January 16, 2019

Q&A with Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky

The Russian-born Israeli Natan Sharansky, 65, a former member of the Knesset and now chair of the Jewish Agency, visited Los Angeles last week, hosted jointly by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Beth Jacob Congregation of Beverly Hills. A refusenik who spent years in a Soviet prison accused of spying is now running an 83-year-old, $400 million organization with a very broad mandate, and he has become the go-to Israeli leader on a host of controversial issues, ranging from conversion to the Kotel. He sat down with the Journal for a wide-ranging conversation about the role of religion in Israel, the spread of democracy in the Middle East and what he thinks he can — and can’t — accomplish in the three remaining years of his term. 

Jewish Journal: You’re dealing with some of the biggest questions facing the Jewish people today, including trying to broker a deal that would create a new section for non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Is the compromise still viable? 

Natan Sharansky: It’s up to the Jewish people. I think there is surprisingly broad consensus around it, so I think it has a good chance. 

JJ: Both sides — the religious authorities and the Women of the Wall — seem to have stepped back some of their support, particularly following an Israeli court’s decision saying women can pray near the Kotel as they wish. 

NS: Everybody has his or her reservations. The Women of the Wall [a group holding monthly prayers at the Kotel] are fighting for having something specific for one group, one hour in a month. My proposal deals with this issue strategically, to make sure there is enough space near the wall for everybody. Each side wants to improve it in a way that will make it unacceptable to the other, but in the end everybody is loyal to this compromise. 

JJ: The Kotel was one of the first places you went to when you first arrived in Israel. How do you describe it? As a place of prayer?

NS: That’s what people don’t understand; they try to make the Kotel much less than it is. Many in American Jewish federations will say, “Why don’t we have this problem at the Lincoln Memorial?” Or, to the contrary: “Nobody will think to try to change the prayer in the Vatican, so why are we trying to change it here?” The Kotel is not the Lincoln Memorial; it’s not the Vatican. There is no other civilization that has such a symbol, which at the same time is the central symbol of their national identity, the central symbol of their historical redemption and at the same time the most important religious place, the closest to God. 

JJ: In a way, it also might be called a town square. 

NS: A town square is not a place for prayer. You are not putting pitkaot [notes] to God in the town square. At the same time, the Kotel is not only a synagogue, because it’s also a town square, it is also the place where the parade of your national pride is the most appropriate. That is why it is very important that there will be place for everything: for the oath of the military, for prayer, and for the place where new immigrants are getting their citizenship. That’s the uniqueness of this place. 

JJ: The “town square” was the metaphor you used in your 2004 book, “The Case for Democracy,” to assess whether a society allowed the free expression of dissent. Seen one way, the dispute at the Kotel raises the question of whether Israel today is, in your words, a “free society” or a “fear society.” 

NS: You’re simply trying to play with the words. What does that have to do with the town square? I said that a free society is one where, in the center of the city, you can come and express your views. 

JJ: Isn’t Anat Hoffman, Women of the Wall’s chairwoman, doing just that? 

NS: Can you come to the Catholic cathedral in the middle of New York and have Muslim prayer there? And if not, does that mean that America is not a free country? No, simply that a Catholic cathedral is not a town square where everybody can say whatever he wants. Anat Hoffman comes to a place which, at this moment, it was decided it’s an Orthodox synagogue and says no, it’s not a synagogue, it’s a place for my prayer, and the debate in the society is whether it should continue to be only an Orthodox synagogue
or it should be a place for all the other prayers as well. 

JJ: Let me push back a little bit, because I think that the debate is happening in the context of a number of other debates, about where religious power and authority lies in Israel. Whether it’s segregated army service or segregated bus lines.

NS: Oh, segregated bus lines. I just was told about some area in New York, near Monsey, where there are streets where women go on one side and men go on the other side, and the buses have segregated places for men and women. Somehow I didn’t hear that anybody goes to the Supreme Court in the United States of America and appeals to the First Amendment. I’m very much against all those phenomena, but these attempts to say that it turns Israel into some kind of restricted democracy, I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. As long as we have the most independent Supreme Court in the world, the most independent free press and all these institutions, we are absolutely a free society. 

JJ: You seem to get all of these hot topics that really get under the skin of American Jews. Take conversion: In 2010, when the Jewish federations in the United States were up in arms about the Rotem bill, someone said,“OK, Natan will fix it.” So, where are we?

NS: We fixed it. With the Rotem bill, it was the Jewish Agency which warned the government that it’s a nonstarter. When, nevertheless, it went to a first hearing, we, together with the Jewish federations, orchestrated the campaign of bringing different delegations, and organizing meetings with many different members of Knesset. For many members of Knesset, this was the first meeting of their lives with Conservative and Reform leaders. And, in the end, it was stopped.

JJ: Earlier this year, you were given four more years in your current position. What do you hope to accomplish? 

NS: We just developed some proposals with the prime minister’s office, over increased cooperation between the government of Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The idea is to have 100,000 young Jews visiting Israel on different programs, strengthening their identity, to have 1,000 Jewish institutions all over the world with strong presence of Israel there, to designate 150 university campuses all over the world as Israel-engaged campuses with much stronger connection to Israel, and to double the opportunities for the absorption of young Jewish academicians. And of course, I’d like to finally find a common approach to the question of how the conversion should look. And I’m not speaking now of non-Orthodox conversion; I’m speaking now of Orthodox conversion, which is a big debate in Israel. 

JJ: What about marriage? Does the Jewish agency have something to say about freeing up the marriage establishment and who’s in charge? 

NS: (Laughs) Really? You want the Jewish agency to be —

JJ: I don’t know how far your mandate goes. These issues seem connected.

NS: There was a period when I was receiving a lot of e-mails from the members of Reform Jewry: “We were fighting for you; make sure that our rights are respected.” The Orthodox establishment probably began to understand that they also have to be organized better, so now I’m receiving an increasing number of e-mails, almost more than the Reform, saying, “We were fighting for you, make sure that our Judaism is protected in Israel and not destroyed.” All of them they are fighting for me, and all of them are part of the Jewish people. I don’t think that the role of the Jewish Agency is to protect the rights of Reform Jewry against the Orthodox, or Orthodox Jewry the other way. The role of Jewish Agency is to make sure that every Jew in the world feels that the State of Israel is also his or her state, and that’s a big challenge, believe me. 

The fact that there are people who are citizens of the State of Israel who don’t have the normal way of registering their marriages in Israel has to be dealt with. We in the Jewish Agency can bring together Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, government, opposition — that’s what can facilitate the discussion. But we can’t solve the problem of civil marriage in Israel. We don’t have a mandate from our electorate. 

JJ: In a 2011 interview with The Jerusalem Post, you expressed optimism about what was then still developing as the Arab Spring. What do you see now? 

NS: The source of my optimism is the same and the source of my fears is the same. In “The Case for Democracy,” I was speaking about “inevitable revolutions” in Egypt, Syria and Libya. It was, what, seven years before the Arab Spring? You cannot keep the people all the time in the state of mind of “doublethink”; the longer the dictatorship, the bigger the desire is of doublethinkers to get rid of this doublethink. Sooner or later these regimes will be overthrown. 

The mistake of the free world is that each time they build their hopes that their dictator will be forever. And the source of my skepticism is that it is very difficult to hope that the free world, in the end, will decide — not only for a short period of time, but for the long term — not to support “our” dictators, but to support development of civil society.

JJ: You’ve had a remarkable life and a remarkable career, first as a dissident and since your release. What’s next? 

NS: You say “dissident” or “minister” or “chairman of Jewish Agency” as if it is some value in itself. It’s all different positions from which you are dealing with the same issues. I spent my life dealing with the issue of identity and freedom, the connection between that and the life of our people. It’s a great topic, which never ends, and I am going to continue dealing with it.

Seth Rogen waltzes to a dramatic beat in new movie [Q & A]

He’s better known for big studio comedies like “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express”, but Seth Rogen strays from his beaten path when he stars in the low-budget comedy-drama “Take This Waltz.”

Directed by Canadian actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley, and opening in U.S. theaters on Friday, the movie sees Rogen starring opposite Michelle Williams, who is better known for dramatic roles in films like “Blue Valentine”.

Rogen plays a cookbook author with an alcoholic sister (Sarah Silverman) who doesn’t seem to notice that his wife (Williams) has fallen for the handsome artist (Luke Kirby) that lives across the street.

Rogen, 30, talked with Reuters about working with Williams, and his upcoming directorial debut in “The End of the World”.

Reuters: “Take This Waltz” is about a woman’s marriage failing because she’s in love with someone else. Not exactly a subject matter you’re associated with. How did this project come about?

Seth Rogen: “I’m not one of those actors where filmmakers that I admire ask me to be in their movies. I meet them at parties and they’re nice to me, but they never ask me to work with them. Sarah Polley is one of the first filmmakers that I’ve really liked that asked me.”

R: There is no trace here of the man-child roles you often play in your other movies. It’s probably your most serious role to date, wouldn’t you say?

S.R.: “It’s probably closer to what I am in real life. I think I’m one of those people that when fans meet, they’re often very disappointed because I’m kind of quiet and shy. I think they expect me to have one of those hats with two beer cans strapped to my head and strippers on either side of me. So it was nice to do something where I didn’t have to be really funny all the time.”

R: How did you enjoy working with Michelle Williams?

S.R.: “She was very impressive. A lot of our scenes were emotionally demanding. The emotional turmoil that actors put themselves through at the drop of a hat is not the type of stuff I normally do.”

R: We seem to know more about Michelle Williams’ character than yours. What’s the back story you gave him?

S.R.: “I think a lot of people aggressively stay stagnant, almost like a gauntlet that’s thrown down. For Lou, the test of the relationship is ‘Can we not change.’ He thinks if it’s strong enough to not change, that means it’s strong enough to last. But that’s not realistic or how real relationships are.”

R: You’re currently making your feature directorial debut with writing partner Evan Goldberg on the comedy “The End of the World” that you also star in. How do you like directing?

S.R.: “It was a little daunting because the movie itself is technically complicated. The story is something we’ve been working on for years and years. There have been several moments where I feel like, ‘I can’t believe we pulled this off!’ But those wonderful moments have been shattered by the stress of ‘We’re not going to finish what we need to shoot in time!’”

R: In that film, everybody plays a heightened version of themselves. You’ve got a lot of your friends in there like James Franco, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel. But also people like Rihanna and Emma Watson who seem unlikely to hang with your crowd in real life.

S.R.: “It’s James Franco’s party in the movie. And the truth is, sometimes you go to a party and you can’t believe who’s there…I’ve had random famous people show up at my parties where I’m like, ‘What the heck is this person doing here?’ That’s what we wanted to tap in to.”

R: How did you nab Rihanna?

S.R.: “I read in an interview once that she was a fan of some of our movies. When we were working on this film, we thought, ‘She seems not to hate us. She could be a good person to ask.’ We got her on the phone, explained it to her and she agreed to do it. She was really funny, she improvised and did everything we asked her to do. And she seemed to have a good time.”

R: You act, write, direct, produce and are considered to be on Hollywood’s A-list. Ever feel like you’re on top of the world?

S.R.: “As a Jewish person, you generally hate yourself, but there’s moments where I feel that way.”

Reporting by Zorianna Kit, editing by Jill Serjeant and Carol Bishopric


I spent last Wednesday morning trying to make professor Steven Spiegel squirm.

I thought if I kept up what must have seemed like a monomaniacal fixation on a single question, he would have to appease me with a single simple answer.

My question was: Was the war with Iraq right or wrong?

The question has obsessed me lately because, well, it should.

At least 487 American soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq since the war began, and at least 2,800 have been wounded. The situation is far from stabilized, and the threat looms that the country will fall prey to a radical Shiite hegemony, or civil war or become a base for Al Qaeda. Should any of that happen, it would be hard, if not impossible, to justify the death and destruction this war has wrought.

Those of us who were basically supportive of the U.S. invasion need to look at our past arguments in light of the current reality and ask ourselves, were we right or wrong?

I know there are those people on the right who scoff at such questions.

"What is truly astonishing is not our inability in six months to create an Arab utopia," writes Victor Davis Hanson in this month’s Commentary, "but the sheer audacity of our endeavor to send our liberating troops into the heart of an ancient and deeply chauvinistic culture that over the past decades had reduced itself to utter ruin."

Pulling Saddam Hussein from his hole, Iraqi mass graves and shaking up Middle East dictatorships are all justification enough for them. Never mind that none of these go to president’s original and as yet unjustified reason for the war, the threat posed by Saddam’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.

Those on the left will scoff as well. The fall of a patently evil dictator, the liberation of a tyrannized people, the removal of a long-term threat to our security, none of these justify an invasion and occupation that usurped international law and, in their view, rendered the world not more secure but less.

"We invaded Iraq illegally," said former U.S. arms inspector Scott Ritter in a recent interview, "a reality that requires every American to stare his or herself in the mirror and say: We have collectively failed as Americans, in embracing the theocracy of evil, which allows the concept of the ends justify the means to take hold in a nation that’s supposed to be ruled by the Constitution and the rule of law."

Before the war, I counted myself within what I suspected was the largest set of American Jewish opinion.

"The soldiers who are fighting this war have our absolute support," I wrote in March 2003. "Our support for the war they are engaged in is, however, conditional — not on the actions of our soldiers, but on the decisions of their commander-in-chief."

I spoke with experts whose judgment I respected — like Spiegel, who is professor of political science at UCLA and director of Mideast Regional Security Programs for UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations. I read others, such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. And from them I saw the potential for good that could come out of a new Iraq war, if — big if here on everyone’s part — both the war and its aftermath were handled intelligently.

Fast-forward almost a year and I’m still in what I suspect is the largest third of American Jewish opinion regarding the war. There’s some who think that no matter what, the war was worth it. There’s another group who, no matter what, believes it was wrong. And there’s the largest, middle third who assented cautiously to the war.

"Most Jews were anxious about the war but forced themselves to be hopeful," said Jonathan Jacoby of the Israel Policy Forum, where Spiegel is a national scholar. Their — our — support hinged not on what the president said he would do, or planned to do, but on what he actually did.

But does the fact that my support was conditional, as was Speigel’s, absolve us from answering the question of whether the war was right or wrong? How dare we give equivocal answers to life and death questions?

Unfair as it is, I wanted Spiegel to squirm on account of my conscience. Was his decision to support the war, albeit conditionally, right or wrong?

"It’s oversimplistic to ask whether we were right to go in or not," Spiegel answered me. "Bush was going to go in. It was a question of how, not whether."

Spiegel said his sources told him that the weapons of mass destruction posed a serious threat, that the war would be over quickly, and that the real war would take place in the aftermath.

"The only thing people got wrong is the WMD issue," he said. "The fear was we’d win the war and mess up the peace. But the Middle East is better off without Saddam Hussein."

The fact that Bush charged into the war without broad international support and a postwar strategy was a serious error that we may yet pay an even bigger price for, Spiegel said.

He doesn’t buy the administration’s counterargument that the aftermath of even a successful war is messy, and that the press and the public need to be patient.

"It’s a tautology," he said. "If you shake things up, then they’ll be shaken up. Everyone knew you were going to be stuck if you don’t have a plan, and the administration threw out — literally — the State Department’s plan."

Our conversation veered toward a cost-benefit analysis. The war had something to do with Libya’s recent openness. It might help us tame an even larger threat — Iranian nuclear weapons — but Spiegel criticized the administration’s refusal to engage the current regime there. As for the Arab-Israeli conflict, Spiegel said Bush said he would use the war’s success to advance the "road map," but he hasn’t.

"We haven’t gotten the bang we were supposed to get for the Iraqi buck," Spiegel said. "It’s not the war that was the mistake, it was the preparation for its aftermath. This administration has a problem with implementation. There’s a sense that you can say something or do something and the problem all gets resolved."

But, I reminded Spiegel, pushing one last time, the administration had problems with implementation prior to the invasion, and those problems were one more reason to oppose the war, according to its opponents. So, were we right, or wrong?

Spiegel paused before he answered. He’s a patient, serious and very decent man, and I was exasperating him. His sources in the Middle East tell him the situation in Iraq, far from good, is better than the American press would have us believe. Beyond that, he said, "I’m reluctant to say it was a mistake because I’ve met too many Iraqis who have suffered because of Saddam. And you can’t be unresponsive to that."

I let off. Evidently, as much as we all might have wished otherwise, there are no simple answers to complicated questions.

Is History Repeating Itself?

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me"? — Rabbi Hillel

Can we learn from history? Is the past a succession of meaningless, unrelated events? Does the rise and fall of nations in the past have

anything to do with today’s world? Are people that much different than they were then? Do they strive after different things, have different desires?

These questions came to mind recently as the similarities between Israel’s geopolitical situation increasingly resembled that of the Jews during the first Roman War. (Some would argue that it more closely resembles 20th-century Czechoslovakia, but that’s another article.)

Huge armies were assembled in ancient Judea. Pitched battles were fought throughout. Great plunder and destruction followed, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people brutally murdered or sold into slavery. The dispersion of the Jews among their enemies began.

There were those who counseled moderation in those days: These were collaborators, wealthy men and nobles who benefited from the Roman occupation and wanted it to continue. They preferred expansion and trade to a foolish rebellion that could only end in disaster.

The war began in spite of their efforts. Menahem the Galilean conquered the Roman fortress at Masada and then entered Jerusalem in triumph.

Other nationalist movements began to stir throughout the Roman Empire, and Jews in the Diaspora were also moved to send material aid.

But the resources of these Jewish rebels were infinitely smaller than their oppressors, and they were tragically disunited. Their greatest energies were used in fighting one another, further weakening them against the powerful Roman army that had conquered Galilee and stood poised to attack Jerusalem.

The city was now the center of the rebellion, with Jews from all over the country rallying there. Zealots, an extremist organization adamantly opposed to Roman rule and the high priesthood, occupied the Temple precinct and forced the priests to withdraw into the sanctuary.

Things were made more confused by the arrival of many Idumaeans in the city. These men were great fighters, but they were not accepted as Jews, because they were converts. The three principal factions — Zealots, Idumaeans and the elitist collaborationists — now used their time to terrorize one another, creating the contagion of civil war.

Vespasian, the Roman general, twice prepared to attack Jerusalem but hesitated when the Emperor Nero died suddenly. Besides, it was evident by then that the Jews were destroying themselves by their extraordinary disunity. And indeed, the three basic factions in the capital were reduced to two by their fierce internal struggles that persisted, even though a Roman army was just north of the city and poised to attack.

Significantly, the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem had a misplaced confidence in their military capabilities. Partly, this was due to religious beliefs; partly it was because of Vespasian’s failure to attack the holy city for three years, even though its gates had been wide open and defenseless. As a result, when the long siege of Jerusalem began, there was no real hope for the defenders.

Ancient Judea lost its bid for freedom when it divided itself into factions and fought one another, instead of the common enemy. Its forces were caught up in their visions of the world, its fighters too certain the real enemy was within.

The result was the fall of the city, followed by a massacre and burning of the Temple and the city. The numbers of Jews killed or taken prisoner was astounding. Thirty-thousand prisoners of war were sold at auction, while many others perished in gladiatorial games.

Writing of those times, Josephus spoke thus: "…. Weary of slaughter, Titus issued orders to kill only those who were found in arms and offered resistance … troops slew the old and feeble, while those in the prime of life and serviceable they drove together into the Temple and shut them up in the court of the women."

Israel today stands imperiled much as she did in Roman times, surrounded by enemies that again threaten her existence. Jews everywhere have formed themselves into factions, unable to see any good in the policies of their political opponents.

There is little uproar over the left’s blindness, no outcry about the right’s dreams of a greater Israel. None of these factions sees anything good about the other, and some would rather demonize or talk down the elected government of Israel than present a united front against the nation’s enemies.

Should we be concerned that history is tragically repeating itself today? Should these happenings frighten those who value liberty and the survival of the Jewish state most?

That is the most important question for Jews to think about in these perilous times.

Stanley William Rothstein is professor emeritus at California State University, Fullerton.

A Journey to Home

I was born to Protestant parents. By age 7, I was constantly questioning: Why are we here? Who is God? What happens to us after we die?

I think I was 10 years old when I realized that Christianity wasn’t for me.

When I was 15, I fell in lust with the rock band Counting Crows’ Jewish lead singer, Adam Duritz, and subsequently fell in love with Judaism.

Christmas ’95 I received the most ironic of gifts — Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer’s "What Is a Jew?" The book was given to me by a friend, who originally bought it as a gag gift for her boyfriend. He had Jews in his family somewhere but apparently wasn’t too proud of his Hebrew roots. He rejected the book and it became mine.

"What Is a Jew?" spoke to me. This characteristically Jewish way of questioning stood out in weekly Sunday school at church, where a large leap of faith was required. I don’t remember exactly what my Sunday school teachers said to me, but phrases like "Don’t question," "That’s the way it is" and "Jesus died for our sins" were the answers I remember receiving to my most deepest questions on faith.

At 17, I discovered "The Jews of America," an oversized, hardback book with more than 200 pages of pictures of Jews — from Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn to director Steven Spielberg and his mother, Leah Adler. I’d find great joy and comfort thumbing through the pages of that book, most of the time not even really knowing why.

In my junior year of college, I declared a Jewish minor. With that, I took an introduction to Judaism class and two Jewish history courses. I also learned about the Holocaust and was profoundly touched by Elie Wiesel’s "Night." In these secular classes, I came to understand why Israel is so important to the Jews and why the Jews don’t believe that Jesus was/is the messiah.

After graduating from college and landing my first real job, I started seriously considering conversion. I enrolled in a Reform conversion class but dropped out after several weeks, feeling that it wasn’t the movement for me. I stumbled upon Chabad, and a few months later began keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and holding to other mitzvot. I wasn’t sure that I was going to commit myself to Orthodox Judaism; I was merely trying it on for size. However, a few days into my observance and I knew that I found what I had been searching for my whole life.

I always knew that I would someday live in Israel, but there was a part of me that doubted that it was possible. I felt like I had a better chance of winning the lottery or becoming a rock star than "coming home."

I spent my first two months in Israel on a "holy high." Nothing is ever average: you’re either experiencing the most incredible high praying at the Western Wall, feeling the Divine Presence right there with you; or you’re mourning the death of a young Israeli soldier who gave up his life for something bigger than he could ever put his finger on, and you cry like it was your own brother.

I woke up every morning in the breathtaking hills of biblical Judea and studied Torah until at least 1 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. Shabbat was never ordinary, filled with extravagant meals, joyous singing and dancing and moments of real rest. The celebrations came one after another — Rosh Chodesh (the new month), weddings, engagements, brit milot, bat mitzvot, Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), and they were never small nor quiet affairs.

After being in Israel, I didn’t think that I could ever return to the States, even for a short period of time. But I missed my friends and I missed my family, so I booked a ticket home for a three-and-a-half week visit. I was in the process of switching schools and had a period of about a month before the new school’s semester began. I was also running low on money and figured I’d work some while I was here and apply for a small but significant loan to cover the costs of tuition, room and board, and other expenses.

But the substantial tuition discount that I had hoped for didn’t come through; my parents, who were happy to see me back, weren’t so eager to loan me money to return to the Middle East. I became more and more worried about taking out large loans when I knew I could get the same education for much less after I made aliyah.

While I wanted nothing more than to return to Israel, it made more sense to stick around until I was able to save money, finish my conversion at my own pace — working one on one with a rabbi versus in a classroom setting — and have the time to learn Hebrew.

But still, it’s tough living in Orange County. There are no kosher restaurants and many of the apartments near Orthodox synagogues are pricey (a conversion candidate, as well as an observant Jews, must live near an Orthodox synagogue, so they can walk there on Shabbat). But I am doing the best I can.

God willing, I will soon return to where I feel I belong, Our Holy Land, Israel.

Before heading off to Israel, Heather Fuller worked as a news assistant in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Orange County Register. She has also worked for BMG, VH1 and OC Weekly.

Jewels of Our Lives

There are stories that one needs to hear many times in order to remember them, in order to file them in a manner that they can be retrieved when needed. But then I’m sure you have listened to stories that you heard not only with your ears and memory, but with your soul as well; stories that you knew the moment you heard them you would never forget them. Thirteen years ago, I was standing in a store of sefarim (holy books) in Yerushalayim with my rebbe, Shlomo Carlebach. He took a book off the shelf, kissed it and handed it to me while saying, "Do you have this book? You must have it."

It looked like so many other books in the store, so many other books in my library. "It’s the Bat Ayin — the teachings of the holy Avritcher Rebbe — you must have it."

"But who is he?" I asked.

Reb Shlomo looked at me and said, "Remember the story with the precious stones? It is him!"

I smiled as my eyes teared. "Yes," I said, "I remember."

The Bat Ayin, Rav Avraham Dov of Avritch, was one of the Chasidic leadership who made aliyah in 1777. One day, a stranger entered his chazter (courtyard) in the city of Tzfat and Rav Avraham ran to greet him. The Chasidim couldn’t hear what they spoke of, but as soon as the stranger left, the rebbe returned to his study and did not emerge for three weeks. The Chasidim were puzzled: Who was that person? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his study for three weeks? Their puzzlement grew when the rebbe finally emerged and commanded his Chasidim to prepare the most amazing tish (a rebbe’s table).

The Chasidim did as they were told. They ate and drank and sang and danced. But the whole time, all they really wanted to know was: Who was the stranger? What did he and the rebbe discuss? Why did the rebbe lock himself in his room for three weeks?

At last one of the Chasidim mustered up the courage to ask the rebbe, "Why?"

The rebbe silenced them and began: "Many years ago, while still in Avritch, I would always sit for hours with anyone that came from Eretz Yisrael. I would question them about the Holy Land and what it was like to live there. One day a shliach d’rabanan [charity collector] showed up and we talked endlessly. When he stood to leave I begged him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘I’ve told you everything.’

"But I insisted, ‘Tell me more!’

"He said to me, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Ma’arat Hamachpela along with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs you will know.’ And he turned to leave.

"I begged of him, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘What more can I tell you? When you stand at Kever Rachel [Rachel’s tomb] and cry with her, you will know.’ And again he turned to leave.

"I continued to beg, ‘Please, tell me more!’

"He said, ‘I’ve told you all I can. When you get there you will see for yourself, even the stones are precious stones. Even the stones are made of emeralds and rubies and diamonds!’ And with this he left.

"So you see," the rebbe turned to his Chasidim, "when I arrived, everything was exactly as he said it would be. Everything but the stones — they were regular stones, they weren’t precious stones at all. I could never understand why he lied to me. Why the last thing he told me was not true.’

"Three weeks ago, he walked into the chatzer, and despite the passage of 20 years I recognized him immediately. I ran to him and said, ‘Everything you told me was true, but the stones! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me they were precious stones when they are not?!’ He looked at me and said with dismay and surprise: ‘What? They’re not?’

"So I locked myself in my study and I began to cry. Every day I would cry and look out at the stones. Today, finally, while looking out of the window I realized that every stone was precious. Every stone was an emerald or a ruby or a diamond!"

The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) tells us that on Rosh Hashanah the Books of Life and Death are opened and that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are all registered in one of the two books. But who does the actual signing? Who else but God could do this? The Avritcher Rebbe tells us that it is our own signature that appears in these books. If we choose to look at ourselves, at other people, at our world, at the events of our lives as jewels, then indeed we have signed ourselves in the Book of Life.

The Avritcher Rebbe had to cry in order to transform his sight. And you? Will the transformation happen through joy? Through prayer? Through dance? Through learning? What will it take for you to sign yourself in the Book of Life?

Reb Mimi Feigelson is lecturer of rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

Secrets of the Cryptic Scripture

Is the Torah an ancient set of laws or a divinely coded document that, if read correctly, provides clues to all major historical events? That’s the question the History Channel documentary “The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon” wants to answer.

While many might think of the codes as a modern phenomenon, people have been searching for codes in the Torah since the 12th century.

In the late 20th century, Bible code scholars counted letters at various intervals to see what words appeared, and later, they used computers to lay the text out on a grid, or matrix, and counted some more. Noting when certain words materialized next to each other on the grid, scholars say they found clues to — among other things — the 1929 stock market crash, World War II, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the L.A. earthquake of 1994.

While most of these clues were found after the fact, Bible code proponents point out that they were able to predict the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin before it happened, and they tried to warn the Israeli government to no avail. (Though presumably, if the Torah is divine, then it is unlikely a little warning would derail God’s plan.) They also predict another major earthquake in Los Angeles in 2010 and Earth’s possible destruction by a comet in 2012.

Opponents of the codes interviewed in the documentary say that they can be found in any text, and point to experiments run on “Moby Dick,” where letters counted at equal distances revealed Princess Diana’s death.

Matthew Asner and Danny Gold, the two Reform Jews who wrote, directed and produced the documentary, say that while they don’t necessarily believe in the codes, they find them interesting.

“If you totally believe in the codes you’re a fool, but if you dismiss them completely then you’re a fool, too,” Asner said. “But let’s just say that in the last part of 2009, I will be getting earthquake insurance.”

“The Bible Code” premieres on The History Channel,
Sun.,’ Sept. 7 at 9 p.m. www.historychannel.com .

Balance With ‘One Foot’

Has a question or statement about Israel ever caught you so off guard and tongue-tied that you wished you could just reach into your back pocket to pull out an answer? Well, now you can.

Dr. Mitchell G. Bard, author and executive director of the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise, has written a pocket-size guide to the Middle East.

Titled "On One Foot," the resource is the brainchild of Los Angeles movie producer Tom Barad, who contacted Bard after observing the extreme anti-Israel sentiment last year on his son’s campus, UC Berkeley, and his niece’s campus, University of Colorado.

"I knew that kids were leaning on bars at parties and sitting in their dorm rooms and hearing people make claims and accuse Israel of certain misdeeds that they were completely unprepared to defend," Barad said. "I had a concept of a product they could pull out of their pocket at a moment’s notice and have three simple responses."

"On One Foot" is a more concise version of Bard’s previous book "Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict." Divided into eight sections, such as "Refugees," "Human Rights" and "Disputed Territories and Settlements," it includes various "myths" about the conflict, followed by his succinct factual and historical responses that dispute the myths.

Additionally, each section is introduced by a biblical passage — an element that Barad felt was an essential addition to the text.

"I felt it was important that at least laced into ‘On One Foot’ there would be something that would touch our tradition … a continued expression about why we’re in this struggle to begin with," Barad said. "How can you deal with your relationship to Israel if you’re completely ignoring your relationship to your religious heritage?"

The book’s title, "On One Foot," refers to the talmudic story of Hillel the Elder who is confronted by a man demanding to learn Torah. He wants the knowledge fast and demands to have it "while standing on one foot." Hillel responds, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary."

Bard further explains in the introduction of the book: "In our hyperspeed world, we, too, need to get some fast learning, often while we are on one foot, struggling for balance, seeking the truth."

Due to its brief nature, Bard recommends that "On One Foot" should be read as a reference guide. "It’s not necessarily the final word, but at least it is a brief word on the topic," Bard said. "I encourage everyone to do more in-depth research."

To order a copy of "On One Foot" ($10), call (310) 364-0909 or e-mail ononefoot@earthlink.net. Discounts are available for bulk orders and for organizations.

Who Are the Journalists?

We love to hate them, those journalists who wield so much power and never quite get the facts right.

For two years now, we have opened up our morning papers, our Web sites and our hourly news broadcasts with a pit in our collective stomachs. It isn’t bad enough that the news from Israel is so frightening, terrifying and brutal, but the events are served up to us by journalists who can’t seem to distinguish between the ruthless murder of innocent babies at a pizza shop and the deliberate and cautious method in which our brave soldiers execute these murderers.

We are repelled by the moral blindness that screams from every page. Was there something we were missing?

Both of us had developed a much more positive view of journalists here in Los Angeles as we got to know them as human beings and friends. We went to Israel with a unique mission: not to confront but to engage, not to challenge but to question. Through the good offices of friends in Israel, we were able to meet with nearly a dozen journalists in a dizzying half-week; we got to know them and they us.

We spoke with the bureau chiefs of almost all the key American dailies, and then some. We learned much. We enjoyed the company of some very likable people, for the most part, struggling to do a good job on the toughest beat in the world. We detected no animus oward Israel, Israelis or Jews.

No two were the same in temperament or in previous experience. Some had covered wars elsewhere; others had last covered PTA meetings.

Some arrived in Jerusalem with very little knowledge of the historical background to the conflict (what was needed, they said, was accurate reportage of the events of the day). One was a Fullbright lecturer with shelves of background material neatly separated according to topic.

They also had quite a bit in common. They all took considerable risks to cover hot spots. Everyone had a flak jacket; everyone had thrust himself or herself in the midst of combat.

Despite each having important stories to tell and personal insights to relate, they exhibited far less ego then we anticipated. None of them had plans to write a book; they were almost uniformly sheepish about the suggestion. They saw themselves as specialists in their single interest of daily reportage, and that suited them just fine.

They had all been to Jenin, and each one insisted that he/she quickly knew there was no massacre and had gotten the word out quickly. Each one also insisted that it was shortsighted of Israel to change the press accommodations without warning, leaving them stranded outside the arena of action.

The authorities had never clamped down too hard on them when they exposed themselves to the dangers of bullets whizzing around their heads. Why did they choose Jenin to become solicitous of their safety in the face of hidden bombs, refusing to allow them official entry (some found ways around that) until after women and children had reentered the town? While they personally believed that Israel had nothing to hide, the country had handed the Palestinians significant credibility for their claims.

The veteran writers all appreciated that in other wars they had covered, they were simply kept away from the combat zones — and that was the end of it. No country matched the freedom of access that Israel provided, but that did not lead to enthusiastic embrace of the Israeli position, when in their view political hacks frustrated their getting their work done.

One writer pithily offered this summary: “When most of us get here, we have leanings toward the Israeli side. After we see the plight of the Palestinians, our sympathies tilt in the other direction. When we really get to know the principals, we are equally turned off to both.”

Why do they get in trouble with American Jewish critics? One factor became prominent: the use of Palestinian “facilitators” to gather news and sometimes to do much more.

Everyone has them. Israelis just cannot operate in the territories, while the opposite is not true. The journalists say they take their bias into account, but the process is imperfect. And the Palestinians speak with one voice: they want to put their people in the best light.

While the journalists use Israeli facilitators as well, they do not all hew to the same line. Israel is a democracy, and the Israeli counterparts to the Palestinians (none of the latter, by the way, agreed to meet with us) are not all great boosters of the state.

Here we were able to level the playing field a bit. We came equipped with ideas for stories, and fresh contacts who would give voice to points of view they had not yet heard. Surprisingly, we found out that we were the first who had tried this personal approach to helping them do their job.

We proposed human interest ideas, and every one of our new friends sighed, expressing the wish that the violence would subside long enough to allow them the luxury of pursuing those avenues.

There were some difficult moments. We found it hard to listen to stories of the counterproductive behavior of our own people. We hoped — and continue to hope — that people outside our community should be able to differentiate between a small number of hotheads in one society and an entire culture peddling hatred and suicide bombing in the other.

But what could you really tell two female reporters who, covering a funeral in a settlement, returned to their car late on a Friday afternoon to find all four tires slashed? It was hard to disagree when they said that this was more than harassment; that they felt threatened and endangered.

Most difficult to listen to, however, was their almost uniform reaction to our questions about their pursuit of the human side to terrorism, when it seemed to make unvarnished evil more understandable, and therefore not as evil. They all rejected the notion that they were somehow creating a sense of parity between victim and victimizer.

Suicide bombing is so horrific, they claimed, that telling the story of its perpetrators could not possibly diminish normal people’s revulsion for it. It should, they expected, do just the opposite.

But what if it didn’t really work that way? What if they learned, for example, that a story they wrote about a teenage bomber so fascinated a kid in Des Moines that he blew up himself and a school bus of his peers? Would they have any regrets?

None, they insisted. Their job was to report the news, regardless of how the readership processed it. They could not be responsible for that.

With all the differences in background and personality, they all offered the same reasoning. The response was so uniform that it had to be part of their training. They had arrogated to themselves a privilege few of us have: hermetically sealing themselves off from the consequences of their words.

It is a position that we simply could not accept. As rabbis, as educators — as traditional Jews — our interest is almost exclusively what the listener will do with the material, how he or she will internalize it, use it, expand upon it. The advice of our sages in Avot rang in our ears: “Be careful about your words!”

We had arrived at the crux of the matter and left somewhat relieved, but doubly frustrated. We were thankful that it was good, decent people, and not a pack of rabid anti-Semites invoking this moral insulation. But we left without a solution in sight to correcting the daily moral imbalance that these new friends of ours create in the name of balanced reportage. And it was all the more difficult to hear it defended as a privilege of the fourth estate.

We now understood why we could never become journalists ourselves.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the chairman of Bible studies at Yeshiva of Los Angeles High School. Together, they run Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and host “Rabbis With Attitude” on KCSN-FM.

Finding God

I love to ask students of all ages a spiritual and revealing question: "When have you felt the presence of God in your lives?" I love to ask this question because the answers students give often inspire. Let me share some typical answers.

I feel God’s presence when I show kindness, concern and love to others and when others show kindness, concern and love to me. I feel God’s presence when I see people listen to one another and treat one another with dignity and respect. I feel God’s presence when people help others in need.

I feel God’s presence when people respect the world and treat it with dignity, when they treat animals well and when they recycle and reuse old things. I feel God’s presence when I am with family and other Jews and we do Jewish rituals and mitzvot, like lighting Shabbat candles, saying the "HaMotzi" before eating and sanctifying a holiday with the "Kiddush" over wine. I feel God’s presence when I am praying in synagogue. I feel God’s presence when I study Torah.

I feel God’s presence when I see a rainbow, the mountains, the sunset at the beach. I feel God’s presence when I sit back and notice nature and feel the awe and wonder of God’s creation. I felt God’s presence when I experienced the birth of a child.

In the very beginning of the book of Genesis, in Bereshit, it says "V’yivrah Elohim et Adam betzalmo, Betzelem Elohim barah otoh." It says that "God created Adam [people] in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created him [them]." When I think about the answers that students give to the question of when they have felt God’s presence, I feel they give a glimpse of what it means to be created in the Divine image.

On the other hand, in the same Torah portion of Bereshit, at the beginning of the second creation story, it says something very different about human origins. It says "Va’yizer Adonai Elohim et Adam afar min ha’Adamah," that "God formed Adam [people] from the dust of the earth." The name Adam, the primordial person, and the term Adamah, the earth, both derive from the same Hebrew root letters. In the creation story, there is a clear connection between Adam and the earth. That connection is eternal. There is an earthlike quality that characterizes human existence.

None of us will live forever. We, like all of God’s other creations, have a base side to our existence. We are destined, as a Midrash states, " to eat, drink, procreate and die."

This earthlike quality is something that is necessary for every human being to possess in order to live in the world. At the same time, however, it also is something that can lead to acts of dishonesty and cruelty. It is the side that can lead to evil.

It does not take much imagination to come up with examples of human evil. On a daily basis, the media bombards us with more than an ample number of illustrations.

Human evil, though, is not something that we only see on TV or read about in newspapers or on the Internet. The potential to perform evil is something that we, when we are honest looking at ourselves, each individually possess.

Norman Cohen, professor of Midrash at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, writes in his book, "Self, Struggle and Change," that there is tension between our Godlike potential and our very human nature. He asks, "How at one moment can we perform acts of love and kindness that represent our highest potential, yet immediately there after be hurtful, even to those whom we profess to love? In our most honest self reflections, we know we are capable of doing both — both the good and the bad."

Cohen points to Oscar Schindler (the German entrepreneur who saved some 1,100 Polish Jewish lives during the Holocaust) as perhaps the best example that illustrates the polarity between our divine potential and our human nature.

Cohen writes "Schindler was a drunkard and a womanizer … who mistreated his wife while maintaining relationships with several girlfriends…. During the German war effort, he realized that he could produce kitchenware and sell it on the black market and make huge profits.

"Yet, in the course of building his enamelware business, he got to know the Polish Jews who worked for him and came to treat them as human beings. Unlike his Nazi colleagues, he could not countenance any effort to dehumanize his Jews. Schindler built his own barracks so they would not have to be put in a concentration camp, and he prevented their deportation by bribing German officers and forging documents. He did all of this at the risk of his own life. In the end, he was even willing to move his entire factory to the Sudetenland in late 1944 to save his Jews.

"Perhaps what most symbolized the two sides of Oscar Schindler was the ring presented to him on V.E. Day, May 8, 1945, when he fled as Allied forces approached. Gold teeth, taken from one of the workers, were fashioned into a ring inscribed to Schindler and given to him by those lives he had saved. The ring epitomized their [ultimate] respect for this human being…. Sixteen year late, Oscar Schindler came to Israel and was welcomed by a throng of those he protected. They asked him about the ring … he replied that he had sold it for schnapps."

Animals roam the earth and live life on instincts. We human beings are very capable of living life at that level of existence. On the other hand, I have faith that there is a divine realm where God resides and where the souls of the most righteous and pure go and live after death.

Most of us, though, are flawed. Most of us are probably not on the verge of living in eternal peace with God but are destined, it seems, to live life struggling between our Godlike potential and the earthlike quality that characterizes our very human nature.

This predicament, if it is true, does not need to lead to nihilism. Life can still be worth living even if our souls may need to occupy a few more life forms and perform a few more good deeds before they are eligible to obtain the exalted position of being at rest with the Divine.

A Chasid once asked, "Where is God?" His rebbe answered, "God is there whenever you let God in." The challenge of life is not trying to reach perfection. Perhaps the challenge of life is merely trying to perform a few more acts of kindness and goodness so that the doors of our lives can be open more often and a little wider to a glimmer of the Divine presence.

History’s First

Since four women became Jewish history’s first yoatzot, or female halachic consultants, a few months ago, they have been flooded with nightly calls with questions regarding everything from the laws of family purity to the ethics of prenatal testing to infertility treatments.

“Women are voting with their feet. The volume of questions is nothing short of a tidal wave. The women are getting 10 to 15 questions a night,” says Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder of Nishmat, the women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem that runs the two-year intensive program to become a yoetzet, a consultant.

Henkin was in Los Angeles recently as a scholar-in-residence at B’nai David-Judea on Pico, where she was eager to share news of what she considers a historic moment.

“There’s been a sea of change in Jewish life for women in which we’ve watched the emergence of the first generation of Talmudically literate women,” says Henkin. “We couldn’t have done something like this even six years ago.”

There are another 17 women going through the program now, and many more applicants eager to submit to two years of intensive training and rigorous written and oral exams.

Nishmat’s yoatzot are impacting a wide swath of Israeli society. In addition to advising the women who come to them nightly — from communities ranging from secular to Charedi — the yoatzot have been integrated into Israel’s religious establishment as teachers of the laws of family purity in premarital counseling, which the rabbinate requires of all couples.

Henkin is also working with local religious councils to have the women available for questions as part of the council’s services.

Rabbinic support for the yoatzot has been forthcoming from the segment of the Orthodox community that allows women to study Talmud.

“The rabbis have realized that this is promoting a more correct Jewish observance, and at the same time it’s giving women dignity,” Henkin says.

The laws dealing with menstruation and sexual intimacy often hinge on individual circumstances, which need to be investigated and decided upon by a halachic authority. Women who approach rabbis are sometimes reluctant to go into detail about their bodily functions. Often, Henkin says, women ask their questions through the rabbi’s wife and important facts are not elicited. Or, she says, they do not ask the question at all, and impose upon themselves unnecessary restrictions.

“Just as women frequently feel more comfortable going to women gynecologists, there’s a comfort level in speaking to someone who is empathetic and with whom you feel capable of being completely open with in dealing with things that are very personal,” Henkin says.

The yoatzot consult with rabbis on questions that are complex or require original halachic innovation.

“Our women are not replacing rabbis, they are not aspiring to be rabbis and they are not aspiring to replace rabbis,” Henkin says. “They are working in concert with rabbis to provide a real service which never before in Jewish history has been available to women.”

Henkin says the benefits extend not just to those asking questions, but to the yoatzot themselves, who include doctors, lawyers and Ph.D.s.

“We’re creating an avenue for the highly accomplished woman to contribute to Jewish life,” Henkin says.

Nishmat’s other programs, serving 250 women, are similarly rigorous. The 10-year-old school, which includes year-long programs, summer programs and special classes, is at the forefront of providing venues for women to excel at intensive text study.

“Jewish life is dynamic,” Henkin says. “Nobody could have predicted 100 years ago where we would be today.”

For more information go to the Nishmat home page at VirtualJerusalem.com, or call (212) 983-6975.

19 Years Ago: Ask Yourself God’s Questions

When we arrive in heaven, the Talmudic sages wondered, what will God ask of us?

This is not really a question about heaven. It is about how we live and how we locate eternity within life. The philosopher Franz Rosensweig explained that on Yom Kippur we are offered a look at our lives through the eyes of eternity. From that perspective, what do we amount to? What’s real? What’s important? What matters?

God asks four questions:

Kavata itim L’Torah? Do you set aside time for learning Torah?

Torah is not only a book, a scroll in the ark. Torah is a process. Torah is the eternal conversation among generations of Jewish thinkers and dreamers — sharing their perceptions of life’s true purpose, of God’s presence, of life’s beauty. When we study Torah, we join the conversation.

In nature, biologist Lewis Thomas writes, there is no such thing as “an ant.” It is the same with Jews. Jews come with ancestors and descendants — a community spanning generations. What binds us together is our shared wisdom, our Torah. To learn Torah is to enter the eternal Jewish conversation. So God asks, Kavata itim L’Torah? Did you find time for Torah?

Asakta B’priya U’reviah? Do you devote yourself to family?

God is shrewd. God doesn’t ask: Did you learn Torah? God asks: Did you establish a time for study? Did you have control over your time, over your life? And if you didn’t, who did? Where did your time go?

God doesn’t ask: Did you love your family? Did you provide for your children? God asks: Asakta, from the Hebrew esek, business: Was family your preoccupation? Did you invest yourself in family?

In family there is immortality. Our children represent our reach into eternity. They carry our names, our values and dreams. But only if we invest our time in them, to teach them and share with them. Did you make time for family?

Nasata B’emunah? Do you do business with integrity?

This is the most surprising of the questions. We expect questions about Torah and family. We might also expect a question about charity, about ritual, about supporting the community. Where is immortality found? In the world of business. Because in my study, in my den, over my breakfast table, in my deepest thoughts, I’m a moral hero. It’s easy to be a moral hero — a tzadik — in theory. Deep in our hearts, every one of us thinks we’re a good, well-meaning person. The question is what happens in the real world, in the marketplace, in business, in a realm of tough competition, of conflict and its passions? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you a mensch where it counts? What does business do to us? How many human beings must earn their livelihood at the expense of their own humanity? How much of us must die in order to make a living? Nasaata B’emunah? Are you faithful to the best in you, even under the worst of circumstances?

Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you expect redemption? Do you have hope?

Victor Frankel was a Viennese psychiatrist when he was taken to Auschwitz in 1941. As he struggled to survive Nazi slavery, he carefully studied his fellow prisoners. He writes: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost … We had to learn that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.”

Hope isn’t given or found or revealed. We choose hope. We choose to grasp and hold the possibilities of tomorrow. Tzipita L’yeshua? Do you choose to live with hope?

Immortality is not found in heaven or beyond the grave. It is in our hearts, in the way we live, in the daily tasks of life. This holiday, go to synagogue or find a place that’s quiet, and ask yourself God’s questions. This year, may we find the eternity planted within.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.


‘What’s the Meaning of Life ?’

Love answering children’s questions. I’ll visit a classroom and face an eager chorus of “DidGod create dinosaurs?” and “Where do people go when they die?” Then,at the end, there’s always one wise guy, who smirks and asks, “What’sthe meaning of life?” I love that kid. I admire his chutzpah, and Ilove the question.

This may be the last taboo. In our culture, people are encouragedto reveal every intimate detail of their lives, every personalsecret. In public meetings, at social gatherings and, if that weren’tenough, on national television, people shamelessly share every foibleand fantasy, every nuance of sexual adventure and interpersonal sin,every addiction and fixation. We’ll listen with rapt intent asstrangers recount their bouts with drugs and drink, theirinfidelities, their broken relationships with parents, spouses andchildren, the bizarre and the spectacular lengths they’ve gone toobtain thrills. That’s permitted. It’s even celebrated. But ask,”What’s the meaning of your life?” and the conversation stops dead.

Try dropping my young friend’s question at a cocktail reception ora summer barbecue. “So, what’s the meaning of your life?” People willlaugh. They think you’re joking. Isn’t that strange? Don’t we all, atsome point, need to ask this question with seriousness andreflection?

Why the laughter?

A homework assignment: On your way home, stop at a drug store andpick up a package of 200 4-by-6 index cards and a box of pencils.When you return home and find a quiet moment alone, write down on acard all that life has taught you. In medieval times, Jews left theirchildren a special will. More than instructions for dividing theproperty, it contained a summary of a life’s wisdom. Write one foryourself. To force your concentration, keep it short — no more thanan index card.

What have you learned from life? From growing up, from school,from marriage (and divorce), from raising kids, from making a living,from building a community, from saying goodbye to loved ones? Whathas life taught you? It might take 100 attempts — 100 cards written,then tossed out — to arrive at just the right words. When you doarrive at just the right words, cherish that card. Save it, look atit and update it each Rosh Hashanah.

You deserve to know the meaning, the lesson, the wisdom of yourlife. Each of us, according to a mystical teaching, carries one wordin God’s message to the world. Wouldn’t you like to figure out whatyour word is? And if anything, God forbid, were to happen to youtomorrow, wouldn’t you like your children, your grandchildren, yourfriends to know?

The Torah portion this week describes a miracle. Moses findswords. This man who once protested, “Lo ish devarim anochi” –“I am not a man of words,” (Exodus 4:10) — now stands before hispeople with something to say. “Elah ha-devarim asher deber Mosheel kol Yisrael” — “These are the words which Moses addressed toall Israel on the other side of the Jordan.”

The 40-year journey has not only brought Israel to the PromisedLand. The 40-year journey has brought Moses to words. He hasdiscovered the message and meaning of his life’s struggle. And forthe entire book of Deuteronomy, the once mute prophet will articulatehis words.

My young friend asks the question, and he is shocked when I answerforthrightly.

When God created the world, it was left unfinished. We are God’spartners, assigned to finish the work of Creation. The world that weencounter is a mixture of chaos and order, of good and evil, ofdarkness and light. It is our job, as God’s partners, to bring orderto the chaos, to bring good out of evil, to cast light into thedarkness.

There is a corner of the world that only you can fix. You mustfind that corner and, by applying your energies, imagination andintelligence, bring wholeness and healing. In that direction, youwill find the meaning of your life.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

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