Archive for July 2009

Tisha B’Av, A Day of Mourning

July 30, 2009

During the Israelite’s sojourn in the desert, Moses sent spies to the Land of Israel so that they could report on the situation there and give the Israelites the opportunity to form a strategy for the conquest of the land. Twelve spies were sent to Israel and ten of them reported that the people living in the land were too strong and their cities fortified well and that the Israelites would be destroyed as soon as they attempted to enter the land. The people believed the ten spies and cried.

The Talmud (Taanit 30b) recounts that this event took place on the ninth of Av and that God declared that since the Israelites cried for nothing, the ninth of Av would become a day of crying for all history. The ninth of Av (which falls out on Thursday, July 30 this year) was the day of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and is a day of mourning and fasting until today.

According to the Book of Numbers, the punishment for the sin of the spies was that the Israelites were forced to wander in the desert for 40 years before entering the Land of Israel. Forty years and the destruction of two temples is a pretty harsh punishment. Why did this sin in particular warrant such a harsh punishment?

Rashi explains that the punishment for the sin of the spies was a cumulative punishment which also included the punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf. In order to understand the punishment, it is first necessary to understand the sin. The sin of the spies seems to have been problematic in two ways. First, the Israelites demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s promise to give them the Land of Israel. Secondly, they did not show love for the Land of Israel, instead looking for ways to criticize it. (In today’s world, people who leave the Diaspora to come to Israel to live must take a big leap of faith and have an ingrained love of the country. Things haven’t changed much.) The sin of the Golden Calf showed a lack of understanding of the proper way to worship God — directly and not through any physical manifestation.

So what do these two sins have in common? Both of them show the lack of understanding of the role of the physical in the lives of Jews. The creation of the Golden Calf was an attempt to bring the physical into a place where it did not belong. The sin of the spies was a misunderstanding of the role of a physical place (Israel) in Jewish life. Life in the desert, centered entirely around spirituality, is not in fact the ideal. Life in Israel, with all its physical and material challenges, is.

Why is that?

The role of the Jewish people in the world is to sanctify the physical. This is accomplished by living in Israel — a physical place — and making it holy by keeping the Torah. It is also accomplished by engaging with the outside world, professionally and culturally, while still leading a life committed to the Torah. A person who immerses himself completely in spirituality while ignoring the outside world is not reaching his full potential. The Torah is called a Living Torah , because Torah should pervade every part of life.

Holiness of a physical place is an important value in Judaism. Israel is considered to be the holiest country, with Jerusalem as its holiest city. The Temple Mount is holier than Jerusalem, then the Temple itself, and then the holiest place of all — the Holy of Holies, considered to be the gateway to heaven.

Settlement in the Land of Israel, either in the time of Joshua or today, is important because the Torah can be kept in full only in the holiest land. Even in a desert (literal or figurative) one cannot reach the spiritual height reachable in the Land of Israel.

The Temple in Jerusalem is the ultimate place where the physical is infused with the spiritual. Much has been written about how to reconcile the idea of animal sacrifice with modern mores. However, it is clear that the sacrifices are a way of taking the most mundane physical item and imbuing it with spirituality so that it becomes an act of prayer.

Before the destruction of the Temples, the Jews lost touch with the meaning of the Temple. Prior to the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews sinned by allowing their physical side to take over and ignoring the spiritual altogether. They sinned by engaging in idol worship, murder and illicit sexual relations. The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hate. The story of Kamza and Bar-Kamza recounted in the Talmud (Gittin 55) is a story where the attempt to be more religious than the next guy caused great harm to a person’s feelings. The Talmud relates that this incident set off a train of events which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple.

Punishment is often about more than teaching somebody a lesson. Sometimes it is an expression of reality. The Israelites in the desert demonstrated their lack of readiness to take on life in the real world just yet. Although Israel became a nation during the exodus from Egypt, it had not understood how to live a life which combines the physical and the spiritual and imbues the physical with spirituality. It took 40 years of wandering in the desert to reach that point.

So too, when the Jews living in Israel forgot this important value they were no longer deserving of the existence of the Temple. Since they had abandoned the Temple and its core value it was destroyed. The challenge of Jews in today’s world is to try to bring back that important value, by bringing holiness into every aspect of daily life.


City of David: The Movie

July 27, 2009

Israel Antiquities Authority has posted a video about the City of David excavations guided and narrated by Prof. Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron. Did you know the City of David has been under excavation for 150 years? Reich and Shukron stand in the shafts and channels and explain what they were used for in ancient times. The quality is great and the narration is concise yet complete.

Is Peace Possible in the Middle East?

July 26, 2009

Khaled Abu Toameh is an Arab journalist working for the Jerusalem Post. During the Gaza War he gave a fascinating talk about the way the Palestinian political system works. Last week he spoke to journalists in Toronto.

From National Post:

He believes the so-called “peace process,” begun with the Oslo Accords of 1993, has been a tragic failure and holds little promise of success. Over 16 years, the peace process has brought war — and plenty of it. It has disillusioned both Arabs and Jews — Arabs because they haven’t acquired the independence and honest self-government they wanted, Jews because security has become more elusive than it was two decades ago. Even so, the United States and others believe the virtue of the peace process is self-evident.

The solution? According to Abu Toameh:

Israel should simply wait until the Palestinians stop killing each other and create a credible political entity that can make a deal. Peace will then become possible.

Does Israel Need the Diaspora?

July 23, 2009

According to Michael Oren:

Israel needs the political and economic support of American Jewry, and American Jewry increasingly needs the spiritual infusion of the Jewish state. … In recent years, we have found that a 10-day visit to the state of Israel by American Jewish youth does more for Jewish identity than seven years in Hebrew school. In fact, seven years in Hebrew school, as one poll shows, does some damage to Jewish identity.

If all of American Jewry picked up and moved to Israel tomorrow, would Israel still need a strong Jewish lobby in the American government? Is it really true that American Jews are more useful to Israel in the US than they would be in Israel? Do you agree or disagree with Michael Oren?

Why I Moved to Israel (6)

July 22, 2009

Guest post by Arnie Draiman

“It seemed like the right thing to do at the time”. And it was. And still is, 25 years later!

I grew up in a traditional Conservative home, driving to shul every Shabbat, keeping kosher at home (less so outside of the home). My parents were certainly supporters of Israel – my father’s brother had moved here from Poland in 1923 – and my parents came to visit him in 1966. The slides of their trip to the Holy Land always piqued my interest, but, perhaps, as a kid, it wasn’t a place to move to, just to visit.

I had an excellent mentor during my formative teen years – our congregational rabbi, Barry Rosen. He instilled a deeper love of Judaism and of Israel in me. And at the same time, I was very active in the synagogue youth group USY, which also increased my love of Judaism and added an acquaintance and love of Jews around the globe.

My first trip to Israel was as a senior in high school (USY Israel Pilgrimage), and alas, I realized that people do/can live here.  During my college years, I staffed the USY Israel Pilgrimage and led the trip eight summers in a row. By then, I was working as the Assistant Director of the Atlanta Bureau of Jewish Education, being groomed for the directorship. A friend of mine, David Marcu, called me in September and told me that he was going to attend Hebrew University’s MBA program a year later, and did I want to share an apartment with him. I said, “Sure.”

I have no idea why I immediately told him yes. I had a good job, good friends, nice community and more. But something from deep inside me spoke, even if it wasn’t clear at the time. What did become clear is that I made aliyah because of the Pulse of Jewish Life here.

The calendar revolves around the the Jewish calendar. Everyone knows what is Shabbat and when is Sukkot. All Jews here celebrate all of the holidays – some go to shul, and most have a Passover Seder and build a Sukkah, and even those who go to the beach, know which holiday it is! It is just what is done here. Every taxi driver and shopkeeper wishes you a “Shabbat Shalom” on Friday, whether you wear a kipa or not, and whether they wear a kipa or not.

Advertisements and display windows for stores all reflect the calendar and Pulse of Jewish life. Before Passover, you can renovate your kitchen (for cheap!), and during the ‘Three Weeks’ of mourning leading up to Tisha B’Av, many meat restaurants offer special non-meat dishes to accommodate those who don’t eat meat then. There have been many magazine articles written with countless examples.

You can easily find while visiting any national park and place of interest here, secular parents teaching their secular children the meaning and history of a place while using a Tanach (Bible) as their text. The Hebrew subtitles often call upon Biblical and Rabbinic sources for translation help (The most famous being the translation of TV cop Kojak’s ‘what’s this got to do with the price of tea in China?’. The Hebrew translation used a comment made by the 11th century rabbinic commentator Rashi when he was discussing a certain line in the Torah – Leviticus 25:1  “mah inyan shmita etzel har sinai?” — “What do the laws of the sabbatical year have to with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai”).

And one more thing:  the wonderful world of Tzedakah (Righteous Giving) and Tikkun Olam (Fixing the World). I have been fortunate to be a colleague of Danny Siegel ( for some 30 years. He has been my mentor and my work follows his path. I have been privileged to be involved with over100 of his “Mitzvah heroes” – those incredible people doing great work (and doing it efficiently effectively). They represent the real Pulse of Jewish life and the real face of Israel. They are sabras and immigrants, religious and secular, men and women, old and young, Jewish and not, etc.

To me, Zionism is one’s love for the State of Israel, the Land of Israel and the People of Israel (together and not separately). So, is this Zionism? I think so. I hope my love for Israel comes through in all that I do. I hope I have been able to instill in my four children this love of Israel.

History of the PLO

July 21, 2009

Al Jazeera’s History of the PLO:

Analysis of these videos can be found at Israel Matzav, Part One and Part Two. His main point is that these videos make it clear that the goal of the PLO has always been the destruction of Israel.

Clock Collection Returned to Israel

July 20, 2009

This story is stranger than fiction. A famous Israeli thief stole a clock collection which had been donated to the Islamic Art Museum in Jerusalem. The collection had belonged to the first Jewish mayor of London, Sir David Lionel Salomons. His daughter, out of Zionist motivations, donated the collection to the museum.

The thief, Na’aman Lidor, died after a battle with cancer. He married a woman in LA shortly before his death. After his death she discovered most of the clocks hidden in the house. Since the collection had been so famous he was unable to sell most of them. A few more clocks were recovered from a safe deposit box in France.

The collection has now been returned to the Islamic Art Museum and is being displayed in an exhibit called “The Mystery of Lost Time.”