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Posts Tagged ‘Simchat Torah’

Up And Down The East Coast On Torah Tours

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Some of the thoughts we generally associate with Shavuot relate to the tradition of learning Torah all night or the almost overwhelming amount of dairy food that is consumed over the course of the two-day holiday. It has become a routine, something we do every year as the weather starts turning warmer and our Sefirat HaOmer calendars come to an end.

Last year’s Shavuot, however, broke the sense of a familiar routine for me. I traveled to Washington D.C. in June with a team of three other students from Yeshiva University who were participating in The Aaron and Blanche Schreiber Torah Tours program.

Run by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, Torah Tours sends students to various Jewish communities across America for Shavuot and Simchat Torah to assist in creating a positive Torah-filled atmosphere.

My team was fortunate enough to be able to spend Shavuot in D.C. with Ohev Sholom: The National Synagogue. Aside from boasting a beautiful large building in the Shepherd Park area, Ohev Sholom is known as being the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the area. Under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, it has experienced increasing growth and popularity.

Since it was my first time participating in a Torah Tours program, I was not quite sure what to expect. It was also my first time spending Shavuot in a community other than my own. Being immersed in a specific type of community for years has a bit of an insulating effect. You get used to things being done in a certain way, you know exactly what is required of you in order to blend in seamlessly, and you already have some expectations formed in your own head of what a community is or should be, based on your limited experience. That Shavuot was a chance to go beyond that, to look past the narrow confines of my own life and my limited experience.

One of the things that stood out about Ohev Sholom and its community was the incredible warmth and hospitality of those who invited us into their homes, and the genuine friendliness and openness exhibited towards complete strangers. No matter where I went or at whose house I was, I always felt perfectly comfortable and at home.

While the rest of my Torah Tours team returned home after Shavuot, I decided to remain in DC for Shabbat. I realized once it ended what an amazing decision that had been. Shabbat in Ohev Sholom was unlike any I have ever experienced in my hometown, beginning with a beautiful and uplifting Kabbalat Shabbat that remained indelibly imprinted on my mind for long after. The first Shabbat I spent back in Brooklyn was a bittersweet one. All I could do was remember D.C. and wish I could be there once more.

Reflecting afterwards on the time spent in DC, it was clear that although I had thought that I was going to be contributing something to another community, in reality I was the one who benefitted tremendously. What I experienced there was something that would stay with me for the rest of my life and become a part of my being, a part of the way I look at and understand the world and the people around me.

A few months later, I was presented with the opportunity to sign up for Torah Tours again for Simchat Torah. I enthusiastically signed up and traveled to Richmond, Virginia to spend the holiday with the Keneseth Beth Israel (KBI) congregation, under the leadership of Rabbi Dovid Asher. Together with a team of four other members, I got to know another warm and welcoming community and experienced a good dose of Southern hospitality.

While three-day holidays generally seem too long, during our time in Richmond it proved to be a blessing, allowing us to spend more time in a community that did everything possible to make us feel at home. Between festive meals with different hosts, Torah shiurim with community members whose feedback enriched our experience, a relaxed teen tish, enthusiastic dancing with adults and children in celebration of the Torah, and a lovely afternoon walk to the beautiful University of Richmond campus, our Simchat Torah proved to be uplifting and unforgettable.

Iran Surrogates Test Israel’s Military Resolve

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

JERUSALEM – As high-ranking American military commanders arrived in Israel this week in advance of the forthcoming Austere Challenge 12 drill with IDF units, Israel’s military resolve was tested by Iranian proxy militias in Gaza and Lebanon during the recent Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays.

Hizbullah’s UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) espionage mission earlier this week was discovered by an Israeli Air Force (IAF) radar unit as the unarmed Iranian-built drone flew along the Mediterranean coastline before being shot down by an IAF F-16 over the Yatir Forest near Beersheba. This prompted the Israel Defense Forces to move an American-built Patriot anti-aircraft/anti-missile unit to the Mt. Carmel plateau just outside Haifa. According to Israel’s Channel 10 News, Iran has supplied Hizbullah with dozens of UAVs, some of which can be armed with an explosive weapon.

While several Israel military TV and newspaper correspondents reported that the Iranian drones were nearly 20 years behind Israel’s advanced UAV technology, they also acknowledged that the Iranian UAVs had the operational capability of filming and launching an attack against sensitive installations such as the Dimona nuclear reactor and IAF bases. The upgraded Patriot batteries are meant to complement Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system and are capable of toppling drones, as well as missiles.

At least one Iron Dome system was repositioned near Sderot on Wednesday, after several kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip and the southern town of Netivot experienced a heavy barrage of mortar, Kassam and Grad rocket fire from terror groups inside Gaza over the past few days. While no one was seriously injured during the attacks, an IDF Southern Command officer told Channel 10 News that Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists were in possession of sophisticated multiple rocket launchers that can be remotely operated. This makes it more difficult for IDF units to identify the location of the launchers and their terrorist commanders.

During the past few weeks, the IDF has beefed up its contingent of Nagmash (Leopard) armored carriers along the Gaza border. The state-of-the-art Leopard, which is mounted on a Merkava-4 tank chassis and can transport at least 12 troops deep into enemy territory at speeds approaching 40 miles per hour while firing mortars and machine guns, would be used in any lightning incursion into Gaza or Southern Lebanon. That scenario’s goal is to wipe out terrorist missile squads.

The Austere Challenge 12 drill will feature contingents of American and Israeli soldiers from both offshore naval units and land-based air defense units. They will integrate their anti-missile systems to defend Israel against a variety of simulated enemy missile salvos. The Israeli systems will be highlighted by Iron Dome, Arrow and Magic Wand, the latter offering a new defense against mid-range missiles within 18 months.

The drill comes on the heels of a report in the latest edition of Foreign Policy magazine, whereby a former Clinton administration official said that the U.S. and Israel are working on a plan that would involve a joint U.S.-Israel surgical air force and missile strike team to potentially be used against key Iranian nuclear and military installations. The objective would be to set back the Iranian nuclear program by several years – without igniting a full-scale regional war. The Iranian regime has threatened to launch ballistic missiles against Israeli cities and American bases in the Middle East in the event of an attack against its nuclear sites.

Cory Booker & Shmuley Boteach: The Rabbi and the Rhodes Scholar (Video)

Sunday, October 7th, 2012

Twenty years ago this Monday, corresponding to the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, a young African-American Rhodes scholar walked into a Chabad Jewish student center in Oxford, England. He had had a date with a Jewish woman who told him she was going to be at the Sukkot festivities at Rabbi Shmuley’s and would meet him there. As it turned out, he was stood up, and as he waited sheepishly in the corner of the room not knowing what to do next, he was approached by the Rabbi’s wife who invited him to sit in ‘the hot-seat’ next to the young Chabad Rabbi. Being the most joyous night of the Jewish calendar, the young student would later join with hundreds of other students dancing with the Torahs. This accidental meeting would change both their lives.

Cory Booker had little exposure to the Jewish community prior to that evening and I, who was serving as the Rabbi to the students of Oxford University, had only sporadic exposure to the African-American community. But in the days, weeks, and months that followed we began studying together almost daily. We studied the great texts of Judaism and discussed the great speeches of African-American leaders. Cory would later serve a full term as President of our Jewish student organization, which was then the second largest student group at the University with thousands of members. Together we hosted luminaries like Mikhail Gorbachev and other world leaders who lectured on values-based leadership.

Twenty years, countless conversations, and hundreds of Friday night Shabbat dinners later, Cory today is a much-loved honorary member of the American Jewish community, regularly lecturing at Synagogues and Jewish conferences across the country. More significant, Cory has challenged the Jewish community to live up to its Biblical calling to serve as ‘a light unto the nations.’ In many of the speeches we deliver together he asks the Jewish participants if they study the weekly Parsha, if they honor the commandments, and cherish the Sabbath. What allows an African-American Christian Mayor to challenge Jewish leaders to deepen their Jewish commitment? Because those same leaders are amazed at Cory’s knowledge of Judaism and appreciation of the Jewish contribution to civilization.

I have long believed that the next wave of Jewish commitment will be inspired by non-Jews. In massive conferences like Christians United For Israel we are already seeing a great wave of Christian interest in Judaism and a desire to reconnect Jesus back to his Jewish roots. But Cory has taken this a step further, studying Judaism with a view to teaching it to Jews.

A few years ago AIPAC invited Cory and me to address a large group in Chicago. It was the week where we read the story of Genesis in Synagogue and Cory delivered a moving speech on the creation of Adam and Eve, culled from a speech by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The wife of a prominent American Jewish leader approached me after the speech and asked if I would study the Parsha of the week with her, as I do with Cory. I asked her why now. She responded, “When you hear someone so prominent in the American political landscape deriving inspiration from the Torah, and he’s not even Jewish, you become a little embarrassed that you are ignorant of your tradition and you want to discover what he has discovered.” I have heard similar sentiments expressed by other Jewish listeners on many occasions.

My friendship with Cory also sparked a lifelong closeness between me and the African-American community. I became the first-ever white morning radio host on America’s legacy black radio station, WWRL in New York City. I took the Rev. Al Sharpton to Israel to alleviate the enmity between him and the Jewish community, I was the driving force behind an effort to have 600 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina find permanent homes in Utah where they have been moved only temporarily, and I preached at the Martin Luther King chapel at Morehouse College at a conference with Coretta Scott King. And as part of my current run for Congress in New Jersey, I travelled to Rwanda to highlight the 1994 genocide and help combat efforts to deny it. The Rwandan government invited me to meet President Paul Kagame in New York last week and I hosted a reception for Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo with American Jewish leaders.

There are those who believe that the black and Jewish communities share a common history of persecution. But being among the world’s foremost victims is not the basis of our bond. The relationship between blacks and Jews is built on shared faith rather than shared oppression, common destiny rather than common history, shared values rather than shared interests, and a mutual commitment to social justice rather than a mutual alienation from the mainstream.

I thank God for a friendship that has endured for two decades and the enrichment it has brought to us and our respective communities.

The Last Command

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

By now Moses had given 612 commands to the Israelites. But there was one further instruction he still had to give, the last of his life, the final mitzvah in the Torah:

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be My witness against the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31: 19).

The oral tradition understood this to be a command that each Israelite should take part in the writing of a Sefer Torah. Here is how Maimonides states the law:

“Every male Israelite is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it says, ‘Now therefore write this song,’ meaning, ‘Write for yourselves [a complete copy of] the Torah that contains this song,’ since we do not write isolated passages of the Torah [but only a complete scroll]. Even if one has inherited a Torah scroll from his parents, nonetheless it is a mitzvah to write one for oneself, and one who does so is as if he had received [the Torah] from Mount Sinai. One who does not know how to write a scroll may engage [a scribe] to do it for him, and whoever corrects even one letter is as if he has written a whole scroll” (Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah 7:1).

There is something poetic in the fact that Moses left this law until the last. For it was as if he were saying to the next generation, and all future generations: “Do not think it is enough to be able to say, ‘My ancestors received the Torah from Moses.’ You must take it and make it new in every generation.” And so Jews did.

The Koran calls Jews “the people of the Book.” That is a great understatement. The whole of Judaism is an extended love story between a people and a book – between Jews and the Torah. Never has a people loved and honored a book more. They read it, studied it, argued with it, lived it. In its presence they stood as if it were a king. On Simchat Torah, they danced with it as if it were a bride. If, God forbid, it fell, they fasted. If one was no longer fit for use it was buried, as if it were a relative that had died.

For a thousand years they wrote commentaries to it in the form of the rest of Tanach (there were a thousand years between Moses and Malachi, the last of the prophets, and in the very last chapter of the prophetic books Malachi says, “Remember the Torah of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel”).

Then for another thousand years, between the last of the prophets and the closure of the Babylonian Talmud, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries in the form of the documents – Midrash, Mishnah and Gemara – of the Oral Law. Then for a further thousand years, from the Gaonim to the Rishonim to the Acharonim, they wrote commentaries to the commentaries to the commentaries in the form of biblical exegesis, law codes and works of philosophy. Until the modern age virtually every Jewish text was directly or indirectly a commentary to the Torah.

For a hundred generations it was more than a book. It was God’s love letter to the Jewish people, the gift of His word, the pledge of their betrothal, the marriage contract between heaven and the Jewish people, the bond that God would never break or rescind. It was the story of the people and their written constitution as a nation under God. When they were exiled from their land it became the documentary evidence of past promise and future hope. In a brilliant phrase the poet Heinrich Heine called the Torah “the portable homeland of the Jew.” In George Steiner’s gloss, “The text is home; each commentary a return.”

Dispersed, scattered, landless, powerless: so long as a Jew had the Torah he or she was at home – if not physically then spiritually. There were times when it was all they had. Hence the lacerating line in one of the liturgical poems in Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur: “Ein lanu shiur, rak haTorah hazot – We have nothing left except this Torah.”

Tishrei’s Universal Message

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

The start of the Jewish New Year, the month of Tishrei, is filled with holy days, among them four foundational celebrations: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah-Shemini Atzeret.

They are quite different from one another. Yet we may also think of all four holidays as two pairs of two. The first two – the day of memory and accounting and the day of atonement – are awe-inspiring and grave compared with the last two festivals, which are days of joy.

At the same time, the first three holidays do have a common denominator: As much as they are Jewish holidays, they carry a universal message. Embedded within them are three of humanity’s cardinal touchstones: accounting and judgment; mercy and atonement; and the joy of life.

These attributes and qualities are essential to the lives of every human being. We mark the New Year by commemorating creation on the one hand and celebrating the Kingship of the Lord on the other. Both creation and God’s sovereignty pertain to all humankind and are not specifically Jewish.

The Day of Atonement, too, is relevant to every human being. Life is full of mistakes and transgressions. Without atonement it would be unbearable to go on living with the unresolved and painful pieces of our past.

Sukkot at first glance seems to be far more connected with Jewish history. Yet at its essence, the holiday is actually a festival of thanksgiving for what we have. We acknowledge the tranquility in our lives and express our gratitude for Divine gifts.

Moreover, our sages teach us that during Sukkot in the days of the Holy Temple, seventy bulls were offered to God in the name of the seventy nations of the world. As the prophet Zachariah foretells, in the days to come it is on Sukkot that all the peoples of the world will come as pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem.

This combination of the particular and the universal is not just one more interesting point; it is the key for understanding the meaning of these three holidays. In all our other celebrations, and perhaps in Jewish religious life in general, we stress the specificity of Jewish existence. Most of our holidays and memorial days are deeply connected with our own history.

In Tishrei, however, we focus on our fundamental humanity, on the fact that we are human beings with great problems. In this context, humanity is not defined as a group of human beings. Here we speak of our basic humanity – humanity as a quality.

The very touchstones that we mark in Tishrei are what make us human. The essence of the universality of these holidays, then, is not in the point of sharing with others, it is in delving into ourselves in order to reveal and find some of the fundamentals of our existence. We explore and acknowledge what is universal to all humankind within our own selves.

The fourth and last of the holidays of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret (and with it Simchat Torah), stands in clear contrast to the first three. As beautifully depicted by our sages, the king made a great banquet to which he invited all the citizens of his realm. At the end of these feasts, he called his most beloved friend and said now that all these big events are over, let us have a small banquet just for the two of us (tractate Sukkah 55b).

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a world-renowned scholar who has authored more than 60 books and hundreds of articles on Torah.

A Simple Teaching, Difficult To Understand

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

I am interrupting my series on “Yom Tov Mayhem,” focusing on adult children who come home for the holidays with their families and expect their mothers to be cook, housekeeper and baby-sitter all rolled into one. How to deal with this problem without damaging relationships will, please G-d, be the topic of my next column.

These days, events occur with such speed that before we absorb one, another is upon us. Additionally, our attention span has become nil. We no longer know how to listen; even while someone is talking to us, we are busy texting someone else or scrolling through our e-mail messages.

We have recently lost many great Torah sages, but I wonder if we truly feel the terrible void that has been left. And now, the beloved  Rebbetzin Bathsheva Kanievsky  has been called on high. Her sudden demise represents a tragic loss, especially to the many thousands of women who found solace and comfort through her loving guidance, wisdom and sage advice. May her holy neshamah have an aliyah and may she continue to daven for all of us.

This past week also saw much jubilation and thanksgiving. For five years, all of us have been davening for the safe homecoming of Gilad Shalit, and now, Baruch Hashem, we have seen our prayers answered. I realize there has been some controversy over the exchange that made his freedom possible – a thousand savage terrorists for one frail, painfully thin Jewish soldier. To many it is incongruous to even imagine that such a disproportionate, seemingly suicidal deal could be struck. Surely this was a grossly dangerous exchange.

I am not going to argue the pros and cons, but I do know our sages teach that all those who save one life,  it is accounted to them as though they saved an entire world. Of course you may protest, “At what price? These savage killers could, G-d forbid, take many more lives and encourage more kidnappings.”

I am not a halachic expert and I am not here to make a judgment call on that. We are Am Yisrael, and we march to the tune of a different drummer. We are not unaware of the terrifying dangers this deal represents, but just the same, to us every Yiddish neshamah is precious, so even as we offer prayers of thanksgiving for Gilad’s homecoming, we also pray that Hashem will protect us from these barbaric monsters and that they will perish before they can inflict more harm.

Throughout the years I have taught that one can always find some sort of “remez” – allusion – in the parshah (weekly Torah portion) to events that are unfolding before our eyes. This time, it is not only the parshah but the Book of Psalms as well that stunningly confirms this teaching.

The Book of  Tehillim designates a psalm for each day of the week. Gilad Shalit was released on the third day –  Tuesday – for which the psalm is number 60. There are two words in that psalm that jump out and demand our attention – sukkot and gilad. Indeed, the release occurred on the holiday of Sukkot, followed by the words, “li gilad – “Gilad is mine.”

As for the parshah we just read on Simchat Torah, it is written, “And Hashem showed him the entire land – the gilad” (Deut. 34:1).

Farfetched? Coincidence? Remez? Take it as you will, but the fact is that these are the passages we were reading from the Torah and the Book of Psalms at the time Gilad Shalit was returned to his land. So put aside your Blackberry and your cell phone for a few moments and think. Think some more and absorb.

The Joy Of Torah

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

                  One of the most popular of our chaggim is Simchat Torah, which falls on the last day of Sukkot. As its name suggests, Simchat Torah celebrates the joy of the Torah. There is no record of this holiday before the 11th century, and its origin may have been in Spain. 
 
                  The highlight of the chag is when all the sifrei Torah are removed from the Ark and there is a joyful procession with them around the shul.  This circling is called hakafot, and it is necessary to make seven circuits.  It is a mystical imitation of a chuppah, symbolizing the marriage of Bnei Yisrael to the Law.  There is even a Chatan Torah and then a Chatan Bereishis who buys the privilege of reading the first portion of sefer.  
 
                  As the hakafot progress, different members of the congregation are given the opportunity to hold the sifrei Torah and dance with them.  The procession resembles the custom of a kallah, at the beginning of a chuppah, walking around her chatan seven times to form a closed circle.   
 
                  A special feature of the day is when all the boys under bar mitzvah age are called up for a special aliyah.  The final verses of the Torah are read while the children stand under a large tallit spread above them like a canopy.  The children are blessed with the words Yaakov used to bless Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:16) “Hamalach hagoel osee me kol rah, yevarech es hanearim – The angel who redeemed me from all evil, bless these children.”
 
                  There is a lovely Simchat Torah custom in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem, where I live.  At a certain designated time, all the local shuls meet (there are four) with their sifrei Torah in Kikar Denya, the square in front of the supermarket.  There, with singing and dancing, they invite all the passers-by – secular and religious alike, and particularly the children – to join in the merriment.  For me, this is the highlight of the day, with toddlers being carried on their fathers’ shoulders, and many people, possibly for the first time ever, joining in to dance with the Torah, before eventually all return to their own shuls to continue with the service.
 
                  The prayer for rain in Israel is an important part of Simchat Torah liturgy.   “When do Jews and Gentiles rejoice together?  Only when it rains!”  No this is not a recent quotation in response to our current water shortage and the dangerously low level of Lake Kinneret.  It was written by Rabi Yehoshua ben Levi in Bereshis Rabbah (13.6)  “For drought is the scourge of the earth, and rain its greatest blessing.”
 
                  Tishrei, the seventh month, is linked to the start of Israel’s winter rains, and crops will fail without it.  We plead for rain in the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, Moshe, Aharon and the 12 shevatim … “For a blessing and not a curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for famine.”
 
                  The Mishna tells us “the world is judged through water.” To this day we recite a prayer for rain on the last day of Sukkot, as rain is Israel’s life-blood.  Good rains mean prosperity, drought means ruin for the country’s kibbutzim, moshavim and agricultural settlements.
 
                  Linked to the prayer for rain is another Sukkot ceremony emphasizing the value of water.  It is known as Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the Joy of the Drawing of the Waters. When the Beit Hamikdash stood it was practiced with great enthusiasm and zest.  It is first mentioned in Sefer Yeshayahu.  It began on the second night of Sukkot and continued for six nights.  Jerusalemites and pilgrims flocked to the outer court of the Beit Hamikdash.  An enormous golden menorah was fed with vessels of oil by kohanim until flames leapt towards the sky.
 
                  The most pious men led a torch dance, and the Leviim led the people in chanting hymns and psalms to the music of flutes, harps and cymbals.  They danced and sang until dawn, when the long procession wended its way to the pool of Shiloah.  This pool was formed by the overflow of water in Chezekiah’s tunnel which led from the Gihon spring into the city.
 
                  At the pool, a golden ewer was filled with water and brought back to the Beit Hamikdash, where the Kohen Gadol poured it over the mizbayach.  Today there is no Beit Hamikdash, no mizbayach and no water in the pool at Shiloah, but the “Drawing of the Waters” is symbolically recaptured every year with singing, dancing and rejoicing in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, near the pool of Shiloah at the base of the City of David.
 
                  And today, on Simchat Torah, Jews all over the world remember Israel’s need for rain on the last day of chag.  It is a long prayer which begins with the words: “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to descend.  From the heavenly source He sends down rains softening the earth with their crystal drops.  Water You have called the symbol of Your power. It refreshes with its drops all breathing creatures and it will someday quicken those who exalt the power of rain.”
 
                  After six more verses, the prayer for rain concludes with the reader chanting, and the congregation responding: “For You are the Lord our G-d who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.  For a blessing and not for a curse. Amen. For life and not for death. Amen. For plenty and not for famine.”
 

                  It is a fitting bracha with which to end Simchat Torah and Sukkot, in which three times we are commanded to rejoice.  After the solemness of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this gives us its blessings:  “May you  have nothing but joy!”

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/devora-waysman/the-joy-of-torah/2011/10/18/

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