Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When Shimon said goodbye

Everyone remembers a different Shimon Peres. For me it will be the prime minister who shepherded Israel through a unprecedented event: the assassination of its head of government.
I was just 17, a student who had arrived just ten weeks prior to study at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut. Har Etzion was and is a yeshivat hesder, combining Torah study and military service. As a foreign student, I was not (yet) heading to the army, but I had to learn how to handle an M-16 for guard duty. At the time, my Hebrew was poor and my knowledge of Israeli society was worse. But everything was new and exhilarating and wonderful.
But from the moment an older student slapped his hand on the bima in the beit midrash and we started saying Psalms on that night of Saturday, Nov. 4th, 1995, I knew something was seriously wrong. And the news just got worse. Prime Minister Rabin has been shot. He is dead. His killer is a Jew. His killer is an Orthodox Jew. His killer is a graduate of a hesder yeshiva.
We spent that night in shock; the next amid the crush of the people trying to get to the Knesset, where Rabin lay in state; and the day after going to the funeral. Not that our bus could actually get near Mount Herzl; the traffic was insane, the security tight. We ended up sitting on the bus listening to eulogies by world leaders, the first being President Clinton (the First?).
It was a fine speech, surely, and in its last paragraph, Clinton referenced the Torah portion, which we will also be reading this Tuesday, the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah: the Binding of Yitzhak. He declared: "As we all know, as Abraham, in loyalty to God, was about to kill his son, God spared Yitzhak. Now God tests our faith even more terribly, for he has taken our Yitzhak."
A worthy notion, certainly. But then Shimon Peres, acting prime minister, arose and chose a different verse. It is what we read from the Prophets on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, God's words to the weeping Rachel:
“Restrain your voice from weeping
And your eyes from tears;
For your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord,
“And they will return from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.
(Jeremiah 31:16-17)
Peres spoke of his decades-long friend and sometimes bitter rival not as a martyr, not as a sacrifice, but as a tireless, demanding leader who had toiled ceaselessly all of his life and whose work had yet to be completed. We would mourn, but then we would take up the task yet again.
And when the new government of Israel convened two weeks later, with Shimon Peres as prime minister for the third time in his life, my rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Yehuda Amital was part of it, as Minister-Without-Portfolio. Peres wanted to get back to work, not point fingers at the religious or the settlers or the bnei yeshiva. And when he was voted out of office months later, he just went back to the Knesset, where he served almost uninterrupted for half a century, until he became Israel's ninth president.
And unlike so many of those we have lost over the past seven years--Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, Presidents Ephraim Katzir and Yitzhak Navon--Peres never faded into obscurity in his later years. He never stopped working. His last act was just two week ago, as he posted a Facebook video in support of buying Israeli products. He was indefatigable, the last of Israel's founding generation.
Jewish tradition says the First Day of Creation was actually today, the 25th of Elul. It is certainly a new world, without Shimon Peres, last of his generation. But he would assure us that it will be all fine--as long as we get back to the hard work of making Israel the State it has the potential to be.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Pray like a girl

Jews have always known the value of producing credits, so it's no surprise that, at least in Sephardic synagogues, every one of the daily prayers starts off with royalties: to Abraham for instituting the morning service; Isaac, afternoon; Jacob, evening.
But where them ladies at? After all, our Siddur contains more than these three daily prayers, namely the musaf (additional or supplementary) service for special days.
In fact, the Talmud (Berachot 26b) itself asks (rhetorically): "But who would have instituted musaf?" There are only three Patriarchs, so who could it be? Obviously, concludes 18th-century Jerusalem-born sage the Chida, it must have been a Matriarch:
The musaf of the New Moon was instituted by our Matriarch Rachel, as she foresaw with the Holy Spirit that, in the future, the women in the desert would avoid the Sin of the Golden Calf. Indeed, her name is alluded to with the words "Roshei Chodashim Le-amcha--New Moons to Your people You gave, a time of atonement for all their generations."
(Birkei Yoseif, OC 423:2)
Aside from the mind-blowing implication that Mother Rachel was a Time Lord, this tradition lays down a principle: atonement is women's work. Because the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) is all about renewal, repentance and restoration, its prayer couldn't have been instituted by the Patriarchs; it had to be Rachel doing it on behalf of those who kept the faith in the first major crisis after the Exodus from Egypt: the women, who refused to worship the Golden Calf.
The Talmud itself (ibid. 29a) says that one Rosh Chodesh in particular was pivotal in Rachel's life: the New Moon of Tishrei, better known as Rosh Hashana, when she conceived. However, it is a later heroine who is credited with the special musaf service of that day:
To what do the nine [blessings] of the New Year correspond? Isaac the Carthaginian said: To the nine times that Hannah invokes God in her prayer (I Samuel 2:1-10).  For a Master has said: On the New Year was the reckoning of Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.
So we have Rachel to thank for the prayers of Rosh Chodesh and Hannah, mother of Samuel, for those of Rosh Hashana. But there's another tool we wield on the latter, another voice we hear, that of the shofar, and credit for that goes to their predecessor, the Mother of All Matriarchs, Sarah.
Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him: "Where have you been, my son?"
Said he to her: "My father took me and led me up mountains and down hills," etc.
"Alas," she said, "for the son of a hapless woman!  Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain!"
"Yes," he said to her.
Thereupon, she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts (tekiot). It has been said: She had scarcely finished speaking when she died.
(Leviticus Rabbah 20:2)
Midrashically, the straight blasts of the shofar known as tekiot come from Sarah, the first Jewish mother, overwhelmed by the trauma of the Binding of Isaac. However, the ululating, groaning teruot come from a different matriarch in our history, the mother of Sisera, anonymous in Judges 5:28 but named by some traditions as Temah (cf. Ezra 2:53). Apparently, even enemies of the Jewish people have mothers too, and their very human grief is something we tap into as well on Rosh Hashana.
While both Rosh Chodesh and Rosh Hashana have a component of atonement, there's only one day that has it in its name: Yom Kippur. The centerpiece of that day's prayers, its musaf in particular, is the pair of goats: "And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel" (Leviticus 16:8). While this service might seem to be male-dominated, the fact is it too follows the template set by a Matriarch--specifically, Rebecca. Her audacious ploy to get Isaac's blessing for Jacob begins with the following command (Gen. 27:9): "Go now to the flocks, and take for me from there two good kid goats." What's so good about these goats? "They are good for your progeny, for by them, they gain atonement on Yom Kippur" (Gen. Rabbah 65:14).
But our salah is not quite complete: Yom Kippur has five prayer services, the final one being ne'ila, which literally refers to the locking of the Gates of Heaven. While the gate of prayers may be locked, the gate of tears remains ever open (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a), especially for a wronged wife. Or as the Zohar puts it:
We have been taught: Any born of woman who sheds tears before God, though their punishment has been decreed, it shall be torn up, and that punishment shall not beset them. From whence do we know this? From Leah!
Atonement is all about rebirth. It is only natural for its prayers to be the teaching of our Mothers. Especially at this season, the embryonic forty days of repentance which end and begin each year, we must make sure our mothers (and sisters and daughters) feel welcome in our houses of prayer. As we answer our Mothers' call, may God answer us.