Monday, July 14, 2014

Operation Tzuk Eitan

Last time the barbarians in Gaza were banging at the gates in 2012 my older relatives were stuck at home as the rockets came in. The air raid siren didn’t give them enough time to make it to the shelter so they just went about their lives as they usually would, listening to the booms.  I called a few days ago to see if they were still stuck unprotected, “No, no, after the last war everyone on the Moshav (farming village) built a Mamad (reinforced room.)  It’s niiiice… it has an air conditioner, a big television, and the grandchildren come over to nosh.  You should come see it!”

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

When Home Doesn't Feel Like Home Anymore

Watching this weeks’ news of Israeli Arabs pulling Jews from their cars and beating them, throwing firebombs, flying swastikas from major overpasses, etc., all in towns and villages of the Galilee like Natzrat (Nazareth)  and Shfaram (containing ancient Shofar Am and Usha, where the Sanhedrin sat) which were once thriving centers of Jewish life, is reminiscent of the events in Melachim B (Kings II) 16:6. King Rezin, of Aram, captured Eilat from the King  of Yehuda (Judea), and, “Edomites came to Eilat and dwell there to this day.”  It’s a shocking series of events when places that once felt like home, like Eilat and later the entire northern Kingdom of Israel, are suddenly inhabited by hostile people with violent hatred for you.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Rabbi Yosef Loschak, z"l

I remember when I first met Rabbi Loschak.  “Met,” doesn’t properly describe the experience… he ran across the room to grab me.  He had been giving a class at Hillel (which I hadn't attended) and I happened to be minding my own business on the other side of the room when suddenly this huge bull of a Rabbi who looked like he was from Poland and talked like Crocodile Dundee was pumping my hand and inviting me over for Shabbos.  It was the first of many Shabbosim at what we college students came to call, “The Loschak Compound.”  Here we were, off at college in sunny Santa Barbara, far from the watchful eye of our parents, exposed to all the temptations of modern secular life, but for some reason we constantly found ourselves drawn back to a few acres housing the Chabad shul, school, and mikvah. 

How is it that, when we always talk about the importance of defeating the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination,) a bunch of us, “frei,” (free) college students found ourselves gravitating back to this place of our own accord?  I think it’s because his strategy wasn’t to waste time on fighting the Yetzer Harah, what he did was create a safe place for the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) to grow.  When you came for a Friday night dinner as a student and, after dinner, started getting ready to leave, there was never a word about not driving on Shabbos.  He would just say, “If you’re tired, we have a bed for you to sleep in.”  The next day you woke up and it was time for shul, after shul you stuck around because you were hungry and there was lunch, after lunch you were too full to move too fast, so you would sit down for learning, and then, when you were debating whether or not to get up to go, there was someone showing you where you could take a nap, and so on, until you didn’t even realize that you had been shomer Shabbos. And after a few weeks or months of it you couldn’t imagine being anything else.

Those of us who grew up in a secular environment sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we discovered the beauty of halachic Jewish life through our own rational thinking.  The reality for me, however, is that it’s the depth of character and strength of soul among the people I met in the religious world that drew me in.  Since Rabbi Loschak was my first Rabbi, I didn’t know that they weren’t all like him.  When I asked him a question on any Halacha, he didn’t just answer, he pulled out a book, showed me the source, and was careful to explain what was Halacha (binding law) and what was minhag (tradition,) what was the chumra (stringent opinion) and what was the kulah (leniency.)  Once I had moved on from college life, I was shocked when rabbis would couldn't make these distinctions or would answer my questions like, “Why do we do it this way?” with, “Because my Rabbi told me so,” or, “Because that’s the way I’ve always done it.”

Creating this atmosphere took constant dedication and work.  The Shabbos drasha always started, “This weeks announcements are as follows: We have installed four hundred feet of sewage piping and will be bringing the electrician to wire up the mikvah just as soon as we get some more of the green stuff.” After one spat with the neighborhood planning committee which was trying to stop him from opening a school, I asked him how he responded to them, “I told them it’s simple.  MY REBBE told me to come here and MY REBBE told me to build a school and it’s going to happen.”  And it happened.  Endless projects and initiatives, tireless fundraising to make them happen, he dedicated his life to building a safe space, both spiritually and physically, for the Yetzer Tov. Now, he will rest near HIS REBBE and his family will have to carry on the work.  They have a great example to follow.  Good bye for now, Rabbi Loschak, we’ll see you again soon.  Thanks to all your hard work, I don’t think it will be much longer.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Messianics vs. Liberal Judaism, What's the Difference?

I’ve been interested in how classical, “Orthodox,” Judaism differentiates between non-halachic Jewish movements and Messianics/Jews for Jesus, even though both of these groups diverge from Rambam’s (Maimonades’) 13 principles of faith, which is seen in traditional circles as a litmus test.  In my opinion, part of the answer can be found in Melachim B (Kings II.)  Compare 15:28, “And he [King Pekach of Israel] did what was evil in the eyes of the Hashem, he did not turn from the sins of Yerovam (Jeroboam,)” aka worshiping the Ba’al idol. Simultaneously, in 15:34, “And he [King Uzyah of Yehuda (Judea)] did what was right in the eyes of Hashem… however, the high places were not removed,” referring to impermissible worship at private altars in lieu of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem.  It seems that worshipping a foreign God (Messianics) is seen as an abomination.  Worshipping the God of Israel in a way which is not sanctioned is seen as a correctible misunderstanding.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Israel Expands while Declining

Melachim B (Kings II) 14:22 & 28: It’s interesting how, even though the Jewish people are split into two kingdoms, both of which are plagued by idolatry and internal instability, the realm of Jewish sovereignty has been extended as far south has Eilat and as far north as Damascus / Hamath (modern day Homs.)  Toward the end of Melachim there seems to be a loosening of the vice.  I.e., God’s use of external enemies to persecute Israel and spur them to repentance has failed, and maybe even become a distraction, so another strategy is taken, one of leniency.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Yehudah Stays Loyal to David, Even in Revolt

Melachim B (Kings II) 14:19; after failing in his war against the northern Kingdom of Israel, which is followed by the defeat and plundering of Jerusalem, King Amatzyahu (Amaziah) of Yehudah (Judea) suffers a popular revolt and flees south to Lachish.  Rather than destroying the family of the deposed Amatzyahu, as happened during revolts in the Kingdom of Israel, the people take his sixteen year old son Azaryah and put him on the throne.  While the southern Kingdom of Yehudah has drifted into the cycle of revolt and political chaos like the northern Kingdom of Yisrael, Yehudah still has a fealty to the line of David, whereas in the north, having thrown off the Davidic dynasty, there is a general loss of respect for the office of King.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Israel's Merit Runs Out

In Melachim B (Kings II) 13:23, in between mention of the oppression of Israel by Aramea, interjects suddenly with the ominous “Hashem (God) was merciful to them (Israel)… for the sake of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he did not want to destroy them… until now.”  There is some debate as to when Israel reaches the mark when the exile becomes inevitable, possibly with the resignation of the prophet Eliyahu, possibly with the death of Elisha in 13:21, but definitely here, there is an ominous portent that all of the inherited merit of previous generations has been exhausted and judgement won’t be delayed much longer.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Yoash as a Metaphor for the Kingdom of Israel

In chapter 13 of Melachim B (Kings II) Yoash (Joash) king of Israel, comes to visit the prophet of Elisha on his deathbed.  Elisha asks him to fire an arrow out the window, and then to start striking the ground.  Yoash fires the arrow out the window, strikes the ground three times, and then stops.  Elisha states, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would strike the Arameans until you would annihilate them completely, but now, you shall strike the Arameans but three times.”  It seems to epitomize the travails of the prophets.  The people, even those who worshipped idols, took the prophets seriously for a short while, but there was a lack of faithfulness and follow through.  One can almost feel Yoash starting with enthusiasm, but then gradually becoming more aware of himself, thinking, “I must look ridiculous,” and stopping.  Much like the people would initially be inspired by some miracle, but then lose faith in a God they could not see, and revert to worshipping idols.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Halachot that Come out of Melachim

In Melachim B (Kings II) chapter 12, When King Yehoash (Jehoash) begins fundraising for refurbishing Beit Hamikdash (the Holy Temple),  he orders that people should donate money to a Cohen (priest) with whom they are acquainted.  This seems to be within the theme of first seeing to the needs of one’s own community, and only later to the needs of the larger congregation.  When the repairs do not proceed apace, he orders a collection box be placed on the right side of the doorpost as one entered the temple, presumably that being the most visible spot.  The Talmud uses this as the argument in favor of affixing a mezuzah on the right side of one’s doorpost.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Revolting Against Athalia's Revolt

In Melachim B (Kings II) Yoash (Joash,) rightful heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Yehuda (Judea) is anointed, and Atalya (Athalia,) his mother and usurper to the throne, tears her garments screaming out, “Revolt!  Revolt!”  It’s interesting that she considers the potential restoration of what was the universally recognized legitimate king to be a, “Revolt!” It shows how one’s own illegitimate actions can become legitimized in one’s own mind, to an extreme that would seem objectively absurd.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Tanach is Relevant

For those who may feel a bit squeamish about the level of violence in the Tanach (bible), especially with the tendency of new kings to wipe out all the heirs of the overthrown king, or for those who think that this sort of political violence was something reserved for ancient times and is out of place in today’s enlightened western society, might I direct your attention to the Iraq War.  Saddam tried to assassinate Bush I.  Then Bush II pursued Saddam and hung him (which the world got to watch from a cell phone camera recording,) killed his heirs Udei and Qusei Hussein, and printed a deck of playing cards to make a game of hunting down and killing everyone who had so much as given him a cup of coffee, not to mention the events of Abu Ghraib.  Bush then outlawed the Ba’ath movement, much as the obedient kings wiped out the Ba’al movement.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Athalia the Conqueress

In Melachim B (Kings II) 11:1, Athaliah, upon hearing of the death of her son, King Achaziah, proceeds to do the unthinkable and eliminates her own descendants, save one escapee, and take the throne for herself.  The Talmud tell us that this is punishment, Midah k’neged Midah, for David’s inadvertentantly causing the deaths of the Cohanim (priests) in the city of Nov (Nob) 155 years earlier.  Just as the Cohanim were wiped out, save one survivor, Evyatar, so too the House of David is punished with a similar discontinuity, which is eventually restored by the sole survivor, Yoash (Joash.) 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yehu Almost Finishes the Job, but Not Quite

At the end of Yehu’s (Jehu’s,) “Housecleaning,” ending the reign of the House of Achav (Ahab) and the worship of the Ba’al idol in Melachim B (Kings II) 10, Yehu leaves the golden calf idols in Beit El and in Dan standing. God speaks to Yehu saying, “You did well by executing what was proper in My eyes; according to all that was in My heart you have done to the house of Achav (Ahab.)”  A personal take on this apparent contradiction: The golden calves were actually a perverted idolatry-like form of worship, but still directed at the God of Israel.  Perhaps Yehu has the status of an ignoramous, who was unintentionally leaving de-idolatrization unfinished, and was judged as such rather than being judged as a willful idolator.  Also note that God does not praise him for wiping out idol worship, only for ending the house of Achav’s hold on the Kingdom of Israel.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Yehu's Necessary Violence

Having eliminated Kings Achazyah of Yehuda (Judea) and Yehoram (Jehoram) of Israel, Yehu (Jehu) orders the decapitation of all of Yehoram’s descendants and piled their heads up in front of the city gates in Melachim B (Kings II) 10:8.  The gruesome scene, as well as the violence that follows in wiping out the heirs of Achazyah and the priests of the Ba’al idol, are a stinging indictment of the people.  It does not seem that the ordinary citizens of Israel and Yehuda were chafing under the rule of their kings or coerced into worshipping the Ba’al.  The fact that there was even a need for such displays of violence shows that the carrot (Eliyahu’s earlier demonstration on Mount Carmel that there is only one God) was not sufficient.  There had to be a stick, a credible fear of danger for those who worshipped the Ba’al, to turn people back to proper observance.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Painted Jezebel

The English idiom, “Painted Jezebel,” a scheming woman, comes from Melachim B (Kings II) 9:30.  Yehu (Jehu) is on his divinely decreed mission to wipe out the entire House of Achav (Ahab,) and, having just killed her son and heir, Yehu comes for Izevel (Jezebel.) Her first reaction isn’t to mourn but to adorn herself in makeup in the hope of seducing Yehu.  It seems that the Idolatrous belief of, “using,” gods rather than relating to God parallels the behavior of using people, hence her assumption that Yehu would be happy to use her in exchange for clemency.  Yehu has none of it and throws her out the window.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yehu is Annointed, Sort Of

Melachim B (Kings II) 9:2: As King Yoram (Joram) of Israel lies dying of wounds inflicted by General Hazael of Aramea, the Prophet Elisha sends disciples to annoint Yehu (Jehu) with a pach shemen (cruse of oil) much like King Shaul (Saul) had been anointed.  David and Shlomo (Solomon) were anointed from a keren shemen (horn of oil,) and their monarchy was permanent in that it was passed on to their descendants.  The lesser pach shemen foreshadows many parallels between Kings Shaul and Yehu, including:

1.       Neither of them were of the proper tribe, as the king must be from Yehuda (Judah,) and Shaul was from Binyamin (Benjamin) while Yehu was from one of the northern tribes, and the northern kingdom Yehu ruled was an aberration which wasn’t even supposed to exist.

2.       Shaul failed to completely wipe out Amalek, and Yehu failed to completely wipe out idolatry, and as a consequence…

3.       Both of their reigns were cut short.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The South Goes Like the North

Melachim B (Kings II) 8:16: Yehoshaphat (Jehosaphat), king of Yehuda (Judeah,) names his son and successor Yehoram (Jehoram.)  There is a subtle indication in Yehoshaphat’s naming his son Yehoram, so similar to Yoram, (then the King of Israel,) as well as his signing treaties with Yoram, that the northern idolatrous Kingdom of Israel had become the cultural center of gravity, and was drawing legitimacy away from the southern Kingdom of Yehuda, which was more loyal to the God of Israel and the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple.)  Two pasukim later (verse 18) this is made explicit in that he is marrying a daughter of King Achav (Ahab) of Israel and “went in his ways.”

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Monotheism but not Ethical Monotheisum

Melachim B (Kings II) 8:12: Aramean king Ben Hadad’s servant asks the Prophet Elisha whether Ben Hadad will recover from illness.  Elisha becomes expressionless for a moment and begins weeping, saying Ben Hadad will die and that he (Ben Hadad’s servant) will become king and commit all sorts of horrible atrocities to the Jewish people during his reign.  This was the future king’s opportunity to do teshuvah (repent) and beg that someone else be the instrument of evil, but he just goes on his merry way and fulfills the prophecy.  The fact that the Arameans respect Elisha and their earlier monotheistic revelation apparently didn’t help much.  They had begun to understand monotheism, but the concept of ethical monotheism and personal accountability hadn’t penetrated.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Punishment Fits the Crime

Melachim B (Kings II) 7:1: As the Aramean siege starves the people of Shomron (Samaria, capital of Israel,) to the point that the head of a donkey sells for 40 shekels, Elisha predicts a miracle, proclaims that within one day, there will be such plenty that a measure of fine flour will cost one shekel.  The king’s officer scoffs, and Elisha prophecies that the scoffer will live to see the prophecy come true, but not benefit from it.  The next day, the Aramean army has vanished and left all their supplies on the field, and the king’s officer is trampled to death by the crowds rushing to gather up the supplies.  This is one episode that the Talmud exemplifies as God’s judgment being Midah k’neged Midah (measure for measure.)  I.e., the punishment is a direct reflection of the sin itself.


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Wieghing Risky Medical Procedures in Halacha

Melachim B (Kings II) 7:4: A group of sick Israelis who are quarantined outside of the besieged capital, Shomron (Samaria), tries to surrender to the Aramean army.  The rationale: if we go to the Aramean side, they might kill us or they might let us live.  If we stay here, it might extend our lives by a few days, but we will eventually starve to death anyway.  From this, we learn the halachah (Jewish law): Unlike most cases where a person is required to do everything possible to extend her life for as long as possible, if a she is facing a terminal medical condition and she has the option of an iffy procedure which might extend her life or might kill her, she is able to decide for herself which course to take.

(If, God forbid, you are ever in this situation, don’t rely on my Facebook post, consult your local halachic authority.)

My own unanswered question on this one: Given that the northern Kingdom of Israel had strayed so far from Judaism and into Idolatry, why are the sages so confident that they were taking the proper action that they could use this passuk (passage) as the basis of a halacha?

Friday, May 02, 2014

King Yoram Under Pressure

Melachim B (Kings II) 6:28: Shomron (Samaria,) the capital of Israel, is under siege by Aramea, and a starving woman comes to King Yoram (Joram) to complain that she and another woman had agreed to kill and eat eachother’s babies and, after killing her own baby, the other women reneged.  Yoram blames the God of Israel and says to go take it up with him.  A disturbing exchange which raises many questions pointing to the confusion of the times:

1.       Why did the Yoram blame the God of Israel when he had not prayed to him, but to the pantheon of idols?

2.       Why did the woman come to the king for justice when in so doing she automatically admitted her own culpability in the murder of her own child?

3.       Why did Yoram do nothing to her when she admitted her crime?

There is a stark contrast between Yoram’s behavior and Shlomo’s (Solomon) with the two mothers who were arguing over the same baby.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Chariots of Fire to the Rescue

Melachim B (Kings II) The King of Aram is again invading Israel, and has Elisha surrounded.  In his panic, Elisha’s servant cries out, “What shall we do?”  Elisha prays to God to, “Open his eyes and let him see,” and the servant suddenly sees an army of fiery horses.  The Talmud speaks of everyone being accompanied by invisible angels everywhere at all times.  Elisha’s miracle, in this case, was not to be God’s hand in creating some new reality, as with splitting the Jordan river or curing disease, but in giving someone the ability to see parallel spiritual dimensions which are already in existence.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The One-God Revelation

Melachim B (Kings II) 5:15: The Prophet Elisha cures Naaman, the Goy (Gentile) Aramean general, of Tzaraat (skin disease.) Naaman proclaims, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except Israel.” Why did the Aramean King experience a one-God revelation when many far more amazing miracles performed by Eliyahu and Elisha failed to convince Israel?  It seems that Naaman was a, “pure,” idolator in that he believed each god had a specific power (god of rain, god of the sun, etc.) and so too each prophet of each god had only that specific power.  When Elisha cured Naaman of Tzaraat, which he thought was outside the purview of the God of Israel, it completely shattered his worldview and he was able to immediately accept his error and modify his entire way of thinking.  The Israelis of the time, however, believed that their God was quite powerful and versatile, but that on occasion it was quicker, easier, and cheaper to go to other gods for their day-to-day needs.  It was this mixture of Jewish and pagan belief that proved much harder to do teshuvah (repentance) from than pure idolatry.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Sacrifice of the Firstborn

This and future Tanach posts are dedicated to Refael Elisha Meir Cohen, taken from us yesterday by a brain tumor before we even had a chance to really get to know him. His neshama (soul) should have an aliyah (ascent) in the next world.


In Melachim B (Kings II) 3:27, as the combined forces of the Kingdoms of Israel and Yehuda (Judea) suppress the Moavi (Moabite) rebellion, Meysha King of Moav, in desperation, sacrifices and burns his son and heir apparent on the city walls.  Israel at the time didn’t disbelieve in the God of Israel, they had simply reverted to polytheism and believed him to be one of a pantheon of gods who could be called upon. So too, the Moavim were also educated in the God of Israel, were aware of the Akeidah, the binding and almost-sacrifice of Yitzchak (Isaac,) and figured that if the God of Israel demands sacrifice of the firstborn, then it should work for King Meysha too.  Ironic considering that the events of the Akeidah were specifically done to prove that the God of Israel hated the practice of firstborn sacrifice.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Serving Your Master

In Melachim B (Kings II:3), the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judea ally themselves to put down a Moabite rebellion.  The armies become lost and are dying of thirst in the desert.  King Yoram (Joram) says, “Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Eliyahu (Elijah.)”  The fact that Elisha is known not for having studied with Eliyahu but for having washed his hands is taken as a sign that there is a deeper spiritual connection forged between talmid (student) and rebbe (teacher) through actual service in the real world rather than theoretical learning or rhetorical debate.  This concept that extends to performance of the Mitzvot (commandments) generally.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The Danger of Receiving Prophecy

When it becomes known to the prophets that Eliyahu (Elijah) will be leaving the world on that day, Eliyahu’s talmid (student) Elisha follows him, despite Eliyahu’s request that everyone stay behind, and his specific concern for Elisha.  Accepting the gift of prophecy seems to be a double-edged sword, which can burn the person receiving it if he is unready, hence Eliyahu’s reticence to hand it over to Elisha, and the other prophet’s decision to remain at a safe distance as it happened.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Eliyahu Leaves Israel

Personal reflection: I’m wondering why Eliyahu (Elijah) had to leave the Land of Israel in order to ascend into the next world.  Eliyahu is seen as a parallel to Moshe (Moses,) not only in the sense that he was second in prophetic power only to Moshe, but also that in that many of the events in his life, culminating in a personal revelation at Sinai, parallel those of Moshe.  I find it interesting that he has to cross over the Jordan River before he can be taken away, much like Moshe who was buried opposite the Jordan.  It may also have something do to with the fact that, unlike Moshe, when Eliyahu was presented with the option of preventing the exile of the People of Israel from the Land of Israel, he remained silent (acquiescing) whereas Moshe always stood up for Israel.  Perhaps, as the one who gave the final stamp of approval for exile, he had to be the first one to suffer it.  It could also be that he was just going home, as he came from the Giladi mountains, across the Jordan River in the modern day Jordanian city of Jalad. If he shows up at anyone’s seder, please ask him for me.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Elisha's Double Portion

At the beginning of Sefer Melachim Bet (Kings II 2:9), as Eliyahu (Elijah) prepares to leave the world he asks his talmid (student) Elisha if he has any last requests, and Elisha asks him for a doubling of Elijah’s spirit.  It seems like an odd request, given that prophecy is not passed from one prophet to the next but from God to his selected instrument.  One interpretation is that he’s asking for the double portion of the ben habechor (the double portion that the firstborn son inherits on his parents’ passing.)  What he seems to be saying is, “For me to continue, you need to make it absolutely clear that I am your chosen successor.”  A reasonable request given the difference in methodology and attitude between the two of them, which might raise doubts.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Rejection of Elisha The Prophet

Continuing Tanach studies where I left off a year ago when we had a baby and my sleep-work-tanach cycle was disrupted…


Melachim 2:23; Elisha has replaced Eliyahu (Elijah) as the head prophet.  He is accepted in Yericho (Jericho,) in the Kingdom of Yehuda (Judea), but when he comes to Beit El (Bethel) in the northern Kingdom of Yisrael (Israel), he is mocked for his baldness by 42 youths.  Two bears then come out of the wilderness and tear the youths to pieces.  One explanation of this strange passage is that they were mocking him for not being a prophet made of sterner stuff like his predecessor Eliyahu (who was known for his long flowing hair.)  The act-of-God nature of the youths’ deaths (the youths may have been local prophets) seems to indicate divine affirmation that Eliyahu’s method of prophecy, rebuke, had now been replaced by Elisha’s, compassion.