Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Week In Jerusalem

My wife and I have just spent a magnificent week in Jerusalem. It was, as always, spiritually uplifting to visit the Old City, daven at the Kotel, absorb the incredible atmosphere of the eternal locus of Jewish physical and spiritual life, all the while sampling a degree of religious intensity that one can easily forget exists.

This time, we were also inspired by the growth of the new city: it was tremendous to see the huge number of building projects, the expansion of residential areas, the streets filled with young people. We were overwhelmed with a sense that without any question, the Jewish future lies in Israel, not elsewhere.

And, we have decided that Israel is the best place in the world for kosher restaurants. While we assiduously avoided mehadrin buses, we had the pleasure of dining at some really great mehadrin restaurants. They offer superb cuisine from across the globe at reasonable prices and despite what everyone says about Israelis, excellent service. (See below for a list.)

With all this to recommend, my wife and I asked ourselves several times during our trip: why exactly do we still live in the UK?

Gong – 33 Rehov Yaffa (Japanese)
Keyara – 8 Rehov Ramban (Bistro)
Yoja – 25 Rehov Emek Refaim (Pan-Asian)
Café Rimon – 4 Rehov Luntz, off Ben Yehudah (Grill or milky café)
Darna – 3 Rehov Horkanus (Moroccan)
Angelo – 9 Rehov Horkanus (Italian)

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Thursday, October 18, 2007

More About The Graves In Sochaczew


Many of you have expressed considerable interest about my interest in Sochaczew (see previous blog here) and my recent visit to the cemetery there. This week, I discovered a fascinating footnote in a sefer called ‘Mareh HaDeshe’, which talks about the rediscovery of the gravesite a number of years ago. Mareh HaDeshe is a biographical work about the two Rebbes of Sochaczew, written by the son of the Shem MiShmuel, who only died in 2000. The book is little known and hard to find (I would never have discovered it had I not overheard someone talking about it on a bus in Israel a couple of years ago. Even then, I couldn’t get it in Israel or in Europe; eventually, a friend found a copy in a sefarim warehouse in New Jersey). It’s a shame that I didn’t discover the footnote before I travelled to Sochaczew, but it’s in the section of the book dealing with the Avney Nezer, which I haven’t yet read. Here is the text in translation (mine):

From Mareh HaDeshe; Rabbi Aharon Yisroel Bornstein, Jerusalem, 5764, privately published

In reference to the burial of the Avney Nezer (Rabbi Avraham Bornstein) in 1910, Rabbi Aharon Yisroel Bornstein writes (Mareh HaDeshe pg 201):

(Main text) They selected an empty area as a burial place opposite the gate (of the cemetery in Sochaczew). This place was chosen deliberately, in order to leave an empty space of four cubits on all sides, so that it would be immediately evident on entering the cemetery.

(Footnote 17) In the records of the Hevra Kaddisha, they wrote that no-one should be buried within four cubits of his grave. They built an ohel (small shrine) around it. Until the ohel was constructed, watches of Hassidim sat there on guard all the time.

Thanks to the unusually distinct place, after many years, they were successful in revealing the gravesite, following the Second World War, when the enemy had destroyed the Jewish cemetery and demolished the ohel, leaving no sign or memorial; they even poured earth over it and levelled the land.

During the Second World War, the Nazis and their assistants (may their names be erased) destroyed the Jewish cemetery and demolished the ohel, leaving behind no trace. They even set up tents and clubs for the troops in the area. In order to do this, they levelled the land and poured earth and building rubble on to it. And what the Nazis (may their names be erased) failed to do, local evil people completed: they cleared the area completely, and turned part of it into a football field for the pupils of a school built nearby; they even used it as a pasture ground for animals. Furthermore, they demolished the wall that surrounded the cemetery.

In later years, after Israel’s association with the Polish state thawed from frozen, Jews returned to visit Poland, as well as the remnants that were left from the Jews there. They saw the ruins and the awful destruction, and the idea arose to return and to re-establish and fence in the cemetery.

Planned by many Sochaczew Hassidim in Eretz Yisroel and in America, headed by a man of dear spirit, one of the well-wishers, our friend, the rabbi and hasid Rabbi Yehudah Vidavsky, and on behalf of the council of immigrants from Sochaczew to Eretz Yisroel, they pursued protracted negotiations with the local authorities to return the area of the cemetery to Jewish control. They removed the structures that the bad neighbours had erected around it and which encroached on its space. Through the generosity of well-wishers, in place of the old wall the area of the cemetery was surrounded with an iron fence and they locked the gate. However, they could not locate the place where the ohel had stood. They had the collected testimony of elderly gentiles, but each of them pointed to a different place. Even the aerial photographs taken by the Allies during the war were unsuccessful in revealing the place, because the tents that had been erected in the area concealed everything.

But Rabbi Yehudah Vidavsky did not give up nor rest, and with the help of men who remembered the place (among them the author of these lines), identified a place as a possible location, and began exploratory excavations – perhaps we would be successful in uncovering some remnants. We had before us two indictors as to the correct positioning: 1) the graves of our rabbis would be found in a place where the surrounding area is devoid of other graves, because they agreed and decided at the time (of the death of the Avney Nezer) not to bury another body within four cubits of him. 2) There would be two graves next to each other, as the Shem MiShmuel was buried later within the ohel adjacent to the grave of his father. Strengthened by the tireless Rabbi Yehudah, who was conducting the excavations almost with his bare hands, they were successful, with the help of God, to uncover planks that had been placed in the grave. They began to dig with great alacrity along the length of a plank and uncovered the whole area of the grave. When they continued leftwards, the place where the Shem MiShmuel’s grave should be found, they uncovered the whole area of the adjacent grave. In accordance with the two aforementioned indicators, they fixed the place of the ohel exactly.

One who starts a Mitzvah also merits completing it: with his active assistance and with the partnership of well-wishers in Eretz Yisroel and in the Diaspora, we built a new ohel, corresponding to the ohel that had been demolished. We fixed it as a place of prayer, seclusion and prostration upon the graves of the righteous, our rabbis from the House of Sochaczew, may their merit stand for us. May the merit of those who acted and those who helped them stand for all eternity.

The War Of The Kings (Lech Lecha 5768)

Avraham became involved in a war between the powers of his time because of the capture of his nephew Lot. We learn:

They took Lot, the son of Avraham’s brother, and his property and they went. He was living in Sedom. (BeReishit 14:12)

Avraham felt a need to attempt to rescue his hapless nephew, putting himself at enormous risk to do so. The Maharal has no doubts as to the warriors’ true intentions - ‘for these four kings who took Lot, their objective was really Avraham.’ The capture of Lot was a bait to attract their true enemy – Avraham. Why were the four rulers interested in an elderly nomadic monotheist, who kept himself to himself? The Maharal suggests taht this was the first religious war in history, a concerted attempt to wipe the One God and Avraham, His chosen ambassador, from the face of the earth. The new spiritual order and focus that Avraham had introduced caused a major threat to the establishment of the time – one founded on pagan principles, selfish pursuits and little grasp of the sanctity of human life. Avraham sought to subvert all this through monotheism, moral responsibility and the rights and duties of Man. He posed no physical threat to the rulers of his world, yet he challenged the very basis of their values in the most profound way.

This was the true motive for the war – to eliminate Avraham and his new ideas before he became too successful. This is the deeper reason that there were four kings aligned against Avraham, as the number four represents the pull of the physical forces in all directions away from the centre. If we picture Avraham as the one man of God, the ambassador of the One God, then we can envisage the destructive, anti-spiritual forces attempting to undermine his achievements by attacking him on all sides. That the one (Avraham) faced the four kings indicates that the ravages of negativity and un-holiness threatened true spirituality.

Apart the self-sacrifice that Avraham exhibited by saving his nephew, the aftermath of the war has much to teach:

The king of Sedom said to Avram, ‘give me the people and take the wealth for yourself.’ Avraham said to the king of Sedom, ‘I have lifted my hand towards the Lord, the supernal God, ruler of heaven and earth. From a thread to a shoe-strap, nor shall I take from anything that is yours; you shall not say, ‘I have made Avram rich. (BeReishit 14:22-23)

Avraham decided not to take the spoils of war – after all, his motivation for involvement was not personal aggrandisement, but saving his nephew. However, Chazal find a much deeper meaning in these verses. Ravo notes that in the merit of Avraham’s reference to a thread and a shoe-strap, his descendents merited two Mitzvot – the thread of t’chelet / sky-blue that adorns the tzitzit and the strap of tefillin. (See Sotah 17a) The Midrash, which finds references to further Mitzvot in Avraham’s declaration. The thread is seen to refer to tzitzit, the Mishkan, which was decorated with threads of sky-blue and purple, or even the offerings that were brought on an altar whose upper and lower parts were divided with a red thread. Apparently, the shoe-strap makes an oblique reference to the strap of the shoe used in the chalitzah ceremony, the tachash skins that formed a protective covering over the Mishkan or the footsteps of the pilgrims attending the Temple on the shalosh regalim.

The Maharal (Sotah ad. loc.) comes to our aid again. It is axiomatic to Jewish thought that since God is perfect and infinite, we can give Him nothing; rather He gives to us in a unilateral fashion, while He takes nothing from this world. Further, emulating the Divine characteristics is considered to be one of the greatest possible achievements of Man. As the Rabbis put it – just as He clothes the naked, visits the sick and comforts the bereaved, so should we. (Sotah 14a) Imitatio dei, the imperative to become Godlike, underlies much of Jewish life. It follows then that Avraham’s refusal to take something rightfully his was demonstrative of his capacity to realise a Godly life within the physical world. According to the strict law, the spoils of war were his for the taking – they were considered ownerless and therefore available to him. It is even possible that he could have used his material gain for holy purposes, yet he chose to abstain. The law of tzitzit is, in the words of the Maharal, ‘complete connection to God through a Mitzvah.’ The tzitzit represent the notion that through a simple physical object it is possible to connect to God in the most profound way. Both tzitzit and tefillin are made from the simplest materials: wool and leather and, as such, are the reward for Avraham’s refusal to benefit from even the most basic items of the spoil – threads and shoe-straps. They show us the refinement of true Jewish spirituality, in which even the most mundane article hints to a wealth of subtle thoughts and ideas.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Visit To Sochaczew

Last week, I fulfilled a long-held desire – to visit the ruins of the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew, a town some 40 miles west of Warsaw. With a Jewish population of over 3000 prior to its destruction by the Nazis during the Holocaust, Sochaczew was known as a centre of Hassidic thought in the 19th and early 20th centuries (as well as being very close to the birth-place of the composer Frederic Chopin).

The Rebbes of Sochaczew were world-renowned thinkers: the first was the son-in-law of the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Bornstein (d. 1910), known as the ‘Avney Nezer’ after his monumental collection of halachic responsa; he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Shmuel (d. 1926), known as the ‘Shem MiShmuel’ after his nine-volume collection of discourses on the Torah and festivals. Representing a rare blend of intellectual, psychological, esoteric and inspirational material, the Shem MiShmuel rigorously analyses Midrashic sources, which are used to offer a creative approach to understanding Biblical narratives.

Around fifteen years ago, I was introduced to the writings of the Shem MiShmuel by a friend in Gateshead, and I have been a devotee ever since: his ideas have heavily influenced my own thoughts. My younger son is named for him, and as I am about to embark on a major research project into his writings, it was a privilege to be able to visit Sochaczew to daven at his grave and that of his illustrious father.

On my first visit to Poland some years ago, it struck me that the Holocaust happened very close to the UK – it took just two hours by plane to get to Warsaw from my home on London. This visit brought home again how easily the Nazis might have been more successful in their attempts to invade England, in which case my grandparents could have been victims of the Nazi’s death camps. Yet for reasons we can never know, it was European, rather than British Jewry who fell victim to the horrors of the bestial murder-machine.

My travelling companion and I found the visit to Sochaczew powerful and intense, yet it was outwardly unremarkable. There was no crying, no grand gestures, no throngs of people and nothing even slightly remarkable to look at. The cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis, but since then, a memorial wall to the murdered Jews of the locale and a memorial made from fragments of desecrated tombstones have been erected. The graves of the Rebbes have recently been restored, and an ohel (small building) constructed over them. We were only in Sochaczew for an hour, during which time we said some Tehillim, prayed for various people and davened Minchah. But the most powerful part of the experience was learning two short essays from the Shem MiShmuel, standing close to his grave: it was a truly memorable moment, one that I hope to repeat quite soon. There is something indescribable about standing in a small building in the middle of a field in a hick-town in the Polish countryside next to the grave of a man who made a real contribution to Jewish thought, while studying his very words. Therein lays the beauty of great ideas: they are eternal. The Nazis may have deported and murdered the Jews of Sochaczew and even attempted to erase every trace of Jewish habitation there by destroying the cemetery, but the ideas of the Shem MiShmuel exist for ever in the thoughts of his spiritual inheritors.

For photographs of my trip, please look here.

For more information about the destroyed Jewish community of Sochaczew, please look here.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Monday, October 01, 2007

Our Lives In Our Hands On Sukkot (Sukkot 5768)

A little-known rabbinical source explores the relationship between Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot:

Said Rebbi El’azar ben Meriom: why do we make a sukkah after Yom Kippur? To teach that since on Rosh HaShanah, God sits in judgement upon everyone alive and on Yom Kippur, He seals the judgement, it is possible that the Jewish people are deserving of exile. As such, they make the sukkah and exile themselves from their homes to the sukkah and God considers it as though they have been exiled to Babylon…. (Pesikta DeRav Kehana 2:7)

This thought is expressed in a prayer that some people say when entering the Sukkah:

And in the merit of my exit from my house to go outside…. may it be considered as though I had been sent far away as a wanderer….

It is hard to conceive of the modern sukkah as a form of banishment. Many sukkot are comfortable, even luxurious, close to the house, and, in some cases, inside the house. Even writing this from my sukkah in cold, wet England, with light drizzle settling on my computer screen, hardly seems like an exilic experience!

Perhaps this concept can be given a modern interpretation. We are all familiar with the need to get out of our regular environment from time to time: it is valuable to examine one’s conduct, schedule, perhaps even one’s whole life, from an outside vantage point, rather than from within it. Sometimes, one can only commit to life-changes, review one’s aspirations, and, in the words of a friend, ‘rediscover one’s own voice’ away from the demands and expectations of others and the pressures of normal existence.

After the spiritual exertions of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we may be exhilarated, but exhausted physically and emotionally. Also, the commitments we have made to live better and more fulfilled Jewish lives may be sincere, but they are also fragile. It would be easy to simply slip back into our previous behaviour pattern, with little to show from Yom Kippur. The sukkah provides a welcome ‘break’ from one’s regular environment, enabling one to recover from the Yamim Norayim and consolidate and internalise one’s spiritual achievements. The sukkah allows us the space to scrutinise our lives from the outside inwards, consider our own deficiencies at a dispassionate distance and strengthen our resolve to rectify them. This may be just the sort of ‘exile’ we need straight after Yom Kippur.

Allow me to extend this thought to the lulav and etrog. Every rabbi has quoted the following Midrash when short of a sermon for Sukkot:

Rebbi Moni opened his exposition (of the lulav and etrog): all my limbs shall say, ‘God, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10). This verse was only said in reference to the lulav [bundle]. The spine of the lulav resembles the spine of a person; the hadas (myrtle) resembles the eye; the arovoh (willow) resembles the mouth; the etrog resembles the heart. [King] David said: these are the most significant organs of the body, for they encapsulate the entire person. (VaYikra Rabbah 30:14)

When one takes the lulav and etrog, one is holding oneself in one’s hands, enjoying a rare chance to look at oneself from the outside. One can decide in which direction to point oneself in the year ahead and actually ‘take one’s life in one’s hands’ and start the process.

My wife suggested that this makes the pre-Sukkot careful selection of the lulav and etrog easier to understand: each item is carefully examined to ensure that it meets exacting standards of freshness, completeness and beauty. That examination is the opening salvo of a process of careful self-scrutiny from afar, the blessing of Sukkot.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents