Friday, April 20, 2012

"Stump the Rabbi" -- in honor of Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day

Periodically, here at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, we like to play a game we could call “Stump the Rabbi.”  The rules are simple:  people in the community pose questions to me, and I do my best to answer them.  And not infrequently, I admit that I am stumped (and then I try to look up the answer).

As we approach Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day, I would like to tell you about one of the earliest games of "Stump the Rabbi" ever recorded. 

Travel back in time with me, to more than 1000 years ago.  You are a Jew in Spain, and you hear a fascinating story about how there's a powerful kingdom in central Asia where the entire kingdom converted to Judaism!  At first you think it's just a set-up for a bad joke, but then you hear the whole story:  that the king of this nation, called the Khazars, in the Caucuses (in the region of contemporary Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan), had had a dream in which God appeared to him and told him that his tribal religion was all wrong.  The Khazar king invited a priest, an imam, and a rabbi to come to visit him and tell him about their religions so he could choose one.

And now you hear the 'priest, imam, and rabbi' part, and now you’re SURE this is a set-up for a bad joke.  But in fact, the King of the Khazars thought the rabbi had the best answers, so he and his entire kingdom converted to Judaism.  Hearing this fills you with pride and excitement.  It is certainly a different perspective on Judaism than you are likely to encounter in Spain.

About one hundred years after this story begins to circulate, a Jewish poet and philosopher named Judah haLevi decided to use this story as a premise for one of the greatest Jewish literary and philosophical works, called the Kuzari.  Written in dialogue, it is his dramatization of the conversation between the Khazar king and the rabbi.  (The priest and the imam also make an appearance, but they are each dismissed within the first few pages.)  The Khazar king keeps on asking questions to the rabbi, and the rabbi always gives such wise and perceptive answers.   Of course, the “rabbi’s answers” are really Judah HaLevi's answers to the major questions of the Jewish people of his age.

But here's the surprising part.  There are two questions that the Khazar King asks of the Rabbi and the Rabbi is stumped. He admits he doesn't have a good answer.  This rhetorical device appears to indicate that there were two important Jewish questions in Judah ha-Levi’s own day to which he was aware that he lacked good answers.

What’s the first “stumper” question?  The Rabbi is talking about the Land of Israel, and the special bond between Jews and that land: how there are so many commandments in the torah that can ONLY be fulfilled in Israel; how Israel is the home of the Jewish people, to which the Jewish people will return at the end of time; how Jews face the direction of Israel when they pray; how many sages request that after death, their bodies be transported for burial in the land of Israel.

And the Khazar King asks:  Rabbi, isn’t it surprising that there is such a powerful bond between Jews and Israel, and yet you have never been there?! I would think that you would want to live in the Land of Israel, not only after your death, but also during your lifetime!

And for the first time, the rabbi concedes: “You have a good point, O king of the Khazars.”  (He goes on to say that it's difficult to live there or even to visit there, it's expensive, some people feel it's not safe, it's far away - but he concedes that none of these are paritcularly good excuses.)

Similarly, for many American Jews, Israel occupies a key place in our sense of who we are as Jews, whether as a refuge for Jews in need throughout the world, or a spiritual center for the Jewish people, or a place where relatives and friends live, or the place where Jews are all "from" if we trace our genealogy back far enough, or a place where Jews are simply “at home” in a way they cannot be elsewhere in the world.  This of course prompts the question:  If Israel is that important to us, one would think it would be important to us not just in theory but in practice. 

Travel to Israel is difficult and expensive, but it is more possible for us today than it has ever been in Jewish history.   (And we are looking in to a congregational trip to Israel in the near future and hope you will contact us if you might be interested!)  Making the decision to live in Israel is an even greater statement of tremendous commitment.  It is extraordinary and exciting that several people from this Jewish community have made the decision to make aliyah and to move to Israel within the last several years.

And then there is the second “stumper question.”  The Rabbi is speaking about one major advantage of Judaism over Christianity and Islam.  He says:  Look at Christianity and Islam and how they function in the world -- what violence they wreak, how they oppress other nations, how they demand the conversion of other nations to their religion, and how so often they act in complete contradiction to the principles of modesty and gentleness espoused by their founders, Jesus and Muhammad.  And he adds:  In contrast, Jews have never done this, and Jews WOULD never do this.

The king of the Khazars looks the Rabbi straight in the eye and says, in effect, “Yes, Jews have a better human rights record than the Christians and the Muslims, but perhaps that's because Jews don’t have any power.  Perhaps, if you HAD power, you would act just like the other nations.”

To this, the rabbi concedes: “You raise a valid challenge, O King of the Khazars!”

For so many centuries, Jews developed an extraordinary talent at critiquing whoever was in power over them.  For centuries, Jews tended to say,"If we were in charge, we would do this differently.  We would wield power much more justly than our oppressors.”   But never did Jews have enough power to attempt to show just HOW we would do it differently..... until the creation of the modern State of Israel.  

Since 1948, the Jewish people has had a significantly greater responsibility than at any time in our recent history.  Now the Jewish people faces a test:  can it wield political and military power, in accordance with the teachings of Jewish ethics and values?   Throw into the mix a large number of angry neighbors, a generally dangerous neighborhood, and a number of nations around the world that have not fully exorcised the demon of anti-Semitism from their midst.  Having heard the Jews’ critiques when they were away from home, let’s see what kind of society Jews create when they are at home.

Perhaps it was an unrealistic challenge.  Perhaps no people, no matter how ethically developed, could have managed to wield power as justly as Jewish tradition would demand under the circumstances.  Perhaps, considering the challenges it has faced, Israel has done better than it could possibly have been expected to do.  Its record is admirable - in many areas, even exemplary - and yet flawed and imperfect.   For many of us who love Israel, we sometimes focus disproportionately on those imperfections because we yearn to help Israel become ever stronger and ever more just.

One of Israel’s greatest challenges today, at age 64, may be how to balance its desire to be a moral exemplar and an exemplar of Jewish values, and how to ensure its own survival.  And if you think that’s an easy balancing act - then I invite you to learn more about Israel.

At the very end of the Kuzari, the rabbi makes the surprising declaration that he is leaving - he has decided to move to the Land of Israel.  While the Kuzari does not state this, it seems to me that he has essentially found a way to respond to both “stumper” questions in that one action.  He affirms that Israel is truly his home and central to his Jewish life -- and he affirms that there he can play a role to help Israel to become the exemplary society of which we dream.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Thoughts on Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day 2012

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Below are some thoughts, adapted from my remarks from the 8th day of Passover, focusing on how the date for Yom HaShoah was chosen.  Also below are some remembrances of Holocaust survivors who have died during the past year who were connected to our synagogue community.

יהא זכרם ברוך - may their memory be for a blessing.

It is 1949.  
The new State of Israel is trying to figure out what is the most appropriate day to memorialize the Shoah.  They could have chosen any date of the year -- as Nazi brutality took place 365 days of every year during that terrible period.  

Imagine yourself in Jerusalem, in the year 1949, at a public hearing on this question.  A young man, a survivor, approaches the podium.  He says:  “We are devastated by what we have experienced, by what has been endured by our families, our communities, our people.  But let us remember that our tradition warns us against tampering with the Jewish calendar, and against adding holidays for capricious reasons.  We have suffered - but so did our ancestors.

“The best way to understand what we have experienced what we have experienced is through the lens of already existing Jewish holy days.  For centuries, our people has used the day of Tisha B’Av - the ninth day of the month of Av, every summer - to mark tragedies through the ages.  And now, sadly, we have a new dimension of this fast day.  We have new losses to mourn on this day.”

A woman is the next speaker.  Like the first speaker, she is a survivor; unlike her predecessor, though, she is a complete secularist, a representative of one of the groups of ghetto fighters, heroes of the Jewish resistance against the Nazis.   She is clearly troubled by the words she has heard.  

“What we have endured is so different from what our ancestors endured!” she says.  “Did they suffer the extermination of one-third of their people, and the uprooting of all the largest Jewish communities in the world?  How can you imagine that we can simply fold this commemoration into an already existing holiday!  It is is disrespectful to the memories of those who have been lost.

“So when should the new holiday be? --  The greatest moment of glory for the Jewish people during those dark years came in Warsaw, the largest of all the ghettos, when our comrades in the ghetto managed to rise up against their Nazi foes and managed to hold them at bay for weeks on end, for so much longer than anyone thought possible.  Let us have our Holocaust Remembrance Day on that day in 1943, April 19, when they proudly took up their smuggled and homemade weapons and fought proudly against their oppressors.”

The first speaker stands up from his seat and says, “You know as well as I, what day that was in 1943!  April 19, 1943 was the 1st day of Passover!  Do you mean to tell me that you want the commemoration of the Holocaust to be on the 1st day of Passover each year?!”

The second speaker responds:  “Well, I was thinking ‘April 19’ rather than ‘the first day of Passover’ -- but from my perspective, to have the commemoration take place on Passover would be fully appropriate.  Don’t you realize that what we have just been through is the NEW story of the Jewish people?!  We don’t need to recall Pharaoh of ancient times, because we have known an enemy even worse than Pharaoh in our own lifetimes!  The Holocaust has so completely overshadowed the glory of the Jewish people.  We SHOULD have a day of remembrance that overshadows Passover.  However, if you don’t think so, then wait until after Passover.   Just choose a day in the springtime, during the time when the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was still taking place.”

The first speaker, now visibly upset, says, “But we have a centuries-old tradition not to engage in mourning and sadness during the month of Nisan when Passover falls!”

To which the second speaker mutters, ““You and your traditions....”

This is an invented dialogue, but the arguments were not so different from the arguments that were presented in those early years of the State of Israel, immediately after the Holocaust.

If you wonder what actually happened on the twenty-seventh day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which is the date for Yom HaShoah, Holocuast Remembrance Day, the answer is, nothing in particular.  It was no worse in terms of the horrors of the Holocaust than any other day.  It was a compromise between the ghetto fighters, who would have prefered to simply replace Passover with a Holocaust remembrance day, and the religious Jews, who preferred to fold Holocaust remembrance into an already existing day of mourning on the Jewish calendar, such as Tisha B’Av in the summer, or the Tenth of Tevet in the winter..

And the compromise that they reached is, I think, beautiful in its own way.  The Holocaust is a unique event in Jewish history.  It demands a different response from other Jewish tragedies through the ages.  And yet, those who made the decision realized even a few years after the Holocaust that a Holocaust Remembrance Day could not loom so large as to cover over such moments on the calendar as Passover.  But it is placed close enough to Passover, less than a week after Passover ends, that it casts a shadow over the liberation that that holiday commemorates.  And it’s close enough to Passover to make the religious tradition just a little uncomfortable.  The placement of a Holocaust Remembrance Day in the midst of a month that is otherwise dedicated to celebration and liberation indicates that the Holocaust demands that we question some of our traditional assumptions.  Jewish history and Jewish life proceed, but we remember that as a people we are incomplete, permanently bereaved. 


Of the millions of Jews who endured Nazi persecution and survived, only a few hundred thousand are alive today.  Those who survived as adults are now in their 90’s or older, and the youngest of the survivors -- those too young to remember anything -- are nearly 70.  

Each year, we note the losses of survivors in our community, who were our links to a world destroyed.

Motek Welner
, father of USH member Alan Welner, died in January 2012.  He was 22 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, and he spent the war years on the run and in a series of concentration and labor camps, before his escape (one day before the camp was liberated) and his immigration to the United States.  Alan notes that after such horrifying experiences in his early life, somehow Motek was able to cultivate a cheerful, vibrant, warm presence.  He managed to live a life without bitterness and without spite, maintaining a powerful pride in his Jewish identity, that coexisted with a powerful respect for all people.

Rabbi Helga Newmark, who visited our community twice as a Holocaust educator, died in March 2012.  She grew up in Amsterdam and knew the famous Frank family in her childhood.  After surviving in concentration camps and coming to the United States, she became a Jewish educator and eventually became the oldest woman, and the only woman Holocaust survivor, to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States.  On her visits to our community, she spoke to children and adults, sharing her experiences and reminding us of the importance of honesty and hope at times of challenge.  

Joseph Sender, grandfather of USH member Alicia Weinstein, died in the fall of 2011.  Joe survived in the Birkenau death camp, together with his father, Chaim, for whom Evan Charles Weinstein (Avraham Chaim) is named.  Joe's mother and brother were murdered at Auschwitz. Joe married his wife Miriam in a DP camp, where Alicia's mother was born.  The family emigrated to Israel and later to the United States.  Joe and Chaim both became the patriarchs of large families, with many children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to carry forth their heritage and values. 

May their memories, together with the memories of all those who died in the Holocaust, and all those who endured it and survived until more recent years, be for a blessing.  And may we fulfill our responsibilities to transmit their stories.  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Seder Trivia Game - 2012 edition

This year's installment of the Seder Trivia Game.

3 unusual stories of Pesach in the news .... two are true, one is false. (If you follow the Jewish news closely, this one won't be too hard.) Previous years' Seder Trivia Games are on elsewhere on my blog.

Story #1:

 One of the most unusual moments of the Jewish year happens on the day before Passover, when the rabbi of the communitysells the community’s Hametz products to a non-Jew, so it will not be owned by Jews over Pesach. After the holiday is over, the sale is reversed and the Hametz is returned to the people in the Jewish community.

This year, one midwestern Orthodox rabbi was pondering to whom to sell his community’s Hametz -- and he came up with an idea. he thought of a person who was internationally renowned for identifying wise and somewhat unusual investments. His name, of course, is Warren Buffett.

So this rabbi of the Jewish community of Omaha, Nebraska wrote a letter to Warren Buffett, the legendary investor and one of the wealthiest people in the world, to pitch this investment opportunity to him. Buy Hametz from Jews before Pesach - which is a time when Jews are desperately trying to get rid of their Hametz, so presumably the price would be low. Then, sell the Hametz back to the Jews at the end of Pesach, when Jews are craving Hametz -- presumably the price would be high. 

Warren Buffet wrote back and said he was very interested in this investment. And this why, as of late last week, Buffett’s diversified portfolio includes hundreds of millions of shares of stock in many of the world’s leading companies -- and also includes a lot of flour, crackers, pasta, whiskey and beer in Omaha.

Story #2.

Did you know that the snow monkeys at the Central Park Zoo celebrate Pesach?
Well, really they celebrate the few days before Pesach.
Zookeepers at the zoo noticed several years ago that the monkeys were growing listless and lazy and refusing to eat their dinner, during one week each April.
They discovered the culprits: Jews, visiting the zoo the week before Pesach, feeding the animals their remaining hametz. 
Baffled zoo staff note that the snow monkeys are the main beneficiaries of the pre-holiday pig-out, apparently because the polar bear’s glass wall is too high, and the sea lions would only be interested if offered gefilte fish. 
The small, pink-faced snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) may not mind the interruption to their grooming routine and carefully prepared diet of fruits, greens, and nuts, but their caretakers sure do. The real risk for the animals in eating too much people food is that they will get fat and lazy. Often the monkeys become so sated after their pre-Passover feast that they won’t go inside later for dinner.
So now, the zoo staff is told to be on special lookout for zoo guests feeding the animals during the week before Passover each year.
The Central Park Zoo gets even more observant Jewish families visiting during the middle four days of Passover, when the kids are out of school. Zookeepers report that the guests sometimes throw matzo to the animals, but -- surprise of surprises -- none of the animals eat it. 

Story #3:

 Every year brings a new celebrity Haggadah. This year, the Haggadah that everybody’s talking about is the “New American Haggadah,” edited by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, with a new English translation by short-story writer Nathan Englander. 

But what is making everyone take notice of this Haggadah are the commentaries written by various Jewish celebrities, including some who are rather disconnected from Jewish life. 

Who better to write a humorous commentary of the Four Questions than the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, who asks such provocative questions to his guests every night. 

For a commentary on the agonizing Ten Plagues, they decided to ask the most angst-ridden American Jewish celebrity, filmmaker Woody Allen, to contribute a commentary, in tribute to the Seder scene in his film “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” This marks the very first time that Woody Allen has participated in a specifically religious Jewish initiative in his career. 

And another commentator is Jerry Seinfeld, who wrote about the Four Children through the lens of his long-running TV show. As Jerry sees it: the wise child is Jerry; the wicked child is George; the simple child is Elaine; and the one who never bothers to ask -- is Kramer.


Stories #1 and #2 are true.  (Story #2 was covered in New York Magazine in 2006 -   Whereas Foer and Englander created a new haggadah this year, it does not include any show business commentators, so story #3 is false.)

Thinking of the Book of Job, at Robinson's Arch in Jerusalem

USH Trip to Israel at Robinson's Arch, Jerusalem, summer 2009

A Visit with Job at the Kotel

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg’s sermon on Yom Kippur morning, 2009/5769)

It's a peculiar place to pray, amid all these huge, broken stones.  It’s peculiar to celebrate in a place like this that bears so many physical reminders of tragedy.

It’s Friday evening in Jerusalem – you are wearing your special clothes for shabbat -
joyous melodies to welcome shabbat surround you - and yet there is something incongruous about the setting, because you're sitting atop ruins, bits of Roman-Jewish buildings from long ago. As the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai described this place, “Capitals and broken pieces of columns scattered like chessmen in a game that was interrupted in anger.”

You are at the place known as Robinson’s Arch – the area along the Western Wall – otherwise known as the Kotel - that is set aside for non-Orthodox Jewish groups for communal prayer, where men and women can sit together unlike the Orthodox regulations at the main Kotel plaza.

With the two-thousand-year-old wall in front of you, you take note of how miraculous it is that that wall is still standing today, when around you are so many signs of destruction. You see a huge rock jutting out of an immense hole in the 2000-year-old pavement.  Scholars believe that it was the keystone of a huge arch, dismantled by the Roman Empire during the course of the Destruction of the Temple and the Destruction of the City of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.  You sing the words of Lecha Dodi- a song of comfort and consolation - while around you is the residue from what was for centuries the greatest act of destruction perpetrated against the Jews, the event that even became the yardstick of suffering against which the Holocaust itself was measured.

Suddenly, traditional Jewish words come back to you – words you have heard at a Jewish funeral, or at a shiva house:  the traditional words with which Jewish mourners are consoled, even today:  ha-makom yenachem etchem be-toch she’ar aveilei tziyon vi-rushalayim.  “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”   And you realize that these words attach every Jew who is suffering today to the community of Jews throughout history that has mourned the destruction of Jerusalem –making the destruction of Jerusalem a symbol of all Jewish tragedy and all human tragedy….. For centuries, this place has been the focal point of the question "Why?"  Why does this world include suffering and loss and brokenness?  When we are the ones suffering – why is it happening to us?  When it is our friends and acquaintances suffering – what can we say to them?

As you sit amid the ruins at Robinson’s Arch and begin to ponder these questions, however jarring to do so with joyous sounds all around you, you notice that there is one man nearby who doesn’t seem to be part of your group.  He’s sitting on the ground.  He’s notable because of his clothing – he looks like he stepped out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie, with his robe and staff and sandals.  You notice that every so often he is clenching his teeth in pain and scratching the skin on his arms.  Your impulse is to move away from him– but you fight that impulse and decide to approach him, to ask if there’s anything you can do to help, as he seems to be in such pain.  He responds to you:  “Thank you.  Maybe you can explain to me What exactly I did to deserve all this suffering.” 

And he begins to tell you his story – about how he once was a wealthy man, with a beautiful estate, and fields, and animals – and a beautiful family.  Until – all of a sudden – he lost everything.  His animals died,  his fields were stolen, and most tragically, while all his children were at a celebration together, the building collapsed….. he didn’t go on, but you could tell from his tone, and his tears, that there were no survivors.

“And then,” he said, “I was afflicted with this skin ailment – to give me physical pain to compound my poverty and my emotional torment. I don’t understand it.  All these things to befall me – I don’t know why God is punishing me.  Truthfully, I have lived an honest life, a righteous and a generous life.”

Suddenly, you realize that his story sounds familiar to you.  You think you may have met this man before. You ask him, “What is your name?”

He says:  in Hebrew they call me Iyov.  But since you speak English, you might know me as Job.”

The tour guide had told you that when you travel to Israel, the Bible comes alive.  But you didn’t expect the bible to come alive quite THIS way.  And now you’re wracking your brain trying to remember anything you remember about the book of Job.  You don’t think you studied it in Hebrew school.  But in High School English, you think you may have read a play or a novel based on this unfortunate man.  You think you remember something about a bet between God and Satan, with Satan telling God:  “Your righteous friend Job, he’s only righteous because of all the blessings you shower upon him.  His beautiful family, his possessions, his health – just let me take away all those blessings, and he won’t be so righteous after all.”  And God, perplexingly, agrees to the bet.  So THAT’s why all these terrible things are happening to Job.  Job has a FEELING that he’s the victim of injustice, but that injustice is actually far beyond what he imagines.   You decide not to let him know that you know this.  It would only upset him further.

“It's terrible what has happened to you,” you say.  “I’m so sorry.”

And Job’s facial muscles relax just a bit, as he says, "It's just good to hear you say that."

“Really,” you say. “Hasn't anyone said this to you before?"

And Job responds, "Well, it's a breath of fresh air.  compared to what THOSE three have been saying.”

And he motions to his left - and you see - you're not sure why you hadn't noticed them before - three more Biblically-clad men right from central casting,  “Those three - my so-called ‘friends.’ "   This story is becoming more and more familiar to you.  You seem to remember that there are three friends who visit Job right after all these calamities strike.  They sit on the floor with him and cry with him for seven days.  Now this is sounding familiar - you think your rabbi mentioned once  that this is why Jews sit shiva for seven days, in memory of Job's friends' genuine act of empathy for their friend in distress.

“Why do you call them “so-called friends?” you whisper to Job.  But you didn’t whisper it quietly enough.

“He calls us his “so-called friends,” says one of the three men, “because we tell him the truth.  He asked us why he is suffering.  How God could do this to him.  And we answered his question.  There are lots of possibilities.”

“Perhaps he’s being punished for some sin that he doesn’t know about,” volunteers one of the friends.

“Actually, we’re not sure why this is happening to him, but we retain our faith in God’s goodness,” says another.  “Whatever God does is for the best.”

And the third chimes in, “God only gives us what we are able to handle, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

Job is waving his hands, then covering his ears. “You guys were so much more helpful for those first seven days, when you kept your mouths shut.”

“Well, what did you expect us to do?” answers one of the friends.  “Let you keep talking, let you keep complaining how unjust the world is, how unjust God is?”

You are dumbstruck at how obnoxious these friends are, what lack of empathy they show.  They seem so self-satisfied – with their claims that they have figured out how the world works, that they have figured out how Job’s suffering is consistent with the rules of the universe.  But you look closer at the faces of the three friends, and you realize –they’re not really self-satisfied.  They’re terrified.  Their friend Job’s suffering is a horrifying reminder to them that all the calamities that happened to Job could just as easily happen to them.  Now you understand that their reaction is simple psychological self-protection.  It is so scary to live in a world where calamity can appear to strike at random – So they have to come up with some explanation about why it’s not really random – why suffering is supposed to happen to JOB but not to THEM.

You make a mental note about what you’re going to say or not say the next time you’re making a shiva call, or visiting a friend who is ill.  Whatever you do, you don’t want to be like Job’s friends.  But you realize it’s not so easy.  You realize that you, yourself, have been in the position of helping someone at a time of crisis - someone who has been full of anger, And you didn’t want to listen to what they were saying.  You didn’t want to absorb their anger.  You just wanted to calm them down, to cheer them up.  It is making more sense to you now why Jewish tradition says that in a shiva house, the mourner has the right of way.  The person who is suffering is the one who can decide what to say, where the conversation should go.  And the worst thing you can offer is a theological explanation.  You want to find words that will help them open up, not close them down.
Sometimes, when you feel that the world is broken, all you want is for your friends to share the world’s brokenness with you.  And you certainly don’t want your friends to tell you that the world’s actually not broken…..

….You look again at your surroundings, and again you notice the ruins, the toppled pillars, the signs of destruction, juxtaposed with the laughter, the celebration, the songs of joy to welcome Shabbat, the throngs of people of all ages.  You realize that, for many centuries, this place, the Kotel, has been the focal point for Jews to ponder the existence of suffering in the world, to ask the question “why” – and yet at the very same time, it has become a place to celebrate, to affirm all the blessings in the world.  And that this juxtaposition itself does not answer the “why” questions asked by Job, but it does transform the discussion.  You remember hearing of a rabbi [Rabbi David Wolpe] who remarked that when people approach him and say the words “Why me?”, invariably they mean "why has this bad thing happened to me?"   But that, for some reason, no one ever went into his office and said,  "I was born in a nation where I never went without food — why me?"  "I have a family that loves me — why me?" "My life has been blessed each day in thousands of ways — I just don't understand— why me?"

As the sun begins to set, you notice that Job and the three friends…seem to have faded away. You are left with the incongruous image, again, of joyous singing amid the ruins, the strewn stones, the broken ancient pavement, the beautiful buildings willfully destroyed. But now that incongruity is no longer as jarring.  You find that it comforts you, to see how your eye is wide enough to witness destruction and celebration in the same glance.

You couldn’t have told this to Job – at this moment, in the depth of his pain, he wouldn’t be able to hear it.  If you tried to communicate it to Job – you would be no better than Job’s so-called friends.  But you pray that he will be able to discover it on his own someday – that it won’t relieve him of his pain, but that over time perhaps it will temper that pain.

And you wonder:  perhaps that’s what it means to be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Seder Trivia - Round 2

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected stories of unusual Pesach customs, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)  See Round 1 here.
Here are the stories from two years ago.  Do you know which one is false?

Story #1: This is the story of how Israeli fishermen prompted a crisis in Israel's water supply.

You may know that the laws of avoiding Hametz (leavened products) on Passover are especially strict.  According to Jewish tradition, even the most minute quantity of Hametz can render something inappropriate to use on Passover.

And you may know that Israel's main water source is the Sea of Galilee (also known as Yam Kineret).  The water in the Sea of Galilee travels through Israel's National Water Carrier all the way to Jerusalem, more than 60 miles away.

Except... that about fifteen years ago, some religious Jews in Jerusalem became anxious.  They said, there are fishermen fishing in the Sea of Galilee, and maybe some of them are using bait that is Hametz.  If so, they said, this would render the entire Sea of Galilee hametz, and along with it, Israel's entire water system.  So, they said, TRULY observant Jews in Jerusalem should use only bottled water on Passover.

But because of the strength of Israel's religious political parties, they lobbied to the Jerusalem municipality to divert Jerusalem's water supply during the holiday of Passover.
And so, for the last 10 years, a few days before Passover each year, The Israeli Water Authority diverts the National Water Carrier so that Jerusalem gets its water from a different water source for that week only, and then they switch it back.

Story #2:

On April 3, 2009, the Hasidic Jewish residents of a brownstone in Boro Park, Brooklyn, were awakened by the knocks of agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration.  They came bearing warrants to search the home because of credible reports that illegal drugs were being grown there.
And sure enough, the brownstone was full, top to bottom, with small plants being grown hydroponically - exactly as one might expect in such an illegal greenhouse.
But when the DEA agents saw and smelled the plants, they were surprised -- because it was a different kind of plant than they had expected.
They had unexpectedly stumbled upon an urban greenhouse for the cultivation of ... wasabi.
How did this come to be?
Rabbi Shraga Ludkowitz and his family had realized what many of us have come to realize - that when you buy horseradish root from the store for your maror during the Pesach Seder
sometimes it packs a strong kick, but sometimes it's disappointingly weak and mild.
But Rabbi Ludkowitz knew that horseradish's Japanese cousin - wasabi -- has a consistently powerful taste and smell.
But the problem is, wasabi grows primarily in Japan, and is therefore very difficult to find with a kosher for Passover certification.
This explains why Rabbi Ludkowitz converted his home into a wasabi hydroponic greenhouse, with the goal of marketing the first kosher for Passover wasabi with a money-back guarantee if it doesn't bring tears to your eyes at the seder.
The perplexed DEA agents left the rabbi alone... but sadly, Rabbi Ludkowitz's business venture was ultimately unsuccessful -- as his crop turned out an excellent harvest of kosher for Passover Wasabi -- just in time for Yom Kippur. 

Story #3:
Many of us are familiar with the ritual of selling Hametz -- it's a way for Jews to rid themselves of Hametz during the Passover festival by selling it to someone who is not Jewish.
Many synagogues, including our own, administer such sales.
But in Israel, the Chief Rabbinate wants to make so sure that the sale is done correctly, that individual rabbis and individual synagogues are not allowed to arrange for the sale of Hametz of their members.  The sale of Hametz is especially complicated -- so it is only Israel's CHIEF RABBI who is entitled to conduct the sale, because only HE ALONE can be trusted to make sure that no detail goes wrong and possibly invalidates the sale.

And so each local community rabbi purchases all the Hametz from the members of his community,
and then sells it to the town chief rabbi, who sells it to the local region's chief rabbi, who sells it to the  regional chief rabbi, who sells it to the Chief Rabbi himself (actually one of Israel's two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazic and one Sefardic),  and then the Chief Rabbi sells ALL of Israel's Hametz... to someone who is not Jewish.  It's a breathtaking religious pyramid scheme.

From 1986 to 1996, all of Israel's Hametz was sold to an Arab businessman and lawyer named Ahmed Mugrabi.  Until in 1996 -- the Chief Rabbi realized that he had made a big big big big mistake.  Because - as it turns out - The Chief Rabbi had forgotten, for all those years, to verify one very important thing about Mr Mugrabi.

Yes, you guessed it:  Mr Mugrabi is actually Jewish.

Oops.... Better luck next time....

(ANSWER:  Stories #1 and #3 are true.  Story #2 is false.)