Friday, February 21, 2014

'amida (Berakha 12) Religious and Political Betrayal

למינים ולמלשינים אל תהי תקווה

The 'amida was composed around the Fifth Century BCE. Originally, the 'amida was known as the shemona 'esre (=eighteen) prayer, because it consisted of eighteen blessings. Around the year 100 ACE, with the advancement of Christianity, Shemuel haQatan composed a new berakha which was introduced to the 'amida by Rabban Gamliel and its Court.  This berakha is known as birkat haminim, the prayer in which we request God's assistance to deal with those who wish to destroy Am Israel physically or spiritually.  Particularly, the traitors among the Jewish people. But who qualifies for this shameful categorization? Is this berakha referring to a Jew who abandons Jewish observance? Absolutely not! Judaism is very understanding of Jews who, for different reasons fail to keeping the Mitsvot (tinoq shenishba ben hagoyim). Actually, we are encouraged to inspire all our brothers and sisters, and bring them closer to HaShem. We are commanded to love them and embrace them, not, God forbid, to ask for their destruction. 

This Berakha is meant for two very specific types of "betrayal". 

1. Religious Treason (minim) which alludes to those Jews who abandon Judaism and now dedicate their efforts to proselyte and actively try to convert other Jews to their new beliefs (i.e., Jews for Jesus, etc.). 

2. National Treason (malshinim) which refers to those Jews who join the political enemies of Israel. Think about Medinat Israel today, the nations who, like Amaleq, seek the destruction of Israel. Unfortunately, there are Jews who actively join these nations, movements or political parties, and align themselves with those seeking to wipe Israel off the map. A Jewish individual who does this, places himself or herself at a point beyond redemption. That is why we do not pray for their return.  Because the damage they have done to Israel is beyond repair.  We ask for God's help to deal with them, because there is little we can do to defend ourselves against "our own brothers".  

Shabbat Shalom!

Candle lighting in NYC       5:20 pm
Shabbat ends in NYC           6:19 pm

Thursday, February 20, 2014

'amida (Berakha 11) All you need is love

Previously, we explained the blessing  teqa' beshofar gadol "Make sound the Shofar... that will announce our redemption... and bring us back to the Land of Israel". 

In this blessing hashiba shofetenu we ask God to provide us with the right political leaders kebarishona "like those we had in the past".  

Our first and greatest leader was Moshe Rabbenu.   

What was so special about Moshe? 

1. When the people of Israel worshipped the golden calf, Moshe Rabbenu (see last week's Parasha) rejected God's offer to get rid of the "stubborn Jews" and make him a leader of a new Nation.  Moshe Rabbenu begged God to forgive the people of Israel. And he told God, "If not, please erase me too from Your Book". For Moshe the whole concept of leadership would not make any sense if it would hurt the people of Israel. A good Jewish leader is the one that loves Am Israel more than he loves himself.  

2. Why Moshe broke the tablets, when he saw the people dancing around the golden calf? According to one opinion, Moshe broke the tablets in an effort to defend the people of Israel. How so? The tablets,("YOU SHALL NOT HAVE OTHER GODS") were the most clear evidence against the people's sin. Moshe choose to cover-up for them, breaking the incriminating document. In a sense, Moshe was willing to bring upon himself a more serious sin (breaking GOD'S tablets!) just to downplay as much as possible the sin of Israel. 

3. Moshe's love for Am Israel made him the best advocate we Jews ever had. God said: "Let me get-rid of this stubborn people". "Stubborn", because I took them out of Egypt, I opened for them the sea, I gave them the Manna, I gave them the Tora, I revealed Myself to them, and now, they abandon Me and worship a calf?!".  Moshe said: You're right, the Jews are stubborn. But once they get it, once they will have You as their God, because of their stubbornness, they will NEVER abandon You. They will be forced to convert, but they will resist. They will embrace You and Your covenant, no matter what. They will be willing to suffer humiliation, persecution, torture and death, and still be loyal to You. They will even go to their deaths saying 'Ani Ma-amin'. This is going to be Your 'stubborn people'."  
ahabat Israel, love for the People of Israel, is the prerequisite for the right Jewish Leader. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rabbi Yosef Hayon (15th Century, Portugal)

Not many details are known about the biographical data of rabbi Yosef Hayon (or Hayun). We know that he was born and died in Lisbon, Portugal. And that his main rabbinical activity must have been between 1440 and 1480.  We also know that he was considered "The last Rabbi of Lisbon", before the forced conversion of the Portuguese Jews in 1496.  Rabbi Hayon was one of the four students of rabbi Isaac Canpanton (1360-1463), the Gaon of Castile (Spain) and author of darkhe haTalmud, a book that instructs teachers and rabbis how to teach the Talmud.  

We also know that Rabbi Hayon lead a selected group of students to whom he taught  the More Nebukhim, Maimonides' Guide of Perplexed, a book that requires, beyond mastery of Biblical and rabbinical literature,  a vast knowledge of philosophy, language and science.   Among his students in that circle was the celebrate Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) 

Rabbi Hayon wrote commentaries on most Biblical books. But most of those books are not extant today.  What we do have in its entirety is his commentary on Pirqe Abot, written in 1470 . 

Some of the personal characteristic of Rabbi Hayon might be learned from his commentaries about the ideal Tora Scholar. 

Rabbi Hayon says (p. 163, Venezia Edition): "If a Tora scholar wants to have many students, he has to be a role model. If the teacher's personal actions do not reflect his wisdom and his moral teachings, he will not have students". 

When a Tora scholar teaches or speaks (p. 104), "he has to use few words with rich meaning, and not many words with little meaning... long discourses are not easy to digest for the students" 

A rabbi (p.281) "cannot loss his temper, not just with his students but with every person, because anger and wisdom exclude each other (כי הכעס מעלים חכמה).    On the contrary , the rabbi has to be friendly with all those who come to learn from him. This attitude is what will allow students to getting closer to the rabbi".

Rabbi Hayon explains (p.174) that there is a balance to be kept in the relationship between a rabbi and his students. The rabbi, being an authority, has to behave with humbleness toward his students. But the students should not behave toward the rabbi according to the rabbi's humbleness; the students must act toward the rabbi with the respect owed to a high authority.  

Rabbi Yosef's great humbleness is reflected in one of his commentaries (p.187) where he says that a student should not learn just from one rabbi (תלמיד חכמים), "because even a great rabbi could be mistaken in some of his opinions, and other rabbis with less knowledge might have great ideas".  Let's remember that this encouragement is coming from the Senior Rabbi of Portugal. 

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

amida (berakha 10), Jewish Religion or Jewish people?

The 'amida is divided in three sections. The first section, which includes three blessings, consists in praising God. The third section, also three blessings, is about thanking God. And the middle part, thirteen blessings, deals with our requests to God. This last section is subdivided into two major subjects: 1. Personal requests  (we ask God to grant us: intelligence, protection, good health, livelihood, etc.) and 2. National requests (Coming back to Israel, have our Political leaders back, restore our capital Jerusalem, etc.) . 

Our berakha, "Bring us back to the land of Israel" inaugurates the section dealing with our National aspirations. Indeed, the first thing we ask God as a nation is to gather all of us from the four corners of the earth and to bring us back to our homeland, Israel. 

Incidentally, this berakha clarifies a very relevant point, shedding light on the present debate about Israel's claim to be recognized as a "Jewish State". 

Israel's foes, Palestinians and the Arab League of Nations, etc., justify their rejection of a Jewish State saying that a religion-based country (a Jewish State) is a racist and apartheid state (See for example this).  They'd say that Israel's claim is as if, for example, Japan would declare itself a Buddhist State, and grant citizenship only to people who practice Buddhism, or so.  (Needless to mention that the same logic is not applied against the establishment of the "Islamic republic of Iran" or "Saudi-Arabia", an Islamic theocratic monarchy, which officially prohibits public non-Muslim religious activities).

An important lesson we learn from our berakha, and from the next five "national" requests, is that "religion" is not the only way to describe Judaism.  Judaism--or Jewishness--concerns primarily the legal status of every member of the Jewish NATION. Being Jewish is a virtual "citizenship", maternally inherited, which does not expire even when a Jew lives in exile for centuries.  You cannot conceive Judaism as you conceive any regular religion: a system of faith, without national elements. Religious groups do not have a land of reference. Christians are not "a nation".  If you are a Christian you do not pray to go back to Rome or reestablish the Christian government in the Vatican. You do not have National aspirations. On the contrary, State and Church are deliberately disconnected. The same can be said about Islam (Farrakhan's "Nation of Islam" is the name of his religious movement, not the way Islam views itself, as it can be clearly seen from the name League of Arab "Nations"). 

Judaism, as we learn from this berakha, would not make sense without the Land of Israel, or the aspiration to come back to it. Israel, the Jewish State, is the original Homeland of the Jewish People.   In this sense, "Israel, a Jewish State" is as if Japan would simply declare that "Japan is the Homeland of all Japanese people".

Jews who live outside Israel, are proud, law-abiding and grateful citizens of the countries where we live, but we are still part of the Jewish Nation (Nation=shared history, shared language, shared Law, shared Land). And as we express it in this Berakha, our hope is that one day we will be gathered from the four corners of this planet, and reunited again in our original homeland. Fulfilling thus the ultimate vision of the Jewish Prophets:  The people of Israel, living in the Land of Israel, under the Law of Israel.