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Why Wish For A Sweet New Year?

apples and honey for a sweet new yearOn Wednesday night, we’ll be dipping apples in honey as a siman, or symbol, of a desire to have a sweet new year.  But of all the things that the Jewish people could yearn for, why is sweetness the quality we wish for our lives?  What does it mean for the new year to be “sweet”?

In order to try to answer the question, let’s broaden the theme.  It’s not just the new year that we sweeten with honey.  It has been a common practice to form the letters of the Aleph Bet in honey as young children are first learning them, so as to make the study of Torah a sweet activity.  Additionally, in the first year of marriage, many new couples have the custom of drizzling honey on challah, as opposed to dipping it in salt, a tradition other homes commonly follow.

The Land of Israel is described multiple times in the Torah as the land “flowing with milk and honey”.  Milk and honey are also among two of the substances that the Torah is compared to in Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), “milk and honey are under your tongue” (4:11).

The thing about sweetness is that it is a taste that wears off quickly.  But it also leaves you wanting more.  Today, when I meet new olim or baalei teshuva, I see how the new start gives them a “sugar high”, and I recall my initial enthusiasm.  I say “recall” because I am no longer connect to the experiences in the same way I did when they were fresh.  How can I make them new to me again? How can I prevent a “sugar crash” and find the energy to keep things going when it’s no longer so novel, so exciting?

The thing about honey is that it is not only sweet; it is also sticky.  Perhaps the idea is to be “stuck” to the sweetness, stuck to the desire for more.  The “sweetness” that attracts a person to Torah, to Israel, and to a spouse initially can eventually wear off.

May we find this year not only the sweetness of the new, but also the “deveykut”, of clinging on, when things return to the seemingly ordinary, and find the more subtle tastes palatable too.


Teshuvah Disclaimers

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  The last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, is supposed to be a time of closeness to God, when we do a chesbon hanefesh, a self-assessment of how we have acted over the past year.  Jewish law and thought gives a lot of weight to teshuva, literally, a “return” to God, through a correction of ways we have transgressed.  The 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as Aseret Yimei Teshuvah, the 10 days of Teshuvah, where we ask forgiveness from our fellow (wo)man for our misdeeds and say special versions of the prayers, placing special emphasis on God as melech, the king who assesses us and rules over our fates.

But what does one actually do to carry out this self-assessment?   And how?  It’s mostly about taking an inventory of our traits, much like a storekeeper takes an inventory of his wares.  Ideally a person does this every day.  So what are we to add during this time?  The answer, as I understand it, is that although we are to assess ourselves throughout the year, now is the time to particularly pay attention.

And for people like me, it’s dangerous.

In taking out the scorecard, assessing things that I did well and things that I did not, times that I stopped and helped somebody, and times that I got impatient and rude, my mind tends to block out the good and remember the bad.  Additionally, should someone give me a compliment for a success, I tend to think that it was God that really guided me through it and that I in fact, did very little.  On the other hand, when I struggle, fall short of a goal, or make someone else upset, I think it’s all my fault, rather than letting God have a piece of that too – understanding that challenge was part of His plan for me as well.

I’m accused pretty often of being too hard on myself.  It’s seems like a funny character fault in Western society that is teeming with self-help books and a Jewish culture that emphasizes self-improvement and doing good deeds.  But a lot of mussar, or self-improvement texts are not designed for someone like me, or women in particular, who tend to fall more often into the self-critical category than self-aggrandizing.  If mussar is depressing rather than helpful or uplifting – stay away, I’ve been advised.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that a person should have a piece of paper in each side pocket. On one should be written, “The world was created (just) for me”. On the other, “I am (originated from only) dust and ashes”. So the key is knowing which piece of paper to take out!

There is another trap that I fall into, and that is to compare myself to others.  That is when it is time to recall a  story about Rav Zushya, an early Chassidic master. He was on his deathbed, and a number of students were there to share his final moments. Rav Zushya told them that he was scared, afraid even, of God’s final justice. “I am not afraid that God will ask me, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you like Abraham?’ but rather, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Moses?’ I can answer Him, ‘But you didn’t make me with the abilities of an Abraham or Moses.’ But what if God asks, ‘Zushya, why weren’t you a Zushya?’ What can I answer?”

Being better than someone else is a never-ending challenge, because we have incomplete information.  I don’t really know what someone else’s journey is all about!  I find that as I overcome my own challenges, new ones, and usually more complex ones, crop up.  Being my best self is enough of a game of Whack-a-Mole.

So my blessing to you readers is that you should have the proper intuition to know which piece of paper to take out when, to reach your potential.

An Easy Fast?

I think it’s a bit silly to wish someone a “safe fast”, or a “tzom kal”, as is commonly the practice.  If it’s really easy, then what’s the point?  I hope that the fast is just the right kind of heartbreaking reminder of what we are mourning and remembering.

I think that the intention of “easy” comes from a place of not wanting a fellow to suffer and furthermore that they stay safe.  So, these days, I wish fellow fasters a “safe and meaningful fast”.  That’s really what I want for myself, anyways.

A friend of mine in California sent me a text today, “From Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash- The Supplications of the Mothers for the Rebuilding of the Temple” by Dr. Yael Levine.  I’d never seen anything like it.

Levine, who holds a Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, explains in the introduction that she “composed the literary work in the style of aggadic midrashim, in which biblical and post-biblical female figures,  through the end of the Second Temple period, beseech God to rebuild the Temple.” The work is based on themes which appear in a variety of Jewish textual sources.

I enjoyed reading the excerpts but was not entirely sure what to make of them.  Despite the tremendous scholarship and creativity involved in composing this work, it still leaves women in the same place they’ve been through the ages – a place that is accessible only by reading between the lines of sacred text.

Throughout the ages, it’s been women who have kept the Jewish people together. From the birth of the Jewish people as slaves in Egypt, when the women kept their faith as the men were prepared to throw it away along with their male newborns according to Pharoah’s decree, to Queen Esther in Purim and Yael in Chanukah. At several critical moments in Jewish history, women maintained the Jewish integrity.  In our times, too, it its women who generally hold the religious character together for a family (see statistics cited in an earlier blog post), and perhaps as we recognize this, our leaders, male and female, will eventually steer us back on to the course of receiving the Third Temple.

*Note: I incorrectly initially posted that the article excerpts were from an upcoming book.  The piece was printed in Tehinnat ha-Nashim le-Vinyan ha-Mikdash, Eked: 1996.


Av: Bring Some Peace on to Us and to the World

We’re a week into the heavy month of Av, the month where a number of tragedies befell the Jewish people, the most central of which is the destruction of both Temples on the ninth of Av.  In preparation for this, “The Three Weeks” leading up to Av 9, or “Tisha B’Av” are a time marked by limited celebration (no concerts, for instance), and it gets ramped up in “The Nine Days”, the first nine days of the month, where we do not eat meat or drink wine (except on Shabbat), some men do not shave, and we are to turn our hearts toward Jewish unit and bringing tikkun repair.  Tisha B’Av itself is a day of fasting and reciting kinot, or liturgical lamentations.

Few things are without debate in Jewish history in practice.  But this much is clear-cut – the Second Temple was destroyed because Jews could not get along with each other.  “Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred of one Jew for another.” (Talmud: Yoma 9b)

The popularly held solution is that we need ahavat chinam, abundant love for fellow Jews. But this isn’t so simple when the hatred, or scorn, disapproval, or rejection comes from a place that seems to make sense!  Until I moved to Israel I did not understand how diverse the Jewish people really is.  Though few in number, we divide into much more than the widely noted Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements.

Splinter groups, factions, followers of this rabbi and that.  Throw politics into the mix and oy va voy, fire!  There are Jewish residents who don’t believe in the State of Israel and refuse to serve in the army, Jewish mothers whose sons died in order to protect a safe home for the Jewish people; those who reject the State on the grounds that it isn’t governed fully by Jewish Law, and those who think it’s a big enough sacrifice in the name of religion that public buses don’t run on Shabbat and holidays; there are ultra-Orthodox men who do not work so that they can study Torah all day, sending their wives (who are also often raising many children) into the workforce and/or receiving government assistance in order to live, and there are fellow Jews who believe that the Jewish way is to study Torah and work, arguing that to choose to live on handouts is not only a rejection of Torah but an unnecessary drain on society at large.

All of the groups of people described above strongly identify themselves as Jews and strongly believe that following a different path bodes destruction for the Jewish people.  It’s not just civil disagreement, but hatred that I hear pouring from the mouths of one group about the other.

At a Tisha B’Av gathering at the Jerusalem Cinematheque last year, there was a panel discussion on how different segments of Jews might be able to open dialogue.  Though Israel is the heart of the Jewish people and the focal point for ingathering of the exiles, this panel made me realize how infrequently I actually see Jews of all backgrounds in the same place, working toward a united goal.  Instead, we remain divided by neighborhood, occupation, yeshiva, dress code, hangouts, etc.

dove with olive branchI surely don’t have a solution, but particularly during this month, I try to understand the severity of the problem.  I’d like to focus on a subtle way that this is underscored, in a passage that Jews of most denominations are familiar with:

עושה שלום במרומיו.  הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל וימרו אמן.

Bring peace into our midst.  He will create peace for us and all of Israel.  And we say amen.

This is said three times daily at the end of the Shemonah Esrei, or the Amidah pray said traditionally three times daily.  It’s also sung in Jewish day schools and sleep away camps in a “Kumbayah”-type melody.

And as I wrestled with Judaism anew in my early twenties, it used to bother me.  “Why are we praying only for peace to Israel, Jews?  Isn’t that a bit elitist?  Exclusionary?  What about world peace, or Israeli-Arab peace?”

I asked this recently at the Shabbat table, following Birkat HaMazon, the prayer after a meal which includes this line too, and my father-in-law provided an answer that speaks to the theme of the month of Av.  He explained that it’s only until we resolve all of the internal Jewish conflicts that Jews can go on to create peace amongst other nations, can have the full strength to fulfill our mission of creating tikkun, or repair in the world.  In other words, we need to clean up our side of the street before we worry about other messes.

There is wisdom to this, for its known that when a person is sick, she has difficulty caring for others.  It’s not selfish to preserve one’s personal health!  Furthermore, the laws of Tzedakkah or charity dictate that we give to our families first, then our local communities, and then larger communities, and so on.  It’s not elitist or inappropriate to put that which is closest to you first.

For this month at least, focusing on the common bonds among the Jewish people seems a large enough goal.  May you have a safe and meaningful fast or day of reflection!

Boys Will Be Boys?

One of the fundamental principles guiding traditional Jewish rituals, as well as social behavior, is the difference between the sexes. With this in mind, I couldn’t stop thinking about this article in Newsweek reviewing the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps—And What We Can Do About It, by Lise Eliot. The book makes the argument that behavioral gender differences are socialized and not biological.

In a nutshell, the theory goes that there are tiny biological differences among the genders that parents pick up on and through their nurturing, they increase the severity of these differences, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve heard multiple parents, particularly in observant circles, claim that without any cues from parents or other children, that boys will gravitate towards cars and toy guns and that girls will prefer dolls. But is that really true, or incomplete anecdotal evidence? I can contrast that with personal anecdotal evidence. I never liked dolls. Ever.

Spiritually Superior Women

One of the reasons given for women’s exemption from most time-bound mitzvot is that they simply don’t need them — they are on a higher spiritual level. What exactly does this mean, and is this true?

Within this category, there are mitzvot that women are exempt from and essentially forbidden from performing, such as laying tefillin, and there are mitzvot that women are exempt from, but they still get reward from performing (albeit less reward than a man, being they are not obligated). This includes mitzvot such as limmud Torah. How exactly one, or God in particular, quantifies reward and what that does to a person is not something I’ve ever seen discussed. If you have a thought or a link or a reference to contribute, I’d be really interested.

“Feminization” of Judaism

Anyways, I’ve frequently made the argument on this blog that some aspects of modern Jewish observance might be best adapted to modern realities, especially with regard to gender parity. And I wanted to continue to fight that fight. That is, until I read a recent article in Slate, “The End of Jewish Men?“. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow recounts how the “feminization” of liberal streams of Judaism has essentially pushed men out.

Now I heard from some Orthodox teachers of mine in the form of a warning that this is exactly why women should be discouraged from seeking the pulpit. I found it hard to believe that if a woman was called up to read from the Torah that it would actually drive men away.

The theory goes, that if women come out of the home, the childcare, the meal preparation, or from behind the mechitza and start leading services, that men won’t find their place instead in traditionally female roles, and they’ll be left without a place. However, according to my husband’s anecdotal evidence, and statistics cited by Tuhus-Dubrow, this is exactly what has happened. “While women often clamor to participate in male-dominated institutions, female-dominated institutions are more likely to drive males away.”

It’s About “Rights”

I am of course excluding here the all-important halachic reasonings behind women traditionally being excluded from public rituals. The thing is, that is exactly the point. This argument isn’t about Jewish law! It is about a sense of fairness. On July 4th of all days, I’m sorry to deliver such a blow to the American psyche, but Judaism isn’t about “rights”.

At a modern Orthodox synagogue that I attended in Washington, D.C., there would be an afternoon Shabbat service for women only on a monthly basis. There women could fully participate, including saying blessings over Torah reading and reading from the Torah. It was poorly attended. As far as I’m aware, there wasn’t though a movement for the same in the main sanctuary.

In more liberal streams of Judaism there is. And I question what it is based on. After all, why is there no movement to bring parity to all of the tribes of Israel. I’m unaware of a movement to remove the honor of a Cohen getting the first aliyah and a member of the tribe of Levi from getting the second. After all, it’s an honor that has little basis in modern life, as there is no other distinction between the tribes without the Temple. And we’re not 100% sure who is a Cohen, and most certainly not who is a Levi today anyways.

Society’s Evolution

There are several points in the argument that there may be a sociological in addition to a spiritual (and therefore less verifiable) reason for the differing halachic treatment between the sexes that actually bring me solace.

It seems to me that even within the last 200 years (which is extremely late in Jewish halachic history) the daily routine for women has changed considerably more than for men. Particularly in the Western, Jewish community, most men now find themselves behind a desk or in the service industry rather than in the fields. They are expected to go to work (or yeshiva) every day.

Women, on the other hand, have dramatically expanded possibilities for how they live their lives. Whereas women were almost unquestionably housewives, as early as their teenage years, today they have myriad educational and career opportunities. There are effective ways for choosing when and how many children to have. There are daycares. There is infant formula. My goodness, there are washing machines and prepared sauces, not to mention entire prepared meals. Childbirth is far less deadly, and outside of ultra-Orthodox circles, the average age of a bride has gone up by several years.

Without answering the question whether or not any of these new developments provide a better lifestyle than going without them, the fact remains that when it no longer takes all day to provide for a family’s basic needs, women have a heck of a lot more time on their hands.

Halachic Implications

I think that this is very useful to keep in mind when thinking about the following mitzvot:

  • Limmud Torah – If there are limited books and limited time resources, it seems unreasonable for women to be required to also study with the same rigor as men. Women’s minds may have seemed weaker because even as girls they had more obligations at home and fewer educational opportunities.
  • Haircovering – Wearing a hat or a scarf in public was certainly in the norm 200 years ago, and in that context, revealing hair would be showing a part of the body that society as a whole was accustomed to seeing covered, at least partially. There is undoubtedly more to it than fashion though. It’s true that hair is a sexual part of a woman’s body. But why then would covering be reserved only for married women? If we try to imagine a time without billboards, television, and teen magazines, it would not be unreasonable to assume that women were not very aware of their sexuality until marriage, which was not that long after puberty. Essentially, society has become desensitized to seeing pretty much any part of a woman’s body, and requiring haircovering ignores that fact (which is either out of touch with reality or deeply in touch with a sense of values, despite the circumstance, depending on how you look at it). It’s amazing to me actually that Western society reacted as it did to the “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Superbowl half-time show. Why is a nipple a big deal when women proudly show off the rest of their uncensored breast on television and in the flesh (no pun intended)?
  • Mitzvot Aseh She Hazman Gramma , time-bound positive commandments: Women are exempt from a whole slew of these, and as a result, the assumption is that there is some sort of clal or overriding concept. Usually the line of thinking is that women are so busy in the home and taking care of their children that it would be inappropriate to take them away from this task in order to perform another mitzvah, things such as praying Shema by a certain time, wearing tzizit (even though you have all day to do it), and shaking a lulav. In my mind, this is more problematic. Every woman, even those with twelve children, is bound by many if not most time- bound commandments. To name some examples: Hearing Shabbat kiddush, Prayer (rabinically obligated, and according to most opinions the time-bound Shacharit and Minchah), Chanukkah candles and hearing (even reading!) the Purim Megillah, Shabbat and Yom Tov candlelighting (at really specific times!), eating matzah and maror and drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach Seder.

And More Questions

So where is the place in Orthodox Jewish life for the man who prefers to stay at home and raise his children and for the woman who wants to be a Torah scholar? It’s there, and it’s growing. But is it a good thing?

The Biggest Tikkun

I’m still making my way through Eim Habanim Semeichah, and apropos to the holiday of Shavuot which is coming up on Tuesday night, the section of the book that I read today included discussion of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a sort of “restitution” or “repair” on the night of Shavuot.

Throughout the Jewish world and certainly throughout Jerusalem, places of worship and study will host all-night learning extravaganzas, often with special guest teachers.  There are several reasons cited for this customs.

In Eim Habanim Semeichah, Rav Teichtel brings the explanation of the Magen Avraham, who wrote that we stay awake on the night of Shavuot, a holiday that celebrates among other things the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, in order to rectify the sin that the Israelites committed by sleeping through the night prior to the giving of the Torah.  If the rabbis introduced such a custom to rectify a minor infraction, how much greater must we change our behavior in order to rectify a major infraction such as the sin of spies, who told the Israelites that the Land of Israel was unsafe for habitation.

Rav Teichtal says that we should make up for this “bad debt”of trusting in the spies by making a tikkun today and returning to Israel.  Though they were sent with the expectations that they would return with such glowing reports about the wonders of the Land that the Israelites would be eager to come, they instead turned them to scorn the Land.

Torah study is considered to be equal to all of the other mitzvot combined.  The thesis of Eim Habanim Semeichah is that living in Israel is essential to Jewish life, perhaps a value that even exceeds strict observance of all other commandments.

I wonder what Rav Teichtal would have to say about the situation we find ourselves in today.  Some representatives of Jewish communities actively send glowing reports about the “land flowing with milk and honey,” technology, beauty, and scholarship.  Unfortunately it is also Jews who are behind some of the largest smear campaigns against Israel, declaring it an oppressive, apartheid state, that was founded on and is a world leader in human rights abuses.

Taking all of these considerations into account, it seems to me that there is a tikkun to be made in Torah learning and there is also a tikkun to be made not only in physically coming to Israel but also in hasbara, an explanation of why Jews have a legal and historical right to come to the Land of Israel and to set up a State, for it seems that we no longer know.

Jerusalem, My Home

The view from my new apartment is simply astonishing.  There is no problem figuring out in which direction to pray — you can see straight through to the Old City and the site of the former Temple from the living room window.

You can also see east and west of the Old City, at the remarkable amount of both Jewish and Arab development.  Today marks 44 years since Israeli troops captured the Old City and reunified Jerusalem, which had been partially under Jordanian rule.  Arabs, Jews, Christians, and anyone else can roam the city freely.

Given that the status of Jerusalem is so controversial and where one lives can be so political, I asked a colleague of mine if my home is over the “green line,” as the armistice line is called.  According to Google Maps it’s unclear — a sort of no man’s land in the former orchards of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel.

I really don’t see how anyone can suggest dividing Jerusalem ever again.  In a few days, tens of thousands of Jews will flock to the Kotel on the holiday of Shavuot, to commemorate the giving of the Torah and recreate the aliya l’regel of the pilgrimage festival.  This was impossible under Jordanian rule and for so many hundreds of generations before.  Nevertheless, those who wish to visit Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount cannot bring any religious articles. (The problems with visiting Har HaBayit today will be left for another post.)

Though the area historically had not been a focal point for Muslims, when Israel gained control of eastern Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in 1967, the area became the site of religious fervor and incitement.  Israeli authorities turned control of the Temple Mount over to the Jordanian Islamic Waqf as a gesture of peace but seem to receive few benefits in my opinion.

The site of the Temple was captured, and then returned.  Today, we celebrate the Jewish victory, with dancing and singing.  Some will say Hallel and other special prayers.  The situation is not ideal, from a Jewish perspective, an Arab perspective, and from the perspective of the international community, but I’d like to argue that Jerusalem is thriving like never before in its history spanning thousands of years.  And that is something to celebrate.

For more on the history of Jerusalem, check out this video, which summarizes 4,000 years in 5 minutes!

(Full disclosure: I provided minor assistance to this project and uploaded it on to  YouTube.)


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

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