THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE

A  little over a month ago we spilled the wine, as we recounted the plagues visited upon the obstinate Pharaoh who refused to liberate the Children of Israel. There is yet one other plague however, that is far more abhorrent than those recounted at the Pesach Seder. That is the plague that broke out close to fifteen hundred years later in ancient Israel, among the students of Rabbi Akiva. We learn from the Talmud, that among Rabbi Akiva’s 12,0000 pairs of students, there were those who perished daily, beginning on Pesach, until the thirty-third day of the counting of Omer. The Talmud further relates that the cause of this plague, was the lack of respect that the students of Rabbi Akiva accorded one another.

For close to two thousand years, rabbinic scholars have been totally incredulous at the very notion that the students of Rabbi Akiva could behave toward one another in such fashion. Although I never have considered myself a rabbinic scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I cannot help but feel, that three salient points have not been taken into account:

For us as a people, discussion, dispute and divergent opinion have served as our life blood. What makes us Jews so unique, is our ability to hold  contradictory views and opinions. As such, it was our ancestors who were the true promulgators of democracy! Yet, there are times, such as a state of emergency, when democracy must be put on hold  and take a back seat. Such a time was during Rabbi Akiva’s leadership. The tension that existed between the Roman rulers and the Jewish people it governed, was at an all-time high.  With the destruction of the holy Temple having taken place a mere six and a half decades earlier, the lesson that the destruction left in its wake had yet to be absorbed. And that was, that internal dissension can prove to be lethal, when living under the rule of a foreign government. After all, wasn’t “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred that flared up among our people that ultimately served as the root cause for the Roman victory?  Yet, thirty-five years later, the great sage Rabbi Akiva not only defied the Romans from a religious aspect, by continuing to teach Torah publicly, thereby ignoring a recently handed down edict, but he defied the Romans from a military aspect as well! After all, Rabbi Akiva was one of the supporters of Bar Kochba, the Jewish General believed to be able to overthrow the Romans, thereby casting off the yoke that the Romans imposed upon the Jews of ancient Israel! Surely, there must have been strongly held opinions regarding Rabbi Akiva’s political involvement! Disagreement about the understanding of a religious text is one thing; disagreement where students simply fail to understand why a religious leader would get himself so entrenched in the overthrow of a government is quite something else. However useful the exhortation to “never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” one would do well to bear in mind that of the two, discussing politics is far more dangerous to the well-being of relationships  and at times even far more lethal.

Story has it that a renowned rabbi, together with his Shamash  traveled to visit another renowned Rabbi to discuss a pressing religious  matter. Although the host rabbi was informed of the arrival of a revered religious leader, the host rabbi had the visiting rabbi wait in line together with the commoners for hours until he was received. Sometime later, the proverbial shoe was now on the other foot. The host rabbi together with his Shamash were visiting the very same rabbi who had earlier paid them a visit. As soon as the rabbi who had been made to stand in line and wait, learned of the presence of his visitor, he gave instruction that a red carpet be rolled out and carte blanche be given to the important visitor. The Shamash was incredulous. “this is how you pay back one who treated you with such disrespect,” he asked his revered leader incredulously.
“Better he and his Shamash  should learn to accord respect from us, than we should learn to accord disrespect from them,” answered the venerated Rabbi.

Once Jews treat one another with respect, a perilous plague will have been eradicated from our nation.

UNLIKE THE HOLOCAUST

“It was like images out of the Holocaust,” exclaimed Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein last weekend in Poway, California  as he found himself a victim of another atrocity aimed at Jews. Far be it from me to take issue with Rabbi Goldstein’s comments, but for the vast majority of us, it is most proper, especially this very week when we observe Yom HaShoah and remember the Holocaust, to realize that to make such a comparison does a great disservice to the six million.

Unlike the Holocaust, no attack on a synagogue, church, or mosque in this country is government executed and government sanctioned. The Chancellor of Germany did not come out and say “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded, and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated,”  much less place a phone call to any wounded rabbi. The Third Reich was far too busy rounding up rabbis – the Nazis were very democratic, refusing to distinguish one Jew from another – and  shipping them to concentration camps where most would meet their deaths either quickly or slowly.

Unlike the Holocaust, the New York Times did not bury the story of last week’s synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway, or the shooting at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, on page 23 of its newspaper. Both incidents were front page news. What takes place at a synagogue – good or bad – is treated no differently than what takes place at a church or mosque. It’s of major concern to Americans and therefore it garners front page news in newspapers throughout the nation. Whereas the Third Reich maintained the attitude of “we do not distinguish between Jews, we treat them all the same viz. like vermin,” the media in this country maintains the attitude  “we do not distinguish between religions, we treat them all the same viz. with dignity and respect.”

Unlike the Holocaust, non-Jews in this country show solidarity. At Shabbat services one week after the Pittsburgh catastrophe, we at Tiferet had visitors. Unlike other non-Jews who attend our services, either out of curiosity or out of an interest to embrace Judaism, those who joined us at Shabbat services on November 3rd of last year, did so purely out of solidarity. It was their way of saying “we feel terrible about what took place. We lack the necessary words to provide comfort and consolation. We would therefore like to visit with you, so that we can pray together.” Eight decades ago, non-Jews showed  no such solidarity. True to its designation, the silent majority said nothing. Hitler’s war was against the Jews, not the Lutherans. To quote a saying I learned after arriving in Dallas, “the Christian world did not have a dog in that fight.” The precious few who were abhorred by what was taking place, were afraid to speak out, lest they endanger their own lives. Today, days after the catastrophe at Chabad, the silent majority continues to remain silent. The ones who are afraid to speak out however, are not the precious few. They are the repugnant few, who regret that the assailant was not more successful in his vendetta against Jews. They know that American society will not tolerate individuals who harbor such views and cling to such feelings.

I have no idea what Jewish leaders – both religious, as well as lay – will be saying to those who come together to commemorate the Holocaust, this Thursday evening. Personally, I’ll be offering up a prayer. I will be thanking HaShem that I live in a country where the elected political leadership expresses solidarity when a crime is committed against Jews, where the media gives what took place full coverage and where non-Jews stand together with Jews, attesting to the fact that we are one nation under G-d.

YOU ARE AN ERRANT WEED

“To him and to those like him, we say: ‘You are not part of the community of Israel. You are an errant weed…Judaism spits you out…You are a shame to Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.’” So spoke the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzchak Rabin, in the aftermath of  what came to be known as the Hebron Massacre. Next Monday, marks twenty-five years since Baruch Goldstein, an American trained physician, dressed in his military uniform, armed with a Galil assault rifle, entered Ma’arat HaMachpelah otherwise known as the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Muslim worshippers, while wounding another 125.

So spoke the democratically elected leader of the Jewish State. Given the fact that there were those on the right of the political spectrum in Israel who saw Baruch Goldstein as being heaven sent, while there were those on the left of the political spectrum in Israel who saw Baruch Goldstein as deserving the most horrendous that hell had to offer, the Prime Minister of Israel, the leader of the entire political spectrum dared to deliver  an assessment of Baruch Goldstein, that no psychiatrist had yet to come up with.

A few years later, I was introduced to a woman who was a friend and neighbor of Baruch Goldstein. “He was my children’s pediatrician,” she offered. “As far as you are able to explain, what do you think happened?” I asked. “He snapped! Who wouldn’t have snapped, treating victim after victim, day after day, of Arab terrorism?” she responded.

Prime Minister Rabin could have used that opportunity to tell Jew and Arab alike, that Israel will not tolerate terrorism, regardless of the source. Instead, he chose to usurp the power entrusted to rabbis from a different time and a different place and excommunicate the deceased doctor, declaring that “Judaism spits you out” and that “you are an embarrassment to Judaism.”

As Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin could have said, “Israel is the home of Jews from all corners of the world. We invite our brothers and sister, wherever they may be, to come to Israel and to make themselves at home. We will, however, never tolerate any Jew, from anywhere, who disrupts our home or places our home in harm’s way, because our home is not in the best neighborhood of the world.” Instead, Prime Minister Rabin chose to castigate and chastise.

Twenty months after these incendiary words were spoken, I searched to find the proper words to encapsulate the Prime Minister’s life. Our synagogue was holding a memorial for Yitchak Rabin whose life was abruptly ended, moments after he addressed a crowd at a rally in Tel-Aviv. As you might surmise, I was neither a supporter nor a fan of Yitzchak Rabin. But I put political differences aside and accorded him the honor and respect befitting a Prime Minister of Israel. At the conclusion of the tribute, an Israeli, representing an entirely different political bent than mine, who had been present, approached me to thank me as well as to give me a yasher koach for my remarks. “This was not easy for me,” I confided in her. “I’m very much aware of that and that’s all the more reason you deserve a “thank you” as well as a yasher koach,” she responded.

Twenty-five years have passed since the carnage at Ma’arat HaMachpelah. I cannot help but feel that over this past quarter century, political views of the vast majority of Israelis have by and large remained the same. Those who vilified Baruch Goldstein in February 1994, continue to do so today. Similarly, those who glorified Baruch Goldstein in February 1994, continue to do so today as well.

Reflecting on those events twenty-five years later, I sadly shake my head, as I see how very pathetic it was for the same Prime Minister who months earlier,  extended a hand, however reluctantly, on the White House lawn to Yasser Arafat,  an individual who orchestrated decades of mayhem and murder, to then go and spit in the face of a family attempting to deal with the sudden death of a husband and father whose actions, no one may never fully understand.

HAVING YOUR SAY AT THE SEDER

Statistics have it that more Jews participate in a Passover Seder than light Chanukah candles. Before you delude yourself into imagining how proud HaShem and Moshe are knowing that the revolutionary event of the Exodus from Egypt lives on millennia later, consider the fact that there are a good many contemporary Jews who conduct a Seder for purely selfish reasons. The Seder provides them with a forum to further a point of view that they hold as sacred. Put differently, in many instances, the Passover Seder has evolved into the most politicized tradition known to our people.

Politicizing Passover is nothing new. Close to a century ago, following the overthrow of the Czar, Communist leadership used the Passover Seder to advance its cause. Nicholas II was seen as Pharaoh, Vladamir Lenin was portrayed as Moses, life in Czarist Russia was indistinguishable from Egypt where cruel enslavement of the masses ran rampant, and the Soviet Union under Communism, where everyone enjoyed “equal rights,” was a panacea perhaps even superior to the Promised Land.

With the most modicum of imagination, the Passover Seder serves as the venue for any number of causes you hold to be sacred. At present, I’m sure that there are those who use the Seder to advance the plight of the poor Palestinians living in bondage under the wicked Israelis who deny them dignity as a people.

Don’t hijack the Passover Seder for selfish reasons. For two nights a year, even disaffected Jews ought to be able to find it in their hearts to accord Moses his rightful place among our people. As for using the Seder to further one’s personal agenda, one might consider using the conclusion of Passover as an appropriate time.

It would bookend the festival. Rather than watch the dissipation of Passover encroach as the crumbs of the Seder are brushed aside, a post Passover Seder could provide symmetry. Should you wish to resort to maror and matzah to highlight the plight of those you maintain are being denied freedom, then by all means! A post Passover Seder affords you to introduce bread and all over symbols to represent a future filled with hope. A post Passover Seder guarantees that the festival not only begins with interest and participation but ends with interest and participation as well.

It would show that you are no usurper. Those with an agenda all their own feel that they deserve a platform. If so, don’t deny Moses the platform that is his. Show others that you have the courtesy and sensitivity to permit Moses eight days of fame each year. Once Moses has had his say, beginning with “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Exodus 13:8) and concluding (seven days later) with “HaShem shall do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (exodus 14:14), you will have ample time to have your say and customize the message of Passover to fit your needs.

It keeps it in the house. You have every right to champion whatever cause you feel to be important. Do so within the walls of your own home. Chances are that others really don’t care about the beliefs you hold to be so sacrosanct. On the other hand, it may very well be that others care a great deal and are repulsed by those beliefs. Why should you be the cause for acrimony in the community? Doesn’t the Seder begin by extending an all-inclusive invitation? Keep your politicized Seder with your beliefs inside your own home where you can rant and rave to your heart’s content.

OF BOMB SCARES AND BOMB CARES

Bomb scares called in by phone to Jewish institutions such as JCCs and synagogues are deplorable; vandalism at Jewish cemeteries even more so. As macabre as this may sound, bomb scares pale in comparison to actual bombs going off without any warning. As macabre as this may sound, cemetery desecration pales in comparison to Jewish homes being vandalized and “Jude” painted on the windows or front door.

As one whose maternal grandmother was widowed at the age of 25 when her husband was murdered along with all the other Jewish men – all victims of a pogrom in the Bessarabian shtetl where they lived – bomb scares and even cemetery desecrations don’t throw me into a panic.

Instead, I draw strength because leadership of Jewish communities speaks out. From time immemorial, there have been Jewish communities, yet, only within the last century in this country has there been any semblance of Jewish communal leadership. In the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, there was no Jewish leadership. Berdichev was known for its great rabbinic personality Levi Yitzchak, not for its JCC or its Jewish Community Relations Council – neither of which existed during Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s time. When Jews of Berdichev suffered indignation or even calamity from those who despised them, they had absolutely no recourse. Even in this country it wasn’t until the last half-century that American Jews, along with their leaders, finally abandoned their “shah shtill” attitude when it came to Jewish issues.

I draw strength because the American Government listens. Close to 75 years ago, a group of 400-plus American rabbis gathered courage and traveled to the nation’s capital three days before Yom Kippur to draw President Roosevelt’s attention to the destruction and annihilation of European Jewry. The President avoided meeting with the rabbis not only because of concerns of diplomatic neutrality, but because some of his Jewish aides and several prominent American Jews felt that the delegation (the vast majority of  whom were Orthodox as well as recent immigrants to this country) were not representative of American Jewry, and that such a meeting would stir up antisemitism.

FDR is long gone. So too are those American Jews who were concerned lest they appear “too Jewish.” Now we have Chanukah celebrations as well as Passover Seders at the White House. No longer are Jewish delegations – rabbinic or lay – turned away.

I draw strength because our politicians make an attempt to address the situation. While I personally fail to see any connection between hastily planned whirlwind visits to Israel and bomb scares to JCCs and synagogues, in no way can I look askance at a governor from the state of New York boarding a flight to Ben Gurion airport.

What would really give me reason to draw strength will occur when pastors and priests throughout this country make it a point to speak out against bomb scares and desecrations of Jewish cemeteries. It would be a marvelous mitzvah for pastors and priests throughout this country, as they find themselves at the beginning of the Lenten season, to speak out against bomb scares and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and to remind their parishioners that anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness.

I would hope that Christian leaders will begin to speak up and speak out about what is taking place. When that takes happens, I will ask that you join me in drawing strength. Chazak! Chazak!

THANKSGIVING TRANSCENDS

If the media is to be believed – and that’s a big if, then there will be any number of families and friends that will alter their plans for sharing Thanksgiving dinner this year. No puns intended, but it seems that one of the outcomes of the recent elections is that political allegiance trumps familial allegiance. Reading the news, one would be led to believe that this is the first time in American history that families refused to sit down together to celebrate Thanksgiving. Nothing could be further than the truth! If the Civil War pitted brother against brother, then there is every reason to believe that refusal to share Thanksgiving dinner was one of any number of causalities that came about when the North and the South of this country faced off against each other.

When all is said and done, Thanksgiving transcends politics. Despite strong held Democrat or Republican beliefs along with more than a healthy dose of stubbornness, Thanksgiving has transcended party allegiance. Say what you want about turkey and trimmings, but they are oblivious to political ideologies. So too has been the case for the vast majority of Americans who refuse to let their appetites become ruined as they debate within themselves whether or not they should go for second helpings or whether the turkey is as tender and tasty as it was last year.

When all is said and done, Thanksgiving transcends trends. There may be a world of difference between America of 2016 and America of 1966, just as there was most likely a world of difference between America of 1966 and America of 1916. America has changed! Despite the packaging along with the fact that by the time they are in the supermarket for purchase, turkeys seem to have lost their feet, necks as well as their internal organs, the prerequisite Thanksgiving fowl  has remained the same. That’s why grandma’s recipe for Thanksgiving Dinner is savored more and more as the years go by; that’s why traditions and honors such as who is asked to carve the “ toikey” (see the 1990 Barry Levinson movie Avalon) remains sacrosanct.

When all is said and done, Thanksgiving transcends self-interests. How else does one explain millions of Americans turning airports into “scareports” as travelers desperately attempt to keep their tempers in check? First they must stand in line to check in, and then stand in line to go through security only to have to stand in line once again to board a plane, where for all intents and purposes they will be pretty much forced to assume a sitting posture not all that dissimilar to the turkey they are about to dig into at the Thanksgiving meal. How else does one explain inching along overcrowded interstate highways wondering if you are going to make it in time, in that under the best of circumstances, your destination is still an hour and a half away? How else does one explain adjusting one’s personal calendar and rescheduling appointments, so that one is able to spend a couple of hours around a Thanksgiving table, all the while hoping and praying that one does not end up sitting beside cousin Bartholomew who gives new meaning to the word obnoxious?

Thanksgiving transcends it all. Perhaps that’s why in the hundredth psalm otherwise known as the Psalm of Thanksgiving, we find the phrase “from generation to generation”.