Monday, July 21, 2014

PSALM 144: Tehilim, from the battlefiled

This is a Special edition of Halakha of the Day. In these difficult days for Am Israel, we all need to pray for the victory of Medinat Israel in this cruel war, and for the safety of our young soldiers.   Our Chief rabbis are urging us to say Tefila and read Tehilim.
Today, I want to write about a very special Psalm, which I think is very appropriate for a time when our sons and brothers, the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, are risking their lives to protect Israel and create a better future for all of us.  
I dedicate this limmud to them. 
The commentators, particularly Radaq, explain that King David composed this Psalm when he was fighting with the Philistines. I think that David probably composed this Psalm while in the battlefield. In the midst of the combat.  Why? Because the words, the imagery, the prayers, the wishes expressed in this Mizmor are those of a soldier that feels the closeness of the enemy and the possibility of death.  The words of this Psalm do not describe the memories of a battle, but the battle itself: David's feelings, vulnerability, wishes and longings. King David is not a common man. Besides being a King and a soldier, he is also a poet. HaShem granted him the ability to put in words the turbulent flowing of thoughts and emotions traversing his heart and mind in those difficult moments.  
But the most important thing that David haMelekh teaches us in this Psalm, what every Jewish solider needs to remember, is that HaShem, our God"goes to battle with us". He is on our side, in the battlefield. Next to every young Israeli soldier. As  He was with David. It is this idea, the closeness of HaShem with those who fight to defend Am Israel, what give us strength and hope that Am Israel will emerge victorious from this and every war he will need to fight

לדוד ברוך ה' צורי, המלמד ידי לקרב אצבעותי למלחמה

PASUQ 1: [A Psalm] by King David. Bless is HaShem,my rock. He Who guides my hands in battle, my fingers in combat"
First, King David blesses God. In other words, he sees God's presence in the battlefield. True, we have to fight our wars and we cannot relay on miracles. But , as the Tora said,  in times of war  (Deut. 20:4) "HaShem your God will go with you to fight with you against your enemies, to give you victory." HaShem is with His people. Fighting with them against their enemies.  David sees Him and he says to HaShem
"You are my rock". 
The "rock" is essential in battle. The soldier stands behind a rock or a wall to protect himself from the eyes and the arrows of the enemies.  HaShem shields the Jewish soldier, like an invisible rock, and protects them against the enemies weapons. David also says to HaShem:
"You guide my hands..."
when I fight against my enemy in a face-to-face combat, with bare hands, You are there, moving my hands. And when I stretch the bow and hold it still
"You guide my fingers
to aim my arrows with precision.  When I attack the enemy or when I defend myself from the enemies, I know that You are with me.
PASUQ 2 : Now, David haMelekh, praises HaShem further,  acknowledging His  overwhelming presence in battle.

חסדי ומצודתי משגבי ומפלטי לי מגיני ובו חסיתי, הרודד עמי תחתי

"You are my loving ally. You are my fortress. You are my tower. You are my refuge when I escape [from the enemy]. You are my shield, in which I rely. You will [grant me victory] and make these [hostile] nations surrender".

PASUQ 3: The battle is intense, fierce and dangerous. David feels that the enemy is close. Armed, thirst of blood and unpredictable.  They might have seen him. David knows that although HaShem is present in the battlefield, he still might die.  The possibility of death does not represent for David a theological challenge for his conviction that God exists, or that He is present in the battlefield. For David the reality of God outweighs his own reality. And when he realizes that the end might be close he reflects on the value of human life from the perspective of God. And asks himslef 

ה' מה אדם ותדעהו בן אנוש ותחשבהו
"HaShem: what is a human creature to deserve your attention?
What is a son of man, to be considered by You?"
PASUQ 4: When his life is danger, David realizes his fragility and his inescapable mortality. He finds himself thinking that perhaps for HaShem humans are too small and insignificant. Why would you HaShem, Master of the Universe, Creator of billions of galaxies, care about us?
אדם להבל דמה ימיו כצל עובר
 "A human being is [ephemeral] as a breath; his life is like a passing shadow"
Our lives are so short. Unsubstantial, like a breath. Fugacious, as a shadow. Not even like a tree's shadow, which slowly grows and disappears thru the day. Rather, life seems now like a passing shadow of a flying bird, which can hardly be perceived. Feeling the end of his life, David or a Jewish soldier, does not question God. He questions himself, if he is worthy of God's attention. Mainly, if his ephemeral life was worthily for God.
PASUQ 5:  Now David prays. A very unusual prayer. A vision of a desperate soldier who sees no escape but a miracle. 
ה' הט שמיך ותרד גע בהרים ויעשנו
"Hashem, open the skies and come down, touch the mountains [where the enemies are hiding] so they will burn"
More than a prayer David expresses the wishful imagery of a soldier outnumbered by the enemy. Who believes that only "HaShem coming down from heaven" can save his life. 
PASUQ: David is vulnerable. And has more prayers/mirages of hope. He wishes that HaShem will fight for him. Using His celestial arrows against his enemies, to spare David's life.
  ברוק ברק, ותפיצם  שלח חיציך, ותהומם.
 "Crack a lightening and scatter them, send those celestial arrows and panic them".
 שלח ידיך, ממרום פצני והצילני, ממים רבים מיד בני נכר.
PASUQ 7: And if You don't destroy my enemies, David prays,  at least save me. Pick me up from the battlefield, with Your hand. Rescue me from my place and take me to safety.
"Send Your hand from heaven, pick me up and rescue me. Save me from this great danger (=mayim rabbim), from the hand of these foreign [enemies]"
PASUQ 8: Now David haMelekh expresses to HaShem why he deserves a miraculous victory, and the enemy a Celestial defeat.   The enemy speaks with arrogance against the Jews and against You, their God. And they also lie shamelessly. They, the Philistines, swore with their right hand that they will live in peace with us, and now the betrayed their word and attacked us.

אשר פיהם, דיבר-שוא  וימינם, ימין שקר.
 [Save me from the hands of those foreigners] "whose mouths speak with arrogance, and whose right hand is a right hand full of lies".
PASUQ 9: If You save me, HaShem (or "when" you will save me), I will not be silent. I will dedicate my life to You.  I will compose for you a new poem, to sing Your praises:

א-לוהים שיר חדש אשירה לך בנבל עשור אזמרה-לך.
"I will sing a new song to You, that i will sing with the ten strings harp"
PASUQ 10: In that song I will declare the truth: that it was not me who won the battle, but You. You are the One who decides the fortunes of war. The One Who grants victory to the Kings and defeat the enemy

 הנותן תשועה למלכים הפוצה את-דויד עבדו מחרב רעה.
"To the One who gives victory to kings, to the One who delivers his servant David, from the deadly sword"
PASUQ 11:  David prays to God again. "Spare my life..."

פצני והצילני מיד בני-נכר אשר פיהם, דיבר-שוא וימינם ימין שקר.
"Save me from the hand of those foreigners who speak falsehood in their mouths, and whose right hand is the right hand of lies".
PASUQ 12: Now comes a very special Pasuq. Still, in the midst of the battle, surrounded by the cruel and violent enemy, David brings to mind his sweetest memories. His thoughts are the daydreams of every Jewish soldier in the most challenging moments of combat, or in the long nights of watch: Home. My family.  My children. My peaceful neighborhood.

אשר בנינו, כנטיעים מגודלים בנעוריהם בנותינו כזווייות מחוטבות, תבנית היכל
מזווינו מלאים מפיקים מזן אל זן צאננו מאליפות מרובבות בחוצותינו
PASUQ 13: While facing killers and assassins in the battlefield, David remembers the refined young Jewish boys of his city. For whom battle is not their pride, but an unwanted necessity. These young boys are polite, refined and educated. Because their parents take good care of them from their early childhood. The Jewish parents raised these boys like "saplings", young trees that need to be planted upright and carefully trimmed. To grow upward, unbending and strong. David remembers the girls, the young Jewish maidens. They are humble but walk with class and dignity. They are royalty. Raised to be the pillars of a palace (=hekhal). This "palace" is "the Jewish home" in which God is crowned by the parents as the King.  Finally, David also remembers the material blessing that HaShem so generously has granted to them.
"Our young sons are like saplings, tended from their youth. Our daughters like straight pillars, able to sustain a palace. Our granaries are full, dispensing food of every  kind. Our flocks are in thousands, tens of thousands, in our fields".
PASUQ 14: Now, David haMelekh makes what is probably the strongest point in his request to God for victory and peace. A request which so much resonates in our present days. We, Israel, have been blessed by You. We now have, Barukh HaShem, enough food and animals. We have beautiful families. We pride ourselves, not of raising little warriors trained to kill, but in raising children who build "palaces" for You, families who live exemplary lives. We despise fights, quarrels, and conflicts. Our neighborhoods are the epitome of peace. There is no robbery, no violence. There is loyalty, trust and respect. In our cities people do not yield or scream at each other.  WE LIVE with PROSPERITY and PEACE.

אלופינו מסובלים אין פרץ ואין יוצאת ואין צווחה ברחובותינו.

"Our oxen are loaded [with food], there is no breaching of walls [=robbery], no going out [= unfaithfulness], no cry of distress in our streets."


PASUQ 15 : We are satisfied with what we have,  
But we are especially HAPPY with what we are.
We are the happiest people on earth, because we are the people of HaShem

אשרי העם שככה לו אשרי העם שה' אל-היו

"Joyful are those who live like this! Happy are those whose God is HaShem".

We just want to live in peace. Fulfilling our highest aspiration, The people of Israel, in the land of Israel, with HaShem, our God, the God of Israel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


As we have explained (see this), on the 17th of Tamuz of the year 68 of the CE, after many months of siege, the walls of the city of Yerushalayim were destroyed by the Roman legions.  
Once inside, the invading army pillaged the Holy City and thousands of Jews were killed, tortured or taken as slaves.   The Bet haMiqdash was destroyed and burned three weeks after the Romans enter the city, on the 9th of Ab. Six hundred years earlier, in 586 BCE, the first Bet haMiqdash was destroyed also on the 9th of Ab.

As we approach the 9th of Ab, considered the National day of Mourning of the Jewish People, we observe certain restrictions associated with mourning.

These restrictions become stricter as we get closer to the 9th of Ab.

These customs differ significantly from community to community. 

We present here a few illustrations:

WEDDINGS: The Rabbis of the Talmud, Maimonides, Mara"n etc. did not mention any restrictions for celebrating weddings before the beginning of the month of Ab.  For Sephardim, therefore, it is technically not forbidden to have a wedding ceremony between the 17 of Tamuz and the beginning of the month of Ab. The Ashkenazi custom, however, is to avoid wedding ceremonies from the 17th of Tamuz.   In our days,  maintaining a level of uniformity in this sensitive matter, Sephardic Jews also abstain from celebrating weddings during the three weeks.

SHEHEHEYANU: The Shulhan Arukh mentions that it is good to avoid eating a fruit of a new season, which will require the recitation of the blessing Sheheheyanu, during the three weeks. The custom for Sephardim (Rab Obadaia Yosef) and Ashkenazim (Penine Halakha) is to reserve this recitation of Sheheheyanu for Shabbat.

HAIRCUT: The custom for most Sephardim is to permit getting a haircut or shave until the week of Tish'a beAb. The Ashkenazi tradition (Ram"a 551:4) and the custom of some Moroccan and Algerian Jews as well, is different: haircut or shaving is forbidden from the 17 of Tamuz until after Tish'a beAb. (Haircut restrictions do not apply to women).

לע"נ דרור חנין ז"ל, הי"ד

What can you do for Israel?
Some ideas

Pray, do, give. See
Send packages to Israeli soldiers:  

Monday, July 14, 2014

What happened on the 17th of Tamuz?

This coming Tuesday, July 15th, we will commemorate the 17th of Tamuz, a fast-day.

Five tragedies happened to the Jewish people on this day.

1. The 17th of Tamuz occurs forty days after Shabu'ot. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai on Shabu'ot and remained there for forty days. The people of Israel made the golden calf on the afternoon of the 16th of Tamuz, when they thought that Moshe was not coming down. When Moshe descended from Mount Sinai and saw the Jews worshiping the golden calf, he smashed the tablets which carried the Ten Commandments.

2. Menashe --a Jewish King, the worst sovereign of the Kingdom of Yehuda-- placed on that day an idol in the Holy Sanctuary of the Temple of Jerusalem, around the year 700 BCE.

3. In the time of the First Temple, in 587 BCE, the Kohanim (priests) were forced to discontinue the offering of the daily sacrifice. This sacrifice (qorban hatamid) had been offered by the Jews since the time of the exodus of Egypt.  On the 17th of Tamuz of that year this sacrifice could not be offered anymore due to the shortage of animals caused by the siege of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army.

4. Around the year 50 of the Common Era, Apostomus, a Roman captain, seized a Tora scroll and with abusive and mocking language burned the Tora in public. (According to Maimonides it was Apostomus, not Menashe, who besides burning the Tora placed an idol in the Holy Temple as well).

5. In the year 68 CE the walls of Jerusalem were breached after many months of siege by the Roman army. Three weeks after the breach of the wall, the Bet haMiqdash was destroyed on the 9th of Ab.

Because of these five tragedies we fast on the 17th of Tamuz. We also recite special prayers (tahanunim) which inspire us to mourn and repent for our transgressions and the transgressions of our ancestors.

The fast begins at dawn and ends with the appearance of the three stars.