Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, May 19, 2022
In this Moment, May 19 - Lag B'Omer: A Hilula-Hootenanny; Hoodwinked into Hate; the Reconquest of Jerusalem Day
In This Moment
The Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored
by Aviva and Greg Lederman in honor of their son,
Jacob, becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Lag B'Omer
Lag B'Omer, the Jewish version of May Day, began Wednesday night and continues through Thursday. We watched live coverage of some of the proceedings from Mount Meron at the conclusion of our weekday minyan on Wednesday. Click on the photo above to see some of the dancing in real time. You can read all about this quirky, obscure minor holiday, known for bonfires, weddings and haircuts, here. Fortunately, there was no repetition of last year's tragic accident at the mountain, which is near Safed, when a crowd crush at the site killed 45 in Israel's worst civilian disaster. This year, only about 16,000 people are permitted to be on the mountain at any given time, compared to about 70,000 in previous years.
We're celebrating here on Thursday night with a Hootenanny. According to Wikipedia, Hootenanny is an Appalachiancolloquialism that was used in the early twentieth century U.S. to refer to things whose names were forgotten or unknown. In this usage it was synonymous with thingamajigor whatchamacallit, as in: "Hand me that hootenanny" (which makes me wonder whether the Little Mermaid came from Appalachia). But it also is an old word for a party with lots of folk music.
In Hebrew, a Hilula for Lag B'Omer is pretty much the same, a big party with tons of Klezmer and other folk music - except the party is in honor of the anniversary of a great sage's death, the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai). Are we the only people that celebrates the anniversary of a death with song and dance? Yahrzeits are always a little sweet-bitter, but not normally cause for such crazy merry-making. Kabbalists believe that Shimon Bar Yochai wanted people to rejoice on the anniversary of his departure from this world. The Zohar uses the term “hillula,” which is like a wedding celebration, in the belief that clinging to the Shechinah (God's Presence) in this world is like an engagement, while clinging to that Presence in the next world is more comparable to marriage.
According to the work "Peninei Halacha" by Rabbi Elezar Melamed, in Kabbalistic lore, death is perceived differently in this world than it is in the next. In this world, when a tzaddik (holy person) dies they leave a great void, but in the supernal world, the tzaddik is freed from the shackles of this world and is privileged to absorb the full light of Torah. This is especially true of tzaddikim who engage in the esoteric side of the Torah, for they are mainly involved in the inner, hidden light of the soul. As long as they exist within the physical confines of this world, they cannot absorb the full inner light. However, when they depart this world and go beyond its physical boundaries, the gates of wisdom and the inner light are opened wide before them. Then, they understand the depths of the secrets they studied during their lives. Already on the day of death, it is possible to discern that the “walls” and “barriers” of this world are fading away. Accordingly, Idra Zuta relates that on the day Rashbi died, he revealed deep and wondrous secrets that he was not allowed to reveal beforehand, and he [simultaneously] cried and laughed. (See the full text in the original and translation - also download the pdf. It is like nothing you've ever read in your Jewish studies).
Hoodwinked into Hate
As Jews, we tend not to see death as a release for the suffering of life. But in light of the senseless hatred that continues to infect our world, as evidenced once again in Buffalo last weekend, it is hard to argue with the Kabbalists' contention that our earthly vision is constrained by the physical limitations of our mortal existence.
Human beings are severely limited. We are lacking the moral clarity that only reaches us when it is too late to do much good down here. How else do we explain how so many otherwise intelligent beings are hoodwinked into hate? This month, the Philippines elected the son and namesake of the one of the worst dictators of the 20th century, as their new leader. By a landslide! How insane is that? Russian citizens and soldiers are blindly devouring their dictators' poisonous lies and leaping into a genocidal abyss. Repeating the sins of their Soviet ancestors' decimation of Ukraine in the 1930s. And in this country, Replacement Theory has replaced the Protocols of Zion as the most lethal and dangerous pack of lies ever to be spread on a mass scale - and increasingly it is being given legitimacy by those in power who refuse to discredit it.
The perpetrator of the Buffalo murders bought into focus this pack-O-lies, replete with racism, nativism and antisemitism. For those who are keeping score, Jews are mentioned more than a hundred times in this hater's "manifesto."
The Forward adds: "In a Q&A in the document, he identifies proudly as an antisemite and as a supporter of neo-Nazism. He misquotes the Jewish sacred texts, writing: “The Talmud (or the rabbi’s holy book) teaches Jews that they are God’s chosen people and they are permitted to hate and exploit the goyim, and to allow pedophilia. Jews will tell you that they do not support these any more, but in reality this is what they all seek.” He continues: “For our self-preservation, the Jews must be removed from our Western civilizations, in any way possible.”
But he is not alone in espousing these beliefs, which can no longer be called a fringe phenomenon. Yair Rosenberg wrote this week:
Scrolling through the shooter’s fulminations about people like me, I felt a certain ironic detachment. It was impossible to square his dark delusions with my actual existence. By day, I’d been trying to amuse my 16-month-old, because her mother has COVID and is staying isolated in our bedroom. By night, I am sleeping on the couch. Like most Jews, I have not exactly had time to plot and perpetrate white genocide.
Shimon Bar Yochai taught, "A person on a boat began to bore a hole under his own seat. The passengers protested: ‘Unfortunately, when the water enters, the whole boat sinks.'”
Bar Yochai understood that we are all in the same boat. Maybe that was the secret he could only reveal at the moment of his death - that idea that we are all interconnected. He discovered an intersectionality of souls. The single light that shines on the righteous also disinfects the rest of us. The hatred exhibited by this Buffalo murderer was too great to encompass just one ethnic group. The attack on a Black neighborhood in Buffalo was an attack on all of us. All Jews and Blacks were in the crosshairs, as well as everyone who has ever been perceived as "different,"
So by all means, let's celebrate a Hilula-Hootenanny on Lag B'Omer. But at the same time that we dance around the flames of redemption, we need to become aware of the truths are being revealed each day in our imperfect, unredeemed world. Unlike Bar Yochai, we do not have the luxury of freeing ourselves from the shackles of our world, our bonfire of venalities. We've got too much work to do and we can't wait for death to provide the answers.
We've got to figure out what makes people so susceptible to lame-brained conspiracies, social media trolls, power-hungry TV hosts and cynical authority figures bent on seducing or cudgeling them into to doing unthinkable things to their neighbors.
Maybe on this Lag B'Omer, Simon bar Yochai can reach down to us with some guidance from heaven. Because right now, humanity hasn't got a clue.
The Re-Conquest of Jerusalem Day
The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers
like the air over industrial cities.
It's hard to breathe. - Yehuda Amichai
Jerusalem Day, the anniversary of the unification of Jerusalem in 1967, falls on May 29 this year. It marks 55 years since the day that changed everything. Most holidays tend to be reinvigorated over time. Lag B'Omer is a perfect example, assisted by an increased interest in Kabbala and the need to get outside as the weather warms.
Jerusalem Day, alas, has become diminished as it has been usurped by Israel's right wing in its desire to push an in-your-face assault on the city's Arab population with obnoxious marches through Muslim neighborhoods. That will continue to be the case this year.In an analysis in Ha'aretz, "Year After Gaza War, Right-wing March Endangers Not Only Jerusalemites,"Nir Hasan writes that "politicians have no choice but to allow the parade, which is often accompanied by violence and racist chants, year after year." This year's "celebration" began early, with the push by Kahanists to pray - and sacrifice goats - on the Temple Mount during Passover.
It's sad, because Jerusalem Day celebrates a modern miracle, the fulfillment of a 2,000 year old dream, and it is a day all Jews should celebrate. Rather than allowing the Kahanists to become the Grinch that Stole Jerusalem Day, we should find way to reclaim it.
For a more balanced perspective, see these sobering reflections that were published five years ago, as we marked the Jubilee (Yovel) of the Six Day War, or read this Yovel sampler containing text study and poetry. This week's portion of B'har actually introduces the concept of Jubilee, the fifty year mark that ideally brings about complete liberation for the land and its inhabitants. Despite Jerusalem's miraculous liberation, we are not there yet.
I believe the time has come to restore Jerusalem Day to its former glory, much as the city itself has been restored in so many ways. But the way to do that is through reflection and dialogue, and the understanding that the best things in life are those things that are shared.
Stones (Shirley Kaufman, 1996)
When you live in Jerusalem you begin
to feel the weight of stones. You begin to know the word
was made stone, not flesh.
They dwell among us. They crawl
up the hillsides and lie down on each other to build a wall.
Who owns women’s bodies? (Alicia Ostriker - Shalom Center and Bible Review) The age-old answer is that women are the property of fathers, brothers, husbands, who are entitled to buy and sell them, or even, as in “honor killings,” to kill them. Here in America the idea that women can be proud owners and caretakers of themselves and their own bodies has been taking hold gradually—and with many setbacks, such as we see being played out in the issue of abortion presently before the Supreme Court.Judaism has a lot to say about women’s bodies, and some of the stories preserved in Torah are truly shocking. For me, one of the most painful and provocative texts in scripture is the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the Book of Judges (Judg. 11: 30-40). The story is worth remembering because it is so stark—yet it leaves open a gate for healing.
When New Seat Belt Laws Drew Fire as a Violation of Personal Freedom (History Channel). A thought experiment, as we face the daunting reality of yet another Covid surge. While no one wants to go back to full lockdowns, a little sechel (common sense) is in order, especially with regard to simple safety measures like wearing masks. So replace the word "mask" with "seat belt" in any conversation about these lifesaving contraptions. As in: "How dare the government force us to wear seat belts!" You can also substitute, "...tell us where we can smoke" or "force us to drive under 100 miles per hour!" Really! What nerve! See also, Before face masks, Americans went to war against seat belts (Business Insider).
WZO strongly condemns the violence towards Women of the Wall (Merkaz Olami) An unusual event occurred at the Western Wall on Monday, May 2, 2022, Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Women of the Wall, who have been persisting in their prayers every Rosh Chodesh for almost 30 years, and who often are faced with curses, spitting, and physical violence, were amazed that this time, some of the offenders did so with the World Zionist Organization (WZO) flag in their hands. The investigation of the incident revealed that two departments in the WZO, departments whose leaders are affiliated with Eretz Hakodesh and with Shas Olami, initiated cooperation with the extremist organization Leeba Yehudit (Mercaz Liba), and in fact approved the WZO sponsorship for its violent activities against Women of the Wall.
Leeba Yehudit is an extremist and zealous organization, which has waged a struggle against Jewish pluralism and against the Reform and Conservative movements in particular; Against the Kotel compromise; Against the LGBT population; Against women's service in the IDF, and more. The activities of the organization are often of an abusive and violent nature.
This was the case when their people corrupted and tore dozens of siddurim of Women of the Wall during a Rosh Chodesh prayer in June 2021. This was the case when they broke out on the evening of the 9th of Av and erected a partition at the egalitarian Kotel and prevented the Masorti movement prayer in July 2021, and this is what happens routinely - groups on their behalf simply come with a mechitza (gender partition) to the egalitarian Kotel only to disrupt prayer.
We are proud to announce that the executive of the World Zionist Organization convened today and made a significant decision that strongly and unequivocally condemns the occurrence of and violent behavior that took place under its auspices and uses its symbols, and establishes a total ban on collaborations with bodies that condone violence, contempt, harassment or violation of the legitimacy of members or bodies in the Zionist movement in their activities, and from this it goes without saying that the World Zionist Organization will not cooperate with Leeba Yehudit and similar organizations.
We thank the chairman of the World Zionist Organization, Yaakov Hagoel, for examining things in-depth and for partnering with us in leading this important decision that will prevent the recurrence of such cases in the future.For the decision in full click here.