Category Archives: Chagim/Holidays

It’s time to rethink Slichot!

I’ve always found Slichot (Penitential Prayers) difficult for a variety of reasons: the poetic (and archaic) language of the Piyutim, the speed in which they are usually said, the rote recitation of something intended to be contemplative and even the challenging hours of when they are traditionally said. I’ve always felt there was a bit of a charade going on during Slichot, with a false sense of piety replacing the individual self reflection which the Slichot are meant to express and evoke.

This year, my uneasiness with the Slichot – as it is commonly practiced – has become even greater after deciding to take a closer look at the Piyutim. Though the most important component of Slichot is the recitation of “the 13 attributes of mercy” the Piyutim have come to play an important role as well. Written primarily between the 11th and 14th century, the Piyutim focus on sin and confession, remorse and punishment as well as hope for forgiveness and redemption. Many of them combine ‘scenes’ from Tanach, Misdrah as well as references to historical events. Seemingly, these are perfect features to be focusing on as interludes between the 13 attributes, as they confront us with a picture of ourselves – as individuals and a community – and what is lacking. Even if the language and rhyming are difficult to understand, one can still hopefully get the general idea. And even if one doesn’t, I believe there is (or can be) value in the ceremony for the sake of the ceremony – continuing a long standing tradition, and the feeling of additional spiritual effort as individuals and a community.

Until I started reading the Piyutim and not just saying them in a mantra-like fashion. Just a few, of many, examples (the translations are my own): On the first night we say: “מאז ועד עתה אנו נידחים נהרגים נשחטים ונטבחים. שורדנו מתי מעט בין קוצים כסוחים, עיננו כלות בלי מצוא רווחים”-“And from then until now we are dispersed, murdered, slaughtered, and butchered. In small numbers we have survived among dead thorns (the nations) our eyes yearn without finding any relief”.

On the second night we say: זעם כרגע ועתה להיפוך זרי קודש עתה לשיפוך חביבת רע כקרן הפוך חשובה עזובה כקורעת בפוך – “A moments anger is now reversed (to longstanding anger) holly crowns are now spilled (the crowns of Torah, priesthood and kingship are now desecrated). A beloved friend (Am Yisrael) like a ‘vessel of beauty’, now considered as one who is deserted and ‘rips their clothes’ (as a prostitute)”.

On the third night: “כל היום עליך הרוגים לכפרה אין אנו משיגים” – “the entire day we are killed on you(r name because) we have not achieved atonement”. The following Piyut states: “פחודים הם מכל צרות ממחרפיהם ומלוחציהם” – “they are afraid of all calamities, of those who curse and oppress them”.1919 June Brit Jews march vs Polish pogroms

On the fourth night: “איה כל נפלאותיך הגדולות והנוראות אשר ספרו לנו אבותנו ה’ צבאות”  – “where are all your great and terrible wonders(!) which our forefathers told us about Hashem of Hosts”. A few stanzas later: “מעת לעת צרתי מרובה” – “from day to day our plight increases”.

On the fifth night: “איויתיך קיויתיך מארץ מרחקים” – “I yearn and hope for you from a distant land”. In the following Piyut: “והם שחים ומושפלים עד מאד מהר יקדמונו רחמיך כי דלונו מאד” – “and they are exceedingly lowly and disgraced, may your mercy come hastily because we are dwindled (and cannot bare the hardship of exile)”.

On the sixth night: “ארכו הימים ודבר חזון ארמון נוטש וחדל פרזון” – “Lengthened are the days (of exile) and (lack of fulfillment of) words of redemption. The palace-deserted (Beit Hamikdash) and open cities (of Israel) – have ceased”.

On the seventh day: “מתי תחיינו ומתהומות תעלנו” – “When will you revive us and bring us up (to the land) from the depths (of exile”.

On Erev Rosh Hashana: “העיר הקודש והמחוזות היו לחרפה ולביזות וכל מחמדיה טבועות וגנוזות ואין שיור רק התורה הזאת” – “The holy city and its suburbs have been disgraced, all its treasures sunk and hidden and there is nothing left but this Torah”.

The common thread to all these quotes (and there are many more) is this: how can they possibly be uttered in today’s day and age? how are they not the gravest of insults and show of ungratefulness towards Hashem, who has – in this generation -brought us back to the Land of Israel, to sovereignty, to military and economic self sufficiency, to the flourishing of agriculture, Torah scholarship and technological advances? in short – to redemption? These statements are not being said in past tense. They are being said in the same fashion in which they were written – as a reflection of the current state of the Jewish People. As if nothing has changed. Is there a greater חוצפה כלפי שמיא than that? How can the denial of Hashem’s Chessed be expected to serve as a tool of self reflection and repentance? How can one hope to get close to Hashem through ingratitude?

סמל מדינת ישראל=ויקיפדיה---

Of course it is important to always remember the hardships we experiences and their causes. Of course not everything has been rectified but – on Pesach, would we consider for even a second saying עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים (we were slaves in Egypt) without adding ויוציאנו ה’ אלוהנו משם ביד חזקה (and Hashem our God took us out of there with a strong arm)? Would we fathom to only discuss the terrible slavery without the redemption that followed? We are not talking about formal Tfilot and prayers which have strict rules and warnings about change (although I most definitely do not recite the traditional version of נחם on Tisha B’av but that is a topic for a separate post), rather on Piyutim, which are not the central part of Slichot which in itself does not have nearly the status of formal Tfila (even if it is fashioned after its model).

The are 2 possibilities I can think of for how people can continue saying these Piyutim, or at least sentences of these sort in the Piyutim:

Option 1 – People don’t pay attention, or mean, what they say in Tfila, let alone in Slichot.

Option 2 – People choose (knowingly or not) to stay in a state of perpetual trauma. A psychosis, in which ghosts of the past are conjured into their perception reality. (Why would people do this? is it an escape mechanism for not having to deal with the truth and the obligations that would bring with it? is it an emotional inability to process the truth with its challenge of the familiar? maybe a topic for a different post).

Either way – neither of these possibilities bode well for us as we enter The Days of Awe, days which require sincerity towards ourselves and sincerity towards Hashem, days, during which we spend hours in Tfila, speaking to Hashem and to ourselves about what is true and what is false about our past, present and future.

 

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Ideas for a creative Sedder

Not cSedderontent with the simple rote recitation of The Hagadah? Want to make it an actual multi-generational Jewish learning/growth experience? Want to have a Sedder which will stimulate and excite your children?

There are a lot of ideas out there but here are some of my favorites which I’ve actually tried:

1. Start again. After everyone is finally situated in their designated seat, Head of Sedder (HOS) goes to the front door, opens it and urgently calls everyone to quickly come outside to see something. When they  arrive HOS says : “Imagine that right now we would get up and just leave our houses. Leave to go to Israel/Jerusalem/Har HaBayit. Just grab our suitcases and go. Everywhere in the world, right now, all Jews are sitting down to remember when The Jewish People left Egypt. Let’s do the same. Everyone head back in; We’re now ready to start our Sedder”.

 

2. Move Maggid away from the dining room to the living room. Children sit on the carpet or mattresses in center while adults sit on the sofas/armchairs. You will be amazed how this can transform the Maggid from a ritual to an actual family discussion/activity (Make sure to bring your cup of wine with you).

 

3. Encourage questioning. Throughout the Sedder every question (or answer) said by a child – awards them a chocolate chip to be placed in small baggie. Kids may eat them throughout Maggid, but whoever has the most chips by the end- gets a prize. (Other options are tiny marshmallows or, small notes that say “Good Job”).

 

4. Q-cards. Under each plate place a card which has on it information to be used at variant times during the Sedder. Examples:

1) An individual “special” word – whenever this word is recited in the reading, the person needs to yell out: “Pesach, Matzah and Maror!”

2) A character from the Pesach story – when there is a lul in the story, pick random participant, who needs to either act out his character, or answer 21 questions until the other participants guess his identity (don’t forget all the animal characters from חד גדיא!)

 

5. Experience slavery. Immediately after מה נשתנה, bring out blocks and tell the kids to each build a building to a certain height. As they build, Head of the Seder (HOS) makes suggestions of improvements. Upon completion, HOS instructs to ruin and re-do better. When they start re-building, HOS takes a more aggressive attitude, bossing them around about how to build the building. After the kids get upset (or even cry) HOS stops and explains that this is similar to what happened in מצרים, it started off mild and gradually changed into slavery. Continue with עבדים היינו.

 

6. Four sons.

1)     Ask each participant to identify which son they are and why (can be both a serious as well as a bit of a silly conversation). Adults can share which kind of “son” they were when they were kids…

2)     The 4 sons through the ages. Download and print out enough versions of The Four Sons collectioFour sonsn, based on which you can have many fascinating discussion with participants, of all ages. Sample questions:

i. Identify who is each son in the various depictions of the four sons. How do you know?

ii.  What are some of the differences between the various depictions of the various sons? (for adults – what do these differences mean?)

iii. Which depiction is you favorite? Why?

iv. Which depiction best describes our family?

v. (For adults:

– What is common to all the depictions on the 3rd page?  A: they carry strong ideological statements – Zionist, anti-enlightenment and anti-socialist

– What is common to all the depictions on the last page?            A: they depict whole families, not only sons

7. The Plagues

1) Each child acts out 2 pre-assigned plagues and the other kids have to guess what it is.

2) Blood – Ask for “Jewish” and “Egyptian” volunteers to demonstrate the plague of Blood. Prepare 2 non see-through cups, one of which should have at the bottom red food coloring. Make a spectacle of pouring clear water from same jar into the “Jewish cup” and then the “Egyptian cup”, hand to them and ask them to describe what they see. HOS explains that the same water stayed water for us but when was used by the Egyptians- became blood.

3) Darkness. Split kids into “Jews” and “Egyptians”. Blindfold “Egyptians”, who need to protect their chocolate chips from the “Jews”, who want to “borrow” them. HOS explains that this is what happened in מצרים- the Egyptians couldn’t see anything and the Jews could. The Jews went into the Egyptians homes to take treasures as compensation for their hard work.

 

8. Elijah’s cup. Have someone sneak out of the room a couple of minutes before Elijahs cup. This person leaves house and stands outside the door with his head covered with a Tallit. When children open the door – Elijah walks in, walks silently (remaining hooded) to the table, bends down enough to fool that he is drinking (while making sure to spill some of it) and then leaves.

 

Word to the wise:

1. Different activities are appropriate for different ages

2. Change the activity to fit your “clientele”

3. If you find one that the kids love – do it again. It’s worth the time

4. Choose wisely how many “special” activities to do. You don’t want overkill. I recommend choosing the 3 or four you think will work best.

5. These ideas are not meant to replace the traditional Sedder, rather to enhance it; to evoke more interest and engagement in the readings and observances.

 

Chag Same’ach VeKasher!

(Feel free to add in things you’ve actually done and seen succeed)

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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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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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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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