November 20, 2018

Is there a shortcut to redemption

Pesach – the Hebrew name for Passover– comes from the Hebrew root PSH which means to skip over, to pass over. It appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God skipped over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.

On a deeper, more fundamental level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut. While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom – a practical, political situation – it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new, different and better state, and into a much higher level of existence.

The Israelites were not just enslaved. In Egypt they had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites, that legacy was practically non-existent. Possibly, the Israelites in Egypt did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The forms of their religious worship were likely not very different from those of the Egyptians – although they were probably not permitted to practice the Egyptian religion as equals.

The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.  The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts. Being free was a foreign notion that required a much, much higher degree of abstraction and the acquisition of a whole new universe of ideas.

All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore totally understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken and naked nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path. The prophet Ezekiel, in his poetic style, compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And … I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live … yet you were naked and bare.” Thus, over and above all the miracles – in the sky, on earth and in the water – of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus then represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.

There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. Not only slow, painful and indecisive changes are possible; we all also have an inborn ability to make quantum jumps. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.

Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, world-renowned scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic, has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. The rabbi’s life-long mission is to make the Talmud accessible to all by bringing the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world. Thel Fourth Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning will be on November 17, 2013.

Pick your redemption

There’s something about being Jewish that makes you think big. Jews can easily schmooze about global stuff — the bigger the better. We’re here for all of humanity.

We want to save the planet, whether from global evil or global warming. When we talk about our own problems, we also lean to the dramatic; we’re constantly at a crossroads, fearing for our survival, talking about “the future of the Jewish people.”

Maybe it has to do with our big bang beginnings, when we all had front row seats to God’s revelations. We were born in drama, we grew up in drama and we shall forever live in drama.

So it was business as usual the other night when a historian from Aish Hatorah gave a lecture at my place called, “The Edge of History.” Talk about big. It seemed like every few minutes we heard the words prophecy, redemption or revelation. The speaker, Rabbi Ken Spiro, was using a slick PowerPoint presentation to impress on us that the era of global redemption was at hand, and there is no time to waste to return to God.

The rabbi was no fool. He was prepared for a skeptical audience, so he went through many of the biblical prophecies – the Jews will be small, they’ll be hated by the world, they’ll survive, an enemy will have a “weapon of mass destruction,” etc. — to make the point that if those prophecies came true, why can’t others?

He was especially interested in the prophecy that all Jews will return to God. According to the biblical and rabbinical sources Spiro quoted, this teshuva, or return, is critical if we want to survive as a people and fulfill our role as the redeemers of humanity.

In truth, it was a compelling presentation. When he was done, there was a sense that we had witnessed something incredibly important. It couldn’t get any bigger — the future of the world and the Jews’ vital role in shaping it. When your mind is consumed with whether you have a snack ready for the kids tomorrow, it feels oddly relaxing to talk about the end of the world.

But while we were highly impressed, even awed, I didn’t get a sense that anyone was personally moved. Some of us might have been swept away in the moment, but that seemed to blow over once the shmoozing started.

Of course, it didn’t help that something was still lingering in my mind — like a little barbecue party.

You see, by a strange quirk of timing, a few hours earlier, my teenage daughter and her friends from Yula High School hosted a little barbecue for a couple of Jewish girls visiting from Israel.

It was a casual affair. Everybody just hung out and had a good time. The visiting girls had just come back from a day of shopping. A day earlier, they were at Disneyland, and they were now looking forward to Universal Studios. One of the girls, Adi, asked for my mother’s hummus recipe. The other, Racheli, was saying how much she’d love to live in Los Angeles. They both asked about movie stars.

There was, however, one thing about the girls that was not typical. About six years ago, on a warm Saturday night in Jerusalem, Adi and Racheli went out for ice cream with friends and soon found themselves next to a terrorist blowing himself up.

Racheli had only minor injuries, because right before the bomb exploded, she’d left Adi to say goodbye to a friend several yards away. The bomber was a yard and a half from Adi. All 10 people around her were killed. About 100 nails coated with rat poison exploded into her legs, and a main artery was severed.

When Adi talks about it now, with her sweet voice matching her sweet, olive-skinned face, she is remarkably calm and factual. She talks about “maybe 30” operations on her legs and another one coming up. She tells me in detail about the night she was rushed to the hospital — how the enormous amount of blood pumped into her body was coming out of “the hundred holes in her leg”; how at one point they had to stop operating because her body couldn’t take the trauma, and how an experimental coagulant drug, Novo 7, saved her life.

She also remembers that in the beginning of her recovery, one of the few things she could eat was ice cream, her favorite.

She was especially happy when I met her, because she has finally begun to walk without the help of a walker or cane. Clearly, she was also happy to be in Los Angeles, a place she always dreamed of visiting. In fact, when I told her I might write about her story, she asked me to please mention the organization that helped arrange her L.A. visit — Kids for Kids, an organization that connects young terror victims with fellow Jews around the world.

In the spiritual realm, they tell you there are no coincidences — everything that happens to us holds a divine message. What could be the message in this unusual sequence of events: a little barbecue party for two young girls who were caught in a Jerusalem bombing, followed by a masterful presentation on the final days of global redemption?

If you ask me, maybe the message is that there’s more than one way to find God and bring about redemption. One way is to think big, go right to God and commit to obeying his commandments.

The other is to think small, and on your way to finding God to see if you can find any Jews who have trouble walking — and who might be in the mood for a little ice cream.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Witness to Redemption

The episode of the Akedah, or the binding of Isaac, presents so many difficult questions. One of the most basic is: For whom is this human and Divine drama staged?

Who comes out ahead as a result of the Akedah playing out?

Is it for Abraham’s benefit? Abraham receives no new blessings or rewards. Additionally, it’s difficult to argue that he learns anything about himself or God that he didn’t already know.

Is it for God’s benefit? We can only make this argument if we are prepared to set aside deeply entrenched beliefs that God’s omniscience includes His knowing Abraham’s character and the degree of Abraham’s devotion. God, it would seem, does not need the Akedah.

So who is it for?

In Megillah (31b), an account is given of an encounter between Abraham and God. Abraham seeks reassurance that his (as yet theoretical) children will indeed inherit the land of Canaan. Despite God’s repeated promises to this effect, Abraham remains uneasy.

“Perhaps they will sin,” Abraham says, “and You will do to them as you did to the generation of the flood.”
Even though God then insists that He would do no such thing, Abraham persists: “How can I know? What will you do, God, to guarantee it?”

It could be that God’s response to Abraham’s request is the command of the Akedah. It could be that the Akedah is the means through which God guarantees Abraham’s children would never sin to the point of being worthy of destruction.

“Do you want to be sure?” God says. “Then take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, and offer him up as a burnt offering upon the mountain that I will show you.”

How would this ensure anything?

The answer becomes clear when we consider the impact the Akedah has had on Jewish history. As Rabbi Yitzchak Arama reminds us, the Torah records the whole story of the Akedah for us so that Jews throughout history could “virtually” witness the Akedah. As a result, Jews of all ages have been shaken and moved by this account of devotion to God without limits, of commitment to God without boundaries, of the willingness to spare nothing in the pursuit of God’s vision.

Who could then deny the assertion that the Akedah has repeatedly, over the course of Jewish history, saved us from the fate of the Generation of the Flood, from the fate of disappearing from this world without a trace? Because of our sins, we could have disappeared at the hands of the Babylonians. But Jeremiah rose repeatedly, risking life and limb, to convey the message of God that we must not believe that this is the end. That if we return, we shall be redeemed.

From what story did Jeremiah draw the inspiration to remain steadfast and loyal to God’s vision despite the fact that doing so might cost him his life? Like all of us, Jeremiah was a witness to the Akedah.

Which story inspired Esther to gather up her courage and enter Ahasuerus’ throne room, risking her own life to save her people?

Which biblical figures was Rabbi Akiva thinking about when he defied the Hadrianic ban on public Torah study?

On the day of his execution, what story must he have been thinking about when he described his sense of joy to his students over the fact that he now knew that he truly loved God with all his heart?

And in a slightly different but not unrelated vein, how did it happen that not only the Jewish people survived the Shoah, but that Judaism survived the Shoah?

Abraham asked: “How will I know that my children will live on forever?”

And God answered, “Take thou your son….”

In other words: You and he will model devotion and persistence even in the face of possible death. And all will see it, and know it.

There is, of course, a startling but crucial implication to this reading of the Akedah. It requires that we assume that Abraham and Isaac knew that whatever was going to happen when they reached the mountain — however the drama would end, however many of them would descend the mountain alive — they knew that they were participating in this tortuous drama not for themselves and not for God, but for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that they would never meet.

They did it for the unknown generations of people who would call themselves the children of Abraham and Isaac, for the generations that would need a model of love and devotion to God that they could latch onto and possess as their own, when their hour of trial would arrive.

“We do not ascend this mountain for ourselves,” father and son said to each other. “We ascend it to ensure the lives of those who will come after us.”

And for this reason, too, we hold them up as our models and heroes.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of the B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Post-Gaza: A Time for Israelis to Reunite

The disengagement or expulsion has ended. But is this also the end of religious Zionism? Are there lessons we can and must learn that may enable us to emerge stronger from this most difficult period?

The first lesson we learned is that we are indeed one nation. There was no real violence, and there was even majestic fortitude and an exaltation of spirit displayed by many Gush Katif settlers and leaders.

On the other side of the barricades, only a small number of soldiers refused to carry out military evacuation orders, despite the charge to do so from major rabbinic voices; the soldiers and police behaved with incredible sensitivity and restraint.

It was heart wrenching but uplifting, a period in which I was both tear-filled and pride-filled to be an Israeli Jew.

Is this the end of religious Zionism? Only if the definition of religious Zionism is greater Israel, and only if “we want the Messiah now” has become not merely a future wish but the description of our present historical reality.

Remember that Maimonides developed a position of “normative messianism,” teaching “no one ought imagine that the normal course of events will be transformed during the messianic era, or that there will be a change in the order of creation; the world will continue in its normal course….”

From this perspective, no one had the right to declare, for example, that God would never allow Gush Katif to be dismantled, as some religious leaders did. Or that if we all prayed together at the Western Wall, our prayers would have to be answered. The only guarantees the Torah gives is that the Jewish people will never be completely destroyed, and that there will eventually be world peace emanating from Jerusalem.

As far as everything else is concerned, pray and work to achieve the best, but prepare for and be ready to accept the worst. The Talmud teaches “even when a sword dangles at your throat, you must not despair of Divine mercy.” But, our sages declare, “It is forbidden to rely on miracles.”

Achieving the best means living a life of dialogue and engagement with our secular brothers and sisters.

It also may mean returning to the understanding of religious Zionism that predominated until the immediate aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. This Zionism was based on compromise regarding land, on our acceptance of a partition plan, which required our withdrawal from Sinai in 1956.

We held the modest belief that our era was merely “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption,” which would be a lengthy process fraught with advances and regressions, achievements and setbacks. It was this attitude of compromise that prevented us from a no-exit collision course with Palestinian fundamentalists screaming “not one grain of sand” on one side and our nationalists insisting “not one inch” on the other.

This spirit of compromise has fostered our constant presence in the government, even at times in rabidly secular governments, as an expression of our willingness to continue dialogue, even when we may vehemently disagree about issues of state. Only such a spirit of compromise will enable us to live together in a democratic state, and prevent our self-destruction in a fire of internal enmity, which destroyed the Second Commonwealth, even before the Romans touched the holy Temple.

It was after the agonizingly belated victory in the Yom Kippur War that car stickers began advertising “Israel has confidence in God.” At that point, a significant portion of religious Israel began to feel that the Messianic Age had already arrived, that greater Israel was an unstoppable phenomenon and that we must build settlements throughout Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It was as though the Almighty entered into a covenant with our generation: We were to build the settlements, and God would guarantee their permanence.

And so we did. But in the process, we left the rest of the nation behind. Most of our settlements had screening committees — mainly religious conditions. During the last three decades, more and more national religionists have chosen to live in separatist communities apart from their secular siblings. Two nations were beginning to emerge — two nations that rarely interacted.

We also created magnificent schools, from day care centers for 6-month-olds to different strokes for different folks-type yeshiva high schools — running the gamut from Talmud intensive to music and art intensive. But these schools were all religious and inward reflecting in orientation. We did not take seriously many social problems plaguing Israeli society: forced prostitution, exorbitant bank interest rates, corruption in the highest places and the ever-climbing poverty graph. And although we were deeply involved in our own education, we seemed totally disinterested in secular educational institutions.

This disconnect was not all of our own making. Even though some of our founding fathers enjoyed bacon and eggs for breakfast, they were a far cry from Yossi Beilin, who wrote that his grandfather made a mistake for preferring Israel to Uganda in the Zionist Congress. And there’s Shimon Peres, who would have us join the Arab League and treat Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Couples as unimportant pieces of real estate.

No wonder we have drifted so far apart.

The main lessons of this disengagement must be our return to normative messianism, and the critical necessity of establishing a common language between the religious and secular based on Jewish culture — for the entire populace. One that must permeate our music, art and theater; our matnasim (Jewish centers) and our schools; our TV and radio.

And there must be more mixed neighborhoods and opportunities for interpersonal dialogue. We must resurrect the initial flag of religious Zionism, our tripod ideals of land, Torah culture and people. We must never again forget the majority of our people in our enthusiasm for land and Torah.

By so doing, we will learn to respect each other. And we may even create the kind of shared culture and values that will transform our state from a mini-New York to a light unto the nations, from a mirror of a decadent Western society to a model for a world of peace and mutual respect.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat in Gush Etzion, Israel, and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, an educational network serving students from all religious backgrounds. He will be the scholar-in-residence at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills the Shabbat of Sept. 10. For more information, call (310) 278-1911.



Sixteen years ago, Mark Borovitz was in prison for the second time. A Cleveland native, he began selling stolen goods for the Cleveland mob out of his high school locker, then graduated to con games and hustles. In prison, he came under the influence of Rabbi Mel Silverman and began a return to faith that culminated, after his release, in his earning a rabbinical degree. Today, Borovitz is rabbi of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City, the first Jewish residential recovery center that uses Torah, the 12 steps and psychotherapy.Following are a series of excerpts from “The Holy Thief” by Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock (Morrow, 2004).

This book is my t’shuvah. It is my return.

For 30 years, I lived a life of illusion. I was a magician of sorts. I specialized in cheap tricks, quick hits and sleight of hand, especially when it came to writing checks.

I got my audience’s attention, then lured them into wanting to hand me their trust. I got them to believe in small miracles, if just for a moment, which was all I needed. And then I struck.

I know I cannot give everything back to everyone I have harmed. Even if I could, I know it would never be enough, because I have stolen a part of people’s souls. I know also that I cannot undo what I have done. I stand humbly here before you, any of you who have been my victims, and offer you a piece of my soul to take as your own.

In the end, there is no amount of money, no degree of apology, no amount of prayer that can repair the damage I have done to those souls. I can only attempt to repair my own soul, fill in the holes that have pierced my being and return my refurbished soul into the world as evidence of the value and power of t’shuvah, of repentance.

Forgive me, oh Lord, for I have sinned. And sinned. And sinned … I am redemption’s son….

I was a thief. Every thief uses a weapon, usually a gun or a knife. My weapon of choice was a checkbook.

Someone once told me that as long as you have a check, you’ll never go broke. It’s true. I discovered this early on, when I first forged my mother’s signature on a check and watched the bank teller count out five crisp $10 bills right in front of me. I smiled, she smiled, and I walked away.

Forging checks was a lot easier and more lucrative than stealing a wad of ones from my mother’s purse.

I began to devise more elaborate scams. The simplest, of course, was writing a check from my account and bouncing it. Sometimes I’d make it good, sometimes I wouldn’t.

I meant to make it good. I just wouldn’t get around to it, or I’d forget about it, or I’d be too drunk to move or too pissed off to bother.

Other times, I’d open an account in a bank in another city or even another state and a second account in a bank in Cleveland. I’d put a $100 in each account. Then I’d write a check for a large amount, say $2,500, from the out-of-town account and deposit it in the city account. The next day, I’d write a check for cash out of the city account for $2,000.

Back then, it took two weeks for a check to clear from an out-of-city bank. I’d get to know the people at the banks in Cleveland, get them to recognize me. I’d —— — with the guy tellers about sports and flirt with the female tellers.

They never checked picture IDs; never wrote down license numbers; and they had no problem cashing my $2,000 check. This was called a float. Also known as check-kiting or splitting. All fancy names for stealing.

I was living a dream. Nothing was real. I was a character in my own life, a gangster, a high roller with a bulging billfold. Nothing made sense, so I’d drink to shut out the real world.

I didn’t want to have to deal with reality. Even when reality reared its ugly head at me time and time again. Like when I’d get fired from job after job, because I was drinking, coming in late, —— — off. Or when I’d beat someone in my family.

I didn’t care. One time the mail came, and there was a credit card addressed to my brother, Neal, who was away at college. I took the credit card, activated it and started banging out cash. I didn’t care if I was running up a mountain of debt and that my mother was the one who would get stuck. Did not care.

I wasn’t the good Jewish boy she thought I was. That was a myth. That was her dream, not mine.

I couldn’t stand the thought of winding up stuck in a Jewish suburb with a dead-end job, a nagging wife who belonged to the synagogue sisterhood and a house full of screaming little kids. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to end up being an ice cream maven like my cousin, even though he invited me to be his partner. Ben, Jerry and Mark? Never.

My mother found out about my drinking the hard way. One New Year’s Eve, when I was drunk out of my head, I borrowed my aunt Nettie’s car and drove it into a tree. I walked away with a couple of bruises and scratches. The car was totaled, and my mother was beside herself.

She found out about my check-writing a few weeks later, when the bank called her and told her that her account was overdrawn by several hundred dollars. She didn’t understand.

My mother balanced her checkbook meticulously every month. She knew what she had to the penny.

Her hands quivering on the steering wheel, she drove to the bank. A bank officer sat her down in his office and pulled out a stack of checks, all of them made out to cash, all bad, all forged by me.

My mother recognized my handwriting. She lowered her head and in the bank officer’s cubicle, she began to cry. He lowered the blinds.

Eventually, I paid her back. My mother didn’t know how to react to me. When she saw me, she turned cold. She couldn’t help herself. She felt pummeled with emotion.

What I had done was beyond the scope of her imagination. It was as if I was a stranger living in her house. She did not recognize the man I had become. She did not know who I was.

I can understand that.

I didn’t know who I was either.

I knew that I couldn’t climb out of the pit alone. I needed somebody who would help me up, who would wrestle with me, who would wrestle with my soul. Someone who would force me to face the lies I was telling myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that one of the great passions of human beings is our ability to deceive ourselves.

I was a master at deceiving myself. I had a gift for it. I could deny the obvious even when it was shoved right in my face.

Mel Silverman was the one who made me wrestle my own soul, and he made me wrestle with him. He made me confront all the — — in my life, and he made me see that my life wasn’t all —-. He was a master wrestler himself because he was tenacious and he was kind, and once he saw that this time I wasn’t going to give up, he never let me go.

I know there were guys in prison, inmates, who were suspicious of me. I can understand their doubts. There are a lot of con men in prison. Lot of guys trying to figure ways to get plum assignments.

They saw being a religious newborn as a way out. I heard rumblings that I wasn’t for real. They called it hiding behind God’s cloak. "Borovitz is using this religion thing. It’s just another one of his hustles."

I couldn’t do anything about what they were thinking. I found myself more and more alone. I did my job, hung out with the Jewish guys, tried to keep my focus. I got very charged, very energized. I wanted to learn.

That became my action and my fight. I fought to replace my self-deception with self-discovery. That’s what it was all about for me. Hearing the music of my soul. Hearing the music.

I could hear God speaking to me. I’m serious. Dead serious. In the Torah, God speaks. How do we know? We just know.

So there I was in prison doing my time for crimes I had committed, and I knew that this was not a moral problem. It was a spiritual problem. I knew that this was deep in my soul, not in my psyche, in my soul.

I began to work on my soul. I started the search for my essence. I had to learn to listen to my soul instead of listening to my mind and to the —— — I could sell myself.

I knew this was no overnight thing. I knew that I wasn’t going to just hear some truth and it would be "Abracadbra! Wow! I’m changed! I’m a new man!" I knew that nobody was going to slap me on the forehead and yell, "Heal!" and that would be that.

It doesn’t work like that. It is a life process. It began for me in prison, and it continues to this day and will continue all my days, a constant and messy and difficult wrestling. And I have to keep a constant awareness. I have to always be on high alert. We all do. Both internally, our unconscious or subconscious, and externally, our deeds….

I left prison for the last time on my birthday, Nov. 1, 1988. I was 37 years old. I had served almost two years of my four-years, four-months sentence….

It took me a while to find Beit T’Shuvah. A 45-minute bus ride deposited me downtown, and a short, meandering walk brought me to Lake Street.

There it was. In the middle of the block. A large house looming in front of me, partially hidden by an immense, swaying palm tree. A rickety air-conditioning unit protruded from the left side like a giant nose. The main entrance was off to the right, up a few stairs, at the back of a wide porch. Heavy metal — Metallica or Guns N’ Roses — roared out of an open second-floor window.

The house was a wreck. The roof was splotched, and shingles lay scattered over its peak like a bad toupee. The porch steps creaked as I climbed them. The screen in the front door was torn, and the paint on the walls was peeling away.

I walked in, and the first sound I heard was Harriet’s deep, melodic voice. I followed it down a hallway and found her in her office, talking on the phone. I waited until she finished her call, then I knocked on the open door. She turned to me, and her mouth dropped open like a puppet’s.

I said, "I’m here to help."

She looked at me blankly.

"Remember? You said I should come see you when I get out. I’m out."

She started to say something, stopped, tried again. "Nobody’s ever -"

And then I blurted out: "I need a job."

She hesitated. "Well, I could use someone to run the thrift shop. It’s a mess."

"I’ll take it."

"I can only pay you minimum wage. Five-sixty an hour."

"I’ll take it."

"I can’t afford to pay you full-time. It’ll have to be part-time for a while."

"I’ll take it."

She smiled. "You said that, didn’t you?"

I stepped all the way into her office. I looked out her window. Or tried to. It was entirely smudged in dirt. Looked as if it were smeared with chocolate.

"This place," I said, "is a dump."

"I know," Harriet said.

"I kind of like it…."

I began losing myself in the study of Torah. I read the English translations, commentaries, related books, anything I could get my hands on. I struggled to find meaning in the vastness of the text, in the textures of the story.

My study inspired and baffled me. Some of what I read spoke to my soul, and some of it infuriated me.

I wrote and called Mel Silverman. He did his best to teach me in his letters and over the phone. It was hard working with Mel this way, from a distance.

The study of Torah doesn’t work so well as a correspondence course. And the more I studied, the more questions, contradictions and insights burned inside me. I wanted more.

At the suggestion of a friend, Harriet and I went to Hillel at UCLA one morning to hear a teacher named Jonathan Omerman.

As soon as Jonathan spoke, I fell in love with him. He had a quiet, gentle manner. He was British and spoke with an intoxicating lilt. While his speech was soft, his thoughts were full of fire. He was dynamic, intelligent, and original. I was riveted.

I went over to Jonathan afterward, and I introduced myself. I briefly told him my story. I saw his eyes fill up with sympathy and interest.

I asked Jonathan if he would teach me, one-on-one. He agreed. We began meeting at his house. I would continue studying with Jonathan every week for the next five years.

Jonathan changed the way I looked at life. He made religion personal. All of my studying started to click.

I began to relate to God and Judaism in a way I had never envisioned. I saw my whole life – my past, my present, my losses, my loves, my failings, my successes, my sins, my good deeds, my rage, my empathy, all of it, all of me – as part of a whole. And I saw that all of these things, the good and the bad, were validated. As I worked with Jonathan, I felt an energy shift. An awakening.

One of Jonathan’s lessons that resonated with me concerned the difference between essential pain and voluntary suffering. When you stub your toe, you experience pain, real pain, and that pain lasts however long it lasts. Depending on who you are, the bitching about the pain lasts a lot longer. The bitching about it is voluntary suffering.

As long as we allow voluntary suffering to exist, we remain victims. We don’t allow ourselves to experience the essential pain in proper measure and then move on.

I certainly knew all about voluntary suffering. I’d been suffering that way since the day my father died. It was time now for me to let go. Time to take the next step. I was no longer going to be a victim….

Excerpted with permission.

Longing for the Messiah

When we open our doors at the seder and invite Elijah the Prophet to sip the glass of wine that we have designated for him, we express our longing for

the Messiah. Elijah, in our tradition, will herald the arrival of a ruler who will enable a world of peace. The message of the seder is of hope: God, the Creator, entered history to free us from bondage, providing reason to believe that God will re-enter history to facilitate the final redemption.

Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come. The test of the authenticity of the Messiah, as we understand our Scripture, is by physical achievement: Is there Jewish independence and universal peace? We have had many who were proclaimed Messiah at one time. Bar Kokhba led a revolt in the year 132 against the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Many Jews, including the beloved Rabbi Akiva who is mentioned in our Passover haggadah, believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Alas, the revolt failed dismally, Bar Kokhba was killed and Jews kept longing.

The most successful Messiah vis-a-vis the Jewish community arose in the 17th century. According to professor Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, close to two out of every three Jews in the world for many months believed that Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the man who would bring redemption. It was a time of intense Jewish persecution, marked by massacres in Poland and Russia. Israel was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Shabbetai Tzvi had a prophet, Nathan, who taught that the time had arrived for the return of the Jews to their homeland. Upon arriving in the capital of Constantinople with the hope of visiting the Sultan, he was arrested. In custody he had considerable freedom and to symbolize the messianic era, he sacrificed a paschal lamb at Passover. Soon afterward, he was given a choice: convert to Islam or die. He converted. Some of his followers said that it was only a test of their faith and that Shabbetai had gone over to the dark side to gather holy sparks. Bottom line: Shabbetai never delivered.

In more recent times, many followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that he was the Messiah. There was precedent for such belief among Chasidim. For instance, in the 19th century, followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav believed that he would unite and elevate holy sparks enabling the messianic era. During Schneerson’s protracted illness his followers held on to belief that he would proclaim his true cosmic role. It was a time of hope, influenced by the recent fall of the Soviet Empire and the possibility of peace in Israel. Once the Rebbe died, close to 10 years ago, many of his Chasidim asserted that he would be resurrected speedily in our day. Some still cling to that faith.

Messianism is dangerous when it leads to false hopes or the need to convert others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century theologian, said that when the Messiah comes, he should refrain from announcing his name, thereby allowing Jews and Christians to welcome the Messiah together. We don’t believe in a Second Coming. Our reading of Scripture has only one coming, which is tested by its success. Moreover, Jewish mysticism and modernity have reinforced that each of us is a partner in the crafting of a world of harmony. Each of us has a role as a peacemaker, beginning with our own homes and communities.

In our tradition, history is a spiral. The same seasons return each year, but there is a forward and upward motion. One day we will celebrate the redemption of all of creation. May that day arrive speedily.

Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin.

Final Lesson

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, we have the most intimate description of a deathbed scene and the most elaborate description of a le’vayah (funeral) contained in the Torah.

As I read through this portion in preparation for writing this column, I found myself struggling for a theme. I quieted my mind for a moment and found myself immersed in memories — memories of the dying, of funerals, of people working through grief. Like all congregational clergy, I have attended to the dying and their families. It is one of the holiest things I do, or, more precisely, one of things I do that makes me most conscious of the Holy.

It’s an aspect of a rabbi’s life that, I believe, is key to all of us, but one that we don’t talk about much, even to each other. I feel in some ways that a dying man helped make me a rabbi.

I was a rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when I first reported to my second part-time student pulpit in Boise, Idaho, in September 1982. Linda, the synagogue president’s wife, picked me up from the airport and after a bit of chitchat asked me if I was willing to work hard. I said that I was and told her a bit about myself, to which she responded, "Well, maybe you’ll do." She told me that there was a dying man, and she felt he needed to talk to a rabbi.

I had no idea what rabbis or anyone said to someone who is dying. It was just before Rosh Hashanah and I thought maybe he would want to hear the shofar, so I brought it along with my prayer book.

When we got to the hospital, Linda took a seat in the waiting room and I walked into the dying man’s room. He was having trouble breathing and looked angry. He said, "What’s that in your hand?" I told him it was a shofar, and I asked him if he wanted to hear it. He told me that if I wanted to be helpful, I could throw my shofar and my prayer book out the window and bring him a gun so he could put himself out of his misery.

I could feel that I had been play-acting at being a rabbi, doing what I thought a rabbi should do. I wasn’t real. I caught my breath and my bearings returned.

I put the shofar and the siddur on an empty bed, pulled up a chair next to him and said, "I don’t have a gun, and I don’t know that I would give it to you if I had one, but tell me why you want one." He told me of his excruciating pain in taking each breath. He told me of a wasted life, of the bitterness in his family. He just wanted out.

I told him, "I want you to tell me what went wrong, what you would do differently." I did not ask that only as therapy, I am a bit ashamed to say; I asked for me. I suddenly knew that one of the ways I might die would be like this, in a hospital bed, in pain. Would I think of a life wasted? Would I be filled with bitterness? I wanted him to teach me.

Each word was spoken in pain, but he insisted on speaking. I filled in words for him, and eventually pulled out a notepad and started writing things down. He spoke in grief about his children and their discord. I asked him what he would want to tell them, what legacy he wanted to give them. I told him, "This is your final goal — help us live better lives."

He grew so tired that I knew it was time to leave the room. I told Linda how it went. I could see her eyes laugh when I told her about asking him about the shofar. When I finished, she said, "You’ve got some work cut out for you here."

I flew into Boise once a month for a few days each time. I visited with the man in the remaining few months of his life and I spoke to his family. I helped him compose what I later learned was called an ethical will, a way of passing his values on to his family.

Linda and her husband, Alan, guided me carefully through the entire process, up through his death, which occurred when I was in Los Angeles; a lay leader officiated at the funeral. I felt the dying man’s family was transformed by his work, a transformation I hope was lasting.

I took the lessons he taught both to me and his children to heart. I became a witness to a family story, a story of love and bitterness and folly, and a final redemption. I realized that every family, every person has such a story, a fully textured life of hopes and dreams, of joy and heroism and tragedy, and we hope, of redemption.

Every life is a like book of the Torah, filled with laws and lessons, wisdom, drama and destiny. I realized something of my role, as one who works with the dying and their families — if I can, to draw out a teaching, a legacy, for those left to grieve, and for me.

And as we attend to the dying, grieve with their families, draw out lessons and legacies, we strengthen them, and we are strengthened.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah and the provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Rudderless Until Redemption

"Under Radar" by Michael Tolkin (Atlantic Monthly Press, $23).

Recently, I heard Michael Tolkin speak at Temple Beth Am about "Under Radar." Pacing frenetically, he explained that midway through the writing he had stalled and shelved the manuscript. During that time, slipping on his own spiritual path — parallel to the novel’s — he had ransacked various synagogues for answers and had succeeded only in worrying his wife.

Tolkin has regained his footing, and in this magnificent novel, so has his main character, Tom Levy. Best-known for his screenplay of "The Player" (based on his first novel) and for scripts like "Changing Lanes," Tolkin writes characters who move through a mire of moral and spiritual ambiguity. Like their creator, they don’t have an easy time of it.

"Under Radar" chronicles one such man’s journey to redemption. Tom — bourgeois, bored, banal, prone to fantasizing — always selects a woman to mentally focus on while vacationing with his wife and two daughters. During a Caribbean vacation, unable at first to find anyone appealing, Tom finally settles on an attractive, short-haired mother with a rotund, silken-tongued husband. After a small slight, Tom casually commits an act which rightfully lands him in a Jamaican prison for life. There, he does not melt into the boredom, as he expected he would, but changes.

The novel effortlessly unfolds in thirds: the family vacation, Tom’s prison time and unexpected escape, and his years of sailing the seas with a couple he meets on the Jamaican docks. His travels land him for a crucial time in Fiji, where Tolkin returns to his interest in evangelicals.

A married couple who own the beachfront hotel undergo their own spiritual crises, triggered by their teenage son, who turns out to be at odds with their murderous preparations for the End of Days. The son fiercely unravels his parents’ world by removing some pages from a Stephen King novel and other popular books. How he manages this is too fiendishly fun and brilliant to reveal here.

What’s engaging, too, in this short novel is that everywhere, with quick deft strokes, Tolkin takes his characters the extra distance, to reveal both inner life and irony. For example, in bed after Tom finally selects the object of his obsession, his wife, Rosalie, says, "You’re finally relaxing." To which he responds, "Yes. It always takes me a while. I’m sorry." Rosalie continues, "That’s why vacations last a few weeks. You work hard, you need a lot of time to find yourself."

Like many of us, Rosalie sees the world the way she needs it to be. "Under Radar" seems to refer to that part of our lives that are lived under our view, or awareness.

A long story told to Tom by a condemned prisoner fills the prison pages of the novel. It is detailed, elegantly erotic — and I don’t have a clue what it’s about. Which I believe is part of the point, as is the message in a famous Jewish story that Tolkin quotes later in the novel: it’s the telling and the passing on that matters. It reminds me of "The Tell" in the "Road Warrior" films, where post-apocalyptic children in search of their promised rescuer completely mangle their generation’s oral history. The truth is not there, however, but in the telling.

In the end, Tom passes this prison story on. Rosalie says when she hears it, "I don’t expect that any of us fully understand your story, but I don’t think we have to, right away." Tom responds, "No, it takes time." This is the only dialogue between them here, and it says a lot.

The finale avoids tidy clichés. Tom uses his prison knowledge and a sizable sacrifice to reconstitute his world with his family, and achieves something significant both for them and for himself. This unexpected forfeiture, which leaves his continued life with them richer, is what makes this novel so original and moving.

For These Things, I Do Weep

This coming week begins “the nine days,” the period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B’av, the fast of Av, which takes place on the following Thursday, July 18.

It is said that throughout history, during the nine days (and the current “three weeks” between the fast of the 17th of Tammuz until Tisha B’av), terrible events befell the Jewish people. On the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of the “three weeks,” for example, Moses smashed the tablets because he discovered Israel worshipping the Golden Calf; on that day years later, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, first by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. and then again by Titus in 70 C.E., resulting in the destruction of the First and Second Temples on Tisha B’av. Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on Tisha B’av: The nation was sentenced to wander the desert for 40 years because of the spies’ negative report on Israel; and the city of Beitar was conquered and destroyed by the Romans, an event considered “as great a tragedy as the destruction of the Temple,” according to commentators.

Tragic events also occurred in more modern times on Tisha B’av: In 1492 the Jews of Spain had to convert, leave the country or face torture; World War I also began on Tisha B’av.

For this reason, during the nine days, it is customary not to take unnecessary risks, such as swimming or boating, and as a symbol of mourning, cutting hair, shaving, eating meat, drinking wine, listening to music and other festive actions are forbidden as well.

I have spent most of my childhood summers in camp hearing terrible stories of what happened to people who took risks throughout the nine days, and still today, it is hard for me to shake the “Friday the 13th” foreboding feeling that something terrible will happen during this period.

It could be anything — another suicide bombing, a failed military operation, a synagogue torched, a guy lighting his shoe on fire. Even the horrors unnamed now seem possible, particularly after reading last month’s New York Times Magazine article “Nuclear Nightmare” laying out the scenarios for nuclear attacks.

Looking at the state of affairs today, many would agree that this is the worst period in the Jews’ recent history, and America’s as well. Certainly, during my lifetime, it seems that we are in the “nine days” of our times. Anti-Semitism is spreading like a virus in Europe, anti-Israel sentiments are growing in America (if college campuses are any indication as noted on the story on page 11), the Middle East situation is deteriorating with no real end in sight and democracy is seemingly losing the battle throughout the world. It is hard to shake an apocalyptic apprehension that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Al eileh, ani bochiya. “For these things, I do weep” (1:16) laments the verse in Eichah (the book of Lamentations), which we read on Tisha B’av while sitting on the floor, or, as we used to do in camp, marching somberly down to the lake, guided by torchlight, to hear the sad, plaintive melody of the book’s description of the destruction of Jerusalem:

Eichah yashvah badad
ha’ir rabati am haytah k’almanah
rabati bagoyim sarati ba’medinot
hayta lamas.

“How lonely sits the city, one so full of people, one great among nations has become like a widow, one’s princess among states has become like a vassal [slave].” (1:1)

Even if you don’t believe, it is hard to deny the aptness of the verses:

Bacho tivkeh balaylah
v’dimatah al lechiah
ayn lah menachem mikol ohavehah
kol re’ehah bagdu bah
hayu lah le’oyvim.

“Bitterly she [Jerusalem] weeps in the night, tears upon her cheeks, she has no one to comfort her out of all her friends, all her friends have betrayed her and become her foes.” (1:2)

As a people — and we still are a people, no matter how fractious and disparate we have become — it seems that at times like these, we will gather, fast, and pray, collectively reciting the last verse of Lamentations (which is not, as my father jokes, is, “The fast will be over at 9:15,”) but the poignant prayer:

Hashiveynu hashem eilecha v’nashuva chadesh yameinu kikedem.

Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. (5:21)

Here’s the good news: The Talmud states that after the coming of the Messiah, during the period of redemption, Tisha B’av, once a day of intense mourning, will be a day of intense celebration and joy, the happiest in the Jewish calendar because the Temple will be restored. With the state of Israel’s creation and fruition, some have said that that era is now, and Tisha B’av should already be made a day of celebration. Yet given the current situation in Israel, that belief seems premature.

But perhaps one day soon it will be so, for even though we have many things upon which to weep, we pray for redemption:

“Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old. ”

The Miracle of Charity

As we exit Purim and enter into Passover, we find ourselves in the season of redemption. In the words of the Talmud, we are ben geulah ligeulah (between redemptions).

There are many similarities in the stories of Purim and Pesach. Both find our people struggling for their survival and both have a miraculous and heartening culmination. Even in their practice, both have charity central to their celebration. On Purim, we have the mitzvah of matanot la evyonim — a gift to (at least) two poor people; on Pesach, we have maot chitim — the donation of funds for the purchase of matzah and other Passover staples for those in need.

Why is this so? Why are these two holidays singled out as times of tzedakah (charitable giving)? Why did the rabbis find it necessary to institutionalize the charity as central to the holiday and not let the general biblical obligation of tzedakah carry the day?

Our tradition teaches us that charity saves one from death. The Talmud relates that an astrologist had taunted Rabbi Akiva that his daughter would not survive to see her wedding day. Akiva brushed his words aside, but remained agitated nonetheless. Many years later, as Akiva and his family celebrated his only daughter’s wedding, he heard a scream from the front door. The bride stood in the door with a dead rattlesnake on the tip of her long hair pin.

Remembering his encounter of many years ago, Akiva asked his daughter to relate the day’s events to him. She said that a beggar had come to the door. "Everyone was celebrating and did not notice the poor man," she said. "I opened the front door with my hairpin in my hand. I placed my hairpin in the crack in the stone wall and retreated to the kitchen to bring him some food. Later, when I removed the pin, this dead snake was on its tip." (Shabbos 156b)

That charity saves from death is not a nice idea, but a literal one. It is not reserved for talmudic stories but affects our lives, too. My sister, Marcy, just called from Israel telling me God had saved her community of Efrat from devastation. Louis Davis was an American- success story and retired at a young age to Israel with his family. Davis wanted to breath its air, study Torah and help the people. He was known as "The Chesed Man."

Earlier this month, as all were rushing to prepare for Shabbat, an elderly woman asked Davis for a ride home from the supermarket, and she knew he was always a man she could ask. Davis told her to finish her shopping and he would pull the car around to the front. Heading toward his car, he greeted an Arab contractor who had just completed Davis’ home. Strangely, his friend did not return the greeting. Brushing it off, Davis pulled in front of the store only to find the very same Arab pacing to and fro in a nervous fashion.

Davis then realized that the man was wearing a trench coat. His heart began racing as the man headed toward the supermarket’s doors. With Davis following close behind, the man entered the bread aisle and began loosening his coat. Davis heard a small pop as the man tried to detonate himself. Davis drew his revolver and killed the bomber before the chain reaction of explosives blew up.

Imagine the tragedy and the number of dead had Davis not responded. Imagine the pain had Davis not offered to wait out in front until the elderly woman had finished her shopping.

That charity saves from death is literal, not figurative. Akiva’s daughter and the community of Efrat learned this lesson in a very personal way. Her cards, if you will, and perhaps those of Efrat as well, were destined for tragedy, but charity shuffled the deck.

Please purchase some heavenly life insurance and give charity. Please help so everyone can celebrate Passover with more than matzah. The life you may be saving may be your own.

Fasting for Peace

Tisha B’Av, the fast day commemorating the destructions of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem 2,500 and 2,000 years ago, respectively, doesn’t rank up there with most celebrated Jewish holidays.

But Rabbi Eli Stern of the Westwood Kehilla believes more attention to the holiday can help bring about a better world.

“Even if one may not be able to relate to what it means to have the Temple destroyed, perhaps one can relate to what the rectification process is for bringing about healing and the final redemption,” says Stern, associate rabbi for outreach at the Westwood Kehilla, a small Orthodox congregation.

That healing process primarily focuses on improving the way people treat each other, since tradition holds that the Temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred that was rampant among the Israelites.

Westwood Kehilla is sponsoring a full day and evening of programming focusing on topics of interpersonal relationships, as well as on the traditional texts of Tisha B’Av, which recount the destruction and the aftermath.

This year’s program will also focus on the situation in Israel.

Stern says the suffering in Israel and the extent of the turmoil could be God’s sending a reminder to the Jewish people that the need for working toward redemption is stronger now than ever.

“It is in our power to bring about the redemption and to bring about a Jewish people and a whole world that lives in peace and security and in harmony with God and with each other,” Stern says. “Tisha B’Av is the most powerful day on the calendar to effectuate that transformation,” he says.

The program, Saturday evening, July 28, and Sunday, July 29, will include readings from the Lamentations and Kinot, the traditional elegies read on Tisha B’Av, as well as classes taught by Stern and Rabbi Joel Zeff, former rabbi of the Kehilla, who now teaches in Jerusalem.

For a full schedule of the day, call the Westwood
Kehilla at (310) 441-5289 or e-mail

Benefit of Doubt

Want to be a partner in redemption? Then don’t overlook a surprising message in this week’s parsha.

As Pharaoh and his chariots bear down upon the Israelites on the bank of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites react in two seemingly contradictory ways. First, they cry out to God. After all, it was God who had freed them from bondage by inflicting the signs and wonders upon Egypt. They had every reason to believe that God was indeed a powerful savior. And a moment later, they cry out bitterly against Moshe, accusing him of the perfidy of having brought them out of Egypt to die at the hands of the Egyptian horsemen. “What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?!” they screamed. “We would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert!” What a puzzling juxtaposition. Did the people believe that they had been redeemed, or didn’t they? Did they think that God had brought them here, or did they not? How were they able to discriminate between God and God’s right-hand man, appealing to the former and lashing out against the latter?

Nachmanides, among many others, set out to explain the people’s odd behavior. He suggests that while the people wholeheartedly believed that it was God who had wrought the plagues, they were much less certain that it was God who had brought them out of Egypt. The route they took out of Egypt was not the one that headed in the direction of their promised land. It was rather the route that headed off into the arid wilderness. The silent suspicion had arisen in the minds of some that God had only brought the plagues to punish the Egyptians for the their evil treatment of the slaves and to break the yoke of Israelite bondage. It was Moshe’s idea alone to lead the people out of the country, perhaps with the intention of ruling over them himself. This silent suspicion now appeared to be confirmed by the thunder of Pharaoh’s horses approaching from the rear.

The people believed in God, but not in Moshe.

I find something surprising in this — at least initially surprising. For most of us, faith in God is not a simple matter at all. Whether for intellectual, historical or experiential reasons, there are times when we struggle with faith and feel unsure about the idea of trusting in God. By contrast, there are many people whom we have implicit faith in and whom we would trust with our lives. Yet, the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt implies the opposite order of difficulty. It was faith in people that was harder for them.

The simple explanation for this is that the person in question here, namely Moshe, was not someone whom the people had long known, or whom they had chosen as a partner in trust. He was a stranger whose declared intentions were certainly good but about whose track record they knew little. In short, Moshe was to them what most of the people in our world are to us — seems nice, but who really knows?

The sage Joshua ben Prachya gave the following advice regarding these many strangers and acquaintances who populate our world: “Grant every person the benefit of the doubt.” Without being naive, assume the best about people’s intentions and be willing to take the chance of trusting others. Your life will be enriched in ways you can’t imagine. And although Joshua was addressing this teaching to us as individuals, the Exodus story instructs us to think about the teaching on a communal level as well. The culmination of Israel’s redemption, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, required us to trust Moshe’s intentions when he instructed us to march forward onto the dry seabed.

The teaching here is that no community can be redeemed through trust in God alone. A community that truly yearns for redemption must also develop the courage to trust in one another and to see the goodness in one another’s actions. When mutual suspicion and mistrust are the order of the day, Israel will struggle, no matter how strong our faith in God may be. Whether it be here at home in our multifaceted Jewish community or in the State of Israel where dividing lines of all kinds prevail, the key to redemption is belief in one another. We must learn to trust, and we must act and speak in ways that will deem us worthy of one another’s trust.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles.

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.


Skirball Hosts Passover Festival

At noon on Sunday the Passover Posse will tromp through the lobby of the Skirball Cultural Center.

Also known as Alan Eder and Friends, the 20-member reggae band and West African drumming ensemble will beat atsimevu drum and axatse rattle to lure patrons of the Skirball’s premiere outdoors Passover Festival.

On the courtyard stage, the Posse, of “Reggae Passover”-CD fame, will belt out Bob Marley songs relating to the Exodus. They’ll perform a “Dayenu Suite” to African bobobo music, then segue to a rap version as Ghanian dancers in traditional garb groove.

That is only part of the multicultural festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on March 21, says Jordan Peimer, Skirball’s associate program director. Acclaimed African-American storyteller Sybil Desta, accompanied by the string base, will weave tales of slavery and redemption in West Africa and the West Coast. A multi-ethnic photography exhibit, “Young Ambassadors of Harmony,” will be on display in an adjacent gallery.

“The story of Jews and Passover is the story of the struggle for freedom, which is a universal theme, and a fundamentally American theme,” Peimer says.

Of course the Passover Festival, which comes on the heels of successful Skirball fests for Chanukah and Sukkot, offers plenty that is traditionally Jewish. The emphasis is on Pesach how-tos: The idea is for children and parents to learn holiday ditties with sing-a-long artists Caren Glasser and Wally Schachet-Briskin; to create an afikomen bag out of funky wallpaper; or inquire how to invent a customized Haggadah from Elie Gindi, author of “Family Haggadah,” who will be on hand for a book-signing.

There will also be kosher-for-Passover veggie lasagna made with eggplant instead of traditional pasta and a time set aside for children to search for the afikomen in the archeology dig sandbox.

For viewing there is also the Larry Rivers triptych, “History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews.” The winners of the Skirball’s Passover dessert recipe contest will be announced at 3:30 p.m. Time has been set aside to meet contest judges Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food;” chef Judy Zeidler; Nancy Silverton, owner of La Brea Bakery and Campanile; and The Jewish Journal’s Managing Editor Rob Eshman, co-author of two cookbooks.

The festival’s goal is simple, says Skirball Assistant Program Director Amina Sanchez. “We want people to learn how they can celebrate Passover themselves,” she says. “And we hope that people will take home new ideas and new ways of enjoying the holiday.”

Festival parking is free in the lot across from the Skirball, or at Stephen S. Wise Temple, with frequent shuttle bus service to the Skirball. Tickets are $8 for adults; $6 for students and seniors; and free for Skirball members and children under 12. For advance tickets, call (323) 660-8587. For information, call (310) 440-4500.

Passover Inspires

Film Series

Passover is the impetus for the Skirball’s current film series, “Flights of Freedom,” which continues March 30 with the acclaimed 1991 Russian film “Get Thee Out.” The movie tells of a shtetl milkman, less complacent than Tevye, who chooses to fight rather than flee the pogroms. “Madman” (1978), which screens April 20, stars Sigourney Weaver and F. Murray Abraham in this true story of a former Soviet Jew bent on revenge against his Russian oppressors. “Life is Beautiful,” which shows on May 18, is Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust fable about a charming buffoon who invents a game to protect his son in a concentration camp. All screenings begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for Skirball members and $4 for students.

Dark Humor Guides Author

I despise ‘Schindler’s List’ because it ends on a redemptive note, and I don’t see the slightest bit of redemption in the Shoah…There’s all this nonsense out there about healing, but I don’t want to heal anything. I want to rip open the stitches. I want readers to bleed.”

Don’t get author Melvin Jules Bukiet started about the cliché of the sad-eyed Holocaust survivor.

In his searing, sarcastic Holocaust allegory, “Signs and Wonders,” he kills off a character that bears more than passing resemblance to Elie Wiesel.

“I kill him, but I don’t ‘dis’ him,” quips the acclaimed author and “crackpot realist,” who is speaking at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 23.

Actually, Bukiet, 43, wants to ‘dis’ the “wash of mournfulness” he feels engulfs most Holocaust fiction. His wisecracking, absurdist, deliberately offensive first novel, “After” paints a decidedly un-p.c. picture of Holocaust survivors who wheel and deal on the black market. His parody of the “Chattanooga Choo Choo:” “Pardon me, goy, is that the concentration choo choo?

The concentration choo choo returns in “Signs and Wonders,” which is ostensibly about a Messiah figure named Ben Alef but is really about Germans killing Jews. One of Ben Alef’s disciples, an incorrigible Nazi war criminal, suggests that God doesn’t give a damn about Jews. Bukiet concurs. “I believe in God, but I don’t particularly like God,” he says. “If God was at Auschwitz, he was wearing a brown shirt.”

Bukiet, the son of an Auschwitz survivor, grew up in a Clifton, N.J., household where two things were taken for granted: “The sun rises in the East and the Germans killed the Jews.” Queried about the source of his black humor, he recalls how his uncle once saved his skin by lying to a Nazi commandant. “‘If you’re lying, I’ll hang you tomorrow,’ the Nazi said. Upon which my uncle thought, ‘I’d rather be hung tomorrow than shot today!'”

Bukiet, a bookish teen-ager, went on to study at Sarah Lawrence College, where he now teaches. He married a “do-good” attorney, Jill Goodman; served as the fiction editor of Tikkun and now co-owns a hip East Village pub and literary salon, KGB, located in an old Ukrainian social club. Before Bukiet agreed to go in on the KGB venture, he wanted to know if any of the Ukrainians had killed Jews (they hadn’t).

Bukiet set his 1992 book, “Stories of an Imaginary Childhood,” in his father’s shtetl, Proszowice, where the author would have grown up except for the Shoah. Last year, Bukiet and his family visited Proszowice, where someone threw an egg at the author. “Certain impulses are still there,” he says.

For information about Bukiet’s Skirball lecture, call (310) 440-4500.

21 Years Ago: Redemption, Hollywood Style

Let me be direct and come to the point right off the mark:

“Seven Years in Tibet,” appropriately filmed in Argentina — whereold Nazis go to be rehabilitated or to die, whichever comes first –is a turgid piece of filmmaking and as dishonest as, well, “TheDevil’s Own,” Brad Pitt’s last outing on film.

The story of Austrian athlete Heinrich Harrer’s sojourn on theroof of the world, where he became a tutor to the Dalai Lama –pronounced by Pitt, for reasons known only to his voice coach, as the”Dolly Lomo”– would not have raised a schilling from the moguls hadit not been that golden boy Brad found something familiar in thisstory of a self-absorbed fellow striving for meaning.

New Age interest in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and Pitt, notnecessarily in that order, may bring the multitudes to the multiplex,but I doubt it.

Those who do go will see some very pretty scenery — the Andes notthe Himalayas — some fine acting by the wondrous young man fromBhutan who plays the Dalai Lama, and a picture of a singularlyunpleasant Austrian climber, selfish, egotistic, banal to the pointof boring — but a Nazi? Bite your tongue.

The news broke first this summer in Stern magazine: Harrer, itseemed, had been a sergeant in the SS, a fact he tried to slough offas a career move. He had also — and this was harder to explain away– joined the SA storm troopers in 1933, when he had to breakAustrian law to do so. He had even applied to no less a personagethan Heinrich Himmler for permission to marry, providing properdocumentation to prove that he and his future wife had impeccableAryan credentials.

Following publication of these interesting historical facts, therewas so much egg on Hollywood faces that you could have servedbreakfast for 500.

The filmmakers Mandalay Entertainment, French directorJean-Jacques Annaud and Pitt engaged in some rapid damage control,hastily adding voice-over commentary that would, they said,acknowledge Harrer’s party membership.

This is what they added: As Chinese troops storm their way intoTibet, mowing down the pathetically outgunned Tibetan troops, Pitt’sHarrer says: “It reminds me of the aggressiveness of my owncountry…. I shudder to recall how at one time I was no differentfrom these Chinese.”

Maybe I need one of those hearing-assist devices provided bycinemas these days, but I didn’t hear the word Nazi in thereanywhere.

During the course of the action, when he is congratulated on someGerman athletic achievement, Pitt’s Harrer answers, “Thank you, butI’m Austrian.”

When the British show up upon the outbreak of war to arrest him asan enemy alien, he protests: “You don’t understand. I’m Austrian; Ihave nothing to do with your silly war.”

This is known as the “Sound of Music” defense: We Austrians weretoo busy climbing mountains, picking edelweiss and being gemutlich tobe involved in any of that Third Reich unpleasantness.

A swastika flag is handed to Pitt/Harrer as he climbs on board thetrain taking him to the Himalayas. He grabs it with all theenthusiasm of a lawyer being served with a subpoena. And, strangely,he seems to have left at home this time the SS lapel pin Harrer worewhen he was photographed standing next to Adolf Hitler at a receptionin 1938.

Director Annaud says that he was aware that German climbers, theperfect exemplars of the ubermenschen, and therefore wonderfulpropaganda vehicles, wore swastikas on their climbing bags. So whereare they in the film?

On a visit to the real Harrer in his Austrian home, Pitt, with allthe sense of history, not to mention sensitivity, of a Hollywoodscreen idol, wrote in the guest book in the impressive museum Harrerbuilt to his own glory: “It’s an honor to sit in your home. It’s anhonor to share in your life. We will not let you down.”

Director Annaud says that he discussed Harrer’s past with Pitt.

“From the beginning, he understood he had to play a veryunpleasant character,” Annaud says. “That’s why he dyed his hair andwent for a Germanic accent which is perceived as quite unpleasant.”

Oh, I get it. This is a new form of movie shorthand. From theyellow hair and the phony accent, we’re supposed to know that he’s aNazi without having to be told. So when Pitt’s accent disappearscompletely, by about September 1942 by my reckoning, are we to assumethat he is no longer a Nazi or simply that Pitt is no Meryl Streep?

British actor David Thewlis, who plays Harrer’s climbingcompanion, Peter Aufschnaiter, went along on the same visit toHarrer. Thewlis, who works most of the time in a world far removedfrom the dream factories of Hollywood and, consequently, seems to bethe only person in this whole enterprise who is remotely in touchwith reality, had this to say about the mountaineer:

“He was a very garrulous old man who talked so much, you couldn’tget a word in edgeways. He’s quite proud of himself and has built ahuge museum as a monument to himself, which he loves to show you.When [Annaud] asked him how he felt when Germany was defeated in thewar, he never quite answered the question. That’s why I wasn’tsurprised about the more recent revelations of his dubious past.”

At the end of the film, Pitt is shown climbing a mountain with theson with whom he has recently reunited, planting a Tibetan flag onthe summit. This is redemption, Hollywood style. In real life, PeterHarrer was repeatedly rejected by his father and quite sensibly, inhis turn, rejected mountain climbing and went to work for Swisstelevision.

The story of the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s struggle against theChinese is a wonderful subject for a movie, but “Seven Years inTibet” isn’t it. It’s as phony as Pitt’s accent and Harrer’s redemption.

Sally Ogle Davis is a Southern California-based free-lancewriter whose work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in NorthAmerica and around the world.


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