Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Counting the Omer as Spiritual Resistance

In honor of the observance of Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Memorial Day, I'd like to share two stories about the meaning and significance of counting the Omer during the Holocaust.

Counting the Omer requires no religious artifacts, such as shofar, lulav, matzoh, etc. Once you remember how many days have passed since the first day of Passover, you can perform the mitzvah - recite the blessing and count the days. All you need is your mind. It thus became a mitzvah the Jewish people could keep even when they were suffering from persecution, pogroms and outright genocide. In the memoirs of two Holocaust survivors, we find inspiring testimony on the significance of this mitzvah, showing how even in the darkest of hours they kept track of the Omer count.   

The late Hassidic rebbe and posek Rabbi Menashe Klein – also known as the Ungvarer Rav because he hailed from Ungvar, Czechoslovakia – was a teenager who survived Auschwitz and other camps.  On April 11, 1945, he was in the Buchenwald concentration camp when the camp was finally liberated by American troops. One of his first reactions was a desire to count the Omer properly.

In volume 10 of his collection of responsa Mishneh Halachot, Rabbi Klein recounts that he was so sick and emaciated after Auschwitz and subsequent camps that he could not stand on his feet or even sit up. But at that great moment of liberation, he wanted so much to be able to stand up and perform this mitzvah, since it is preferable to count the Omer standing up.

He writes, “Using the very last reserves of my strength, I grabbed a pole with two hands, and pulled myself into a sitting position, counted the Omer, and then collapsed back on the wooden floor . . . but I knew this would be the day of freedom.” And that day, he remembers, was the 13th day of the Omer, which, incidentally, is what we count every year on the night following Yom HaShoah.  

Another survivor, author Livia Bitton-Jackson, records in her memoir I Have Lived A Thousand Years  how counting the Omer helped her perform the the mitzvah of zachor – honoring and remembering those who perished in the Holocaust. She and her mother had been transferred from Auschwitz to a slave labor camp in Germany.  In the minutes preceding her liberation on  Shabbat, April 28, 1945,  there was machine-gun fire. The  three Stadler sisters from Livia’s hometown were sitting next to her. Two sisters were instantly killed. As the surviving sister, Beth Stadler, wailed, Livia’s mother had the presence of mind to shout to Beth, “Remember, Beth, the anniversary of your sisters’ death according to the Hebrew calendar is three days before Lag B’Omer. Your sisters’ yahrzeit is the thirtieth day of the Omer.” (L. Bitton-Jackson, I Have Lived A Thousand Years, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 199).

These survivors’ dedication to keeping track of the Hebrew calendar is testament to the unbreakable Jewish spirit. Despite living through unimaginable horrors, they nevertheless continued performing the mitzvah of counting the Omer, turning it into a form of spiritual resistance. By counting the Omer today, we can honor our ancestors who showed utmost dedication and commitment to our tradition.

May the memory of all the millions of innocent Jewish and non-Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust be a source of blessing for all. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What the "Kosher for Passover" Table at Jamie Raskin's Election Party Symbolizes

Passover this year was truly a “chag sameach” -- “happy holiday” -- as Maryland State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (Montgomery), a champion of civil rights, environmental protection and public education, won Maryland’s 8th Congressional District Democratic primary, making him a favorite in the November election to become our next congressman.  

It was a fierce battle in which liberal grassroots activism beat the Big Money politics. Raskin, who was my constitutional law professor at American University, was heavily outspent by David Trone, a multimillionaire wine retailer from Potomac who poured more than $12 million dollars of his own money into his campaign. Another competitor, former news anchor and Marriott executive Kathleen Matthews, also raised millions of dollars from deep-pocketed donors and used more of her personal wealth. But Raskin won because of his proven experience as a state legislator and a grassroots movement of people from all walks fo life. 

I know because I was there.

More than 1,500 volunteers knocked on doors, placed calls, and organized Town Hall meetings about gun violence and gun safety, family economic security, and reversing climate change.

More than 11,500 people contributed their hard-earned money to our campaign, giving Jamie the means of self-defense in the most expensive Congressional race in American history.

Raskin embodies the idea that our government, as President Lincoln famously said, is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Indeed, he opened his victory speech by saying,

“In America, elected officials are not masters of the people. They are the agents and servants of the people, and I will never ever forget that!”

The election night party took place during Passover.  Realizing I won't be able to eat anything, I brought a few kosher for Passover items with me, assuming that just my son Niv and I will eat them. But I was pleasantly surprised to find a Kosher for Passover table at the party, replete with Passover snacks, to which I added my matzoh, chocolate spread, and Passover cakes. (The picture is for illustration only; it actually looked much nicer).

It's not about the joy of noshing at a party. We could easily have passed over (pun intended) the idea of snacking, as we were so thrilled with the atmosphere. But it symbolized to me a celebration of our tradition together with committment to diversity.

Looking around at the party, we saw a richly diverse crowd--people of many faiths, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, people of different abilities, old-timers and immigrants -- and all were mingling and schmoozing with each other. At the same time, as a traditional Jew, I was able to keep the Passover dietary restrictions, making me proud to be a part of something so special. 

In such a multi-culturally diverse audience, the Kosher for Passover table showed that committment to one's religious identity need not be a "closing of the ranks" amidst an exclusive club atmosphere, but can be done while interacting with all the diverse members of our community.

It demonstrated to me a profound understanding of liberalism--not an erasure of cultural identities in the name of equality but the building of a huge tent that accommodates and celebrates our different identities. 

The separation of church and state is so fundamental to American society. It doesn't mean, however, that one needs to hide or play down their religious identity. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" and religious liberty are two sides of the same coin: While we need to be vigilant to prevent the state from preferring one religion over others, or being involved in religion at all, at the same time we must make everyone - Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist and others – feel at home in our political environment.

Friday, April 1, 2016

How the Mozart-Haydn Challenge Was Resolved

Happy Birthday Franz Joseph Haydn!

In honor of the 284th birthday of this great classical era composer – born March 31, 1732— I’ll share a funny story about how Mozart won a bet against his friend Haydn.  

In addition to being a prolific composer, Haydn was a talented keyboard player who could play even the most demanding of pieces. But at an evening party, Mozart bet a case of champagne that Haydn could not play at sight a piece he had composed that afternoon. Haydn accepted the bet and proceeded to play it on a harpsichord only to stop short after the first few bars. It was impossible to continue because the composition required him to simultaneously strike notes at two ends of the keyboard and a note at the very center.

“Nobody can play this with only two hands,” exclaimed Haydn.

“I can,” Mozart said, and took his place at the keyboard. When he reached that problematic portion of his piece, Mozart bent forward and struck the central note with his nose!

“With a nose like yours,” Haydn conceded, “it becomes easier,” and proceeded to take Mozart out to drink at a local bar.

(Quoted in Nicolas Slonimsky's Book of Musical Anecdotes.)

On a more serious note (pun intended), here’s one of my favorite Haydn pieces – the Trumpet Concerto in E Flat Major. Listen to the third movement (Allegro), played by the great Wynton Marsalis:

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.