on when I heard fireworks coming from the Arab neighborhood next door at midnight.

But I’m reading blogs about having a healthier, happier new year, and I want to be a part of that.  I feel myself sliding out of good habits and into some bad habits.  And I realized that a lot about observant Judaism is following the right habits.  Certainly if one keeps Shabbat merely out of habit or ritual then a lot is lost, but the regularity of the week, focused on Shabbat, the regularity of prayer and of daily ritual, are designed to maintain a mode of being and living that follows the Torah.

Shabbat is many wonderful things, and it’s also inconvenient at times.  But for Jews who have been observing Shabbat laws for years or their entire lives, it’s also a habit.  A person learns not to take long trips on Friday afternoon or to schedule the DVR to record the basketball game on Saturday.

Sometimes I’m enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon or the opposite, a crazed, rushed, get-everything-in-before-Shabbat afternoon, and I joke to my husband that I’d like to reschedule with God because Shabbat is just inconvenient right now and I’d rather do Monday.  Of course it doesn’t work like that.

But before I became observant there weren’t too many absolutes in my life.  I could reschedule pretty much anything if needed be.  When I first started observing Shabbat, I would sometimes get invited to something on a Saturday and I’d say, “I can’t because of Shabbat”.  Uninitiated friends would say “Oh, it’s this week too?”  I’d joke that I had a standing appointment with God.

For a fun video representation of the type of situation, see the video below.

Check any strategy about fulfilling a new year’s resolution, and I think you’ll see two things in common — commitment and consistency.  You can’t lose weight and keep it off with one week or proper diet and exercise.  Spiritual growth requires the same, and so no, Shabbat is not optional.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of praying on a daily basis.  And it is harder to get started again than it was to wake up on a morning that I’m feeling unmotivated and uninspired and to begin a conversation with God.  What would be even harder is if I had never done it in the first place.  Because I already know how to pray, at least in terms of traditional prayer, it’s easier to get started again than if I hadn’t ever.

As with building any sustainable habit, it’s also important to start small. It’s unrealistic to think that I’ll now spend an hour a day in prayer.  I’m disappointed in myself for committing to only 5 minutes a day.  But I know that it’s most definitely better than nothing.

Our sages understood that there would be times when a person would be unable or unwilling to pray, and they instituted laws for such times – condensed prayers or even exemptions.  Today it’s accepted that one should pray daily pretty much no matter what, because of the understanding that if there are too many interruptions to this important habit, that it will be more difficult to pray when our minds are again at ease.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is the established time for Jews to reflect on the past year, repent for misdeeds, and make resolutions to correct their behavior in the upcoming year.  What is less widely understood and advertised is that once a year isn’t really enough. Teshuva, repentance and self-reflection is for all year long, and while it’s easy to mock people who make new years resolutions, knowing full well that the odds of success are statistically against them, I admire those who make an honest effort.  Striving to do better, physically, emotionally, or in any other way, is a Jewish value and what it means to be fully alive as a human being with the capacity for conscious change.

Rosh Hashnah comes 10 days before Yom Kippur, the “Day of Judgment”, when God inscribes our fate for good, in “The Book of Life” or, well, something else.  However, according to Kabbalah, our fate is not “sealed” until Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that we even have until Hanukkah.  Additionally, Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each month, is considered a mini Yom Kippur, and as such some people even have the custom of fasting and adding special prayers on the day before Rosh Chodesh.  And in the daily Amidah prayer, there is a prayer for forgiveness where one has the opportunity to review and ask for forgiveness for transgressions.  While many people wait until the days before Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness from their fellow man they have wronged, the fact of the matter is that we can do this any day of the year.  My yoga teacher says that each breath is an opportunity to cleanse and start anew.

There are a lot of reminders that we can do better, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the loudest calls for spiritual improvement (shofar blasts), and the secular new year the loudest call for physical improvement (free one-month gym trials).  Given how difficult habits are to establish and keep, I think it’s great we have so many reminders.

The key is not to get discouraged, for each year, month, week, or day, is another chance to try again.

Should American Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving?

Thanksgiving is one of those holidays Americans just don’t want to let go of.  What do I mean? Despite the fact that it’s pretty inaccurately rooted in history, it’s probably the most widely celebrated American holiday.  Flights are booked, schools are closed, a bird is pardoned by the President, and for a lot of families, it’s the only time of year that everyone gathers together around the dinner table, perhaps second only to Christmas.

The tie to Thanksgiving is so strong that a lot of American ex-pats living in Israel are participating in Thanksgiving dinners, or Thanksgiving-themed Shabbat dinners the following evening.  From a culinary perspective, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be such a big deal to observant Jews.  One of the lifestyle adjustments that stood out for me when becoming observant was consuming (and preparing) large meals each Shabbat.  Thanksgiving ain’t no thang for the Jewish homemaker, who whips together a lavish meal for 10 the day of.  Headlines about preparing for a Thanksgiving meal one month in advance seem laughable.

So what is it about Thanksgiving that speaks American Jews? The football? The shopping the day after?

Well, not so surprisingly there is disagreement about what Thanksgiving means and what Jewish participation in the American holiday should look like.  A terrific article by Rabbi Michael Broyde on My Jewish Learning discusses the differing halachic opinions on Thanksgiving celebrationPoskim have been concerned about whether it is appropriate to distinguish between “secular society,” “Gentile society,” and “idol-worshiping society” in modern American culture.  In short, the three main opinions are:

  1. Thanksgiving is not a Gentile holiday, yet “celebration” should be limited.
  2. Any form of involvement in Thanksgiving is prohibited, as it is a Gentile holiday.
  3. Thanksgiving is a purely secular holiday, and celebration can take any (halachic) form appropriate for secular observance.

Rabbi Broyde concludes that as long as Thanksgiving is celebrated in a completely secular way, it is permissible and even advisable to celebrate: “For reasons related to citizenship and the gratitude we feel towards the United States government, I would even suggest that such conduct is wise and proper.”

While the U.S. Government has not been perfect in its treatment toward Jews, there is a reason why it hosts the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.  The United States of America provided unprecedented opportunities for oppressed Jews around the world to practice their religion (or unfortunately to leave it behind) as they wished, and to climb the economic ladder.  Nonetheless, Jews have faced discrimination in the U.S., and the government did not act soon enough to take action when news about the concentration camps and the Holocaust reached its shores.  Still, I think Jewish-American success is something to be celebrated and to be thankful for.  I have strong doubts that if my grandparents and great-grandparents did not flee economic devastation and persecution in Europe to seek refuge in my native country, that I would be here today.

Being thankful is an intrinsic part of what it means to be Jewish.  The English word, “Jew” is a translation of the word “Yehudi”, יהודי in Hebrew, which literally means “one who gives thanks.”  Halachically, the first sentence one should say each morning upon waking begins: “Modeh ani…”, מודה אני…  which means “I am grateful”.  It is a statement of gratitude to God for the ability to wake and continue our lives into a new day.

I won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving this year.  For starters, today is a work day and I don’t feel in the spirit, as the day is not recognized much around me.  I suppose that in this way I feel more Israeli than American.  With Shabbat the following day, Shabbat stands out more in my calendar.  Secondly, I’m married to a Canadian, who doesn’t have the tradition of spending the last Thursday in November feasting.  But my thoughts are with the rest of my family, who will be gathered around the table in America without me.  I’m very thankful for them and all that they, and the U.S.A., have given me.

Now that I’ve established that it’s kosher to celebrate Thanksgiving in the U.S. (and probably also in Israel), here comes another question.  Should the meal in the U.S. end with “Next year in Jerusalem”?

The Mitzvah of Studying Torah: Should Jews be Paid to Learn?

I wrote a post for the Beyond BT blog about programs that pay young Jews targeted as ripe for being brought into the mitzvah-observant fold and the study partners who help them.

The issue of paying men to study in kollel for years is another issue I’d like to address at some point, but one I feel a bit closer to and find is less often discussed is the issue of paying less-affiliated Jews in order to get them to do something Jewish.  Is this really the best way to get Jews authentically excited about Torah?

Read more at the Beyond BT Blog, “Should Jews be Paid to Study Torah?

What Gilad Shalit’s Release Means to Me

gilad shalit calls his parents after returning to IsraelThere is a great deal already written about the bittersweet end to the captivity of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, his media festival return to Israel, and the 1,027 prisoners, including convicted terrorists, released in exchange.

When I was in synagogue this past Shabbat and it came the time during the Torah reading for the gabbai to recite a prayer for the return of Israel’s captives, my heart lifted at the realization that Shalit’s name had at last been removed because he was safely returned to his family.

That feeling of joy and hope however is shadowed by a dull feeling of fear. I try not to be afraid, because then terrorists win, but my reason tells me that now that killers aiming to kill more Jews, and to kidnap more prisoners, we may lose more than one life in return.

The Jewish tradition values the sanctity of life. The Talmud teaches that “Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world.” (Sanhedrin 4:5) We also believe that all of Israel are responsible for one another.

The mission is clear, but at what cost it is to be completed is the tricky bit.

God answered our prayer to return Shalit, even if we may be disappointed with how.

Terrorists are emboldened. The stabbing of a 17-year-old on Saturday occurred due to suspected “nationalist motives” according to the Jerusalem Post, though it would be called a hate crime if it occurred anywhere else. That’s what it was. And random acts of violence such as these cannot be prevented unless we stayed holed up in our houses.

Accompanied with the prayer for the return of the captives, many communities, including the kehillah with which I pray, include a prayer for the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. For those who hate, I know nothing else than to pray for a change of heart. May God also hear our prayers for sage leaders who make the best decisions possible and for the safe return of all members of the armed forces to their families.

The Shul You Go to and the 27 You Don’t Go to

one jew stranded on an island, two synagoguesThere’s an old joke about a Jew stranded on a desert island who builds two synagogues (shuls) — one he goes to, and one to not go to.  Nu, Jews like to kvetch, and despite the tremendous quality control in the traditional prayer service, a popular question to ask this time of year is “where do you go to daven (pray)?”

Though about 95% of congregations in Jerusalem by my rough estimate would qualify for what I would consider to be a traditional prayer service, people are very picky about where they pray.  During my first Yom Kippur in Israel, I was pretty stumped about what to do.  I didn’t have a membership anywhere, but the thing is, I didn’t need one.  That was freeing, comforting, but also a bit threatening.  There are shuls everywhere, and on Yom Kippur, all of Jerusalem stops in its tracks and pours into them.

I stayed over at friend’s house in the eclectic neighborhood in Nachlaot.  She knew that the service at the Inbal Hotel would have its doors open to all visitors, so we went there for Kol Nidre.  It was by far not the closest option, so during the walk over, I was able to appreciate the silent streets and all the other people, most of whom were dressed in white, off to their shul of choice.

The next morning and throughout the day was an adventure in finding a shul that matched my brand new Artscroll machzor.  In addition to struggling to bridge the discrepancy between my prayer book designed for a North American congregation, I was also trying to figure out what the prayers were saying, doing, and where the world the congregation was at, because it was my first time at an Orthodox minyan for the holiday.

I’ve had all sorts of various Yom Kippur adventures in the two years since then, and I just have to believe that despite the social pressure to find the “right” place to daven, I’ve been in the right place, where I needed to be, having the experience that I needed to have.

Despite all of the similarities between the prayer services at all of the Yom Kippur services I’ve been to here, it’s still striking how different the feel can be.  And that, I think, is why such an emphasis is placed on where to go.  We are a people who toil, squabble, and fuss over details.  The six books of the Talmud, expounded upon in 60 tractates of Gemara, and expounded upon in additional commentary, explore the how of Judaism.

Having coming from communities in the United States, where the choices of congregations were limited to one or two, or at best a few, not to mention the tremendous membership fees, I initially didn’t understand the scope of synagogues in Jerusalem.  To me, you picked a place, and you prayed!  But by visiting different synagogues on Shabbat throughout the year, I gradually began to feel that some places were less welcoming, some blasted in the heat in the winter, some places blew through the prayers so fast I nearly got whiplash, and some were longer than synagogues in the U.S. (I didn’t move here for that!), and I too was developing my list of shuls I don’t go to.

One of the things I appreciate about coming to Israel is giving up some of the luxury of choice.  I found something as simple as buying laundry detergent in the United States to be exhausting.  Instead, I gained the opportunity to choose from a variety of congregations in which to pray.

When overwhelmed by variety or pressure to find the “perfect” place, I think it’s important to remember that while pulling apart differences with a fine-tooth comb, there is a big picture.  No matter where I pray, I can start with:

מה טובו אוהליך יעקב, משכנותך ישראל – במדבר כ’ד, ה

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel. (Numbers: 24: 5)

This prayer, as part of the series of morning blessings, is a reference to “tents of learning and prayer”.  This “tent” can also be the Jewish home, by the way. This verse is the first sentence of a paragraph which expresses reverence for the synagogue, which takes the place of the Holy Temple.  The great thing about a tent, though, is that you can put it up yourself, or with the help of some friends, and you can take it wherever you may go.

May we be blessed with the ability to connect to God from our “tent”, wherever we may be.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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