Category Archives: Shavuos

Galus and Gastronomy

Some people, like pollster James Zogby, see Israeli offerings of hummus and babaganoush as a form of  “cultural genocide.”  And cookbook author Reem Kassis says that the marketing of hummus as an Israeli food makes her feel that she doesn’t exist.

I can’t say whether hummus was originally an Arab or Israeli delicacy, only that I enjoy it with a bit of olive oil and paprika on a pita. But I have what to say about Jewish cuisine and what it teaches us.  You can read what here.

Shavuos – Happy Anniversary

In contrast to Pesach’s matzos and Sukkos’ sukkos and arba minim, Shavuos is unique among the Shalosh Regalim for its lack of any positive ritual-commandment.

That may have to do with the holiday’s association with Mattan Torah.

Because that experience involved no particular action; it was, in a sense, the very essence of passivity, the acceptance of Hashem’s Torah and His will. Hashem was the actor; our ancestors’ response was to receive, to submit to the Creator.

Mattan Torah is famously compared by various Midrashim to a wedding, with Hashem the groom and His people the bride. (Many chasunah minhagim reflect that metaphor: the chuppah recalls the mountain held over the Jews’ heads; the candles, the lightning; the breaking of the glass, the shattering of the luchos.)

And just as a Jewish marriage is legally effected in the kallah’s simple choice to accept the wedding ring or other gift the groom offers, so did Klal Yisrael at Har Sinai create its eternal bond with the Creator by accepting His gift of gifts.

And so, a positive, active mitzvah for the day would arguably be in dissonance with the day’s central theme of receptivity.

Shavuos’ identification with our collective identity as a symbolic bride, moreover, may well have something to do, too, with the fact that the holiday’s hero is… a heroine: Rus, whose story not only concerns her own wholehearted acceptance of the Torah but culminates in her own marriage.

It isn’t fashionable these days to celebrate passivity or submission, even in those words’ most basic and positive senses. But Judaism, unlike fashion, is eternal.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia

Mountains to Climb

Ever find yourself in a long “10 items or less” supermarket line waiting for the cashier to check the price of kumquats for the lady who apparently considers all her fruits and vegetables to count as a single item?

Well, even if you have, you might compare your experience with the recent one of the hundreds of people bundled up in minus-20-degree weather waiting patiently in line on a narrow path more than 26,000 feet above sea level to reach the summit of Nepal’s Mount Everest. And, in the supermarket, you weren’t likely laden with an oxygen tank – a necessity at that altitude – whose contents were steadily diminishing.

What’s more, you probably didn’t have to navigate past the body of someone who died while waiting on line before you.

What makes people do things like climb what they consider the world’s highest peak (which in fact is probably Gangkhar Puensum in Bhutan)?

After all, according to mountain guide Adrian Ballinger, “humans just really aren’t meant to exist” in such places. “Even when using bottled oxygen,” he explains, “there’s only a very few number of hours that we can actually survive up there before our bodies start to shut down. So that means if you get caught in a traffic jam above 26,000 feet … the consequences can be really severe.”

Indeed. At this writing, 11 people are known to have breathed their last on treks to or from the summit of Mount Everest this year. The quest has claimed the lives of almost 300 people since 1923.

I suspect that those who spend considerable amounts of time, effort and money – the average price paid in 2017, for permits, equipment and guides, to climb Everest was approximately $45,000 – are impelled, ultimately if subtly, by the human search for meaning.

Nineteenth century secular philosophers argued about what ultimate essential goal motivates human beings. The German thinker Friedrich Nietzsche contended that it was power; another German, Sigmund Freud, that it was pleasure.

Both tapped into something real, although they were, like all secular thinkers, blind men trying to figure out an elephant. That Hashem has granted humanity bechirah, free will, and that we can, as a result, actually accomplish – change the courses of our lives and, ultimately, of history – is a power unparalleled in all of creation. So the “will to power” that, unfortunately, mostly yields bullies and tyrants is, in its most refined expression, the exercise of gevurah, “strength,” that Ben Zoma defines as “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature (Avos 4:1).

And Freud was on to something too, as the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the most basic ideal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Ultimate pleasure, that is – the pleasure of “enjoying the radiance of the Shechinah.” But the German secularist, of course, couldn’t see past the temporal, ephemeral yearnings of this world to the ta’anug ha’amiti, the “singularly genuine pleasure,” of the next.

Which brings us to the third nineteenth century conception of human motivation, that of the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard. He wrote of the “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve some truly meaningful, ultimate goal in life.

His approach was popularized by a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, whose 1946 book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” was deemed by a Library of Congress survey to be one of “the ten most influential books in the United States.” By the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

There indeed seems to be an innate human aspiration to achieve something “meaningful,” to aim at some larger-than-oneself “accomplishment,” no matter how strangely some people may define that for themselves. For one person, such meaning may entail achieving a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. For others, the grand vision is the scaling of a mountain, even – especially? – if it entails danger.

For others still, namely those of us who recognize our Creator and His will for us, the accomplishment to reach for is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos. At certain times in history, aiming for that goal also entailed great danger. In our own times, baruch Hashem, it does not, although it may not offer a simple, obstacle-free and easy path.

As for us, well, while we may wish the Everest climbers every good fortune, we’ll be focusing in coming days on a very different mountain.

Have a happy and meaningful Shavuos.

© 2019 Hamodia

Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia

When “Right” Is Wrong

There is a social media page titled “Justice for Harambe,” Harambe being the gorilla that was shot to death in the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a 3-year-old boy who had slipped into its enclosure.  The page’s description says it was created to “raise awareness of Harambe’s murder.” Within hours of its posting, the sentiment was endorsed by more than 41,000 people.

Over in the Netherlands, a woman in her 20s was recently cleared by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission for assisted suicide, because of “incurable post-traumatic-stress disorder” brought about by abuse she suffered as a child.  Although she had experienced improvements after intensive therapy, the doctors judged her to be “totally competent” to end her life.

And Shavuos is coming.

That was not a non sequitur.  Because the first day of Shavuos, zman mattan Torahseinu, falls on the first day of next week.  Had the Tzaddukim and Baitusim been successful in their quest to fix the date of Shavuos, however, it would always fall on that day.  Still confused about the connection?

It’s subtle but clear.  During the Bayis Sheini era, those groups asserted that it would best serve people’s needs to have two consecutive days of rest and feasting: Shabbos and, immediately thereafter, Shavuos.  (In Eretz Yisroel, of course, Shavuos is observed on a single day.)  And so they advocated amending the mesorah.

Although they provided a textual “basis” for their innovation, the Gemara (Menachos 65b) explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety – two days in a row of rest just seemed “right.”

But the mesorah states otherwise, that the phrase “mimochoras haShabbos” in the passuk that tells us when to begin counting Sefiras HaOmer, does not mean “the day after Shabbos,” but rather the day following the first day of Pesach.  And so, Shavuos can fall on days other than Sunday.

The desire to supplant the mesorah with what “seems” to “enlightened minds” more appropriate appears to be a theme of Tzadduki-ism.  The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, advocating that the ketores brought in the Kodesh Kodashim be set alight before the kohen’s entry into the room, rather than afterward, as the mesorah teaches.

Although here, too, they mustered scriptural “support,” the Tzadukim were in fact motivated, the Gemara explains, by “what seemed right.”  To wit, they argued, “Does one bring raw food to a mortal king and then cook it before him?  One brings it in already hot and steaming!”

In both the date of Shavuos and the avodas Yom Kippur, the mesorah was defended assiduously by the Perushim, the champions of the Torah Sheb’al Peh. The Tzaduki mindset, however and unfortunately, lives on.

The perceiving of animals as equals to humans – based on the perception of humans as mere animals – seems “right” to many.  The celebrated philosopher Peter Singer famously contended that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”

That same outlook sees the ending of an adult human life as a simple matter of “choice,” to be exercised by an individual as he or she sees fit.  Professor Singer has in fact advocated the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly.

Such placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems right” – above the received truths of the Torah stands in precise opposition to the message of Shavuos, when our forebears declared “Naaseh v’nishma” – “We will do and we will hear.”

That is the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of Hashem’s will even amid a lack of our own “hearing,” or understanding.  “We will do Your will,” our ancestors pledged, “even if it is not our own will, even if we feel we might have a ‘better idea’.”  Call it a declaration of dependence – of our trust in Hashem’s judgment over our own.

And so, as we approach Shavuos amid a marketplace-of-ideas maelstrom of “ethical” and “moral” opinions concerning myriad contemporary issues – not only in the larger world but even in the Jewish community, even in groups calling themselves “Orthodox” – we do well to pause and reflect on the fact that our mandate is not to “decide” what seems right to us, but to search, honestly and objectively, for the guidance of our mesorah.

When we choose to do that, with sincerity and determination, in our personal lives and our communal ones alike, we echo our ancestors’ words at Har Sinai, declaring, as did they, that man is not the arbiter of right and wrong; our Creator is. 

© 2016 Hamodia

Children’s Programming

“Nahoul” is a giant bee, or, better, a man in a furry bee costume.  He is one of the intended-to-be-lovable characters on “Pioneers of Tomorrow,” a children’s television program produced in Gaza.

In a recent episode, Nahoul encourages a boy from Jenin to attack his Jewish neighbors.  “Punch them,” he advises.  “Turn their faces into tomatoes.”

“If his neighbors are Jewish or Zionist,” Rawan, the little girl host of the show adds helpfully, “that goes without saying.”  Nahoul then advises throwing stones at “the Jews.”

A bit later in the program, another little girl shares her hope to become a policewoman, so that she can “shoot the Jews.”

“All of them?” the host asks with a smile.

“Yes,” the other girl replies.

“Good.”

Nahoul is likely to meet the fate of other cuddly animals – like Farfour the Mouse, a rabbit and a bear – that were previously featured on the program only to suddenly disappear, the show’s little viewers being informed that each character had been “martyred” by Israelis.

The airwaves in Gaza are tightly controlled by Hamas, the de facto government, and “Pioneers of Tomorrow” is part of that violent and hateful group’s effort to educate the region’s children about what Hamas considers their civic and religious duties.

They educate and we educate.

It might seem a novel thought, but it’s really an obvious one: The surest way to understand a society lies in the entertainment it offers its young.

American culture qua culture is largely aimless.  If it has ideals, they are high-sounding ones like “freedom” and “individuality” but which generally translate as “do what you will” and “I’m okay, you’re okay.”  Reportedly, much of the programming aimed at American children pays homage to the same.

Children’s fare in the Orthodox Jewish world is also telling.  And although it does not use television as a medium, it’s voluminous.  Whether in the form of books, compact discs, MP3s or cassette tapes, there is an astounding array of memorable musical offerings, characters, stories and performances that convey the ideas and ideals that inform the community, and that reflect its essence.  Jewish children are taught about Jewish history, about love for other Jews and for Eretz Yisroel, about the beauty of Shabbos and the meanings of yomim tovim, and about the performance of mitzvos; about the evils of jealousy and loshon hora and about the importance of Torah-study.

And then we have Hamas.

Shavuos approaches.  My wife and I will miss having our children with us.   (They’re all either married or in yeshiva –yes, the marrieds invited us to join them, but their father is a hopeless homebody.)  But when I go to the beis medrash on Shavuos night, I’ll remember all the Shavuos nights spent learning Torah with the little boys, later young men, whom we were privileged to raise, and all the subtle teaching of both them and their sisters that went on around the Shabbos table, and throughout the weeks and years.

And I will remember one Shavuos in particular, quite a few years back, when I was learning in a nearby shul – packed with others, many of them fathers and sons too – with one of our sons, then a 12-year-old.

We spent most of the night engrossed in Gemara.  We began with the sugya of tzaar ba’alei chayim in Bava Metzia, which he was studying in yeshiva, and then continued with the sugya of Yerushalayim nischalka l’shvotim in Yoma, which he and I were learning regularly together.

Dovie seemed entirely awake throughout it all, and asked the perceptive questions I had come to expect from him.

The experience was enthralling, as it always was, and while it was a challenge to concentrate (at times even to keep my eyes from closing) during Shacharis, Dovie and I both “made it” and then, hand in hand, walked home, where we promptly crashed.  But before my head touched my pillow (a millisecond or two before I entered REM sleep), I summoned the energy to thank HaKodosh Boruch Hu for sharing His Torah with us.

That silent prayer came back to me like a thunderclap a few days later, when I caught up on some reading I had missed (in the word’s most simple sense) over Yomtov.  Apparently, while Dovie and I were learning Torah, the presses at The Washington Times were printing a story datelined Gaza City.

It began with a description of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, Abu Ali, being “lovingly dress[ed] by his mother in a costume of a suicide bomber, complete with small kaffiyeh, a belt of electrical tape and fake explosives made of plywood.”

“I encourage him, and he should do this,” said his mother; and Abu Ali himself apparently agreed. “I hope to be a martyr,” he said.  “I hope when I get to 14 or 15 to explode myself.”

My thoughts flashed back to Shavuos and to my own son, and I thanked Hashem again.

© Hamodia 2014

POSTSCRIPT:  It turns out that we will indeed be away from home for Shavuos, in Israel, for the bris of Dovie’s and his wife Devorah Rivkah’s  firstborn .  May we all know only happy occasions!