Archive for category Philosophy

After the War is Over

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.

imagesIn 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.[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]

imagesThe 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.[4]

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?

imagesOr 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.

 

[1] Seder Olam re: Shoftim 19-21

[2] Shoftim 12

[3]Ya’aros Davash on Esther 3:8

[4] Yoma 9b

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The Drifters: a generation lost in space

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.

They drift.

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.

Read the whole article here.

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The Scent of Spirit

images“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare, arrange ten simple words into possibly the most famous aphorism in the English language.

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.”

imagesNational 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.”

imagesBut 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.

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Read Chapter 2

Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages

If you haven’t read Chapter 1, you don’t know what you’re missing.  And you don’ t want to miss Chapter 2 as well.  Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:

imgresTake a guided tour beneath the surface of the world we live in with this marriage of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reexamining Solomon’s eternal wisdom through the lens of news stories, scientific discoveries, the natural world, folktales, historical vignettes and, most notably, through the mystery and brilliance of the Mona Lisa – all woven together in a lyrical and engaging medley of the human experience.

Please take a few minutes to read the short introduction. If you like it, read the first chapter. If you have any critiques, I’d love to hear them. And if you really you like it, click on the “vote” button, then repost it and spread the word. You may have to create a Wattpad account to view it, but that only takes a moment.

Thank you!

http://www.wattpad.com/story/11547048-proverbial-beauty-secrets-for-success-and

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New book on Torah education and the modern world

WE NEED YOUR HELP!

​I hope you’ve had an opportunity to enjoy my last book, Celestial Navigation.  Besides offering deeply thoughtful insights into the cycle of Jewish holidays, this project has raised over $11,000 for Block Yeshiva High School.  But this was only possible through the generous sponsorships that enabled us to print and distribute 4000 copies.

Crucible new cover​Please consider becoming a partner with us in our next publication, slated for this September:

A Crucible for Silver
Forging a brighter future for ourselves and our children

Not only has Block Yeshiva consistently turned out the highest caliber of spiritually and professionally successful graduates for 35 years; it is also one of the last high schools in the country that tailors its academic program to every type of Jew without compromising educational quality or halachic standards.

At a time when so many factions of our community have become more and more polarized, the continued success of schools like Block is increasingly difficult as well as increasingly crucial for the survival of both civil society and the relevance of Jewish tradition.

Honor a family member, friend, rabbi, or teacher with a full-page tribute for $2500 or more, or a partial-page tribute for $1000 or more.  All sponsors of $100 or more will be acknowledged, and every sponsor of $36 or more will receive a complimentary copy.

You can read the title essay here.

Thank you for your support.  Please contact me through the form below with any questions or to be a sponsor.

​With Torah blessings,​
Yonason Goldson

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Playing Second Fiddle

Published in Ami Magazine, issue 171 

This article is not about me.

imagesIt’s not about how I grew up virtually tone-deaf, or about how long it took me to figure out why Mrs. Pinkston, my elementary school music teacher, would bend down to place her ear directly in front of my face as the class sang together, giving me a curious look before moving on to circulate among the other students.

This article is not about the time I found my voice.  I was a sophomore in college when, the first night of our dorm camping trip, someone started to sing as we stood around the campfire.  I joined in, and out came a rich baritone no one had ever heard – including me.  Everyone – including me – burst into laughter.  I was a stringbean of a teenager, and my mouth had no business producing a voice like Enrico Molinari’s.

Neither is it about how I started to lead davening servicesafter becoming observant.  I had already finished college when I began to learn aleph-beis; pronunciation did not come easily, and neither did nusach – the subtle, not-quite-random liturgical chant.  But I was determined: whenever mastery of Talmudic texts eluded me, it was leading the weekday prayersthat gave me my only sense of real accomplishment.

It’s not about how I made the transition from weekday to Shabbos services.  The head of my yeshiva was old-school:  imperfect nusach was an offense to the congregation, and I was repeatedly disqualified as incompetent before finally being allowed to enter the regular rotation.  My wife still groans when she recalls the countless hours of practice she had to endure in our tiny apartment.

It’s not about gaining confidence before the congregation, first for Shabbos, then for festivals, and finally for the High Holidays.  A deeper intimacy with the liturgy and an appreciative congregationwere the rewards of my labors.  Over time, Shabbos chazzan became part of my identity.

This article is not even about the day I lost my father when, according to the laws of mourning, I found myself disqualified from leading the Shabbos services once again after a quarter-century.

This is what it’s about:  two women named Naomi and Ruth who, together, changed the world by laying the foundations of the Jewish monarchy.

* * *

The problem with having had a mentor who was such a stickler for davening is that I myself became intolerant of less than fully-qualified chazzanim.  Mispronounced words, uneven rhythm, corrupted nusach, and dreary melodiesmade me wince and soured my entire shul experience.  After all, I could do so much better myself.

Until I couldn’t.  During my twelve months as a mourner, the only access I would have to Shabbos and festival davening would be as a participant, not as a leader.  And faced with the inevitable, my whole attitude began to change.

imgresWhat is a congregation?  Is it not the creation of one out of many, a microcosm of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai, when we stood together, k’ish echad b’leiv echad – like one man with one heart?  And what does it say about me if I stubbornly critique the shortcomings of others instead of looking for every way that I can contribute to the collective?

The one-thousandth piece of a puzzle can remain apart, a shapeless splash of incoherent imagery whose only contribution is to leave an empty scar upon an otherwise perfect picture.  But when it adds itself to the whole it does not lose its identity; rather, it becomes part of something much greater than itself while bringing completion to a thousand other pieces.  By the same token, a single voice, no matter how sweet, will be hard-pressed to fill a decent-sized sanctuary.  But add in the accompaniment of even a few moderately tuneful voices and instantaneously a rush of spiritual energy floods through the sanctuary and transports the parishioners to a higher plane.

Moreover, if one can use his talent anonymously to enhance the davening of another chazzan– or, by stepping into the breach, to spare him embarrassment when he stumbles — is there any expression of divine servicemore precious before the Almighty and more lovingly received before His court and His throne?

This is the divine magic of harmony, of unity, of the splintering of egos before the singularity of the Jewish nation.  Together, we create more than we possibly can as individuals; and if, by losing myself among the many, I also forgo the recognition of individual accomplishment… well, what of it?  Better second fiddle in an eternal symphony than first violin on some forgotten stage.

Which brings us at last to Naomi and Ruth, the real subjects of this article.

In a time of famine, in a generation beleaguered by national crisis, Elimelech took his family and left his land, forsaking his nation and his obligations as a leader among his people.  And his wife, Naomi, acquiesced, following her husband for the sake of her family duties, despite whatever misgivings she may have had about their collective decision.

Did Naomi protest against Elimelech’s abandonment of the Jewish people?  Did she try to dissuade her sons from taking foreign women as wives?  We would assume so, although scripture gives us no clues.  But Naomi stayed with her family until the bitter end when, bereft of everything she had once had, she sends her daughters-in-law back to their people and stoically accepts the justice of her fate alone.

But she does not remain alone.  Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you dwell, I will dwell; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d.  Can we begin to imagine Naomi’s reaction to these words, spoken by the daughter who refuses to abandon her, recompensing the dubious loyalty Naomi had shown the husband who led her away from her G-d and from her people, embracing her with a passionate expression of fidelity to return with her to G-d and to her nation?

Who must Naomi have been, to inspire such profound selflessness in a daughter of Moab, a nation so lacking in the quality of kindnessthat its sons can never be fully accepted as true converts even after ten generations?  Who must Ruth have been, to put so much trust in her adopted mother that she would cut every tie to her past and strike out penniless into the unknown?

Is this Naomi?  gasped the women who had known her before her departure, unable to reconcile the poor and lonely widow returning from afar with the visage of wealth and prominence they remembered.  But it was Naomi, the same woman who had silenced her own misgivings to follow her husband, who now suppressed her own feelings of shame and abandonment to guide the migrant soul of Ruth toward finding a place among her new nation.

And it was Ruth who, having lost her new husband, Boaz, on her very wedding night, declined the spotlight and eschewed center stage upon the birth of her son as the women proclaimed, A child is born to Naomi!  This moment was Naomi’s consolation for all she had lost, and far be it from Ruth to claim it for her own, however entitled she might have been.

imagesEach a heroine willing to step aside before the will and honor of another, Ruth and Naomi both rise as shining stars, showing future generations the way of selfless harmony that blends disparate individuals into a holy orchestra, led forward in its mission by their great-grandson, King David, the sweet singer of Israel, and guided by the celestial baton of the Conductor.

I still feel my blood pressure rising whenever a chazzan fails to do justice to the beauty of our prayers.  But now I hear the whispering of two women, reminding me that it’s not all about me, reminding me that I have a role to play even if it isn’t from center stage, and reminding me that when our devotion to one another outweighs all other considerations, then we will truly stand together as we did at Sinai, as one man with one heart, to merit the divine harmony of true redemption.

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More than a lucky number

Parshas Behar/ Sefiras HaOmer

imagesIn this week’s Torah portion we read about the shemittah year, the Sabbatical for the Land of Israel that parallels the weekly Sabbath on which the Jewish people refrain from work. 

It’s no coincidence that this parsha falls out in the middle of Sefiras HaOmer, the count of seven days and seven weeks that links the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos as the beginning and end of a process of spiritual growth, providing us with an opportunity to re-experience the transformation of the Jews from a people into a nation.

But what is it about the number seven that it plays such a significant role in Jewish thought, and in the very structure of our world?

Click here to find out.

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