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April 23, 2014 / 23 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Eliyahu Safran’

Dreidels And Daily Miracles: What a Modest Spinning Top Can Teach Us

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

What does it take to experience a miracle? Nothing more than to live a life with eyes wide open. The truth is, we live in an age of miracles and wonder. Does that sound like a ridiculous statement to you – to characterize the age of the Internet, gene therapy, and biological science as an age of miracles? For many people, the idea of “miracles” comes straight from Medieval times. They view miracles as fantasy and “anti-science.”

I assure you that Judaism has the greatest regard for science. Science and miracles both true? Absolutely. As software developer and author Tamar Sofer has written, “My husband, a laser physicist, tells me that scientists who study particle physics are more likely to become religious. Scientists are notoriously hard to convince of anything. Yet, when these skeptical scientists see the perfect, natural order of the world, they decide nano and up that this world was planned. The marvelous design before them becomes the miracle they need to become convinced.”

Indeed, it is quite often those scientists who study natural law in its greatest complexity and detail who appreciate miracles the most.

The laws of science and nature guide our world. And miracles happen all the time. A contradiction? Not at all. The “rub,” as Hamlet might have suggested, is with how we define “miracle.”

A miracle is anything that “should not” happen in the logical, rational normal course of events. A miracle need not be fantastical. If we limit the things that constitute “miracles” to the “earth standing still” or events that run contrary to physical law, then we not only tarnish the laws God has established for the physical world but we blind ourselves to the very real miracles that play out in our lives every day.

Over 300 years ago King Louis XIV of France asked Pascal, the great philosopher of his day, to give him proof of the existence of miracles. Without hesitation, Pascal answered, “Why, the Jews, your Majesty. The Jews.”

History does not tell us the king’s reaction to this proof, but we do know exactly what Pascal meant by his answer because he explained it clearly in his masterwork, Pensees. In that work, he states that the fact that the Jewish people had survived even to his day was proof enough for him that miracles occur. After all, what rational explanation existed to make sense of our continued presence upon the world’s stage?

A more modern historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote a ten-volume encyclopedia of human history. In the course of those many volumes the one thing that contradicted his “universal” rules that govern the inexorable decline of every people on earth was the continued flourishing of the Jewish people.

Only the Jews.

Despite history’sbrutal attempts to destroy us, we have managed to defy all predictions and logical expectation of our demise.

Miraculous.

History is littered with the powerful empires that worked mightily to ensure our demise – from the Akkadians to the Babylonians to the Persians to the Third Reich. Jewish history – indeed, Jewish existence – defies rational explanation. We are a miracle.

The miraculous is so essential to who we are that David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of the State of Israel, said, “A Jew who does not believe in miracles is not a realist.”

The most dramatic threats to our existence have come from external forces; the more subtle and damaging arise from within the Jewish community. Jews too often embrace cultural norms that would diminish the uniqueness of Jewish life, as when we clamored to assimilate into Hellenistic culture during the early years of the Hellenistic Empire. It was only the miracle of Chanukah – and by that I mean a good deal more than the oil lasting a full eight days – that once again allowed us to survive as a dedicated people.

During the time of Antiochus, our prayers and repentance were not sincere. The people had assimilated. They were “as the Greeks” – and so, in the beginning, it was a mere handful of Hasmoneans leading the charge while most of our people failed to demonstrate the inspiration from below to earn God’s abundant blessing from above.

And yet God showered us with miracles. Despite the people’s lack of faith, He provided us, mercifully, with inspiration from above. His inspiration was undeserved – which made it all the more miraculous!

On Jewish Optimism

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There are those who view an authentic Jewish life as confining and repressive – pessimistic even. So many restrictions. Countless obligations. So much “observance” rather than “celebration.” Yom Kippur fasts. Tzom Gedaliah. Tisha B’Av. The Seventeenth of Tammuz. So much sadness. So much pain. And then there is the emphasis on the in-depth study of mussar – ethics – emblematic of the Jewish need to continually rise to higher moral and spiritual levels.

“Just accept yourself for who you are,” suggests the Jewish cynic. Rather than a full thirty days of reflection and prayer in preparation for the Yamim Noraim isn’t it enough to come on the first of Tishrei, or even the tenth, to pray, wish, reflect and amend? Why sound the terrifying sirens of the shofar from the second day of Elul?

Why recite Psalm 27 – L’Dovid Hashem Ori – and awake in the predawn darkness to recite Selichot? Mind you, in the Sephardic communities, Selichot is recited for the full month of Elul. Ashkenazim begin “only” a week before Rosh Hashanah. Nevertheless, the entire month of Elul is to be a period of spiritual preparation and rejuvenation, anticipating the Days of Awe. Blowing the shofar rouses Jews to the approaching awesome, serious and introspective days.

“All so gloomy, depressing and pessimistic,” the cynic sighs with a shrug. “It makes us all seem like lost sinners, hopeless and forlorn, who by some supernatural grace of God will be saved from His wrath.”

But does it? What I have presented is Judaism through the eyes of the cynic, the one for whom the glass is only half empty. That same glass, viewed through the eyes of the faithful, is wonderfully half full.

Considering the other half of the glass, we quickly discover the state of mind God actually intends for us – from the start of Elul through the very close of the Days of Awe and holiness, on Shemini Atzeres. Open up your prayer books and discover the most optimistic of all psalms, selected specifically for this awesome period – Psalm 27. The Midrash teaches that the words L’Dovid Hashem Ori – “The Lord is my life” – refers to Rosh Hashanah; v’yishi – “and aid” – reflects on Yom Kippur; while ki yitzpeneni b’suko – “He will hide me within His tabernacle” – places us within Sukkot.

Glance through the psalm and discover all the words that conjure up hope, optimism, happiness, and strength. Begin with the first verse and go through the chapter: light, aid, stronghold, not fear, confident, desire, dwell in the house of the Lord, pleasantness, shelter, safe, high, sing, chant, gracious, seek you My presence, help, care, teach, guide, land of the living, hope, strong, brave.

In fourteen short verses, twenty-four terms and phrases that sing out loud and clear to an optimistic soul and worldview.

God’s name appears thirteen times in the psalm, we are taught, for during the month of Elul the thirteen gates of rachamim- of mercy and hope – are open to us.

Merciful optimism!

The commentaries teach us the psalm is divided into two distinct parts. Verses 1-6 express the clearly stated hope of David to “dwell in the house of the Lord” and to behold His pleasantness. Verses 7-14 are a call for help on behalf of all Jews. It is a clarion call that brings to mind the sign put up by Breslover chassidim on the gate to their Second World War ghetto: Yidden, zeit zich nisht m’yaesh – “Jews, don’t give up!”

It is natural to want to give up when the other half of the glass is so clearly empty. Just as then, the emptiness of that half of the glass can feel overwhelming. There is growing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment worldwide; rampant assimilation and intermarriage in the midst of an ever-expanding secular city; blatant disregard for honesty and integrity, for plain good old ehrlichkeit in the midst of increased Torah learning.

There is so much evidence to justify the cynic’s perspective. And yet and yet, by whose say do we succumb to pessimism and gloom?

Listen to these words, uttered twice a day for fifty days, repeated a hundred times: “Hope in the Lord, be strong, and let your heart be brave: yes, hope in the Lord.”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/on-jewish-optimism/2010/08/25/

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