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Published in last week’s Mishpacha Magazine
Question: When is a new shul considered successful?
Answer: When it’s big enough to spawn its first breakaway minyan.
In recent weeks, observers have gone to great lengths to show, correctly, the silver lining of achdus (unity) within the dark clouds of terrorism. The three martyred yeshiva students, the barrage of rocket fire, the mass retreats into bomb shelters, the cost of the Gaza operation in precious Jewish lives – all of these have brought Jews in Israel and around the world together and, for at least a moment, put an end to the divisiveness that too often characterizes our community. It is a genuine consolation, and it warrants our attention and celebration.
Not to be a spoilsport, but these observations miss a critical point: namely, that it has all happened before. Again and again and again.
After 40 years in the desert, the Jews entered the Land of Israel in unity, like one man with one heart, fighting together to claim and conquer the land that had been promised to their forefathers. But almost immediately after the death of Joshua, the incident of the concubine of Givoh led to a civil war that almost annihilated the tribe of Benjamin. Common purpose and brotherhood disintegrated into mutual suspicion and unbridled vengeance within a single generation.
This tragic pattern defines the entire Book of Judges. Perhaps the most egregious example follows Yiphtach’s rallying the people to take up arms against the Ammonites, whose 18-year domination of the Jewish people was the longest in the entire era of the Judges. Barely had Yiphtach returned from victory, however, when the tribe of Ephraim accused him of willfully excluding them from joining in battle to overthrow their oppressors. In the violent clash that followed, 42 thousand Ephraimites were killed by the tribe of Menashe.
Skip ahead six centuries to after the fall of the Babylonian Empire, when the Jews refused to follow Zerubavel back to Israel to reclaim their homeland. Instead, they remained “scattered and dispersed,” in such of state of disunity that Haman and Achashverosh believed their plan of genocide could not fail.
The pattern continues through post-Biblical history. The unity inspired by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Greeks led to an autonomous Jewish commonwealth for the first time in 300 years. But the internecine intrigues of the Tzaddukim (Sadducees) and the Hellenists ignited a bloody campaign against Torah and its sages. One generation later, a bitter power struggle between the Hasmonean brothers Hyraknus and Aristobulus cost tens of thousands of lives and eventually allowed Rome to gain a foothold in Israel, which led to the destruction of the second Temple. And we know all too well that the primary cause of the current exile was, and is, senseless hatred – the contempt for and mistrust of other Jews for the unpardonable sin of being even a little bit different.
The point is this. We are very good at coming together in the face of a common enemy. This is why Hashem sent us down to Egypt in the first place, as a tikkun (rectification) for the family discord that culminated in Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery.
But it is not enough for us to come together in times of crisis. What is painfully obvious from history is that Hashem wants us to remain united after the threat has passed and peace has returned among us. As long as we unify merely because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” can we really expect Hashem to shower His blessing upon us by sending the Messiah? It is how we continue to act toward one another after after the missiles stop falling that ultimately determines our future.
When my wife and I moved to the Jerusalem suburb of Neve Yaakov 22 years ago, we were among the second wave of pioneers, following the 36 families who first took up residence in the new subdivision downhill from the established Kamenetz neighborhood.
Those courageous souls had stories to tell. There was just enough (hijacked) electricity for each family to run a refrigerator and one light bulb, and a rotation system allowed families to use one major appliance – typically the oven or the washing machine – for two hours a day. I heard tell of one neighbor who came knocking to ask to borrow 15 minutes of electricity; his wife’s cake wasn’t done yet.
Things were a little better when we moved in, but not by much. The streets were unpaved and overrun by heavy equipment and Arab workers. There was no bus service. A few weeks after we moved in, two payphones appeared for the entire neighborhood; but these were little help when my wife went into labor, since no one close enough to call had a phone line. (Remember the days before cell phones?)
In the winter, our space heaters invariably overloaded the circuit breakers, and on erev Shabbos the water pressure turned to a trickle. Minyonim met in mobile homes, bomb shelters, storage closets, and my living room.
But the sense of community was palpable. Our second-hand Torah scrolls regularly turned up posul (invalid), and we ran from minyan to minyan borrowing from this one this week and lending out to that one next week. When growing numbers necessitated a new minyan, it was the gabbai of the old minyan who showed up with a load of bookshelves and siddurim (prayerbooks). Walking home from shul Friday night, we Ashkenazim greeted the Sephardim with Shabbat Shalom while they greeted us with Gut Shabbos.
So here’s the challenge. How do we not become victims of our own success, as we have so many times throughout history? What will convince us to summon up mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) for shalom the way we do for learning and Torah education and charity? When will we realize how much we need each other, even when our enemies are not storming the gates?
Or will we keep looking for ways to divide ourselves from ourselves, whether according the color of our yarmulkes or the style of our skirts or the brims of our hats? That may be defensible, even pragmatic, in New York and Israel. But is it really best for us to carve ourselves up into such narrow slices of Yiddishkeit that we only come in contact with other Jews who dress, act, and think exactly the way we do? And does it make any sense whatsoever for small towns to have two, three, or even four high schools to service fifty children?
With Hashem’s help, by the time this appears in print, some measure of peace will have returned to Israel. But will it endure? Only if we remain committed to one another in peace as we have under siege. Indeed, the way we manage the peace will determine whether it will last for a month, for a year, or for all eternity. And when the era of eternal peace finally arrives, may it be soon, we will wonder why we spent so much effort and energy dividing ourselves up in so many different ways for so many long and painful years.
 Seder Olam re: Shoftim 19-21
 Shoftim 12
Ya’aros Davash on Esther 3:8
 Yoma 9b
Posted in Culture on August 6, 2014
This has happened to you.
You’re standing in a crowded room. Someone pushes into you from behind. You feel a surge of irritation, even anger. Who is this careless oaf who can’t respect your personal space? You turn around to express your indignation, only to discover that the offending party is actually a good friend of yours who has bumped into you accidentally or, perhaps, even on purpose and is not smiling at you as you find yourself on the receiving end of a good-natured prank.
Your anger evaporates in an instant.
But why? The bump was no less of a bump on account of the person who bumped you. But the bump was never the issue at all. What was at issue was your ego, resenting the perpetrator who failed to show you respect.
It’s almost always ego that is the real perpetrator in any fight. Change one little detail and our irritation or anger vanishes. But when we feel our ego has been affronted, heaven help the offending party.
A man woke up one Sunday morning convinced that it was Monday. No one could tell him otherwise, and all the evidence his family and coworkers rallied made no impression upon him whatsoever. On Monday he asserted it was Tuesday, and on Wednesday he insisted it was Thursday. He refused to entertain the notion that he might be wrong and that everyone else might be right.
Published on Hubpages
You know who they are. You’ve seen them. They’re everywhere. On the roads. In the malls. In office buildings and grocery stores and parking lots.
There’s no way to avoid them. And there are more of them every day.
You know who I mean: the drifters.
They’re the ones driving just under the speed limit – 28 MPH in a 30 zone, not quite slow enough to pass and maddeningly unaware. They’re the ones walking through the aisles, down the halls, up the stairs, and across the floor, like Energizer Bunnies with batteries that have finally run down, refusing to stop but plodding along, sporadic, lethargic.
And it’s not just their lack of speed, not merely their dawdling. That we could live with, anticipate, and circumvent. It’s something much more than that – or much less.
On the roads, they drift back and forth between – and often across – the lines, incapable of keeping to one place inside their lanes or keeping one lane to be their place. They don’t understand the concept of turn lanes at all, creeping into them by inches as they reduce speed even further until, at last, they come to rest half in and half out, blocking traffic in four directions as they wait for the moment when they are finally ready to turn, when not a single car remains visible on any horizon.
As pedestrians they are no different, meandering down the sidewalks, looking irresolutely for some hint of destination, knowing through some sixth sense whether you are trying to pass them on the right or the left and instantly changing tack – the only movement they are able perform quickly. They are particularly fond of doorways and stairwells, where they instinctively come to a stop, thereby causing the greatest possible congestion.
Where do they come from? Why are there so many of them? And are we in danger of becoming like them?
In his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway popularized the term “lost generation,” referring to the men in their twenties who returned from World War I traumatized by the horrors of a war that stole the innocence of their youth, men who were unable to find their place in a world that wanted nothing but to forget the past. Confused and without direction, they struggled to make sense of the senselessness of their experiences.
Published on Hubpages.com
A child’s brain is like a sponge, absorbing everything with which it comes in contact. As the brain gets older it learns to process, to analyze, to interpret. And eventually it begins to slow, begins to forget, begins to lose function.
Few prospects are as forbidding as mental decline, the specter of which haunts us as we advance toward old age. And so the experts tell us to keep our minds active, that using the brain is the surest way to stave off mental deterioration.
Crossword puzzles. Sudoku. Word games. Logic problems. These are common recipes from the diet books for the mind. Go traveling. Take up knitting or gardening. Learn Italian. Drive a different way to work. Get an advanced degree. Anything and everything that piques cognitive activity belongs in our catalogue of mental health activities.
“That’s all good,” says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind andNew York Times health and medical science editor. But the most intriguing advice Ms. Strauch has heard is this: “Deliberately challenge your view of the world. Talk to people you totally disagree with.”
Published on Hubpages.com
In 1972, comedian George Carlin made headlines with his routine “7 words you can never say on television.” And although the FCC still limits what can be broadcast over the airways, the rise of cable TV long ago ensured that you can say – or hear, or see – just about anything on television.
But even this doesn’t show how much standards of refinement have changed.
Older readers will remember Johnny Carson, the legendary host of the Tonight Show whose 30-year tenure preceded that of Jay Leno. But not so many remember Mr. Carson’s predecessor, Jack Paar, and fewer still will recall why he left the show.
In the opening monologue one night, Mr. Paar uttered the expression “W.C.,” a mostly-forgotten anachronism meaning Water Closet, yet another anachronism meaningbathroom. The censors bleeped the term as profane. Mr. Paar quit the show in protest.
The story strikes as comical, and we can’t help rolling our collective eyes at the overzealous censors who couldn’t tell real profanity from the merely indelicate. But when it comes to values, we can’t escape the inevitable objection: who gets to decide where to draw the line?
And so, too often, no line gets drawn at all. That’s not good for us. And it’s even worse for our children. Because what gets lost with the line is something that was once called character.
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
After Charles Krauthammer wrote so articulately about the moral clarity in Gaza (July 18), it is astonishing that there remains such profound moral confusion.
Exactly why are Arielle Klagsbrun, Hedy Epstein and Maya Harris (“The American Jewish community must value all life,” July 22) so eager to misrepresent the history of Israel, and to condemn their fellow Jews for the unspeakable crimes of self-defense and survival? They denounce the “illegal occupation” of captured territories. Why are they not equally concerned about the Jewish-owned land appropriated by Arab governments — all 38,625 square miles of it (compared to Israel’s total area of 7,992 square miles)? Why do they condemn Israel as oppressors when it was the Palestinian Authority that rejected Ehud Barak’s offer — after the Camp David Accords of 2000 — to return an equivalent amount of territory to that captured in the defensive 1967 war?
Have they forgotten that Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza and handed it over to the Palestinians, who promptly destroyed much of the infrastructure the Israelis left behind and embarked on a campaign of terrorism against Israel?
Most important, by what twisted logic do they suggest that Israel is guilty of murdering the Palestinian civilians used by Hamas as human shields to protect the rockets targeting Israeli civilians in an unprovoked rain of terror? It should be obvious that there would be peace tomorrow if the Palestinian leadership would stop seeking Israel’s destruction today.
Even the Washington Post editorial staff has reached the inevitable conclusion that the leaders of Hamas have no motive other than to sacrifice their own people on the altar of public opinion in hope of inciting world condemnation against Israel for defending itself. If they read the letter written by Ms. Klagsbrun, Ms. Epstein and Ms. Harris, the Hamas terrorists will rejoice, as their people die, knowing that their stratagem has not been completely in vain.
And yet, for all the mystique and romance associated with the beauty of the rose, the greatest of all poets recognized fragrance, not visage, as the defining quality of the most admired flower.
Bonnie Blodgett would almost certainly agree. In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing and Discovering the Primal Sense, Ms. Blodgett describes the emptiness and depression that took over her life when a zinc-based nasal spray disrupted the operation of her olfactory nerve and disfigured her sense of smell.
Gone were the familiar, reassuring fragrances of her garden, replaced by ceaseless aromas of rotting flesh and excrement, which Ms. Blodgett describes as nothing less than torture. But even when these “phantom smells” abated, the odorless existence that replaced them was only a marginal improvement.
“I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything,” she told NPR. “When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there — I don’t know how to explain it — I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me.”
Adding insult to injury was the lack of sympathy received from friends. Unlike blindness, deafness, illness, or injury, most of us cannot relate to an impaired sense of smell as especially debilitating. Of all our senses, it is the one we are most likely to take for granted.
Of course, not everyone fails to recognize the power of fragrance. From Cleopatra to Oprah Winfrey, the rich and powerful have scented themselves to augment their personas and project an image of potency, charisma, or sensuality. Today, the research, development, and production of perfume and cologne have created a $25 billion industry that markets, in the words of star perfumer Sophia Grojsman, “a promise in a bottle.”
National Geographic explains it this way: “Memory and fragrance are intertwined, some biologists insist, because the sense of smell plugs smack into the limbic system, the seat of emotion in the brain. No other sense has such immediate access.”
The unique power of fragrance takes little time to assert itself in the chronicles of mankind. Immediately upon exiting the ark, Noach gave thanks for his salvation by building an altar and bringing offerings of thanksgiving. “And Hashem smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Hashem said to Himself, Never again will I curse the earth on account of man” (Bereishis 8:21). According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Torah uses the language of “aroma” to describe direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways.
The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7). The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah – “breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration. By the same token, the spices we inhale as part of havdalah ease our transition from Shabbos, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity, back to an existence defined by the physical and the mundane.
In the days of the Mishkan and the first Beis HaMikdash, the burning of incense made up the most intensely spiritual form of service: the only offering presented in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, once a year on Yom Kippur. Here, explains Rav Hirsch, we find a symbol for the Jewish people’s total ascension before G-d through their commitment to His service. In the language of Chazal, smell is that which benefits the soul and not the body (Berachos 43b).
Just as smell is the most difficult sense to measure, quantify, and define, so too is our spiritual essence the least palpable and discernable facet of our existence. Similarly, the interplay between one soul and another is the most elusive of human pleasures, but it is also the most rewarding. As Shlomo HaMelech says, “Scented oil and incense gladden the heart, sweet as the sincere counsel of a kindred soul” (Mishlei 27:9). Indeed, the smoky fragrance of incense wafting into the corners of our minds and rippling across the strings of our hearts is anything but smoke and mirrors; it stirs our memories and hopes and dreams the same way that true friendship and camaraderie arouse our spirit. Truly, the faculty of smell provides the spice of life by adding texture and dimension to all our other senses.
Ask Bonnie Blodgett. As suddenly as her sense of smell disappeared, just as suddenly it returned, and she will never take it for granted again. “I was going around smelling everything,” she says. “Being able to smell lilacs again was just — I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
But it goes beyond mere olfactory pleasure. There is truth to common expressions like he has a good nose for business and something doesn’t smell right. Like our sense of smell, human intuition is our intangible moral compass, guiding us when we encounter something for the first time to quickly assess its value and authenticity. When Yaakov Avinu, disguised as his brother, Eisav, entered his father’s tent, Yitzchok exclaims, “The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field blessed by G-d” (Bereishis 27, 27). The sages elaborate, explaining that the fragrance of Gan Eden had entered with Yaakov, convincing Yitzchok to bestow his blessing (Rashi, ad. loc).
What was this “fragrance of Eden”? It was nothing less than the soul’s eternal connection with the Almighty’s master plan, which began with the creation of a perfect world and will culminate in the rectification of the Sin of Adam signaled by the arrival of the messianic era.* And throughout the long generations of chaos in between, the spiritual nature of our world can be scarcely perceived through sight, sound, touch, or taste. But it can be smelled, if we pay attention to the subtle pleasures of life that are expressions of the human soul and contemplate the mysterious allegory of fragrance.
And so Chazal tell us that, when Moshiach comes, he will “smell and judge,” – determining complex truths through spiritual discernment (Sanhedrin 93b). Thus we find, according to Chassidic tradition, the story of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the 18th Century Torah giant whose wife ran through the door one afternoon shouting, “Mendel, Mendel, there’s a man outside shouting that Moshiach has arrived!”
Immediately, Reb Menachem Mendel jumped up and ran to the window, took a long sniff of air, then shook his head and muttered, “Nonsense!” before returning to his studies. Like Yitzchok Avinu, the rebbe knew that a world with Moshiach smells different from a world without Moshiach, and that if he could not detect the fragrance of Gan Eden then certainly Moshiach had not yet arrived.
Two generations later, Reb Yisroel of Rizhin asked why the illustrious rebbe had to run to the window – why could he not simply sniff the air in his own home?
The Rizhiner answered his own question. So involved was the Rebbe with his own personal avodas Hashem, so intent was he upon hastening the arrival of Moshiach, so profoundly had he had already connected with the spiritual source of the universe that his own house had already acquired the fragrance of Gan Eden. Consequently, he had to run to the window to discover what the rest of the world smelt like.
The more we focus on what we should be doing to bring Moshiach, the more our lives will acquire the fragrance of the messianic era. And the more eagerly we await Moshiach’s arrival, the sooner we will enjoy a world in which we draw in the aroma of kedusha with every breath.
*Based on the Malbim, loc. cit.
Published in Iyan Magazine, 2 July 2014. With thanks to Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Aish.com.