Category Archives: Israel and Galut

Sukkot and its pagan-like customs

I’ve grown accustomed to hearing, year after year, that “Sukkot is the hardest holiday to explain to outsiders”, or the o-so-popular “if a non Jew saw us shaking our Lulavim he’d think we were all pagans”. A popular answer is the standard default of “we do it because Hashem commanded us even if it looks strange”, or better yet, “even more so because it is strange”.

I cannot accept these kinds of answers.
1. I refuse to accept that Torah and Mitzvot are some sort of test, which is the foundation of these types of answers. I don’t observe Mitzvot in order to prove anything to anyone – other nations, other Jews, myself or even God. (For a short piece on why I am observant see here)
2. I completely disagree that there is anything odd or strange in the observances of Sukkot. Only a Judaism that has lost touch with its own origins could say such a thing. Torah is rooted in the life of a nation in its land. The three major holidays revolve around agricultural. They may have a historical element to them as well (Shavu’ot less so as expressed here) but their celebrations are primarily agricultural. Throughout exile, these elements were downplayed or forgotten altogether to the point where we are uncertain how engaging with nature on the most fundamental level could possibly fit with Torah.
And I say – few things make more sense than connecting to Hashem through the embracement of nature. We leave our artificial, man made, houses and lives and surround ourselves with those of Hashem’s. We surround ourselves with nature, we touch nature, we smell nature and it is all a Mitzvah. Doing nothing at all in the Sukkah is a Mitzvah not just because “Hashem said we should do it”, rather because, if you view nature as a place where Hashem dwells and reveals himself than by embracing it you are embracing Him (fulfilling a Mitzvah). Sukkot reveals that, sometimes, you can connect to Hashem even by just being You.
Maybe this can only be done after the purging of Rosh Hashan and Yom Kippur but, non the less, it reveals the possibility of engaging the divine without all the regular “hoopla”, rather by just getting in touch with the most fundamental aspects of existence – (our) nature itself.
Imagine how sincere such a natural/holly שמחה of מצווה such an approach would evoke and produce!
חג שמח!

 

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Mourning the exile while choosing to remain in it

At the opening of Tish’a B’Av I spoke at the AISH Toronto Community. The title was:

“Mourning the Exile While Choosing to Remain in it”. Here is the link to the video:
Not for the weak-hearted exile dweller…

May we Merit to understand that Galut has been over for some time now and it is time to hop on the Ge’ulah train as it prepares for the final stretch!

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None of You Actually Celebrated Shavu’ot!

Ten years ago, a reform rabbi friend of mine, bemoaned to me that “Shavu’ot is the forgotten holiday of the Reform Movement”. He explained that: 1. It was only one day.  2. Usually came out in the middle of the week.  3. Had nothing tangible to “capture” people with as other holidays.

I remember thinking how symbolic that the holiday celebrating Torah is missing from a movement that does not believe in its divinity. I’ve felt quite smug about this anecdote over the years and shared it in many settings.
But, since then, I’ve come to realize that Orthodox Judaism may not be much better when it comes to Shavu’ot.
The Orthodox movement doesn’t celebrate Shvu’ot. We celebrate what may very well be a fake holiday, called Chag Matan Torah:
1. The two are not even the same day. Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan. Shavu’ot takes place on the 6th. (In ancient times it sometimes even occurred on the 5th!).
2. We do not count 50 days from The Exodus to Matan Torah. This is a misnomer. Nowhere in the Torah are these two events connected by 50 days. (And in truth, we didn’t even get Torah on the 50th day, rather, on the 51st!)
We count from the first harvest of grain (קציר העומר) seven weeks and then celebrate The Holiday of Harvest.
3. In the 5(!) different places the Torah discusses Shvu’ot we find an exclusively agricultural-religious holiday. It marks the new season of harvest when we:
– Give thanks for the new harvest and new fruits
– Recognize that Divine Providence throughout Jewish History is the reason we are able to live and work The Land of Israel and enjoy its fruits
– Share our plenty with the less fortunate
So how was The Holiday of Harvest “hijacked” and turned into The Holiday of The giving Torah?
1. Once The Temple was destroyed and we – cast into exile, what would a Torah based Shavu’ot look like? it has no observances that are not dependent on living an agricultural life in Israel. The holiday would become irrelevant, possibly even forgotten. It had to be given a new meaning. Considering its proximity to the date of Matan Torah and the exilic emphasis on detached, “spiritual” Torah – the original holiday was replaced with new meaning.
2. But, there is possibly a deeper connection as well. The beauty of Shavu’ot (and Megilat Rut; the reading of the day) is that it represents – more than any other holiday – what a full Torah life looks like. Megilat Rut is what Hashem had in mind when he gave Torah in the first place: The Jewish People living in The Land of Israel, keeping the Mitzvot of the land while also taking care of the less fortunate. All this while remembering where we came from and where we’re heading. In my humble opinion, it is both the most mundane and beautiful story in all of Tanach.
So why the connection?
The Torah does not require we celebrate the day the Torah was given. Remember what our mother’s told us about why we don’t celebrate Mother’s Day? “every day is mother’s day…”. The giving of Torah isn’t a singular event, rather, a continuous, never-ending one. But when the day Torah life is supposed to appear in its entirety is in danger of being erased from Jewish observance, then BECAUSE it was no longer relevant it became the most important day to remember – Hashem gave us Torah.
If we’re not able to “live the life”, let’s at least remember to look at the manual to remember what is missing.
May we merit to observe Shavu’ot according to it’s original, full meaning!

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Of Sinking Ships and Torah in North America

I heard a great Drasha on Shabbat and couldn’t understand why I felt so annoyed by it. 
Then it hit me: it’s like passengers on a ship that is slowly sinking and instead of jumping into the water and swimming the 20 meters to shore, passengers are sitting in their comfy seats, all dressed up – listening to a tantalizing lecture from a world renowned doctor about how to live a healthy life.
JEWS – WHAT ARE YOU STILL DOING IN GALUT??? It’s RIDICULOUS ALREADY!

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Modern Orthodoxy vs. Religious Zionism (part 1)

Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism are not the same thing. There is a lot of overlap but they are not the same.

Modern Orthodoxy, as I understand it (and possibly even practice it), answers the question: “How can I be an Orthodox Jew and also be a Modern person?”, or, in it’s more sophisticated version “How does Modernity and the changes it brings with it impact Orthodoxy?”.
Being a Modern Orthodox person means understanding that developments of Modernity can and should impact us as Orthodox people as they too are part of how Hashem “speaks to us”. That means that the shift in the role of women in society should impact Jewish thought and practice. It means that the role academia plays in modern life should impact the way we view general studies. It also means that the development of Zionism and The State of Israel – also products of Modernity – should impact our religious outlook and observance.
But, at the end of the day Modern Orthodoxy is dialectical. It is constantly trying to balance conflicting ideals and resolve contradictions. “Torah vs. Science”, “Rights vs. Obligations“, “Individual vs. Communal”, “Consumerism vs. Idealism“, “Self Actualization vs. Self Sacrifice”, “Universalism vs. Particularism“, “Heteronomous Morality vs. Autonomous Morality“, etc…
Modernity and Orthodoxy are separate, dialectical entities, which need to be reconciled and many a time this split manifests itself in a schizophrenic religious identity. This also accounts for Modern  Orthodoxy’s continuous decline in the US; it is too indecisive, too contradictory, too unsure of itself as all to often by trying to be “also this and also this” it ends up being not enough of either.
The question Religious Zionism is answering, on the other hand, is “How does Modernity serve as a vehicle for the realization of Judaism?”
Religious Zionism, is not at its core, dialectical. I can best describe it in the first person.

I don’t know myself as a Jew without Zionism and I don’t know myself as a Zionist without Judaism. I don’t know myself as a Jew without Zionism, as the return of Am Yisrael to history and the rebirth of the State of Israel serve as one of the foundations of my belief in Hashem and Jewish commitment.
I don’t know myself as a Zionist without Judaism, as Torah and 2000 years of Jewish prayer and observance serve as the justification for our return to the land, for what has been – and still needs to be – achieved.
The two are so intertwined that they are one in the same and – for me – indistinguishable.

The yearning and motivation to return to the Land of our Forefathers, to be sovereign and have a national identity there, are not a product of Modernity, just expedited and executed by it.
The relationship between “Religious” and “Zionism”, therefore, is not dialectical rather that of synthesis. They inform, enhance and empower each other as they are one in the same.
The Modern Orthodox Jew finds himself torn between two worlds while the Religious Zionist Jew lives in a (philosophical) state of unity.

Based on all this, a Modern Orthodox Jew, by definition, would be a Zionist but a Religious Zionist would not necessarily be of a Modern orientation.
As stated at the beginning of this post, there is a lot of overlap between the two philosophies. People can comfortably prescribe to both and many do, as they are by no means contradictory.
That have been said, understanding the differences between them can explain many of the tensions and issues being debated in the public sphere of these communities both in Israel and North America. I hope to expound on them in a future post.
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