Yom HaShoah: The Siren

Women and children gathered in a wooded area during a deportation action in Yugoslavia, 1942. (Wikipedia Commons)

The siren cuts us off from our lives:
freezing like figures
in black and white photos.
Standing motionless,
heads bowed, eyes sombre,
awaiting the hush that follows.

It strikes, now as then, at home;
on the street corner; under the trees.
Even the children fall silent.
The wailing fades,
we claim back our lives, but
the photo figures are frozen forever.

Kedoshim: Holiness

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. (Vayikra 19:2).

Holiness, it transpires,
is not living hermit-like
in the rarefied air
of a mountain peak,
filling up days
in meditation and prayer,
spending nights seeking God
in the star-sprinkled sky.
It’s transcending the messiness,
the turmoil of our lives;
quelling impatience
with the people we love;
opening hearts
to the needy, the other;
sowing sparks of light
in every mundane hour.

The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS on this Parashah ponders the nature of holiness, and cites Martin Buber (among others) who says that holiness is found not in rising above the level of one’s neighbours but in relationships, in human beings recognising the latent divinity of other people, even as God recognises the latent divinity in each of us. He adds that Judaism does not divide life into the holy and the profane but into the holy and the not-yet-holy. The Etz Hayim quotes Louis Finkelstein who writes similarly, “Judaism is a way of life that endeavours to transform virtually every human action into a means of communion with God.”
The Etz Hayim points out that the laws of holiness detailed in Kedoshim cut across all categories of life: ritual; business ethics; proper behaviour towards the poor and afflicted; and family relations.

On the phrase, “Daber el kol adat benei Yisrael – speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel…” Rashi teaches that the addition of the words “kol adat – all the congregation ” teaches us that this section was proclaimed in full assembly because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah are dependent on it (Sifre Vayikra Rabbah 24). Based on Rashi’s teaching, the Hatam Sofer comments that the Torah is not demanding the holiness of isolation and monasticism, but holiness in the community – he says, “Be holy by being in the congregation and involved with other people.”
On the same comment of Rashi, the Sefat Emet teaches that holiness, as evidenced by God’s presence in the camp, is gained by unity among the people. The Kotsker Rebbe on the same teaching says that only by the power of the whole, can the individual be holy – he cannot do it alone.

On the phrase, “You shall be holy…” the Vurker Rebbe asks, “How can it be demanded of a mere mortal that he reach the level of holiness?” And he responds, “The intention is not that he should reach the level of the angels above – that level he will not achieve. All that he has been commanded is to be holy on the level at which he [already] is. You shall be holy in whatever situation you find yourself. Sanctify yourself and go up a little bit.”
Rabbi Yisrael of Salant* points out that generally, a holy person is associated with awe-inspiring greatness in Torah while in this Parashah, the criteria for holiness seem to be related to prohibitions against stealing, lying, obstructing justice etc. He says holiness is dependent on these. He adds that where the verse continues, “…for I, the Lord your God, am holy,” – [God is telling us] – I am in Heaven, as it were, the Holy One, and if I demand from you holiness, My intention is in earthly matters: commerce; work; and relationships with fellow creatures.

In a blogpost on Kedoshim in 2011, http://www.rebjeff.com/1/category/kedoshim/1.html, Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser notes that holiness is not a supernatural aspiration but a commandment which is detailed in the form of some very practical actions. He says, “There is nothing in the prescription about ascending bodily into heaven or hearing God’s voice in our heads. There is nothing about voluntary withdrawal from the world of material things. The Torah’s vision of holiness is one in which we elevate an ordinary life, not one in which we try to escape it.”


*Rabbi Yisrael ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin (Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) (1810-1883) was born in Zagare, Lithuania, the son of the Rabbi of the town, and later the Av Beth Din in Goldingen and Telz. As a boy, he studied with Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Braude of Salant and later with Rabbi Yosef Zundel of Salant, himself a disciple of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin. Rabbi Zundel exerted a deep influence on the development of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s character; he stressed religious self-improvement (musar), which Rabbi Yisrael Salanter later developed into a complete method and popularized. He was a famed Rosh Yeshiva and Talmudist (he is known as one of the first people to try to translate the Talmud into another language although he died before he could finish this immense project). However, he is best-known for fathering the Musar movement developed in 19th century Orthodox Eastern Europe, particularly among the Lithuanian Jews. The Hebrew term musar is from the book of Proverbs (1:2) and means “instruction”, “discipline”, or “conduct”. The term was used by the Musar movement to refer to disciplined efforts to further ethical and spiritual development. The study of Musar is a part of the study of Jewish ethics.

He is best known for stressing that the inter-personal laws of the Torah bear as much weight as Divine obligations. He taught that adhering to the ritual aspects of Judaism without developing one’s relationships with others and oneself was an unpardonable parody. There are many anecdotal stories about him addressing this moral equation.

He had an outreach philosophy and was the first major East European rabbi to move to Western Europe, where the Orthodox considered religious standards to be lower. He was considered one of the most eminent Orthodox rabbis of the nineteenth century because of his broad Talmudic scholarship, and his deep piety.
He lived for periods in Memel, Königsberg and Berlin and devoted the last decades of his life to strengthening Orthodox Jewish life in Germany and Prussia. Towards the end of his life, he was called to Paris to organize a community among the many Russian Jewish immigrants, and he remained there for two years.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter died in 1883 in Königsberg, then part of Germany. For many years, the exact location of his grave was unknown. Following a lengthy investigation, in 2007 the grave was located in Königsberg.

Pesach: The bread of affliction

Front page headline, Jerusalem Post April 8 2014.

Front page headline, Jerusalem Post April 8 2014.

Do we care when we read this:
“Hundreds of thousands of kids underfed.”? Is
this the place where redemption led – where the
weak and the poor are lacking for bread?
Are we moved at the sight of
distress and affliction,
do we ever despair that
the dream seems so faint? As our
minds harken back to the time of our fathers
when as slaves they assembled together and ate,
and all that they had was their faith in
the One, Who showed them the
way to inherit the land –
so we pray to be worthy of
mending the world, of effacing the darkness of Egypt.

April is National Poetry Writing Month (also known as NaPoWriMo) – a creative writing project held annually in April in which participants attempt to write a poem each day for one month in response to a daily prompt. The prompt issued on 5th April this year was to write a “Golden Shovel,” a form invented by Terrance Hayes. (http://www.napowrimo.net/2014/04/day-five/.) The poem is composed as follows: a short poem is chosen, and each word of this poem in sequence becomes the end-word of each line in the new poem. Here I took the first verse of HaLachma Anya (as you can see by reading down the last word in each line of the new poem) and wrote “The bread of affliction”.

Pesach: The Broken Matza

The sound of matza cracking
reminds us how the story starts
amid a shattered world
of slavery and suffering.
Holding up the broken matza,
fragile and incomplete
as the world is, as we are,
we set forth again.
Together we seek
the missing piece
to restore the world
and ourselves to wholeness.

In A Night to Remember, the Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion, the authors portray Yachatz – the fourth stage in the Seder, when we break the middle matza, “The Pesach story begins in a broken world amidst slavery and oppression.” They bring the saying by the Rebbe of Kotsk, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” and they quote Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s where the light comes in.” They add that in some families, every participant at the Seder is given a whole matza and invited to ponder for a moment this entrance into a broken world before breaking their matza.

Pesach: Chametz and Matza

Chametz and matza:
fraternal twins
of scant semblance,
the offspring
of the same parents:
flour and water.
Matza is humble,
by sacred intention,
chametz is sanctimonious,
swollen up
by self-importance.
by eighteen minutes,
matza precedes chametz,
only by the fire
of our vigilance.

In a blogpost on Pesach 2012 http://www.rebjeff.com/1/post/2012/04/matzah-and-chameitz.html Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser comments that it is impossible to make matza without also making chametz. He reminds us that matza is made by combining flour and water, mixing them quickly, and placing the flattened dough into a very hot oven within eighteen minutes, before it has time to rise. He says that although we think of chametz as the opposite of matza, they are not really opposites. They are only separated by the fact that flour and water turn into chametz in eighteen minutes.
He brings a teaching about this narrow distinction between matza and chametz based on the similar spellings of the two words in Hebrew: matza is spelled mem, tzadi, hey; chametz is chet, mem, tzadi. So the only difference is between the chet and the hey, the latter having a gap which Reb Jeff describes as being the narrow space through which we let God in. He says, “The fact that we cannot make matzah without making chameitz reminds us during Passover that we cannot create any holiness in our lives without also introducing the possibility of its shadow. We cannot make ourselves more holy without also introducing arrogance and self-aggrandizement into our egos. We cannot purify ourselves spiritually without also risking the possibility that we will thereby separate ourselves from others. Like matzah and chameitz, sacred holiness and gross arrogance are not really opposites. They are separated only by the small gap of how we invite God into our consciousness.”

Acharei Mot: The Map

Keep My laws and guard My statutes to walk in them… (Vayikra 18:4)

When we walk in Your ways
we need a good map
to navigate obstacles,
to warn us of paths
leading nowhere.

That’s what You gave us,
but we need to re-read it,
study what’s meant
as we gaze at the landscape,
the rocky ascent.

The Ktav Sofer* (Al HaTorah, Vayikra, 18:4) and Tallelei Orot** in the name of the Ktav Sofer (Vayikra, 18:4), wonder what the phrase “to walk in them” adds to the command to keep God’s laws. They contrast the word “to walk (or go)” with that used about angels who are described as “standing”: “The Serafim stand opposite him.”(Isaiah 6:2). The Ktav Sofer teaches that the use of the word standing with regard to the angels means that they remain stationary in their spiritual level – there is no concept of spiritual growth. In contrast, the Torah, we are being told, is a gateway to a state of “going,” facilitating an ascent in the spiritual level of those who walk in its ways.

*Rav Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815–1871) was the eldest son of the Chatam Sofer the famed Rabbi of Pressburg, who was the leader of Hungarian Jewry and one of the leading Rabbis of European Jewry. His mother Sarel was the daughter of Rabbi Akiva Eger, Rabbi of Posen, one the greatest Talmudic scholars of his time. When his father died the Katav Sofer succeeded him as Rabbi of Pressburg and when the Ktav Sofer died, his son Rabbi Simcha Bunim Sofer known as the Shevet Sofer followed him into the position. The Ktav Sofer is known for his commentary on the Chumash, as well as for his Responsa on the Shulchan Aruch and a commentary on the tractate of Gittin.

**Rav Yissachar Dov Rubin (1962-2008), a contemporary rabbi who died prematurely, was well-known both for his kindly ways, reaching out to the sick and the needy, as well as for his scholarship. A prolific author of some 40 books, he started to write his first volume at age 13 and published it some 11 years later (Orot HaGr”a) and subsequently he published further books every year. Tallelei Orot – a commentary on the Torah is possibly his most well-known work but he also wrote commentaries on prayer and other subjects. His works have been translated into English and French and he left material for some further 20 books which were published posthumously. He also spent much time teaching Torah.

Metsora: Rebirth

(…he shall)…bathe his body in water; then he shall be pure. (Vayikra 14:9).

As the world was created
out of water
so is he conceived anew.

As an infant issues
from the water
so is he received, reborn.

Droplets scatter:
he steps from the water
sparkling, pristine.

Wide-eyed he gazes,
as a newborn at the light:
is the world changed or is he?

The Etz Haim commentary of the JPS points out that in this ritual, the water symbolises more than cleanliness – rather rebirth and re-creation. The Sefer HaChinuch* (173) points out that the experience of illness and recovery has made the leper a new person who now has a different perspective on life and an opportunity to consider his deeds afresh.

*The Sefer HaChinuch is a work which systematically discusses the 613 commandments of the Torah. Published anonymously in 13th century Spain, it enumerates the commandments based upon Maimonides’ system of counting as per his Sefer Hamitzvot; each is listed according to its appearance in the weekly Torah portion and the work is structured accordingly.
Each of the 613 commandments is discussed, both from a legal and a moral perspective. For each, the discussion starts by linking the mitzvah to its Biblical source, and then addresses the philosophical underpinnings of the commandment. A brief overview of the halacha governing its observance is then presented – usually based on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah – and then a summary as to the commandment’s applicability.
Because of this structure, the work remains popular to this day. The philosophic portions are widely quoted and taught, while the legal discussion provides the basis for much further study.
The sixteenth century author Gedaliah ibn Yaḥyah credited the Sefer HaChinuch to Rabbi Aharon HaLevi of Barcelona (1235-c.1290), a Talmudic scholar and halachist; but others disagree, as the views of the Sefer HaChinuch contradict opinions held by HaLevi in other works. This has led to the conclusion that the true author was a different R’ Aharon Halevi, a student of the Rashba. Though there is a debate about who is the true author, there is a consensus that the Sefer HaChinuch was written by a father to his son when he reached Bar Mitzvah.
In 1980, Professor Israel Ta-Shma of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem argued that the author of Sefer HaChinuch was in fact Pinchas, the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aaron, who composed the work.