This week’s Torah portion is a triple-header of passages familiar to us: the Ten Commandments, the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta. They’re all in D’varim/Deuteronomy, chapters 5 and 6. I would be remiss if I didn’t call your attention to this part of Moses’ final speeches to the Israelites. Yet, while I recommend that you go home and read them, I want to focus instead this evening on the issues raised by the special name given to this Shabbat, Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of Consolation.
This past week the Jewish people observed Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in Jewish history. According to our traditions, both the first and second temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the ninth day of Av in the culmination of our enemies’ assaults on Jewish faith and Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.
From early on, in the wake of these nearly overwhelming national catastrophes, the rabbis instituted a day of fasting, with the reading of Kinot, poems of sadness, along with the biblical Book of Eichah/Lamentations. Our history also records that the expulsion of Jews from Spain took place on the 9th of Av in 1492, and that many other disasters befell our people on this day in history. Each event contemporized the observance and made it newly relevant.
Our Reform movement, which in its first 100 years de-emphasized Jews’ return to the land of Israel, abandoned the observance of Tisha B’Av – the mourning for the destroyed Temples — as have many Israelis since the establishment of the State in 1948.
But I disagree. In considering Jewish history, I think it is important to remember Tisha b’Av and these two Shabbatot: the one before Tisha B’Av, called Shabbat Hazon, and the one following – Nahamu.
We need consolation! And not necessarily because of our “sins,” which the rabbis said were the cause of our suffering. Our suffering comes, rather, because of the geopolitical realities of our history: Israel is a small nation in a bad neighborhood, a tiny defenseless minority among hostile neighbors.
We need consolation to restore and reinforce hope. I characterize us Jews as Asirei tikvah – prisoners of hope. Our Jewish anthem, Hatikvah – the hope! — asserts ohd lo avdah tikvateinu – our hope is not yet lost. I believe this, and I hope (!) you do too.
ATTENTION MEMBERS AND FRIENDS OF TEMPLE BETH SHALOM
The grandson of our long-time member Luis Sanchez and his late wife Dalia, lives in Israel. He needs our help, urgently. The boy, whose name is Yahel Yehuda, suffers advanced brain degeneration. It is a genetic mutation so rare that it is the only one in all the databases of global genetics.
Yahel’s parents, Luisito and Keren, desperately need to purchase a specially equipped vehicle to transport Yahel to his treatments and anywhere else they have to take him.
The Israel Ministry of Health has approved a grant that will cover 80% of the cost. Luisito and Keren must raise the remaining 20% balance.
They have turned to an Israeli crowdfunding platform called GIVEBACK ISRAEL to raise the funds to get the transport vehicle for their son. The campaign is called “WHEELS FOR YAHEL”, in Hebrew “ Latet Galgalim L’Yahel.”
The campaign MUST be completed by May 11th or whatever had been raised will be returned and the campaign will be canceled. The project will be funded only if it reaches its goal by May 11th. This is an all or nothing challenge!
Our congregation’s Social Action Committee met on Tuesday and voted to contribute $3000 to the Wheels for Yahel campaign, in recognition of Luis Sanchez’ longtime invaluable dedication to Temple Beth Shalom, in honor of Luisito, the first child of the congregation to make Aliyah, and in acknowledgement of the urgent need to help Yahel.
With the Social Action committee’s contribution, only $3,000 more must be raised. With this message, I appeal to you, members and friends of our congregation, to raise that remaining $3000 needed to meet the goal.
Naomi and I are contributing $180 to the Wheels for Yahel campaign. Please join us in making a contribution.
I would like to share with you a brief look at our past, our present and our future in terms of Judaic tradition and Jewish persistence.
Shabbat Nahamu, the Sabbath of consolation, follows Tisha B’Av, the day which commemorates Jewish national tragedies in 586 BCE, 70 CE, and 1492 among others. On Tisha B’Av, Sefardic Jews have a kinah, a lament, that starts Ma nish’tana – “Why is this day different” (the same phrase in the Passover Haggadah that introduces the Four Questions). The kinah concludes with an expression of comfort and hope in the form of a poem written by the greatest of our medieval Jewish poets, Yehudah HaLevi. It is one of his shirei tziyon – songs of Zion.
Zion, don’t you have any response to your last remaining flocks, your captive hearts, who send you messages of love?
When I dream of how your exiles will return, I become a harp (singing) your songs.
Our Jewish tradition assigns haftarot of consolation for the seven Shabbatot following Tisha B’Av. According to Rabbi David Abudraham, a great scholar who lived in 14th century Spain (hibur peirush ha-b’rakhot v’ha-tefilot – “A Composition Explaining the Blessings and the Prayers” – published in nine editions because of its popularity). The seven haftarot, all from Second Isaiah, provide an escalating drama of comfort and consolation that we can relate to. They make sense in terms of our modern understanding of the psychology of grieving.
The first week’s haftarah, (Isaiah 40:1-26), “seek comfort My people,” describes a people who struggle to be reconciled with God. The second haftarah (Isaiah 49:14-51:3), laments that “God has forsaken us.” The third (Isaiah 59:11-55:5), describes Israel as nevertheless still stubbornly seeking comfort from God. In the fourth week’s haftarah (Isaiah 51:12-52:12), we read God’s response: “I, I alone will comfort you.”
And so, in the fifth and sixth weeks, we have new reaffirmations of Israel’s faith in God. The haftarah for the fifth week (Isaiah 54:1-10), “Sing O barren one, you who bore no children… break out, sing aloud!”
And in sixth week (Isaiah 60:1-22), “Arise, shine for your light has dawned.” And finally, in week seven (Isaiah 61:10-63:9), “I will rejoice … Redemption is on the horizon.”
Abudraham portrays the progression of haftarot as going from despair to renewed faith and exultation. That’s the way our tradition has treated the devastating impact on our people’s continuing existence. And all of this, of course, in the words of Jews living in exile from Israel, the still-yearned for ancestral homeland.
Fast forward to the present. Israel has been realized. The ingathering of the exiles has begun. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 is the greatest success of all the 20th century movements of national liberation. The full prayer for the State of Israel describes that creation in theological terms as reishit tzi’mihat ge’ula-teinu – the beginning of our redemption. Yet suddenly, in denial of all truth, popular narrative today has transformed Israel into the worst villain of all nations. It’s not just the Soviet accusation that Israel has been transformed from the David resisting the Arab Goliath into the monstrous Israeli Goliath persecuting the poor Palestinians. Now, Israel is accused of being a nation of colonialist settlers, practitioners of apartheid and genocide, white Jewish supremacist oppressors of defenseless Palestinians.
Even many Jews are persuaded by these accusations. A recent poll says that 25% of American Jews believe that Israel is an apartheid state. Twenty-two percent believe that Israel is committing genocide. Twenty-two percent more are undecided. And nine percent believe that the State of Israel should not exist. Again: these are opinions of Jews living in America! Why don’t they know that the charge of genocide is false? That in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, there were a million Palestinians and that today there are five million Palestinians living in those areas?
Why don’t they know that the accusation of white Jewish supremacy is false? That two-thirds of Israelis are people of color and that 15-20 % of American Jews are people of color as well?
Those who believe these lies are victims; they have been taken in by ideologically driven narratives that are unconnected to reality. One of these is the official narrative of the Black Lives movement that pillories Israel and distorts the truth beyond recognition. Another narrative uses critical race theory to reduce Jews to white oppressors. A third is the internationalization of intersectionality that has compassion for everyone except Jews. Yet another narrative merges anti-Zionism into antisemitism. Net: all Jews are guilty, even those who subscribe to these devastating interlinked narratives. And yes, I am dealing only with the left today because of my deep disappointment with the naivete of Jewish progressives and the relative silence of people who should be our allies.
Now, let’s look at the future by way of an imperfect analogy. Nissim de Camondo, the son of a wealthy French Jewish family, was a fighter pilot in World War I. After he was killed in action, his father, Moise, deeded the family’s grand Parisian home to the French State. Despite the high status of the family (they were married to richest Jewish families, the Rothschilds and the Ephrusis), and despite the fact that France had been the first modern European country to grant the Jews full civil rights, during the Second World War, the Nazi-backed Vichy government arrested the surviving members of the Camondo family and sent them to Auschwitz. The official record says that the de Camondos died for France. But the truth is that they died because of France.
The Nissim de Camondo Museum still exists in Paris, but only a tiny plaque makes these connections. It is clear that the nation that the Camondos loved savagely betrayed them. (David Bell, New York Review of Books, July 1, 2021)
In an eerie contemporary parallel, a young French woman of mixed North African descent, offended by French racism, is quoted in yesterday’s New York Times as saying: “I often say that I’m in love with a republic that doesn’t love me.”
What are the implications for American Jews? Most American Jews still think that we are safe. But so did French Jews. So did German Jews. So do Argentinian Jews. So do Venezuelan Jews.
If Jews are merely tolerated in Western countries despite our patriotism, despite our cultural, scientific and economic contributions, what is our future?
I wish I could talk in terms of sweetness and light. On this Shabbat, when the Torah reading includes the Ten Commandments, I would have preferred to include Mark Twain’s praise “Concerning the Jews” (as Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun of Manhattan is doing this Shabbat), but I cannot.
This what Mark Twain wrote in an article for Harper’s Magazine in 1898:
“To conclude. —If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of … He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.
“The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
I need to put the dark story I have sketched out here together with Mark Twain’s optimistic vision. Doing so, enables me to remain a prisoner of hope. As Shaul Tchernichovsky, an early 20th century Jewish poet, wrote: A-ah-minah gam b’atid – “I still believe in the future.”
How can we reconcile our traditional literature of consolation and hope with the dark reality that seems to be emerging?
After The Last Cyclist was banned by the Jewish Council of Elders in Terezín, the playwright Karel Svenk wrote another play that he called “The Same but Different.” That title describes the 11-day war that Hamas launched against Israel: The Same but Different.
THE SAME, the same as the three previous wars: December 2008, November 2012 and July/August 2014. A terrorist organization, labeled as such by the United States in 1997, the European Union in 2014, Egypt in 2015, and most recently by the Organization of American States, Hamas has fired many thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel from launching sites situated in locations in the Gaza Strip heavily populated by civilians, including hospitals and schools. That allows Hamas to claim that Israel purposely kills innocent people when they respond. When these wars end in stalemate and temporary truces, Hamas resumes building tunnels with concrete, using funds that are supposed to be addressing humanitarian needs. Hamas and Israel each claim victory – and prepare for the next war: the terrorist organization against the democratic state.
A bit of history: prior to 1948, Gaza was part of the British Mandate for Palestine. No Jews settled there, however. From 1948 to 1967, Egypt occupied and controlled the Gaza Strip. Gazan residents, though Arabs, were not permitted into Egypt except in rare circumstances. As a result of their victory in the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took over Gaza. Some nine thousand Israelis created settlements in the northern area of the Strip. And Israel began supplying water and electricity not only to the Israeli settlers but to all of Gaza.
In 2005, Israel’s prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. He offered control to Egypt. Sadat refused: Not one inch of that hellhole.
So the Palestinian Authority took over, corrupt then as now, until 2007. In that year, Hamas defeated the Palestinian Authority in the only election ever held by the unfortunate Gaza residents, betrayed and sacrificed over and over again by their cynical leaders.
BUT DIFFERENT! This time, there are differences, big difference. All are important for us to recognize and to figure out how to deal with.
Hamas used unrest over a real estate dispute in East Jerusalem as an excuse to fire rockets on Jerusalem. That dispute was coming to a head during the peak observance of the Muslim festival of Ramadan, which was drawing thousands of Muslim worshipers to Jerusalem to pray in the El Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount and already causing a great deal of unrest. Israel is accused of violating the sanctity of El Aksa by raiding it. What was the reason for the raid? All the rocks and bottles and Molotov cocktails that the pious worshipers had already stored in that sacred space to pelt the Jews worshiping at the Western Wall below.
Hamas’s targeting of Jerusalem was the first since Iran’s Scud missile attacks in 1991. I find it hard to understand how the rationale of firing missiles at a city crowded with Muslims justifies Hamas’s claim to be the defender of Jerusalem, or why no one has pointed out this rather glaring contradiction, but there’s more.
Ominously, Hamas by so doing represented itself as the defenders of El Aksa. With this religious claim, Hamas asserted its greater authenticity and effectiveness over the Palestinian Authority. It thereby also appealed to Israeli Arabs, most of whom are Muslims, and it solicited the support of Muslims around the world for destroying the State of Israel, murdering Jews and reestablishing Dar el Islam, the universal rule of Islam.
Not so long ago, Hamas aimed solely to replace Israel with a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” And while we still hear that call, most vociferously from naive Hamas supporters in the West, Hamas’s goal now is the whole world under Shariah law: anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, anti-freedom, anti-Western democracy, anti-Sunni, pro-Iran, pro-Shiite, pro-end of the world as we know it. Hamas is an Islamist, absolutist, theocratic branch of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to destroy the West. How so many people in the West don’t get this is very weird to me and, I think, very dangerous.
And that’s the second difference still emerging from this eleven-day conflict: support from the progressive Left, many Democrats and many young Jews who say they are seeking justice for Palestinians. Their views are amplified unnervingly by well-meaning political ignoramuses in the entertainment industry who have large followings in social media.
However, Hamas in its behavior is the enemy of legitimate Palestinian aspirations. It’s not amusing to watch the gymnastic twists and turns progressives undertake to conceal the viciousness of Hamas and its Iranian sponsors. With their focus on critical race theory, progressives reduce every human interaction into a battle of race: white oppressors against victims of color. So Israelis, suddenly all blond, blue-eyed and Nordic, are the oppressors of the brown Arabs, just as we Jews in the United States have become the privileged oppressors of people of color. Therefore, if you think Israel is like Officer Derek Chauvin and the Palestinians are like George Floyd, what is there to discuss? (paraphrase of David Suissa) This is the exporting, the internationalization of intersectionality exclusively targeting Israel, no longer seen as the brave little David against the Arab Goliath but the reverse.
This reversal stems from a propaganda strategy concocted by the Soviets after the Six Day War. The new line went out to fellow travelers in Western Europe and now it’s mainstream on American college campuses. Many Jewish college kids are afraid to defend Israel, some of them because they don’t know very much, and they’ve been intimidated by their professors. Others insist that they are just seeking justice, convinced that everything they learned in Hebrew school about Israel was a lie. The unfortunate truth is that too many of our kids and grandkids have been fooled by the merging of the Soviet Israel-as-Goliath line with the progressive accusation that Israel is the ultimate oppressor. Bob Dylan got it right when he lambasted those who label Israel “the neighborhood bully.”
So simple. So obvious. So few seem to get it.
Remember Hillel’s three-part teaching: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, when? The young Jewish anti-Israel zealots embrace part 2 while dismissing part 1 as petty, selfish and irrelevant.
Yes, I feel very sorry for the innocent Palestinians but I can’t blame Israel even though I am severely critical of Bibi Netanyahu and his policies. The blame rests primarily on Palestinian leaders, led by Hamas. But here we are seeing an old Jewish habit, Jewish guilt, in operation. Antisemites know how to exploit it. Why should we feel guilty for Zionism, the greatest success of all the national liberation movements in the 20th century, realization the ancient dream to return to Zion just a heartbreakingly few years too late to save Europe’s Jews!
Natan Sharansky talks about the letter D campaigns used by our enemies to make us feel guilty for existing: DISINFORMATION – the repeated lies claiming Israel’s genocidal aims (the West Bank population in 1967 was one million; today it is five million. That’s genocide?) or its so-called apartheid policies (Israeli Arabs are represented in the Knesset, an Israeli Arab sits on the Supreme Court – is that apartheid?), all used in a
DOUBLE STANDARD way applied to no other government in the world to
DEMONIZE Israel, invoking the old blood libels against Jews, to
DENY its right to be a state, and to
DEMORALIZE Israel’s supporters.
Look at the United Nations and its despicable Human Rights Council and its Jewish supporters of Human Rights Watch which disregard the criminal behavior of governments around the world in order to “reveal” Israel’s “war crimes.” China and the Uighurs? The military coup in Myanmar? The persecution of the Tigrayans in Ethiopia? Boko Haram’s kidnappings of female students? The Syrian government’s government campaign against its own citizens, not just the Kurds? Muslim suppression of Christians in many nations under their control? Hindu aggression against Muslims in India? On and on, persecution after persecution around the world. And not a word of condemnation about the body count in those places which numbers in the hundreds of thousands. The only outrage is expressed against Israel, where the Gazan body count was approximately 200, of which, according to Reuters, more than 50% were Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters .
Look carefully at BDS and at Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Justice in Palestine and Students for Justice in Palestine. Day is night and night is day.
Our enemies have made Israel the Jew of the nations, not to be tolerated. And now Jews in the United States are being beaten up because we are seen as representing Israel in America and are guilty of Israel’s “sins.” This is a bitter development, as shocking to American Jews as Hitler’s rise to power was to German Jews in the 1930s. I have done what I never thought I would have to do: warn my granddaughters who are outspoken, articulate defenders of Israel, to choose their battles carefully and to exercise a high degree of caution in so doing.
All of this has been triggered by Israel’s legitimate self-defense. But that’s not the real cause. The real cause is cynical Palestinian leaders, Muslim triumphalism and Western disdain for Jews – an unholy, dangerous alliance.
So far, American leaders have been outspoken in their condemnation of antisemitism. That’s the opposite of Germany in the 1930s, when it was the government leading the charge against Jews. So far, American leaders understand that openly expressed hatred of Jews or Blacks or Asians endangers not only members of the group but is an existential threat to democracy. So far.
A final novum: Israel’s enemies have succeeded in transforming Israel into an American political wedge issue replacing the nearly universal support for Israel of the past. It’s gone. The drop in support is owning to ignorance of history past and recent, of the nature of Hamas, of the unyielding nuclear aspirations of Iran, and of the cleverness of democracy’s enemies.
The result: the ending of American Jewry’s golden age and the testing of America’s resilience. Jews are America’s canary in the mineshaft and the level of carbon monoxide is rising to toxic new heights.
There are two summonses we need to hear. The first is the plaintive call of the great Black American poet Langston Hughes, who wrote:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be….
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where everyone is free.
The second call comes from the Torah reading for this Shabbat. When the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness were about to resume their march, led by the holy Ark, Moses would declare:
Advance, Eternal One, may Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee from before You. (B’midbar/Numbers 10:35)
In traditional siddurim, this sentence appears the Torah service when the Torah is taken from the Ark. It asserts that God is Israel’s most powerful and necessary defender. Reform siddurim have omitted this line, reflecting the early Reformers’ unwillingness to evoke belligerence or to acknowledge that we really have enemies and foes. We can no longer afford that optimism or its companion, complacency. That’s why we restored those lines when we published Temple Sholom’s prayer book, Siddur Netivot Sholom.
Kumah Adonai v’ya-futsu oyvekha – Arise Eternal One and scatter Your enemies!
Two calls to action. Will we figure out how to heed them?
Our Temple Beth Shalom Tu B’shevat seder will be on Wednesday evening, January 27th (Erev Tu B’Shevat) via Zoom. Watch for the announcement and the link.
Introducing Tu B’Shevat
Tu B’Shevat is the festival that welcomes the beginning of springtime in Israel. The rainy season has ended. Fragrant, beautiful white petals are in blossom on the almond trees. It has grown warm already in the Galilee.
Over the centuries, Jewish communities around the world, and particularly in Europe, observed Tu B’Shevat as a reminder of our people’s ongoing connection with the Land of Israel. Their custom was to eat as many of the fruits of the Holy Land as could be purchased wherever a Jewish community lived. Particularly treasured was the fruit of the carob tree, known in Hebrew as haruv and in Yiddish as bokser, rarely available anywhere in Northern Europe (or even in the US) other than as dry, hard pods. (The carob is also known in English as St. John’s bread.)
In the 16th century in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria of Safed and his disciples created a Tu B’Shevat seder, somewhat like a Passover seder, that celebrated the Tree of Life. The seder, still the principal observance of the hag, evokes Kabbalistic themes of restoring cosmic blessing by strengthening and repairing the Tree of Life, generally using the physical metaphor of a tree: roots, trunk, branches and leaves. The traditional Tu B’Shevat seder ended with a prayer which states in part, “May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.”
The main feature of the seder is a platter of fruit, eaten dried or fresh, divided up from lower or more physical to higher or more spiritual, as follows:
Fruits and nuts with hard, inedible exteriors and soft edible insides, such as oranges, bananas, walnuts, and pistachios.
Fruits and nuts with soft exteriors and a hard pit inside, such as dates, apricots, olives and persimmons
Fruit which can be eaten entirely, such as figs and berries.
Kabbalistic tradition teaches that by eating fruits in that order one travels from the most external or manifest dimension of reality, symbolized by fruits with a shell, to the innermost dimension, symbolized not even by the completely edible fruits but rather by a fourth very esoteric level that may be likened to smell. The Kabbalistic “seder” ritual also involves drinking four glasses (or sips) of wine in an oenologically unsophisticated manner – all from white to a mix of white and red, to red and white, to all red, also corresponding to the external-to-internal levels. It is customary to include the Torah-designated seven species – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates – among the offerings on the seder plate.
Another name for Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of the Trees, Rosh Hashanah la-Ilanot. According to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1), there are four new years in the Jewish calendar. The other three are the first of Nisan, the new year for kings and festivals; the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; and the first of Tishri, which we celebrate as Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year (despite the fact that technically it is the seventh, not the first month of the Jewish calendar) and observe with elaborate synagogue ritual featuring the blowing of the shofar and soul-searching prayer.
And now, an aside to share with you a complicated explanation of what is otherwise a simple ecological and agricultural-based festival: the meaning of the first word of the name Tu B’Shevat itself.
More than 2,000 years ago, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet was given a numerical value. To this day, these values are used as an alternative to arabic numerals. This numerical system is a decimal system, based on the number 10. Thus, aleph equals 1; bet = 2, and so forth. The “T” of Tu = tet is thus the ninth letter of the alphabet, equalling the number 9. The “u” (a stand-in for the letter vav to make a pronouncable word) is the sixth letter of the alphabet, equalling the number 6. Therefore, tet and vav together, 9 + 6 = 15. With us so far?
Then why 9 + 6 = 15 rather than 10 + 5? Glad you asked. The answer finesses an inherent theological problem because yod plus hey together spell one of the names for God: YAH, as in halleluYAH – praise be to God. Our ancestors could not combine the letters yod (10) and hey (5) to equal the number 15 because it spelled out one of the names for God and was therefore sacred. So they substituted the numbers 9 and 6 to get to 15. * (There will not be a quiz on the subject, but see the note below for additional explanation.)
Carob pods are sometimes available to Hebrew schools on the mainland today, but they were prized possessions of congregations in the late 1940s and ‘50s. The fruit was rock-hard and most of us found the flavor unpalatable. In recent decades, carob has not only become more common but for many years was considered a reasonable chocolate substitute. The Patzes have a bottle of carob syrup they purchased in Sicily last year, forgot to bring with them to San Juan for their Tu B’Shevat celebration and are looking forward to checking it out this January 28th. (And if we don’t use it now, we’ll try to remember to bring it next year, Covid-willing. We will keep you posted.)
Interesting carob trivia: Carob seeds have a nearly uniform weight of 0.2 grams. Ancient civilizations used the seeds as a reference weight for precious gemstones: one carob seed equals one carat; one carat equals 0.2 grams. A diamond weighing 100 carats weighs 20 grams, which is about the same as 100 carob seeds. To this day they continue to be the name and unit of weight for diamonds.
Currently In The Museum Case Of Our New Jersey Congregation
And Brought To You Virtually
The technical name for this flower is Lupinus Pilosus. It is more commonly known as a lupine.
The wild mountain lupines, endemic to Israel cover the sides of the roads and color the hillsides with silver leaves and refreshing deep blue blossoms from February to May – a stunning, seemingly endless display of blossoms.
Botanists are not yet certain about how the plant has spread so widely. Its seed is heavy, unpleasant tasting and rather toxic. How, therefore, has it succeeded in spreading the way it has when animals avoid eating the seeds due to their toxicity and bitterness and therefore don’t take part in the dispersal process? And because the seeds are especially big and heavy, they are not blown by the wind. But the prevailing botanical view today is that the great weight of the seeds themselves is responsible for the pattern of the plants’ distribution. Basically, the secret is that the seeds’ dispersal is limited to its immediate surroundings and that it moves slowly but inexorably toward widespread dispersal. The sources explain that Newton’s theory of gravitation is responsible: this dispersal type, called “stain dispersal” by botanists, move from the center outwards while the stain’s radius grows larger year by year. Obviously, seeds that fall and blossom within the stain’s perimeter would be those that cause its growth. And it grows and spreads and grows and spreads and gives the appearance of a giant carpet along the roadside throughout the spring.
Lupines played an important dietary role in ancient Israel. Even today, lupine beans are offered for sale in the Old City of Jerusalem and other Arab markets. Though bitter to the taste, they are very palatable after prolonged boiling, inexpensive, and a good source of minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, and iron. (Noting, not recommending.)
On the cover of this book, Yerushalayim shel Perahim (Jerusalem of Flowers), by Yaakov Skolnick, is a flower whose Latin name is helichrysum sanguinum. It is known in Hebrew as Dahm HaMaccabeem Ha-Adom – “the red blood of the Maccabees.” This flower (despite appearances, a member of the daisy family), is also known as Red Everlasting.
Like the poppy in our country and in England on Memorial Day, the flower serves as a symbolic reminder on Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, of the fallen soldiers and the victims of terrorism. The flower in the picture above is superimposed on a section of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, visually uniting prayers for peace and healing with an expression of grief for those lost. The bush which juts out of the wall is a caper plant, many of which grow in the wall’s crevices.
From Ancient To Modern Times:
Jewish Respect For And Love Of Nature
For Jews, Ecology Is Not A New Subject Of Concern
In Sh’mot/Exodus, the Torah calls Israel “a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:8).
In D’varim/Deuteronomy, there is a specific prohibition on cutting down the trees of a city being besieged in wartime: “When in your war against a city you must besiege it for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees…. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege?” (20:19). This prohibition is the legal and moral basis for the outcry in Israel on the rare occasions when Israeli troops destroy trees (particularly fruit trees and especially ancient olive trees) in their pursuit of Arab terrorists.
In Ketuvim/Writings, the third section of the Bible, Psalms and the Song of Songs are replete with imagery from nature expressed in imaginative and poetic ways. To give just a few examples:
Psalm 92 says, “The righteous shall flourish like the palm, grow tall like cedars in Lebanon, rooted in the house of the Eternal they shall be ever fresh and green….”
And Psalm 98, “Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and its inhabitants; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the Eternal.”
There are a great many nature images in Song of Songs:
“I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the maidens” (2:1-2).
And later in the same chapter, “For lo the winter is passed, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms appear in the land, the time of pruning has come; the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree, the vines in blossom give off fragrance” (2:11-13).
Chapter 7:12-13 says: “Come my beloved, let us go into the open; let us lodge among the henna shrubs. Let us go early into the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom; there I will give my love to you.”
Nevertheless, since the 19th century, there have been consistent and repeated attacks on Jews and Judaism as being insensitive to the natural world. The concept may come from the fact that over the centuries in most countries Jews were not allowed to own or work the land or perhaps from drawings and paintings of bearded Talmud scholars bent nearsightedly over piles of religious texts with no countervailing illustrations of Jews involved in nature. Or perhaps it is just another example of groundless hostility to Jews and Judaism, an aspect of the newly developed 19th century racial antisemitism which led inexorably to the disaster of the Holocaust.
The truth is otherwise. From the Bible on, Jewish texts and practice are suffused with love of nature and respect for it. Tu B’Shevat itself is an example of how Jews over the centuries combined their awareness of the world around them with longing for the Israel they had never known.
FORGOTTEN IMMIGRANTS, the book pictured here, celebrates the creation of a “biblical botanical garden” at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA in honor of the 40th anniversary of the State of Israel. The garden, established in 1987 on a third of an acre, features more than 100 different kinds of temperate and tropical plants, including plants named in the Bible as well as numerous others that have been given biblical names. The pastoral setting has a cascading waterfall, a desert, a bubbling stream known as “the Jordan,” which meanders through the garden from “Lake Kinneret” to the “Dead Sea.” All of the plants are labeled with appropriate biblical verses and are displayed among replicas of ancient farming tools. Among the specimens are wheat, barley, millet and herbs valued by the ancient Israelites. Olives, dates, pomegranates, figs, and cedar trees round out the historic and educational inventory.
FLOWERS OF THE CARMEL: Although Israel is a very small country, no larger than the State of New Jersey, it is blessed with an extraordinary number of microclimates. Their flora and fauna range from forested mountain ranges to deserts and wilderness in the Negev. Pirkhei Ha-Carmel, published by the Haifa Municipality in 1958, is devoted to The Flowers of the Carmel. It contains 32 brilliant illustrations by Brachah Levy of flowers that bloom in the Galilee (of which the cover photo is one). The mountainous Carmel region extends south and east from Haifa into the heartland of the Galilee.
Incidentally, the area – especially the caves in the Carmel mountains – was home to settlement by humans in Neolithic times. Evidence from numerous Natufian burials and early stone architecture represents the transition from a hunter-gathering lifestyle to agriculture and animal husbandry that, years ago, at least, provided a setting for successful foraging for prehistoric arrowheads fashioned from stone (broken but identifiable).
In 2007, the cyclamen – RAKEFET in Hebrew – was named the national flower of Israel. It is a winter flower that usually blooms between December and February. Note that its petals flare upward; the flower has evolved upside down to protect its stamens and pistil from the cold raindrops of early spring.
The pen and ink drawings above, by the noted calligrapher Betsy Platkin Teutsch, appeared in the April 1987 issue of In Process, a publication of the United Jewish Appeal Young Leadership Cabinet edited by Naomi Patz, in honor of the Passover season: “… now that the winter is passed and the rains are over and gone.” The flowers are (l to r) rakefet (cyclamen), narkis (narcissus) and eeroos (iris).
These earliest Government of Israel postage stamps depicted ancient coins from the First Jewish–Roman War and the later Bar Kokhba revolt, establishing thereby the connection between the new State of Israel and its ancient Jewish predecessor.
The first stamp above, a map of Israel, carries the date November 30, 1947 and was issued immediately after the United Nations Partition decision of the day before. Bearing the name Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (which we know as the Jewish National Fund), the large Hebrew letters across the top and down the left say “the State of the Jews” rather than the name of the new country, which was not decided until six months later. In fact, the name was still being debated barely minutes before David Ben Gurion proclaimed statehood!
The stamps we have assembled here (some of our earliest) all celebrate one way or another the return of warm weather. The first stamp in the second row and the first four stamps in the bottom row combine flowers with iconic images of modern Israeli military history: Yehi-am, Yad Mordecai, Kibbutz Degania, a tribute to fallen soldier in Tzefat, and the aqueduct at Gesher Haziv. (Look them up online; each is associated with a significant battle in Israel’s War of Independence.)
A first day of issue cover or first day cover, like the ones below, is a postage stamp on a cover, post card or stamped envelopefranked on the first day of its issue. Its purpose is a combination of expressing pride in individuals and events and earning revenue for the postal service.
Two Flower-shaped Havdalah Spiceboxes And One In The Shape Of An Apple
The Fruits of the Holy Land, by Asaph Goor and Max Nurock, traces the history of the fruits of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud, drawing freely on many sources. It is illustrated by reproductions from manuscripts, woodcuts, paintings, sculptures and mosaics throughout the centuries. The cover art shows a basket of pomegranates, a fragment of a magnificent mosaic floor from the sixth century C.E. Maon synagogue and archaeological site in the Negev, near Kibbutz Nirim and Kibbutz Nir Oz. The Maon Synagogue is one of many synagogues built in the 6th and 7th centuries C.E. in both the north and south of Israel. Their existence testifies to the fact that Jews continued to live openly and flourishing throughout Israel in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
This certificate, most likely from the 1920s, is a rare example of a document acknowledging the gift of one dunam of land purchased from Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, the Jewish National Fund. A dunam equals one-quarter of an acre; the wedding present was in effect, therefore, a symbolic investment in the land of Israel by (and perhaps for) people for whom the rebuilding of Israel was of central concern. The large title in the rectangle above translates as “The Contribution of a ‘Portion’ (or ‘Inheritance’) of Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael.” The Hebrew phrase on the left says “This is the land which will be yours as an inheritance” (B’midbar/Numbers 34:2). The name of the donor(s) does not appear and no date is given, but the bride and groom are Barnett and Esther Bernstein. Their dunam of land is identified by its registration number.
The photograph above was taken sometime during the early 1920s at a moshav in the central part of British Mandate Palestine. The second man from the left in the front row, wearing a cap, is Naomi’s great uncle Alex Golden. One of the sons of a very Zionistic family, Alex went from Lakewood, New Jersey to join the Thirty-Ninth Royal Fusiliers, a battalion of the British Army known as the G’dud – the Jewish Legion. The Jewish Legion (1917–1921) consisted of five battalions of Jewishvolunteers, the 38th to 42nd Royal Fusiliers in the British Army, formed to fight against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. The G’dud was the brainchild of Zeev Jabotinsky and Joseph Trumpeldor: a military unit of Jews that would take part in the British effort to capture Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. The British Army accepted 650 Jewish volunteers into the group, which they named the Zion Mule Corps. Five hundred and sixty two of its members served in the Gallipoli Campaign. Later, they saw action in the Jordan Valley under General Allenby. Former members of the Legion took part in the defense of Jewish communities during the riots in Palestine of 1920, which resulted in Jabotinsky’s arrest and the final disbanding of the Legion.
Naomi’s uncle Alex had planned to stay on in Palestine and make aliyah. In fact, Naomi’s mother, who was then 10 years old, and her brothers, grandmother and great grandmother, moved there to join Alex, who was living on the moshav in the photograph. But the new arrivals found life on the moshav too difficult and moved instead to Tel Aviv, still a very raw young town where boardwalks instead of sidewalks crossed the as-yet not built up sandy areas leading to the sea. When that too failed because there was trachoma (a devastating eye disease) in the public schools and there was no money to send my mother and her brothers to private school, they very reluctantly returned to the States, and Alex returned with them.
At Moshav Avihayil, near Netanya, where a number of veterans of the Jewish Legion settled, there is a museum devoted to the history of the G’dud,; in the book of the 39th Royal Fusiliers we found the pages honoring Alex Golden.
Covers And Interior
This book, by Hannah Zeller, was published in German, French and English in 1875, making it one of the earliest books to illustrate the flowers of the Land of Israel. The flower on the left in the drawing, Alcea Lavateraeflora, is a member of the hollyhock family; the one on the right is easily identifiable as a variety of tulip.
This photograph of HA-HORESH – THE PLOWMAN dates to the same period as that of the sower above. It may be by the same photographer although, while the Hebrew handwriting is the same, we aren’t sure that the signatures match. We also can’t decide if what we see in the background are low-hanging clouds or if the field he is preparing sits above Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), with the mountains of the Golan Heights visible in the far distance.
The ubiquitous blue box that sat in many of our kitchens and on the counters in Jewish bakeries, butcher shops and delicatessens in the 1940s and ‘50s was the brainchild of a Viennese Zionist named Johann Kremenezski between 1902 and 1907. His “invention” popularized an initiative by Hermann Schapira, a Russianmathematician, Hebraist and Zionist, a visionary thinker who was the first to advocate the idea of a Jewish national fund to purchase land in perpetuity in Palestine in the name of the Jewish people. As early as the first Zionist Congress, in 1897, Schapira, who died very young and long before any of his initiatives were realized, proposed the foundation of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Coincidentally, a Polish bank clerk named Haim Kleinman also proposed that a collection box bearing the words NATIONAL FUND be placed in every Jewish home to raise money for land purchases in the homeland.
Per the drawing of the map, the box pictured here is from the period from 1948 to 1967 (before the Six Day War).
Since its founding in 1901, one of the principal projects of the Jewish National Fund beyond the purchase of land in Palestine has been the reforestation of a land that had been stripped of its trees by neglect and abuse, most particularly by the construction in the late Ottoman period of railroads whose building required huge amounts of lumber. Over the years, tree certificates were sold – in religious schools by students purchasing individual “stamps” to paste onto their symbolic tree outlines, and as honoring gifts for b’nei mitzvah, anniversasries and other special occasions as well as in memory of loved ones. In the 1940s, the cost of a tree was $2.50, roughly the equivalent of today’s $18.00 (chai). Larger purchases, for orchards (as above), gardens, groves and forests have helped the regreening of Israel, the greatest ecological reforestation in history – over 250 million trees have been planted so far!
How do the trees we “plant” actually get into the soil? On Tu B’Shevat, Israeli school children participate in mass tree plantings in JNF forests around the country. In earlier years, such tree planting took place right in the cities. Bilha Barkai, the woman who coordinated our teen trips to Israel over the years, remembered going with her classmates to plant trees on the median divider of Rothschild Boulevard, a broad avenue in the center of Tel Aviv! Tour groups and students on year courses and individual visitors go to the JNF forests to plant. We have taken virtually every one of our teen and adult groups to Israel to plant trees, including in the year when we dedicated a garden of 100 trees contributed by the members of Temple Sholom of West Essex in the name of the congregation. The Jewish National Fund has truly transformed the swamps and deserts of 19th century Israel into the land of milk and honey of which our biblical ancestors wrote.
This curiosity is a Keren Kayemet Israel school project of the 1970s designed to involve Israeli students with a constructive awareness of the natural beauty of their country and, through their effort, to share a feeling of love for and association with the land with students in Jewish Hebrew schools and day schools throughout the Diaspora. This flower, a PEREG – the Hebrew name for poppy –, was picked and carefully dried by a 13-year-old school girl in Tel Aviv named Dalia Botbol (whose name and age are on the back of the presentation folder).
Breathtakingly beautiful poppy flowers grow in abundance all over Israel. Nine separate pereg species can be found, most beginning their bloom season in March, and none lasting past June. The only area of the country whose climate does not support a pereg population is the Negev.
This booklet of pressed flowers (sample interior pages above, cover below) was published in Ottoman Palestine by Smuan Petrus Bordnikoff in 1900. These photographs show two of the steps in the preparation of dried flowers for export to the United States and other countries.
More Pressed Flowers from the Holy Land
This book – with descriptions in German, English, French and Russian – is a souvenir volume of Flowers and views of the Holy Land, Jerusalem. It features 12 chromolithographs depicting various places in the Holy Land, with pressed flowers from that area mounted on each facing plate. It was certainly published prior to World War I since Russian would not have been included post-war owing to the fall of the Czar and the creation of the anti-religious Communist regime that came to be called the USSR. Several different versions of the title survive in both university and private libraries, not all showing identical varieties of flower. Produced by various publishers and apparently very popular with pilgrims and other tourists, the books were almost all uniformly bound in covers of polished olive wood from the “Holy Land” and decorated with an inlaid geometric border surrounding the word Yerushalayim in Hebrew and Jerusalem in Latin letters. At least one such book was made during the First World War for the British troops in Jerusalem as a “souvenir” of their occupation.
The illustration on the left shows people praying at the Wall in Jerusalem. The text beneath it reads Kotel Ha-ma-a-ravi – the Western Wall – in Hebrew (center, which is what the Wall was always called in Hebrew), and Klagemauer – the Wailing Wall – in German and presumably the same in Russian (Russian readers: please correct us if we are wrong!). The text above the pressed flowers on the right reads, in Hebrew, “Flowers of the Western Wall,” and below, in German followed by the same in English, French and Russian: “Flowers from the Jews Wailing Place.”
Last, but certainly not least, is another first day cover. This one celebrates a most unusual environmental journey. Back in the 1950s, Lake Huleh – a shallow, swampy breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitos – was drained in a huge ecological project overseen by Keren Kayemet and the Israeli government. There was great celebration and the fertile land began to be reclaimed for agricultural productivity. Forty years later, by the late 1980s, it became clear that draining the swamp had been a huge mistake. The effects on the ecosystem, which had not been perceived in the first half of the twentieth century, turned out to be a mixed blessing. Malaria had been eradicated but water polluted with chemical fertilizers began flowing into Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), lowering the quality of its water. The soil, stripped of natural foliage, was blown away by strong winds in the valley, and the peat of the drained swamp ignited spontaneously, causing underground fires that were difficult to extinguish.
In 1963, a small (3.50 km) area of recreated papyrus swampland in the southwest of the valley was set aside as the country’s first nature reserve. Concern over the draining of the Huleh was the impetus for the creation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has had a huge positive impact nationwide. By the late 1980s, a full restoration was in the planning and was completed by 1996.
Israel is uniquely situated in the Great Rift Valley that extends from Turkey down into Africa. One of the remarkable features of the location is that it is a major north/south path for migratory birds. The drained Huleh deprived the birds of food and water resources and they diverted their flight patterns, to their own detriment. During the first three years after reflooding, at least 120 species of birds were recorded again in and around the lake, and more have returned since. Migratory pelicans, storks, cormorants, cranes and other birds en route between Europe and Africa spend days to weeks in the vicinity of the Huleh, drawing thousands of bird watchers from around the world. Grazing mammals such as water buffalos are also being returned to the area. The stamps below, on the first day cover issued in 2007, show some of the wildlife that populates the Huleh Valley since the completion of the restoration project.
When are YOU going to Israel?
Now is the time to begin thinking about life post-pandemic.
HAPPY TU B’SHEVAT!
Naomi Patz, Curator
*In order to reach numbers beyond ten, the next eight letters are given number values that increase by a factor of ten from 20 to 90. The final four letters are given number values that increase by a factor of one hundred from 100 to 400. In Hebrew, gematria is often used as an alternative to arabic numerals when recording numbers. Hebrew dates are generally written using gematria.Click here to return.
I just can’t let go of Hanukkah yet. Our TBS daily candle lightings, with shared greetings, smiling faces and wonderful memories described each night, were truly extraordinary. They fulfilled the Hanukkah message: Banish darkness, spread the light. All despite COVID and the technological limitations of Zoom.
My unwillingness to let Hanukkah go was reinforced yesterday afternoon by my participation, again by Zoom, in a lecture presentation by a rabbi whom some of you know because he has led services here at TBS: Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino. He spoke about Sefardic Hanukkah customs. In his childhood home in Istanbul, Turkey, his mother made a hanukiyah by pouring oil onto a plate and arranging eight wicks from the oil in the center of the plate to just beyond the rim and that was it! (Note: Sefardi Jews made beautiful hannukiyot too. One of the hanyukiyot Naomi and I lit this year comes from 19th century Iraq: it has five “yad” – hand – designs and a Muslim crescent above the shamash.)
Rabbi Sonsino’s family didn’t give gifts or spin dreidels. They are Ashkenazic customs which he learned only when he entered rabbinical school in Cincinnati. They ate burmuelos, puffy fritters deep fried in oil – fritos con azete – and not potato latkes, and to this day Ines Sonsino, Rabbi Sonsino’s wife, makes bizkochos (cookies) as a special Hanukkah treat. As for songs, no Yiddish of course; perhaps some Hebrew melodies plus Ocho Candelikas.
Rabbi Sonsino expressed a strong opinion about the Hanukkah miracle. He said very emphatically that he doesn’t believe in miracles. God, for him, doesn’t intervene in the workings of nature. Rabbi Sonsino emphasizes instead the military victory, as I do – with some additions I’ll remind you of in a moment—and he explained how and why the oil miracle story entered the tradition very late – in the Talmud, codified around the year 500 CE, some 660 years later than the story of Hanukkah. The earlier texts – First and Second Maccabees, which are not in the Bible but in the Apocrypha, do speak about eight days, but indicate that the number represented a delayed celebration of Sukkot, which was a very important festival for an agricultural society. It was the end of harvest work and a time for celebration, entirely likely more important than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.
As you know, I too acknowledge that the oil story seems to be a late add on. For me, that addition itself is the real miracle of Hanukkah. Here is why:
It has two parts: First, a military victory against the great Seleucid empire, successor to Alexander the Great. How could a small group of rebels win against these great armies, particularly since the geography of the Middle East made Israel a very important and sensitive military area – the land bridge to Egypt, where the rival Ptolemaic Empire was located? Israel wasn’t a backwater that the Syrian Greeks could ignore; it was like the DMZ, the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea today. So, what happened? The Seleucids were facing other military threats. On their east, the Parthians and on their west, the Roman Empire. These were their main strategic concerns. Judea, while important, was more of a distraction than a strategic concern for the Seleucids. What’s more, Judah Maccabee very wisely had made an alliance with Rome. These factors help explain how the Maccabees could have achieved a military victory.
But there’s a second part to the miracle. The Maccabee revolt unleashed the power within the Jewish community to update Torah law. Why was that necessary? Because of changed circumstances. Before the Greeks arrived, Judea had been an agricultural society with one city, Jerusalem. The Greeks changed all that, creating many new cities populated by merchants and urban workers as well as Greek soldiers who settled there with their families, forming a new elite class in Judean society.
The urban Jews needed new ways to observe Torah law. A struggle developed among rich and comfortable conservatives who were not affected by the changed situation, assimilationists who wanted to discard all the old laws and become Greeks, and the large mass of urban dwellers who were essentially disenfranchised in their daily lives because Torah law wasn’t working for them.
An emerging class of teachers, who eventually came to be called Rabbis, figured out how to address the challenges. They formulated new interpretations of Torah law that met the needs of these people. In addition to this internal process, they also figured out how to deal with powerful conquerors. By 63 BCE, Rome had come to control Judea and the Roman armies were invincible. Jews could no longer hope to establish Jewish political sovereignty as it had been in previous centuries. The Rabbis’ solution, symbolized by Yochanan ben Zakkai’s founding of an academy in Yavneh, was to surrender political sovereignty as a means for national survival and replace it with religious autonomy granted and backed by the Romans.
That’s the real miracle: assuring both spiritual and physical survival for the politically powerless Jewish people.
And that external strategy explains the story of the oil. The Romans could not see it as an challenge to their control if it was God, not human rebels, who brought about the rededication of the Temple (especially if the Maccabees were barely mentioned at all in that context). And the miracle of the oil provided an appealing and Jewishly acceptable parallel to all of the winter solstice fire ceremonies of the neighboring pagans.
The Rabbis of that era were brilliant, inspired strategists and tacticians. We are their heirs. We praise them, along with the Maccabees, in the English language setting of the song Mi y’ma-leil with the rousing – and remarkable – paralleling of the military and spiritual victories with the words: “In every age, a hero, a sage, came to our aid.”
The obituary for Adin Steinsaltz, published in the New York Times on Tuesday (Joseph Berger and Isabel Kirschner NYT 8.11.20) alerted us to the passing of our generation’s greatest Talmud scholar. Starting in 1965, when he was 27 years old, he worked, usually 10 hours a day, on a translation of the Babylonian Talmud, with a commentary as well, making the legal and theological content that governed the Jewish community from the 3rd century to the late 18th century, accessible in ways unknown before. Forty-five volumes! Astonishing scholarship and insight!
Among Steinsaltz’s concerns was lashon ha-ra, the Jewish injunction against speaking evil. One of his specific teachings on the subject caught my eye in the obituary and I will share it with you at the conclusion of these remarks.
In our time, in the current situation, both here and abroad, lashon ha-ra, vile talk, literally “bad tongue” – or, more colloquially, “bad-mouthing,” is a very serious problem. Polite discourse is a thing of the past. Today, personal insults are a daily matter of course, reflected in heated arguments about the limits, if any, there should be on free speech. Today’s battles for definition recall the opinion of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Schenck v. U.S. 1919), denying free speech protection to statements which are false and dangerous. Justice Holmes wrote about the danger of “falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
False and dangerous. That’s lashon ha-ra!
Our tradition contains a vast literature on lashon ha-ra: derogatory talk, slander, defamation, malicious rumors that destroy reputations. The evidence starts in the Bible, in the Holiness Code (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:16): “Do not act as a talebearer among your people.” And in D’varim/Deuteronomy (24:9): “Remember what God did to Miriam,” referring to an incident described earlier (Bamidbar/Numbers 12:10-15) where Miriam, Moses’ sister, talks behind her brother’s back, “he married a Cushite woman,” she says (Cushite is a term used to describe people of color).
Her punishment? She gets leprosy, (not what we know today as Hansen’s disease but) a severe skin rash, and is quarantined outside the camp for a full week. The Hebrew word for leprosy is tzara-at. There is a whole parashah in the Torah, entitled M’tzora, which deals with leprosy. It’s like reading a public health code. For obvious reasons, M’tzora and the parashah which precedes it Tazria, are the two worst possible b’nei mitzvah assignments of the Jewish calendar year!
But even for b’nei mitzvah, there is an important life lesson in this parashah. Based on the Miriam story, the Rabbis taught that M’tzora is a shortened form of three words – motzi shem ra – a teller of evil reports (to use an antiquated term). And on that basis, they taught that lashon ha-ra introduces leprosy into society: the social leprosy that hatefully divides people and sets them against one another. They warned: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Mishlei/Proverbs 18:21). A person who willfully listens to slander, they said, will be open to being slandered. They said, lashon ha-ra kills three people: the slanderer, the listener, and the one who is slandered. Lashon ha-ra, they said, is a serpent with a poisonous three-forked tongue. Rashi teaches that “one who strikes his fellow in secret means ‘harming a person by a verbal attack without their knowledge’.” The Rabbis taught that the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed because of lashon ha-ra (Yoma 9b, and Gittin 55b ff).
And note, the first passage offered in Hebrew and in English in the silent prayers at the conclusion of the Amidah, is “My God, keep my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile…” (based on Psalm 34:14). This key prayer on the power of speech has appeared in Jewish prayer books since the 9th century.
The Musar Movement in Judaism, which began in the late 19th century, concentrated on ethical speech. Its main book, by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, was published in 1873. It is entitled Hofetz Hayyim, which translates into English as “who is the person eager for life?” (Psalm 34:13).The answer to which, in the following verse from Psalms, is “guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech.”
The advent of the Internet and the networks of social media has been both a blessing and a curse. While it has enabled communication among deaf people, for instance, it has perhaps even more amplified the power of individuals and groups eager to spread lashon ha’ra. Think of the conspiracy theories that have spread instantly, like Pizzagate and Bible-burning. Both are deadly serious charges. That they have no substance in reality at all, hasn’t stopped them from being circulated widely. And there are a lot of gullible people out there who read these truly fake stories.
Here’s a story that demonstrates gullibility. After President Trump hyped hydroxychloroquine, the Wall Street Journal reported that sales of Hydrox cookies (the predecessor of Oreos), skyrocketed (Spencer Jakab, WSJ, May 19, 2020).
All of the conspiracy theories, this lashon ha-ra, which is unverified and unverifiable, whether from a seventeen-year-old computer geek, a neo-Nazi group, QAnon, the Russian secret disinformation unit of the GRU (Russian secret police) and RT (Russian Television, which Naomi and I saw screened on monitors on both PATH platforms and trains during the months we were going into the city for the trial. RT is an official propaganda arm of the Russian government. I don’t know if RT is still carried; I do know that we wrote letters objecting to its presence). And so many others, too many to name which aim to disrupt and destroy our democratic society.
What can we do personally? Look at the motto of a wildly popular current Israeli street campaign: Face masks, signs on public buses, stickers and bracelets, all saying: lashon ha-ra lo m’dabeir eilai” – I will not be persuaded by lashon ha-ra (Jerusalem Report, July 20, 2020).
Speaking evil starts with one person and one listener. So here are some guidelines:
Don’t gossip or listen to gossip – and certainly don’t repeat it.
Teach by example. Speak out when necessary.
Question sources. Don’t be gullible. Even if it’s in the papers or on the internet, it’s not necessarily true. If it sounds too good to be true, and connects the dots too readily, it’s sadly too likely not to be true.
Use basic civility and common sense.
Work to build a decent society. Don’t assist in tearing it down.
Rabbi Steinsaltz taught this to the members of the staff the Jerusalem Report: While most parts of the body have their limits – arms can carry only so much weight, legs can run only so fast – the tongue’s ability to do harm is unlimited. That’s why the tongue is set in a cage-like jaw in our mouths as a reminder: guard your speech carefully.
So let us do. So may we be wise. Kein y’hee ratzon.
July 3, 2020 – 12 Tammuz 5780
Temple Beth Shalom of Puerto Rico
On this Fourth of July, the 244th birthday of the United States of America, I want to share with you my concerns about our fragile democracy. Here is why I am worried.
On the last day of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, a woman named Elizabeth Willig Powell asked Benjamin Franklin, “What do we have? A republic or a monarchy?” A very wise question, to which Franklin answered, “a republic, if you can keep it.”
This is our critical question: How do we keep it so that it delivers liberty and justice for all?
My answer is inspired by a phrase in the 19th century patriotic song, “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean.” The line is, “… Thy mandates make heroes assemble.” What an idea! That Columbia, that is, America, has mandates — obligations; our country makes demands on its citizens and expects and needs performance. America needs its citizens to live lives of civic responsibility. Each and every citizen has obligations to other citizens and to the ideals of America.
Yes, we’ve heard people say, “It’s a free country. I can do whatever I want.” That’s not even okay for a five-year-old having a temper tantrum. Freedom requires obligation, as Katherine Lee Bates wrote in “America the Beautiful”: “Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” That is the point of American Civics 101, a course that used to be taught regularly in schools. Yet this basic idea is frequently derided by so many who pride themselves on their individualism. Their kind of individualism is not to be celebrated. It is blind selfishness and freedom taken so for granted that it is being distorted into the grossest of abuses.
By contrast, remember the days after Hurricane Maria here on the island when Puerto Ricans were out on the streets helping one another freely and constructively. And similarly after last winter’s earthquake.
Citizens of a democracy have not only rights but also obligations. This is important in any country, but it is especially important in America. Why? Our country is not, emphatically NOT, an ethno-state. America is the greatest experiment in pluralism in human history. “A nation of immigrants,” said President Kennedy. Not a melting pot in which precious traditions and identities are boiled away, but a magnificent orchestra with many authentic and different voices harmoniously joining together to make the music that is our glorious country.
If we can keep it. The fact is that the reality which we know as America is still an experiment. Maintaining it demands that we respect our differences even as we daily demonstrate loyalty to the commonwealth and keep faith in its rightness. Doing so is true patriotism.
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” (Thomas Jefferson). Not only vigilance against foreign enemies but also against the ethnic supremacists and the relentless “purists” among us. This is vital for us as Jews in America, and as Americans who understand democracy and its fragility.
“Thy mandates make heroes assemble.” That’s the call all of America’s citizens need to answer on this Independence Day.