RNS Article about the Jerusalem Day Parade

RELIGION NEWS SERVICE

The Jewish way to celebrate Jerusalem Day

We are enjoined by our Jewish faith not to goad or incite other peoples or religions. 

June 1, 2022

By Avi Shafran

 (RNS) — Residents of Israel and Gaza dodged a bullet on Sunday (May 29) — in fact a slew of bullets, and bombs and missiles.

Sunday was “Jerusalem Day,” an annual celebration that commemorates Israel’s capture of the Holy City during the 1967 Six-Day War. As in past years, it included a parade through the Holy City’s Arab Quarter, which this year had drawn fierce threats of terroristic attacks from Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs Gaza, which, had they been carried out, would have incurred retaliation from Israel.

Thankfully, the group proved to be only grumbling. As usual, some local clashes between marchers and Arab Quarter residents broke out but no large-scale violence erupted.

All the same, the parade was, as it always has been, misguided, dangerous and decidedly un-Jewish.

I am a Haredi Jew (often, and distastefully to me, referred to as “ultra” Orthodox), and I rejoice in the fact that Jerusalem is in Jewish hands. I rejoice that the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, where the ancient Jewish temples stood and toward which Jews worldwide have faced in prayer over millennia, is today accessible to all.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, under Ottoman rule and then the British mandate, Jewish worshippers at the wall risked assaults, and animal dung was regularly dumped there.

Between 1948 and 1967, when the city was under Jordanian control, half of the Old City’s 58 synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered and its tombstones used as paving stones.

Jews, needless to say, were denied access to the Western Wall.

For millennia Jews have prayed daily for their people’s return to the Promised Land and its spiritual center, Jerusalem. When the armies of three countries tried to remove Jews from the region for the second time in the Six-Day War, and were vanquished, we cried in joy.

Even having returned to our ancestral land, we are required to be sensitive to other faiths and peoples. We pray daily for the return of the central temple to the site where it originally stood. But that return, according to the Jewish religious tradition, is in God’s hands, not ours. Until the messiah arrives to usher in a new era of history — when, in Isaiah’s words, “a wolf and a lamb shall graze together” and global peace will reign — we are enjoined to not goad or incite other peoples or religions.

And so a baldly nationalistic march — especially through the Arab Quarter of the Old City — was no way to mark the happy fact that Jerusalem and the Western Wall are today open to people of all faiths. It was, simply put, a provocation.

The day before the march, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the most revered leaders of the Haredi community, reportedly asked Haredi members of the Israeli Parliament if they truly “don’t understand that (the march) is unnecessary and dangerous.”

He also decried Jews’ visiting the Temple Mount itself, which, in 1967, Israel put under the administrative control of the Jordan-based Islamic trust known as the Waqf. Since then only Islamic worship has been permitted on the Mount, in order to preserve and promote peace.

At the time, Israel reasoned that to alter the religious character of the place, where the Dome of the Rock shrine — one of the holiest places in Islam — and the Al-Aqsa Mosque stand, would be a gross affront to the Muslim world. It was a decision born not of weakness but of wisdom, even if the peace it meant to foster remains an elusive entity.

Peace has been elusive for many reasons, including Arab states’ rejection, for many years, of Israel’s legitimacy. But there has been much progress in that area of late. Today, the main obstacles to peace are groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which are sworn to murder Israelis and destroy their country, and those Palestinians in the Israel-occupied West Bank who swoon to these groups’ hateful siren call.

But Israel only pushes peace further out of reach when it indulges Jewish nationalists by allowing incendiary actions that insult the feelings of Israel’s Arab residents and of all who sympathize with them. Like the Jerusalem Day parade.

Some will point to the scuffles that broke out as celebrants made their way into the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter, arguing that both sides threw invective and glass bottles at each other, requiring the intervention of Israeli police. The march itself, however, even if it had proceeded peacefully, was an unnecessary invitation for resentment.

And to what end? To assert Israeli sovereignty in the face of Arabs? That may reflect a militant nationalistic stance. But not a Jewish one.

Before the next Jerusalem Day, Israel should examine the true meaning of the event, which is to express our gratitude for being able to live and worship freely in Jerusalem. A truly Jewish Jerusalem Day would foster heartfelt gatherings in places where no one will be angered or affronted. Next year Israel should redirect its citizens’ feelings from provocative demonstrations to a Jewish celebration of a city whose name is rooted in the Hebrew word shalom, “peace.”

(Rabbi Avi Shafran, who serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, writes widely in Jewish and general media. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Bamidbar – The Child Makes the Parent

The reference in the parshah (Bamidbar, 3:4) to the fact of Nadav and Avihu’s childlessness can be read as a simple explanation for why further generations of their lines are absent from the Torah’s text. But Abba Ḥanan, in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, sees it as telegraphing much more, that “A man who does not engage in procreation is liable to death” (Yevamos 64a).

There are various reasons given for the meaning of the “strange fire” that those two of Aharon’s sons brought on the altar in the desert: That they didn’t accord their father due respect (Yalkut Shimoni, 524:5); that they had decided a law themselves in the presence of their teacher (Rashi, Vayikra, 10:2); that they had drunk wine before entering the Mishkan (ibid); that they spoke uncouthly between themselves about the eventual deaths of Moshe and Aharon (Sanhedrin, 52a).

The implication of the Gemara in Yevamos, though, is that, had they married and had children, they would not have perished.

Intriguing is the Chasam Sofer’s suggestion in explanation of that fact. He writes that a person doesn’t fully relate to how he should conduct himself vis-à-vis his superiors until he has children.  Then, he feels what lack of proper honor, which a child naturally exhibits, is like, and recognizes the imperative of such honor. 

Had they had children, in other words, Nadav and Avihu would have been prevented from showing a lack of proper honor to Moshe and Aharon (and the Mishkan).

(Interestingly, our parshah also notes how even people who are biologically unable to have children can, in effect have them – by undertaking their tutelage. “Whoever teaches the Torah to the son of his fellow man is considered as if he had begotten him” (Rashi, Bamidbar 3:1, quoting Sanhedrin 19b).

And so, in addition to all the other reasons for seeing children as blessings – that having them is a mitzvah, that they hasten Mashiach, that they provide genealogical continuity, that they offer many joys, that they can eventually care for their elders, we might add one more: 

That, even as we help them grow, they do the same for us.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bechukosai – To Know What We Don’t

It would be silly to claim a “favorite” Rashi, but one comment made in rare places, including in this week’s parshah, by the author of perfectly succinct yet brilliant glosses to not only Tanach but the entire Talmud Bavli deserves special mention – and consideration.

Noting the ungrammatical use of the word “erkecha,” where “erech” would seem to be the logical form, Rashi (Vayikra 27:3) informs the reader that he “doesn’t know” the reason for the structure of the word.

“I don’t know” is a phrase as well-deserved as it is rare these days, when self-assuredness seems all too often to stand in for self-respect, when opinions are routinely proffered as unassailable fact, when people are permitted – even expected – to state without doubt what they cannot possibly know to be true (and, in some cases, like in contemporary politics, what clearly isn’t).

There is, of course, nothing wrong with opinions (for some of us, our stock in trade), but Rashi’s modest example is one we would be wise to more often emulate.   As the Gemara puts it: “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’” (Berachos, 4a).

Some of us “know,” for example, that one political party is better for the country; others, that that the other one is; some “know” that stricter limits on abortion are proper; others “know” that they are a danger. Some “know” that the p’sukim of ma’aseh beraishis mean one thing.  Others, that they mean something else. We think a whole lot of things, but know a good many less.

To be sure, there are verities. That we humans possess a spark of the Divinity that created us, for instance.  That we have free will.  That life is precious.  That our actions have consequences. 

For Jews, there are – or should be – other certainties, among them that we have been divinely chosen to set an example for the wider world, that our carefully-preserved history includes at its apogee Hashem’s bequeathal of His Torah to us (which we will soon be celebrating again), that our mission and our peoplehood are sacred.

But there are many smaller things, no end of them in fact, that we do not know, at least not with the certainty of those essential convictions.  And so, as we consider political or social or personal issues, even if we think we have a pretty good idea of just what’s what, it’s always a good idea to pause to remember what Rashi knew, and admitted he didn’t.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Incident at Frankfurt

Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline, ended up with sauerkraut on its corporate face recently, after more than 120 visibly Jewish men and women in Frankfurt’s airport on May 4 were banned from boarding their connecting flights. 

Most of the Jewish passengers were heading to Hungary, to visit the burial placeof a revered rabbi, Reb Shayeleh Kerestirer, on the anniversary of his death. They had to scramble to get on flights with other airlines.

In a statement shortly after the incident, the airline claimed that the travelers had been blocked from the flights because, on their earlier flight from New York, they had refused requests to honor the airline’s medical mask requirement. 

Numerous passengers, however, told news outlets that they and the vast majority of Jewish travelers had heeded the mask mandate and had been unfairly grouped together and punished because of a small number of rule-violators.

Holding anyone who happened to look Jewish accountable for the infraction of a few was, obviously, well… Problematik.

Exacerbating things was one of several videos disseminated by Dan’s Deals, an air travel website, that went viral schnell. In it, after an irate passenger heatedly protested the collective punishment, a Lufthansa supervisor blurted out that it had been “Jewish people who were the mess, who made the problems.”

Lufthansa found itself in quite a Kuddlemuddle.

Many were upset by the accounts and videos. Agudath Israel executive vice president Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel wrote a letter to Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr the following Monday asking that he research the “disturbing accounts” about the flight, which indicated that “People were being punished simply because they shared ethnicity and religion with the alleged rule violators.”

The next day, Lufthansa said that it “regrets the circumstances surrounding the decision to exclude the affected passengers from the flight.” “We apologize to all the passengers unable to travel on this flight,” the airline added, “not only for the inconvenience, but also for the offense caused and personal impact.”

“What transpired,” it continued, “is not consistent with Lufthansa’s policies or values. We have zero tolerance for racism, antisemitism and discrimination of any type.

“We will be engaging with the affected passengers to better understand their concerns and openly discuss how we may improve our customer service.”

While an apology was certainly warranted, many were less-than-impressed with this one. Yad Vashem director Dani Dayan, the ADL and the Agudah were among the disappointed.

They, variously, made the points that regretting the “circumstances surrounding the decision” was not the same as regretting the decision; that no reference was made to the remark about how “Jewish people… were the mess”; that passengers’ “concerns” were blatantly obvious, namely, that they were targeted for mistreatment only because they are Jews; and that focus should be trained not on “how [Lufthansa] may improve its customer service” but rather on the egregious nature of what transpired and on steps Lufthansa will take to make sure that such incidents never occur again.

In the wake of those complaints, on the 11th, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr personally apologized for the incident in a video call to the rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Yehudah Teichtal.

“Antisemitism has no place in Lufthansa,” Mr. Spohr told the rabbi. “What happened should not have happened. Our company represents a connection between people, cultures, and nations. Openness and tolerance are the cornerstones and there is no room for antisemitism.”

Rabbi Teichtal subsequently told Dan’s Deals that the CEO’s apology sounded genuine and that he was told that the employees involved in the incident have been suspended, pending an investigation.

There is much to unpack from the incident. Firstly, despite the airline workers’ indefensible actions, if in fact there were any passengers who were asked to mask and refused, they were not only wrong but the ultimate cause of what all the other affected passengers had to endure.

Secondly, is angrily badgering a person, like what evoked the “Jewish people who were the mess” comment, the Jewish way to deal with even an unconscionable decision? Would the Chofetz Chaim have indignantly berated an airline employee? Yes, the indignation brought forth an ugly response. But scratch many a person enough (let aside a German) and you’ll strike antisemitic sentiments. But is such scratching a mitzvah? Or proper?

Thirdly, and more happily, I was struck by a snippet of one video taken at the time. It was of a group of heavily-armed German police standing at the ready. From somewhere in the crowd of irate passengers flew a crude accusation: “Nazis!”

The policeman in charge positively simmered and then stepped forward. “Who was it?” he asked. And then, when there was no response, he raised his voice: “WHO WAS IT? WHO SAID THAT?”

No one came forward to claim the slur.

But the officer clearly considered it deeply insulting. 

(c) 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Gaffe Track

It’s become increasingly common for some observers to question President Biden’s mental acuity. A recent struggle the president had with pronouncing a word brought an inordinate amount of criticism.

My take on the hand-wringing (and worse) can be read here.

Behar – Don’t Serve Servants

“They are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:55).

Although the Talmud’s comment on the phrase “They are My servants” – “but not the servants of servants” (Bava Kamma 116b) – has a technical, halachic meaning, it also hints at a broader one.

In other words, not only does it say that a Jew cannot own another Jew, it also signals that Jews are not to indenture themselves to causes other than the Jewish mandate. Not to a political party, social cause or personality. A Jew’s exclusive ultimate role is to be a servant of Hashem.

Because the freedom we were divinely granted from Egyptian bondage was not what many consider “freedom” – libertinism, the loss of all fetters. It was a passage from being “servants to servants” – to Egyptians and Egyptian mores – to becoming servants of Hashem. As Moshe, in Hashem’s name, ordered Pharaoh: “Let my people go so that they may serve Me” (Shemos 9:1).  

The Hebrew word for freedom, cherus, the Mishna (Avos, 6:2) notes, can be vowelled to render charus, “etched,” as the Aseres Hadibros were on the luchos.  “The only free person,” the Mishna concludes, “is the one immersed in Torah.”

True freedom doesn’t mean being retired and moneyed, lying on a beach with sunshine on one’s face and a cold beer within reach, without a care or beckoning task. 

In the words of Iyov, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  True freedom, counterintuitively, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to a higher purpose liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and is what can bring true meaning to our lives.

Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

A timely metaphor, as we progress from Pesach, the holiday of our release from bondage, to Shavuos, the day we entered servitude to the Divine. And when, like on Pesach, we will sing the words of Hallel.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Take Two – Pesach Sheini’s Special Significance to My Family

“Second Passover,” or Pesach Sheini, a minor Jewish holiday, is anything but minor in my family. It was on that Jewish date, which, in 1945, fell on April 27 (and this year, falls on May 15), that my late father-in-law, the late Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, was liberated by American forces from Kaufering, part of the concentration camp complex known as Dachau.

In biblical times, Pesach Sheini, coming a month after Pesach, was a day on which Jews who were unable for various reasons to bring the korban Pesach, or paschal sacrifice, on Pesach had another opportunity to do so, and to eat its meat along with matzos (unleavened bread), and bitter herbs. For my father-in-law, it became a symbol of his own “second chance” — at life. His happy one as a child in the Polish city of Lodz had been rudely interrupted by the Nazis on September 8, 1939.

Mr. Cohen became a teenage inmate of several concentration camps. On Pesach Sheini in 1945, he and a friend, Yossel Carmel, lay in Kaufering, in a corpse-filled pit, where they had been cast by their captors, who thought them dead.

Over recent days, there had been rumors that the camp’s commanders had been ordered to murder all the prisoners, to deprive the advancing Allied armies of living witnesses to their work. 

The friends’ fear, though, was leavened by hope, born of the sound of explosions in the distance. “We prayed,” he later wrote, that “the thunderous explosions would go on forever.” The pair, he recalled, “eventually fell asleep to the beautiful sound of the bombs.”  

The only moving things in the camp were shuffling, emaciated “musselmen,” the “walking skeletons” who had been rendered senseless by starvation and trauma. And so the pair wondered if, perhaps, the camp guards had abandoned the premises. Alas, though, the S.S. returned, bringing along prisoners from other parts of the camp complex, who were kicked toward waiting wagons and, quite literally, thrown onto them.

But, when no one was looking, the two inmates managed to climb down from where they had been cast and found new refuge in a nearby latrine.  “Our stomachs,” he recalled, “were convulsing.” 

Eventually the wagons left, and the two young men crept back into their cellblock, posing again, not unconvincingly, as corpses. 

Then they smelled smoke. Peeking out from their hiding place, the young men saw flames everywhere. Running outside, the newly resurrected pair saw German soldiers watching a barracks burn, thankfully with their backs toward them. There were piles of true corpses all around, and the two quickly threw themselves on the nearest one that wasn’t aflame.

My future father-in-law thought it was the end, and wanted to recite the “final confession” that Jewish liturgy suggests for one who is dying. But his friend reminded him of an aphorism the Talmud ascribes to Dovid Hamelech, King David, that “Even with a sharp sword against his neck, one should never despair of Divine mercy.”   

And that mercy, at least for them, arrived.  Every few minutes, bombs whistled overhead, followed by fearsome explosions. The earth shook, but each blast shot shrapnel of hope into their hearts. The Germans now really seemed gone for good. 

Dodging the flames and smoldering ruins, the pair ran to the only building still intact, the camp kitchen.  There they found a few others who had also successfully hidden from the Nazi mop-up operation.

And they discovered a sack of flour. They mixed it with water, fired up the oven and baked flatbreads. My father-in-law, who, throughout his captivity, had kept careful note of the passing of time on the Jewish calendar, knew it was Pesach Sheini. And the breads became their matzos. No bitter herbs were necessary.

The door flew open and another inmate rushed in breathlessly, finally shouting: “The Americans are here!”

A convoy of jeeps roared through the camp. American soldiers approached the barracks, some, Mr. Cohen recalled, with tears streaming down their faces at the sight of the piles of blackened, smoldering skeletons. 

“Along with the American soldiers,” he wrote, “we all wept.” 

And then he recited the Jewish blessing of gratitude to God for “having kept us alive and able to reach this day.”

Eventually, Mr. Cohen made his way to France, where he cared for and taught Jewish war orphans; and then to Switzerland, where he met and married my dear mother-in-law, may she be well. The couple emigrated to Toronto and raised five children. For decades thereafter, each Second Passover, he and others who had been liberated from Kaufering that day, along with other camps’ survivors, would arrange a special meal of thanksgivingin Toronto or New York, during which they shared memories and gratitude to God.

As the years progressed, however, sadly but inevitably, fewer and fewer of the survivors were in attendance. And, like his friend Mr. Carmel, Mr. Cohen is no longer with us.

But his wife, and my wife and her siblings, along with scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, spread across several states, Canada and Israel, gather in groups, in person or virtually, every Pesach Sheini to recall his ordeals and his liberation, the “second life” we are so grateful he was granted by God.

Many are survivors today, of hateful violence, again against Jews in Israel, as well as other people in places like Sudan, Myanmar, Yemen, Europe and Ukraine. Despair is a natural reaction to witnessing such evil. But those who, like my father-in-law — and my own father, who spent the war years in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia — persevered and created new post-trauma lives show that pasts needn’t cripple futures.

That, like in the case of Pesach Sheini, we can be graced with second chances.

Emor – Crime and Punishment

The first of the Torah’s two cases of imprisonment– that of the mekalel, the blasphemer, is in the parshah (Vayikra, 24:12). The second is in parshas Shelach (Bamidbar 15:34), regarding the mekoshesh eitzim, the Shabbos wood-gatherer.

It is noteworthy that in both cases, the imprisonment of the violator is not a punishment but rather a temporary restraint until a Divine verdict is obtained.

Longtime societal norms become parts of our default assumptions, and so, the contention that sentencing a criminal to jail is an appropriate punishment for a serious crime is seldom questioned.

In the Torah, though, it isn’t. Punitive prescriptions for intentional crimes take the form either of monetary compensation or of corporal punishment – flogging or execution.

American prisons are not only overpopulated (upward of 2 million people), overcrowded, expensive and rife with violence and abuse but also serve as fertile environments for some criminals to hone their skills and “network” with one another. 

An idea that seems impolite to raise but is worth considering all the same is whether corporal punishment might serve as a more effective response and deterrent to crime than incarceration.

Flogging wouldn’t likely fly these days. But carefully regulated but painful experiences, like, for instance, tasing (which is currently acceptable for disabling threats), perhaps combined with requiring post-punishment location anklets, might be an option to consider.

Under current norms, purposely inflicting pain is labeled torture and considered contemptable. But long-term imprisonment is torturous and contemptable in its own right. 

As in so many other realms, here, too, the Torah might be an illuminative guide to larger society. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

A Lesson About Living

At 14 years of age, my mother assumed that “sitting shiva,” the Jewish week-long observance of mourning for a close relative, was just part of the regular Jewish year-cycle.

That was because, after immigrating as a young child with her parents and maternal grandmother to Baltimore from a shtetl in Poland not long before World War II, within three years she lost her grandmother, her 20-year-old brother, who took suddenly ill and died while studying in a New York yeshiva, and then, shortly thereafter, her father, who perished, they said, of a broken heart. He was 48.

I never met my mother’s father, who served as a respected rabbi of a small Baltimore synagogue; I was born some 16 years after his death. But a photograph of him, dark-eyed, long-bearded and in rabbinic cap and garb, looks down at me from within a cherry-wood frame over the desk where I write.

After his death, his widow, a quiet, calm and determined woman, finding herself suddenly on her own, summoned the energy to open a small Jewish bookstore, and the strength to make it a small success.

My mother’s mother was successful, too, with the help of a Brooklyn rabbi, in finding a suitable husband for her daughter.

He was also a Polish immigrant, a yeshiva boy who had spent the war years in a Siberian work camp, courtesy of the Soviet Union. Essentially penniless, he courted my mother by quietly singing songs to her in his sweet voice as they rode the subways in New York where she had a secretarial job.

Like his bride’s father, he became the rabbi of a congregation, but in his case, happily, serving it for more than a half-century. My mother, though, was his partner in full, befriending and counselling the shul’s congregants, and running its youth program. My parents had three children, a girl and then two boys. I am the older boy, though I haven’t been a boy for more than 50 years.

My mother’s only other sibling, a brother, was studying in a Baltimore yeshiva when the U.S. entered World War II. He left the study hall to join the military and, after serving honorably in the South Pacific, returned to Baltimore and married. He and his wife, though, were childless.

And so it was my mother alone who was left to carry on her parents’ line.

I often marvel at how, throughout my youth, her young experience of repeated loss never registered on her face or in her demeanor.  It never occurred to me that she had had so wrenching a childhood; it was only long into my own adulthood that I heard her mention, en passant, her mistaken notion that shiva was just part of the Jewish year

It became obvious to me in adulthood that my mother didn’t want to burden her own children with the pain she had borne in her younger days. She was constantly upbeat, optimistic, nurturing and encouraging. Everything anyone could ask for in a mother. And it was real. She didn’t muffle the sadness of her youth; she overcame it.

Today, surveying a world so rife with anger at fate, so full of self-centered gripes about slights and harms, real or imagined, I regularly conjure the image of my mother. And the knowledge of what her youth was like, and how she transcended the personal tragedies she endured at a tender age, how she never allowed self-pity to embitter her, how her sights were only on joys of the present and hopes for the future, not on the hardships of the past.

And, as it happens, her hopes were realized. Although she died more than thirty years ago when she was only 65, she lived to see many grandchildren. And were she alive today, she could smile at triple-digit progeny, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of them living vibrant Jewish lives.

And I am quite sure that the very last thing she would be thinking about was her fourteenth year.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran