Monday, 13 June 2022

Am Yisrael, a Holy Nation to G-d, Primarily


                        “For you are a Nation of Priests, a People holy to the Lord Your G-d.”- Exodus 19:6

“Bamidbar” is the Parashah that opens the fourth book of the Torah. Moshe is embarking on the important task of preparing Am Yisrael, the newly molded People, to living as a safe, productive, and independent nation in its own land.

It is not an easy undertaking. To try and instruct a People that has only recently gained its freedom, after centuries of slavery, to live an autonomous life is a major challenge. Most of them are illiterate, submissive and rely on Moshe to guide, lead, and decide for them.

As we recall, thus far, Moshe has been setting the ethical and ground rules for preparing Am Yisrael to live its G-d given destiny as a “Holy nation.” We were given the Torah which rabbi Sacks ZT”L correctly and succinctly defines as “our constitution of liberty under the sovereignty of G-d.”

The Covenant entered between G-d and Am Yisrael was unanimously and unconditionally accepted at Mount Sinai. We, their descendants, are bound by it. Both the Book of Shemot (Exodus) and Vayikra (Leviticus) outline the duties of this meaningful and important vocational role. G-d, as we are reminded time and again, is the common denominator that connects them all.

As part of our calling, the Priests and the Levites have been assigned their tasks. The protocol for running their sacred, very important and not always easy work has been outlined. A “priest in the service of the Jewish People,” states Rabbi Berel Wein, “was someone who served the public and private needs of Jews. The Priest was a social worker,” continues, Wein, “the peace maker, the cement that binds a community together and gives it its necessary sense of unity and cohesion.” Above all, the Priests were the guardians of our national as well as our Spiritual well-being. 

However, to live in safety and for physical survival, it is also essential to build a strong army.

Towards that end, Gd directs Moshe to conduct a census of Am Yisrael. Moshe needs the count of people who could be of military age, who could fight, ones who could defend the nation. 

There are 603,550 men of draftable age (20 to 60 years) who will be trained in warfare. The Levite circle, with its 22,331 or 3.7% of the total, are exempted from that duty.

The Levites had an alternative role, not just to be holy as some have interpreted it, but as mentioned by Rabbi Wein above, to also be the educators, counselors and, the ones responsible for teaching the masses of people how to shell the slaves' mindset and start thinking like free and responsible people. That, too, was being part of the strength and defense of the nation. They were simply soldiers of a different kind.

Fast forward to the 20th century modern day state of Yisrael. Many members of the Hareidi segment of the Jewish population dedicates many hours of the day to studying Torah and, like the Levites and the Priests dedicate their lives to serving G-d. Like the Levites, they are exempt from enlisting to the army. This, naturally, causes some resentment among other Jewish sectors in the Yisraeli society.

Learning and studying Torah, as we all know, is highly important in our Jewish tradition. “And you should contemplate it [The Torah] day and night,” Moshe commands Yehoshoa (Yehoshua 1:8). It is important to note that Yehoshua was the Chief of Staff of Moshe’s army.

This decree by Moshe to Yehoshua, however, is not a reason to pass the responsibility of self-defense to others, or any responsibilities to others in favor of something just for oneself. It was not a deal that if one sits and studies, that one should be exempt from the responsibility of defending one’s family and people from aggression. 

On the other hand, there are those who want to deny the importance of Torah learning, those who want to tear Torah scholars away from what they dedicate themselves to be doing.  Neither are right. 

Our sages have understood this issue very well and debated it at length. They quote Devarim (Deuteronomy 11:14) which states, “You shall gather your grain, your new wine and your olive oil.” At the same time, they remind us of Moshe’s decree to Yehoshua regarding the importance of studying the Torah. Many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael and combined working for a living and learning Torah. (Berakhot 35b:4-10)

Consider an idea for today.  Hareidim, as the new Levites in the role Moshe Rabbeinu designed 3400 years ago for those who would serve the people, not as combatants but as educators and social workers, and maybe even helping with the harvests in season, out in the smaller communities from the Lebanon border to the tip of Eilat, to every area in Judea and Samaria. 

It is not really a new idea.  Religious girls have been doing it for some time as a substitute for regular military service. It would mean adding a program for Hareidi men between 18 and 21 in addition to those already voluntarily enlisting in percentages equal to some other sectors of the population. It would mean that everyone is required to comply with their responsibilities to the nation for 2-3 years of their lives, either in combat roles or in other ways.

And there should be a bonus.  For every individual serving, regardless of role, there should be post-service educational benefits and reduced mortgages to buy a home, in some proportion to years of service. Before someone asks about Miluim (reserve service), that could also be accomplished both in military readiness and service to small communities in other ways.

It is time that Medinat Yisrael employ ideas that bring all segments of the Jewish community together to improve the quality of life for all, just as Moshe Rabbeinu insisted that everyone participates -  in building the Tabernacle,  in defending the nation, and in serving the welfare of the people.

This article was written jointly by Roger Froikin and Bat-Zion Susskind-Sacks

Monday, 30 May 2022

Graf Potocki and Kiddush Hashem


The name “Graf Potocki” was a household name, at least during the years that I grew up in the early days of the State of Yisrael. It was generally used to describe someone who is very wealthy or one who lives beyond their means.

Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of G-d), the second part of the titular name, as many Jews may know, is the act of suffering martyrdom rather than being disloyal to our Jewish faith and to our G-d.

What then, some may ask, are these two doing next to each other in the above heading? And why  write about it now?

The mystery shrouded life story of Graf Valentine Potocki was the subject of a thirty-year research conducted by Dr. Sophie Ben Artzi. Her book “The Felled Bough of Graf Potocki,” is a historical novel which shares the untold story of Valentine Potocki.

Born in 1700 in Vilna, Lithuania, he was the only son of a noble and prominent Catholic Polish family that was well known for its wealth and the many estates it owned including the city of Vilna. His parents, devout Catholics sent him to a seminary and were hoping to educate him for priesthood.

At some stage, tells us Ben Artzi, Potocki, together with another young friend were sent by the king on a secret mission to Paris. They ended up staying in Paris longer than expected and decided to attend university. During that time, they frequented a local tavern which was owned by an old Jewish man who used every available moment to study Torah. It was through this man that Valentine Potocki and his friend, were first introduced to Judaism.

Despite the prohibition to convert to Judaism, which according to Polish law was punishable, at that time, by death, Potocki decided to move to Amsterdam where he converted to Judaism. He became Avraham Ben Avraham.

Converting to Judaism did not mean just risking one’s life, as was the case with Potocki. It also entailed many sacrifices, breaking off relationships with family and friends as well as perhaps giving up a promising future – all to join an often despised and persecuted faith.

Subsequent to his conversion and resolved to keep his newly embraced religion, Potocki returned to Lithuania. He settled in the small town of Lida where he was hoping to evade as much as possible being recognized and identified. His own family, who initially believed him to be dead, learned about his conversion, enlisted its influential connections, and searched for him in the hope of bringing him back to Christianity.

One day, a fellow Jew, with whom Avraham was having a dispute, reported him to the authorities. Avraham was arrested, interrogated, and tortured terribly. He admitted to having converted to Judaism. Despite being offered a pardon, wealth, and honour in return for acknowledging Christianity, he adhered to his adopted faith until the moment that he was burned at the stake.

It happened on the 7th day of Sivan, 24th of May 1749. It was the second day of the Holy Day of Shavuot, when Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and which Jews, the world over, will be celebrating in less than a week

Jewish leaders warned members of their community not to leave their homes for fear of pogroms following Abraham's execution. Jews remained in their homes and the synagogues were empty. Only one Jew risked his life to be there next to Avraham ben Avraham.

It is said that Rabbi Alexander Ziskind, the author of Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avoda (The Foundation and Root of the Service [of G-d]) arrived and stayed with Avraham many hours before his death. Rabbi Ziskind's sole purpose for arriving was to ensure that there be at least one Jew to recite the Amen over the blessing uttered by Avraham, in front of the many gentiles who witnessed his heroic act. “Blessed are thou Lord, Our G-d who has sanctified us in His commandments and commanded us to sanctify His name,” were Avraham’s last words before he jumped into the fire.

The Catholic church which regarded the event as contemptuous, forbade the burial of his ashes. Only after one of the members of the community offered bribe  was part of his ashes  handed over and buried in the Jewish cemetery. It is said that Rabbi Eliyahu, the Vilna Gaon, requested to be buried next to to the burial place of Avraham the Righteous convert.

Rabbi Meir Kagan, Ha’Chafetz Chayim wrote about Avraham Ben Avraham, “If ten people were present to say Kadish when the righteous convert ZT”L was burnt at the stake, Mashiach would have come instantly.”

Yours truly was at the grave of the Vilna Gaon, I saw the sign indicating where Avraham ben Avraham’s ashes were laid to rest. It is hard to describe the feeling. I believe Dr. Ben Artzi describes it best in the following deeply moving words:

“It was a very constitutive moment for me. I felt a bright light erupting from the grave and illuminating the words which I have seen countless times in the past, ‘here are buried the ashes of a righteous convert, Avraham Ben Avraham.’ I do not how to express the moment in words, but I did shake all over. I knew the story…. But I never delved into it. Suddenly that sentence pulled me like magic chords.”

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Touching History


The early morning sun cast its bright rays, illuminating the Judean desert and the majestic protruding cliffs of Qumran. The place, located on the northern part of the Dead Sea is an archeological site. It gained international notoriety following the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in one of the Qumran caves, over 70 years ago.

According to David Avraham, the founder of “Project Qumran” (, whose team of volunteers I joined recently, there are roughly 240 caves in the area, many of which had never actually been excavated. “The Qumran community,” David told me, “Consisted of former priests involved in the Temple service under the authority of the last descendants of Zadok.”

That morning, our team’s destination was, as in the previous days, Cave 61. Its excavations were performed on behalf of the Hebrew University jointly with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. They were led and supervised by Dr. Oren Gutfield, an experienced and well-respected archeologist.

As we were negotiating our way through the steep path, the sense of partaking in a, somewhat, sacred mission began to throb in me. This was my first time of participating in an archeological dig. As a lover of history, mainly Jewish history, it was, for me, the fulfillment of an old dream, an opportunity to reconnect and fall in love yet again and again with Eretz Yisrael, the cradle of our heritage.

The mere thought that I am in the very place which used to be the ancient abode of some of our People, of touching history and helping unravel mysteries of the past engulfed my essence with joy and turned the challenging climb into a cakewalk.

Cave 61 is located near the top of a mountain, just north of and adjacent to the waterfall at Wadi Qumran. The precipice descends over 305 meters to the Wadi below. During the rainy season, water flows over the cliff all the way down to the Dead Sea.

In Biblical times, water was channeled from this watercourse that ran along the side of the mountain. This emptied into another channel that made its way down to the cisterns in Qumran. As we made our way up the rocky mountain towards the caves, we crossed the channel. It gave me an opportunity to take a break from the ambitious climb and examine the waterway. The engineering that went into its making is remarkable.

As I was standing there, having my brief respite, I glanced around me. The breathtaking view of the rising sun over the Dead Sea, filled me with awe. I gazed at the monumental ridges speckled with the openings to the many caves, each holding secrets that were begging to be unfolded, I was overcome with reverence mingled with the burning desire to touch the lives of those who roamed them, put together the pieces that made up the puzzle of their existence, learn and help educate others about them.

Each, equipped with a small hoe, under the patient guidance and supervision of the well experienced, Dr. Oren Gutfield, we enthusiastically delved into the ground of cave 61 as if in search of some hidden treasure. Every unearthed piece of clay that we found raised our adrenaline levels as well as brought us closer to deciphering small codes of their users’ identity and unlocking another door to their life in that place.

Below are a few of the items that were found during the excavations in Cave 61.

                                                              The entrance to cave 61

Byzantine flask 4th-5th century CE 

                                         Oil lamp dating between the late Byzantine period to early Islamic                                                                                             period       

                                   A fragment (right) of an oil lamp from First Temple period. The photo on                                                 the left shows an actual oil lamp from that period

Although lab tests aimed at confirming the eras of these items are pending, they shed  more light on a vivid community life in the area. 

The excavations in Cave 61 are now complete. More excavations, in the area, are planned and expected to resume in the Fall.

If you wish to be part of this exciting experience, volunteer, be added to the group for updates or donate to  "Project Qumran," you are invited to visit their page or send an email to David at:

 Happy Pesach

Thursday, 31 March 2022

The Validation of Hope – the Core of Jewish Survival


         Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself – Golda Meir

Tragedy, unfortunately, is part of everyone’s life. Some heartbreaking experiences are more profound than others. All, however, touch us in every aspect of our life.

This week’s Parashah, Shmini, recounts a tragedy that befell Aharon, Moshe’s brother. The story is a mingle of great joy, cloaked with holiness but at the same time eclipsed and shrouded with loss and grief.

 It is the first of the month of Nissan and the dawning of a new day. Moshe and Bnei Yisrael are preparing to mark a great milestone in our history. After seven days of preparations and training,  Aharon and his sons are ready to receive the scepter of Priesthood, and the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is ready to be inaugurated.  

On the Eight day (Shmini) as Bnei Yisrael are gathering for the long-awaited ceremony, Moshe tells them, “For today, the Lord will appear to you” (Vayikra 9:4). He invites Aharon and his sons to offer a sacrifice to G-d. Shortly thereafter, the celebrations reach a climax with the spectacular appearance of the glory of G-d as fire came forth “from before the Lord and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat; and when all the people saw it, they shouted, and fell on their faces (Vayikra 9:24).

This spectacle full of reverence, bursting with holiness and ecstasy turns, in a flash, into a catastrophe. Without any warning “there came forth fire from before the Lord, and devoured” Avihu and Nadav, the sons of Aharon (10:2). G-d, it turns out, thy “offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to His demand” (10:1).

How does one respond to such a tragedy?

Moshe speaks first. “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said: ‘Among those who approach me, I will be proved holy; in sight of all the people I will be honoured’” (10:3). Rashi bases his interpretation of this verse on Midrash. According to him, “Moshe says to Aharon, ‘Aharon, my brother, I knew that the Mishkan will be sanctified by the presence of those who are close to G-d. I assumed that he meant either you or me; now I see that they (Nadav and Avihu) are greater than me and you.” In other words, the holier a person is, the greater are G-d’s exigencies of him.

Aharon remains silent. He is not complaining. He is not lamenting his bad fortune. His silence, in my view, reflects inner strength and the ability to confront difficult and painful realities.

Moshe moves on. He orders the removal of the bodies and briefs Aharon and his remaining sons about the laws of mourning. He also adds directives aimed at preventing the recurrence of such incidents and moves on to check if the sacrifices scheduled for that day were made.

Moshe turns to Aharon and tells him not to display publicly his mourning for fear that G-d may become angry with the entire community. “Know well,” he adds, “that your brethren, the entire House of Yisrael, shall bewail the burning that G-d has rekindled. Do not leave this place in the sanctuary,” he advises him, “for G-d’s anointing oil is upon you” (10:6-7). Aharon accepts Moshe’s words. His only concern, so it seems from verse 19, is that his silence not be interpreted as his possessing inhumane traits.

The psychological aspect of the exchanges between Moshe and Aharon, in the aftermath of the tragedy, is fascinating. In the first, Moshe, in his strong desire to console his brother who has just lost two sons, tells him that G-d “will display” His “holiness through those who come near” Him.

The second exchange is when Moshe directs the bereaved Aharon to remain in the Mishkan and continue to perform the duties of his role as Kohen Gadol (High Priest). One may understand Moshe’s words to mean that even though he feels Aharon’s pain, the latter is no longer a private person. On this critical day, the people need him to remain strong, guide them and conform to the role that he has been anointed to fulfill. Aharon, so it seems, is aware of the enormity of his position and despite his pain and anguish accepts it and resumes his duties, as prescribed by the protocol.

The intricacy of the account of this discourse captures, in my view, the essence of Jewish survival through our sanguineous history. Despite ongoing suffering, losses and death which have been the lot of our Jewish People, our desire to move on has never been extinguished. We have simply refused to give up. We could not afford to give up. The determination to ignite Hope at our darkest moments has been a beacon along the path of our historical timeline. It is the secret of our Jewish survival.

One modern day example which comes to mind and parallels the account of Aharon’s misfortune is the sad experience which befell the late general Raful (Refael Eitan) who was the IDF Chief of Staff, between the years 1978-1983. He was also very instrumental in planning and executing “Operation Opera,” the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear power plant in June 1981.

A month prior to the operation, his son Yoram, an IAF pilot was involved in a training accident. Raful was in Yerushalayim, in a government meeting, when it happened. Upon receiving the news, Raful left the meeting. He did not utter a word, just like Aharon in this week’s Parashah. His widow, Miriam, shared, years later, that Raful picked her from her office soon after he heard about the catastrophe but did not mention it until they reached their home. General Amos Yadlin, a pilot who partook in that operation, visited Raful’s home during the Shiv’a.  Just before Yadlin was about to leave, Raful caught him and said, “Don’t think that just because I am sitting Shiv’a, I will not come to the briefing.”

Like Aharon, Raful understood that he was not a private person and could not let his personal tragedy interfere with the important task that had been delegated to him. Yisrael needed him and counted on him just as Am Yisrael needed and counted on Aharon at the inauguration of the Mishkan. They were both entrusted and staunchly adhered to guiding and protecting Am Yisrael and the Jewish People as well as validating and keeping the spirit of Hope for a safer and better future for them.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

The Evolvement of the Practice of Korbanot – One Reason for the Survival of Judaism



                                                   “Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution.” –                                                                                                                      Rabbi  Jonathan Sack ZT”L

This week’s Parashah, Tzav, addresses the subject of Korbanot (sacrifices), an important service, first performed in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the desert and later in Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Yerushalayim. The term korbanot is derived from the root K,R,B which means to draw closer. The purpose of the Korban was to bring people closer to G-d.

As I mentioned in an article that I wrote several weeks ago, sacrifices were a means to gain Teshuvah (repentance). As I also stressed there, animal sacrifices or the blood sprinkled on the altar were not then, before and after the existence of either the Tabernacle or the Temple, the only means to reach atonement or becoming one with G-d.                                           (

The ritual of animal sacrifices, just like some of our other tenets, is not a Jewish one by origin. These practices were prevalent in the pagan societies of the ancient near eastern world, the world in which our forefathers resided and reared and were, as a result, steeped in them. In those societies, human sacrifices were part of the practice.

Why, then, one may ask, did we adopt it and why does the sacrificial system make up such a large part of our Torah?

       In his book, Guide for the Perplexed, Ramba”m explains that the Torah’s main purpose for including the ritual of sacrifices was to expunge the notion of paganism. According to him, the Torah instituted this system to help wane idolatrous practices. He further claims that human nature dictates that customs practiced over time become ingrained in them and cannot be easily  uprooted (3:30,3:32).

      Naturally, as Ramba”m suggests, the transition from one extreme to another, the disposing of old and well rooted customs that, over time, become part of human nature, cannot occur over night. The course needs time to acclimate. However, when we delve into the details of the practice as presented to Am Yisrael, in the Torah, we will discover the fascinating transformation of that pagan habit into what can be considered a brilliant move towards individual enrichment and the continued survival of a nascent nation.

Whereas in their surrounding antiquated cultures, such as in Egypt, where the hieroglyphics and the secrets of temple rituals, including the sacrificial ones, were under the exclusive authority of the priestly class, performed by them and known to them only, in the Torah, according to Professor Yonatan Grossman, the sacrificial directives in this Parashah are meant for the People as a whole. In his book, Torat Ha’Korbanot (The Torah of Sacrifices), Grossman claims that each Yisraelite who wishes to offer the sacrifice is the owner of the sacrifice and the Priest is merely their messenger. This message is resonated in the early verses of Viykra (Leviticus). It addresses every individual among Bnei Yisrael, “Speak to the Yisraelites and say to them: ‘When anyone among you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock” (1:2). This verse, suggests Grossman, is to reveal to all members of Am Yisrael the secrets of the Mishkan and its practices. Its aim, he believes, is to induce the Divine Spirit among the People to attain and implement the sense of partnership between Man and G-d.

Considering the sacrificial practices that were prevalent in the region in those days, according to Grossman, this directive was revolutionary. It is not another esoteric secret literature like the ones that existed in the surrounding cultures. Rather, he asserts, it was a public one which should be shared with each member of Am Yisrael.

It is this kind of an ongoing evolution, adaptation to new realities, and the introduction of new concepts that have prevented Judaism from becoming extinct, according to Rabbi Sacks. In his essay entitled “Why Civilizations Die,” Sacks refers to Rebecca Costa’s Book, The Watchman’s Rattle, which provides her account of how civilizations like the Mayan or the Khmre die. “Societies,” writes Sacks, “reach what she calls a cognitive threshold. They simply can’t chart a path from the present to the future.”

Costa believes that it can happen to any civilization. The breakdown, she asserts, is identifiable through two signs. The first is gridlock where instead of dealing with clearly recognized problems, “these problems are passed to the next generation.” The second one is the retreat into irrationality. Religious consolation replaces their inability to cope with facts. “Archeologists,” Sacks recounts, “have uncovered gruesome evidence of human sacrifice on a vast scale….” of the Mayans and Khmre civilizations whose members sought such consolation and “focused on placating gods by manically making offerings to them.”

Despite facing two centuries of Roman oppression, the destruction of the Temple which brought about the cessation of the practice of sacrifices, Jewish sages did not focus on how to atone without sacrifice. Instead, they focused on finding substitutes for sacrifice. These included engaging in good deeds, studying Torah and prayer.

Judaism is indeed an “ongoing moral revolution,” as Sacks suggests. Though we have not obsessively clung on to our past, we have not forgotten nor abandoned it. We followed it while “thinking through the future,” by revolutionizing ancient concepts for the purpose of adjusting, surviving, and eventually also thriving in new and unfamiliar terrain.

Am Yisrael Chai

Saturday, 5 March 2022

Creating a Holy Space for Utilizing Holy Time


“Alongside the holiness of place and person is the holiness of time. - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ZT”L

According to Judaism, G-d is the creator of both time and space. The apogee of the act of creation is the establishment of Holy time. “The first thing G-d declared holy,” writes Rabbi Sacks, “was a day: Shabbat, at the conclusion of creation.” Unlike other religions in the ancient near east, in Judaism, holiness of time preceded holiness of space or place.

It was not only the Shabbat that G-d sanctifies. The consecration of Time as an “essential medium of the spiritual life,” explains Sacks, the sphere where the encounter between the Divine and humans transpires to forge the holiness of time, runs like a golden thread through our Jewish tradition.

The Torah repeatedly stresses the prominence of Holy time. Prior to G-d’s directive to build a dwelling place, a “Holy space,” for Him, He commands Moshe to create “Holy time” by forming a calendar (Shemot 12:1-2). “Holy time itself,” asserts Rabbi Sacks, comes in two forms……There is Shabbat and there are the festivals…..Shabbat,” continues Sacks, “was sanctified by G-d at the beginning of time for all time. The festivals are sanctified by the Jewish People to whom was given the authority and responsibility for fixing the calendar.”

This week’s Parashah, Pikudei, the last one in the Book of Shemot presents the completion of the dimension of Holiness of space. Whilst in the story of creation, unlike time, no space was depicted or sanctified, in this Parashah, a Holy space for G-d, the Mishkan, His dwelling place among His People has been completed. Now, there is a Sacred space wherein Am Yisrael could practice their Holy times for which G-d has been preparing them.

The connection between Holy time (Shabbat) and Holy space (Mishkan) has already been established in a previous Parashah Ki Tisa (Shemot 31:1-:17). The reasons behind the insertion of the commandment regarding the Shabbat in that particular Parashah has engaged Jewish sages such as Rash”i and Ramba”m. The message that Torah wishes to convey to us there is to stress, yet again, the predominance of Shabbat and that regardless of how important the construction of the MIshkan is, it does not override the sanctity of the Shabbat.

We have already learned about the prohibition to perform any kind of work (melachah) on Shabbat and the importance of keeping it Holy in the Ten Commandments. “Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is Shabbat to the Lord your G-d. On it, you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns” (Shemot 20: 9-10). In Ki Tisa, the Torah even mentions death as the form of punishment for not observing the Shabbat (Shemot 31:15).

The repeated pairing of building of the Mishkan with the Commandment to observe Shabbat in the last few Parashot of the book of Shemot is done for a reason.

As we have seen in these Parashot culminating with the detailed allocations of the funds donated for the construction of the Mishkan, in this week’s Parashah, there is no doubt that the expenses of this magnificent building and its upkeep are enormous. What then, we need to ask ourselves, would be the purpose of such an opulent dwelling place for G-d without human involvement to worship Him? Without readiness to observe Holy time, what meaning is there for erecting a Holy place? What use is there to a structure with miraculous architecture if it is devoid of the human element? A sacred place on its own is nothing but a fa├žade which could not and would not preserve our heritage and our unending quest for a sublime future.

According to Rabbi Shavit Artson, Judaism is unique in the sense that, unlike other cultures in the ancient near east, it recognized “that holy space without holy time was mockery of true religion.” Rabbi Artson explains “that even a religion as profound and as joyous as Judaism cannot hope to transform our lives, let alone the world, if we will not invest the time necessary to let it work its wonders on our hearts. “If we don’t sanctify the Shabbat,” concludes rabbi Artson, “if we don’t regularly attend our synagogue’s worship services, if we don’t put aside time for Jewish learning on a regular basis, then we can’t hope to realize the potential that Judaism offers. “

Saturday, 26 February 2022

Babi Yar


“Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar

The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.

Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,

             I feel my hair changing shade to grey.”   -  

  Yevgeny Yevtushenko  ("Babi Yar" 1961)


In 2002, my daughter and I attended a summer program at the University of Vilna, Yiddish Institute. As part of the experience, and to satisfy the burning desire in me to reconnect with our recent family past, we toured the shtetles (Yiddish for small towns) where both my parents came from in Lithuania and Belarus. We also visited the mass graves where some of my young first cousins perished.  We lit a Yahrtzeit candle and recited the “Kaddish.”

Though none of our family members, at least not ones that we are aware of, were murdered in the Ukraine, I decided to go there and visit Babi Yar, the mass gravesite, near Kiev, where many of our Jewish brothers and sisters were brutally massacred (most of the estimated 100,000 victims were Jewish). It was our sole purpose for visiting that country. Beforehand and in a wish to make the visit more meaningful, I taught my daughter the powerful poem “Babi Yar,” which still brings tears to my eyes and from which the above quote is derived.

The eerie feeling that welcomed us as we approached the deep ravine, covered by the “wild grass,” still haunts my sleepless nights. The yelling and crying of men, women and children are still echoed against the walls of the chambers of my heart.  The image of their blood calling us from the ground still blurs my vision.

Unlike 1961, when Yevtushenko wrote his powerfully moving poem, nowadays, there is a monument which stands over Babi Yar. The eternal trees, now, just as during Yevtushenko's days, still “look sternly, as if passing judgement.” Babi Yar is an eternal reminder to my People and, hopefully, a lesson to others, not merely of what “man has made of man.” Rather, for me, it, also, symbolizes how, these days, similarly to other dark chapters in world history, Man has not done enough for his fellow Man when he could and should have. It is an admonition that at the defining moment of Truth, “walking the talk,” the talk of solidarity, support, and freedom is seized by paralysis. It stands to cautiously warn us that a friend in need is not as we are taught, always a friend indeed.

Unfortunately, the chronicles of history have proven to us, time and again, the validity of the words of our wise Jewish sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?”

Hoping and looking forward to better days for all.