Super-blessed

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/lech-lecha-super-blessed/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Lech Lecha

Super-blessed

Count your blessings. Once you realize how valuable you are and how much you have going for you, the smiles will return, the sun will break out, the music will play, and you will finally be able to move forward the life that God intended for you with grace, strength, courage, and confidence. -Og Mandino

After the failures of Adam, Noah and successive generations we are finally introduced to the first Patriarch, the founder of our nation, Abraham.

He was an outstanding personality. He rose to a higher calling against all opinion, pressure and odds. In return for his loyalty, his courage, his goodness and his example, God blesses Abraham.

The Baal Haturim on Genesis 12:2 enumerates seven blessings with which Abraham was graced:

  1. Abraham will become a Nation
  2. Abraham will receive great wealth.
  3. Abraham will receive a new name (Abram was switched to Abraham)
  4. Abraham himself will be considered a blessing.
  5. Whoever will bless Abraham, God will ensure that they in turn are also blessed.
  6. Enemies will be cursed.
  7. All families of the world will be blessed by Abraham.

May we live up to the example of Abraham and also participate in his blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Gabriel Boruchovas for going over and above the call of duty in making sure the Uruguayan Shabbos Project was a major success.

 

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Community Power

October 25, 2014

Community Power

As idealistic as my job forces me to be, some corner of my heart has the dark cynicism of a New Yorker. A part of me expected people who attended The Shabbos Project events to come more for the experience and to remain unscathed from any palpitations of observance.

The Friday night prayer service, Kabalat Shabat, was filled past capacity. More than 400 people filled the beautiful, but barely suitable Hillel building. In the back of the first floor, there is a beautiful rectangular hall that is perfect for 120 people. We squezzed close to 200 women in that hall. The front of the first floor has an expansive hall, with a big beautiful curved bar counter dominating the left side, a pool table on the right far corner and low-hanging modern chandeliers across the length of the hall. More than 250 men arrayed themselves in the insufficient chairs (we only had 350 chairs total). The place was so full that I saw many people enter the hall only to turn back and leave, hopeless to find a comfortable place to stand or sit.

The men sat facing the woman across a short narrow corridor connecting the two halls. That is where I placed myself and our extraordinary Hazan, Rabbi Oved Avrech.

There was an incredibly strong showing from the Bogrim (alumni) of all the Tnuot (youth organizations). There were also leaders and members of all the synagogues and communities.

Interspersed throughout the prayer, we invited different people to give short introductions to the different parts of Kabalat Shabat. Speakers included Alicia Perl of NCI, Rabbi Eliyahu Galil of the Sefaradi Community, Sergio Gorzy, President of Central Committee of the Jewish community, Michel Grauser of Macabi, and Israeli Ambassador Nina Ben-Ami.

In the large halls, with many participants unfamiliar with the prayers, I found myself reverting 25 years in the past, to my days as an NCSY Youth Advisor, when we regularly held such events. I was walking up and down the hall, showing people the place in the prayer book, quieting talkers, encouraging people to partcipate and getting those familiar with what we were doing to do the same.

I was pleasantly surprised by the relative decorum and the high level of participation of people for many of whom this was their first Kabalat Shabat.

The singing was loud and emotional and we even managed to dance a few steps in the narrow passageway that was left to walk.

I gave a very short sermon, as is my custom, or perhaps even shorter than usual and I asked, challenged and dared congregants one thing: Turn off your cellphone until the end of Shabat. As a former salesman, I think I gave a good pitch – but you never know.

We had a festive kiddush after the services with delicious food provided by both the kitchens of Kehila and Yavne.

After most of the crowd left, about 100 youths moved up to the second floor to have a community dinner. Also oversubscribed. We had closed the booking at 70 people but somehow managed to squeeze everyone in and feed everyone well. Also great mix of people, a visiting chayal, travellers, Jewish student leaders, college students with no connection whatsoever to any Jewish institutions, and a broad spectrum of religious observance and identification. We were also joined later by Rabbi Mendy Shemtov of Chabad, who enhanced the evening.

The young shlichim and shlichot organized an entertaining game for the dinner which complimented the signing and words of Torah. For a percentage of participants who had never experienced a Shabat prayer or dinner, it was an eye-opening event.

We had also placed a number of individuals, groups and families in the homes of hosts and encouraged others to invite people who wouldn’t have had a Shabat dinner otherwise. I estimate that at least 100 people were invited out for Shabat dinners, if not more.

In Yavne, the following day, we had a communal lunch, with 180 participants split up between two halls. While the majority were regular synagogue attendees there were a number of notable newcomers who participated in the meal. Throughout the day and the night we also had multiple occasions to celebrate Tamara’s birthday. She probably has never had so many people sing and wish her a Happy Birthday in her life (I estimate that throughout the 24 hours, over 500 different people managed to sing to her.)

The Shabat ended with the Havdala Event.

This was conducted in the outdoor grounds of the Integral School. We must have had over 300 participants. A strong showing from the Macabi youth group as well as that of communal leaders who weren’t able to attend the other events.

Rabbi Oved Avrech led the Havdala ceremony in the engaging Carlebach style. Then the school band played an excellent medley of four songs. The only one which I recognized was the Beatles’ 8 Days a Week.

Then the Macabi group, the winner of the recent “Noharia” (competition between the different Jewish youth movements) finished the event with a recreation of their prize-winning play. I’m not sure I understood a lot of it, but what I did was very interesting, thought-provoking and very well done. These kids have futures as thespians.

However, the absolute highlight for me were the reports and accounts that came in afterwards. How moving or meaningful someone found some aspect of one of the events. How enjoyable being hosted for Shabat dinner was. One woman confessed that she kept her phone off for the entire Shabat. One attendee admitted that for the first time in his life, he closed his store for Shabat. One man blushingly relayed that he kept Shabat in its entirety.

For each one of these, the entire effort was worth it. And I am sure there are many more stories and events that I haven’t heard.

This was a massive effort that spanned all the communities, utilized the resources of the two main Jewish schools and the Hillel center and required the cooperation of multiple organizations. No one institution could have done this alone, nor would it have been nearly as successful. More than the feeling or observence of Shabat that this event engendered it demonstrated the power and strength of community unity.

In my Havdala talk I said that when we are united, we are invincible. We need to remember that, no only during troubles, not only during rare events. We need to remember that when we are united, we are invincible – every day.

Perfidious Friends

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/noah-perfidious-friends/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Noach

Perfidious Friends

When being dishonest, people can still tell the truth. Be mindful of the treacherous that do not lie. -Eric Parslow

The generation that God decided to destroy by flooding the land was considered particularly evil. The Baal Haturim on Genesis 6:11 gives an example of their behavior: Ruben would ask his friend Simon to guard his money as well as a persimmon. Helpful Simon, wanting to take good care of Ruben’s belongings would dig up the hiding place of his own treasure and place Ruben’s money and persimmon together with his own hard-earned possessions.

Later that night, Ruben would explore the grounds around helpful Simon’s property. Ruben would then detect the faint but unmistakable smell of the persimmon. Ruben, with his handy shovel, proceeds to dig out his money as well as all of helpful Simon’s treasure.

Now Ruben did not do anything that was “illegal”. There is nothing wrong with asking his friend to guard his belongings. There is nothing wrong with going around digging in public property. If by digging one should incidentally discover something of value, strictly speaking, it is ownerless and free for the taking. There isn’t even anything “illegal” with arranging things to work out that way.

However, what is patently clear is that Ruben abused and took advantage of his friend’s kindness in a most horrible way. He might have done it legally; he might have never told a lie, or gone against any laws – but it is clearly, horribly wrong.

God looks beyond the letter of the law. God doesn’t care if we follow the laws perfectly if we corrupt the spirit. God wants the heart. God wants the soul. There is an innate morality and good that is beyond what is written in any book and He wants that as well.

May we have occasions to understand and reach the spirit of the law.

Shabat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all the volunteers, contributors, organizers and participants in the Uruguay Shabbos Project. It is already a huge success and I look forward to together enjoying the fruit of our labors. Yasher Koach!

 

 

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Female Pride

October 23, 2014

Female Pride

The Shabbos Project has started. We started it with The Great Challah Bake. Thousands upon thousands of women in over 300 communities around the world are participating in this historic event.

Getting to be a part of it here in Montevideo has been an extreme honor and joy. To see Tamara as the focal person of the event is a source of indescribable pride.

The ideas of months, the planning of weeks, the effort of days came to a feverish culmination today. The Yavne kitchen performed amazingly under the extreme pressure of regular school meals, daily sales, weekly challah baking for the community, the regular Shabbat kiddush, a Bar-Mitzvah meal, catering the youth dinner after the central prayer and a general luncheon for the community that is already overbooked past capacity, and probably a few other things that I’m not aware of.

The women of Chabad as well as all the shlichot (teachers from Israel) were active and busy setting up the hall, the tables, preparing the dough, the trays – getting everything ready hours before the start of the event.

jalaBake

Women from the entire spectrum of the community arrived – and of all ages. Over 300 women filled an area that was designed and prepared for less. We ran out of tables and chairs, however, luckily there were tables and chairs of the kindergarden available which the women put to comic yet practical use. The feeling of community was palpable. Mrs. Sylvia Acher was the master of ceremonies; and my boss, Kehila Director, Nurit Caplivschi addressed the crowd. We were also honored by the participation of the Israeli Ambassador, Nina Ben-Ami.

However, Tamara conducted the show and it was frankly amazing. For a person who didn’t speak a word of Spanish a little over a year ago, to now not only address but to enthrall an audience in a masterful Spanish was just breathtaking. The women listened to her every word as she gave a profound explanation of the special mitzvot (commandments) that women have and the symbolism of making and separating a part from the Challah.

Tjala

When she asked everyone to close their eyes and pray for someone in need, you could feel in the meaningful silence the spirituality in the room go up several notches. When everyone repeated the blessing after Tamara, I thought I would burst into tears from the power and force that the women put into it.

It was an amazingly successful event. Everyone was happy. The whole community was represented, together and interacting in a meaningful way. There were many women (and children) who had never made a Challah in their lives, let alone say the blessing when separating the prescribed part. I think that in the history of the community, there hasn’t been an event quite like this one.

After making the Challah, many of the women danced, with of course, the internationally renown dance-instructor, choreographer, doctor, rabanit and mind-boggingly talented, Tamara.

Shabbat Shalom!

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

October 15, 2014

Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

For the first time in memory we hosted a lot of people who had either not been in a Suka for decades or in some cases had never been in a Suka. To see and experience the Suka through their eyes was an insightful exercise.

We often talk the talk of the Suka. How we our leaving our homes, the comfort and security of sturdy walls and a solid roof for the flimsy hut and see-through covering of the Suka. How we are placing our faith in God. How we are leaving the material comforts for a simpler existence.

How many of us say and hear these ideas, but really feel it? I think that for many people, they are used to the Suka. They are accustomed to its wonder.

This Sukkot, as our guests walked in to our humble shack in the back of our resplendent home, I witnessed a transformation. I witnessed a metamorphosis of our guests from people concerned with their day-to-day cares, to people living a spiritual experience. It is hard to understand and harder to describe, but I will attempt nonetheless.

Technically, our Suka is a pitiful structure. A pieced-together rusted frame with wide strips of cloth that was attractive twenty years ago. A sagging bamboo mat roof with low-hanging paper-chain adornments that forced our taller guests to bend. Six naked light bulbs (energy efficient ones at least) with overhanging wires brightened the hastily built Suka and highlighted the color of the many Hamsas (Kabalistic hand symbol) that the handicapped kids from the Kehila contributed to the Suka. In the corner, was the artistic masterpiece for this year: An original hand-drawn representation of the 7 Ushpizin (Ancestral Guests), outlined by Tamara and colored by our kids. Besides the 7 Ushpizin, were 7 Ushpizot (7 female biblical characters) that Tamara introduced to Uruguay and spoke about each evening.

But despite the objectively dilapidated dwelling, our guests only saw and experienced beauty. The comments were unanimous “What a beautiful Suka!”

I tried to understand, what was the beauty they were experiencing? Why was there a spirituality in the air and in their eyes that wasn’t there before? What is it about a Suka that creates such an effect?

I think that part of it is visceral and is based on the laws of Suka construction. The prime rule is the composition of the roof. Vegetative based, creates more shade than sun, but allows enough space where one could see the stars at night. Also, it cannot be too high. It must remain within normal viewing range. You must always be able to see and therefore sense the naturally ethereal roof over your head. The roof itself cannot be covered or obstructed in anyway. It must have complete access to the heavens. You feel at the same moment two contradictory sensations – covered and exposed. It’s an unnatural and unusual sensation, which must engender some spiritual stimulus.

Then there are the walls. It’s a temporary structure meant to stand only a week. Few invest in anything significant. You leave your house to go outside and into the Suka. On one hand you are in a structure, on the other hand you are outside. Again, contradictory stimulus. Am I outside or inside? I imagine this stirs the soul as well.

Finally, and perhaps least legislative but most important are the decorations. The law does not prescribe dimensions, colors, content, minimum height or placement for decorations. By law, a Suka is Kosher without any decorations. But it is the part that in many homes is the most worked upon. We brought with us from Israel a two-meter wide painting on fabric of ancient Jerusalem that adorned one of the walls. Tamara reserves an entire day for the children to work on art projects to hang on the ceiling and walls. The investment of time, creativity and love is out of all proportion to the time actually spent in the Suka.

People sense that. And on some innate level are shocked. There is a dissonance. The effort that is more appropriate, more associated with something more permanent, placed in a very temporary setting. Are we here to stay or are we going already? That is the final push to awaken a soul.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second. All of this happens at the subconscious level of the senses. The designed impact of contradictory physical messages on our senses overrides our natural operating mode. Am I protected or am I exposed? Am I inside or am I outside? Am I staying or am I going? These very basic existential questions bring our spirit to life in a sudden and powerful way – and we may not even notice it. It can lead to a surprising joy.

That is the Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics.

Chag Sameach.

Sabbath of Creation

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bereshit-sabbath-of-creation/

Baal Haturim Genesis: Bereshit

Sabbath of Creation

What is without periods of rest will not endure.  -Ovid

The Zohar, the prime tome of Kaballah provides dozens of interpretations for the very first word and phrase of the Bible. Many of the interpretations involve wordplay, numerology and other tools of the esoteric world, combined with mystic philosophy, often building on Talmudic sources.

Many of the concepts presented seek to understand why the universe was created, what are the guiding principles, how man came into being and for what purpose.

The Baal Haturim on the very first line, Genesis 1:1 quotes several of these ideas. One of them is that the world was created because of the Sabbath.

Stating that the world was created because of a certain idea or concept places that concept in a central, fundamental role in our existence. The Sabbath is fundamental. Not only was the world created because of the Sabbath, but if we were to imagine a world without a Sabbath, we could imagine a world quickly disintegrating into chaos and anarchy. A world of non-stop work. A world lacking human contact and relationships. A world where families lose their cohesion and communities fall apart. A world filled with materialism and starved of spirituality. A world where we become pleasure-seeking and fulfilling automatons, not resting to consider who we are or why we are here. To live a life unexamined.

Next week, the global Jewish community has called on all of our people to celebrate and experience one Sabbath together. There is an ancient rabbinic statement that if the entire people of Israel were to observe one Sabbath, the redemption would immediately come.

It’s that close.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein of South Africa for his inspired initiative of The Shabbos Project and for the professional implementation of this historic effort.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Asado Supreme

October 8, 2014

Asado Supreme

It started with an email (it always starts with an email). It was an invitation to a double birthday party for two of our companions. I ignored the picture of the immodest woman on the email and responded that I would participate.

The address was a mystery. I asked some friends if they knew at whose house the event was being hosted. Nobody knew. It was an unfamiliar address in an upscale area. As I am still carless (!), I got a ride with other guests, who also did not know the identity of the secret host.

Though nobody had drunk yet, we still had some confusion finding the building, but eventually we were successful. The doorman buzzed us in before our hands touched the gate. The unfamiliar man directed us to the elevator and the top floor without our having to introduce ourselves.

Now it must be a zoning law or something that every single building in Uruguay must have a communal place to make an Asado. This is typically either somewhere on the ground floor or on the roof. So I was not surprised to be heading up to the 11th floor. It was not surprising to step out of the elevator and take another short step up to what I assumed was the entrance to the roof. However, what greeted us on the other side of the door was indeed unexpected.

Uruguayans can be possessed at times of a single-mindedness that is indeed breathtaking. Take for example their fixation with drinking matte and their walking around in the street with the matte cup in hand and the thermos tucked under their armpit, while they shop, stroll, work, protest or do any other civilized activity. It is so common that there are even warnings on the buses advising riders specifically not to drink matte on the bus, as when the bus stops short the matte cup and metal straw can become deadly projectiles.

The roof of this building had been converted into a luxurious apartment with only one purpose in mind: Asado. The entire apartment was constructed for the hosting, preparation, serving and enjoyment of Asado. The mysterious owner was revealed as the generous uncle of one of the birthday boys who had set up this kosher parilla palace.

Half of the apartment was a long dinning room, with a long table and perhaps thirty chairs filling the white marble hall. The entire side was tall glass doors overlooking the golf club and the beach. The other side was elegant closets of white wood. At the end was a big screen TV that filled the wall, which was on, but everyone ignored (though I was a bit curious to see Tommy Lee Jones in what must have been a sequel of The Fugitive).

The other half of the roof was designed for the ultimate preparation of the Asado. Asado Master was there, as always. Tending the hot embers, preparing the meat. He moved with the fluidity and grace of a martial arts grand master. He wielded his massive butcher knife with skill and confidence, cutting into the innocent fowl and beef with loud thwacks upon the kitchen counter. Inch thick slabs of steak pilled up on the white counter.

But to call the counter merely a counter is to call the Taj Mahal merely a house. This was the Rolls-Royce of kitchen counters. It was as large as a dinning room table, with a silvery sink. It was at the perfect height, well lit, with its own hood overhead, independent of the massive, highly efficient hood over the blazing parilla. Where in our previous gathering I feared we would succumb to smoke inhalation, here, though we were just inches from the fire, we could barely smell any smoke – the only smell was of the tender meat cooking over fresh wooden embers.

We started the evening with 18 year-old Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Asado Master expertly balanced his Glenlivet with his butcher’s knife while at the same time greeting newcomers. As he raised his hand to greet someone, the large foot-long blade raised high, for a second I saw images of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho wielding his murderous blade on his showering victim. However, the embrace left both friends unscathed.

Toasted slices of baguette were placed on the counter. They were followed by slices of grilled chorizos. Though I was standing by the serving dishes, before I had a chance to blink, the platters were emptied by fast-moving Uruguayan hands – twice. The third time, a sensitive soul, noting my ineptitude in catching the savory delight instructed me in how to take a slice of bread and then when the meat comes out, to fold the bread over the hot chorizo. Third time is a charm, and with proper coaching and positioning myself in front of the oncoming platter, with bread in hand I managed to snatch the precious chorizo. As I sunk my teeth into the simple yet delectable combination I understood to the depths of my being the Talmudic dictum that there is no joy without bread and wine. My taste buds sang with pleasure and my stomach looked forward to more.

Now an expert in chorizo-snatching, I caught a few more, even faster than some of the veteran Uruguayan hands.

Then followed a kebab that one fellow swallowed almost whole. I feared the sharp tip of the wooden stake would impale the back of his throat, but I guess he knew what he was doing.

On the other side of the roof was a comfortable porch with an excellent view of the beautiful Punta Carretas Shopping Center, a refurbished former prison that has now become the center of a thriving neighborhood.

Finally, we were called for the main event. Asado Master ordered us to line up with plates and take our selection directly from the grill. We dutifully lined up, plates and utensils in hand. One companion of Rumanian origin suggested that due to my Rabbinic status, I should be allowed to advance to the front of the line (note that he was in the back of the line and had nothing to lose…). Our other companions promptly ignored him and took turns selecting their godly portions from the hot grill.

There were the large juicy steaks. There were the classic Asados – the ribs cut in that unique South American way. There were chickens and parts of chickens. Back in the dinning room there was a salad bar and Asado Master’s world-renown sauce that completes to perfection anything that comes off the grill.

We sat down in friendship and warmth and then one of the birthday boys broke out the wines, which went over wonderfully. I was asked to share some words of Torah. I discussed the biblical origins of birthday celebrations (Pharaoh, from the Joseph narrative) and the enjoinder to enjoy the permitted things in God’s world.

But now I have a fear. I have a fear for Asado Master. Here he was performing in all his glory. The perfect locale, equipment, tools, ingredients, assistance and company. Will he ever be able to perform his magic in more humble accommodations? How can one who has done his art at the height of achievement then descend to repeat the same actions in more mundane settings? Now that his soul has touched that perfection of Asado preparation, how can he try again, knowing that he is doomed to some imperfection? I truly fear for his destiny. Perhaps we just need remember that we are all human. Few in their lives live to reach the pinnacle of their art. We must ever struggle on for that elusive goal, getting solace from the memory of glory that has passed.