Friday, March 27, 2015

Happy Day Day!

The Twentieth Knesset will be sworn in on Tuesday, and I urge them to take up, as their first legislative priority, the Day Day Bill.
The aim of Hoq Yom Yom is to set aside one day a year to just be a regular day. A regular workday. A regular school day. A regular bowel movement day. Just a day.
There will not be special signs, banners or bunting for this day. No balloons. No specialty napkins, stickers or emjois. No one will send you unsolicited text messages about seasonal charities, business opportunities or lectures. You may go to a cemetery, but only with a black cat at midnight, like a normal person.
There will be no evening or morning sirens, ceremonies or cantorial concerts. And speaking of cantors… yes Tahanun, no Hallel. Yes LaMnatzeach, no Musaf. ONE SHIR SHEL YOM!
It will not be a biblical, rabbinical, Kabbalistic or Zionistic holiday. We will not memorialize anyone getting martyred or married or manumitted. We will not be igniting giant candelabras or giant bonfires or giant fireworks displays or giant piles of stale crackers, pitas and, inevitably, plastic bags. Nor will we be burning or waving any flags. Nor will we be using real hammers to build huts or fake hammers to bop people.
It will not be anything eve or post-anything day. Buses will not stop running at midday or start running at nightfall. Stores will be open, and so will government offices, at their regular hours, those being 10-11 AM and 2-3 PM.
Your children will not need to bring an egg, aluminum-foil-wrapped potato, or random dairy product. They will not come home with a smashed container of honey or piece of matza. They do not need to wear white or blue or orange shirts. But they should wear something, otherwise you will get a visit from the department of children’s services.
We will love our parents, grandparents, children, reserve soldiers, active-duty soldiers, agunot, cancer patients and survivors on this day, because we should do that every day.
We will not pretend to be Ethiopian or Moroccan or Russian or Druze or Canadian on this day. Anyone who wants to celebrate something after normal business hours is welcome, but we don’t need an endless stream of photo ops for politicians and notables pretending they like unfamiliar ethnic foods.
No one will be feasting or fasting today. Just eat and drink normally. You may shave. You may get a haircut. You may not wear a soul patch, unless you are a douche-bag and wish to warn people. You can try muttonchops or a goatee, but I doubt you can pull it off.
You may wear deodorant. In fact, you must. Every day. Honestly, why would you not?
There will not be any elections on this day, municipal or national. Whatever assortment of fools got elected last time can hold the country together for another week.
Garbage will be collected. Mail will be delivered. Clocks will not be set back or forward, and we might actually get some work done during the day and some sleep at night.
And most of all… you don’t need to wish anyone a Happy Day Day.

Friday, March 20, 2015

2017 election results are in!

Let me apologize again for our earlier error. We mistakenly reported that the Pirate Party had won 79 seats; what we meant to say was that the Pittsburgh Pirates won the '79 World Series. We were looking up the results on our phone, and it isn't Hebrew-enabled... Never mind.
Anyway, here are the confirmed results. In what is being called (by us right now) "a once-in-a-millennium revolution," Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu is the stunning winner, as the right-wing parties have scored 42 seats. Remember how last time it was 44, and the time before that 43? Undoubtedly, this is the most significant event in human history since the earth cooled 2.5 billion years ago. (CORRECTION: Bibi's likely haredi coalition partners are telling us that it was 5776 years ago.) Apparently, his slogan: "Third Intifadah, Fourth Gaza War, Fifth Term" truly resonated with voters.
Labor Leader Meirav Michaeli was stunned by the results, as her party received only 20 seats. In her concession speech, she said, "What? You didn't want another journalist? But I'm the scion of an important family too! Don't you think--" At this point, she was replaced by Eitan Cabel, who promised a new direction for Labor.
Within the right, Naftali Bennett was mystified as to why his party has shrunk to 5 seats. Some have criticized his choice to rename it the Jewish No Homo Party, but Bennett remains convinced that he will take over the Likud within 18 months.
Avigdor Lieberman has scored 8 seats, with his Red-handed Army initiative, committing him to bring to Knesset only politicians who are under ethics investigation. Of course, he faced some stiff opposition from Aryeh Makhloufeasance Deri's Maranimum Security Party, which includes only convicted felons. Readers may recall that Ehud Olmert was granted early parole in order to run, in the famous Supreme Court ruling We Don't Really Give a Flying F Anymore (And Before You Ask, Zoabi and Marzel Can Run Too).
BREAKING: Eitan Cabel has been replaced by Stav Shaffir.
The biggest surprise may be that the Righters' Bloc cleared the electoral threshold. "We kept trying to forge alliances between the political right and the religious right," said a spokesman, "but then we realized we needed the economic right, right-fielders, and right-hand men (and women. Just kidding, obviously no women)."
Meretz gained a seat, but leader Zehava Gal-On was heard to say: "We used to have 12! Forgive me, Mother Shulamit!" This statement was a bit muffled, as she had her head in an oven at the time. As the Israeli medical establishment has never had to treat a case of accountability, Deputy Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman has recommended she be transported abroad for treatment. As leader of United Torah Judaism, neither Litzman nor his followers will accept the title of minister, though they will take the office, car and money. It is unclear if Bibi's tactic of making everyone else in the party chief rabbi is sufficient, as Satmar Hasidim cannot make do with only one. Bibi contacted the Shahidy Pines Retirement Home to see if Abu Mazen can offer Neturei Karta a Chief Rabbi of the Palestinian Authority position, but Abbas was too busy eating tapioca pudding to take his call.
BREAKING: Stav Shaffir has been replaced by Tzipi Livni, but no one knows if she's still in the party. Her whereabouts remain unknown at press time. Also her whyabouts.
However, the greatest comeback of this election cycle must be that of Eli Yishai. Just last month, he won a primary for the polygamist slot in the Joint List, and he has already taken over the party by offering women chocolate bars for each room they clean for Eid al-Adha. When asked how she felt about his new wives, the first Mrs. Yishai had no comment, because she is invisible. Ousted leader Ayman Oudeh noted that like haredi women, Arab citizens of Israel "were used to being screwed by Jewish men."
Undoubtedly, the true power lies in the brand-new centrist socio- economic party, filled with brilliant people who are political novices, led by former Likudnik Gideon Saar, Mistaarim. With his dozen seats, he plans to take over the Finance Ministry and "blah, blah, blah." When his predecessor Moshe Kahlon was asked why he was still smiling after failing to pass the electoral threshold, he responded, "No, my face is stuck this way. Help." Yesh Atid held on with four seats, and leader Yair Lapid lamented, "At least Kahlon gets to go home. What the hell am I supposed to do?" Then he remembered that he is still hot and rich, and started smiling as well.
BREAKING: Tzipi Livni has been replaced by Shimon Peres, but no one tell him, because he's 93 and the shock might kill him.
But the question remains if Bibi can govern after some of the extreme statements he made in the last days of the campaign. He clarified that when he said "Blow the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Temple," he meant: "I know to take stock and restrain my temper." As for his infamous "towelhead" comment, he explained: "That was taken totally out of context. I was talking about that scene in romantic comedies when the female lead comes out in a bathrobe and a towel wrapped elaborately on her head. I find it trite and cliched." As for his statement to President Hillary Clinton that "America can suck a dick," he elucidated, "I meant that one. But don't get me wrong, America is still Israel's greatest vassal--I mean, ally."
When asked about the prospects of this government serving a full term, all 120 members of Knesset issued a rare joint statement: "You've gotta be f-cking kidding me."

Monday, March 16, 2015

What would Moses do? Vote!

There's just something about late winter in Israel that feels like elections. Every single national contest we've held in this country in this century has been between mid-Shevat and late Adar (February-March). Maybe it's the realization that we're not getting any more snow days, so we need another reason for a day off.
But another 21st-century Israeli electoral trend is much more troubling: citizens just aren't that into it. Consider the turnout for the last five elections, percentage-wise: 62.3, 67.8, 63.6, 64.7, 67.8. Compare that to the last five elections of the 20th century: 78.7, 79.3, 77.4, 79.7, 78.8. When once nearly four in five voted, now we're not even averaging two out of three.
For a bit of insight, let's turn to the man whose birthday and yahrtzeit fall smack in the middle of this season: Moses. What was Moses' deathbed wish? To cross over the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel. But why?
R. Simlai expounded: Why did Moses our teacher yearn to enter the land of Israel? Did he want to eat of its fruits or satisfy himself from its bounty? But thus said Moses, "Many mitzvot were commanded to Israel which can only be fulfilled in the land of Israel. I wish to enter the land so that they may all be fulfilled by me."
That's what we find in the Talmud (Sota 14a), but it is still pretty vague. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 816) narrows it down further: "This is the appointment of the king." Moses wasn't looking forward to the first fruits or tithes or sabbatical or jubilee: he was anticipating "the appointment of the king"--not the coronation, not the reign, but the appointment.
This is shocking when we consider how low an opinion some of Moses' successors had of the institution of the monarchy, Samuel first and foremost. "You have said to me: 'No, a king shall reign over us,' but Lord your God is your king!" (I Sam. 12:12). We might expect the man who concluded the Song of the Sea with "Lord shall reign forevermore" (Exod. 15:18) to object to a human king. But on the contrary, Moses' most profound wish is to witness the appointment of a king in Israel--to fulfill that mitzva.
But perhaps this is a one-time command? No, it appears in the lists of 613 commandments, e.g. #497 in the 13th-century Sefer HaChinnukh.
Rather, the significance of the commandment is not limited to the appointing of a new king, it encompasses everything we have mentioned: the appointing of a new king – if there shall be a reason why one shall be needed – and also the establishing of the reign in the hands of the heir, and the constitution of his authority over us; and in all respects, we should behave toward him as we have been commanded, and as we do following the known procedure and command, which truly does apply forever.
But maybe the command is just for important people like Moses? Actually, the king is supposed to be appointed by 70 members of the Sanhedrin, and appointing them is another mitzva (#491):
Now this is one of the commandments which is incumbent upon the entire community in each and every place, and as explained in Tractate Sanhedrin (2b), a community that has the ability to establish among them a council but does not set one, has abrogated a positive command, and their punishment is very great for this commandment is a strong pillar... For each and every congregation in all places should select some of the good among them, people that will have power over all of them to compel by whatever means necessary... and to remove from amongst their midst disgraceful matters and all of that ilk. In regard to those appointed people it is also fitting that they should straighten their way and make their actions fit and have no cause for public shame... Furthermore, they should try continually to do what is beneficial for their colleagues that are dependent upon them to teach them the true way and to establish peace with all their energies among the congregation. They should abandon, leave, and forget from their hearts all of their physical delights; upon this they shall put their attention and upon this shall be the majority of their thoughts and activities, thereby fulfilling the verse (Dan. 12:3) "And those of keen intellect will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars, forevermore."
This is what Moses wanted to do more than anything: to leave behind a political structure that would last, a society that could prosper for generations to come. He could not have been naive about the prospect: he himself, God's direct appointee, had to deal with numerous revolts and rebellions during his four decades. Moreover, he spent his youth in Pharaoh's palace, seeing the cutthroat nature of politics up close. But he wanted his last act to be doing his civic duty.
So yes, Israeli politics are imperfect. But as someone who's lived and worked in the US, Canada and Israel, I can tell you that having a vote that actually counts and a real choice among parties is a blessing. Sure, you may not find that transgender haredi Ethiopian faction fighting to make canola oil kosher for Passover for everyone, but choose the next best thing. Do it for Moses/ Moishe/ Musa/ Mosheh. Because a vote is a terrible thing to waste.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

First Messiah

It's Messiah season in the Holy Land once again, with Passover, Easter and elections quickly approaching (not in that order). Now, we may not agree on who that ultimate messiah should be, but we can all agree that messianic fervor must be treated with massive amounts of chocolate.
Caption might as well read: Give yourself a little square for perpetuating gender myths and a big square for canonizing them in law!

But let's spare a thought for the first messiah, a man often unjustly discounted, dismissed and disrespected... (but enough about Buji!) Aaron the Priest.
Yes, Aaron is the first man to be anointed, which is what messiah (mashiach) actually means, as we read in this week's Torah portion (Exod. 40:13):
Then dress Aaron in the sacred garments, anoint (u-mashachta) him and consecrate him so he may serve me as priest.
In fact, this image of Moses anointing Aaron is so powerful that David writes a whole psalm about it (133):
A Song of Ascents, of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Coming down upon the beard,
Even Aaron’s beard,
Coming down upon the edge of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon
Coming down upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—life forever.
However, as the Talmud tells it, there was great apprehension for each of the brothers during the ceremony:
Our Rabbis taught: It is like the precious oil … coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, etc., two drops like pearls hung from Aaron's beard...  And concerning this matter, Moses was anxious. He said, 'Have I, God forbid, made an improper use of the anointing oil?' A heavenly voice came forth and called out, Like the precious oil … like the dew of Hermon; as misappropriation is inapplicable to the dew of Hermon, so also is it inapplicable to the anointing oil on the beard of Aaron. Aaron however, was still anxious. He said, 'It is possible that Moses did not trespass, but I may have trespassed'. A heavenly voice came forth and said to him, Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity;  as Moses is not guilty of trespass, so are you not guilty of trespass.
I said anointing oil, not Gatorade.
What were they so concerned about? Why was every drop of oil so precious? Let's take a closer look at this anointing oil (shemen ha-mishcha). WARNING: SIMPLE ARITHMETIC AHEAD!
Take also for yourself the finest of spices: of flowing myrrh five hundred shekels, and of fragrant cinnamon half as much, two hundred and fifty, and of fragrant cane two hundred and fifty, and of cassia five hundred, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and of olive oil a hin. You shall make of these a holy anointing oil... (Exod. 30:23-25)
That's better. More super bowl, less Superbowl.
That's better. More super bowl, less Superbowl.
Now, the listed ingredients add up (500+250+250+500) to 1500 shekels--or 3000 half-shekels. I mention the half-shekel because this is the amount to be given by every Israelite, rich or poor, towards the construction of the Tabernacle. This is "ransom," "atonement money" and "plague" inoculation for every living man, according to the previous chapter. But there are some who do not have that opportunity, namely those who fell on the day the Golden Calf was made, "and about three thousand men of the people fell that day," because "the LORD plagued the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made" (32:28, 35).
Yes, Aaron goes on to offer a non-golden calf to atone for himself personally (Lev. 9:8) , but what about the 3000 who didn't walk away? These are the 3000 half-shekels which go into the anointing oil. Thus, every drop is precious, and the brothers are anxious.
A final point to consider is the source of the raw materials for the anointing oil--the nesi'im, the tribal princes (Exod. 35:27-28), mysterious and obscure figures in this book of the Bible. What is clear is that they view the donation of these materials as a national duty, as much as the precious stones on which the names of the tribes are inscribed. It is about accountability, the idea that the people's representatives assembled must represent all the people, not one sector, community or tribe. It's a message we sorely need in Israel, and hopefully our princes will remember it long after the Election Day chocolate has melted away.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

All About the Benjamins

Analogies are hard.
Some wags in the late 90s thought that the Lewinsky scandal was a modern Purim story, with Monica as ingenue Esther, Bill Clinton as insatiable Ahasuerus and Hillary as imperious Vashti. Fair enough, but what about Haman, the villain of the piece? Apparently relying on the fact that Iran and Iraq indisputably share 75% of their letters, Saddam Hussein was cast.
In the 2000s, we got a Persian who certainly could play the role, and not just because his last name is an anagram for "I, jaded Haman": Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the man who became famous for declaring that "Israel will be wiped off the map" and "There are no Persian carpet munchers" (your translation may vary) left office almost two years ago. (I know, a President Mahmoud A. who leaves office when his term is up--those Shiites give up so easily!) The most you can say about his successor, Hassan Rouhani, is that he's an inconsistent New Year's tweeter.
Then The Speech was announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu coming to the most prestigious chamber of the world's sole superpower, unbidden, to beg and supplicate for his people to be saved from the ministers of Persia. And doing it on the Fast of Esther! How perfect is that?
Except it's not the Fast of Esther, because that's the 13th of Adar, not the 12th. And even here in Israel, where it will be after sunset when the speech starts, the fast doesn't begin until the next morning. And the Fast of Esther does not commemorate when Esther went before Ahasuerus, which was on Passover, eleven months earlier. And--
You know what, never mind. As I said, analogies are hard. I understand why some are comparing Bibi to Esther. But I think the closer analogue is Mordecai.
And about that... Now, I don't embrace Ayalon Eliach's Haaretz hit-piece, "Mordechai the villain," but he does raise some interesting questions. The text does seem to indicate that Mordecai has no trouble hiding (denying) his Jewish identity until Haman comes on the scene, and this seems to be his main concern with Esther over the previous decade. The comfort with which we accept Esther's being "taken" because Mordecai ultimately gets wealth and prestige in return does the beg the question of how we would look at Sarah's abductions if the God had not intervened.
But the greatest service that Eliach does is remind us of the view of Rava, 4th-century Babylonian sage, who has a somewhat ambiguous view of Mordecai. The Talmud (Megilla 12b-13a) is trying to explain the fact that Mordecai is identified both as a Jew (from the tribe of Judah) and a Benjamite (from the tribe of Benjamin) when he is first mentioned (Est. 2:5). Rava comments:
The community of Israel explained [the two designations] in the contrary sense: ‘See what a Judean did to me and how a Benjamite repaid me!’ What a Judean did to me, viz., that David did not kill Shimei from whom was descended Mordecai who provoked Haman. ‘And how a Benjamite repaid me’, viz., that Saul did not slay Agag from whom was descended Haman who oppressed Israel.
In other words, the Jewish community is equally annoyed at two kings from the Book of Samuel: Saul for not killing Haman's ancestor, and David for not killing Mordecai's ancestor.
Shocking, certainly. But let's consider another aggadic source (Yalkut Shimoni 1054):
They said to him: Know that you cause us to fall by the sword. What did you see to abrogate the king's command?
He said: For I am a Jew.
They said to him: But surely we find that your forefathers bowed down to his forefathers, as it is stated: 'And he bowed down to the ground seven times' (Gen. 33:3).
He said to them: My forefather, Benjamin, was in his mother's womb and did not bow down, and I am his descendant, as it is stated: 'a Benjamite' (Esther 2:5). Just as my forefather did not bow, so I do not bow or bend…
R. Benjamin bar Levi said: "I am the knight of the Holy One, blessed be He; does a knight bow down before a commoner?"
In other words, according to Yalkut Shimoni, Mordecai's refusal to bow before Haman is not due to his Judaism (since Halakha allows this), but due to his tribal pride.
But even if Mordecai is less than perfect (in the view of some sages), we can no doubt say that he saves his people. The Book of Esther ends with a glorious act of self-defense!
Let's look at what does finally happen on the 13th of Adar (Est. 9:1-5):
The enemies of the Jews had hoped to rule over them, and it was turned that the Jews rule over those hating them — the Jews were assembled in their cities, in all provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to put forth a hand upon those seeking their evil, and no man stood in their presence, for their fear had fallen on all the peoples. And all heads of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the governors, and those doing the work that the king had, were lifting up the Jews, for a fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them... And the Jews smote among all their enemies — a smiting of sword, and slaughter and destruction — and did with those hating them according to their pleasure.
So whom did the Jews kill? Antisemites, certainly--those who hated them. This was a widespread phenomenon during the reign of Ahasuerus (see Ezra 4:6). But this was hardly an act of self-defense, but rather "for the Jews being ready at this day to be avenged of their enemies" (Est. 8:13). It is the Jews who mass, not their enemies. Consider just three points:
  1. The Jews are allowed "to cut off, to slay, and to destroy the whole force of the people and province who are distressing them, infants and women, and their spoil to seize" (8:11). What infants and spoils did the Jews need to defend themselves against? In practice, the Jews only kill men; but the decree is clearly designed to be the mirror image of Haman's decree, targeting Jew-haters instead of Jews, but not limited to self-defense.
  2. "Many of the peoples of the land were becoming Jews, for a fear of the Jews had fallen upon them" (8:17). Now, if they were scared of the Jews, and the Jews would only act in self-defense, how about just not attacking?
  3. "And Esther said, ‘If to the king [it be] good, let it be given also tomorrow, to the Jews who [are] in Susa, to do according to the law of today; and the ten sons of Haman they hang on the tree."' Now, that's the 14th of Adar, a day on which no one was ever allowed to attacked Jews. So why did the Jews go and kill 300 more men in the royal complex?
The confusion is probably due to the phrase "la'amod al nafsham," which many translate "to stand for their lives," i.e. to act in self-defense. But the phrase "al nafsham" recurs in 9:31, where it clearly means "for themselves"--the Jews accept Purim "for themselves and for their seed." They are meant "to stand for themselves"--to settle the score with their foes.
Mordecai the Benjamite is a complex figure. We would do well to study what he does in order to understand the nature of the threats we face today--and what motivates our response.
There's a reason it's the Book of Esther, after all.