Monday, November 30, 2015

A Thanksgiving Poem: The Birth of an Underdog

Several months ago, my son Niv composed a poem about his birth as a premie, and the wonders of his growth. He wrote it as an assignment for his sixth grade class at the Berman Hebrew Academy, and later submitted the poem to the 2015 national poetry contest of The America Library of Poetry. It was selected for inclusion in their recently-published book of student poetry, “Eloquence.”

In the spirit of giving thanks, I am posting his poem here. I am grateful to all the doctors, nurses, teachers, and most important – family members – who contributed to my twins’ growth and achievements. I am very proud of them!

The Birth of an Underdog
by Niv Leibowitz

As leaves turned red and orange my sister came out, then I.​

I was premature, born much too soon

my head the size of a kiwi fruit

my body - the size of my dad’s hand.

Monitors beeped, instruments clattered, lights glared

I was curious, not afraid

always looking at nurses, doctors, and technology around me,

determined to fight my way, graduate from the neonatal intensive care unit.

I was named Niv, which, in Hebrew, means to grow.

With my parents' love

I gained weight, catching up with the other babies.

My parents received a gift,

an adventurous, hungry boy, 

for  many months, I drank only formula milk,

now, I eat steak, fettuccine, and cannoli.

I started in an incubator, and moved to the isolettes

then blossomed at home

today, I jump off a car and DUNK on a ten-foot hoop.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Abe, Labe or Jake: Who Is the "Aramean"?

Arami oved avi.
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי

These 3 cryptic words were immortalized by their inclusion in our Passover Haggadah. But what do they mean? Who is "Arami," the Aramean? Who is avi, my father?  And what does “oved” mean? 
This phrase appears at the beginning of our parsha, Ki Tavo, as part of the ceremony of bikkurim. During the time of the Temple, when the fruits ripened in the fields, the farmers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and, as a sign of gratitude to God, brought a basket of their first fruits to the priest.
As the farmer hands over the basket, the Torah instructs him or her to make a historical declaration. Its purpose is to acknowledge God’s guidance of the Israelites from their beginnings. The declaration opens with the words “Arami oved avi.”
On these words, the Haggadah brings a Midrash – also popularized by our friend Rashi (11th century, France) – which uses this phrase to malign Laban:   
“Come and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to Jacob our father. For whereas Pharaoh only decreed the death of the males, Laban sought to exterminate them all, as it is written ‘Arami Oved Avi’ - an Aramean tried to destroy my father.” 
According to this interpretation, arami  refers to Laban, oved (from the root aleph-bet-dalet) is a transitive verb meaning “destroyed,” and avi is the direct object, Jacob. However, this explanation is flawed: Why would the farmer start with a statement about Laban? And grammatically, the verb “oved” is not a transitive verb. If the meaning were “destroyed,” it should have been “ibed.”
Only two generations later, Rashi's own grandson, Rashbam, argues with his grandfather, providing a completely different take on those 3 Hebrew words.  According to Rashbam, the Aramean is Abraham! And the phrase means, “My father Abraham was an Aramean lost and exiled from his birthplace, Aram.” Indeed, we know that Abraham was the first “wandering Jew,” told by God to go forth from his homeland.  In this interpretation, the verb oved is an intransitive verb, meaning “being lost” – much like in modern Hebrew.
Following in his footsteps, Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) also weighs in against Rashi’s interpretation, arguing that there is no point of saying that Laban sought to destroy our father Jacob who went down to Egypt when Laban did not cause Jacob to go down to Egypt!

According to Ibn Ezra, this statement has nothing to do with Laban, and the Aramean is Jacob! And oved is an intransitive verb meaning “to be destitute.” (Ibn Ezra brings proof for this meaning from other places in the Bible.)  

Ibn Ezra further explains that the farmer is essentially saying: My father Jacob was poor and penniless when he came to Aram ("Arami oved"); yet he later became a great nation and you, God, brought us out of slavery gave us this goodly land.

So why did the Haggadah quote the Midrash which portrays Laban as an evil person who is focused intently on destroying Jacob’s entire family?

Undoubtedly, the Haggadah had an agenda. One of its main goals was to uplift the spirits of the Jewish people after the exile by the Romans, and provide hope that Hashem will redeem them, as He did when they were in Egypt. And to promote this agenda, the Haggadah editors portrayed Laban as an evildoer, stressing how God saved Jacob from Laban’s malicious plans.  

However, viewing Laban as an arch-enemy squarely contradicts the Biblical text itself. Indeed, the Torah emphasizes how Laban made peace with Jacob, vowing never to hurt Jacob or anyone in his family. Let’s read and listen to what actually happened:

“Laban answered Jacob: . . .  Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us . . . This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not go past this heap to your side to harm you and that you will not go past this heap and pillar to my side to harm me . . . After they had eaten, they spent the night there. Early the next morning Laban kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he left and returned home.” (Genesis 31:44-54)

Having seen that Laban made a peace covenant with Jacob in an emotional ceremony that included kisses and blessings, the editors of the JPS translation rejected the Midrashic explanation, preferring the Rashbam and Ibn Ezra interpretations, and translating the verse as follows:

“My father was a fugitive Aramean.” 

Let’s get back to Laban. We know his faults very well. But is there anything we can learn from him?  

Laban is a powerful example of the human capability to overcome hatred and work toward reconciliation. Laban may have been a conniving double-dealer, yet he decided to avoid confrontation and reconcile with Jacob.

By transcending their primal fears, Jacob and Laban rose above natural feelings of vengeance, and showed us the power of forgiveness and peacemaking.

Questions for further discussionIn your life, have you ever reconciled with someone who wronged you? What were the benefits of your approach?  Add your comments below.  

Wipe Out Amalek, Today?

To whip up opposition against the nuclear deal between the United States and its international allies, and Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu compared Iran to Amalek, saying Iranians are “the new Amalek making an appearance on the stage of history.”

Netanyahu was referring to the commandment which appears in the final verses of this week's parsha, and is recited again on Shabbat Zachor just before Purim:
“Remember [Zachor] what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt –how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore . . . you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy, 25:19)

We learn from the Haftarah of Shabbat Zachor that the verse “to blot out the memory of Amalek” was understood in a literal sense. The Prophet Samuel ordered King Saul in God's name

"Now go, attack Amalek, and proscribe all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!"(Samuel I, 15:3).

This seems like a Biblical instruction to men, women and children, to completely wipe out an entire nation and their descendants, even if they don’t pose a current threat.
That is why invoking Amalek in a political context is dangerous and wrong. 

In ​the Jewish world today, “Amalek” has become a code word. Anyone with whom we have a conflict, no matter how resolvable, is referred to in stark and absolute terms as the ultimate evil by calling them, “Amalek.” This has been used not only against Iran but also the Palestinians, the Modern Orthodox, the secular Israelis, and others.

The idea of blotting out Amalek carries with it enormous danger, because when we feel weak, we are likely to mistake everything in our path for a mortal enemy. But if, objectively speaking, we are strong and capable (and have largest military in the Middle East equipped with 200 nuclear warheads), invoking this idea means that we are inflicting the sin of Amalek on another people.

But, you may ask, how is this mitzvah justified in the first place, even towards the original Amalekite nation? To kill all their men, women and children -- isn’t that the definition of genocide?!
​Let me be blunt. The immorality of this mitzvah must cause us to disassociate ourselves from it. Perhaps it’s why ​Chassidic commentators said that Amalek means Yetzer Hara or the evil inclination, and we are commanded to blot ​out our evil impulses, not a physical people called Amalek.

There were, however, many rabbis who thought that Amalek still exists, and we are commanded to destroy them and their descendants – if we ever find them. This was, for example, Maimonides’ opinion (Laws of Kings, 5:4-5) and that of Sefer HaChinuch (Barcelona, 13th century).

So in 2015, how should we interpret the mitzvah to blot out Amalek?

Our Biblical texts must be constantly reinterpreted to ensure they pass the morality test – does a religious commandment conform to our basic moral values today​? If it doesn’t, we ​should disavow the plain meaning, and search for a new meaning.

My great aunt, the late ​professor Nechama Leibowitz, offers an inspiring interpretation of this mitzvah, referring us to the Torah’s statement that Amalek was “undeterred by fear of God.”   

The description of “God-fearing” or “not God-fearing” appears in only four stories in the Torah:

1.     Genesis 20:11 – where Abraham says to Avimelech that there was no fear of God in that place, indicating that taking a stranger's wife away shows lack of fear of God.

2.     Genesis 42:18 – where Joseph says to his brothers after accusing them of spying: "Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man."

3.     Exodus 1:17— where the midwives refuse carry out Pharaoh’s order to murder the Hebrew male infants because they feared God.

4.     Finally, in our story of Amalek – where Amalek attacked the defenseless and weary without any pretext whatsoever.

In all of these stories, the litmus test for "fear of God" is the attitude to the weak and the stranger. Put differently, a "God-fearing" person can only be one who treats the stranger and the weak with compassion!
​If we still read this portion from the Torah, it’s only because we can reinterpret Amalek not as a particular race or nation but rather as the archetype of the wanton aggressor who smites the weak and the defenseless in every generation.

It is a complex task: While we should never allow another generation to experience the same suffering the ancient Israelites knew when Amalek attacked them, we should also “not forget”- stay mindful of avoiding inflicting unnecessary harm on others, and remain vigilant to avoid becoming oppressors.

That is the hallmark of a “God-fearing” society.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

What Do Iranians Think About Israel? And What Does Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks Think About Iran?

Larry Cohler-Esses, news editor at the Jewish, pro-Israel The Forward, just returned from a week-long visit to Iran where he traversed the country and interviewed Iranians from all backgrounds. 

Reading his fascinating article - A Jewish Journalist's Exclusive Look Inside Iran - and watching the video of several interviews (see below), I didn't find any evidence that Iran is a nation filled with hate and intent on destroying Israel. 

It is remarkable that he was free to choose who to interview and to ask any questions he wanted. 

Several years ago, former chief rabbi of England Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks visited Iran and met with high-ranking Muslim clerics, including Ayatollah Abdullah Javadi-Amoli. 

To everyone's surprise, then-chief rabbi Sacks said that he found common ground with them:

We established within minutes a common language, because we take certain things very seriously: we take faith seriously, we take texts seriously. It's a particular language that believers share.

Israeli right-wing leaders were upset, and publicly derided Rabbi Sacks and portrayed him as naive and foolish. I remember hearing the Israeli comments on the radio, realizing that this is a typical knee-jerk reaction of the Israeli secular right-wing because they are incapable of appreciating non-Jewish religious cultures. Israel as a secular state makes them feel superior, and the idea of The Dignity of Difference is so foreign to them.  

You don't have to support the idea of a religious theocracy to understand that it's vital to negotiate with Iran, begin the process of détenteand ultimately achieve normalization with this huge country and its multi-faceted society. It is in the best national security interests of the United States and Israel. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

When is the Last Time You Met An Iranian?

Zeinab Shahidi Marnani
The US and its international allies have signed the historic nuclear deal with Iran [a 4-page White House summary], sparking a huge controversy within the Jewish world. But how many people have actually met an Iranian citizen who currently lives in Iran? 

Two weeks ago, I covered for the Washington Jewish Week an event at the Middle East Institute with Iranian artist Zeinab Shahidi Marnani. She is a video and text artist who divides her time between Tehran and New York. Among other things, she said that "of course, I am for women's rights and equality," suggesting there is younger generation in Iran seeking change. 

She was reluctant to talk about the nuclear deal or directly criticize the regime, but my impression was that she is proud of her Iranian roots and upbringing, while –at the same time—also critical of the more restrictive elements of the Islamic Republic.

This event opened my eyes to the diversity of Iran; it is not a monolithic entity. And it's just one of the reasons I am very supportive of the nuclear deal. Not only is the agreement an unprecedented victory for diplomacy over war, but it's a critical foreign policy achievement which I believe will lead to a détente and further improvements in our relations with this country.  

As Fareed Zakaria points out, the deal is likely to have a normalization effect on Iran. Indeed, history suggests that as countries get more integrated into the world and the global economy, they have fewer incentives to be spoilers and more to maintain stability. Iran won't change overnight, but we're likely see a new generation of moderate leaders who want to restore Iran to a more normal status.

I'm happy to see that Jews support the agreement by significant margins. 

Two new polls show that around 60% of Jewish Americans want Congress to approve the deal. Just today, a 
new poll conducted by GBA Strategies  found that 60% of Jewish Americans support this deal. Last week, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, an independent, nonprofit media company, found that 53% of American Jews want Congress to approve it, while only 35% oppose it.

But the warmongers - who enabled and pushed for the invasion and occupation of Iraq which resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 U.S. troops and more than 100,000 Iraqis and led to the creation of ISIS/ISIL - are planning to spend millions of dollars in advertising campaigns because they want to convince Congress that Americans oppose this deal. 

I recognize that those who oppose the agreement and want to derail it have some valid concerns. But they offer no alternative, other than keeping the sanctions, and no international inspections. This will certainly lead to Iran's building a nuclear weapons program without any outside monitoring.

The pro-Netanyahu crowd is going to bombard us with half-truths and outright lies, using scare and intimidation tactics that have become a trademark of their campaigns. But their opposition arguments have been debunked (see Mitchell Plitnick's great article here).

Even Israel's former head of the Mossad and National Security Advisor, Efraim Halevy, has come out in favor of the deal, saying it's crucial for Israel's security.

So make your voice heard. I already called my Congressional representatives, Chris Van Hollen and Senator Ben Cardin. Have you called yours? 

Monday, July 27, 2015

What Are Biblical "Policemen"?

Ask any Israeli kid how do you say ‘policeman’ in Hebrew, and they will immediately shoot back, “shoter.” This word appears in this week’s parsha, Devarim, but it doesn’t mean ‘policeman.’ How is that possible?

Moses opens this week’s parsha, Devarim, with a long speech that recounts the trials and tribulations of the Israelites during their 40-year journey in the desert.

In the very first episode he describes, Moses uses this word in the plural, “shoterim.

He retells the story of how he could not bear the burden of adjudicating alone all the disputes of the people, and how he established a judicial system comprised of judges of different levels (though he strangely take omits Yitro’s central role in this story). And Moses describes:  

So I took your tribal leaders, wise and experienced men, and appointed them heads over you: Chiefs of thousands, chiefs of hundreds, chiefs of fifties, and chiefs of ten, and officials (shoterim) for your tribes. (Deuteronomy 1:15 , JPS translation)

According to the context, the term ‘shoter’ means an official who is a leader with administrative duties to help the judges.

Indeed, it is a rare Biblical word, so we need to look in other places to get a better understanding of its usage.

The word's first appearance is in the story of the Exodus, where the shoterim were Israelite foremen who served as part of the Egyptian slave-labor system. The Hebrew slaves were organized into groups, each headed by a foreman (shoter) from among their own, and he, in turn, was subordinate to the Egyptian taskmaster.

The Torah tells us the shoterim were beaten for not carrying out their assignment which was to record work quotas and see to it that they were forcibly filled. Later, we are told, these shoterim cried out to Pharaoh on behalf of the Israelite slaves, and when that didn't help, they turned their anger toward Moses, accusing him of bringing harm to the people. Thus, the shoterim were leaders who heroically challenged the cruelty of Pharaoh to alleviate the suffering of the slaves.

The most famous appearance of the word  ‘shoter’ is probably found later in Deuteronomy: 

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ

The JPS translates this verse as follows:  

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes. (Deuteronomy 16:18)

Here we encounter, for the first time, the administrative pair of words: magistrate (shofet) and official (shoter). Pinhas Artzi, Bar Ilan University professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages, shows that this is a new stage in urban civilization. Every judicial and administrative center in every city was to have a legal system: a magistrate and his assistant, the shoter, whose job was apparently to draft legal documents and maintain proper legal procedure.

This leads us to Rashi, the preeminent Biblical commentator, who explains the shoterim here as "bailiffs" and gives the following colorful description, perhaps reflecting the practice of 11th-century France:

[Shoterim are] those who chastise people at the judge’s order, beating and binding the recalcitrant with a stick and a strap until he accepts the judge’s sentence.

In modern Hebrew, however, the word took on a very specific meaning. Based on this Biblical root, the great Eliezer Ben Yehuda, revivalist of the Hebrew language, invented the word “mishtara” for “police.” Thus, shoter became a ‘policeman,’ and shoteret a ‘policewoman.’

So is “shoter” a foreman, an official at the court, a bailiff, or a policeman?

As lawyers like to say—it depends. You have to specify which era in the development of the Hebrew language you are referring to.  

But modern Hebrew is constantly developing, and this is particularly evident in slang words. In our case, we can find colorful slang words that have been created to describe policemen and police cars.

In street lingo, a policeman is a “מאנייק  (“maniac” - pronounced manyak), and if a “maniac” motions to you to pull over, you better listen, otherwise you’ll be taken in the zinzena - the police van used to transport people who get arrested – and that’s a place you should avoid at all costs!