Saturday, October 28, 2006

Shabbat In LA

Shabbat was wonderful; friendly people and great weather.

On Friday night I spoke at an Oneg Shabbat, which was held in a private home; wonderful, attentive people and very friendly hosts.

Shabbat morning, I was the guest of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, a small and friendly community which is in temporary premises while they rebuild. The only excitement was that they forgot to bring the Sefer Torah to the temporary location, so we had to wait while they borrowed one from another Shul (thank goodness for the eruv). The result was two sermons!

My final speaking engagement of the tour was at Se'udah Sh'lishit, where I spoke at Young Israel of Century City, which is where I have been davening each day since I arrived in LA. The very large crowd heard me launch the book and speak about the rainbow and diversity.

The week over, I am booked on the midnight flight back home.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Friday - Last School

After a day off, which I spent at the Getty Center and the Skirball Cultural Center, I returned today to 'work', with my final school lecture at Shalhevet High School in LA. Interesting place, with attentive kids and an unusual outlook.

Tonight, I will be the guest speaker at an Oneg Shabbat in a private home.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wednesday - Two Large Schools in LA

Today I spoke at two large schools in the main Jewish area of LA, accompanied by Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, director of the Orthodox Union West Coast Region, which has sponsored my visit to the USA. Both of these schools have adopted the 60 days project.

First, I visited the girls division of Yeshiva University High School, where I spoke to 95 11th and 12th graders. I then moved to Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, where I launched the book to a co-ed audience of 8th graders, who were quite a rambunctious lot.

Tomorrow is a day off.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tuesday Evening In Calabasas

This evening I spoke for two communities in Calabasas, a suburb of LA about 30 mins from where I am staying near Beverly Hills. First was Young Israel of Calabasas, where I launched the book at their attractive small Shul. I then went on to the Calabasas Shul, where I repeated the performance at the home of one of the members of the community. 25-30 at each event, responsive and engaged audiences, and they even laughed at my jokes!

For those who are interested, I discovered that the kosher supermarket close to my hotel sells outstanding sushi at $5 a box.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Monday - San Diego And Irvine

San Diego has small high schools for Jewish children; this morning I had the pleasure of visiting first the Torah High School of San Diego for girls and then the Southern California Yeshivah High School for boys. Despite their very long names, they each have only around 30 kids, who were enthusiastic, polite and attentive.

I was then driven to Irvine, a smaller community 90 minutes north of San Diego, where I spent the afternoon (shopping).

In the evening, I was the guest of Beth Jacob of Irvine, where I launched the book project. The evening was quite well attended and the people were friendly and attentive. The rabbi had even used one of my books for a learning project and asked me to autograph it!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Sunday - Arrival And First Lecture

I am lecturing in Southern California on behalf of Tribe (Young United Synagogue) to coincide with the launch of the Holocaust memorial learning project '60 days for 60 years,' renamed for the US market as '60 days for 6 million.'

I shall try to give readers a taste of what I have been doing and where I have been. This is my first trip to the West Coast of the USA.

I arrived in San Diego to discover that the weather is hot and sunny. Spoke at Beth Jacob of San Diego to launch the book. Very friendly rabbi and community; several survivors in the audience. About 50 people came; a relatively quiet start.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Let Us Make Man (BeReishit 5767)

In a Sedrah that covers far more time than the whole of the rest of the Torah, it is not hard to find something of interest to share for this Shabbat. When creating Man, God said:

Let us make man in our form and like our image and he will rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals, all the earth and all the creatures which creep upon the earth. And God created the man in his image - in the image of God He created him; male and female He made them. (BeReishit 1:26-27)

Of course, God doesn’t have a ‘form’ in the way that human beings do; one of the Rambam’s axioms of Judaism is that God is utterly devoid of any properties of physicality. It clearly means that Man is capable of emulating God in some aspects of his experience. We are capable of ‘imitation dei’ – being like God.

The plural usage in the phrase ‘let us make man in our form and like our image’; has perplexed thinkers in all eras. Dualists have even used it as a ‘proof’ for their view of the world – after all, doesn’t this verse indicate that there is more than one Divine force? The Midrashic literature is well aware of the dangers inherent in the text.

Rebbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rebbi Yonatan, ‘when Moshe wrote down the Torah, he wrote the occurrences of each day (of Genesis). When he reached the verse which says: God said let us make man, he said before Him: Master of the world, why are You giving an opportunity for the heretics to speak? I am astonished. He replied to him: write and let one who wants to err, err....’ (BeReishit Rabbah 8:8)

What idea was so important that conveying it justified risking perversion of the Torah’s text? There are, predictably, numerous answers to this question. With whom did God consult? Here are some, but there are many others. First, a view from Chazal:

And God said let us make man. With whom did He consult? Rebbi Yehoshua said in the name of Rebbi Levi: He consulted with the work of heaven and earth.... (BeReishit Rabbah 8:3)

In this view, all of creation is harnessed to the creation of Man. When God ‘consults’, he is indicating that Man is the pinnacle and purpose of His creation. Here are two quite different views from classic commentators:

The correct explanation for the word ‘let us make’ is for it has already been proven that God only created ex nihilo on the first day, but after that, He formed and made from the elements which were already created. When he put into the water the ability to make it swarm with living creeping things, this was the statement, ‘let the waters swarm. The statement for the animals is, ‘let the earth bring forth.’ It says about man, ‘let us make,’ that is to say that I and the aforementioned earth shall make man, that the earth should bring forth the body from its elements, just as it did with the animals and beasts, as it says, ‘God formed man , dust from the earth.’ But God put in the spirit directly from on high, as it says, ‘and the breathed into his nostrils the living soul.’ (Ramban ad loc)

The Ramban adapts the above Midrash to demonstrate the uniqueness of Man’s creation.

Since the attributes of God’s mercy are thirteen and the name of God, ‘Elokim’, which is strict justice, agreed together to create man and they together said, ‘in our form and like our image’, perhaps what is intended is that he has in him both aspects of mercy and strict justice to result in ways of justice and ways of strict justice, as was intended. This is the deep meaning behind the verse, ‘and Lord God formed...’ (Ohr HaChayim ad loc)

The more esoteric picture offered here sees Man invested with a complex mixture of Divine forces.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Quotation From William James (Shemini Atzeret 5767)

On Shemini Atzeret I spoke about the notion of community. Some of you may be interested in the quotation I used from William James to illustrate my point:

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Choosing A Lulav And Etrog (Sukkot 5767)

At Sukkot-time, one often sees an image of a bearded man examining an etrog with a jeweller’s loupe; those who have seen the popular Israeli film ‘Ushpizin’ will recall that selecting a beautiful etrog is a serious business.

The observance of Sukkot involves the use of four species: lulav - palm branch, etrog - citron, three myrtle sticks and two willow twigs; they are waved in devotion during the Hallel psalms. The Torah stipulates (VaYikra 23:40) that the etrog must be ‘beautiful’, but the rabbis understand beauty to be a prerequisite for all four species. Here, however, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for the criteria of ‘beauty’ are very carefully specified in what has become a vast body of halachic literature.

So how does one select a beautiful set? Here is a very brief guide:

The lulav should be fresh and green, especially at its end. The leaves grow in pairs, all of which should be intact and together, particularly at the top. The leaves above the ‘spine’ of the lulav should be completely whole. Special attention must be paid to the central leaves.

The etrog must be undamaged, with its top (pitom) and bottom (uketz) protrusions intact. It should be as free of marks as possible, especially on the part that tapers; any black marks are particularly problematic. The etrog should be yellow, bumpy (not smooth like a lemon), with a wide lower portion narrowing symmetrically towards its pitom. Some varieties grow without a pitom; these are great for clumsy people!

The myrtles should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaves intact. Myrtle leaves appear in threes from its stalk (meshulash – tripled); each group of three leaves should emerge at the same level from the stalk, ideally along its entire length, but at least for the majority of it. The leaves should be upright and interlocking, covering the branch.

The willows too should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaf intact and the leaves in good condition. One should select a variety with long, smooth-edged leaves and red stems.

Daunted by all this? Fortunately, pre-checked items are available for the uninitiated, although one of the great pleasures of the season is selecting them oneself. As for the loupe, it isn’t necessary, as the naked eye at a normal distance will do; it is only used for resolving uncertainty.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Losing Oneself On Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur 5767)

One of the great themes of Yom Kippur is, at least for 25 intense hours, losing one’s own identity and merging it with that of the community and the entire Jewish people. We have mentioned in previous years that the role of community is crucial in the atonement process of Yom Kippur, which is why we begin Kol Nidre with an invitation to every member of the Jewish people to pray together; the incense compound included pleasant and unpleasant smelling spices, symbolising the entire people, righteous and not-so-righteous.

There is, however, another way in which one should try to ‘lose oneself’ on Yom Kippur. The Torah instructs that when the Kohen Gadol (high priest) enters the Holy of Holies:

No man shall be in the Meeting Tent when he comes to atone in the holy place, until he exits. He shall atone for himself, for his household and for the whole community of Israel. (VaYikra 16:17)

Of course, the literal meaning of the verses is that apart from the Kohen Gadol, no other person may be present during the atonement ritual in the Holy of Holies. However, the Midrash (end of Acharey Mot) questions this reading and offers a most perplexing suggestion – that no one at all, including the Kohen Gadol, should be present at this holy moment. This suggests that the Kohen, at least for a short while, transcends the physical world, and is, in some sense, not actually there; indeed the Midrash likens him at this time to an angel. The Kohen ‘merges’ with the Divine at the time when he approaches God to atone for the people; perhaps this symbolises the fact that in order to properly represent the nation, he, on their behalf, must completely submit himself to the will of God in order to achieve absolution.

This notion has other manifestations:

Said Rebbi Levi: we have a tradition about this matter from our ancestors – the ark is not included in the measurement. (Megillah 10b)

[Israel] is referred to as: the land of the deer. Just as the [flayed deer] skin [seems to be too small] for its flesh, so too the Land of Israel, when there are people living in it, it is expansive, but when there are no people living in it, it contracts. (Gittin 57a)

Ten miracles occurred for our ancestors in the Temple…. they stood squashed, but prostrated with space. (Avot 5:5)

The Ark of the Covenant was too large for the space designed for it, so it was somehow disregarded in the measurement; Israel seems far more spacious than it actually is and those who bowed in the Temple seemed to find enough space despite the crush on Yom Tov. These sources indicate that Israel, the locus of spirituality the opportunity to ‘lose’ oneself, and ‘occupy no space’ is greater than elsewhere. In Jerusalem, it is greater still, with the quintessential expression of the concept on Yom Kippur, with the Kohen in the Holy of Holies. The mystical writers refer to this phenomenon as the confluence of ‘time’, ‘space’ and ‘spirituality’, in this case Yom Kippur, the Temple and the soul of the Kohen Gadol respectively. We have this opportunity every year on Yom Kippur – to completely lose ourselves, albeit for just one day, in the Divine will. When we emerge at the end of the day, we will be changed forever.