Monday, March 30, 2009

Rabbi Todros Miller on Pesach: The Poor Man, Hallel and Yetzias Mitzrayim

Yesterday I attended a shiur given by Rabbi Todros Miller, Vice Principal of Gateshead Seminary, in which he spoke about some ideas relating to Pesach and specifically relating to the Seder. The following are not exact notes (I did not bring a laptop) but rather, my summation of the shiur (I'm writing the words as though he spoke them.)


Now, when it comes to the Seder night, we all know of the mitzvah of reclining on the Seder night. And interestingly, even an ani she'b'Yisrael [a poor person who is a member of Bnei Yisrael] shouldn't eat unless he reclines! Tosfos asks: Well, isn't a poor person a Jew? This is obvious; of course he should recline! It's a mitzvah. But actually no, it's a chiddush [innovative idea.] Why? Because I'd have thought that reclining is an expression of freedom, and would have thought there was something hollow in a poor person's reclining while eating.

So let's inquire: Why should an ani recline? There is an amazing Rashi in Shoftim [the book of Judges] when it is discussing the scenario of Gideon in Judges 6:13.
    יב וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו, מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, יְהוָה עִמְּךָ גִּבּוֹר הֶחָיִל.

    12 And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him, and said unto him: 'The LORD is with thee, thou mighty man of valour.'

    יג וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו גִּדְעוֹן, בִּי אֲדֹנִי, וְיֵשׁ יְהוָה עִמָּנוּ, וְלָמָּה מְצָאַתְנוּ כָּל-זֹאת; וְאַיֵּה כָל-נִפְלְאֹתָיו אֲשֶׁר סִפְּרוּ-לָנוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לֵאמֹר, הֲלֹא מִמִּצְרַיִם הֶעֱלָנוּ יְהוָה, וְעַתָּה נְטָשָׁנוּ יְהוָה, וַיִּתְּנֵנוּ בְּכַף-מִדְיָן.

    13 And Gideon said unto him: 'Oh, my lord, if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us? and where are all His wondrous works which our fathers told us of, saying: Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? but now the LORD hath cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian.'
"Hashem imcha? [God is with you?]" asks Gideon. "Ayeh?" Where are all these miracles? And answers Rashi, God answers Gideon, "That's the spirit with which you will save Bnei Yisrael. You come with that argument of ayeh [where] on behalf of the people of Israel and you'll win! With that you will save kelal Yisrael."

Rashi states there that in fact, in that verse, Gideon is referring to last night because last night was the Seder; it was Pesach at that time, and last night Gideon's father had told over the Haggada and sang Hallel with him and now Gideon is questioning: where are these miracles that we discussed last night?

Now we have a question: Why would Gideon choose to reference Hallel as opposed to Maggid? And what if it had not been Seder night but a different night; would Gideon not still have been justified in asking where God's miracles were? And yet, the way it seems to be phrased, Gideon is saying something to the effect of, "Last night was Seder night and my father said Hallel, therefore I can say to You, where are all those miracles?!"

Now we must venture into a halakhic point; there is a fine halakhic point concerning the din of saying Hallel. It says Takanas Haneviim al kol perek v'perek v'kol tzarah v'tzarah. So there is a takana of the prophets that we say Hallel al kol perek v'perek and also kol tzarah v'tzarah.

R' Hai Gaon in the Ram clarifies that there are two situations where we would say Hallel:

1. Perek u'perek: Fixed dates. These are particular times of the year where it is fixed that we shall be saying Hallel.

2. Tzarah v'tzarah: If the Jews suffer a tzarah and experience a yeshua [they are saved], they must then say Hallel.

Now, these two Hallels are categorically different. The chiluk between the two is the din by perek v'perek is to read Hallel whereas tzarah v'tzarah is to be m'hallel, not to say Hallel! It's the difference between reading the defined entity we call Hallel (keria) and praising God! And to clarify that point, let's ask a question: Suppose you are reading Hallel, the defined entity, are you yotzei if you don't understand all the words? Yes! You've till read Hallel. But if the yesod ha'din is to be m'hallel not simply kerias Hallel, then if you don't know what you're saying you've not been m'hallel!

Another difference: do you make a bracha/ blessing? If it's keriah, then you make a blessing l'kro es ha'Hallel. If it is just that you are being m'hallel, and you are not saying a defined entity, it's very specific that you don't make a bracha. A bracha is a hillul so you don't make a bracha on a bracha.

Also, can you be mafsik [pause/ stop] in the middle? By kerias ha'Megillah, for instance, you cannot be (that's keriah) but if it's not a specific mitzvah of keriah, then it's not a problem.

So these distinctions we've been making are nafkaminos.

Let us now turn our attention to Hallel on the Seder night. Which one is it? On Seder night we are mesaper sipur Yetzias Mitzrayim. R' Chaim Brisker asks: Mah nishtana ha'layla ha'zeh? Every night we mention Yetzias Mitzrayim; what's the difference on this night?

Ah, but there is a categorical difference!

There is a Rambam which the achronim grapple with; there is a mitzvah to be mesaper on Yetzias Mitzrayim "K'Moshe ne'emar zachor es yom ha'Shabbos l'kadsho" (Like Moshe said, Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.) Now, normally "zachor"- remember- is speaking of the past. Remember something that happened in the past. But zachor es yom ha'Shabbos l'kadsho is remember that now, today, it is Shabbos.

Similarly, on Seder night, you are not remembering Yetzias Mitzrayim once upon a time but you went out of Egypt now; we're going out of Mitzrayim today! You should have the experience of being redeemed right now; you are not merely remembering something that happened once upon a time.

Well, but how do you do that? It's not just pretending; it means that this is actually happening in reality! There is no pretend as if something were to happen; that is a child's game, but you grow out of it.

Now where do you see the imperative to remember b'chol dor v'dor- now, where do you see that by Pesach? You see b'chol shana v'shana [every single year]. The reason is because we had b'chol dor v'dor in V'hi she'amdah...she'b'chol dor v'dor omdim aleinu l'chaloseinu- and God saves us from their hands.

When God took the Jews out of Egypt, he took them out for a cheirus olam - an eternal freedom! Yetzias Mitzrayim is a concept, a promise given to the Jews that no matter the situation we have a koach called Yetzias Mitzrayim given to us eternally. We are guaranteed by Yetzias Mitzrayim we have a cheirus olam. "Lo es avoseinu b'lvad," we say, "not our forefathers alone." Today we have to tell the story because we have experienced Yetzias Mitzrayim.

There is a famous essay of Mark Twain on the Jews:
    The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; The Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other
    peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished.

    The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and agressive mind.

    All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.

    What is the secret of his immortality?

    ~Concerning the Jews in Harpers, 1899
"What is the secret of his immortality?" That's where Mark Twain finishes...and where the Seder night begins. We have Yetzias Mitzrayim l'olam- and we must face that reality.

R' Yaakov Emden in his siddur writes: People say that if only we were to see some miracles...chein (chay?) nafshi! That when I think about the survival o fthe Jews and how they survive with utter resilience and the ability to rebound, the very existence of the Jewish people is a greater miracle than Mitzrayim, and the longer it goes on it is even a greater miracle.

So let us return to our question: Hallel on Seder night. Which one is it? Tzarah b'tzarah! That is why there is no bracha on Seder night, we are mafsik (we have an entire meal); we even say in the Haggada "Lefichach anachnu chayavim l'hodos u'lhallel shira chadasha halleluyah." Shira Chadasha- a new Hallel!

Rashi explains that when Gideon was speaking to God, he was speaking about the fact that Midian was overwhelmingly more powerful than Bnei Yisrael and therefore they were lost. The Jews were miserable and indeed, they had a right to be miserable; they were impoverished; the Midianites stole from them...And so the prophet says "God is with you" and Gideon says, "God is with you?! Where are his miracles?"

And that is the spirit answers God, per Rashi- with that argument you can save kelal Yisrael. We see here the lomdus of Gideon. Last night, he explained, we said Hallel on this generation's miracles because Yetzias Mitzrayim is an ongoing event- so where's the b'chol dor v'dor? You gave us the right to remember and claim Yetzias Mitzrayim so there has to be a Yetzias Mitzrayim in this generation! Then I can argue/ make a claim/ a taina that God owes it to us, as it were.

So God answers: "You come with your emunah in Yetzias Mitzrayim- then you can claim it has to be b'chol dor v'dor," and therefore God does create a yeshua for them.

So let's go back to the very beginning, where we stated, "Afilu ani she'b'yisrael- even a poor person in Israel has an obligation to recline because he still has cheirus." And we see now that he does, that he has God's promise to him of a communal, national yeshua with the koach of Yetzias Mitzrayim.

The world has made Seder night into a universal social event with the Bubbes and Zeides and Aunties and Uncles and the whole family, but we should raise ourselves above that and strengthen ourselves with the recognition that we have been granted a cheirus olam, an eternal freedom. It happens now as well! They don't want us around.

Utzu eitzah v'sufar...dabru davar v'lo yakum: They may try to plan for our destruction, but it does not succeed.

In the Gemara, it says musmach geulah l'tefilah- R' Yonah in Brachos explains: What gives us the ability to daven for anything? Yetzias Mitzrayim! There are the meitzarim (pains) of Mitzrayim, but also a Yetzias Mitzrayim.


Rebbetzin Fink then thanked R' Miller for speaking and mentioned that we had been his first stop off the plane (which is remarkable.) I went up to him later because I had a question; this was my question:

"This idea presupposes that Gideon has total emunah in God, to the point where he is making this claim that because God promised an eternal cheirus, He must fulfill his promise. Assuming that is true, and especially assuming that the true proof/ miracle which is greater than all other miracles, per R' Emden, is the very fact that we Jewish people are alive, why is it that Gideon would then go on to test God with all these seemingly little, paltry tests? Why the need for the dew on the fleece, for it to be dry on the fleece, for God to reassure him by letting him go down to the camp and hear the dream about the barley bread? Such tests suggest that Gideon's belief was not so great, for he needed it to be solidified with tests and proofs."

So R' Miller said "I hear," and then he addressed the point I made regarding R' Emden saying that the greatest miracle is the fact that we are alive, and said that in our time, that is the miracle that we see, but in Gideon's time, open miracles were still a way of life, and so Gideon was continuing the discussion with God by requesting the miracles; it was part of their dialogue. But to me this still doesn't make so much sense. If you want to look at the comparable story by Moses, which is in Exodus 4, Moshe declares that the Jews will not believe him and then God grants him signs- his leprous hand, the staff that turns to a snake- but God is the one giving him the signs; Moshe is not asking for them. So if it were really to be a continuation of the discussion, God ought to be the one offering signs (which works with the barley bread case), rather than Gideon testing God in an attempt to prove He's really there/ really going to help out.

Then again, the idea as a whole seems difficult to me, because after all, Gideon's father was an idol worshipper, with his Ba'al and Asheira; it seems odd that he of all people would be mehalel to praise God for an eternal cheirus (although not necessarily impossible, true, especially since later on Gideon saves his son by declaring that the Baal should fight his son/ fight his own battles.)

But the shiur as a beautiful idea that is taken out of context of the Gideon story/ is a derash reading of the Gideon story is something I very much appreciate. It's really very clever and I enjoyed it. Also, R' Miller is a very nice man who says "we should hear good tidings by you" after you speak to him, which is sweet.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Surrendering Our Minds To God

Countless times I have cited or quoted from the Rav's essay, "Surrendering Our Minds to God" as found in Reflections of the Rav. I have also cited from his essay about Korah's Common-Sense Rebellion. These are essays that have always resonated with me.

From "Surrendering Our Minds to God:"
    The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard
    to its immutability and also its unintellegibility....To be a loyal
    Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual
    reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will
    belabor the "why"....

    Why the Divine Imperative for Mishpatim? We have spoken heretofore
    primarily of the hok, the inexplicable precept. In fact, we perform
    all mishpatim (mostly social laws) in the same manner as the hukkim.
    The Torah does not assign separate sections to the hukkim and
    mishpatim respectively; they are interspersed throughout Scripture. We
    make no distinctions between the two as regards the quality and
    totality of our commitment. Why, we may ask, is it not enough for the
    mishaptim to be intellectually motivated? Why the need to add a hok, a
    non- logos dimension, to social laws which conscience itself dictates?

    Apparently, reason is not a reliable guide even with respect to
    mishpatim. There are borderline situations which confuse the mind, and
    consequently it finds itself helpless in applying its moral norms.
    Since our intellect must weigh pros and cons and is slow and deliberate
    in deciding, society starts to nibble away at the edges of marginal,
    borderline problems. Life must be lived; before our logic can
    formulate an opinion, society will already have weakened all
    restraints. Permissiveness will have replaced orderliness and the
    amoral in man will have emerged triumphant.

    For example, the mind certainly condemns murder. This is particularly
    true of the killing of a young working mother who leaves behind
    orphaned children. But does the abhorrence of murder also apply when
    the victim is an old, cruel, miserly woman who in the eyes of society
    was a parisitic wretch, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment ? May
    we murder her in order to save a young girl from the clutches of
    degradation? May euthanasia be practiced to relieve the elderly or
    terminally ill of further suffering? Here the logos hesitates, is
    uncertain, and imparts no decisive guidance. We can easily rationalize
    in either direction and no external norm is compelling. As a mishpat,
    a social norm, murder may at times be tolerated; as a hok, the
    prohibition against murder is clear and absolute.....

    We have assumed that mishpatim are prompted by reason. Yet, in our
    modern world, there is hardly a mishpat which has not been repudiated.
    Stealing and corruption are the accepted norms in many spheres of
    life; adultery and general promiscuity find support in respectable
    circles; and even murder, medical and germ experiments have been
    conducted with governmental complicity. The logos has shown itself in
    our time to be incapable of supporting the most basic of moral

    The Torah, therefore, insists that a mishpat be accepted as a hok; our
    commitment must be unshakable, universally applicable, and upheld even
    when our logos is confused. Without hok, every social and moral law
    can be rationalized away, leaving hte world a sophisticated jungle of
    instincts and impulses...."

    ~Reflections of the Rav, 103-105
Imagine my surprise and fascination, then, when I found this idea expressed by the Rav in Sichot Mussar by R' Chaim Shmulevitz! R' Chaim writes about surrendering our minds to God in very similar terms in his essay on Parshas Zachor entitled "Eved Hashem: The Servant of God."

He is explicating the idea that on Purim, men are told to drink ad d'lo yada, until they cannot distinguish between "blessed is Mordechai" and "cursed is Haman." He explains that this seems to be an extremely peculiar mitzvah, especially in light of the fact that Purim is comparable to Yom Kippur; how then is this mitzvah to be understood? He then segues into what initially may seem an unrelated catalogue of examples of places where people's sins were not forgiven, even though it would seem as though they should have been forgiven.

1. Moshe was punished for hitting the rock as opposed to speaking to it

2. The Meraglim (spies) were sent into the land with the best of intentions, and yet returned with evil tidings, which could only have happened if something was amiss in the original plan

3. Saul was faulted for not having killed Agag, and as a result lost the monarchy. The Gemara notes that David erred twice and yet did not lose the monarchy, whereas Saul erred once and lost it; why such severity by Saul?

Explains R' Chaim Shmulevitz, in fact, the key to these sins which seemed relatively minor and yet were not forgiven lies in a dialogue held between Isaiah and Chizkiyahu.

    In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet, son of Amoz, came to him and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thy house in order, for thou shalt die and not live34 etc. What is the meaning of 'thou shalt die and not live'? Thou shalt die in this world and not live in the world to come. He said to him: Why so bad? He replied: Because you did not try to have children. He said: The reason was because I saw by the holy spirit that the children issuing from me would not be virtuous. He said to him: What have you to do with the secrets of the All-Merciful? You should have done what you were commanded, and let the Holy One, blessed be He, do that which pleases Him.
    ~Berakoth 10a
In the words of R' Chaim Shmulevitz, as translated into English:
    The Gemara teaches us a new dimension of sin. Chizkiyahu was not accused solely of not begetting children: that transgression is not punishable by death. The sin lay principally in the use of his own reasoning to disobey the Divine command. One's attitude in doing mitzvos should be that of a servant to a master- he does as he is told, leaving aside his own reasoning. Trying to use one's own logic to qualify or bypass the Divine command is a breach in the relationship between Creator and creature, Master and servant.

    This is the essence of the aforementioned incidents. The unforgivable sin of Moshe Rabbeinu was not that he had disobeyed Hashem's directive; it was that he had used reasoning and logic to reinterpret it. [Chazal explain that the motive for Moshe striking the rock and not speaking to it was in order to enhance kiddush Hashem, sanctification of the Divine Name (see Bamidbar Rabbah 19:5)].

    The spies, too, were sent on the basis of Israel's own reasoning which did not stem from complete faith in God. This ultimately led to their slanderous report about Eretz Yisrael.

    With this we can understand the dimensions of Saul's sin. David sinned terribly, but the transgression was self contained. Nothing was disrupted in the basic relationship between Hashem and David. Not so Shaul, who neglected to kill Agag because he felt that it was not in keeping with the Divine emphasis on the sanctity of life. This constitutes rebellion against the Divine command. There too, Shaul disobeyed Shmuel by dint of his own reasoning. That is why they are considered one sin, for essentially, they are one.

    This ability to totally subjugate oneself to the Divine will, forgoing even one's rational conclusions, is the hallmark of Israel's men of greatness.

    ~Reb Chaim's Discourses, 141-142
R' Chaim goes on to mention the extreme greatness of Abraham, who chose not to rationalize away the command to offer up his son to God. Here he was being tested on exactly this precept, for he had spent his life teaching a monotheism that did not demand such sacrifices, but he obeyed God rather than reasoning away the commandment. The same applies by Moses, who told the truth when he had forgotten the halakha prohibiting the consumption of sacrificial meat while in a state of mourning prior to burial. He told the truth rather than attempting to reason out the halakha. He also notes the fact that this is the reason we say na'aseh v'nishma; we will obey, even if we do not understand.

R' Chaim also references a discourse in Sanhedrin 100a:
    R. Johanan was sitting and teaching: The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles.12 A certain disciple derided him saying, 'We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove's egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!' Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: 'For what are these?' They replied: 'The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.' On his return, he found R. Johanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: 'Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.' 'Wretch!' he exclaimed, 'had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!' He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones.13
Explains R' Chaim:
    This story requires clarification. At the onset when his disciple mocked him, R' Yochanan did not respond nor punish him. It was only after he returned and admitted the veracity of R' Yochanan's statement that R' Yochanan was incensed. The reason is that as long as R' Yochanan's discourse was beyond his disciple's comprehension, he was not to be blamed for his disbelief. It was only after he had seen it, understood it and still persisted in emphasizing the role of his rational faculties that R' Yochanan became angry. At this point, emunah, faith in God, was called for; anything less was apikursus, heresy.

    Having explained the uses and limitations of reason in the Divine service, we can begin to understand the essence of Purim. Reason is used year-round as a means to emunah. Once a year, on Purim, we strip away all traces of reasong (ad d'lo yada) and serve God with our faith alone.

    ~Reb Chaim's Discourses, 144

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Am Superwoman

Otherwise known as...productive days make my blood race. And that makes me happy. We like to squeeze out the dregs of the day.

Things I Did Today

1. Attended class from 9:00-10:15 AM
2. Met someone in a lovely hotel to discuss arrangements for a project we are working on
3. Went to Brooklyn on the Q train
4. Stopped by the little old man at Isaac's Bake Shop, whom I consider a particular friend of mine, to purchase a cookie and chat with him, then inquire as to where Eichlers is at
5. Bought birthday presents from Eichlers, called up the family and inquired as to what they wanted, and then bought more birthday presents from Oh Nuts!
6. Stopped by Mendy's for $6 bowl of chicken soup (ridiculously overpriced)
7. Took the Q train back to Manhattan, then managed to severely disable my shoe and almost break it
8. Watched "Gossip Girl" and "24"
9. Ate dinner
10. Held a meeting about living arrangements for next year, then emailed the world regarding living arrangements next year and happily, have some responses
11. Dropped off birthday present 1 at Brookdale
12. Went uptown to Washington Heights to drop off birthday present 2, then chatted politely with people in the caf store
13. Returned from uptown and was victorious in a battle against my yetzer hara. Therefore studied with a friend for 2 and 1/2 hours for our Malbim test (which is why I am now up at 2:50 AM.)


In another fun announcement, I love the song "I Can Make You Feel It" by Home Video which was played on the most recent episode of "Gossip Girl."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Star Maiden

I decided everyone should know who Istahar is. She was always one of my favorite characters from The Diamond Tree by Howard Schwartz. This writeup is from Tree of Souls. I like the version in The Diamond Tree better because she actually tricks the angel into giving her his wings. (That version is found in Bet Ha-Midrash 5:156).


581. The Star Maiden

When the generation of the Flood went astray, God began to regret having created humans. Then two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, reminded God that they had opposed the creation of humans, saying, What is man, that You have been mindful of him? (Ps. 8:5). God replied: "Those who dwell on earth are subject to the Evil Inclination. Even you would be overpowered by it." But the angels protested, saying: "Let us descend to the world of humans, and let us show You how we will sanctify Your name." And God said: "Go down and dwell among them."

So the two angels descended to earth, where they were certain they could resist the power of the Evil Inclination. But as soon as they saw how beautiful were the daughters of men, they forgot their vows and took lovers from among them, even though they were defiling their own pure essence. So too did they teach them secrets of how to entice men, as well as the dark arts of sorcery, incantations, and the divining of roots.

Then the two angels decided to select brides for themselves from among the daughters of men. Azazel desired Na'amah, the sister of Tubal-Cain, the most beautiful woman on earth. But there was another beautiful maiden, Istahar, the last of the virgins, whom Shemhazai desired, and she refused him. This made him want her all the more.

"I am an angel," he revealed to her, "you cannot refuse me."

"I will not give in to you," Istahar replied, "unless you teach me God's Ineffable Name."

"That I cannot do," Shemhazai replied, "for it is a secret of heaven."

"Why should I believe you?" said Istahar. "Perhaps you don't know it at all. Perhaps you are not really an angel."

"Of course I know it," said Shemhazai, and he revealed God's Name.

Now, as soon as she heard the holy Name, Istahar pronounced it and flew up into the heavens, escaping the angel. And when God saw this, He said: "Because she removed herself from sin, let Istahar be set among the stars." And Istahar was transformed into a star, one of the brightest in the sky. And when Shemhazai saw this, he recognized God's rebuke of his sin and repented, hanging himself upside down between heaven and earth. But Azazel refused to repent, and God hung him upside down in a canyon, bound in chains, where he remains to this day. That is why a scapegoat is sent to Azazel on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, bearing the sins of Israel.

Others say that when the two angels, Shemhazai and Azazel, came down to earth, they were still innocent. But they were corrupted by the demonesses Na'amah and Lilith. The children they bore were the giants of old, known as the Nefilim, or Fallen Ones. They bore six children at each birth, and in that very hour their offspring stood up, spoke the holy language, and danced before them like sheep. There were said to be sixty in all. These giants had such great appetites that God rained manna on them in many different flavors, so that they might not eat flesh. But the Fallen Ones rejected the manna, slaughtered animals, and even dined on human flesh.

Still others say that the offspring of the fallen angels were tall and handsome, and had greater strength than all the children of men. Because of the heavenly origin of their fathers, they are referred to as "the children of heaven."

Sources: Targum Pseudo-Yonathan on Genesis 6:1-4; Yalkut Shimoni, Bereshi 44, Midrash Avkir in Beit ha-Midrash, 4:127-128; The Book of Jubilees 4:15, 4:22, 5:1-3; 1 Enoch 6:14; Bereshit Rabbati 29-30; Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 22; Zohar 1:37a; Zohar Hadash, Ruth 81a; IFA 10856.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Unknown Jews of Southern Russia

Tonight I went to see a fantastic film entitled "Refusenik" which tells the story of the Jews of the Soviet Union who risked everything in order to emigrate to Israel.

Moving, uplifting, and incredibly disturbing, the film made me feel deeply and wish that I had the same kind of passion for Judaism and the land of Israel that its protagonists so deeply feel. I recommend this film to everyone; it is an amazing documentary that I hope everyone will watch.

But the film touched me for a different reason. The film touched me because it personally relates to me, because my mother, alongside Rabbi Avi Weiss, marched for freedom and blocked off Fifth Avenue, because this was her cause and her mission, and part of what makes her utterly extraordinary.

In the early '80s, my mother came to Stern and one of the first things she did was join the staff of The Observer. She wrote a piece entitled "The Unknown Jews of Southern Russia" which the administration was not happy about (like mother, like daughter, it would seem.) You can read it below.

The Unknown Jews of Southern Russia
The Unknown Jews of Southern Russia silvergleam refuseniks, observer

Remember that it is an immigrant who wrote this piece, an immigrant who had lived in the United States a little over a year. Look at her English. Look at how she writes. Look at the passion she has for her cause. See my mother at my age, perhaps slightly older, and look at the beauty that is her soul.

My mother is utterly extraordinary, and I do not have the words to express the love she is capable of showering upon others, especially her fellow Jews. May she be blessed and continue to be blessed, my mother the refusenik, my mother who loved the Soviet Jews.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Lamps Now Glitter

When we are young, how quick we are to give credit to our understanding! How strong we think ourselves, and how unfailing. Only time may teach us of our faults and flaws, so that we may bow before that everlasting Master and admit that we have not been all that we should, and have failed at times. It is only with that unfurling length of silk which spins out the hours, painting me into a tapestry of my own creation, that my mistakes and triumphs alike are recognized, on a private tableau which none but myself know wholly.

What melancholy that affords! When granted, at last, a full ability to realize the vast follies that have been mine, I may know shame for a previous self, and simultaneously laugh at an innocence not wholly-fallen. To be only what one is thought to be may in and of itself be high praise or damning, but to realize that one is not what one thought oneself is something different entirely. How perplexing, how confusing it is to confront oneself and realize one's changed nature! And yet, this is the way in which we all begin; we try, we fight, we dance, we object, and at the end, we look upon ourselves in dismay. But having gotten over this dismay, we advace ever onward as we desire to achieve our goal, and to become better in the process.

Life is a dance; it has many figures, twists and turns, and often one does not know the moments where one shall be swept off one's feet, or caught low in a bow. Sometimes the players are masked and frightening; there was the man in the red cape whose fingers burned; there was the little matchstick girl who made a peculiar mix of her goings and disappearances, there was the fairy godmother, the benevolent beneficiary, the grinning skull whose riddling wit confounded; we are matched with different partners as we change. The steps are never the same; the music reaches climaxes and falls, and we ourselves turn and change, donning different clothes, growing taller as we advance. We play at selfhood only to find another unturned page; we are caught forever in a growing chain for which there can be little to no understanding.

Who knows oneself as well as oneself? Who knows the terrifying changes of mood and temper, or worse, of thought? Who knows the people to whom one cannot show oneself, to whom one is forever unacknowledged? We are the only master of our many different selves; in us they reach a unity which cannot be comprehended by another. We seem fragmented; indeed, we seem utterly dissimilar. And often that is because a man can only understand a part, a mere part, of the various faces that are ours, not because we dissemble, but because there is a way in which they are all united, ignited by that fragile soul which holds them fast.

The lamps now glitter down the street;
Faintly sound the falling feet;
And the blue even slowly falls
About the garden trees and walls.