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Let's talk about perception, particularly how we Jews perceive ourselves and anything to do with our religion. To get us in the mood, here's a story that Dr. (and Rabbi) Abraham Twerski tells in his book Generation to Generation:
I was once traveling on a bus, dressed in my customary garb, wearing a broad black hat and a black frock coat. A man approached me and said, "I think it's shameful that your appearance is so different. There is no need for Jews in America to be so conspicuous, with long beards and black hats."
"I'm sorry, mister," I said to the man. "I'm not Jewish. I'm Amish, and this is how we dress."
The man became apologetic. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, sir," he said. "I did not mean to offend you. I think you should be proud of preserving your traditions."
"Well, well," I said. "If I am Amish, then my beard and black hat doesn't bother you..."
What you are about to read is really an intricate discussion beyond the scope of this short article. It contains no great philosophical concepts nor novel arguments. It is just a few thoughts that might open up a can of worms, but worms which perhaps will squirm into our consciousness and cause us to honestly confront some biased perceptions.
A mechitza is a partition separating the men's section and the women's section during prayers. In recent times, many women take offense as soon as they see the mechitza. "What am I, a second class citizen that I can't sit with the men?" Never mind that most synagogue mechitzas are placed so that women are side-by-side, not behind, the men. "Am I considered by the Torah to be a mere object, so physical a creature that I can't sit together with the men during prayers?"
Now for a few facts before we continue. When we enter the synagogue, we do so to pray--to commune with G-d. Though some of the prayers can only be said with a minyan, prayer itself is a private experience, a one-to-one conversation with G-d. When we pray, we are neither husband or wife, mother or father, brother or sister, daughter or son. In fact, we are not permitted to kiss anyone in the synagogue--even a cute, cuddly baby, in part for this reason. We are individuals alone with G-d. Therefore, we remove, as far as possible, the distractions that might divert our attention.
On the contrary, it should be the men who are complaining, "What does the Torah think of me--am I an animal that I can't control my urges, at least during prayer?"
Certainly since the times of the Holy Temple--and in the Temple itself--men and women have always been separate during worship. Mixed seating is of Christian origin.
Which brings us to another thought relating to our introductory story. Although a Jew is not permitted to enter a house of worship of another religion, unfortunately, some do. In some of these locations, separate seating for men and women are mandatory. But often, when a Jew, G-d forbid, does enter, s/he puts aside views on separate seating and subjugates them to the respect felt for another's beliefs. Are not Jewish beliefs, customs and laws deserving of at least the same "indulgence"?
Think about it, discuss it, read about it, argue about it, meditate on it, be honest about it, but please, don't walk out because there's a mechitza.
In the opening lines of this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, G-d commands Abraham to "go out" from his land, from his place of birth, to a land which He will show him. What can we to learn from this very first commandment to Abraham, that we can apply to our own lives as well?
The first and most fundamental requirement of every Jew is to "go out"--to be in a constant state of ascent, developing and elevating both our inner potential and our surroundings.
But the very next thing that happened to Abraham after heeding this command and going to Israel appears to be the exact opposite of development and elevation: "And there arose a famine in the land, and Avram went down into Egypt." Thus, Abraham had to leave Canaan and journey to Egypt, during which time Sarah was forcefully taken to Pharaoh's palace. Although G-d protected her from harm while there, she nevertheless underwent the hardship of the whole incident.
How does this obvious descent fit into the aforementioned theme of ascent and elevation, and our task of climbing ever higher?
On a superficial level, Abraham's and Sarah's hardship was a step down, but on a deeper level it was merely a part of their eventual elevation and triumphant return. The purpose of the descent was to achieve an even higher ascent than was possible before. When they returned to Canaan they were "very heavy with cattle, with silver, and with gold."
Just as Abraham's descent was part of the greater plan of ascent, so it was with the generation of his descendants to follow. The Jewish people have found themselves thrust into exile after exile, only to return to their Land and achieve even higher spiritual heights than before. Galut (exile), although appearing to us to be a negative phenomenon, actually carries the potential for the highest good. And now that we are in the last days of the final exile, we approach an era of unprecedented spirituality and goodness, for although the First and Second Temples were eventually destroyed, the Third Temple is to stand forever, and our coming Redemption will have no exile to follow.
We therefore draw encouragement from our ancestor Abraham's descent into Egypt and eventual return to Israel: We must remember that the darkness which seems to prevail in the world is only external, and is part of G-d's greater plan for the ultimate prevailing of good over evil and the coming of Moshiach.
Adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
CROWN HEIGHTS DIARY
by Esther Altmann
It's Friday night, approximately three weeks after the initial rioting began in Crown Heights. Another demonstration is planned for tonight, but I'm not too concerned; after all, the police have blanketed the neighborhood blue with their presence. The Shabbat peace encloses my home in perfect quiet. I putter around the kitchen, putting the final touches on the salad, adjusting the silverware around the plates.
My seven-year old has been invited to have dinner with neighbors across the street, and my three year old is amusing himself with the mounds of Legos scattered across the living floor which are now, wonderfully, his sole possession. I am exhausted after the usual frenetic Friday schedule of cooking and cleaning, and my mind hazily alights first on one thought and then another.
Suddenly, I am aware of a hum, kind of a rumbling noise, which is somehow out of place in the Shabbat scene. As the sounds approach and become louder, I can discern the actual components of the humming--there are shrill whistles at the top of the range, and below that, a dull rumble of voices. My mind, now fully awake, can identify the noise; a mob is approaching my house, and is very close.
I walk quickly to my window, and see a huge crowd of people and vehicles, flanked by scores of armed police in the now-familiar riot gear, and my first reaction is to run. Without thinking, I go to close the dining room shades and snatch up my little son under my arm to head upstairs. My logic is that there we would be safe from exploding glass should a rock be thrown through my large front window. But on a moment's further consideration, I change my mind, open the front door, and go outside to take a look at this affront to my Shabbat peace.
My little boy is enchanted by the "parade." "I love it!" he shouts. "Where are the Guardian Angels?"
I hear the familiar slogans 'Whose streets? Our streets', and the air is fairly crackling with the negative energy of hatred. The procession moves quickly, a couple hundred demonstrators guarded by three times as many helmeted police, and police vehicles of every description follow and surround them.
In these few weeks we have become, not only students of our own Jewish history, but actors in dramas we would have preferred to consign to the pages of books. Thousands of lives here have been disrupted, and we have become front-page news across the world. Yankel Rosenbaum is dead; he has joined the ranks of holy martyred Jews who populated his doctoral thesis and the Holocaust nightmares of his parents.
The children have added new words to their vocabularies. The word "mob" has become a part of my 7-year-old's playtime. I overheard him say, while engrossed in a game of matchbox cars: "The mob is coming. The ambulance is taking the injured man to the hospital." The matchbox ambulance sped down the plastic roadway.
During the first days of trouble I had to coax my kids to the corner bakery to get milk. On the same streets where they normally ran to escape my control, they clung to my hand, taking wary steps. It seems we had moved to Beirut. We felt safe emerging in the morning hours, only to retreat inside by the late afternoon. Now, we are all accustomed to chatting with the myriad of police we meet on every street corner. My kids have tried on riot helmets, swung billy-clubs, and know how to change a police walkie-talkie battery pack. They even knowingly discussed the dimensions of the bullet-hole they saw in a local synagogue. Three weeks have changed their childish perspectives. "The police are super-heroes, even braver than Batman," announces my son.
But my adult perspective has also changed. I have seen what can happen when anarchy is ascendant. The rock-holes in friends' windows and scars on faces are evident reminders that a pogrom could happen right here in Brooklyn, the most heavily Jewish-populated area in America.
I have also seen small sparks of goodness shining through the gloom. A Jamaican man who stopped his car on Rosh Hashana to wish us a "Happy New Year;" a black woman who grasped my hand and told me that G-d would help us all; a friendly conversation with a middle-aged black woman at the election polls. Small private surfacings of humanity. Unfortunately, evil dances boldly in the streets, while good seems to tip-toe furtively in corners. The year of "Wonders Revealed in All Things" is here. The footsteps of the Moshiach are approaching, and while the darkness of night is overwhelming, the light of truth is blindingly bright.
Esther Altmann is a contributing editor of L'Chaim.
ALL ABOUT US
by Dina Rosenfeld
Why do we have hands and mouths, eyes and feet? To do mitzvot, of course! This delightfully written and illustrated books gives children of all ages a new perspective on different parts of the body.
HaChai Publishing - Brooklyn, NY
SABBATH--DAY OF ETERNITY
by Aryeh Kaplan
Why is the Sabbath the only religious observance mentioned in the Ten Commandments? Why does the Talmud call the Sabbath a taste of the world to come? Why is the Sabbath gaining adherents in an age of rapidly expanding technology? Sabbath--Day of Eternity answers these and more questions about the day at the heart of Jewish existence, offering explanations, philsophy and a concise guide to its observance.
NCSY Publications - New York, NY
The fifteen articles which conmprise this volume were first presented at a conference whose purpose was to exchange ideas and clarify problems related to the Torah/Science and Torah/Modern Life interfaces. The articles touch on a diversity of subjects of modern relevance--mathematics, physics, biology, economics, philsophy, sociology and education.
Philipp Feldheim, Inc. - Spring Valley, NY
From a letter of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
In your letter, you outline your personal views on what you consider the right approach to Judaism. As you see it, the right road is to be reached in two phases: first, the understanding, by reason and intellect, of the "language" of the Torah, etc. etc., and second, the eventual acceptance of the Divine Covenant and yoke.
My view, which radically differs from yours, has been made known on several occasions in the past, and I will restate it briefly again.
The world is a well-coordinated system created by G-d, in which there is nothing superfluous and nothing lacking, with one reservation, however:
For reasons best know to the Creator, He has given man freedom of will, whereby man can be cooperative with this system, building and contributing to it, or do the reverse and cause destruction even of things already in existence. From this premise, it follows that a man's term of life on this earth is just long enough for him to fulfill his purpose on this earth; it is not a day too short, nor is it a day too long. Hence if he should permit a single day, or week, let alone months, to pass by without his fulfilling his purpose it is an irretrievable loss for him and for the universal system at large.
The second thought to bear in mind is that the physical world as a whole, as can be seen clearly from man's physical body in particular, is not something independent and separate from the spiritual world and soul. In other words, we have not here two separate spheres of influence, as the pagans used to think; rather is the world now conscious of a unifying force which controls the universal system, what we call monotheism. For this reason, it is possible to understand many things about souls from their parallels in the physical body.
The physical body requires a daily intake of certain elements in certain quantities obtainable through breathing and food consumption. No amount of thinking, speaking and studying all about these elements can substitute for the actual intake of air and food. All this knowledge will not add one iota of health to the body unless it is given its required physical sustenance; on the contrary, the denial of the actual intake of the required elements will weaken the mental forces of thought, concentration, etc. Thus, it is obvious that the proper approach to ensure the health of the body is not by way of study first and practice afterward, but the reverse, to eat and drink and breathe, which in turn strengthens also the mental powers of study and concentration, etc.
Similarly, in the case of the soul and the elements which it requires daily for its sustenance known best to its Creator, and which He revealed to all at Mount Sinai, in the presence of millions of witnesses, of different outlooks, walks of life, character, etc., who in turn transmitted it from generation to generation uninterruptedly, to our day, the truth of which is thus constantly corroborated by millions of witnesses, etc.
Thirdly, it is told of a famous German philosopher, the author of an elaborate philosophical system, that when it was pointed out to him that his theory was inconsistent with the hard facts of reality, he replied, "so much the worse for the facts." But, the normal approach of a person is, as expressed by Maimonides, that opinions are derived from reality and not reality from opinions. No theory, however cleverly conceived, can change the facts; if it is inconsistent with the facts it can only do harm to its adherents.
The conclusion from all the above, in relation to your suggested approach and order of the two phases, is clear enough. And from the particular point of view, the essential point is this: every day that passes for a Jew without practical living according to the Torah is an irretrievable loss for him and for all our people, hurting them, inasmuch as we all form a single unity and are mutually responsible for one another--and also for the universal order, and all theories attempting to justify it cannot alter this in the least.
Finally, I want to note that there is a difference in how all the above should affect the individual concerned and his friend who wishes to help him and put him on the right path. Again, the following analogy may be useful. Where a patient places conditions before taking the treatment prescribed by the physician, then notwithstanding the fact that these conditions are detrimental to the complete therapy, yet, if by going along with the patient at least some measure of success may be achieved, it is necessary to do so, if the patient is quite adamant, for besides the partial help that can be given him this way, there is the hope that the patient may sooner or later see reason. This is why I have repeatedly reasoned with you that your approach is wrong and that you are losing valuable time and causing much harm to yourselves by your approach, and though you still do not see eye to eye with me, I try to help you if I can, although for the present you still follow your own view. May G-d help you and your friends to see the light and place yourselves on the path of Torah and mitzvot which ensures the true happiness for both body and soul in complete harmony.
Why is Shalom Aleichem--"Peace unto you, angels" sung before kiddush on Friday night?
Since in the hustle and bustle of Shabbat preparations, members of the household might irritate one another, the angels are called upon to restore peace. Also, according to the Midrash, when returning home from the synagogue, we are escorted by two angels, one good and one evil. When they enter the home and see everything beautiful and serene, the good angel blesses the family, and the evil one must answer "amen."
One Saturday night, Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch, (the fifth Chabad Rebbe), commented on the Torah portion which we read this Shabbat, Lech Lecha:
"In the early years of his leadership, Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, declared publicly, 'One must live with the times.' From his brother, Rabbi Yehuda Leib, the older chasidim discovered that the Rebbe meant one must live with the Torah portion of the week. One should not only learn the weekly portion but live it.
"Beraishit is a cheerful portion, even though its ending is not all that pleasant. Noach has the Flood, but the week ends on a happy note with the birth of our father Abraham. The really joyous week is that of Lech Lecha. We live every day of the week with Abraham, the first to dedicate his very life to spreading G-dliness in the world. And Abraham bequeathed his self-sacrifice as an inheritance to all Jews."
Spreading G-dliness and teaching others about the One G-d was what made Abraham so unique. For, others before him had recognized that there was only one G-d. Adam and his descendants acknowledged the Creator, Noah and his generation, too, believed in one G-d. We are taught that Abraham's grandson, Jacob, had studied about G-d in a "yeshiva" established by Shem--one of Noah's sons. So, Abraham's realization that there is One Supreme Being was not novel. His distinctiveness lay in the fact that he taught those around him, the majority of his generation who had fallen into the error of believing in many gods.
As Rabbi Sholom Ber taught, through Abraham's self-sacrifice, we, his children, inherited the strength to spread G-dliness in the world.
Rabbi Shmuel Butman
All winter long Jews include a petition for rain in the daily prayers. When the Master of the Universe responds generously and gives copious rains to His land, all is well, but when this is not the case, the Land of Israel and its inhabitants suffer.
One year there was little rainfall. The dry ground yielded but little produce, and food prices were sky-high. Even the wealthy were pressed to pay for all their needs, but for the poor, starvation looked them the eyes. And yet, it was even worse for the Torah scholars who were always dependent on the yeshivas for their livelihood. The many yeshivas were supported by the generosity of the wealthy citizenry, who now couldn't afford to give with their usual open-handedness.
The leading rabbis of Jerusalem met and decided to dispatch a delegate to raise money from their brethren abroad. But who would go? No one was anxious to accept upon himself the task. They drew lots, and the choice fell upon Rabbi Avraham Galanti. He was a man noted for his piety and vast knowledge, but he had never travelled abroad and had no experience with foreign ways. Nevertheless, he accepted his mission and travelled to the port city of Yaffa, where he boarded a ship headed for Constantinople.
The grueling voyage took many weeks, and when the sailors finally saw land, a strange sight met their eyes. Instead of the busy activity of a port, they saw distraught people running to and fro. Others stood on rooftops, while militia patrolled the empty streets.
The ship's captain and crew were frightened. They were reluctant to land. Rabbi Galanti, however, was determined to go ashore, for Constantinople, with its well-to-do and generous Jewish community was his main destination. It was specifically there that he was sent and he was determined to fulfill his instructions.
Rabbi Galanti begged the captain for a small rowboat, explaining the importance of his mission. Soon a small craft carrying the rabbi and one sailor set out for the shore.
No sooner had Rabbi Galanti stepped ashore when he was approached by two soldiers who cried out: "You must return to your ship! Two great lions have escaped from the Sultan's private zoo and are running through the city. The Sultan wants them alive, and we are terrified to approach them."
Just then, they heard a blood-curdling roar, and the panic-stricken soldiers fled, leaving the rabbi standing alone. The famished lion sprang towards him, anticipating a meal at last, but just as suddenly, it froze in its tracks and crouched down at his feet. People standing on the surrounding roof-tops turned away to avoid the horrible sight, but when they saw that a miracle was occurring, they craned their necks to get a better look.
They saw Rabbi Galanti holding the lion by the mane and leading it quietly down the street toward the royal palace. Rabbi Galanti's path took him past the second lion. Rabbi Galanti gently called to it, and the lion turned and docilely followed him down the street. When they reached the Sultan's private gardens, Rabbi Galanti deposited the two lions in their cages and locked the bars securely.
As he turned to leave, Rabbi Galanti was approached by the Sultan and his ministers who now dared to leave the confines of the palace. The rabbi was invited to accompany them to the royal quarters. As they stood together the Sultan turned to Rabbi Galanti and inquired, "Who are you, and what are your powers that you have dared and succeeded to capture my escaped lions?"
Rabbi Galanti explained that he was from Jerusalem where the people were enduring a famine. He had come to collect funds with which to help his beleaguered brethren.
The Sultan was amazed. "I thought you must be an animal-tamer or a sorcerer. If you are what you claim to be, a Torah scholar, then I still don't understand how you accomplished this feat."
"Your Majesty," replied Rabbi Galanti, bowing respectfully, "I am a weak old man, and I certainly make no use of magic, for it is forbidden to us. I will explain to Your Majesty the teachings of our Sages, and you will be able to understand how I was able to control these wild animals. We have been taught that the definition of a brave person is one who can conquer his evil impulses. All of my life I have fought against my evil inclination, and I have succeeded in purifying my heart up to the point that I fear nothing except the A-mighty.
"Also, Your Majesty, the Creator instilled in beasts an innate fear of people which is manifested only when people act as they should. But, when a person sullies his G-dly image, the roles are reversed, and the person fears the beast instead.
The Sultan was impressed by the rabbi's words. He instructed his servants to bring a large sum of money from his treasury and give it to Rabbi Avraham as a token of his gratitude and esteem. Rabbi Avraham returned to Jerusalem having accomplished his mission of mercy and having sanctified the Name of G-d before the Sultan and all his people.
Go out of your land... and I will make your name great (Gen. 12:1,2)
Why did G-d find it necessary to promise Abraham that his name would be great? Did Abraham really care about personal fame? Our Sages taught that the mention of Abraham's name caused G-d's name to be sanctified. Abraham's whole life was spent spreading the knowledge of the one G-d. Wherever he went he caused people to think about their Creator. Thus, whenever Abraham's name was mentioned, G-d's name was sanctified, too.
Abram took Sarai his wife... and the souls they had made in Charan (Gen. 12:5)
If all the scientists in the world attempted to create even a mosquito, they could not succeed in imbuing it with life. What then, is meant by "the souls they had made"? Rashi explains that this refers to those whom they "brought under the wings of the Divine Presence." Abram spread the belief in one G-d among the men, and Sarai among the women; they are therefore credited with having "created" the new believers.
And Abram called there in the name of G-d (Gen. 13:4)
Our Sages taught: Do not read vayikra--"and he called," but rather vayakri--"and he caused others to call." Abraham erected a way-station for travelers in the middle of the desert, and taught each person who partook of his hospitality about the oneness of G-d. Avraham was not content to be the only one to call on G-d's name--he caused others to come to appreciate and thank G-d for His goodness.
The wondrous events and conditions of the Messianic Era will completely overshadow all and any miracles that happened before then, even those associated with the Exodus from Egypt.