Friday, 14 September 2018

A shattered Dream for one, a Blessing for others





Of all the verses of this week’s Parasha, one is branded in my mind more than others. It is Deuteronomy 32;52, where G-d tells Moshe:

Therefore, you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel."

Imagine coming very close to your life’s goal yet never fulfilling it. Imagine seeing your long-woven dream close to being realized and watcing it slipping away. How about running that marathon that you have been training to for months merely to find out that as close as you reach the finishing line, you will never get to it?

Must be awfully frustrating.

The above verse captures, in my view, the essence of that feeling, that sentiment. That bittersweet aftertaste is saturated with the emotions of grievance, irritation and desertion.

In 1992, on a trip to Jordan, I was standing where Moshe was when watching his dream fade away. I remember looking into the distance, seeing the Land I so love while feeling every fiber of my nationhood vibrating in me, bursting to break into an elating dance, the kind one experiences when one becomes united with the universe that surrounds us.  So close yet so far away. So attainable yet unreachable. Almost touching it yet more evasive than ever.

I can still feel the tears welling in my eyes soothing the flames of fire that the dry wind and the burning desert sun ignited and fueled. The growing lump in my throat chokes and stifles the soundless shrieks in the face of the injustice committed on that mountain. The deafening silence that surrounds me threatens to devour me.

Unlike Moshe, I walked the Land, I planted trees, worked, tended and helped free it. I am one of his humble servants who swore to guard it, watch over my People and defend it for our posterity. How much luckier can one get?

I, along with many other members of our wonderful People pledge to carry Moshe’s legacy and continue to fulfill the dream he led us to realize.

And “Our journey is just beginning.” May it continue, and may we go from strength to strength as we resume our life’s mission and the fulfillment of his vision along this Holy Land.

Shanah Tova and Gmar Chatima Tovah

Friday, 7 September 2018

Choosing Life





הַעִידֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ: הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ, הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה; וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים, לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ " This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live - Deuteronomy 30:19


Living is about choices. Living well is about making the RIGHT choices. The choices we make have a great impact on our lives and in many cases those whose lives we touch.

Who among us does not wish their life to be anything but happy, rewarding and fulfilling?

In my view this week’s Parasha, Nitzavim (standing in front of G-d) where Am Yisrael reaffirms the Covenant we willingly and enthusiastically entered with G-d at Mount Sinai, is what Judaism and our great tradition, in fact our whole Jewish existence, is all about. It is encapsulated in one commandment, the center of this Parasha, “Choose Life.” 
If that is a commandment, you may ask, where then is the choice here? After all, selecting one’s life’s path implies making decisions through free will. Commandments, generally, dictate actions, warnings and provide precautionary measures aimed at saving lives and preventing death.

Opting to “choose life,” is, I believe, looking at the glass as half full, finding the positive in every experience, getting the most out of it and reaping its rewards. It kind of forces one to revert to the old cliché, “Look at every day as the first day of the rest of your life.” It keeps one dreaming, encourages and pushes growth, dispels and removes fear. Life is the most precious present. One does not and should not even contemplate discarding of such a gift.

In addition to one’s own reward that result from choosing life, G-d also lists a whole host of other benefits that He will bestow upon those who will follow His Covenant and pick Life. “וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָֽנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית :הַזֹּ֔את. . כִּי֩ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֶשְׁנ֜וֹ פֹּ֗ה עִמָּ֨נוּ֙ עֹמֵ֣ד הַיּ֔וֹם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאֵ֨ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵינֶ֛נּוּ פֹּ֖ה עִמָּ֥נוּ הַיּֽוֹם” (And not only with you am I entering this Covenant, but with those who are here and those who are not here. Deuteronomy 29:13-14). This Covenant embraces and binds future generations as well. It is the ticket to eternity, the promise of Hope and Continuity.

Imagine waking up in the morning to such a commandment and gearing the direction of your day, your goals, your objectives and your choices towards one end, choosing Life. Imagine making that commandment your pillar of Cloud during the day and Pillar of Fire at night, using it as the compass that will guide your perpetual journey, lead you eventually to a destination crowned with the petals of brilliance and bliss, ensure your safety and well-being and above all pave your way to a gratifying future to you and your posterity.

This is the essence of Am Yisrael and the fabric of our Jewish tradition. During times of havoc, pain and destruction, our defiant spirit never gives up. We pick up the pieces of our, pogroms, Shoah, Terror and wars torn and shattered subsistence and in following that commandment, we build bigger and better tabernacles out of them. We are, by far, the most optimistic nation on earth. It is the secret to our success and to our intellectual and spiritual prosperity. It is the elixir of our ongoing presence in a world that on more than one occasion wished to bring about our demise. It is the adage that keeps echoing, day and night on the walls of our Jewish core, “AM YISRAEL CHAI.”


Shanah Tova and may this year be a year of Love, Joy and choosing Life.




Monday, 27 August 2018

A Little Known Genocide







History has been laced with genocides. Some, however, received much coverage and are known to many, albeit by name only.

But few, so it seems, know about the first genocide of the 20th century, the one that took place not on European soil and by members of the Second Reich, a few decades before the rise of Hitler.  I am referring to the genocide committed against the Herero Tribe of Namibia, a genocide that left them close to extinction.

I recently spent a couple of weeks with members of the Herero Tribe. What a wonderful experience it was. I visited their villages, their homes and their schools. They are generally happy people, hospitable and polite. Looking at them, it would be hard to trace any hint of the fact that merely two generations ago, attempts were made to rid the world of them and their beautiful heritage.
That is why I set out to learn as much as I could about this little known atrocity, share it and educate others about it.

For that, I will have to take you, the readers, back in time to 1884. That year, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck assembled what has come to be known as “The Berlin Conference.” Its purpose was to determine the future of the African continent. As part of it, Bismarck designated South West Africa as part of the German Empire and suitable for settlement.

 

Following that declaration, the Germans began to appropriate more and more land from the local population while at the same time introducing laws and policies aimed at limiting and restricting it. One of the reasons that the presence of the Second Reich was moderately tolerated in that part of the world was because in many instances, its representatives acted as intermediaries between feuding tribes. However, as it turns out only when it suited them. The treaties they engineered were dubious, ambiguous and drawn merely to serve their interests. According to Dutch historian Jan-Bart Gewald, the German colonial governor “Leutwein, gladly offered military support to controversial chiefs, because violence and land seizure among Africans worked to his advantage.”
 In the early days of the German colonial venture in Namibia, the Herero People which, along with other tribes, were part of Namibia’s indigenous population, were still strong both economically and socially and were thus able to fend off German colonization efforts.  The Rimferpest plague which struck their herds in 1897,though, left them fragile both economically, as it destroyed their main source of wealth, as well as physically since it shuttered their source of protein.

That, however, did not prevent from the Herero to stand firm against the endeavours by the Germans to take over their land. By 1904, tensions rose to a peak and under the leadership of their paramount chief, Samuel Maherero, the Herero rebelled against the Germans, a rebellion that turned into a full-fledged war in which 123 Germans were killed. Kaiser Wilhelm II sent thousands of troops to fight the reels. The Herero were defeated and fled to the Kalahari Desert, where many were left to die of hunger and thirst.

What, to me, was the most devastating part of this whole chapter was that all members of the Herero and other tribes that the Germans came across, men women and children, were sent to concentration camps where they were used as slave labour to build railways and buildings which can still be seen throughout Namibia.




According to an article published by the BBC in 2011,
German scientists collected skulls of Herero members, and shipped them to Germany “to perform experiments seeking to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans over black Africans.” 



This, of course, helped plant the “seeds for the Nazi genocidal ideology which was later followed up by similar research of other “inferior” groups by the likes of Dr. Mengele and his ilk.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Judaism and Slavery






As some of you know, I have recently returned from a trip to some parts of Africa.

Each time I visit that continent, I cannot help but recall that dark chapter of its history, the one relating to the slave trade. An estimate of 12 million slaves entered the Atlantic Trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade database. Many died on board the ships that carried them and those that survived were subject to horrendous treatment upon arriving in the New World.

Slavery is an old practice that was prevalent in the ancient world. It is first mentioned in the Hamurabi Code of Laws. Even the Tanach addresses the issue, though overall, it opposes such a practice as reflected in Leviticus 25:55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Personal freedom is considered a prime value in Jewish Scriptures and is even given a special recognition in the first of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Moreover, Torah laws forbid the theft of people for the purpose of selling them as slaves (Deuteronomy, 24:7). Whoever engages in such antics is sentenced to death (Exodus 21:16). The law mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:16 which forbids the surrendering of an escaped slave, back to his or her owner, is an exception in the ancient near east and is unique to Judaism.

The Hebrew word for “slave” is eved and is derived from the word La’avod (to work). It means “a non-paid worker.” Slaves, according to the Torah, are the property of their owners until the time of their release.

Unlike modern day slavery (which unfortunately we still witness in some parts around the world), in both the Hamurabi Code and the Tanach, it is a form of paying debts. A person who was unable to pay off his or her debt would give one of their family members to the lender as a payoff. Both sources believe that it is a way to restore the debtors to their previous status in a “more dignified” manner and can be done by court order only.

One of the differences between the two sources is that the “slavery” period is only three years, according to Hamurabi, whereas the Tanach ( Exodus and Deuteronomy) doubled the period to six years probably in an effort to synchronize it with the six working days of the week or the six years before Shmita. That, perhaps, is the reason why, according to the Torah, the master is required to bestow gifts on the slave upon his release.

It is also noteworthy to mention, at this stage, the essential difference between the verses addressing the slave in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Unlike the former, the latter equates male and female slaves which, for ancient times and patriarchal societies was rather unique.

Another difference between the Hamurabi Code and the Torah concerns disobediant slaves. While both discuss branding their ear for following their insubordination and rebellion against their master, the Hamurabi Code is a form of punishment involving the removal of the ear while in the Torah, it merely involves piercing and comes to symbolize “eternal slavery.”

The aforementioned difference is an excellent example of how the Biblical law maker takes an ancient law and bends it to suit the needs, values of the Yisraelite culture of the First Temple era.

Though the above discussion applies only to Hebrew slaves, Maimonides (1138-1205) was the first to address the duty towards the humane treatment of gentile slaves. In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Slaves 1: 6), he expresses uneasiness with the treatment of gentile slaves which the Torah sanctions to work with “harsh labour” (b'farekh).

It is not in vain that Maimonides is considered the first ever abolitionist.

Let me finish with some of his quotes on slavery which are laced with Tanach quotes, all reflecting his wisdom and compassion in accordance with Jewish Scriptures and moral code:

“It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labour (farekh). Although this is the law, piety and of wisdom require a person to be compassionate, pursue justice and not to overburden his slaves, or inflict distress upon them.

He should feed them and give them drinks from all his available food and drink. This was the practice of the ancient Sages who would feed their slaves the same dishes that they themselves partook and feed their animals and slaves before they did themselves.

As is written in Psalms 123:2 “As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy.”

Similarly, a master should not abuse a slave verbally or physically. Torah only intended work for them, not humiliation. One should speak kindly to them and pay attention to their grievances as Job 31:13-15 states:  

“If I have denied justice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had grievance against me, what will I do when G-d confronts me? What will I answer when called to account? Did not He who made me in the womb make them? Did not the same One form us both within our mothers?  

May we all follow in the footsteps of Maimonides’s prudent and sensible legacy and protect and defend the dignity of Man.

Shabbat Shalom




Sunday, 29 July 2018

Atta Farhat – A Druze hero




I trust that by now, many have heard about the New “Basic Law,” recently passed by the Yisraeli Knesset. The law which is based on the essence of Medinat Yisrael, as stated in our Declaration of Independence, changes nothing on the ground. It merely anchors and reaffirms the essence of the Jewish state.

Members of some minorities are up in arms protesting it. Thankfully, not all. Some, like my dear friend, Atta Farhat, head of the Druze Zionist Council, a proud and loyal Yisraeli Druz, supports and endorses it.

I spoke to him yesterday afternoon. The following are his words.

“Yisrael is the National Home of the Jewish People. This basic principle appears in all basic national and international documents pertaining to the State of Yisrael, starting with the Balfour Declaration, through the British Mandate, UN Resolution 181 and culminating in our Declaration of Independence.

Up until now, this  principle was not anchored in the Law. At the same time, Yisrael has always been committed to provide, equal rights to all its citizens, regardless of race, religious creed, race or  gender.

The State of Yisrael is a Jewish and Democratic state. Its Democratic nature is expressed in a variety of laws and rulings of its Supreme Court. The basic laws including the basic law honouring the dignity of Man and his freedom, stressed it. This law merely focuses on the Jewish identity aspect of the Jewish state and defines the need for self determination of the Jewish People in Eretz Yisrael.

The new law, completes the basic law calling to honour Man and his freedom and does not contradict it. It is nothing but another effort to cement those laws of the State of Yisrael . It adds and will also include an identity clause.

The law also anchors existing values and symbols which determine the nature of Medinat Yisrael, its Holy Days as has been the practice from its inception. It reaffirms the Law of Return, which reflects Yisrael as the National Homeland of the Jewish People and which was recognized by the Supreme Court as an important basic law. It gave these laws a constitutional status.


Image result for Atta Farhat

This Law also states that Yisrael will open and strengthen Jewish settlements. This springs out of the understanding that this is a National value towards fulfilling the Zionist dream, a principle that has guided previous Yisraeli governments. Similarly, and parallel to this, present and previous governments have worked towards providing solutions in the non-Jewish sectors of the Yisraeli population. The law does not aim at creating separate communities in Yisrael based on religion and nationality.

Additionally, the law sets practical objectives which express the core of Yisrael as the National Home of the Jewish People: its emblem, its flag, its language and the right of return, among others. It provides a guarantee by the state of Yisrael to work and strengthen the connection between the Jewish People in Yisrael and the Diaspora.
According to this law, the Arabic language will receive a special status. Its inclusion in state institutions will be stated in law. There is a clause in this new law that ensures that the status of the Arabic language will not be hurt.

This law is necessary, especially these days, when many try to shake the foundations of the rights of the Jewish People to Medinat Yisrael to settle and live in its ancestral and historical Homeland yet toil ceaselessly to recognize a Palestinian state. This is hypocrisy and double standard and double moral.

Finally, many of the clauses that appear in this Law appear in many other Western Democracies.

Those I represent, myself included, oppose turning Yisrael into a “state of all of its citizens,” its infiltrators as it poses a threat to the continued existence of the Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

Finally, the Left and the NIF have joined hands to create a rift between the Jewish People and our Fellow Druze.”

Friends, it is people like Fatta that Yisrael needs more of. Let us all join hands and support him and the uphill battle that he is currently facing.

Am Yisrael Chai

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

When a Child's Toy Becomes a Weapon of Terror






“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.” 
― 
Dave Pelzer

Is there anyone here who does not recall the song of joy that filled their heart upon seeing those brightly coloured rubber sacs inflated with air and then sealed at the neck, used as a children's toy or a decoration? 

We call them Balloons. 

They have been an inseparable part of and associated with happy events and the celebration of special milestones in our life. They come in different shapes, colours and they generally carry a cheerful and optimistic atmosphere.

That is and should continue to be the sole purpose and sole use of balloons.

Some, unfortunately, have transformed this token of bliss into a weapon of terror. They have burst the legacy of these playthings and turned them into a nightmare, an inferno. We have witnessed it in the recent antics of some Gazans as reflected in the thousands of acres of scorched fields on the Yisraeli side of the border.

I cannot help but compare this new form of warfare to a similar phenomenon some had been through a couple of years ago. Surely, many remember the movie “It” about an evil clown that causes havoc and destruction. Any child would tell us that clowns are meant to bring only joy, laughter and pleasure.  Imagine turning clowns, the source of bliss to many children be it at parties or hospitals, into a subject of dread and apprehension.

Can we even begin to fathom the effects of such antics on the hearts, minds and souls of those who witness the metamorphosis of their childhood symbols of happiness and elation into a vision of destruction and death? Do we even have the tools to measure the damage inflicted upon young lives and the shattering of dreams of a bright future? How will anyone ever be able to explain to them that at the end of the day, we have failed them? Will we ever be able to rectify the denial of hope, of aspirations and the fantasy lining of the fabric of their innocence - all privileges that no child should be deprived of?

I was among those young souls a few days during Operation “Protective Edge,” several years ago. I witnessed their pale faces, their sad expressions. That was war. Every child knows that war is bad. I doubt they have had any expectations then, even at their young tender age.

However, to depict symbols of innocence, toys and tokens of joy and reassurance and turn them into weapons of terror is a measure that NO children, wherever they dwell, should ever experience.

Hoping for better days for all.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Temple Menorah - What Did It Really Look Like?







“And six branches shall extend from its sides, three branches of the menorah out of one side, and three branches out of the other side”  Shemot (Exodus) 25:32

Any reader of chapter 25 in the Book of Shemot (Exodus) which is dedicated to the customs associated with the Tabernacle, will quickly notice that much attention is given to the description and the embossing of the fine details and ornaments of the Menorah. Little or rather nothing is said about the shape of its six branches nor its stand or base.  
Why, some may ask, the sudden interest in it?

Actually, it is not sudden. Many, and for a long time, have tried to discern what the Temple Menorah really looked like.

Of course, we are all familiar with the one depicted on Titus’ Arch in Rome, the one that was among the spoils of the Temple which were taken to Rome by the Jewish slaves following the destruction of the Second Temple. Many would also recognize that the emblem of the State of Yisrael, the Jewish Homeland, is fashioned after it.


There are, so it seems, some inconsistencies between what we have been familiar with and the description of this holy Jewish symbol in traditional sources.

One of them is the description of the Menorah given in the Book of Zechariah. It is different than the one that stood in the First Temple. The one in Zechariah has an added feature, a “bowl at the top,” which served as a vessel to hold the oil. -  a detail that is not mentioned in the instructions given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

That, however, is a minor detail which is not given much attention in Jewish writings. The added “bowl,” can probably be attributed to and be the result of a more developed version of the original Menorah, a kind that might have been more widespread during second Temple period.

What I find fascinating about the Menorah, though, relates more to the shape of the branches and its stand. The branches are generally illustrated as semi-circular in shape, as we can see on Titus’ Arch.
Archaeological evidence, as in many other incidences, helps us shed light on this issue. A Jewish coin, for instance, minted in 40 BCE shows the Menorah as having curved branches thus lending support to the suggestion that the Menorah had indeed semi – rounded branches.

Another archaeological revelation which renewed interest in the shape of the Temple Menorah was the subject of a Press Release by the Yisrael Antiquities Authority in August 2011. It announced the discovery of “an engraving of the Temple Menorah on a stone object” (which I personally saw) in a two millennia old drainage tunnel near the City of David.



The Authority’s release went on to suggest that “a passerby who saw the Temple Menorah with his own eyes….incised his impressions on a stone.” The drawing, albeit a crude one, clearly shows that the branches are more straight than circular (the depiction of the base proves that the passerby could have drawn curved lines had he witnessed the Menorah as having rounded arms or branches).

Some Jewish sources provide other insights into the question of the shape of the Menorah’s branches. Rashi, for instance, suggests in one of his commentaries on the Torah that the branches of the Menorah “extended upward in a diagonal.…” fashion rather than in a curved, rounded one. The Rambam, like Rashi, though he never makes any definitive statement concerning the branches, shares his view on it. In his commentaries on the Mishneh Torah and Mishnah, he adds drawings which leave no room for doubt. In them, he depicts the branches as extending diagonally and in straight lines.  



Rabbeinu Avraham, the son of Maimonides, states: “The six branches... extended upward from the center shaft of the menorah in a straight line, as depicted by my father, and not in a semi-circle as depicted by others.”
A Depiction of the Menorah Based on the Drawings of the RambamAs in the case of the engraving found in the City of David and judging by the fact that the curvature of the base is drawn so precisely, most likely with the aid of a compass, it is apparent that the artist could just have easily drawn curved branches had he so desired.
The base of the original Temple Menorah has also been a subject of controversy for many years. The one carved on Titus’ Arch is very different from the one found in the City of David. It also differs from the drawings attributed to the Rambam. The excavators of the City of David were quoted as saying that the graffito found in there “clarifies [that] the base of the original [ancient] menorah … was apparently tripod shaped.”
The unique, two-tiered, broad, solid and hexagonal Menorah base depicted on Titus’ Arch, has led many to believe that it is nothing like the Menorah would have looked like for two reasons. The first pertains to the fact that the Greeks discovered all polygons much later, during the Pythagorean era. Though, early Egyptians and ancient Chinese developed such geometry, it was mostly used for navigational purposes.

The second, and a more germane reason, relates to Jewish law. Archeologists concluded that some of the panels of the Menorah carved on the Arch (though partially eroded), display creatures such as eagles, sea serpents, dragons and other heathen images which Jews would not have allowed to be present at the Temple.

Experts agree that there is no reason to question the authenticity of the depiction in Titus’ Arch. Its details and its size reflect the sculpture’s close familiarity with the Temple vessels as described in the Tanach and various other Jewish sources.

The question, however, remains, how can the disparity between the two representations of the Menorah base be compromised?

There is no doubt that the Menorah as we see it on the Arch bears a strong Roman influence. The eagles are a well-known symbol of Roman sovereignty. Dragons were a prevalent ornamental motif in Roman art. A similar base albeit with more pagan images, was excavated in Didymus, Turkey where there once stood a Roman temple.

These clues have led scholars to the almost unavoidable conclusion that the disposition towards Roman art coupled with Jewish prohibition of pagan images could be ascribed to one person, Herod, who throughout his appointment as “King of Judea” tried to impose Hellenistic traditional concepts and values upon his oppressed Jewish subjects.

If that was indeed the case, it is safe to assume then that the Menorah plundered from the Temple was not the one that the Maccabees had intended it to be following their rebellion, a symbol of religious freedom. Rather, it was another attempt to suppress it. This might also be the reason why the Menorah was not present on Jewish coins commemorating the Jewish rebellion in 69-70 and 135. Other symbols from the Temple were used in its place.

Regardless of the changes and the origin of some of the details of the Menorah, it has become a symbol of Jewish religious freedom and political sovereignty and Jewish pride for the Eternal Jewish Homeland in Eretz Yisrael.

Am Yisrael Chai!