Category Archives: Israel

Why we named our daughter Aliyah Channa (plus a Chanukah story)

This past Tuesday, the 6th day of Chanukah and the first day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, our daughter was born. We named her עלייה חנה (Aliyah Channa).
Channa, is for both Nitza’s and my maternal grandmothers who shared that name.
Regarding the name Aliyah, it is almost self explanatory: The Hebrew word ‘Aliyah’ means ‘to ascend’ and has come to refer to the act of immigrating to Israel (though it first appears in that context already in the Mishna in Ktubot). The idea behind this term is that when one immigrates to Israel they are not merely relocating geographically, rather are ascending from a lower state of being to a higher one.
As we have done with our other children, we attempt to capture within our children’s names the state of being we are in during the period of pregnancy and birth. With Matanel – gratitude to Hashem for having a child, with Edden – the return to Jerusalem and a Shabbat birth and with Ma’oz – the grounding of having our own home in Israel.
Anyone who knows Nitza and me, knows the degree to which we are dedicated to the promotion of Aliyah as a foundational aspect of being Jewish. This has been our raison d’etre of sorts for coming to Toronto and has underscored our work here. Be it by familiarizing people with Israel with anecdotes over a Shabbat meal, encouraging trips, answering questions, Israel Guidance and actively assisting people through their Aliyah process.
That is why we called our daughter Aliyah; to express our belief in the centrality of Aliyah to being Jewish as well as to solidify our own commitment of once again ascending back home to Israel.

I’d like to share with you the words (more or less) I shared with my High school Yeshiva students immediately following the naming.
“One of my strongest childhood memories is the Chanukah I spent in the hospital when I was 9. Due to frequent tonsillitis, I was scheduled to have my tonsils removed. Unfortunately, the procedure was to to take place during Chanukah at Bikur Cholim Hospital.
I say unfortunately as doing the surgery on Chanukah would mean missing out on several Chanukah activities (and foods) but more significantly, due to the hospital itself. Bikur Cholim Hospital, located smack in downtown Jerusalem, was an small, old and outdated hospital. At the time, the hospital had only 2 wards – infants and adults.
After the surgery I was sent to the adults ward for recovery. When I woke from the anesthesia I discovered that the ‘adult ward’ was a large hall filled with 25 beds, surrounding the perimeter the room. After a few more moments of looking around the room more carefully I realized two additional facts. The first was that I was the only child in the room. The second was that I was the only Jewish patient in the room. More specifically, the only non-Arab patient in the room.
Approximately a week earlier, the first Intifada had broken out. Though I doubt I fully understood what that meant at the time, I was non the less nervous and a bit scared of the situation I found myself in; being the only child in a room filled with 20 adult, Arab, patients. Luckily, my mother was right there beside me the whole time which definitely helped.
That evening, the rest of my family came to visit and, being Chanukah, brought a Chanukiya with them. We lit the candles, sang HaNerot HaLalu and Ma’oz Tzur just like any other Chanukah night. We weren’t trying to make a spectacle of it but weren’t trying to hide what we were doing, either. Everyone in the room was looking at us, or at least it felt that way. I remember that even at the time, at the age of 9, I thought it was ‘cool’ that we were lighting Chanukah candles under those circumstances. I remember looking around the room, wondering what the Arab patients were thinking while we sang about how, throughout history we’ve defeated the enemies of the Jewish People. I remember feeling proud and defiant as though to say – ‘we’re lighting Chanukah candles and there’s nothing you can do about it!’.
In retrospect, I realize that memory encapsulates and expresses so well the unique role living in Israel plays in the life of a Jew. What is special about that night was that there was nothing special about it. It took me years to even realize it is a story worth telling. My parents are the farthest thing from the type who makes public displays of principal in order to make a point.
What was amazing about that night is that it was obvious we were going to light candles. It was obvious to us, it was obvious to the hospital staff and it was obvious to the Arab patients. Torah and Judaism are the default in Israel. You don’t have to go out of your way to feel Jewish, look Jewish, act Jewish. Judaism in Israel isn’t something that you do, separating and distinguishing you from the world that exists around you, rather, Judaism is the context within which everyone and everything already exists. It is not only the difference between being a majority and being a minority (though that is part of it as well). It is more about the difference between having all the communal mechanisms – national, municipal, cultural, etc… being framed by Jewish existence, followed by Jewish tradition and observance (even if partial).
That’s what it means to live in the land and State of Israel in this day and age. It’s the difference between being in a never ending struggle for Jewish survival and being part of the revival, rejuvenation, and flourishing of Am Yisrael and Torat Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.
May our daughter, Aliyah, be a constant reminder to us all about what is expected of us as Jews – as well as what we we stand to gain by – ascending to Israel!”

“I’M ALIYAH. HOW ABOUT YOU?”

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Filed under Chagim/Holidays, Israel, Politics, Zionism

Chanukah – I can’t believe it!

Over the years I have come to belittle the significance of the (super-natural) miracle of the oil in contrast to the (natural) miracle of the military victory.
The rationalization was, among other things:
1. The fact that the military victory is more prominent in the earlier primary sources such as על הניסים and Josephus’s writings
2. The oil miracle seems to rise to prominence only later, once – due to the exile – sovereignty and military victory were no longer relate-able (or possibly even understood)
3. As far as miracles go, the oil miracle doesn’t stand out as unique in our long history of miracles.
I’ve attributed this leaning of mine to my over rationalist approach to Jewish thought resulting in de-emphasizing the unnatural as well as my ultra Religious-Zionist background, preferring the “human-as-a-vessel-of-the-divine” approach, to the “divine-as-nullifying-human-action”, approach.
But a realization just hit me today that makes me wonder if my tendency to marginalize the miracle of the oil may not have gone far enough:
If one were standing in front of the Menorah, during the 8 original days of the Maccabees, would it actually appear as a “revealed miracle” (נס גלוי)? Probably not.
At no point would you be faced with the obvious breaking of the laws of nature, (which tends to be how we define a “revealed miracle”).
Only by looking at the broader context of 8 days and evaluating the appropriate ratio of oil per day could one deduce that they were witnessing a miracle.
Isn’t that the definition of a “concealed miracle” (נס נסתר) – context, probability and other such intellectualizations?
I’m proposing this – there was no “revealed miracle” on Chanukah! rather two important events, part of the same continuum and narrative which, like all things to do with the history of The Jewish People, reveals some deeper aspect of reality as well.

Even if what I’m saying is true – that the miracle of the oil was indeed not a revealed miracle at all – it doesn’t in any way take away from all of the Torah that has been said about the relationship between revealed and concealed miracles, which takes place revolving around many other areas of our traditions.
In my mind it just means this – Chanukah is all about the natural state of (miraculous) national Jewish life, with no need for the crutches of revealed miracles to make an otherwise obvious point.
It is the disease of Galut with its dissonance between what is and what should be, with its dichotomy between body and soul, with its existential sense of uncertainty and inherent doubt that gave birth to the prominence of a miracle that, to those who witnessed it, most probably was not miraculous at all.

A Chanukah Same’ach to all.


P.S. Since writing the above, some might say troubling, thoughts, I’ve had a chance to further contemplate these points. After realizing that the “oil miracle” may not have been a revealed miracle at all, I began to consider – is the miracle of the war really a hidden one? Let us think of the impact that the victory had on the situation in Israel at the time. Let us consider what it meant to the Jews who had returned from the exile of the First Temple, to finally gain independence after 200 years. What it meant to establish an independent soverign entity, one which will arm Jewish Eternity with the ethos of religious independence rooted in earthly national independence. Let us try to understand what it meant to overthrow the great Greak Empire and influence, etc… Considering the great impact and significance of the victory, could one really define it as a concealed miracle?

What I am suggesting is that we tend to have a simplistic understanding of what a miracle is. As one of my rabbis told me once: “not every super-natural event is a miracle and not every miracle is super-natural”. The Hebrew word for miracle is נס, which literally means “flag”, or “sign”. A miracle’s purpose is to make us notice something. All too often people think that all miracles are there to make us notice the exact same thing all the time – that God is “behind” the events. Regretfully, I find that all too simplistic, especially seeing how varied and specific different miracles seem to be. A deeper way of understanding it is as follows:

A miracle is a “tear” in the fabric of the normal events of life, a tear through which we observe the deeper currents and purposes of existence. These “tears” tend to occur especially when the normal events of history seem “stuck” and something which needs to happen, must happen, isn’t. A revealed miracle, then, would be an event through which these deeper currents and purposes are clearly revealed and obvious. Whereas a concealed miracle is an event through which these currents and purposes are not as clear.

Based on this, one could argue that the relationship between the Chanukah miracles is exactly the opposite than we usually think. The military miracle, an event which revealed in the clearest way – to The Jewish People and the entire world – the value of Jewish national and cultural independence, is the revealed miracle. The miracle of the oil, on the other hand, which was not seen by everyone and is harder to understand its necessity, significance and influence, is the concealed miracle.

And maybe, just maybe, the reversal of the miracles’ roles is itself part of the return from Galut to the Ge’ulah of Israel in our times!

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Filed under Israel and Galut, Theology

The Fool on the Hill – is it me or everyone else?

An old Israeli joke tells of a certain Israeli politician (who for politically correctness purposes shall remain nameless) who, while driving on the highway, receives a call from his wife. Frantically, she informs him she just heard on the news that some lunatic is driving in the wrong direction on the highway. Even more frantically, he responds “one lunatic? there ALL driving in the wrong direction”!

That kind of sums up my underlying feeling during Sukkot in Toronto so far. So much of it seemed “off”, purely ritualistic, even fake. A few examples are these:
1. During the days leading up to the Chag, everyone was busy building Sukkot and buying Arba’at Haminim. I couldn’t help but feel they are missing the point – these are celebrations of the land of Israel and by choosing to celebrate it in Chutz La’aretz it seems an imitation, even a mockery.
2. The Birkat Kohanim during Chagim in Chutz La’aretz has a special atmosphere due to its rarity; announcements are made and special tunes are used, etc… But for some reason all I could think of during Birkat Kohanim is that the rest of the year we DON’T say Birkat Kohanim in Chutz La’aretz because there is no Simcha (joy) in Chutz La’aretz except on Chagim and Simcha is a prerequisite for blessing the people. Was I the only one thinking to myself “this reminds me – why do I choose to live in a place which is Halachically defined as joyless and without happiness?” or, “what is wrong with the way I lead my life that I don’t even notice that my life is defined as Halachically joyless?”
3. The first two days of Sukkot had wonderful weather. For the first time in years, supposedly, all meals of the first two days could be eaten, comfortably, in the Succah. I was speaking with an acquaintance after Shul on the second day when she said “this Sukkot weather is so great. It’s like being in Israel!”.
Am I the only crazy one who couldn’t just enjoy the Chag, with its myriad beautiful Mitzvot, or is everyone else crazy for not realizing that once you choose to stay in Galut all that’s left is empty, insincere rituals? especially with a holiday like Sukkot?

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Filed under Chagim/Holidays, 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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Filed under Chagim/Holidays, Israel, Israel and Galut, Zionism

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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Filed under Israel and Galut, Zionism