Thursday, December 25, 2008

Chanukah: The Holiday of Miracles

Yes, the holiday of Chanukah is upon us.  Tonight is the 5th night of the eight day holiday.  The holiday of gifts and giving.  Oops, wrong holiday.

I was wondering the other day if anyone would celebrate Chanukah if it didn't coincide with Christmas.  Now don't get me wrong.  I enjoy gift giving and for sure - gift getting, but this isn't what Chanukah is about.

It's about miracles.  Expecting the unexpected.

There are two types of miracles.  First is what I call the "obvious" miracle.  Something that you look at and say, "Wow, that's the finger of G-d!"

The other is the non-obvious miracle.  G-d also uses natural events to show us His involvement in our lives.  Chanukah has examples of both types - the obvious and non-obvious.

The obvious miracle is the miracle of the oil.  You may remember the story.  The Maccabees finish fighting the Greek-Syrians and return to Jerusalem to find the Temple trashed.  They needed oil to light the Menorah with and were only able to find enough for one day.  The Maccabees go ahead and light what they have and the oil lasts eight days.

The miracle of the oil is an open and obvious miracle.  We can see it clearly.

The next type of miracle we see with the success of the Maccabees over the Greek-Syrian army.  We celebrate the victory of the few against the many.  If we think about it, it's not that big a deal.  We've seen small armies beat large armies before.  But then if we think further about it and add a few more details it becomes more interesting.  These "few" were made up of farmers, teachers and everyday people.  The "many" was made up of professional soldiers.  The equation has shifted.  The miracle is made more clear.  Using the events at hand, G-d took the "few" and made them mighty enough to get the job done.

We're always on the lookout for the obvious miracles.  We want to see the sea split, see the lion lie down with the lamb, and have G-d speak to us personally.

What we don't notice are those not so obvious miracles that happen all the time.  We just have to notice them.  We also should appreciate them.

Think back over your day, or your week.  I think back even further a few winters ago when I spun out on the highway, doing a 180 and ending up on the side of the road facing into traffic.  When breaking the situation down, there are many parts to be thankful for.  First of all, that I didn't hit anyone else as I spun around across the other lanes.  Second, that I wasn't hurt in that accident.  Third, that my car wasn't damaged in any way and I was able to finish my drive home.

That spin out is not an "obvious" sort of miracle.  We could look at that and say what a lucky coincidence it all was.  I would say that it's important to recognize this for what it is... a tremendous non-obvious miracle.

Instead of looking for the in-your-face miracles, we should begin training ourselves to look for G-d in the smaller things that are always happening.  Hopefully not only during emergencies and difficult times, but also when things are going well.  Feeling good, appreciating what you have, and even those parking spots that open up for you right when you need them.

Miracles are something to be noticed.  Which means it's also possible to miss them too.  Chanukah is about miracles, both types.  Take a moment to think about the miracles that happen in your life.  If you can't think of any off the top of your head - start taking notice now, using Chanukah as a starting point.

Chag Sameach!  Enjoy!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Living and Dying for G-d

Most of us live with our beliefs.  We wake up in the morning and hopefully conduct ourselves in a way that would make G-d proud of us.  Being honest in business, helping others in need, improving ourselves as a whole are some of the things that we attempt to do every day.

Some of us have the opportunity to die for our beliefs.  This is not something that Judaism encourages us to do.  There are very few times (three) that we are specifically told that we have to give up our lives for G-d.  However, there are other times where we are not given a choice. 

When the Chabad House in Mumbai, India was invaded in a very coordinated attack these Jews lost their lives.  The terrorists entered two hotels and the Nariman House, known for being a Jewish center of activity.  When a Jew is murdered for the sole reason that he is Jewish, that Jew lost his life in honor of G-d's name.  These Jews were murdered because they had been in a Jewish building.  These people who we now mourn are martyrs.

While those visiting the Nariman House were perhaps only tourists, they had made a conscious effort to do something Jewish while they were in India.  Perhaps it was to get kosher food, or attend a meditation class, we don't know why they were there at that time.  What we do know is that they were there doing something to make themselves better Jews by understanding what Judaism is about.

Rabbi and Rebbitzen Holtzberg zt"l were there (their two year old son was saved by the cook) not for themselves - but to serve other Jews.  They were there to bring G-d to that corner of the world where many Israelis come after their stint in the army.  That's why they were there, an unselfish perspective that many of us do not have.

We're told that the terrorists were ultimately looking for Americans, Brits and Jews.  While many of us identify ourselves with our host countries (myself included), it takes a moment like this to realize that we are more than just "American", "British", or "something else" - we're Jewish.  When there are those who want to murder us just because we're Jewish it is worthwhile to find out what it actually means to be Jewish.

The Holtzbergs serve as example to all of us what it means to live and die for G-d.  They lived their lives according to the Torah - and were murdered because they were Jews.   They were souls that completed their jobs here on earth and have found their places in the World to Come.  Tonight is Shabbat.  Even if you have never lit Shabbat candles, please do so tonight.  (For instructions, click here.)  Do a mitzvah in their memories.

From a former guest at the Chabad House:
I was in Mumbai this year on business.  A city from Dante's hell, filthy and crowded beyond a westerners nightmares.  There is no kosher food or minyan in Mumbai, so I went to the Chabad house.  They have 3 minyanim a day and ... the shaliach and his wife serve meals.  There are 20-50 people eating there per meal, mostly Israelis and businessmen, many frei (non-religious).  I asked Rabbi Holtzberg "where do you get the food from?"  He replied "I shecht 100 chickens a week to serve 400 fleishig meals, and my wife cleans them.  Since there's no pas yisroel here, my wife bakes bread (for about 800 people per week) every bit of food is home made."

They ask for no no money and charge nothing.  By every meal he says a dvar Torah, to inspire the orchim [guests].  Avraham Avinu would be proud of Rabbi Holtzberg.
Baruch Dayan HaEmet.  G-d is the true Judge.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jewish Hostages in Mumbai

Jews are some of those being held by Muslim terrorists in Mumbai, India.  Rabbi Gavriel Holzberg and his wife Rivka have been seen unconscious but alive after the Chabad center in the Nariman building was invaded by the terrorists.  Information is sketchy, but it seems that the couple's two year old son and the cook were allowed to leave the building.  There may be up to six more Israelis being held hostage.

Chabad Lubavitch is a movement made up of Jews that follow the teachings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.  Many of these Chabadniks have spread themselves around the world in order to give Jews an opportunity to explore their Jewish roots and heritage no matter where they might live.  They truly believe in the Jewish concept of loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself.

We pray for the the safety of Rabbi Gavriel and his wife Rivka along with all of those who are being held by the terrorists.  Their Jewish names are: Gavriel Noach ben Frieda Bluma and Rivka bas Yehudis.

Please take a moment to say Tehillim/Psalms 20, traditionally said in times of trouble.

The Financial Times has a good article with a bit more information.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jewish Identity and Pride (what's that?)

Kol Yisrael Araivim Zeh La'Zeh - The Jewish People are responsible for one another.  The "Buddy System" at work.

What a crazy concept!  Why should I be responsible for you and why would I ever want you to be responsible for my actions?

The Jewish People make up one whole "body".  When a part of our physical body hurts - our whole body seems to hurt.  If I stub my toe I don't feel good again until it feels better.

The same goes for the Jewish People.  When one part of the Jewish People are hurting - we all hurt.  When our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel need our support - we should be there for them.  When Jewish identity across America boils down to having a lox and cream cheese bagel, it should hurt us as well.  

If the Jewish identity can be eaten, what does it say for Jewish pride?  How can we have pride in something we know nothing about?  A 4000 year history full of heroic people (yes, men and women) doing heroic things and most of us don't know anything about it.  Jewish pride has been replaced by the mantra "Never Again" - with the focus on a horrific drop in the historical bucket of Jewish history.

What does identity and pride have to do with being responsible for each other?  Why should I care about you, and why should you care about me?  A story will better illustrate this point.  Two men are in a rowboat.  One man pulls out a drill and starts drilling a hole into the bottom of the boat.  The second man yells at him saying, "What do you think you're doing?!"  The first man says, "Hey, mind your own business!"

The obvious problem is that a hole in the boat will drown them both.  The lack of Jewish identity and pride hurt all the Jewish People, not just those who "choose" to opt out.  We are responsible for each other, it's time to notice there's a problem.  The question then becomes - what do we do about it?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Moment of Introspection

Today I went to the funeral of a friend's mother.  Funerals are always heart-wrenching, no matter if you know the person who died or not.  I went to support my friend, but even so there's no way around the thoughts that wander around your head while sitting in the pews.

This isn't (unfortunately) my first funeral, and it brought to mind several things.  All of it centered around what we have left at the end of our lives.  No matter if our lives are long or short, we will always be gone "too soon".  Our deeds are all that we have at the end of the day.

Judaism is not an all or nothing religion. It is a realistic religion.  G-d knows who we are as individuals and sees the situations we find ourselves in.  It's the process and progress we make that is the difference.  Working on one mitzvah and being unsuccessful is better than not trying at all.

We will all be gone "too soon".  Not meaning to be depressing here, it's important to take an accounting of our day to day lives.  Sure, we went to work - spent a lot of energy - and came home again.  Did we do something for someone else at any point?  Did we work on improving ourselves at all during that long busy day?

We stumble to the end of the day exhausted.  Looking for a few moments to improve ourselves seems impossible.  But this is not a new problem.  
Hillel said: not say, "When I am free, I will study," for perhaps you will never be free. (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 2:4)
We have to make time for ourselves and others, otherwise there will be no time.  Funerals are a good time, and usually our only time, for introspection, since we lead such hectic, busy lives.  Take a moment to think about your life.  Don't wait for a something as serious as a funeral.  You are a creation.  G-d's creation.  You are also your own creation.  G-d gave you the ability to create yourself.  Who is the person you want to create?  What kind of a person do you want to be at the end of your all "too short" life?  This is your opportunity.
Rabbi Yaakov said: This world is like the antechamber before the World to Come; prepare yourself in the antechamber so that you may enter the banquet hall.  (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 4:16)
What is your mitzvah?  Choose something small that you can handle and stick to it.  There is nothing "minor" about any mitzvah.  Any mitzvah will do.
Rabbi Tarfon said... It is not your obligation to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it... (Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 2:16)
The hardest part is to start.  Start now, don't wait for the opportunity to pass you by.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Welcome to Take a Jewish Minute.  This is my corner where I explain my philosophy on life. None of these thoughts are original.  They are a conglomeration of ideas that I've heard and learned about through the years.  

Who am I?  I am a Jewish woman looking at the world through traditional Jewish glasses.  I do not believe in labels - they only limit us.  I've heard too many conversation start with the same refrain, "I'm not religious...", "I'm Reform, I do/don't..."  or "I'm Orthodox, I do/don't..."  The Torah was not given exclusively to one group at Mount Sinai, rather the Torah is the guidebook for all Jews.  

Judaism is about learning and doing.  Striving and moving forward.  Seeing Jacob's ladder - grabbing a hold of it and climbing.  Pushing to do and understand.

Who am I?  I am not a rabbi, nor am I someone with all the answers.  Like my grandfather once said - Who is the wise person?  It's not the person with all the answers.  It's the person who knows where to go find the answers.

Life is about learning and growing.  Judaism is the frame for that process.  I wish all of you well finding your way in that process.  Feel free to comment and suggest ideas.  I look forward to your thoughts.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tisha B’Av Thoughts 2008

Once again I find myself sitting on the floor listening to the words of Eicha. Eicha Yashva Badad; how Jerusalem sits by herself with no one to save her as the destruction is described. As the pages turn, the depths of the disaster unfold.

The words of Eicha are immortal and transcend time. When hearing the Jews weeping on the night of Tisha B’Av, Napoleon Bonaparte commented that "any people that still feel strongly about events that occurred to them thousands of years ago, will surely survive as a people, and persevere."

But what to make of this? The fact that we’re still in mourning is a statement. What are we mourning? There is a statement that says: in every generation that the Holy Temple is not rebuilt is the same as if that generation had destroyed it.

Tisha B’Av is the Jewish day of national mourning. While in modern times we have established other days of mourning – Yom HaShoa/Holocaust Remembrance Day and Yom HaZikaron/Israel’s Memorial Day – Tisha B’Av encompasses all historical events which would need remembering in this way.

Tisha B’Av finds its origins originally in the destructions of the first and second Holy Temples, both occurring on the same day five hundred years apart. Since then many different disasters have been dealt to the Jewish People during the three weeks leading to Tisha B’Av as well as on Tisha B’Av itself.

I want to focus on the first Tisha B’Av for a moment, even before the destruction of the Temples. This occurred when the spies had returned from the Land of Israel telling the children of Israel that it was impossible to conquer the Land. The Israelites cried; and G-d told them that since they had cried for no reason that this night would be a night where there would be real occasion to cry out over the course of Jewish history.

One of the mistakes that the Israelites made at that time was they had become comfortable. They had G-d directing and protecting them in the desert, a great leader Moshe, and food delivered to them without having to run to the supermarket. They didn’t want to change the situation. Why should they?

We should recognize that mistake. I believe our generation has a similar challenge. The challenge that we are not in need of anything. We have homes and plenty of food. We have shoes that are not being worn through and beds to sleep on. We have more than just the basics. We have computers and internet and television screens. We honestly have everything we need.

We believe we have no need to pray. Prayer is for those who are in need. Prayer is our connection to G-d; but what do we need a connection to G-d if we have all we need?

In order to answer the question we will turn the question around and into a statement. It is specifically because we have all we need that we need a connection to G-d. The assumption that the question holds is that we have what we have without G-d’s help, but this is a faulty assumption. In truth we have what we have because of G-d, not because of our own hands.

It reminds me of this joke:

George is driving to work. He's late for a meeting, looking for a parking place and can't find one.

In desperation, he turns towards heaven and says, "G-d, if you find me a parking place, I promise that I'll eat only kosher, respect Shabbat, and all the holidays."

At that moment, a place opens up just in front of him.

He turns his face up to heaven and says, "Never mind, I just found a spot."

Prayer is one of our particular challenges. A second, more general challenge for our generation is Judaism itself. We like to fit Judaism into our lives - perhaps a minute here a few minutes there. A convenient Judaism.

What is Judaism? Judaism is a system of rules and ideas created by G-d for Jews to follow. It is a system of living. Let’s define “living”. “Living” is mostly recognized in advertising. You’re not really living until you have x, y, z. You’re not really living until you’ve done x, y, z. No surprises there.

What is “living”? If we know that G-d gave us the Torah with its system of living – we might want to take a look. Taking a look is our challenge. Whether Orthodox, Traditional, Conservative, Reform, Humanistic, etc etc. taking a look at our lives and challenging ourselves to take an honest accounting of it is of tremendous value.

What are we gaining by not participating in Judaism’s system of “living”? What are we losing? In the long run what do we imagine we have gained by adding to the toys we know we can’t take with us?

Every person is compared to a mini-Mikdash. The Holy Temple itself. The Temple was the place where G-dliness was revealed. We should ask ourselves: Are we a place where G-dliness is revealed?

At the end of Eicha we ask G-d to return us – to bring Moshiach, to make the world a place where we see G-d. We have to do our part as well. We have to want to be returned, we have to want to be a mini-Mikdash, we have to want to “live” in the truest sense of the word.

All of this is not so easy. This is why we ask G-d for help in being returned. We cannot do it all on our own. Tisha B’Av is a wake up call for us to realize how far away we are – to break the comfortable monotony of our lives. We have to pray, we have to act and we have to live.

Monday, May 5, 2008

True Martyrs

What is a "martyr"? Plainly stated, it's a person who dies for G-d. Judaism does not ask for martyrs. We're generally told (except for three specific instances) to live for G-d and keep the commandments and not to die for G-d. But sometimes we're not given a choice, and the choice is made for us.

The Holocaust was an awesome event. Six million Jews were murdered. One and a half million of them were children - the next generation gone. We were singled out and destroyed.

These martyrs - who were they? They were ordinary people, who in normal times were mothers and fathers, businesspeople, lawyers, students and children. Not unlike us today.

These martyrs did extraordinary things even living within the hellholes called the Camps. Mothers performed brit milah/circumcisions on their sons knowing that at least their baby would die as a Jew. Shabbat candles lit. Shofars blown. Assimilated Jews saying the Shema on their way into the showers - professing in the one and only G-d. Those being carried to the cremetorium singing their own Kaddish, praising G-d.

These are martyrs. These are people to aspire to be.

We are the living. But what are we living for? For ourselves? For immediate gratification? The physical or the spiritual?

Do we take advantage of everything at our fingertips? Kosher food? Shabbat? The Jewish holidays? Do we appreciate any of it? We have it all. Our martyrs only dreamed of it.

As we approach Shavuot, the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we need to look back at Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and see not only destruction - but also life. These people lived for something bigger than themselves. They saw the big picture.

The Nazis were bent on destroying the Jewish People. But they can move to the back of the line. There were others as well interested in the same goal. As we say in the Passover Haggada, "in every generation" there are those who came to destroy us. However, G-d in His mercy didn't let that happen. We are an Eternal People when we hang onto Eternity.

To paraphrase Mark Twain. The Jews have seen the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, and the Nazis all rise to great heights. We have also seen them all crumble into the dustbins of history. Who are we? We are the Jews. We have Eternity. We have the Torah.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Never Again - The Empty Mantra

Here we are, commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day a week before celebrating Israel's 60th birthday. This is the day where we bring out the Holocaust survivors to listen to their stories of survival and victimhood. This is the day we sit around wondering what went wrong in Europe and mumbling to ourselves "Never Again".

"Never Again"? What shouldn't happen AGAIN?

That there shouldn't be anti-semitism in Europe?

That the world should love the Jews and find somewhere for us to go to live in safety?

It would be funny if there weren't lives at stake. Anti-semitism isn't dead. In fact it's alive and kicking in Europe. Jews are still scared to be outwardly identifiable as Jews. Talking to an English friend she was surprised to find that it isn't normal to be yelled at on the way to synagogue.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights has published a report on anti-semitism in Europe. Here's a shocker: Anti-semitism isn't dead in Europe. Jews are being attacked. Do we hear a peep from anyone Jewish or not? No. Should we be surprised? No.

Israel is the country that the world gave us as payment for our destruction. The same world that couldn't manage to find a place for the Jews awaiting the fires of Aushwitz. The same United Nations whose Human Rights Council last month voted 40 out of 47 to elect

Jean Ziegler, the co-founder of the "Muammar Khaddafi Human Rights Prize", as an expert advisor representing the Western world. And for its new Palestine expert, the council chose Richard Falk, who, like Ziegler, accuses the U.S. of being responsible for many of the world's ills and describes Israel in Nazi terminology.

Yes, today it is a safer world for Jews. But wait. There are plenty of people who say that if Israel would have existed during World War II, that the Holocaust would never have happened. Such optimists. I too am an optimist, but I temper that by being a realist.

A couple summers ago Israel engaged in a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon after the kidnappings of her soldiers. Israel ended the war with absolutely nothing to show for her efforts. Our soldiers are still being held. Hezbollah is currently re-arming itself with the "see no evil" attitude of the UN blue helmeted soldiers nearby.

Israel gave away the Gaza strip with the assumption that somebody cared. Instead, rockets are landing in Ashkelon. (Never mind Sderot, they're old news but still receiving rockets.) And since Iran is such a good friend to the Arabs living there - it is a matter of time before those rockets land in Tel Aviv.

Israel is weak. Jews are weak. Why? Jews are afraid to show strength. We'd rather be victims than "aggressors". We're uncomfortable with power. We apologize every time we defend ourselves against people who hate us.

"Never Again" is an empty mantra mumbled by people who feel the need to do something but are impotent. We need to stop apologizing for offenses real and imagined. We need to stand up and say "I am Jewish!" and not apologize quickly afterward for being proud.

The Holocaust was not singular event in Jewish history. Our history is replete with horror. We are targets because we are Jewish. We focus on the Holocaust because it is the most recent destruction in our history of 4000 years.

The question is not "Why did this happen to me?" That is a voice of a victim. We must no longer be Jews with a ghetto mentality. How can I make the gestapo love me? What can I do to make the world love me? How can I assimilate myself into the culture around me enough so that I don't look too Jewish?

We Jews are the makers of history. We have seen it all, done it all. The question that must be asked is "Why am I afraid to say that I am Jewish?" The follow up question for all Jews then becomes "What does it mean to be Jewish?"

We are G-d's People. G-d gave us the Torah as a guidebook and the Land of Israel as a place to live as Jews. No apologies are ever needed.

Take a look at "Never Again."