Saturday, March 22, 2014

After Purim reflections from Monsey and Brooklyn.


The week before Purim, somewhere in the west, I tried to convince a fellow Jew to visit one of the Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn on his trip to NY, which coincided with the day of Purim. I told him, "No matter how much I may try to explain the festivity on the streets of Boro Park or Williamsburg on Purim, there are just no adequate words to describe it."
Many of the Jews from the west never saw a Hasidic person in their lives altogether. For some of them I was the first, which is really an ironic fact. Some of my fellow Jews visited the Holy Land and encountered Hasidim or other Haredim there, but it was rather like a tourist–aborigine type of experience. To fully immerse oneself and participate in the Festival of Purim on the streets or in the better homes and Butei Medrushim in the areas most populated by Haredim in our country, is exceptional. Whoever wants can still find lots of pictures online, but well… it's like seeing the Grand Canyon in a 2-dimensional photo. Haredi neighborhoods are spiritual wonders of the world, and this alone makes them greater than even the most riveting panoramic beauty which, by the way, provides my means of livelihood as I make a living by giving tours to people through the Canyons in the Mountains. But although I love to travel, my family, friends, neighbors and just random fellow Yiden are sorely missed during my time away.
The morning after my arrival in New York I joined a minyan which, when I travel, is rather a luxury for me. In one of mid-sized Hasidic synagogues I davened (prayed) with a ten o’clock minyan, which in this particular synagogue is scheduled every half hour from morning until ten men can no longer be found for a minyan. When a quorum of ten men is no longer available at that location, everyone knows where there are other minyanim just a few streets away. In some other places the morning prayers are conducted all the way to Hatzois – midday or, with shame I have to admit, even after that hour. With shame; for it is prohibited by Shulchan Aruch – the Codex of Jewish Law - to say morning prayers after midday. But in the Hasidishe Velt people have all kinds of life situations and they sometimes break the law in such instances, praying after the prescribed time.
I was there still well before that time but as I said, it was not one of the big Butei Medrushim - maybe two hundred seats in two rooms separated by a removable wall. We got our minyan easily for there were still plenty of individuals and Havrusos – men learning in pairs. To pray with a minyan we need ten men older than bar mitzvah (13) but four of them can be counted even if they are not participating in the prayers. Six must be part of the actual praying group. A few minutes later we got well above the required quorum.
Some of the Yiden who finished a previous minyan sat around the table where they delighted in consuming a big loaf of marble cake while shmoozing – chattering about everything that Hasidim chat about – their Rebbes, work, world politics, etc.
Probably due to the Yom Tov Purim there were more men than usual in that place at the time, including Bucherim – unmarried Yeshiva students. They probably came home from out-of-town Yeshivos and now enjoyed not only the cake and herring with shnapps, but also the exchange of news with their peers from various Yeshivos. On one side of table, an older Hasid in his late thirties was sharing memories from his Yeshiva days with a few Bucherim. Apparently, some of the young students where learning under the guidance of the same Rabbis that he once learned from. The man visibly enjoyed the shmooze with the Bucherim, but he soon departed for whatever occupation he keeps.
We finished our prayers as others were learning or chattering in different spots of the Bais Medrash. I packed my Tallis and Tefilin and walked out to the cold streets of Brooklyn. Around the corner three little girls with their Pushkes were collecting Tzeduka – money for the financially impoverished, or to support their schools. I didn’t read what the purpose of their collection was, as it is usually written on the Tzeduka Pushke – the can with the opening for the money on the top of it. The view of those girls, the oldest not more than perhaps 9 or 10, in the cold and moist weather of NY, melted my heart. Whatever they collected for, it must be worth supporting.
The days around Purim are especially filled with boys and girls collecting everywhere - on the streets, from home to home, in the stores and in synagogues. I mean everywhere, of course, in Jewish neighborhoods. And so, on the day of Purim itself millions of dollars are transferred from hand to hand, from pocket to pocket - and this is only one of the major periods of the Jewish year when money for the needy is given even by those who are themselves less privileged, in even extra amounts, regardless of the routine Tzeduka they give all year round. And then Pesach is yet another occasion to give. Elul – the whole month of Elul. And then Chanukah gelt! These are just a few times that are worthy of mention.
Baruch Hashem I spent a few days with my children and granddaughters. I visited my Rav and participated in a private Seuda – a meal in his house, where we always have arch and interesting discussions with him and his sons and sons in law who are all Magidei Shiur – Teachers of Talmud and Mashgiahim – supervisors of spiritual growth in various Hasidic Yeshivos. Besides some basic hashkafa – life philosophy and current issues which we talked about, I got another glimpse into the present stage of Haredi education in general.
I had a few short hours to take care of some other issues that life on this earth required, but somehow a few of my closest friends managed to get together with me for a meal. This meal was not connected to the festival of Purim as it took place on the evening after Shushan Purim. They caught up with me in my Monsey Shul – synagogue - and convinced me to wash (to eat a meal with bread) to celebrate the occasion of my arrival.
There are not enough words to convey my appreciation for their devotion as they left their various occupations just to shmooze with their old friend. They do it every time I come, but usually they know in advance when I am coming and there are more of my haverim and havrusos – friends and learning partners. This time I called last minute and there were only four of us, not including my host’s boys and girls.
Reb Aizyk the Soifer – scribe was my host. He is one of the greatest people I have ever met. He and his rebetzin and kein ain hara their sixteen children and unspecified number of grandchildren are all amazing individuals. Reb Aizyk can sometimes give two kidushim – meals in the Bais Medrash for the occasion of the birth of a new granddaughter, or attend two brisen - circumcisions of his grandsons, just a few days apart.
His wisdom guided me countless times in life. His way of giving me mussar – ethical instruction - doesn’t sound anything close to criticism or censure. Always dressed in some Mushal – a parable - he makes my brain work intensely to figure out if this is really the reproof I think it is. Not because the message is unclear, but because it is so softly hidden behind the delicate veil of his kind words.
Then there is Reb Mendel. He used to be a Dayan – a judge of rabbinical court in one of the major Hasidic groups of the east coast. He gave up this occupation as his delicate soul couldn’t deal with some of the problems and issues of the world. He knows Talmud by heart but he claims that for this position one must also have extraordinary Koichos – strength.
To give you a glimpse of my friend’s holiness; he is my age, a grandpa already, who grew up here in America. He only just learned from me a few months ago that there are such places as pubs and bars and what people do in those places. You don't believe me? I don’t blame you. But there are people on a level of holiness which most of us cannot even imagine! Like this man, my Rabbi and my friend, who spends his days only involved in learning and doing good deeds of all kinds for his fellow people, supporting his family mostly by tutoring. I consult with him about most of the ideas which I later publicize on this blog and in other places. Of the three friends listed here, it is Reb Mendel's opinion that I take most into consideration, for many reasons. He also sometimes likes to share his thoughts or Hidushim – Torah novelties with me and then tells me "You can use that on your thing on the Internet."
The youngest among us was Reb Yankel, my Tanya havruso from the time when I still resided more in Monsey than anywhere else. Although he never learned English in his school, as it was not allowed for reasons of moral purity in his Moisad – the faction which is led by his father, he was nevertheless able to fluently explain to me the depths of this beautiful Sefer Tanya – (I think 'good book' would be the best translation of the word ‘sefer’) in English rather than in Yiddish, as my articulacy is limited in that language. He is in his early thirties with a few children running around in his house, and yet he is still learning in Kollel – a learning institution for married men. I hope that his brilliant mind will one day serve our people in a much broader sphere.

These are just a few words about the friends whom I met during my visit home. There are still others whom I couldn’t manage to meet, but who are also extraordinary people. What they all have in common is that each of them is struggling toward the same singular goal: to live a life according to the will of their Creator and to ultimately be a better person tomorrow, than they are today.
Matys Weiser

Sunday, March 9, 2014

4th of July, Purim and Amulek

4th of July, Purim and Amulek

Yeah! I agree that this title is at least a little strange, but well… this blog is about a stranger’s views, isn’t it?
When I wrote this essay I didn’t think about Purim. I thought about the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, and their authors' influences on the world today. And I wanted to divide the ten pages of my thoughts so that the last installment will be posted the week before July 4th. I know it's a long span of time, but I have a few other essays ready to be posted and I-H they will appear periodically among the continuing episodes, breaking up the monotony somewhere between today's installment, and the one before July 4th.
So, what does the 4th of July have to do with Purim? Read below to find out…

4th of July

My strong desire was to post this essay on the Fourth of July… last year. Instead I wrote it on the Fourth of July, 2013. Another small contribution to the prove Yiddish saying “Mentch tracht G-d lacht.” B”H, I finally found some time free of my other occupations and responsibilities to sit down and share with my readers the ideas which have been lingering in my mind for a while already.
I write this essay in Santa Fe, New Mexico, hosted by Chabad shliach Rabbi Berel Levertov. Here in Santa Fe, one of the ways to celebrate the fourth of July is a huge gathering in the town’s plaza, sharing pancakes in warm, family-like atmosphere with other townspeople and visitors coming to this popular tourist destination.
All over the country, its millions of citizens and not-citizens are celebrating the holiday in a similarly joyous atmosphere, placing their portable chairs and tables in the large spaces in the towns to watch fireworks or placing their seats on the side of the main street of almost every town of this country to see the 4th of July parade. I don’t have to describe more of the details of those celebrations to most Americans, but there are some enclaves where you will not hear loud music and the clatter of hundreds of people on the street. Towns where citizens considering themselves no less American than any other Americans do not celebrate Independence Day in the way so common all over the country.
Why it this so? Do they have no love – or at least appreciation – for the freedom which they experience in this land? Do they not recognize that this freedom is guaranteed to them by the document celebrated on this very day, The Declaration of Independence? Do they separate themselves from the rest of the country’s citizens due to a lack of patriotic sentiment?
In towns like Monsey, New Square, Kirias Joel or Lakewood you will also see loud crowds dancing and celebrating on the street, adults and children singing and playing music in almost ecstatic festivity. But this is not necessarily happening on the Fourth of July. This celebration may take place at almost any day of the year, and it is called Hachnasas Sefer Torah, the Jewish celebration of completing a hand- written Torah scroll and placing it in the synagogue or Bais Hamidrash, the hall of study. This way, Jews celebrate the Source – for us, Torah is the Source of everything, but for rest of our fellow citizens it should be known that this very scroll so celebrated by us is the source of the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. How is this so?

I heard this idea first from my Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Bruzda, soon after I settled in this land that welcomes refugees like me. “When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he kept the Bible on his lap,” he used to say, the simple meaning of  which is that this document – perhaps the most important document in American history – was influenced by ideas whose roots are in Jewish Scriptures. But was the Bible in fact  laying on the lap or desk of Thomas Jefferson, and if yes, how did he derive those lofty ideas contained in this document from the Book from which some other people, with their criminal minds, can find justification for mass murder and other crimes of all sorts?
In this essay, be'ezras Hashem, I will try to follow at least one of perhaps many links leading from the Torah to the Declaration of Independence and the ideological foundations of American Constitution.
To keep the facts straight: Jefferson was not a Jew-lover and neither, were the individuals and groups which influenced him. Since the split of the Notzrim – the sect which later became the religion known as Christianity – from rabbinic Judaism, its growth was fed and fertilized by hatred toward Jews. The gentiles adopting the ideas and ideals derived from Jewish scriptures saw it perfectly fitting to build their civilization on the Jewish scriptures and at the same time despise the Jews. (It is beyond the scope of this work to explain how this could happen; IY”H, this may be a topic of a future essay.)
Nevertheless, our sages agree that two “offshoots” of our religion– namely, Christianity and Islam – are preparatory stages for the arrival of the Messiah and recognition of the Almighty's rulership by whole of humanity. Rav Hirsch, for example, in his commentary on Chumash, goes so far in the case of Islam as to call Muslims “half-Jewish.” Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague, explains along similar lines our recognition of Muslims as Bnei Noach,  people with the halachic status of ger toshav, a gentile of full social rights among Jewish people. However, since he was writing in a Christian country, he abruptly cut his explanation of the status of Christians due to belief of the Christians in shituf, the type of idol worship where the object is considered a partner with G-d.
To further understand the history described in this essay, we must recognize that there are some Christian minorities who do not believe in the dogma of the Trinity coined in the fourth century. And I will write some information about them, but before that we will have to go back in time all the way to the era soon after the Mabul, the flood of Noach, or even before that.

Not one of the ideas which I will write below is my own unless declared so. The Almighty’s providence has put the right teachers and right books on my life path. With His help, I will try to put in perspective the development of human thought, which led part of humanity to accept upon them a government “from the people by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address.
Needles to say, the connection between Jewish thought and the Declaration of Independence is not exclusive, as there are many traces of different influences over various individuals which led to the creation of the American form of government. However, thanks to my individual path of life and spiritual development, I was able to put the following facts together.

Two modes of civilization
After the sin of the first man and the act of killing of his first son, the moral behavior of humanity deteriorated to the stage that any repair, any tikkun, any restoration of humanity's ties with the Creator was impossible. The catharsis of Noach's flood was supposed to serve for the human race as a new start for developing recognition of Almighty and His laws of morality. Instead, the age of “nothingness” as the Talmud calls it in mesechtas Avodah Zarah, continued for another several hundred years.
Between the Great Flood and the recognition of Creator by Abraham, humanity got an opportunity to build a new civilization of free individuals, families and societies. This new development was expected to be based on mutual tolerance, understanding and love between human and human, family and family, and tribe and tribe. Unfortunately, the two individuals who thought about G-d and his will for humanity were not listened to. Shaim, the son of Noach, and his grandson Aiver were trying to influence humanity from their yeshiva, a learning center located on the hill of the Holy Land, toward service of G-d. But far away, in the plains of Bavel, a different center of thought and social philosophy was developing, and I do not speak now about our father Abraham, not yet.
Nimrod called upon his people to build a tower, a project, in order to establish a name for themselves.  According to the Scripture, he was the first to build a city. According to Chazal, the Sages of blessed memory, he was the first to establish a government.
“I will offer you protection,” he said to people whom he made his subjects, “ and the price will be not high: some of your freedom, some of your dignity and some kavod - recognition - for me; we'll make a deal.”

So the history of oppressive government began.

Abraham was born in Nimrod’s idolatrous kingdom. When he came to recognition of the Creator as the sole independent ruling power, Nimrod’s ideology was severely undermined. The idea of G-d and his Law ruling the people, and an independent and free people developing their own relationship with Almighty, was an obstacle to his political and social philosophy. E pluribus unum was a strange idea to Nimrod. He wanted unity, but centralized under the banner of the Babylonian Empire, of which he made himself  king. His insignia was the beged,  the clothing, of the first man Adam, which Nimrod possessed and which he believed had magical powers. He didn’t know that those garments were garments of separation from the Creator, which He Himself crafted for the first man after his sin. The Midrash tells us that Nimrod saw the possession of those clothes as the symbol of his authority.

One of the grandsons of Abraham was hungry for more than the spiritual powers which were being developed in Abraham’s family for two generations already. Eisav  wanted both spiritual and physical greatness, which wouldn’t be wrong if the physical would be in service of the spiritual, as  was the desire of his father Yitzchak and grandfather Abraham, and by extension, the Creator Himself. Eisav, on the other hand, saw  spirituality at best as  subservient to the somatic, and at worst as an obstacle to indulging in total admiration, submission and service of the body and its desires. Eisav wanted to combine his ideas with ideology of Nimrod by taking into his possession the garment of Adam which was in Nimrod’s hands. The only way to do this was by killing  Nimrod — and he did.  
On  the very day his grandfather Abraham passed away, Eisav disregarded his right to be the continuation of the faith and life philosophy implanted within the family of Abraham. Perhaps from this very day, the two modes of civilization have been struggling for domination over the human race.
On one side it is the civilization of Yaakov –Yisroel, the civilization which developed from Shaim son of Noah, who was also called Malchitzedek – the king of justice.  Malchitzedek was the king of Shalem, the city of peace that would eventually become Yerushalayim.
It is he who Avraham visits after winning in battle over the four kings and to whom he gives his contributions. It is Malchitzedek to whom Rivka turns for advice about her pregnancy of Yaakov and Esav. It is Yeshiva of Shaim and Aiver where our father Yaakov learns the ways of G-d for 17 years nonstop, without taking any sleep. But the revolution started by Abraham perfected and brought to the new level the teachings of Shaim and Aiver.
In the person of Yaakov and his family the civilization of ‘voice’ — teaching, idea and ideology, justice, freedom, recognition of independence and Godliness of every human being, a civilization of peace — plants its seed among  mankind.
On the other side is the anti-Shaim, anti-Semitic Nimrod-Esav-Amalek civilization. This civilization is based on 'hands- – submission, servitude, conquest, war, militarism, domination, occupation, control, destruction, sword – the use of physical power.

See all of the essays on this blog where I just posted Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s writings in reference to this distinction between the two modes of civilization. Needless to say, it was not his invention to see the history of mankind in this way; rather, this view is the core of the self-understanding of the Jewish mission in history by all our sages of blessed memory.

We will skip a big part of the human record to speed up to 1776, but two more issues have to be discussed in short: the revelation of Torah on Sinai and the creation of the Jewish nation, and lehavdil, direct sources which influenced political thought in the 16th  and 17th  centuries. The connecting link between Judaism and its ideas being spread among the rest of humanity in the last two thousand years have been mentioned earlier in this essay. 

Matys Weiser