A (late) note on Lag Ba’Omer

 The quality of Hod

Each week of the Omer period corresponds to one member of the Ushpizin, the mythical “guests” that we welcome into the succa during Succot. The list is as follows:

  1. a. Chessed = Avraham

    b. Gevura = Yitzhak

    c. Tiferet = Yaakov

    d. Netzah = Moshe

    e. Hod = Aharon

    d. Yesod = Yosef

    f. Malchut = David

The fifth week of the Omer period, then, corresponds to Aharon, the high priest, and to the quality of  hod. We would usually translate  hod as glory or awe, but Simon Jacobson of Chabad.org translates hod as “humility”. How can we understand this? More importantly, how do “glory” and “humility” combine to teach us about hod?

The first thing that bears mention is Aharon’s love of peace. The first aspect of the hod personality is the love of peace, the desire to affect peace in this world. When we love all of Gods creations, when we move to build institutions that build and ensure peace in the world, we are connecting to God’s aspect of hod.

In addition, as Aharon is tasked with serving God as the head of the sacrificial service, it is clear why he represents glory. We have a natural desire for our religious rituals to leave us awed. We want to come away from services “wowed” by the glory of God and inspired to do His holy work in this world.

The Torah and rabbinic sources describe a sacrificial service was indeed the height of God’s glory in this world. The high priest is said to have glowed when emerging from the Holy of Holies following the main Yom Kippur sacrifice. The viewing public is said to have been so moved by the experience of hearing the high priest utter the ineffable name of God that everyone instinctively bowed to the ground upon hearing. The descriptions of the scenario surrounding the Pesach offering is similarly moving. The glory of the entire picture is palpable, both in the written Torah and the rabbinic writings. It is clear how Aharon the High Priest represents this aspect of hod.

Hod and Hoda’ah

The word hod is related to the word hoda’ah, recognition. We must discover humility in order to truly serve God. An important key to serving Him is the ability to look at the world, to look at other people and to appreciate their greatness. In short – in order to serve God, we must develop the ability to look at the world around us and to say: Wow.

Aharon is not simply the high priest. He is also the older brother of Moshe. Aharon is clearly the lesser of the two brothers. But he happily accepts the fact that his little brother has far outstripped him. Moshe is the greatest leader mankind will ever know. He wins the Best Actor award, whereas Aharon will suffice with the Best Supporting Actor award. But there is no sense of jealousy or resentment. Aharon is happy to appear with his little brother in a supportive role, whether that means talking to Pharoah, trying to deal with the Jewish People when Moshe goes up on Mount Sinai for 40 days, and more.

This hoda’ah – recognition – that he will never measure up to Moshe is a fundamental ingredient of Aharon’s quality of hod. It also appears to be his greatest contribution. As a child of Amram and Yocheved, Aharon hardly needed to be taught to be humble vis-a-vis God. That was a lesson that all three children drank in “with their mother’s milk,” so to speak. But his humility vis-a-vis Moshe was not at all a given. It is that quality that opened the door for his service in the Mishkan and for his ultimate ability to grasp the glory aspect of hod.

It also bears mention that Aharon seems to be a tikkun for the repeated brotherly spats that define the book of Genesis. Whereas Cain, Yishmael, Eisav and Yehuda become jealous of Abel, Yitzhak, Yaakov and Yosef in the first book of the Torah, here we have a story where the little brother is greater than the elder one, but the first born man recognises his brother’s greatness. As such, he happily accepts his role in the world and sets about accomplishing that to the best of his ability.

Lag Ba’Omer: A turning point

All of which leads us to Lag Ba’Omer. I don’t claim to know the history of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai or when he died, or even whether Lag Ba’Omer was traditionally a day on which Jews celebrated. But if I might take a Rav Kook-like approach: If Rashbi did die on the 33rd day of the Omer – the Hod she b’Hod day – Rav Kook might argue that God chose that day to call Rabbi Shimon to heaven because it was a day imbued with special character. Perhaps Lag Ba’Omer is the turning point of our march between Pesach – pure, unadulterated chessed – and Shavuot – unbridled manifestation of God’s kingship and majesty. By developing inner humility, we develop the ability to truly glorify Him through prayer, introspection, mitzvot and especially helping others. Once we do that, we are ready to internalize the characteristics of Yosef (Yesod) and Malchut (David). 

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The sacred nature of Iyyar 5

Today is Iyyar 5, the 65th anniversary of the day Jewish sovereignty returned to the Land of Israel after a 1878 year hiatus. For secular and Orthodox Zionists alike, the day is a major calendar date: It is a day to reflect on and to give thanks for our accomplishments here, to pay tribute to the generations of Zionist leaders and thinkers who were not satisfied with the poor state and status that Jews had in Europe and who laid the groundwork for all that we have today.

For religious Zionists, Iyyar 5 has an additional element of significance: religious. In 1948, leading Zionist rabbis (including the country’s first chief rabbis) compared the day to other post-Biblical holidays such as Chanukah and Purim, and they ruled that the celebratory Hallel prayer should be recited to thank God for His benevolence on this special day.

But our synagogue did not recite Hallel this morning, nor did any other synagogue in Israel. The date might be Iyyar 5, but today has been declared Memorial Day, a day of mourning for the 23,085 soldiers who have died in the defence of our freedom. The Memorial and Independence Day celebrations have been pushed off by one day, in order to avoid having Memorial Day ceremonies on Saturday night.

It is noteworthy that this is a recent development; prior to 2004, our national holidays were pushed off only if they fell on Shabbat. But Saturday night services meant that work crews would necessarily work on Shabbat in order to get ready for the ceremonies, and religious politicians pushed a bill to amend the law. As a result, we have only marked Independence Day on the “correct” day twice since 2004 (in 2006 and 2009). We won’t do so again until 2020.

But if we Religious Zionists believe that there is halachic significance to the fifth day of Iyyar – just as we ascribe religious significance to the 25th of Kislev (Chanukah) and to the 14th day of Adar (Purim), then surely the day cannot pass without note. It is an accepted fact that our religious festivals do not mark approximate dates, but rather exact ones. Chanukah is marked on Kislev 25, regardless of the day of the week in any particular year.

Same for Purim, although there are some amendments made to the holiday when 15th of Adar (Shushan Purim) falls on Shabbat. In that instance, known as “triple Purim”, some of the holiday’s mitzvot are marked before or after the actual anniversary of the miracle.

But even then, we mark God’s benevolence on the 15th of Adar, because that is the precise day that He showed his grace on our nation.

Orthodox adherence to “messing around” with Independence Day seems to justify the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) position that Independence Day has little religious significance, and certainly not enough religious significance to alter our prayers. With our own agreement, we have given credence to a belief that is prevalent in Haredi society – that Religious Zionism is much more Zionist than religious, and far less concerned with Jewish law and the halachic process than we Orthodox Zionists claim. “You guys don’t even believe in the sanctity of Yom Ha’atzmaut,” one haredi friend of mine told me. “If you did, you’d consider Iyyar 5 as concrete a date as Chanukah.”

So what to do today, when we “should” be reciting Hallel and celebrating our independence, but instead we join together with our nation to pay respects to those soldiers and victims of terror who have died in defence of our country? Certainly we cannot recite Hallel at 7 am, only to bow our heads for the memorial siren at 11.

I would suggest two solutions to this dilemma. In diaspora communities abroad, I would suggest they recite Hallel and celebrate Israel’s independence on the correct day, Iyyar 5, regardless of the day of the week and irrespective of Israeli government decisions. From a religious perspective, I would suggest that this is the correct way to demonstrate our belief that Iyyar 5 was a seminal moment in Jewish history, not one to be glossed over.

In Israel, perhaps the correct way to mark Iyyar 5 as the country marks Memorial Day is to recite the al hanisim prayer, either as part of the standing Amida prayer, or as a separate prayer to be recited after the completion of the Amida. Personally, I have added al hanisim into my amida and Grace After Meals prayers for Independence Day, and I’ve told my kids to do the same. Seems to me that this is an appropriate way to mark a day that we believe is steeped with religious significance while also respecting the government decision to push off our civil celebrations in order to reduce the amount of Shabbat violations connected with the ceremonies. 

As we say in the Prayer for the State of Israel, may our country represent the first flowering of the final and ultimate Redemption. 

The essence of memory

The following is an expanded version of my opening remarks at tonight’s community Memorial Day service. 

What is memory? What is the goal of a Memorial Day? And most important – how can we remember our fallen soldiers and give honour to their sacrifice while also remaining sensitive to the pain of their bereaved families? How can we show support for bereaved parents, children, siblings without ripping open scars that never heal, without causing fresh wounds?

I would suggest that the answer to this question is to be found in the difference between the Hebrew phrase לזכור and the English verb “to remember”. In English, remembrance has a passive connotation – we think about a time gone by, a now deceased loved one, but there is little more than that. We smile at a happy memory, maybe wax nostalgic, but that’s about it.

In contrast, the Hebrew idea לזכור has a very active connotation. When the Torah says “remember the Sabbath day to make it holy”, our rabbis teach that this refers to the mitzvah of saying kiddush on Friday night. When we want to remember the exodus from Egypt, we eat the foods our ancestors ate on the way out of slavery. We sit in the booths that God housed the Children of Israel in the desert. We relive the experience, in order to internalise it and to have the lessons inspire us to live inspired, holy lives.

To quote Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, a 19th century Lithuanian scholar, “(the verse ‘remember the Sabbath day to make it holy’) means that we should think about what is so holy about Shabbat, about Who imbued Shabbat with holiness, etc. That should lead us to act in a special way on Shabbat.”

The list of examples is endless, but the lesson is clear: We remember the past by doing, by internalising emotions and lessons and morals and ethics into our lives, and allowing them all to change us, to inspire us, to push us to strive for spiritual heights.

Which brings us back to the notion of Yom Hazikaron, IDF Memorial Day. I often feel that we mark Memorial Day in Israel by ramping up the flames of pain, by telling searing stories of loss and singing songs about death and bereavement. There is a strong social contract for all Israelis not only to embrace and identify with the bereaved families, but also to internalise the burning pain of loss that comes with the loss of a loved one.

I would humbly, and respectfully, suggest that this phenomenon is not productive. Instead, I would place an active lens over Memorial Day. We have a holy obligation – a mitzvah – to remember our fallen and to honour the sacrifice they made for our freedom. To do this, we must consider and connect to their hopes and dreams, to build a Jewish democracy in the Land of Israel. We must internalise and act on their desires to strengthen Israel, militarily and ethically. We must never, ever, ever abandon their vision of living in a Jewish country at real peace with its neighbours, even when that notion appears to be nothing more than a pipe dream. 

May God give us the clarity of vision and the moral strength to remember our fallen by increasing our efforts to bring holiness, love and morality into the world. We owe the souls of the departed and their devastated families nothing less.

May their memories be blessed. 

Yedioth peddles hatred, intolerance

I can hardly be considered sympathetic to the Haredi cause, but this mornings “report” in Yedioth Aharonoth about a group of Haredim “celebrating” Yom Hashoa with a barbeque in Jerusalem’s Sacker Park is simply beyond contempt. One is left with the strong impression that the journalist, Danny Adino-Ababa, set out for his day’s reporting with one thing in mind: To find a “story” that would somehow, anyhow, make Haredim look bad. And voila! What could be better than a Haredi celebration of Holocaust Remembrance Day? See how primitive and unfeeling those damn dossim are? They can’t even honour the Holocaust, for God’s sake!

At the risk of being labeled a “shill for the Haredi lobby” (to paraphrase a talkback I got about an article I wrote years ago), perhaps I’ll point out something that Mr Adino-Ababa chose not to: Maybe, just maybe, the Haredi young people who gathered in Sacker Park were there because it is the last week of the yeshiva holiday month (known in Yeshivish as Bein Hazmanim), one of the few times during the year that leisure activities are actually sanctioned by the community? Could it be that they didn’t set out to violate the “sanctity” of Holocaust Remembrance Day, but rather that they don’t recognise the sanctity of a state-sanctioned memorial day at all? Is it possible that they only intended to have an afternoon in the park, with no underlying sinister motivations, but once a moronic journalist showed up asking questions about a memorial day they don’t recognise, they seized the opportunity to rankle a sector of Israeli society that they already view with deep disdain and suspicion?

The underlying suggestion – that Haredim don’t honour the memory of the 6 million – is so outrageous as to belie belief. Anyone who has spent even a minimum of time around Haredim know that the Holocaust is a prevalent, ever-topic. The pre-occupation with the Holocaust, both in the yeshiva and chassidic worlds, has defined the extreme emotional connection to “the way things were,” even though the way things are today bear little resemblance to pre-war Europe. Haredi young people of all stripes today are raised and nourished on the stories of sacrifice and religious heroism in the ghettos and camps of 1940s Europe, and to mourn the loss of the luminaries who led the Orthodox world at that time. Far from ignoring the Holocaust and memory, the Haredi public has internalised the Holocaust in a real, palpable way.

Most of my readers, and all my acquaintances, know my feelings about the sanctity of the State of Israel and the religiously significant nature of the decisions made by the Knesset. I suggest, however, that Holocaust Remembrance Day is an exception. One is left with a strong feeling that the determination of 28 Nissan for our national Holocaust memorial day was chosen not despite Orthodox objections, but rather in order to poke the Orthodox establishment in the eye. There is little historical significance to the date – the Warsaw Ghetto uprising did not begin on this date, but rather two weeks earlier, on the eve of Passover. There is no reason the day could not have been marked on 13 Shvat, the day Auschwitz was liberated. Or the 12th of Tevet, the day that Abba Kovner urged Jews in the Vilna Ghetto to rise up and fight their oppressors.

But given the anti-religion sentiment prevalent in nascent Israel, the very fact that Orthodox communities objected to a memorial day in the celebratory month of Nissan was enough to cement the observance. Now you’re coming to criticise the victims of that eye poking?

We already have a national memorial day to mark the Holocaust, and all the pogroms that preceded it, and every other tragedy that has struck our nation over the past 3000 years. It is called Tisha B’av. Have you ever heard of that, Mr Adino-Ababa? Would you know what that day signifies, even if you have heard of it? And most importantly, would you care to explain why the Holocaust stands apart from all other Jewish tragedies, such that it should not be marked on the traditional day of Jewish mourning?

Adino-Ababa’s article is an appalling example of the poverty of Israeli journalism, the lack of standards to which journalists are held, and of the abuse of press freedoms to promote hatred and anger. He, and the editors who ran the story, are beyond contempt.