Pre Rosh Hashanah thoughts

After a most revealing conversation last Thursday, I have been sitting with fear as I worry about being entirely unprepared emotionally and internally for Rosh Hashanah.  As my friend pointed out, not being Yeshiva makes the month of Elul feel lacking somehow.  While listening to his words, I realized, he is right and wrong.  He is right in that the feeling is different.  However, pre-Rosh Hashanah prep is only as good as the person working towards a goal.  We who have spent time in a religious institution cannot use the excuse that our no longer living in that pristine environment is reason to not find Elul a meaningful month. 

What are my goals for this year?  Do I feel that I have the resolve to fulfill those goals?  Do I even care because usually any resolutions for the year die before the month of Tishrei is over?  What am I missing in all this?

Sure, I’ve done some reading.  However, I don’t think I can say much of it inspired me.  Perhaps that is the point.  The real inspiration will come when I blow Shofar or as I speak, for then the awe will be upon me.  My heart will be open to hear the cry.  And yet, something is always missing, as if the Shofar, the “alarm clock” has a perpetual snooze button. 

I realize this post is less substantive and more personal, but when facing such an awe-inspiring time, substance is secondary to the raw emotion.  May we all be inscribed for a good, sweet and peaceful year.

Musings for Elul

I came across R. David Goldwasser’s book Elul  at shul and decided to read it during Shabbat.  I came across two stories in his work which I want to share.  These are good thoughts for pondering as we get ready for Rosh Hashanah.

1.  “In our bais medrash, I noticed that there was one young married man who never missed a minyan, no matter how difficult it was for him.  He would always be among the עשרה ראשונים – the first ten.  One day there was a tremendous snowstorm.  Only three people had made it to the early minyan on time.  He was one of the three. 

Finally, I asked him, ‘How is it that you never miss one day and are so medakdek – careful – in coming to minyan, especially on a day like this?’

He answered me that as a teenager he was a little bit weak in shemiras hamitzvos.  His father was a very pious man.  The father used to come in every morning to wake him up to go to minyan, knowing full well that it was a tremendous nisoyon – challenge – for his son to get up and daven with the tzibbur.  Instead of rebuking the son, the father in gently waking him would always say: My son, it is time to get up for minyan.  But if you are going to remain in bed, sleep well.  And then he would proceed to make sure that I was covered properly with the blanket. 

The young man continued to tell me that on the day his father was niftar, he promised the Ribbono Shel Olam that he would always be medakdek in tefillah b’tzibbur.

דברים בנחת תהא נשמעים (p. 67 – 68)”  

 2.  “The Simchas Higayon explains that the way of the world is that when a person rents a house to his friend, he writes a lease in which he stipulates that one month before the lease expires the renter must inform him whether he wishes to renew the lease for another year.  In some places it is customary to pay up any outstanding rent of the previous year, as well as advance payment for the first month of the new lease.

However, there are people who, since they are so busy, forget this stipulation in the lease and they don’t notify the landlord until the last week of the year.  That last Shabbos, when the person is sitting at his Shabbos table relaxing in comfort, he remembers that it is almost the end of this year’s lease, and he still hasn’t told the landlord that he wants to stay.  He is afraid that maybe the landlord may have already rented his place to someone else.  He is troubled and distressed. ‘Where will I go?’

Therefore, on Motzoei Yom Menucha he runs with all of his strength to the landlord.  Maybe – just maybe – he can still obtain a lease for the coming year. 

We can well apply this story to ourselves.  Every year the Ribbono Shel Olam gives us a lease.  But one month before the year is up, Chodesh Elul, we need to come and ask that Hashem should ‘renew our lease.’  In fact, there are those that begin Selichos from the start of Elul.   However, because we are busy, we forget the stipulation.  We have forgotten to appear before the landlord to state our request.  On the holy Shabbos, when we relax in comfort we remember: we still didn’t tell the ba’al habayis (landlord) our request for another year of brocho – blessing.  What do we do?  On Motzoei Shabbos (Saturday night) we run to plead with and supplicate the Master of the World to ‘renew our lease’ for the coming year.”

Souls Shining Through

Souls Shining Through.

I have to share this piece I received via email yesterday.  I think it gets to the heart of what humanity really is.  No matter how much or how little we are able to function cognitively, there is always something that remains.  I think this is good pre-Rosh Hashanah reading to get our minds focused on the day and on life.  There can be no illusion when standing in G-d’s presence on Rosh Hashanah. 

As an activity director at a day care center for the memory-impaired, I often ask myself what I have learned from being with people who suffer from Alzheimer’s.

One thing I realized is that the mind and the soul are separate. I have seen the soul of a person express itself despite a very clouded mind. In fact I have witnessed this so many times I have come to expect it.

The first time I saw the spiritual side of a memory-impaired person take over was during a personal crisis. My father had recently returned home from the hospital after heart surgery and he was very disoriented. It was Shabbat eve and several of us kids were sitting around the table, grateful and nervous at having him returned to us in such a fragile state. My father was not doing well cognitively. He couldn’t remember who was who and kept mixing us up. He demanded to know where the other children were and why they hadn’t come yet. My sister and I began weeping because everyone he was asking for was already there, right in front of his eyes.

My mother tried to calm him by explaining what was going on but that did nothing to ease my father’s agitation. Finally, in frustration, he struggled to his feet. As he held the Kiddush cup in his shaking hand, the wine began to spill. We stood silently in terrible pain as we witnessed his weakness and his strength. For in a voice strong with emotion he recited the prayer in a melodious voice without missing a beat. This man, who for the life of him could not make out his own kids, was able to praise God and sanctify the Sabbath.

I have seen this time and time again in my work. The other day I posed a moral dilemma to my clients: There is a man driving his car on a cold stormy night. He sees three people stranded at the side of the road. One is the woman of his dreams. The second is the doctor who once saved his life. The third is an old woman. He has room for two people. Who does he leave behind?

A man named Max, who is so far into his Alzheimer’s that he can’t find his way home although it’s next door to the center, ruined my game. Without even contemplating the choices, he said very simply, “I would get out of my car and give it to them.”

Another one of our members is a Holocaust survivor named Abby, who survived the war by living in a Christian orphanage. One morning the lady who sits next to her kept repeating, “Help me, help me. Somebody help me.”

Abby, who no longer recognizes her only son, leaned in close to the other lady. “What is it dear?” she asked. “Are you scared? Do you want to go home? We are all in this together. You just have to make the best of it and stay out of trouble.”

Then Abby picked up the other lady’s spoon and began to feed her some applesauce. I watched from the corner of the room, like I often do, observing the behavior of these old folks who live in a twilight zone. And I thought how well Abby had just described this world. Here we are together in this world of nonsense and materialism and our souls are not happy. They want to go home yet must live in a place full of difficult tests. The best we can do is help other people in need.

If I have learned one lesson from working with people suffering from dementia, it is this: Work on yourself and strive to perfect your character. Because when most of your intellectual powers are gone, the kernel that remains will be who you really are.

On Rosh Hashanah we will stand before the Almighty who has been in the corner observing us. All of our masks and personas, illusions and excuses will disappear. God sees through all that. All that will be left is who we really are – our soul. Our true inner self shines through, no matter how much fog descends upon it.

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim – R. Marc Angel

Renewing the Covenant Between God and Israel: Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim, September 24, 2011 | Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.

Rabbi Marc Angel presents a real thought provoking piece for this week’s Torah portion about the ability of our communities to accept people who are not “one of us.”  In the story he shares, a man who converted to Judaism expresses his frustration over the lack of feeling accepted by asking if he could have his conversion annulled.  To me, this is just sad.  Have our communities become so fearful of insincerity that we are afraid to make people welcome?  Do we not realize we are all on equal ground?  R. Angel relates this to the beginning of the Torah portion, in which the entire nation is gathered together to confirm the covenant one last time before entering Israel.  His piece is a must read before Rosh Hashanah, as perhaps our goal this year should be focused on being better to each other, especially in this crazy world we live in today.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes, your elders, your officers, all the people of Israel; your little ones, your wives and the stranger/convert that is in the midst of your camp, from the hewer of your wood unto the drawer of your water” (Devarim 29:9-10).

Over the years, I have received many hundreds of inquiries from people interested in converting to Judaism. Some have been spiritual seekers who have found meaning in the great teachings of Torah. Some have discovered Jewish ancestry and now want to reconnect with their Jewish roots. Some have fallen in love with a Jew, and have wanted to become part of the Jewish people and raise a Jewish family. Whatever the motivation for their contacting me, I have derived much satisfaction and joy in dealing with this large and diverse group of people.

Recently, though, I received an email inquiry which was entirely new to my previous experience. The note came from a person who had converted to Judaism with an Orthodox Beth Din—and now wanted to know if it would be possible to annul his conversion!

I informed him that once a person becomes halakhically Jewish, there are no annulments. But then I asked him why he wanted to annul his conversion? I wondered if he had lost faith in God and Torah, or if he had experienced anti-Semitism, or if there were other factors which motivated this unusual request.

His answer relieved me…and pained me deeply.

It relieved me because he assured me that he loved God and Torah, that he studied Torah regularly, that he found great satisfaction in observing mitzvoth. His problem wasn’t with Judaism and the Jewish way of life.

It pained me deeply because he informed me that the problem was the Jewish community in which he lived! He felt that members of the community treated him like an outsider. Being a single man, he was having great difficulty establishing a positive social life. Whether this was his own impression or whether it was objectively true, he felt that he was discriminated against because he was a convert, because he was of a different background from the mainstream of the community. So he decided he wanted to annul his conversion because Jews had rejected him.

I told him that he should stay true to God, Torah and mitzvoth—but that he might be happier moving to another community! He seemed reassured by this answer, and wrote to me that he indeed would continue to study and observe Torah…but that he would try to find a more congenial Jewish community in which to live.

In describing the covenant between God and the people of Israel, the Torah informs us that ALL Israelites were to stand before God—from the elite leaders, to the humble masses, men and women, old and young, born Israelites and converts. The essential quality of the covenant is that it included every Israelite—all as equals before God.  If Israelites did not recognize the ultimate equality of each member of the group, this would constitute a breach in the covenant itself.

Maimonides (Hilkhot De’ot 6:3) provides the parameters for what it means to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” His words are of profound importance: “A person must speak in praise of his neighbor and be careful of his neighbor’s property as he is careful with his own property and solicitous about his own honor. Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating another person will have no portion in the world to come.” In the very next law, Maimonides notes that it is incumbent to love the proselyte, first because he/she is a fellow Jew, and second because there is a special Torah obligation to love the proselyte. All Jews are equal before God; all are equal partners in the covenant with God; all must be treated with the same respect and consideration that we want others to show to ourselves.

As we prepare to observe Rosh Hashana, it is important that we re-focus on the framework of the covenant between God and Israel, that we recognize how important it is for each Jew to be treated as a fellow partner in our adventure with the Almighty. Our communities need to reflect a sincere inclusiveness, a feeling of mutual respect among ourselves. One of the great strengths of the Jewish people is our diversity, our richness of traditions and backgrounds; we stand as one people before God, each of us equal in the eyes of God.

If even one Jew feels rejected or alienated because he/she is of a “different” background, race, or ethnic group—then the structure of the Jewish covenant with God is shaken. If even one Jew wants to “annul” his/her Jewishness because of feelings of rejection by other Jews, then the Jewish religious enterprise is challenged. Self-righteousness and smugness are antithetical to the ideals of Jewish peoplehood.

“You are standing this day all of you before the Lord your God…”

Let us each stand before the Lord imbued with love of God, love of our fellow Jews, love of our fellow human beings. Let our communities reflect love, compassion, spiritual vitality. Let us renew the covenant between God and Israel.

Shas rabbi: Leftists are harm-doers

Shas rabbi: Leftists are harm-doers – Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews.

Three issues: 

1.  I am looking to find a corroborating source for this.  I have checked the other major Israeli online papers and none of them have shared the same story.  While I am not saying I don’t believe it, I am sceptical that I cannot find it anywhere else.

2.  The title is misleading.  The article itself quotes R. Yosef as saying both that the leftists are angels of destruction and that we should only trust Torah observant people on the right.  This is more of a condemnation of the whole political system. 

3.  And therefore?  Why would anyone find statements from R. Ovadiah to be surprising.  He is known to make rabble-rousing comments often.  For once though, it would be nice to see a full transcript with context because it is hard to know the true intent of his words from newspaper snippets. 

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas‘ spiritual leader, slammed the Israeli Left in his weekly sermon Saturday evening, referring to leftists as “angels of destruction” – in other words, harm-doers.

“God Almighty judges people, and has created angels on the right and on the left. The rightists speak positively, and the leftists say derogatory things,” the rabbi said while addressing the Jewish New Year.

“Here too we have leftists now, but they are all angels of destruction,” Yosef said.

The audience laughed, and the rabbi went on to slam the secular Right: “This why each and every person should adopt rightist angels… Not Likud, rightist angels of Torah, who will speak positively about him on Rosh Hashana.”

Rabbi Yosef’s weekly sermon has been delivered since 1973, is very popular and is broadcast via satellite all over the world. The sermon usually engages in halachic issues and the weekly Torah portion, although the rabbi often addresses current affairs, without political correctness considerations.

The rabbi has sparked quite a few rows in the past due to his controversial remarks.

Last Year, ahead of Rosh Hashana, Yosef wished death on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his people, who he called “evil enemies of Israel.”

In December, he implied that the fire raging on Mount Carmel in northern Israel, which left dozens of wardens and firefighters dead, was a punishment from God for religious offenses committed by the area’s residents.

Mea She’arim bookstore hit again by extremist Mafia

h/t failed Messiah

Since this is one of my favorite frum bookstores in Israel, I had to post this horrid story.  I know people are crazy, but perhaps it is time to deal with the problem.  Haredim have viewpoints we don’t agree with.  Yet, all that things like this do is make it seem as if our fundamentalists are no better than Islamic fundamentalists.  Sure, we don’t chop off hands for stealing, but the constant violence from seemingly religious and supposedly pious people is disgusting.  I hope that this wonderful bookstore does not get scared because of the fringe.  Besides, the people of Meah Shearim should realize that places like Ohr HaHayyim bring them money and business as well. 

Mea She’arim bookstore hit again by extremist Mafia… JPost – National News.

A bookstore in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim, which has been struggling with violence from a mafia-style “Purity Committee” that objects to their English and Zionist books, was attacked once again early on Wednesday morning.

Marlene Samuels, the manager of Or Hachaim/Manny’s Bookstore, found the outer windows of the shop smashed for the fifth time since the store’s opening in March 2010, and the second time in less than a week.

Radicals from the fringe anti-Zionist Sikrikim group have also glued its locks shut, thrown tar and fish oil at it and dumped bags of human excrement inside the store.

Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said the police had received a complaint and opened an investigation.

He added that the police are using intelligence gathered from a wide range of sources to try to stop the violence against the store.

The harassment of the bookstore stems from the bookstore’s refusal to accept demands made by the Sikrikim, a group of 60-100 extremists in Mea She’arim which demands all businesses observe specific “modesty standards.”

At Or Hachaim, the Sikrikim’s demands include putting up a sign asking customers to dress modestly and removing all English-language and Zionist books. Two weeks ago, owners of the store met with Sikrikim representatives to try to stop the violence, but no solution was found.

“Their list is too long, they want every English book out, they want the store, that’s the bottom line,” said Samuels.

“Nothing good enough for them, and we can’t take out the English books, we won’t have a business.”

She complained that the police have not helped them try to find the culprits, despite security camera footage that clearly shows the men breaking the windows.

Samuels said they had considered putting up steel shutters on the building to protect the glass, but she worried the Sikrikim would find a way to destroy that as well.

“The only thing left to do is beat these people up,” a frustrated Samuels said on Wednesday, the second time in less than two weeks that all of the store’s outer windows have been broken. “Just find these people and beat them to a pulp. They’re cowards and only violence will quiet them down.”

Samuels said that other store owners suffering from similar abuse had hired vigilantes to stop the violence and been successful, though she doubted that the owners of Or Hachaim/Manny’s would do that.

Many of the other stores in the neighborhood have acquiesced to the Sikrikim’s demands, though they complain of the “mafia-like” control the small group of extremists wield over the area.

Dan Senor: Why Obama Is Losing the Jewish Vote – WSJ.com

It is amazing how one election in NY can have everyone running scared.  While I do wish the sentiment of the title were true, it is not so simple.  The fact remains, as the author indicated, that “One poll by McLaughlin & Associates found that of Jewish donors who donated to Mr. Obama in 2008, only 64% have already donated or plan to donate to his re-election campaign.”  In other words, while Obama’s rhetoric about Israel appears to be anti-Israeli, and there are some Jews who are getting the message, it is not as if he will lose the majority of the Jewish vote.  Nevertheless, if we examine the reported pieces in this op-ed, we will see that the current administration is making statements that do push the envelope. 

Dan Senor: Why Obama Is Losing the Jewish Vote – WSJ.com.

New York’s special congressional election on Tuesday was the first electoral outcome directly affected by President Obama’s Israel policy. Democrats were forced to expend enormous resources in a losing effort to defend this safe Democratic district, covering Queens and Brooklyn, that Anthony Weiner won last year by a comfortable margin.

A Public Policy Poll taken days before the election found a plurality of voters saying that Israel was “very important” in determining their votes. Among those voters, Republican candidate Robert Turner was winning by a 71-22 margin. Only 22% of Jewish voters approved of President Obama’s handling of Israel. Ed Koch, the Democrat and former New York mayor, endorsed Mr. Turner because he said he wanted to send a message to the president about his anti-Israel policies.

This is a preview of what President Obama might face in his re-election campaign with a demographic group that voted overwhelmingly for him in 2008. And it could affect the electoral map, given the battleground states—such as Florida and Pennsylvania—with significant Jewish populations. In another ominous barometer for the Obama campaign, its Jewish fund-raising has deeply eroded: One poll by McLaughlin & Associates found that of Jewish donors who donated to Mr. Obama in 2008, only 64% have already donated or plan to donate to his re-election campaign.

The Obama campaign has launched a counteroffensive, including hiring a high-level Jewish outreach director and sending former White House aide David Axelrod and Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz to reassure Jewish donors. The Obama team told the Washington Post that its Israel problem is a messaging problem, and that with enough explanation of its record the Jewish community will return to the fold in 2012. Here is an inventory of what Mr. Obama’s aides will have to address:

• February 2008: When running for president, then-Sen. Obama told an audience in Cleveland: “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.” Likud had been out of power for two years when Mr. Obama made this statement. At the time the country was being led by the centrist Kadima government of Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and Shimon Peres, and Prime Minister Olmert had been pursuing an unprecedented territorial compromise. As for Likud governments, it was under Likud that Israel made its largest territorial compromises—withdrawals from Sinai and Gaza.

• July 2009: Mr. Obama hosted American Jewish leaders at the White House, reportedly telling them that he sought to put “daylight” between America and Israel. “For eight years”—during the Bush administration—”there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished,” he declared.

Nothing? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon uprooted thousands of settlers from their homes in Gaza and the northern West Bank and deployed the Israeli army to forcibly relocate their fellow citizens. Mr. Sharon then resigned from the Likud Party to build a majority party based on a two-state consensus.

In the same meeting with Jewish leaders, Mr. Obama told the group that Israel would need “to engage in serious self-reflection.” This statement stunned the Americans in attendance: Israeli society is many things, but lacking in self-reflection isn’t one of them. It’s impossible to envision the president delivering a similar lecture to Muslim leaders.

Stuart Balberg of Brooklyn, New York, calls voters on behalf of Bob Turner, Republican candidate for the congressional seat vacated by Democrat Anthony Weiner.

• September 2009: In his first address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama devoted five paragraphs to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during which he declared (to loud applause) that “America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” He went on to draw a connection between rocket attacks on Israeli civilians with living conditions in Gaza. There was not a single unconditional criticism of Palestinian terrorism.

• March 2010: During Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, a Jerusalem municipal office announced plans for new construction in a part of Jerusalem. The president launched an unprecedented weeks-long offensive against Israel. Mr. Biden very publicly departed Israel.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton berated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a now-infamous 45-minute phone call, telling him that Israel had “harmed the bilateral relationship.” (The State Department triumphantly shared details of the call with the press.) The Israeli ambassador was dressed-down at the State Department, Mr. Obama’s Middle East envoy canceled his trip to Israel, and the U.S. joined the European condemnation of Israel.

Moments after Mr. Biden concluded his visit to the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority held a ceremony to honor Dalal Mughrabi, who led one of the deadliest Palestinian terror attacks in history: the so-called Coastal Road Massacre that killed 38, including 13 children and an American. The Obama administration was silent. But that same day, on ABC, Mr. Axelrod called Israel’s planned construction of apartments in its own capital an “insult” and an “affront” to the United States. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs went on Fox News to accuse Mr. Netanyahu of “weakening trust” between the two countries.

Ten days later, Mr. Netanyahu traveled to Washington to mend fences but was snubbed at a White House meeting with President Obama—no photo op, no joint statement, and he was sent out through a side door.

• April 2010: Mr. Netanyahu pulled out of the Obama-sponsored Washington summit on nuclear proliferation after it became clear that Turkey and Egypt intended to use the occasion to condemn the Israeli nuclear program, and Mr. Obama would not intervene.

• March 2011: Mr. Obama returned to his habit of urging Israelis to engage in self-reflection, inviting Jewish community leaders to the White House and instructing them to “search your souls” about Israel’s dedication to peace.

• May 2011: The State Department issued a press release declaring that the department’s No. 2 official, James Steinberg, would be visiting “Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.” In other words, Jerusalem is not part of Israel. Later in the month, only hours before Mr. Netanyahu departed from Israel to Washington, Mr. Obama delivered his Arab Spring speech, which focused on a demand that Israel return to its indefensible pre-1967 borders with land swaps.

Mr. Obama has made some meaningful exceptions, particularly having to do with security partnership, but overall he has built the most consistently one-sided diplomatic record against Israel of any American president in generations. His problem with Jewish voters is one of substance, not messaging.