web analytics
October 1, 2014 / 7 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Eliyahu Safran’

Face To Face With Miracles

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Our sages teach us that when we have left this life and face the Court on High, we will be called upon to answer for our lives. Among the questions we will be asked is, “Did you throughout your lifetime eagerly await and anticipate the geulah, the ultimate redemption?”

This is a deceptively difficult question. On the one hand, the answer seems self-evident. Of course we awaited that glorious time of redemption. How could we not? The travails of our lives and the lives of Jews everywhere have kept our thoughts on the coming Messiah, on the coming redemption. And yet, if we are truly honest, have we, with all of life’s day-to-day distractions, pressures and mundane preoccupations really, fully, eagerly awaited and anticipated redemption?

We have been distracted by our lives. We cannot help but be. As Jews we are aware that we have been created both flesh and soul, of heaven and of the earth. Our thoughts by virtue of our creation must be focused on both redemption and the world. As such, the question is impossible for us to answer in the affirmative.

But we will be asked. So, perhaps, the challenge is not in how we must answer but in how the question is phrased.

Perhaps it will be, when that awesome day comes, that the question will be asked, “Was there a day, an event, a moment, when you felt that redemption was at hand; that you were actually engaged in the redemptive process, that Mashiach was actually knocking on the door, awaiting entry?

In short, was there a moment when you felt the miraculous?

There are those who proclaim that life is filled with miracles, that if we truly open our eyes we cannot help to see that it is so. To them, miracles abound. But what is it that they mean when they speak of miracles?

Is it a miracle when you are accosted on a street corner only to have a police car “miraculously” drive by at that moment? Is it a miracle when, faced with foreclosure of your home, you win Lotto? Is it a miracle to notice the beauty of a field filled with wild flowers?

Does a miracle depend on the suspension of natural law?

Is it all of these things? None of them?

I would suggest that the thing that makes a miracle (versus a fortuitous confluence of circumstances, i.e. “luck”) is God’s involvement. When God is involved in our lives, not only are we experiencing the miraculous but, by definition, redemption is as close as the beating of our own hearts.

The truth, as our sages have taught, is that God is close by always. Yet even closeness is not always so easy to discern. We can follow God’s commandments, pray fervently, and lead lives of exemplary behavior and yet not feel the closeness of God.

As Jews, our history and tradition have taught us that God indeed engages in our lives. Didn’t He intercede in the lives of the Hebrews, redeeming them from slavery? The challenge for the modern Jew is that we tend to embrace miracles as communal events and most often in the distant past. They happened long, long ago. Sinai comes to mind.

But personal miracles? The modern Jew often dismisses such things. Isn’t embrace of miracles the domain of other religious traditions? Aren’t we more “rational” and “legalistic” in our lives?

The truth is, God engages us all the time and our experience with miracles is not wholly communal nor in the distant past. Miracles animate every aspect of our existence. It is our success or failure to note and embrace these miracles that will provide our answer to that question on High.

Have we experienced redemption? Yes! Once. A hundred times. A thousand times.

More than asking, What is redemption? or, What is a miracle? we might want to ask, What does it mean to have God in our lives, to know the holiness of the Divine touching our everyday lives? To feel as did the Jews at Sinai, who saw the mountain smoking and saw the voices and the flames, who trembled in awe as they responded, “we hear and we act…”?

How Can Orthodox Jews Deny The Miracle Of Israel?

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

For me, Israel is personal.

I was born as Israel’s War of Independence raged, just weeks after the state’s miraculous birth. As I lay in the hospital room with my mother, the windows shattered with the relentless attacks of those who sought, once again, to destroy us – this time not on their bloodstained soil but on our own sacred land. Once again, by God’s hand, we prevailed. The few against the many. The weak against the so-called strong.

My parents arrived in Palestine on the very last boat to sail from Romania. They were broken, demeaned and degraded but they were determined to find renewal in the holy land. For my family, galut and geulah are not chapters in a history book. They are real life experiences.

For us, Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut were not mere dates on the calendar but days filled with piercing memories that called for reflection, remembrance, and, ultimately, celebration.

For many years, my family was not alone in fervently claiming these dates, these searing modern commemorations, as our own. Growing up in Forest Hills, New York, I remember the crowds of Jews – all Jews, of every age and background – that came together in synagogues and sanctuaries to remember, to pray, and to promise.

I remember the power those long-ago days held for those of us who gathered to commemorate and to celebrate them. But now? Many progressive Jewish communities continue to celebrate Israel, but in the majority of today’s major Orthodox communities it’s rare to find recognition – let alone active celebration – of these most sacred days.

How do we explain this Orthodox response, or lack of it, to the state of Israel? Can any of us deny the miracle Israel represents? For the first time in two thousand years the ingathering of exiles is realized as Jews have returned home to the land promised by God. The city of Jerusalem is rebuilt. The desert once again blooms.

All this on the heels of the greatest churban in Jewish history, the Holocaust.

Miracle of miracles! The gates of Auschwitz closed and the gates of Haifa opened. If ever there was a confirmation of the Divine Covenant, of the eternal relationship between a people, a Torah, God, and a land; if ever there was a fulfillment of prophecies that in spite of a bitter galut and the terror of persecution there would be ultimate geulah and return to the land and its God; if ever there was a period of Messianic possibility and challenge – it is now.

More Jews are engaged in serious, regular, and creative Torah learning in Israel than at any time in the last five centuries. “From Zion the Torah will come forth and the word of God from Jerusalem.” And so it does. The world’s Torah is nourished from its source in Jerusalem. A distinguished chassidic leader recently told me that most Jews are not aware that “the government of the state of Israel is the world’s most generous donor in support of Torah study.”

The silence of the Soviet Jews ended. The influence of Jews in America and Europe is palpable. All this, and more, only because Israel exists.

Yet the majority of Orthodox Jews in America act as though nothing of note happened on May 14, 1948. They refuse to acknowledge God’s outstretched arm or recognize our generation’s restored glory. What arrogance causes them to summarily reject the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice on new Yomim Tovim? How do they show such disregard for those who love, support and sacrifice for Israel? What thinking is behind the rejection of the Hebrew language and the distancing of all that speaks of Tziyonim?

There are Orthodox schools of thought and practice that educate their children – toddlers even! – to think and live as kanaaim.

The fact that modern Israel may not as yet be the fulfillment of all Messianic dreams and aspirations does not, cannot and must not mean its rejection, denial, or disdain.

“Israel,” Rabbi Yaakov Rabinowitz poignantly wrote, “is focal to our people. It is not an afterthought. It is not something to be tolerated for the sake of unity or because it is home and protector to so many of our brothers and sisters. It is a step, small or large is irrelevant, toward redemption. Its triumphs and celebrations are our triumphs and celebrations. There may be differences in the manner of celebration, but we affirm, with strength and conviction and without apology, that it is our simcha and that we want to, and need to, be a part of it. We are proud of its symbols, be they flag or anthem, for they have become sanctified…”

My grandfather, the Romanian gaon Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, was asked, “Why is it that in the Nusach S’fard Keter Kedushah we ask, V’hu yigaleinu sh’einit?” Why do we ask that God redeem us for the second time? The second redemption has already occurred! Are we not eagerly anticipating the third and ultimate redemption?

Teacher, Love Your Student: It Takes More Than Chapters, Pages and Lessons

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

A young teacher described this episode that occurred early in her teaching career:

“One beautiful spring morning when I arrived at school, I was surprised to see a youngster waiting at the door. ‘It’s locked,’ he said sadly. His expression brightened as I began to fumble for my keys. ‘You’re a teacher!” he exclaimed in obvious delight.

“As I slipped the key into the lock and opened the door, I looked at him and smiled. ‘What makes you think that?’ I asked him, amused and pleased in no small measure by his reaction.

“He looked directly into my eye and spoke softly but with respect. ‘You have the key.’ “I was both humbled and overwhelmed at the magnitude of his simple observation, by the implication it carried, and the responsibility I bore simply by possessing ‘the key.’ Without question, this young student’s comment to me was among the most significant of my entire teaching career. Not a day went by when, upon arriving at school, I did not recall it.”

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik taught that “teaching involves more than the transmission of knowledge and understanding. It requires empathy between teacher and student, and a sharing of feelings, thought and motives. There is an interaction of personalities, an exchange of values and insights.” To teach is to know how to unlock not only the mind, but the heart, feeling and interest of every student as well. There is no master key. “What we require is the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea; sympathetic understanding, true befriending, and a human reaching out: a suggestion that we care; the teaching role is inadequate.”

We need the key.

Is there a standardized lesson plan from which we can derive instruction as to how to transmit more than just the data, the uninspired information of our subject to our students?

Listen to The Master Teacher Himself – God – teaching a lesson to his star pupil, Moshe. The lesson’s goal was to convey the specifics of charity – terumah – needed for erecting God’s sanctuary.

The lesson begins with general instructions. “Speak to the children of Israel, that they may take unto Me an offering,” and then moves on to details of implementation. The terumah, Moshe is told, may be offered from gold, silver, copper, skins, wood, oils and stones.”

Facts. Knowledge. Information. These are, of course, necessary but not nearly sufficient for the Teacher who wants to not only teach but uplift and inspire. God adds to these basic instructions feeling and emotion: “Veasu li mikdash veshachanti betocham – and let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”

It is in these words that we are given insight into the true art of teaching.

The Kotzker notes that God does not say He will dwell in His midst but rather “in their midst.”

The real lesson is very clearly not about facts and figures but charity. As such, its greatest value and greatest lesson is in character development. Each individual must have ample room and easy access within his being for God to enter and remain as a permanent resident, betocham mamash.

Ultimately, all good and effective teaching must arouse pleasant feelings and responses. This is a lesson all teachers must remember when they teach. It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach in a way that arouses positive feelings. It is not, as too many teachers presume, the student’s responsibility to create within himself such feelings.

By showing our students respect and love, as God showed Moshe, we invite our students into the wonder, awe and power of what we teach. And even if our students do not always grasp the “whys and the wherefores” they should always come away from our lessons knowing that they are worthy and cherished.

In his words to Moshe, God carefully instructs that the Mikdash be constructed li – for Me. But of course! What other reason might there be in constructing a Mikdash if not for the sharing of God’s spirit and knowledge?

Rashi comments: “Let them make to the glory of My name a place of holiness.” Success in imparting Torah knowledge can only be measured by the ultimate affect the learning has on the total being of the student. If a student’s actions, thoughts and responses are Mikdash-like, the educational process is successful. That is, the student must learn the stuff of the lesson but unless he or she does so in a context of respect and honor, it is only half a lesson.

The full lesson only happens when mechanchim – educational producers – understand that the for Me aspect of Mikdash requires that knowledge be delivered not only to the head but also to the heart, that the lesson taught must ultimately touch the student’s heart and emotion. Such a lesson can only be taught by a living and caring teacher. A creative curriculum is not enough.

Jewish Candles: The Power Of Discernment

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

God’s first magnificent gesture was to create light. For Jews, light is glory, insight, wisdom, warmth. It is safety and it is hope.

We acknowledge and mirror God’s great gesture with ritual significance during four important religious observances. The Mishnah in Pesachim teaches that “on the night of the fourteenth of Nissan we search for chametz by the light of a candle.” Chametz signifies not merely the physical process of leavening leading to seor, but also the leavening of our inner beings and our deeds. We therefore carefully search and look for any failings and shortcomings in all areas of our lives where we may have brought in leaven.

The halachic requirement that we use a ner for this task, a candle with a single wick rather than a multi-wick avukah, a torch, ensures that the light is intimate enough to allow us to reach into the depths of our minds and hearts and see failures and shortcomings lost in the more intense and overwhelming avukah.

The lighting of Sabbath candles formally ushers in the Sabbath in the home. A minimum of two candles are lit, symbolizing the two forms of the fourth commandment to honor Shabbat: zachor, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” in Shemot, and shamor, “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” in Devarim.

The candles are to be lit on the table where the Shabbat meal is eaten, and should burn throughout the meal and well into nightfall. Ultimately, the reason for lighting Sabbath candles is to bring “light” into the home; to create an atmosphere, a cohesive family unit. The Talmud defines the need for Sabbath candles as shalom bayit. The holiness of the Sabbath day is meant to create a peaceful, tranquil, and happy Jewish home. Housewives, given the privilege of lighting the Sabbath candles, offer a moving and emotional prayer prior to hadlakat ha’nerot in which they ask God to instill shechinatecha beinenu, “His peaceful and bountiful providence among us.”

However, to be a genuine and creative Jew requires more of us than a searching soul or even a peaceful home. Judaism calls for openness and honest identification. It calls for a pride in one’s Jewishness, even to the point of pirsumei nisa. Judaism is more than the sum total of its institutions, organizations, shuls, or yeshivas. Judaism is first and foremost a community of proud, individual Jews willing to be known and counted as Jews. Thus the halachic requirement to light Chanukah candles so that we may “glorify Your name for Your miracles, salvation, and wondrous acts” not merely in historical and passive terms, but bayamim hahem bazman hazeh –“Who wrought miracles for our forefathers in former days, at this season.”

“At this season,” bazman hazeh, must relate to a living Jew, to a Jew willing to observe and look at candles directly and closely, and try to comprehend their relevant meaning. The law is that if one kindled the Chanukah menorah above twenty amah he accomplished nothing. Why? Because his act is not obvious. But what is not obvious? The very same candles are lit, on time, according to all halachic stipulation. What then is the psul? Perhaps the disqualification is based on the unwillingness to relate the mitzvah to a living Jew – to a gavra. Judaism cannot be camouflaged or hidden. Mitzvot cannot be placed beyond the reach of a living person, beyond human sight.

The Jew unwilling to declare his allegiance to halacha, his obedience to Shabbat, his concern for kashrut, his commitment to intensive Jewish education, his faith in God and trust in His nation – such a Jew has done nothing. His Judaism is impractical, institutional, lacks pride, and misses the essence of pirsumei nisa. Such a Jew relates to ideas at best, but never to a living people. He lacks something fundamentally “Jewish.”

The Rambam, in elaborating on the uniqueness of lighting Chanukah candles, writes: “One must be extremely careful in fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting Chanukah candles, for it is a particularly special and adored mitzvah.” The Magid Mishnah, in citing the Talmudic source for Rambam’s emphatic statement, quotes the Talmud in Shabbat: “Rav Huna said that one who persists in lighting Chanukah candles is assured of children who will become talmidei chachamim.” In verifying the actual source in the Talmud, we find Rav Huna’s statement as reading: “One who is careful with the candle,” which Rashi interprets as being careful about the mitzvah of lighting both Shabbat and Chanukah candles, which results in the light of Torah.

Jewish candles, then, teach us a great deal about what it means to be an authentic Jew. First, it requires a wholesome Jewish home – ner Shabbat. Judaism cannot thrive but in an atmosphere of tranquility, with the family-oriented shalom bayit that is created and maintained uniquely through the Shabbat.

‘Just For This!’: Integrating The Artificial And The Natural

Tuesday, September 27th, 2011

A fisherman once lived near the banks of a river. One evening, exhausted from his labors, he straggled home dreaming of what his life would be like if he were suddenly rich. Suddenly, his foot brushed against a leather pouch filled with small stones that lay on the path. Falling back into his reverie, he picked up the pouch and absent-mindedly began throwing the pebbles into the water.

“When I am rich,” he told himself, “I’ll live in a large house. I’ll have one servant to serve me food and another to serve me wine ”

How detailed his dreams were: A carriage lined with gold! Fine clothes! Goats and sheep! On and on, an image per stone until there was only one stone left. As the fisherman held the final stone in his hand, the last of the sun’s rays caught it and burst into a brilliant rainbow. His eyes widened as he realized that he held in his hand a valuable gem – and that he had been tossing away genuine wealth while dreaming of illusory riches that would never be his.

Irony?

The human condition.

Each of us is made up of the real and the illusory, the obtainable and the fanciful. We all live with chalomos, dimyonos, illusions, dreams beyond our grasp – yet all the more seductive because we believe they are just that close.

Like the fisherman, we too often sacrifice our genuine wealth in the service of illusory riches. Our ability to see the richness of our lives is skewed. We have infinite confidence in our ability to become successful professionals, business people or technicians, yet we feel utterly incapable when confronted with the richness of becoming knowledgeable talmidei chachamim, pious, religious and ethical Jews.

We live our contrived and imaginary notions without realizing that, in the process, we keep tossing away our most precious gifts.

The shofar was blown on Rosh Hashanah in the Temple, a mouthpiece overlaid in gold and two trumpets at its sides, the shofar sounding a long note to the trumpets’ short notes. Rava explains that the verse “And with trumpets and the sound of the shofar shall you rejoice before the Lord your God” informs us that only before the Lord, namely in the Temple, are both trumpets and the shofar required. In the alma – the world, that is, the natural communities of the Jews – the shofar alone suffices.

The world and the heavens above. The attainable and that which is beyond our attainment. The balance between the two is the struggle between natural man and artificial man.

Artificial man is lost in a false dream world, refusing to acknowledge his great richness – the ne­shamah to integrate within himself the expectations of the Templeand the alma. Even as artificial man stands unwilling to embrace his true richness, natural man stands equally unwilling to overcome the challenges and nisyonot of the artificial world.

As a result, we are left on the one hand with Jews who deny themselves the joy of a truly meaningful Torah life and, on the other, Jews who remain closed and cloistered in a purely zealous religious framework; with Jews who claim the divine tone of the shofar can only be embellished with trumpets and gold in the Temple and Jews who claim that sounding the shofar is fundamentally irrelevant in a secular, bustling, and pressured world.

So the tension remains, as we forget or ignore that God created us as a physical body – afar min ha’adamah – that incorporates a neshamah and that the two are not intended to be at odds but to mesh as a single entity.

“God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life.”

Rashi teaches us that man is a duality; he is a productof earthly matter butalsoof heavenly matter. “He is a natural being, living in the animal kingdom,” with his artificial and temporal body, “and he is also a transcendental being, reflecting higher purposes,” governed by a soul. He is subject to laws governing all animal matter; he lives in a material world. But he also partakes of a spiritual dimension, and he feels the call to respond to higher needs and values.

Indeed, it is man’s moral sense and intellect that grant him the free choice to live a mere biological existence or to climb to transcendent heights. Free will is given to man, allowing him to choose to embrace the richness of life or to cast it away.

In enumerating the reasons we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, Saadiah Gaon and other Jewish thinkers cite the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac and the substitution of the ram. In the liturgy we supplicate God to recall Isaac’s sacrifice in our favor.

In considering the actual Akedah epi­sode, however, the Torah text is wanting.
“Abraham awoke early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took his two men with him, along with his son Isaac. He cut wood for the offering and set out, heading for the place that God had designated. On the third day, Abraham looked up, and saw the place from afar.”

Not a word to describe Abraham’s state of mind or emotions. Not a word about his fears or anxieties. Did he not speak with his beloved son along the way? Just, stam, “on the third day.”

The Midrash Tanchuma seeks to fill in many of the blanks.

“And Abraham awoke and went” – the Satan accosted him and appeared to him in the guise of an old man. The latter inquired of him, “Where are you going?”

Abraham said, “To pray.”

Asked the Satan, “If a man is going to pray, why the fire and the knife in his hand and the wood on his shoulder?”

Abraham replied, “Perhaps we shall tarry a day or two, slaughter, cook, and eat.”

Said he, “Old man! Was I not there when the Holy One, blessed be He, did say to you, ‘Take your son ?’ Notwithstanding, an old man the likes of you will go and put away a son vouchsafed him at the age of a hundred! You are out of your mind! Gone to slaughter the son given to you at a hundred years!”

Abraham responded, “Just for this.”

The Satan wondered, “And if He tries you more than this, can you withstand it?”

“And more,” declared Abraham.

The Satan retorted, “Tomorrow He will tell you, ‘A shedder of blood you are for shedding his blood!’ ”

Abraham answered, “Just for this.”

When Satan saw Abraham was not to be moved, he assumed the form of a large river. Abraham plunged into the waters that reached as far as his knees. He said to his young men, “Follow me.” They plunged in after him. As soon as they reached midway, the waters came up to his neck.

At that moment, Abraham cast his eyes heavenward and said, “Lord of the Universe, You did choose me, and revealed Yourself to me and said to me, ‘I am one and you are one. Through you shall My name become known in My world, so offer up Isaac your son before Me for a burnt-offering.’ I did not hold back, and behold, I am engaged in Your command, but now the waters are endangering life itself. If Isaac or myself drown – who will fulfill Your word? Who will proclaim the unity of Your name?”

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, “By your life! Through you shall the unity of My name be proclaimed in the world.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, forthwith rebuked the spring, the river dried up, and they stood on dry ground.

So it is between natural man and artificial man.

Artificial man seeks every possible stumbling block to stop natural man from doing what he is perfectly capable of doing. Artificial man appears in many guises, enticing natural man with fads, philosophies, distractions and notions, attempting to devise any way to keep natural man from living up to his goals, potential, duties, and obliga­tions.

The voice of the tempter is none other than the promptings of Abraham’s own heart during those three momentous days. Doubt upon doubt, challenge upon challenge, the seductive voice of artificial man seeks to waylay natural man. As loving parent. As conscience. As one knowledgeable of the manner in which Jews pray.

When the moral, ethical and religious obstacles and rationalizations fall short, artificial man invokes physical obstacles, as when Satan assumes the form of a large river.

“Do you see?” the obstacle seems to cry out, “there is no good way forward.”

Artificial man thinks, “I want to do it but I cannot due to circumstances beyond my control.”

I want to keep Shabbat, but they can’t do without me in the store.

I want to send the kids to day school, but it costs too much.

I want to come to shiur Monday night, but by the time the train gets in ”

Abraham’s re­sponse? “Just for this!”

He who truly desires to fulfill his duty cannot be deterred. Just for this! Abraham plunges into the river even as far as his neck. When is the last time you and I were committed Jewishly up to our necks?

On Rosh Hashanah we are asked to remold our natural selves, to recognize all of our gifts – physical and spiritual – to integrate our artificial and natural qualities, to allow our souls the same freedom we give to our bodies.

The ideal of Rosh Hashanah is to eventually have everyone blow not only the shofar but the trumpet. Everyone can work his or her way up to the standards of the Mikdash – the Temple.

We need only stop casting away our gems!

It is said that Michelangelo came into Raphael’s studio and looked at one of Raphael’s early drawings. Without a word, he took a piece of chalk and wrote across the drawing, Amplius – “greater!” Michelangelo found the layout to be too cramped and narrow.

How much more serious it must be when God looks down on our lives and, knowing the riches we are truly capable of, writes over our plans, Amplius­! Greater!

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president – communications and marketing.

The Yarmulke: Crown Of Honor, Sign Of Humility

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

An old Jew, stripped to his ill-fitting pajama bottoms, his ribs pronounced in his emaciated frame, is being mocked as he is kicked and prodded through a double line of soldiers.

Though frightened, the Jew endures the physical and verbal abuse with a conscious dignity. But then, one of the soldiers strikes the old Jew so hard that the cloth yarmulke perched atop his bald head comes flying off, landing on the gravel.

At first, the old Jew is unaware he has lost the yarmulke, but after a moment his hand goes reflexively to his head. Realizing it is gone, he quickly searches the ground. He spots it by the boot of one of the soldiers.

Despite the taunts of the soldiers, he reaches down to retrieve it. He is rewarded for his efforts with a sharp kick to the ribs from the point of the soldier’s boot. But that is of less concern to him than the fact that he had retrieved his yarmulke.

With the dignity that has marked his progression from the first, he continues forward until finally the whips and beatings knock him to his knees. A final blow by the butt of a soldier’s gun is the last indignity the old Jew suffers in the land of the living.

As the soldiers kick the old man’s body out of the way, they do bother to note the yarmulke left behind in the mud. Already they have moved on to their next amusement.

Somewhere, many centuries before, a different Jew had died.

After his burial and Kaddish, the man’s soul rose to Heaven to receive the Divine judgement. When it arrived, it presented the good and bad deeds performed during the man’s life and then awaited judgment. But no judgment came. In the majestic hush of Heaven, something unimaginable had occurred. Never before had the heavenly tribunal been presented with such a case; the good and bad deeds of this soul were exactly equal.

The soul could neither enter the Gates of Paradise nor could it be cast intoHell. The mighty tribunal determined it was destined to hover aimlessly between Heaven and Earth until God Himself should take pity and beckon the soul unto Him.

The soul howled in agony at the verdict. Taking pity on it, the Heavenly shammas offered a glimmer of hope.

“Fly down, little soul, and hover close to the world of the living, and when you’ve brought three appropriate gifts, rest assured – the Gates of Paradise will open to you, the gifts will do their work.”

The soul hovered close to earth century after century until finally it collected its first two gifts: a bit of earth from the Holy Land mixed with the blood of a Jewish martyr, and a pin soaked with the blood of a modest and pious Jewess, also martyred.

Only one more gift! But what could that gift be? How many years must the poor soul search for the gift that would ensure its acceptance into Paradise?

After centuries more of searching, the soul landed in an unknown prison yard. There, two long rows of soldiers faced each other, creating a narrow passage between them, a narrow passage through which an old, emaciated Jew was pushed, prodded and beaten. The soul viewed the torture of this poor man with horror and sadness. The dignity the old Jew managed to preserve was remarkable, but his calm seemed only to incite these soldiers to greater brutality. And then the Jew fell to his knees.

A moment later, he was dead.

The hovering soul came closer. There, in the mud, it saw the murdered man’s forgotten yarmulke. It collected the unobserved yarmulke, the “dirtied piece of cloth” that had earned the man so many wicked blows and carried it up to Heaven. There, this third gift was accepted as “truly beautiful. Unusually beautiful.” The soul entered Paradise and eternal rest.

The yarmulke, or skullcap, like so much in Judaism, serves two different and seemingly opposing functions. It is at once both a crown of Jewish religiosity and a sign of piety and humility; crowning glory and humble servitude.

It is a mark upon the Jew, one that identifies him as an adherent of his faith. Even more significantly, this simple head covering reminds him of his place in the universe.

Give Me A Troika: The Hillel Sandwich

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

When fulfilling the commandments God has given us, I often think of dedicated high school athletes who, when their coaches say “Jump!” do not seek an excuse to do less but rather focus on doing what the coach said, and then some.

How much more should we seek to fulfill God’s commandments! So it was for our great sages and so it is why, in remembrance of the Temple, we do as Hillel did in combining Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eating them together. He did this in literal fulfillment of the commandment given in Bamidbar 9:11 – “They shall eat it with matzot and bitter herbs.”

During the Seder, once we have fulfilled our obligation to eat first the matzah and then the maror, we are confronted with Hillel’s view that “the Pesach offering, matzah and maror” must be eaten together. Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer are able to bring the Pesach offering. How then to “combine Pesach, matzah and maror in a sandwich and eat them together”?

If we were less dedicated than a high school athlete, we might satisfy ourselves with the sad fact that we cannot do all that we are commanded to do. But even in a world in which the Temple does not stand, that is not enough.

We must enthusiastically preserve Hillel’s practice by doing whatever remains of his approach. With no Temple and no Temple sacrifice, we cannot eat the Pesach meat, matzah and maror together, but we can still combine matzah and maror.

Why combine the Pesach meat, which signifies the redemptive act, together with matzah, which also represents the miraculous geulah, with the maror, which is a reminder of the bitter state of galut and slavery? Hillel’s sandwich combines such odd bedfellows! A blending of apples and oranges. Galut and geulah. How and why bring these opposites together in one sandwich?

Hillel, in his wisdom, understood that to fully appreciate the sublime taste of freedom (the Pesach sacrifice) one must first fully digest the bitter ingredients of slavery (matzah and maror). Every aspect of the Hillel sandwich has power and meaning.

Two matzot – one symbolizing the bitterness of galut and the other the sweetness of geulah.

Maror is inseparable from the redemption experience. No joy exists without bitterness.

But it is not enough to remember, or even understand, the two distinct phases of the Mitzrayim experience. If that were Hillel’s goal, he would simply have followed the chronology of our slavery, listing maror first followed by Pesach and then matzah. After all, maror and pain and suffering of galut preceded the redemptive acts of Pesach and matzah.

But it was not Hillel’s goal to simply remember; not enough to simply “jump.” His intent was to do more. Hillel meant to teach that maror is part and parcel of the geulah/redemption troika. Pesach and matzah do not stand alone as geulah reminders. Maror does not stand in a separate category of the galut/enslavement.

They are three parts of the same whole.

Like Hillel, Rabban Gamliel also insisted on the geulah troika. “Whoever has not explained the following three things on Pesach has not fulfilled his duty, namely: Pesach, matzot, maror.”Rabban Gamliel, like Hillel before him, understood that to fully comprehend and appreciate the magnificent grace of redemption, and be able to fulfill the obligation of recalling the wonders and miracles of our exodus from Egypt, one must view all the elements of geulah as equal and vital components of the process.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein teaches that the Pesach offering symbolizes that God is the absolute Ruler of this world – that man is not his own master. This truth was not fully recognized even by the generation of the Exodus until God saved them so quickly as when “the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened.” Matzah too is an integral part of the redemptive process. Even in the most unbearable and seemingly hopeless of times, when hope seems lost, God’s redemption is at hand.

God needs no warm-up or preparation time to perform miracles or bring salvation.

However, when we relax our spiritual zeal and take God’s protection and providence for granted, particularly in times of peace, prosperity and tranquility, then maror rears its ugly head yet again. Maror periodically issues a stern warning to Jews and forewarns of our ever-present vulnerability. The commandment to eat maror together with the Pesach and the matzah not only symbolizes the correct approach to life but represents a danger flare should we stray from it. Redemption, once attained, is not guaranteed. It must be safeguarded and protected.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/give-me-a-troika-the-hillel-sandwich/2011/04/28/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: